“Plus de figures!”: On Saussure’s use of images

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


In this article, the spotlight is directed towards one of the supposed
modern sinners contributing to the maintenance of the hierarchy between
word and image, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)
and in particular his chief work Cours de lingustique générale, published in
1916. Saussure was not explicit about the relation between word and
image, but his work became a cornerstone in the development of modern
linguistics and semiotics as well as later in the breakthrough of
structuralism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This article shows that
Saussure was not as hostile to images that posterity seems to deduce from
the more or less internalized ‘verbocentrism’ of large parts of semiotics and
structuralism. Moreover, and most important, the article makes a
contribution to a multifaceted understanding of signifying processes. First,
the article presents the origin of Cours de linguistique générale; almost
simultaneously another issue is introduced, namely the number of images
in this work which goes far beyond the few well-known illustrations.
Secondly, these images are heuristically classified, and, due to the origin of
the book (primarily based on students’ notes), the ownership and presence
of these images are debated. Last, Saussure’s semiotics is touched upon in
light of the use of images in Cours de linguistique générale. The
theoretical conclusions point to the fact that the making of knowledge is
not imbedded in language (or linguistics), but emerges in a play between
several types of significations. In fact, as in everyday life and Saussure’s
lectures, communication is complex and the notion of abstracted sign
systems (‘language’, etc.) from everyday communication is perhaps too
reductive, as Saussure himself demonstrated by using images in his theory
on linguistics as well as in his lectures.
Original languageEnglish
JournalVisual Communication
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)487-507
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - 2016

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - Saussure, image, illustrations, Cours de linguistique generale, semiotics, knowledge production, signification

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