The Arbitrariness of “20/20” Vision

by Cristina Coppa

According to Ferdinand de Saussure’s vision on semiotics—“the science of  communication studied through the interpretation of signs and symbols as they operate in various fields” —in his Course in General Linguistics, language is a system of signs that express ideas (Saussure 850). The elements of language, as part of this semiotic system, possess the same capacity to denote not only concepts, but ideas. In fact, a concept is an element of the linguistic sign; the other component is a sound-image, the psychological imprint of the sound (853). In linguistics, Saussure translates this into a larger proposal of a sign—the whole—as being the union of its parts: a signified (the concept) and a signifier (the sound-image). We must also consider the arbitrary nature of the sign, wherein there is no intrinsic relationship between both parts of the sign; consequently, there is no natural connection (853). 

I would like to extend this ideology to a piece of micro-fiction: Linda Brewer’s “20/20.” The plot involves two travel companions, Bill and Ruthie, having very different perceptions of what they see through their car windows. While the former can perceive only a dull landscape, his much livelier companion is “capable of seeing wonderful sights,” including a glimpse of Bigfoot in reflectors nailed to a tree and a UFO sighting over Twin Falls (Brewer 35). Contrary to Saussure’s implication that there is an agreed-upon signified for all who come across its signifier, these diverging viewpoints—i.e., two people look at the same object but see two different things—bring about the arbitrariness of the sign and invite us to consider how Saussurean semiotics can be applied to works of literature, where signs do not have the same meaning for different characters. Moreover, literature may also challenge Saussurean theories. Hence, I will examine a few of the signs in “20/20” according to Saussure’s ideology, as detailed in his Course in General Linguistics.

One of the first signs in the narrative appears when Bill tells Ruthie that she is not like other East Coast women. In this case, I would like to dissect the concept “East Coast women” as a sign rather than an abstract idea. By doing this, “East Coast women” would be composed of two parts: its signifier, which can be observed through the written words, and its signified, the concept that I will decode according to Bill’s point of view. Considering the contrast he creates between Ruthie and the East Coast women, the latter would comprise two main ideas that, in their totality, make up its signified. First, an East Coast woman “dispute[s] everything” Bill says (Brewer 34). In this sense, Bill has conjured the signified around himself. Secondly, an East Coast woman does not “[stick] to simple observation” (34), which is an empirical and stereotypical assumption on Bill’s part. Given that these ideas—which are based on Bill’s personal whims—form the signified, the “East Coast women” are an example of the arbitrary nature of the sign as introduced by Saussure. 

By delving into Bill and Ruthie’s differing perceptions presented throughout the story, more signs evince their own arbitrariness. First, Ruthie remarks on some of her observations during the third day of their trip: “Indian paintbrush. A golden eagle” (35). After listening to her comments, Bill tries to search for Indian paintbrush plants in the scenery and fails to find any. Then, he remembers “there was no Indian paintbrush, that he knew of, near Chicago” (35). These signs are seen differently by the two characters, leading to the conclusion that, despite their agreement on the signifiers, the signifieds are not the same for each character. The narrator gives no insight into the inner machinations of Ruthie’s mind, so the reader is unaware of the signified she attaches to the signifier “Indian paintbrush.” Conversely, the text implies that Bill’s signified is a plant with a specific physical appearance that he currently cannot see in the landscape near Chicago. In contrast to Saussure’s notion that the arbitrariness of the sign manifests itself when taking note of the different signifiers in different languages, Brewer demonstrates in her short fiction that signifieds may also bring an arbitrary aspect to the sign. 

Another instance in which Brewer’s story challenges the Saussurean notion that only signifiers may elucidate the arbitrariness of the sign is when Ruthie sees Bigfoot on their fourth day (35). The signified, or the concept, that Bill most likely has of “Bigfoot” is a large ape-like creature often regarded as an urban legend. Yet, when he looked to the side of the road in pursuit of the hairy being, he only saw “two red spots [wink] back—reflectors nailed to a tree stump” (35). Is this Ruthie’s concept of Bigfoot? Once more, Brewer doesn’t expound Ruthie’s point of view, but hints that the red reflectors fixed on the stump is the signified she associates with Bigfoot. Thus, the dissent between both characters’ signifieds with the signifier “Bigfoot” proves the arbitrary nature of the signified. 

Brewer continues to defy Saussure’s definition of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign throughout “20/20” through Ruthie’s observations. Whether she sees “a white buffalo near Fargo” or “a UFO over Twin Falls” (35), this character continues to go against the traditionally assigned signified for these signifiers in diverging from Bill’s perception and the reader’s expectation.

Even though Brewer’s short fiction mostly does not follow the principles outlined in the Course in General Linguistics, there is a single instance in which both characters’ signifieds concur with Saussure’s definition of language as “a sort of contract signed by the members of a community” (Saussure 850). Coincidentally, it is also the only instance in which Brewer grants the reader a peek of Ruthie’s musings. On the third evening of the road trip, the narrator says: “She didn’t mind driving into the setting sun” (Brewer 35). This vision of hers carries a signified for the “setting sun” sign that Bill—and the reader—can agree upon, as there is no discrepancy that Bill makes apparent or any indication of his worry for his travel companion’s sanity, a thought he seems to play with whenever Ruthie announces a new finding in the panorama. Both the signifier and signified unite to form the sign without objections to Saussure’s postulation. 

In light of reading Brewer’s “20/20” in accordance with semiotics, it becomes clear that literature can both challenge and conform to Saussurean theory. By deciphering the language the author uses in this piece of micro-fiction, I have identified the ways in which the signifier and the signified unite to form the sign in its entirety. Oftentimes, the arbitrariness of the signifier as the sole cause for the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign gets called into question. I see an opportunity to expand on Saussure’s semiotics and propose that another source for the arbitrary sign may be the arbitrariness of its signified. In reassessing the Course in General Linguistics, I hope more principles and/or broader definitions can be appended to the currently existing theory to provide a more holistic model in linguistics and semiotics. What’s more, I suspect an additional layer to Brewer’s story lies in the title. Like the arbitrariness behind the choice of “20/20” as the signifier for perfect vision, Bill, Ruthie, and everyone else may need to consider a change in perspective.

Works Cited:

Brewer, Linda. “20/20.” Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Stories, edited by Jerome Stern, W.W. Norton & Company, 1996, pp. 34-35. 

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, et al., 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2010, pp. 850-56.

“semiotics, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021, Accessed 16 June 2021.