Theorrhoea contra Realism

  • Michael Grant


In this reading, from Theorrhoea and After (1999), Tallis addresses the various arguments elaborated by theorists against realism. The weakest of these is that it is methodologically passé, though a second idea, that reality is no longer realistic, is not much better. A more considerable argument is the ideological position deriving from Althusser, which sees realism as a form that pretends to present reality objectively and by so doing naturalises what is in fact a social and historical construct. The impossibility of realistic fiction has also been argued for on the grounds that stories have a structure different from that of life. However, the most popular arguments against realism derive from post-Saussurean linguistics, and they depend on the false belief that Saussure showed that reference is not possible. One can go further than this, and claim that all structured awareness of reality is mediated by language and therefore reality is only available to consciousness in so far as it is intra-linguistic — a form of linguistic idealism. In opposing these positions, Tallis is led to confront what he describes as the ‘topsy-turvy world’ of Derrida. Here, language is purely a matter of signifiers that never touch extra-linguistic reality: for Derrida, as for Lacan, discourse is an endless chain of signifiers, attempting vainly to fill the lack corresponding to the absent origin, an absence that is only revealed the more completely the more eagerly one seeks for it in language. Tallis is challenging one of the basic assumptions underpinning a great deal of semiotic and postmodern thought: the idea of the free ‘play’ of the signifier. It is a confusion based on the entirely erroneous notion that meaning something and existing are alternative states. As Vincent Descombes has noted, the whole set of ideas derives from Hegel’s famous dictum, that the word is the murderer of the thing. The result is a muddle, in which it is argued that, since the use of signs is necessary to represent what is absent, the absence of what is signified is necessary for the use of signs. Tallis concludes that the case against the realist novel fails absolutely.


Colour Term Linguistic Sign True Story Popular Argument Contemporary Reality 
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Copyright information

© Raymond Tallis 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael Grant
    • 1
  1. 1.Rutherford CollegeThe University of KentCanterburyUK

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