“In fact, every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior or– what amounts to the same thing–on convention. Polite formulas, for instance, though often imbued with certain natural expressiveness (as in the case of a Chinese who greets his emperor by bowing down to the ground nine times), are nonetheless fixed by rule; it is this rule and not the intrinsic value of the gesture that obliges one to use them” (854).
Saussure is speaking of a semiological system kept intact by a larger social construct. The social contract signed by the inhabitants of a linguistic community is nothing more than a structured to formulate abstract thought. The example given above indicates that the modes of expression or polite gestures are assigned by an institution, and embedded within our psyche. Therefore the Chinese who bows does this out of convention, but, at one point, was told that greeting the emperor must be done in that manner. The gesture itself, however, has value in this larger social construct. The value of bowing is also a part of a predetermined, semiological system.
So, how could one apply Saussure’s theory to literary studies? It seems as if, like language, literature is the product of a larger social construct. Literature can also be assigned value and analyzed out of convention. This certainly has been true for canonical works of literature, which are deemed valuable and necessary for the elevation of literary scholars. Ultimately, these predetermined texts within the literary community become the content of our social contract.