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A Semiology of Paragrams

By Johanne Prud’homme and Lyne Légaré

Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

1. Abstract


Julia Kristeva

In "Towards a Semiology of Paragrams" (Kristeva, 1998), Julia Kristeva introduces the concept of signifiance [the signifying process] as a paragrammatic system. Starting with a discussion of poetic language (prose and poetry), Kristeva's object is to explore within the entire set of signifying gestures "the dynamic process whereby signs take on or change their significations" (Kristeva, 1998, 28). Why take poetic language as a starting point? Because it is a dynamic practice that "breaks the inertia of language-habits and offers the linguist a unique opportunity to study the becoming of the signification of signs" (Kristeva, 1998, 28). As a practice of exploration and discovery of the possibilities of language, poetic language is the only complementary system that manifests the infiniteness of the entire code (ordinary language) in its totality, or nearly so. This sort of paragrammatic conception of poetic discourse can only be formalized with mathematical language, which, due to the freedom of its signs, "[is] more and more able to elude the constraints of a logic based on the Indo-European subject-predicate relation [...]" (Kristeva, 1998, 25), or in generative linguistics, insofar as it "conceives of language as a dynamic system of relations" (Kristeva, 1998, 25).

This text may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided the complete reference is given:
Johanne Prud’homme and Lyne Légaré (2006), « A Semiology of Paragrams », in Louis Hébert (dir.), Signo [online], Rimouski (Quebec),



"To describe the signifying operation of poetic language is to describe the mechanism of conjunction within a potential infinity" (Kristeva, 1998, 29).

Poetic language is a complementary system to ordinary language. Kristeva differs with the proponents of poetics as a "subcategory of language", defining it as the ordered infinite code (the code being ordinary discourse or linguistic order). By this, she means that poetic language as an "end" product is readable only by relating it to the infinite array of possibilities embedded in the totality of the code (ordinary language). What is posited here is the signifying relationship that develops between a comprehensive language system (the totality of the code) and a complementary system (poetic language). Poetic language is dual. It cannot deny belonging to a comprehensive system; and it can only signify to the extent that it actualizes its otherness (its dialogical relations). Since poetic language – more than any other system complementary to ordinary language – is the place where all possible signifiers reside, the semiotician's job consists of unearthing its signification through the modes of conjunction (the conjunction of possibilities contained in the infiniteness of the entire code) specific to poetic language.


"Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another" (Kristeva, 1986, 37).

Following Bakhtin's discussion of dialogism, Kristeva postulates that any literary text inserts itself into the set of all texts. Reading and writing are an appropriation of the other. Since (s)he writes while reading the anterior or synchronic (contemporary) literary corpus, the author articulates the discourse of otherness in his or her own texts (by appropriating, transforming or reformulating). In this way, "all of the texts in the space read by the writer function" within one text (Kristeva, 1998, 29). From this perspective, the literary text appears to be a correlation of texts; any text is constructed in relation to another; thus signification is not based solely on the end product, but also on the exemplary discourse of otherness. Every literary text has a double orientation. In short, what comes into play is the relationship between the texts, a relationship that energizes signifying productivity. "The book refers to other books and [...] gives those books a new way of being, elaborating thereby its own signification" (Kristeva, 1998, 30). So although each text is unique, the emergence of signification is only made possible through the relationship maintained by this unique text with other texts. As shown in the following equation, this signification is based on the dialogical mode. One is never just "one"; it is the double of all the others in "the space read by the writer" (Kristeva, 1998, 29), cited above.

A relationship that energizes signifying productivity: 1 = 2.


Any literary text or work of poetry refers to at least one other text. By the same token, the relationships in the text follow a dialogical principle. The signifier as a minimal unit is also dual. In this light, the text is seen as "a system of multiple connections that could be described as a structure of paragrammatic networks" (Kristeva, 1998, 32).


To speak in terms of a network rather than a linear system implies that each sequence in the text is the outcome and the beginning of the signifying process, and is therefore dynamic by nature.

In each network, the elements (phonetic, semantic, and syntagmatic) are presented as (signifying) peaks on a graph (the infiniteness of the entire code); in other words, they are overdetermined elements in the signifying process. Moreover, each peak is multi-determined in that it necessarily refers to another peak (by correlation), making it a dialogical system. The signifiers are thereby set in motion, which is why the signifying structure created by them (poetic language) is a moving gram – a paragram. The following diagram illustrates the permutation of signifiers (peaks) within the space of the entire code.

Diagram of paragrammatic functioning
Diagram of paragrammatic functioning

The minimal interval of the signifier is from 0 to 2; in other words, poetic language provides a way out of the fixedness of signification in everyday language. For example, the sentence "the table is green", uttered during a visit to a furniture store, would refer in normal language to an object, "table", which is "green". The same sequence embedded in a poem could refer to quite a number of other things: "the table of law", "hope" or "nature", for instance; univocity (a 0-1 interval) is impossible in this case. The signifier has no fixed (monological) meaning; it follows the law of permutation. Just as Saussure demonstrated with his anagrams (see Strobinski, 1971), this action of the signifier (the paragrammatic action) is what allows us to look for the signification "through a signifier torn asunder by an insistent meaning in action" (translation of Kristeva, 1969, 231). In keeping with the logic of anagrams (in the literal meaning), where the letters of one word are transposed to form another, the paragram is composed of peaks whose signification must rely on a logic of multi-determination of meaning, since it is actualized through correlation. Poetic language is not merely a locus of dynamic (paragrammatic) signification; it is also the locus for the infinite array of possible signifiers, by virtue of the freedom of combination it establishes. Poetic language is the only linguistic practice to transgress the (0-1) law, or to put it more clearly, the linear division of the sign into Sr-Sd (signifier-signified).


Consider the following paragrammatic network (analysis below) in light of Kristeva's affirmation: "the signification of poetic language evolves through relationship [...]" (translation of Kristeva, 1969a, 126).

"There are moments in existence when lousy-headed man (A), his eyes staring (B), casts wild glances (C) into the green membranes of space (D); for he thinks he hears before him the ironic hooting of a ghost (E). He staggers and bows his head; what he has heard is the voice of conscience" (translation of Lautréamont, 1953, p. 213, in Kristeva, 1998, p. 34).


In this excerpt (paragrammatic network), Lautréamont alludes to what we call "realization" in everyday language [prise de conscience, or "coming to awareness"]. However, the poetic sequence goes far beyond this simple denotation. To keep from overusing the language and at the same time make his discourse relevant, the author takes advantage of the potential infinity present in ordinary language. In poetic language, new semantic structures can develop that differ from those of ordinary language. Here, the correspondence between two classes – man and his attributes (A, B, C) and conscience/awareness [conscience] (D, E) – is what enables us to decode the message. A paragrammatic reading of the two classes (the signifying relationship between them) is how we grasp the socio-political "message". This is a dialogical relationship, where each class determines or models the signification of the other class.


"[...] the poetic image is constituted in the correlation of semic components by means of a correlational interpretation [...]" (Kristeva, 1998, 35).

By applying semic expansion to each set, we can easily see the distinctiveness of poetic language as a dialogic locus, as a paragrammatic structure that follows the principle of correlation.

Set A: "lousy-headed": body (a1), hairs (a2), flesh (a3), filth (a4), animal (a5).

Set B: "eyes staring": body (b1), tension (b2).

Set C: "wild glances": sinister (c1), fear (c2).

Set D: "green membranes of space": matter (d1), sinister (d2), abstraction (d3).

Set E: "ironic hooting of a ghost": spirit (e1), fear (e2), abstraction (e3).

Since poetic language transcends the sign's linear division (Sr-Sd), we must read its constituents (signifiers or peaks) paragrammatically. Poetic language does not match the signifier to a frozen signified, but to a (multi-determined) signification that is constantly renewed by the ties it maintains with the other signifiers. In order to read the poetic message, we must find the correlations between its semic components.

In our example, then:

b1 = a1, a2, a3
c1 = a4
c2 = b2
d1 = a1, a2, a3, b1
d2 = a4, c1
e2 = c2
e1 = d3
e2 = c2
e3 = d3


"[I]n the networks of paragrams a new meaning evolves that is autonomous from that of ordinary language" (translation of Kristeva, 1969a, 127).

To take an example, it would be pointless to discuss the meaning of set A without considering the relationships that unite the semes (that is, the semantic features that make up the signifieds) within the set or the functions relating set A to sets B, C, D and E. The signification of the poetic message exists only when we assemble the elements and read them in correlation with each other, thus building a paragrammatic structure. However – and herein lies the distinctiveness of poetic language – sometimes an equivalence is established between signifiers that are not equivalent at any fundamental linguistic level. This poetic sequence forces the reader to unite semes that are radically opposed ("body" and "abstraction", "filth" and "spirit"), and without this correlation, it is impossible to arrive at the idea of "coming to awareness" [prise de conscience] as the message. The paragram's logic provides access to a signification that can be produced only in poetic language. Poetic language is dynamic, and it creates signifying conjunctions that are conceivable only within poetic practice.

Here are the conjunctions of opposing semes in the Lautréamont excerpt:

e3 = a1, b1
e1 = a4, a5
d3 = a1, b1


BAKHTIN, M., Esthétique et théorie du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1968.
KRISTEVA, J., "Towards a Semiology of Paragrams", ed. Ffrench and Lack, The Tel Quel Reader, New York: Routledge, 1998 [1969a], p. 25-49.
KRISTEVA, J., "Word, Dialog and Novel", ed. Toril Moi, The Kristeva Reader, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 34-61.
KRISTEVA, J., "L’engendrement de la formule", Semeiotike : recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1969, p. 217-310.
LAUTRÉAMONT, Les chants de Maldoror, Paris: José Corti, 1953.
STAROBINSKI, J., Les mots sous les mots; les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure, Paris: Gallimard, 1971.


Consider the first lines of "The Potato" by Francis Ponge (Selected Poems, Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1994, p. 138).

"To peel a boiled potato of good quality is a rare treat.
Between the cushion of the thumb and the point of the knife held by the other fingers, one seizes – after piercing – one of those lips of rough, thin parchment and pulls it towards one to detach it from the appetizing flesh of the tuber.
This easy operation, when one has succeeded without too many false starts, leaves an impression of indescribable satisfaction.
The rustle the tissues make as they detach themselves is sweet to hear, and the discovery of the edible pulp delightful.»

1. Identify five signifiers that lead to a paragrammatic reading of this text, whose theme is the action of "peeling a potato".
2. Apply semic expansion to the terms you have selected.
3. Identify any equivalences that may be established between signifiers that are not equivalent at any fundamental linguistic level.

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