Saussure and the Model of Communication

Russell Daylight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


One of the less obvious contributions of Saussure is his role in establishing modern communications theory. The sender-message-receiver (SMR) model of communication was developed by Shannon and Weaver (1949, The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press). Within the humanities, it is Roman Jakobson’s version of the SMR model that is most influential. Jakobson’s model creates a methodology for considering such complexities as the sender’s intentions, the context of transmission, metalinguistic codes, the transmission medium, and the relation to the referent. Despite the complexity of Jakobson’s model, it is still bound by the assumption that perfect communication can be achieved through the full recovery of contexts. The most thorough and powerful critique of what’s often called the “transmission model” of communication is found in Jacques Derrida’s “Signature Event Context.” Derrida’s critique begins by demonstrating “why a context is never absolutely determinable” (1988a: 3, Signature event context. In Gerald Graff (ed.), Limited inc., Samuel Weber (trans.), 1–23. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press). In place of context, Derrida proposes the notion of “dissemination” in which a text is radically adrift of the conditions of its utterance or reception. At face value, Saussure’s “speech circuit” model represents an early and underdeveloped model of communication. As if often the case, however, a closer reading of the Cours reveals something far more radical and profound. Closer attention to Saussure’s speech circuit model re-opens many questions in communication theory, and in associated fields such as literary theory, cultural studies, and semiotics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-194
Number of pages21
Issue number217
Early online dateMar 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017


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