La septième fonction du langage

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Laurent Binet, La septième fonction du langageThe seventh function of language. This looks like an interesting book — pulp meta-fiction featuring Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard,  Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more. There are reviews by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post ("Who killed Roland Barthes? Maybe Umberto Eco has a clue.", 8/23/1017), by Nicholas Daves in the New York Times ("A Postmodern Buddy-Cop Novel Sends Up the World of Semiotics", 8/16/2017), by Anthony Domestico in the San Francisco Chronicle ("'The Seventh Function of Language,' by Laurent Binet", 817/2017), etc. And there's a play, scheduled for the Théâtre de Sartrouville in November, and various other venues in France through the spring of 2018. No doubt the movie rights have already been snapped up.

Versions in French and in English are available from the usual places.

I'll probably have more to say after I've read it.

Meanwhile, I'll point readers to the work by Roman Jakobson that provides the book's title. Wikipedia has an article on "Jakobson's Function of Language", namely the referential, poetic, emotive, conative, phatic, and metalinguistic functions. The source is Jakobson's chapter "Closing statements: Linguistics and Poetics" in Thomas Sebeok, Style in Language, 1960. I have a copy somewhere but can't for the moment locate it, so pending further search, you can rely on Wikipedia.

And here's how Binet introduces the idea. The background, as explained in the NYT review:

In February of 1980, the literary theorist Roland Barthes was hit by a laundry van while crossing the Rue des Ècoles in Paris on his way home from the Collège de France, where he held a chair in semiology. A month later he died of his injuries. […]

Laurent Binet's "The Seventh Function of Language" imagines this event differently. Binet seizes on a historical fact: Barthes had just attended a lunch hosted by François Mitterrand, then the Socialist candidate for the French presidency. What if, Binet asks, Barthes was murdered? What if the lunch and the death were connected? In Binet's version, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, an assassin drove the van in order to procure a document that Barthes possessed and any number of parties — Mitterrand; his opponent, the sitting president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing; the Bulgarian intelligence service; the K.G.B.; and every major intellectual figure in France (not to mention the United States and Italy) — desperately wanted. […]

A streetwise police intelligence superintendent, Jacques Bayard, is assigned the task of finding Barthes's murderers and the missing document, despite his working-class disgust for the "filthy little lefties" of Barthes's milieu. He dragoons into his service a young semiotician named Simon Herzog as a guide to the world of literary theory, and the two set off on a madcap chase through the high humanist academy of the early 1980s.

Their investigations lead them to a young male prostitute named Hamed, and there's a car chase through the streets of Paris at the end of which Hamed is shot by one of the mysterious pursuers after saying something about the seventh function of language, and…

Simon lui rapporte les dernières paroles d'Hamed. Bayard lui demande ce qu'il sait de cette septième fonction du langage. Éprouvé mais professoral par automatisme, Simon lui explique  : «  Les fonctions du langage sont des catégories linguistiques qui ont jadis été théorisées par un grand linguiste russe du nom de…  »

Simon tells him about Hamed's last words. Bayard asks him what he knows about this seventh function of language. Still in shock, but professorial by instinct, Simon explains: "The functions of language are linguistic categories that were once the subject of a theory by a great Russian linguist named …"

Then the lecture pauses as they go to get a book and associated notes that they recall seeing on Barthes' desk and suddenly realize might be crucial. But there's an an intruder there ahead of them who's taken the material, and after another chase, on foot this time, the thief is shot reaching into his jacket and falls off the Pont Neuf into the Seine.

Quand les plongeurs de la police repêcheront le cadavre, ils trouveront dans la poche de son blouson non pas une arme mais l'exemplaire de Barthes des Essais de linguistique générale et Bayard, à peine séché, demandera à Simon  : «Bordel, mais qui c'est, ce Jakobson?» Alors, enfin, Simon pourra reprendre son exposé.

When the police divers fish the corpse out of the water, they will find in his jacket pocket not a firearm but Barthes's copy of Essays in General Linguistics, and Bayard, still drying himself, will ask Simon: "For fuck's sake, who is this Jakobson guy?" And so, at last, Simon will be able to finish his lecture.

Simon lectures him at length on metaphor and metonymy, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes, the functions of language, etc. 

Jacques Bayard s'allume une cigarette et dit  : «Ça fait six.
—  Pardon  ?
—  Ça fait six fonctions.
—  Ah oui, tiens.
—  Il n'y a pas de septième fonction  ?
—  Hum hum, eh bien… apparemment, si.»
Simon sourit bêtement. Bayard se demande à haute voix pour quoi on paie Simon. Simon rappelle qu'il n'a rien demandé et qu'il est là contre son gré, sur ordre exprès d'un président fasciste à la tête d'un État policier. Néanmoins, en y réfléchissant, ou plutôt en relisant Jakobson, Simon Herzog trouve trace d'une potentielle septième fonction, désignée sous le nom de «  fonction magique ou incantatoire  », dont le mécanisme est décrit comme «  la conversion d'une troisième personne, absente ou inanimée, en destinataire d'un message conatif  ». Et Jakobson donne comme exemple une formule magique lituanienne  : «  Puisse cet orgelet se dessécher, tfu tfu tfu tfu  ». Ouais ouais ouais, se dit Simon.

Jacques Bayard lights a cigarette and says, "That's six."
"That's six functions."
"Ah … yes. Quite."
"Isn't there a seventh function?"
"Well, uh … apparently, there is, yes…"
Simon smiles stupidly.
Bayard wonders out loud what Simon is being paid for. Simon reminds him that he did not ask for anything and that he is there against his will, on the express orders of a fascist president who sits at the head of a police state.
Nevertheless, after thinking about it, or rather after rereading Jakobson, Simon Herzog does come up with a possible seventh function, designated as the "magic or incantatory function," whose mechanism is described as "the conversion of a third person, absent or inanimate, to whom a conative message is addressed." And Jakobson gives as an example a Lithuanian magical spell: "May this stye dry up, tfu tfu tfu tfu." Yeah yeah yeah, thinks Simon.

For linguistic lagniappe, here's a passage from the first few pages of the book (the English version, as throughout this post, is from the translation by Sam Taylor):

La sémiologie est un truc très étrange. C'est Ferdinand de Saussure, le fondateur de la linguistique, qui, le premier, en a eu l'intuition. Dans son Cours de linguistique générale, il propose de «  concevoir une science qui étudie la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale  ». Rien que ça. Il ajoute, en guise de piste pour ceux qui voudront bien s'atteler à la tâche  : «  Elle formerait une partie de la psychologie sociale, et par conséquent de la psychologie générale  ; nous la nommerons sémiologie (du grec sēmeîon, "signe"). Elle nous apprendrait en quoi consistent les signes, quelles lois les régissent. Puisqu'elle n'existe pas encore, on ne peut pas dire ce qu'elle sera  ; mais elle a droit à l'existence, sa place est déterminée d'avance. La linguistique n'est qu'une partie de cette science générale, les lois que découvrira la sémiologie seront applicables à la linguistique, et celle-ci se trouvera ainsi rattachée à un domaine bien défini dans l'ensemble des faits humains.  » J'aimerais que Fabrice Luchini nous relise ce passage, en appuyant sur les mots comme il sait si bien le faire, pour que le monde entier puisse en percevoir, sinon le sens, du moins toute la beauté. Cette intuition géniale, quasi incompréhensible pour ses contemporains (le cours a lieu en 1906), n'a rien perdu, un siècle plus tard, ni de sa puissance ni de son obscurité.

Semiology is a very strange thing. It was Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of linguistics, who first dreamed it up. In his Course in General Linguistics, he proposes imagining "a science that studies the life of signs within society." Yep, that's all. For those who wish to tackle this, he adds a few guidelines: "It would form a part of social psychology and, consequently, of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, 'sign'). It would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since it does not exist yet, no one can say what it will be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of this general science; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics, and the latter will circumscribe a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts." I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us, enunciating each word as he does so well, so that the whole world could at least grasp all its beauty if not its meaning. A century later, this brilliant intuition, which was almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries when the course was taught in 1906, has lost none of its power or its obscurity.

And OK, one last passage, this one describing a workshop at Cornell:

Ce midi, on y retrouve la plupart des intervenants disséminés dans le réfectoire selon une géopolitique que Bayard et Simon ne maîtrisent pas encore. La salle se compose de tables pouvant accueillir six à huit personnes dont aucune n'est complètement occupée mais, Simon et Bayard le sentent dans l'air, il y a clairement des camps.

«J'aimerais bien qu'on me fasse un topo sur les forces en présence», dit Bayard à Simon en choisissant comme plat chaud une double entrecôte avec de la purée, des bananes plantain et du boudin blanc. Le cuisinier noir, qui l'a entendu, lui répond en français  : «Vous voyez la table près de la porte  ? C'est le coin des analytiques. Ils sont en territoire hostile et inférieurs en nombre, alors ils restent groupés.» Il y a Searle, Chomsky et Cruella Redgrave, qui s'appelle en réalité Camille Paglia, une spécialiste de l'histoire de la sexualité, ce qui en fait une concurrente directe de Foucault qu'elle vomit de tout son être. «De l'autre côté, près de la fenêtre vous avez une belle brochette, comme vous dites en France  : Lyotard, Guattari, Cixous, et Foucault au milieu, you know him, of course, le grand chauve qui parle fort, right? Kristeva est là-bas, avec Morris Zapp et Sylvère Lotringer, le boss de la revue Sémiotexte. Dans le coin, tout seul, le vieil homme avec sa cravate en laine et ses cheveux weird, je ne sais pas qui c'est. (Drôle d'allure, se dit Bayard.) La jeune lady avec les cheveux violets, derrière lui, non plus.» Son aide-cuisinier portoricain jette un coup d'œil et commente sur un ton neutre  : «Sûrement des heideggériens.»

It is lunchtime, and most of the conference's speakers are scattered through the refectory in a geopolitical pattern that Bayard and Simon have not yet figured out. The room consists of tables that can seat six to eight, none of them fully occupied. But— Simon and Bayard can scent this in the air— there are clearly various camps.

"I wish I could get a rundown on the different forces here," says Bayard to Simon, choosing a double rib steak with mashed potato, plantains, and boudin blanc. The black chef, who overheard him, responds in French: "You see the table near the door? That's where the analytics sit. They're in enemy territory, and they're outnumbered, so they're sticking together." There is Searle, Chomsky, and Cruella Redgrave, whose real name is Camille Paglia, a specialist in the history of sexuality and a direct rival of Foucault, whom she detests with all her being. "On the other side, near the window, there's a belle brochette, as you say in France: Lyotard, Guattari, Cixous, and Foucault in the middle— you know him, of course, the tall bald guy who's talking, right? Kristeva is over there, with Morris Zapp and Sylvère Lotringer, the boss of the magazine Sémiotext( e). In the corner, on his own, the old guy with the wool tie and the weird hair, I don't know who that is. [Strange-looking man, thinks Bayard.] And the young lady with the violet hair behind him? I don't know her, either." His Puerto Rican sous-chef glances over and remarks tonelessly: "Probably Heideggerians."

Update — It's possible that Simon's rereading of Jakobson might have involved "Metalanguage as a linguistic problem", which apparently was the Presidential Address at the Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, December 27, 1956. This is from the version in Jakobson's Selected Writings, 1985:

The traditional model of language as elucidated in particular by Karl Buhler was confined to these three functions — emotive, conative, and referential — and to the three apexes of this model — the first person of the addresser, the second person of the addressee, and the "third person" proper — someone or something spoken of. Certain additional verbal functions can be easily inferred from this triadic model. Thus the magic, incantatory function is chiefly some kind of conversion of an absent or inanimate "third person" into an addressee of a conative message. "May this sty dry up, tfu, tfu, tfu, tfu" (Lithuanian spell). "Water, queen river, daybreak! Send grief beyond the blue sea, to the sea-bottom, like a grey stone never to rise from the sea-bottom, may grief never come to burden the light heart of God's servant, may grief be removed and sink away." (North Russian incantation). "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aj-a-lon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed ***" (Josh. 10:12).



  1. Mark Meckes said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 8:30 am

    I love how in the last quoted passage "Fabrice Luchini" is translated as "Anthony Hopkins".

  2. Mark Meckes said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 8:31 am

    Second-last quoted passage, that is. (Did the post get updated while I was writing my previous comment?)

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 8:42 am

    Looks like fun for those who know more about this stuff than I do. I imagine you can wonder which of Jakobson's functions is carried out by the "Ouais ouais ouais" that Simon says to himself.

    I'm not good at the nuances of British English and still less at those of French, but is "For fuck's sake, who is this Jakobson guy?" really a good translation of the un-profane «Bordel, mais qui c'est, ce Jakobson?»? (Or have Americans picked up "For fuck's sake"? Not around here, anyway.)

    [(myl) Bordel is literally "whorehouse", which we don't use in English as an interjection; gives give "fuck" as one of the translations for the interjection sense of bordel:


    It's interesting, if nothing else, to translate "Fabrice Luchini" (who I've indeed never heard of) as "Anthony Hopkins".

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    Thanks, Mark, that should have been obvious.

  5. languagehat said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 9:25 am

    It's certainly an intriguing-sounding book, but I was put off by this from the NY Times review: "Bayard partakes in a Sadean combination of sex and philosophy with Hélène Cixous and the young Judith Butler." I'm awfully tired of men exposing their fantasies about sex with famous women, even if those women are famous for writing about sexuality. (I'm sure French people are even now rolling their eyes and thinking "Oh, another uptight American," but I'd be curious to know if Cixous finds it as jolly as the author does.)

    [(myl) Indeed. But there's a broader issue here: In the background of much 20th-century French "theory", and foregrounded in the work of Foucault and others, are things that most of us would be quick to condemn if they emerged (for example) from the Facebook page or internal email chain of some fraternity. I haven't looked at the relevant part of Binet's book, or its broader context, but I wonder whether the passage you cite is less about Binet's fantasies and more about the culture of 1980s literary theory.]

  6. languagehat said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

    I wonder whether the passage you cite is less about Binet's fantasies and more about the culture of 1980s literary theory.

    Oh, sure, and I may be being utterly unfair to Binet. It was a knee-jerk reaction, I admit, but a well-earned one. (I was there in the '80s, and I saw the theory-junkies at work and play…)

  7. Electric Dragon said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

    "Kristeva est là-bas, avec Morris Zapp et Sylvère Lotringer, le boss de la revue Sémiotexte."

    Morris Zapp! Presumably the Morris Zapp of "Changing Places" and "Small World" by David Lodge?

    [(myl) Bien sûr.]

  8. D.O. said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

    I really don't know what it's all about, but from the plot set-up and the proffered fragments it reads like another installation of Dan Brown. Does it begin with "Le professeur célèbre"? Could have sold it as a literary play…

    [(myl) From a distance, the plot seems a bit Dan Brown-ish. But Binet is an excellent writer — the book begins

    La vie n'est pas un roman. C'est du moins ce que vous voudriez croire.

    Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.

    It's true that the next few sentences are

    Roland Barthes remonte la rue de Bièvre. Le plus grand critique littéraire du xxe siècle a toutes les raisons d'être angoissé au dernier degré. Sa mère est morte, avec qui il entretenait des rapports très proustiens. Et son cours au Collège de France, intitulé «  La préparation du roman  », s'est soldé par un échec qu'il peut difficilement se dissimuler  : toute l'année, il aura parlé à ses étudiants de haïkus japonais, de photographie, de signifiants et de signifiés, de divertissements pascaliens, de garçons de café, de robes de chambre ou de places dans l'amphi –  de tout sauf du roman.

    The greatest literary critic of the twentieth century has every reason to feel anxious and upset. His mother, with whom he had a highly Proustian relationship, is dead. And his course on "The Preparation of the Novel" at the Collège de France is such a conspicuous failure it can no longer be ignored: all year, he has talked to his students about Japanese haikus, photography, the signifier and the signified, Pascalian diversions, café waiters, dressing gowns, and lecture-hall seating— about everything but the novel.

    So there's "Le plus grand critique littéraire du xxe siècle", if not "le professeur célèbre". And then he gets killed by somewhat mysterious assailant. On the other hand, Barthes really existed and really was run over by a laundry truck. And Binet's rhetorical flourishes are, in my opinion, generally interesting rather than embarrassing, e.g.

    Roland Barthes presse le pas sans rien percevoir de son environnement extérieur, lui qui est pourtant un observateur-né, lui dont le métier consiste à observer et analyser, lui qui a passé sa vie entière à traquer tous les signes. Il ne voit véritablement ni les arbres ni les trottoirs ni les vitrines ni les voitures du boulevard Saint-Germain qu'il connaît par cœur. Il n'est plus au Japon. Il ne sent pas la morsure du froid. À peine entend-il les bruits de la rue. C'est un peu comme l'allégorie de la caverne à l'envers  : le monde des idées dans lequel il s'est enfermé obscurcit sa perception du monde sensible. Autour de lui, il ne voit que des ombres.

    Roland Barthes ups his pace without paying attention to the world around him, despite being a born observer, a man whose job consists of observing and analyzing, who has spent his entire life scrutinizing signs of every kind. He really doesn't see the trees or the sidewalks or the store windows or the cars on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which he knows like the back of his hand. He is not in Japan anymore. He doesn't feel the bite of the cold. He barely even hears the sounds of the street. It's a bit like Plato's allegory of the cave in reverse: the world of ideas in which he shuts himself away obscures his awareness of the world of the senses. Around him, he sees only shadows.


  9. BerlinBrian said,

    August 25, 2017 @ 5:40 am

    I just gave the German edition of this book to my wife for her birthday. Unlike Dan Brown's efforts, it is intentionally comic, a spoof thriller. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a parody of Brown somewhere in it, unless that's so lowbrow the French audience wouldn't see the joke.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2017 @ 7:22 am

    To my AmEng ear, the specific trigram "for fuck's sake" is markedly BrEng, although that could obviously change with the passage of further time. Also the fact that I don't think I've noticed e.g. Australian utterances of it may not be meaningful given my lack of enough regular exposure to Australian speakers in the sort of context/register where it might arise, so I can't say whether it's markedly British versus markedly non-North-American.

    To hat's concern, separate and apart from worrying about Ms. Cixous' own feelings, there is also the issue that celebrities, even those who have "asked for it" via avid pursuit of notoriety, often have more ordinary friends & family who may be naturally protective of their flamboyant/wayward relation. Case in point here, I know a perfectly nice but bourgeois fellow (middle-aged NYC lawyer like I am) who happens to be Gayatri Spivak's nephew, and I would hesitate to recommend this book to him without a fairly detailed sense of how it treats his aunt.

    [(myl) As an admirer of Gayatri Spivak, I'm happy to say that her nephew has nothing to worry about. Her main role in this novel is to participate in a sort of Alternate Day conference, where Chomsky's talk is titled "Degenerative grammar" and Spivak's is "Should the subaltern shut up sometimes?" Besides that, she figures a couple of times in the background of a somewhat chaotic reception, where she's quoted as saying "Gramsci is my brother!" and "We were taught to say yes to the enemy"; and then in response to an exchange where Camille Paglia shouts "French go home! Lacan is a tyrant who must be driven from our shores", and Morris Zapp laughs and responds "You're damn right, General Custer!", Spivak is quoted as thinking "You're not the granddaughter of Aristotle, you know?" I don't get all the jokes, but I don't see much there to embarrass her friends and relations.]

  11. languagehat said,

    August 25, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    To my AmEng ear, the specific trigram "for fuck's sake" is markedly BrEng

    Really?! I use it frequently, with no sense of its being a Brit import; in fact, I would have said it was echt American. Funny how Sprachgefühl works. Anybody else have thoughts about this?

    [(myl) I certainly hear it a lot in the U.S. Google Books claims to find 69,200 publications containing this phrase, and checking the first 10 or so I find both American and British writers. So apparently it's a trans-Atlantic phenomenon.]

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 25, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

    At Google ngrams, "for fuck's sake" was about three times as common in British books as in American, as of 2008.

    I couldn't swear I've ever heard or seen it from an American, but obviously more people than languagehat are using it.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

    FWIW not an hour after hat's comment disagreeing with my (and Jerry Friedman's) impression, I saw someone unknown to me (friend of friend) but from context reasonably likely to be echt-American using the expression in the middle of an unedifying political argument on social media. And (although perhaps I was primed by hat) it didn't seem in context like an affected Briticism. But I am still pleased that Jerry F. has found some empirical support for my initial impression.

    [(myl) Wikipedia identifies the translator, Sam Taylor, as "an American author and former pop culture correspondent for The Observer" who lives in France. So his linguistic background is also trans-Atlantic.]

  14. Jonathan said,

    August 26, 2017 @ 9:52 am

    Not that anyone asked, but as a huge admirer of Binet's previous novel, HHhH, I found this one entertaining, but at a lower level. This may be to some extent due to my greater familiarity with Nazi Germany than with French politics and/or Structuralism. Detours to find out more about Sollers and Kristeva and Althusser, even for one already familiar with Barthes, Derrida, De Man, Eco and Searle, not to mention the personal styles of Giscard, Mitterand, Lang and Fabius, all of which figure prominently in the novel, make it perfectly suited for someone imbued in that milieu, but a somewhat difficult slog for others, particularly if you're bothered when you can tell there's a joke here, but you can't tell what it is. This just covers major characters… there are plenty of Frenchman whose appearances are surely meaningful to the French reader but like "Anthony Hopkins" above, not translated into an English equivalent to let us in on the joke.

  15. Jonathan said,

    August 26, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    (I meant "Frenchmen" of course.) By the way, there is one line that seems clearly wrong: "In the New York night, they walk up Eighth Avenue until they reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal, opposite the gigantic building that houses The New York Times, as the massive gothic letters on the facade unequivocally indicate." Not in 1980, they wouldn't. That building (which to be perfectly accurate, isn't directly opposite the Port Authority in any case) wasn't built until 2007. This is of course a tiny error, but it is one instantly apparent to a New Yorker, which then causes one to wonder if there are similar lapses immediately apparent to the French.

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 26, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

    From the description it sounds very much like an Italo Calvino novel.

  17. January First-of-May said,

    August 30, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    I want to note that tfu tfu tfu is a phrase (an onomatopoeia for spitting) that often shows up in Russian magic formulas (effectively where the English would say "knock on wood").

    I wasn't aware that it can also occur in Lithuanian… if it even does – could that particular spell have been borrowed from the Russians?

    [EDIT: a quick googling finds several instances in Lithuanian text, so, whether or not that particular phrase existed in Lithuanian way back then, it certainly is there today.]

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