W. B. Warde, Jr., University of North Texas
Global Semioticsby Thomas A. Sebeok
The study of semiotics underwent a gradual but radical paradigm shift during the past century, from a glottocentric (language-centered) enterprise to one that encompasses the whole terrestrial biosphere. In this collection of 17 essays, Thomas A. Sebeok, one of the seminal thinkers in the field, shows how this progression took place. His wide-ranging discussion of
The study of semiotics underwent a gradual but radical paradigm shift during the past century, from a glottocentric (language-centered) enterprise to one that encompasses the whole terrestrial biosphere. In this collection of 17 essays, Thomas A. Sebeok, one of the seminal thinkers in the field, shows how this progression took place. His wide-ranging discussion of the evolution of the field covers many facets, including discussions of biosemiotics, semiotics as a bridge between the humanities and natural sciences, semiosis, nonverbal communication, cat and horse behavior, the semiotic self, and women in semiotics. This thorough account will appeal to seasoned scholars and neophytes alike.
"Linguist, anthropologist, semiotician, and author/editor of hundreds of articles and books on a wide range of topics, Sebeok (emer., Indian Univ.) here offers 17 chapters dealing with the worldwide emergence and development of modern semiotics. The chapter topics range from global semiotics and the evolution of semiotics to nonverbal communication and women in semiotics; the author ends with three short chapters that strike out in new directions: Estonian Connection, My 'Short Happy Life' in Finno—Ugric Studies, and Uralic Studies and English for Hungarians at Indiana University, A Personal View. This comprehensive and scholarly work is complete with 14 pages of detailed notes and a thorough 30-page reference section. The study will be of use and value to those beginning a serious study of semiotics at the graduate level and to seasoned scholars." —W. B. Warde, Jr., University of North Texas, Choice, March 2002
"Linguist, anthropologist, semiotician, and author/editor of hundreds of articles and books on a wide range of topics, Sebeok (emer., Indian Univ.) here offers 17 chapters dealing with the worldwide emergence and development of modern semiotics. The chapter topics range from global semiotics and the evolution of semiotics to nonverbal communication and women in semiotics; the author ends with three short chapters that strike out in new directions: Estonian Connection, My 'Short Happy Life' in FinnoUgric Studies, and Uralic Studies and English for Hungarians at Indiana University, A Personal View. This comprehensive and scholarly work is complete with 14 pages of detailed notes and a thorough 30-page reference section. The study will be of use and value to those beginning a serious study of semiotics at the graduate level and to seasoned scholars." W. B. Warde, Jr., University of North Texas, Choice, March 2002
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By Thomas A. Sebeok
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2001 Thomas A. Sebeok
All rights reserved.
My defense at any Last Judgement would be "I was trying to connect up and use all the fragments I was born with."
— E. M. Forster to Forrest Reid (1915)
When the player who enacted Prospero in 1611 (or thereabouts) famously recited the expression "the great globe itself" in The Tempest (act 4, scene 1), his audience was aware that the subject of Shakespeare's phrase was at least doubly denotative: planetary in its habitual, most sweeping sense, but insularly provincial in the context of that London production, pointing to the famous polygonal edifice on the south bank of the Thames that Shakespeare called the "Wooden O," wherein that actual performance was taking place: the Globe. Earlier, Hamlet had used the expression "this distracted globe" in still another indexical sense, pointing to his own skull, the seat believed to house his memory (act 1, scene 5).
The denominative adjective global is even more abundantly polysemous. Some of its further connotations which I intend to evoke are "all-encompassing," "comprehensive," "international," "limitless," "pandemic," "unbounded," "universal," and maybe "cosmic."
I have always maintained that — at least within the frame of academic semiotics — it is wise to act locally, in specific terms, but to think in a grand, holistic manner. (I like sometimes to invoke Wallace Stevens' mysterious line from "Anecdote of the Jar": "It took dominion everywhere.") And by "global semiotics" I mean first of all a network — or, to recycle an image I first used in 1975 and since then in the title of seven Yearbooks of Semiotics — a web. In the last analysis, a semiotic web — what Thomas Carlyle, in his magniloquent if mystical rhetoric, might have called organic filaments — amounts to an intricate piece of political negotiation occupying a sort of utopian space, in which personality, historical context, and academic stratagem all play determining roles. It may be appropriate to remind ourselves, as presumptive adherents of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, that the motto for a salubrious federated semiotics community is, or should be, E pluribus unum.
To anticipate near the outset my theme's mainspring, I can do no better than to share with you a pair of telling quotations from the semiotically most sensitive and profoundly discerning novel I have read in the last few years. The author is Richard Powers.
First, Powers writes: "... the world [is] awash in messages, every living thing [is] a unique signal" (1991, 86). In other words, the world is perfectly semiotic — or, in the more familiar parlance of the rex et sacerdos and tutelary spirit of twentieth-century semiotic hagiography, Charles Peirce, the universe is "perfused with signs" (Peirce 1935-66, cited hereafter as CP, 5-448n; cf. Merrell 1991). And Powers' next locution is refreshingly tantamount to an exact and true reversal of Peirce's man-sign analogy: "For every symbol is a living thing, in a very strict sense that is no mere figure of speech" (CP 2.222 ; cf. Singer 1984 and Colapietro 1989).
Second, Powers writes: "Evolution becomes ... an intricate switchboard, paths for passing signals back and forth: generation to generation, species to species, environment to creature, and back again. Life [viewed as an] exchange of mail" (1991, 251). It was Jakobson who I think first defined semiotics "as an inquiry into the communication of all kinds of messages," which are in turn composed of signs (1971, 698). But it is preferable to round out this no doubt excessively communication-centered definition to reflect the indissoluble linkage of dissemination with signification. I accordingly proposed to amplify it: "The subject matter of semiotics ... is the exchange of any messages whatsoever and of the systems of signs which underlie them ..." (Sebeok 1974a, 212).
But biologists know full well, as for instance the admirable geneticist Cairns-Smith insisted in his scientific detective story (splendidly recounted with a happy recourse to the abductive methodology of Sherlock Holmes), that it is precisely semiosis that provides the breath of animate existence, insomuch as it is precisely messages that are much our most important inheritance; messages coded in DNA render "the only connection between life now and life a million or a billion years ago. Only these messages survive over the long term, because only these messages can persist through the making of copies of copies of copies ..." (1985, 12, 28; cf. chapter 2 below), spawning an indefinite, if not infinite, temporal progression of interprétants. As for the protein, wherever it goes, it "conveys the meaning of its gene, whether to other proteins, to DNA or even to other cells, and it speaks in a language to which genes, cells, tissue and organs all respond" (Pollack 1994). Peirce, ahead of his time, was right again: "So it is only out of symbols that a new symbol can grow. Omne symbolum de symbolo. A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience, its meaning grows" (CP 2.302).
As for our novelist's fascinating simile for how the brain's courier service is powered — the "exchange of mail" he picturesquely adverts to, that is, the flow of chemical signs controlling the pattern that has become the crux of modern developmental biology (née embryology) — this too is in perfect conformity with a new scientific discovery by two pharmacologists, Peter Illes and Wolfgang Nôrenberg of the University of Freiburg, of a momentous biochemical substance. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) had hitherto been regarded purely as an energy source, but is now recognized to be a universally applicable fuel found in the body's cells, officiating to transmit messages from one neuron to another. ATP possesses all the characteristics of a real neurotransmitter (see further endnote 13, below).
Although I propose to return to the implications of these and corresponding research results in Part V below, I want to call to mind here at the inception a clearly articulated cornerstone view of Charles Morris. Morris wrote in the first few pages of his favorite book, Signs, Language and Behavior, that he believed "that basic progress in this complex field [viz., semiotic] rests finally upon the development of a genuine science of signs, and that this development can be most profitably carried on by a biological orientation ..." (1946, 4-5). I fully share this presumption and faith with my first major teacher in semiotics, who would be more pleased than astounded at the prodigious stride the life science has enjoyed overall since he wrote that sentence nearly half a century ago, and, more to the point here, the explicit blending of many branches of biology — from genetics and developmental biology to studies in animal behavior — with the sign science. This convergence is easily conceived when one realizes that the same molecules, as enzymes and other key proteins, including the genes that designate those proteins, serve as signs in every living thing from bacteria to humans, and will probably do so beyond humanity.
Too, independently of Morris, Roman Jakobson, my second maître à penser semiotically, came after 1967 to increasingly appreciate the robust biological mise en scène of the doctrine of signs; he entitled, and explored to the degree afforded at that time, this much more capacious range, "ways and forms of communication used by manifold living things" (1971, 673).
Before I proceed with my would-be irenicon, intimating secure consensus, I had better take note of two general-purpose antonyms of global, local and, worse, parochial. The latter was the opprobrious attribute Jakobson brandished against unnamed — but of course not unrecognized — fissiparous malefactors he called, in the concluding paragraph of his Dialogues with Pomorska, "sectarians." Here, in part, is how he phrased it: "As for the question of which genres of signs enter into the frame of semiotics, there can be only one answer: if semiotics is the science of signs ... then it does not exclude any sign. ... [O]ne should reject all the unsuitable efforts of sectarians who seek to narrow this vast and varied work by introducing into it a parochial spirit" (1983, 157–158).
Furthermore, I suppose the unavoidably ubiquitous oxymoron combining the two notions into a single powerful conceit, namely McLuhan's phrase "global village" (1962, 43), is worth recalling. Pejorative appellations I conjecture my title will already have viscerally triggered are "imperialistic," "totalitarian," and "megalomaniac." Perhaps some of you may want to keep these in mind as well.
To begin with, let me consider "global semiotics" in what is perhaps its most basic, pedestrian implication: the more or less systematic planetary proliferation of the doctrine of signs during the past quarter of a century and its crystallization into what looks like nothing so much as a lively guild of transnational scholarship. When the International Association for Semiotic Studies (IASS) was founded in Paris on January 21, 1969, not even the most sanguine among us foresaw the pandemic build-up of semiotic studies we are witnessing today. Now — five IASS Congresses later — there exist multifarious organizations dedicated to the regional advancement of such studies, say, in California, or in the southeastern expanse of the United States, or in Toronto, or over the five Nordic lands of Europe (Rauch and Carr eds. 1997) and in the Balkans, as well as in many separate nations. Too, semiotics these days is diffused and advanced in a concentrated and intensive manner, in a yearly cadence, in at least four extraordinary transnational forums: in Imatra (Finland), in Monterrey (Mexico), in Urbino (Italy), and at the University of San Marino.
Humble, numbing even, chronicles of this sort are impressive if only for their sheer mass and surprising diversity. I list here mainly items which were compiled or edited by myself plus, selectively, a few others explicitly documented in sources known to me first-hand. I have read published reports from or of at least the following countries, standing or lately become defunct (but do not doubt that there are sundry inadvertent omissions):
Argentina (Magarinos de Morentin 1987; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Australia (Freadman and Morris 1986; Threadgold 1988; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Austria (Lange-Seidl 1986; Bernard 1987)
Belgium (Martin 1986; Swiggers 1986, Helbo 1979a, 1987)
Brazil (Rector and Neiva 1979; Rector 1986; Braga 1990)
Bulgaria (Bernard 1989)
Canada (Brodeur and Pavel 1979; Bouissac 1986, 1987, 1988; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Chile (Gallardo and Sánchez 1986)
China (Li 1988; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Colombia (Silva 1990)
Czech Republic (Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Czechoslovakia (the former) (Osolsobé 1979)
Denmark (Johansen 1979, 1986)
Finland (Tarasti 1986; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
France (Coquet and Arrive 1979; Hénault 1986; Réthoré 1989; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Germany (Bange 1979; Lange-Seidl 1986; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Great Britain (Norris 1986)
Greece (Boklund-Lagopoulou and Lagopoulos 1986; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Hungary (Voigt 1986; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Iceland (Sigurjónsson 1989)
India (Srivastava and Kapoor 1988)
Israel (Tamir-Ghez 1978)
Italy (Ponzio 1976; Bettetini and Casetti 1986; Segre 1979; Petrilli 1993)
Japan (Toyama 1986)
Malaysia (Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Mexico (Jiménez-Ottalengo 1986; Garza Cuarón 1988)
Netherlands (Swiggers 1986; Hoek 1992; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Nigeria (Sekoni 1989)
Norway (Storelv 1986; Gorlée 1987)
Peru (Ballon 1986, 1990)
Poland (Pele 1974; Mazur 1979; Buczynska-Garewicz 1987; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Portugal (Seabra 1986)
Romania (Marcus 1979; Golopentia-Eretescu 1986; Net 1990; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Slovakia (Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
South Africa (Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Spain (Yllera 1979; González 1986; Carrascal and Romera 1987; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Sweden (Ljung 1986; Sonesson 1992)
Switzerland (Grize 1979; "Semiotics" 1986; Pellegrino 1992; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Turkey (Vardar 1979)
United States (Steiner 1978, 1979; Kevelson 1986; Sebeok 1990b, 1991e; Rauch and Carr eds. 1997)
Uruguay (Block de Behar 1987)
USSR (the former) (Lhoest 1979; Rudy 1986)
Venezuela (Carrion-Warn 1986; McCormick 1986)
Vietnam (Trinh 1989)
Yugoslavia (the former) (Skiljan and Velcic 1992)
In the aggregate, surveys like these do represent global semiotics in some tenable geopolitical sense: the underlying principles and the same elements are, after all, held in common. A few are rich in detail and convey a sense of leadership. Other subjects emerge only as blurry caricatures or talking heads in semiotic echo chambers. It would certainly be too simple to assume that the state-of-the-art accounts cited are strictly convertible. While each reporter does tell the story under the same banner, it by no means follows that "semiotics" bears ranges of reference equivalent in Iceland, say, to those in Italy, or in Finland to those in Turkey. Furthermore, the roll call is thought-provoking as well as challenging to action for its slivered perspectives or downright lacunae, for instance as regards such continents as Africa or isolates as New Zealand. Too, despite one's awareness that semiotics currently prospers in the three Baltic countries — in Latvia and Lithuania as well as of course in Estonia — comprehensive reckonings have been hard to come by since their independence. The absence of predominantly Muslim countries is likewise conspicuous, maybe in part for the same reason, although, as Waardenburg implies, there is much more to it than that. For Islam, the primary Koran and the secondary Sunna, or tradition, are "rich both in signs that hint at realities beyond the immediately given and in symbols that associate on a level of feeling and emotion the experience of different kinds of data and represent cores of patterns of meaning" (Waardenburg 1994, 392). Indeed, the Koran has been characterized as "a semiotician's paradise par excellence" (Netton 1989, 321).
In spite of such blanks, the very vastness of this inventory — after all, at issue here are semiotic activities in some forty to fifty nations — provokes a wider, more nuanced reflection, especially when contrasted with such fatiguing twentieth-century experiments in obfuscation and chaos, pomposity or trivial pursuits, as existentialism, structuralism (at least in some of its sea changes), deconstructionism, grammatology (Derrida 1968, not Gelb 1952), Marxism (notably in French literary and university milieus), Freudianism (Crews 1993, 1994), Lacanism, soi-disant cultural studies, and the like: buried one by one or, unless I am much mistaken, drooping toward extinction. To be sure, as long ago as the Milano Congress of June 1974, "semiotics" itself, in one version or another, has been declared moribund or dead by persons seemingly unable to distinguish ephemeral Parisian fads from enduring pre-Socratic practices (Kirk et al. 1983).
These compressed ruminations leave two important uncertainties which must be addressed (although not today, not in this context): what were and remain the sociohistorical impediments to the conventional academic institutionalization of semiotic studies? And is the scantiness thereof a bad thing or, as I happen to think in spite of certain anxieties this rouses, a good thing?
At our second Congress, in July of 1979, Eco discussed "the theoretical and methodological possibility of a unified historical approach to ... Semiotic Thought," envisaging diverse approaches to its consummation, the most ambitious of which was "the publication of a complete history of semiotics" (1983, 74). At the same congress, Voigt extended Eco's ideal theses by several further sound proposals of his own, arguing for a "long-distance understanding of ideas, methods and tradition of semiotics around the world" (1983, 405). And at the same venue, I likewise pleaded for "a comprehensive history of the vast semiotic adventure ... to be recorded in its full panoply" (1983, 354).
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Meet the Author
Thomas A. Sebeok is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Semiotics and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Folklore, and Uralic and Altaic Studies at Indiana University. An Honorary Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, he is also Distinguished Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Institute for Advanced Study (Collegium Budapest), a recipient of the Distinguished Service Award of the American Anthropological Association, and holder of a Professional Achievement Citation from the University of Chicago. He is author or editor of hundreds of books and articles on a wide range of topics. Among his numerous semiotics publications are The Play of Musement, A Sign is Just a Sign, and The Sign of Three (with Umberto Eco).
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