Tuesday, 23 May 2000

From "Introduction to Henri Meschonnic – For a Poetics of Rhythm"

Benveniste uncovers the falsity of commonplace theories of rhythm that derive its meaning from a Greek verb ρειν (‘to flow’) that gave rise to the abstract noun ρυθμος on the model of the repetitive breaking of waves onto the shore. On the contrary, Benveniste argued, careful textual analysis reveals that the origin of the term is really in a word meaning ‘form in the instant that it is assumed by what is moving, mobile and fluid, the form of that which does not have organic consistency; it fits the pattern of a fluid element, of a letter arbitrarily shaped, of a robe which one arranges at one’s will, of a particular state of character or mood. It is the form as improvised, momentary, changeable’ (Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (UMP: Coral Gables, 1971), pp.285-6). Meschonnic takes up this idea and extends its significance to a major critique of all theories of the sign as the basis for a science of language in favour of a theory of discourse. Meschonnic thus defines ‘rhythm’ as that which ‘governs meaning’ as ‘the continuous movement of [Meschonnic’s technical term] signifiance constructed by the historical activity of a subject’. And ‘rhythm in language [is] the organization of marks by which linguistic signifieds (especially in the case of oral communication) produce a special semantic meaning’; signifiance, which is to say ‘the values proper to a discourse and only one’ (Critique du rythme, p. 216).

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