At the Intersection of Linguistics and Literary Criticism: Objectivist Methodology in the Creation of Metalanguage(s) in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie

Robbe-Grillet / Preston Stonephoto by Jose Lara / CC BY-SA 2.0In his essay on Robbe-Grillet, “Objective Literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet,” Roland Barthes says of objectivism in practice that objects exist “without heredity, without associations, and without references, an object rigorously confined to the order of its components and refusing with all the stubbornness of its thereness to involve the reader in an elsewhere, whether functional or substantial…The whole purpose of this author’s work, in fact, is to confer upon an object its ‘being there,’ to keep it from being ‘something’” (Howard 14). In her own analysis, Patricia Waugh in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction calls the repeated objects in Robbe-Grillet’s 1960 novel La Jalousie “clues…clues, however, to a mystery which remains mysterious. No amount of obsessive and exasperated revisiting can discover their significance” (Waugh 83).

I put forth in this essay the argument that Robbe-Grillet’s text is metafictional, though ambiguously so. Specifically, I argue Robbe-Grillet’s process of objectivism creates what can be called a ‘meta-language’ or a set of ‘meta-languages.’ In repeatedly offering up the objects, which Waugh dubs ‘clues’ because she reads the novel as a detective thriller, in service of nothing but their existence, or their being there-ness as Barthes might say, “attention,” Waugh concludes “begins to focus on … how the mystery is produced” (Waugh 83). I argue that the creation of a metalanguage or set of metalanguages, languages that take as their signifier other languages, is how said mystery is produced in La Jalousie. La Jalousie, therefore, is a novel operating at the intersection of linguistics and literary criticism.

I. Defining Objectivism and Meta-language(s)

Barthes’ essay explains that in Robbe-Grillet’s novel, objects’ “function is treacherously usurped by [their] sheer existence” in space (Howard 14). This process of objectifying or objectivism, the process that insists on drawing focus to description instead of purpose or meaning, is dubbed so because of its focus on the object itself. The objectifying process is crucially about the description of the object and necessarily leaves out its function or purpose. Barthes’ words: “[an object’s] apparent function readily makes it a part of the urban landscape or commonplace interior in which it is to be found. But the description of the object somehow exceeds its function in every case…bringing the narrative to a sudden, untimely halt and transforming a simple implement into space. [An object’s] usefulness, we discover, was merely an illusion, only its optical extension is real” (Howard 14-15). While a wine glass, for example, may exist on a table and then have wine emptied into it and then drunk from it, its function as a receptacle of wine into which one may pour and from which one may drink wine is put out of the narrative. Instead, there is only, in point of necessity, the description of the object. This process is the objectifying of the narrative space.

In the excursus left when the narrative is brought “to a sudden, untimely halt” and “usefulness, we discover, was merely an illusion” is the moment at which, in Saussurean terms, signified is separated from signifier. Barthes calls this process one of “transforming a simple implement into space” (Howard 15). There is nothing but the “visual itinerary,” Barthes argues of Robbe-Grillet (ibid. 14). The elimination of the viscerality that acquaints earlier writers’ work, the physical “tactile” existence of objects, is replaced by its description (ibid. 15). This alone could be reason enough for Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre to be a study in linguistics. His focus on description is as matter of necessity on what creates description: language. The process of description is a stacking-up of language. By eliminating from the narrative function, purpose, or meaning of objects, Robbe-Grillet divorces the signified from its signifier, foregrounding the latter. Thus, the process of objectifying is to populate a novel not with visceral objects but with the signifiers of those objects. In Barthes’ words, again, “usefulness … is an illusion, only … optical extension is real” (ibid. 15).

Simply put, metalanguage is “language about language” (Buchanan). Perhaps even this critical essay, under this sparse a definition, is made up of metalanguage. Louis Hjelmslev, however, makes a point in his general theory of language, to explicitly define this concept, which only implicitly exists for Saussure. Like Saussure and, as I argue above, Robbe-Grillet, Hjelmslev believed the language used to express the phenomenal world was arbitrarily assigned. Calling an object made of wood and graphite a pencil in English does not give it an inherent ‘pencil’-ness because it is actually called lápiz in Spanish, Bleistift in German, and crayon in French. Thus, no wood-graphite object (signified) is tied to its being called anything (signifier). Unlike Saussure, though, Hjelmslev was concerned with the connection an object (signified) has in existing in all languages (signifiers). In this general theory of language, he wanted to explain that “the reality of language usage…necessitates a more complex system than traditional linguistics provides” (Buchanan). This system, called glossematics, is a metalanguage. Metalanguage, therefore, as point of necessity has a wide definition.

Theorists after Hjelmslev, most famously Lacan, argue “there is no metalanguage” because there is no language which can be outside of language itself (Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives). However, this aphorism undermines the very foundation of linguistics. Perhaps there need be another term besides meta-language: self-referential language, language about language, linguistic language. Nonetheless, it is the operation of this essay to understand Robbe-Grillet’s use of meta-language given its existence.

II. La Jalousie

La Jalousie is not even a straight-forward name for Robbe-Grillet’s novel, itself a wordplay of the French word for “blinds,” from which we understand the narrator to be observing, let alone is Robbe-Grillet’s novel understood. Yet, the style forces the reader to recognize the process of construction, what Waugh calls an interpretive ‘code’ language (Waugh 83). Whether A… is cheating on her husband with Franck, whether someone is murdered and by whom for what reason are all mysteries left unsolved in the novel. What remains is the “visual itinerary,” an economy of descriptions of objects devoid of humanity or relation (Howard 14). These descriptions, which we have above noted are signifiers divorced from their signified, stack up to produce an effect of objectification. The impact of this effect is our focus now.

Simply put, the process of objectification prompts the creation of a metalanguage or set of metalanguages. Waugh notes that because “the reader is not offered a resolution to the enigmatic dispositions of the text … his or her attention begins to focus on how the code is constructed” (Waugh 83). The process of laying bare the objects themselves creates the separation of signifier and signified. Recall Barthes’ “space” – the moment at which the language itself is made supremely evident rather than its purpose for explaining functionality is when signified becomes separated from its signifier. At this point is the recognition of linguistics as a concept and therefore of metalanguage, language used to describe this concept. It is a process that defamiliarizes language itself and in so doing, must prompt the creation of a metalanguage to explain it. The metalanguage may actually be the entire novel itself, given that the event is prompted by the process of objectification throughout the novel. Nonetheless, I will venture to describe other metalanguages created within the text.

As a recapitulation, let us turn to Waugh’s definition of a metalanguage: “a language that functions as a signifier to another language” (Waugh 4). She also discusses, just before this, the relation between the “linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers,” saying “language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings.’ Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic, and regulated by convention” (Waugh 3). To combine these two, which she implicitly does by suggesting ‘meta’ terms explicate the relationship between the phenomenal world and the language used to signify it, meta-language is therefore an independent, self-contained system that generates its own meanings about another language, which it signifies. Its relationship to this other language is highly complex, problematic, and regulated by convention, convention established, in the case of La Jalousie, by the process of objectification.

Just before the end of the novel, there are moments when the text references passages within itself, creating a language about language. While this may be an example of Waugh’s definition of language, as it is not necessarily self-contained, I argue it is these linguistic events that, when combined with Robbe-Grillet’s method of divorcing objects from their function, are examples of metalanguage. They also fit the necessarily large definition of metalanguage: language about language.

● “She has been visiting Christiane, and Franck has brought her back. The latter is sitting in his armchair” (Howard 136).
● “The route he follows over the flagstones is apparently parallel to the wall and converges with the line of shadow when he reaches the low, round table where he carefully puts down the tray, near the novel with the shiny paper jacket. It is the latter which provides the subject for the conversation” (Howard 137).

These first two examples may seem trivial, but there are several uses of the phrase “the latter,” a phrase that is essentially relational. The function of the phrase is essentially relation in that “latter” can only be used as a reference for the last thing in a list that comes just before it. In the first quotation, “latter” is referring to Franck, as Franck is the last person in the list of people getting out of the car mentioned the sentence before. In the second quotation, “latter” is referring to the novel with the shiny paper jacket, which comes last in the list of objects on the table at the end of the line of shadow in the sentence before. While seemingly a minute and superfluous word, the term “latter” in its relationality is especially metalinguistic in that it requires other language to which it can refer. It remains metalanguage because it is a piece of language (the word itself) about language (its relational completion: the last in a list just before it). The same can be said of any internal reference in a literary text, of course. This is perhaps why Waugh adds the “self-contained” caviat to her definition of meta-language and perhaps why Lacan insists metalanguage cannot exist. However, it is because of Robbe-Grillet’s use of objectivism – a method that strips all objects of their function or relation to meaning and symbolism, divorcing them from their signified – these linguistic events that are inherently relational are metalinguistic. This is because, in presenting all objects void of their relation to function or meaning, the focus is drawn into the linguistic events themselves. As Waugh herself put it, “[the reader’s] attention begins to focus on how the code is constructed” (Waugh 83). The construction is simple: with words, using language. One such example of this language, as noted above, is the relational use of “latter.” Without the objectivist process, one may have glossed over this linguistic event in a text with much more dire focus placed instead on meaning or functionality or metaphor, yet Robbe-Grillet insists objects be without meaning or relation to function. He insists there be, as point of necessity, nothing but the description, nothing but the signifiers evacuated of their signified.

It is also worth note Robbe-Grillet’s use of the article “the” instead of “a.” In the above passages: “The novel with the shiny paper jacket,” “the tray,” “the low, round table,” “the line of shadow” (Howard 136, 137). Each of these linguistic events would seem superfluous in a text that has much more significant linguistic events like metaphors or symbolic references. Yet, in a text like Robbe Grillet’s that requires no object to have metaphoric or symbolic relation or meaning, focus is drawn instead to these other linguistic events that present a language that references intra-textual objects and thus becomes meta-linguistic.

● “A… and Franck discuss it [the novel] animatedly, while sipping the mixture of cognac and soda served by the mistress of the house in the three glasses. The main character of the Business Relationships is a customs official. This character is not an official but a high-ranking employee of an old commercial company…” (Howard 137).
● “Franck, at this point, begins to tell an anecdote about a truck of his with engine trouble. A…, as politeness demands, asks for details to prove the attention she is paying to her guest” (Howard 137).

In the above passages about the book and politeness are other examples of metalinguistic events. The novel is an intratextual object without symbolic or metaphoric meaning. One only knows the novel to be the same novel referenced other places in La Jalousie because of the article “the.” This makes ‘the’ metalinguistic in the sense that without the novel’s evacuated signified function or meaning, it is only made recognizable by the article ‘the.’ There is explanation about the events of the novel, but these remain untied to the signifier “novel” without that article. The novel remains something referenced within the text itself and something that remains indecipherable scribblings without an understanding of the process of objectification in Robbe-Grillet’s work.

The language of politeness in the second quote above is the best example of Waugh’s form of metalanguage in the Robbe-Grillet text. Politeness as an entity cannot have a metaphoric or personified ability to demand anything in La Jalousie because the word ‘politeness’ is separated from its signified by Robbe-Grillet’s process of objectification. Moreover, politeness is also itself a language with its own rules, a self-contained system with signifiers different from the language used in Robbe-Grillet’s novel or in this essay. This means that any reference to politeness in La Jalousie text is a meta-linguistic event. The ‘other language’ from Waugh’s above definition is that of politeness. One may understand ‘politeness’ as a concept in defining it. Yet, within Robbe-Grillet’s text, wherein every object is divorced from its signified, one must ask of politeness’s demands for A… These demands are understood only because of the Robbe-Grillet text, making any reference to politeness in the text metalinguistic because a reference to the rules or demands of politeness references another language.

III. Conclusion

La Jalousie functions not only as a point of inquiry for literary historians. It functions as a space for linguistic exploration. It is because of the process of objectification that there remains linguistic interest in Robbe-Grillet’s work. This process not only better shows the Saussurean notions about language that the signified and signifier are arbitrarily linked, it lays bare the process of the language construction. As a piece of metafiction, Robbe-Grillet’s text insists its readers recognize the process of linguistic deconstruction and therefore the process of writing itself. While the definition of meta-language remains open and up for debate, it is undeniable that Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre functions to serve in some way in this debate. Whether linguists, literary historians, or critical theorists, La Jalousie provides an intellectual space to problematize normative constructions and explanations of language. It is only in the holistic inquiry, therefore, of Robbe-Grillet’s work and the work of theorists like Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Waugh that language and metalanguage may be understood, developed, and created. Perhaps understanding metalanguage requires a meta-meta-language and so on ad infinitum. Nonetheless, its inquiry remains pertinent to the understanding of La Jalousie.

Works Cited

Arrivé, Michel. Linguistics and Psychoanalysis : Freud, Saussure, Hjelmslev, Lacan and others, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1992. ProQuest Ebook Central. Date Accessed 28 Oct. 2017 <>.

Buchanan, Ian. “glossematics.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010. Date Accessed 28 Oct. 2017 <>.

—. “Hjelmslev, Louis.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010. Date Accessed 28 Oct. 2017 <>.

—. “metalanguage.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010. Date Accessed 28 Oct. 2017 <>.

Howard, Richard, translator. Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet: Jealousy & In the Labyrinth. By Alain Robbe-Grillet, Grove Press, Inc., 1965.

Metalanguage: Social and Ideological Perspectives, edited by Adam Jaworski, et al., De Gruyter, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central. Date Accessed 28 Oct. 2017 <>.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Routledge, 1984.

About Preston Taylor Stone

Preston Taylor Stone is an English PhD student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, where his research centers on contemporary fiction and economics. His work has previously appeared in The Chronicle, Flash Fiction Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Poetry Quarterly. He is the Chief Editor of KAIROS Literary Magazine and Flash Fiction Editor of Crack the Spine Literary Magazine.

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