Thursday, August 21, 2008

Course in General Egoism

I purchased a copy of de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics from an online bookseller at I purposely chose one listed as "heavily marked" -- I always buy the most scrawled on copies I can find in the vain hope that some genius of a grad student left tracks worth following or penned insights in the margins that might make a confusing text unfold its secrets.

If the notes aren't that earth-shattering, they are usually helpful just the same. At least they give me jumping off points: if the reader sees something I overlooked, or says something I disagree with, that's fodder for an essay or preparation for a discussion. I have a "good reading copy" of Barthes' Mythologies with some fine notes by a sharp female undergrad. "Sarah B____, Anthropology 321, Spring 1981." She taught me some Greek words with her enthusiastic marginalia.

If the former owner of my marked up books turns out to be a total dunce, there are usually notes worth laughing at, at the very least. Or obvious notes that I can easily ignore.

My de Saussure copy unfortunatley did not provide me with anything helpful or even amusing. In fact, the former owner's notes became more of a distraction than anything. I had to find a way to use them to enhance my reading of the book, since the red-inked chicken scratching refused to be ignored, flowing from the side margins into the top or bottom, sometimes right over the text. But it was not so much the visual noise of the notes that made me incapable of pushing them to the side; what was being said kept me reading them, and scoffing at them, and scribbling next to them.

I started out by responding in a kind of parallel play, choosing a clean, new margin for my notes, as if I was telling de Saussure "I agree with you, not that guy over there. What do you think of this?" As the other student vied for de Saussure's attention it escalated to a direct confrontation between the note-taker and myself, and I began addressing him directly in the same soiled margin, disagreeing with him and berating him. "Leave it to the sociologists!" "God, you are such a dork!" Finally, I became so fed up with is intrusion on my reading that I had to tell him to shut the hell up. "Give it a break man!"

The now very heavily marked, unsalable book was owned by one Ferguson M. A_______, III; the title page bears his hand written "Ex Libris" stamp. Already, I was urged to respond. Underneath this I wrote, "Robyn Byrd (the first)."

Before the introduction was through, Fergy, as I came to call him (because I imagine that's what his mother calls him) had become my arch-nemesis. He had a peculiar hang-up with using or inventing terms prefixed by "self-" (self-serving, self-paradox, self-glorifying), and it soon became apparent that he (himself) was quite the egoist/egotist.

I am certain he hoped that his genius notes would be read by some impressionable undergrad who would feel so indebted to the author of those marginal insights, that the student would look Fergy the Third up in the linguistics department (where he would surely be chair by that time) at his university, and beg to be his pen pal or tutee. Oh that first email from a stranger would be so sweet!

Here are some gems from the first half of the book (I've transcribed the text here, and I've added some scans of his handwriting for full effect). Section:Chapter:Line number at the top. S is for Saussure, F is for Fergy. I've faithfully summarized for de Saussure where the text to which Fergy was responding was too long to write out here. My commentary is in red. Not because I'm like Jesus, but because I'm emulating Fergy. I don't know if I can pull of the attitude, but I'll try.

S: The third period [in linguistics] began when it was discovered that languages could be compared with one another.
F: One could deduce this easily and leave the 'proof' to lays like Bopp.

Lays like Bopp!? Are you a scientist Fergy? A linguist? I think you are as "lay" as I am. The best part is he drew a little caret and added "easily" afterward.

Intro:I:14 (continued)
S: [Bopp] did see that connexions between related languages could furnish the data for an autonomous science.
F: . . . to call this an autonomous science is self-serving. Communication must be approached as an art - not science.

Oh man, Fergy. I think it's going to take a dissertation to prove that one. Maybe a suitcase full of them. What have you gotten yourself into?

S: (A paragraph about the progress of linguistic study to date, and its limitations)
F: The plants in the garden 'sing' all the time. It is Man who tends 'his' garden and shuts himself off from the song. And then, arrogantly, reinvents singing.

This is one of Fergy's more eloquent responses. Hi-falutin' and snobby, but eloquent. I have to respond though. He is complaining about how linguistics has made language its own study, and how linguists think they have made advances. Well Fergy, I think it's true of many subjects we study that the answers are always there waiting to be discovered, and we are proud of ourselves when we finally think we've discovered them. How else should we behave? We're not being arrogant. We're just the only creatures who can theorize, so that's what we do.

S: But ought linguistics on that account to be included in sociology?
F: This 'turf grabbing' always amuses me.

Linguistics is one of the most cross-applicable, multidisciplinary studies I can think of. This isn't 'turf grabbing,' it's de Saussure trying to find a place for linguistics, giving examples of how broad it can be. Psycholinguistics, cultural lingustics, structural linguistics. . . scholars study all those things, and I don't think they fight over who's allowed to study what part of it. Even if they do, it's not Fergy's place to decide for them who gets what!

S: But a paradoxical consequence of this general interest is that no other subject has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions, more fantasies.
F: A science of talking communication is the original self-paradox. How can we talk about talking without realizing the limitations of self-reference, i.e. how is it that God can talk to God? And not misunderstand, or realize that the puppet is playing in the mirror, again.

Nice punctuation Fergy, as usual. There is just too much going on here. I can't even respond. What the hell is a self-paradox and how does he know which self-paradox (if there is such a thing) is the original!? This is where I became certain he was not just writing for himself.

S:Everything is internal which alters the system in any way whatsoever.
F: And I submit that what is internal is truly the internal moods, feelings, needs. Self-glorifying conduct can be seen as merely brighter pin and tail feathers.


S: The sound represents the entire word as a whole.
F: Oh, I think not.

Wouldn't a question mark and a circle around that text suffice? I can almost hear Fergy's "scoff, scoff!"

Part One:I:97
S: (A diagram of pictures and their Latin equivalents. A tree picture : "arbor", a horse picture: "equos.")
F: And so, words create Reality, and he is a Deist.
This one is my favorite. Very funny! Makes me think I might like him in person.

Part One:I:100
S: First Principle -- The sign is arbitrary.
F: Duh!

Ok, so it's a "duh" principle. Yet Fergy put a big red star next to it, lest he should forget. Maybe the star was just to call attention to his helpful comment.

Part Two:II:146
S: (A table showing signs and their sounds)
F: Attempt at making a science . . . works for sheep perhaps, but you can't predict ME!

Apparently I can't predict him either. Halfway through the book, Fergy disappears. Maybe he gave up on linguistics. Maybe he just gave up on de Saussure. Maybe he got a girlfriend.

So I am grateful that the rest of my reading will by unsullied by obnoxious "self-serving" notes. But I think after all this I'm really going to miss him.

Professors are always wary of telling their students too much about a text, or of giving away their opinion of it. They want the students to have a fresh look at it and form their own opinions. That may be a good tactic, but I do like having a fellow student companion on the page with me.

Too often college students are not as interested in analyzing what they're reading as they should be. The classroom can be a dry place for ideas and exchanges. When I buy these crumply old books, I'm not only getting a good deal -- I'm getting a room full of students with whom I can debate, agree, yell at, be inspired by. I've got my own little book club just sitting on my shelves, and we've got all the characters we need -- the smartypants, the softspoken insightful one, the cynic, the observer. It's going to be a rollicking good semester.

1 comment:

  1. It's so funny you wrote about this today because I'm preparing to leave Tucson with a ton of used books. It's one of the first times I've ever had a good experience with marked up books. I always seem to get the used books that were owned either by (a) the immature frat boy who spent more time drawing, ah hem, female anatomy then actually reading the book or (b) a highlighter addict. I always wished to experience what avid readers described as the amazing experience of secondhand books.

    I found your whole "discussion" with de Saussure fascinating. It was an incredibly creative way to describe your struggle with the chicken scratch notes.

    Oh, I hate it when people think they can put the word "self" before any word. It drives me nuts sometimes.

    I'm so glad you included some of the notes. I was rather curious about them. Ugh, and the fiend used "one" in that incredibly annoying manner.

    It is quite funny that there are still some writers and some scientists who seem to think their fields can and will never cross. I've always found a certain art in science and a certain science in writing.

    I've been meaning to take a few courses in linguistics. I'm fascinated by the field, but also a bit intimidated by it.

    That whole thing about self-paradox almost gave me a headache. Fergy just talks himself into knots.

    I do like to hear other people's opinions on literature, but I'm quite the egotist about it. I don't like hearing criticism from people who obviously didn't understand the text at all. My personal favorite is the vague, "It was too [insert description here, ex. scary, violent, childish, etc.] period."

    I think the education system has totally screwed up the way literature is taught. I don't blame the teachers, quite the opposite. I feel for them. They have to teach classics to people, most of whom have more interest in what they're doing after that class then the actual class.

    The last image describing why you buy used books was incredibly beautiful and even poetic in its own way. I really liked it.

    Excellent post.



I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.