WHAT IS SEMIOTICS?

by Eugene Gorny


When people find out that I am a specialist in semiotics and that I even give lectures in this subject at the University, they always say, "tell me, what is semiotics?" In the course of time, it became clear to me that this is the normal reaction of normal people to the word "semiotics" itself. Nobody knows what semiotics is and what it deals with. (It is notable, that nobody usually asks "what does mathematics deal with?" or "what is the subject matter in biology?" The object and purpose of these disciplines seem to be clear by intuition.)

Every time as I tried to answer the question and to explain the point of the business I do, I have found that it is not easy at all. (As a rule, I simply escaped the direct answer, saying that it is something intermediary between philosophy and philology.) Gradually, I came to understanding that, in fact, I do not understand what is semiotics myself. I started to ponder on this rather surprising fact and I would like to offer the results of my meditations.

Three definitions

1

Perhaps, the most widespread, canonical definition of semiotics is the definition by subject: "Semiotics is a science of signs and/or sign systems". However, if we look more closely at this definition, a question arises: WHO establishes the difference between signs and non-signs? (Let us assume beforehand that 1) there are signs, and 2) we know WHAT the signs are.)

Long ago St. Augustine was aware of the difficulty of differentiation things from signs. First of all, we are able to know things and speak about things only with the aid of signs, that is, by replacing things with their signs (this became later a "fixed idea" of the father of modern semiotics Charles S. Pierce for whom all things turned into "things in themselves" and signs into the universal medium between human minds and the world).

On the other hand, something which is usually perceived as a sign, can in some occasions be perceived (and used) as a simple thing. For example, one can read and interpret the Bible, considering it a sacred and symbolic object but one can also to kill somebody using the Bible to hit him on the head. Sometimes people give things special meanings, transforming them into signs which can be quite insignificant to other people. Adherents of exotic religions and paranoiacs may serve as examples.

In brief, there exist a great number of conditions that determine where and when we consider or do not consider a certain thing as a sign (and vice versa). For semiotics, however, there is no actually problem of things and, correspondingly, of the thing/sign relation (although it is proclaimed as one of its basic problem). Since semiotics does not deal with non-sign reality, it is not able to resolve the issue of existence or nonexistence of anything beyond signs. Or, semiotically speaking, the non-sign is thought of as also a sign though with a purely negative content.

Therefore, semiotics is a means of considering anything as signs and sign systems. It has EVERYTHING as its object, which means that IT HAS NO OBJECT AT ALL (or, at least, no specific object of its own).

2

The second type of definition is the definition by method: "Semiotic is an application of linguistic methods to objects other than natural language." What does this mean? It means that semiotics is a way of viewing any thing as constructed and functioning similarly to language. This "similarly" is the essence of the method. Everything can be described as language (or as having a language): the system of kinship, card games, gestures and facial expressions, the culinary art, religious rituals and behavior of insects. We can see that semiotics is a transfer of the metaphor of language onto any non-linguistic (from the viewpoint of ordinary, "non-semiotic" consciousness) phenomena. One of the underlying principles of the semiotic approach is the EXTENSION OF LINGUISTIC TERMS. Thus, the method of semiotics is a consideration of anything as a metaphor of language or, to put it another way, a METAPHORICAL DESCRIPTION OF ANYTHING AS LANGUAGE.

3

There exist lots of theories that emphasize the significance of language as essential dimension of the human world. For instance, hermeneutics, which is usually opposed to semiotics, regards language (although not in such broad and vague sense as semiotics) as the "universal medium of human experience" (H.G. Gadamer). The recognition of the role of the symbolic apparatus in human activities is the working assumption in many branches of psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. However, nobody calls these sciences semiotics, and semiotics actively opposes itself to all of them as something absolutely special. What is the reason?

As I have already noted, ordinary people do not understand what semiotics deals with. When I say, "I study (or teach) semiotics," they ask me, "Really, and what is that?" Even for university students semiotics as explained in books seem something very obscure, abstruse, overfill with special terms, schemes and formulas. The practical reasons for the study of semiotics are also by no means clear and self-evident.

When asked "what is semiotics", one may certainly answer "it deals with signs and sign systems". However, this answer does not seem satisfactory even to those who make the answer.

Therefore, I would suggest another definition of semiotics, a definition by subject. Semiotics as a science is institutionalised by semioticians themselves. The token of semiotic orientation of a given work (which may be devoted to any thing) is the use of conventional semiotic terminology (sign, code, signification, semiosis, etc.) together with references to other semiotic works. Thus, the definition by subject can be as follows, "SEMIOTICS IS THAT WHICH IS CALLED SEMIOTICS BY THE PEOPLE WHO CALL THEMSELVES SEMIOTICIANS".

Three approaches

(This section is an extension of discussion presented in my essay Art as a Catalist of Spiritual Experience)

By a semiotic approach I understand an approach to the text (and every thing, regarded semiotically, is a text) which is concentrated on its sign nature and tries to explain or interpret it as a phenomenon of language. There exist, in fact, a great number of semiotically-oriented approaches. For methodological purposes they can be grouped into three general approaches according to their definition of the text and the character of its connection with meaning.

1

The first approach can be called "immanentism". Here the text is considered as an autonomous and complex, "highly organized integrity" (Lotman), as a quasi-spatial configuration created by formal relations between the elements of different orders and its levels. The formal (i.e. structure) is that which generates meaning. The relations and hierarchy of elements and levels are thought of as immanent, that is real and existing before and independently of any analytical procedure. The audience or analyst can only reveal that which is contained in the text. Such an approach has been presented most clearly by classical structuralism.

(Not only discrete texts but also the process by which they arise and function can be described as immanent Cf., for instance, the Russian Formalists' idea of the autonomy of literature; also Eco's conception of the model, or immanent reader.)

The structuralist explanation of the text is based on the following presumptions:

Being oriented to "exact sciences", structuralism tends to negate consciousness and the subject. As Ricoeur noted yet in the 60's, "the aim of structuralism is to put a distance, to objectify, to separate out from the personal equation of the investigator the structure of an institution, a myth, a rite, etc." The meaning revealed by the structural analysis is a pure order; meaning as a personal thought or meaningful experience is substituted by the thought alienated from itself in the objectivity of codes. As Ricoeur put it, "the structural thought turns out to be a thought which does not think."

2

The second approach can be called "intertextualism". Attention is transferred to the relationship between texts. The notion of the "text" itself is universalising: it is claimed more or less categorically that the whole world is a text. The elements constituting a particular text are thought of as borrowed from and referring to other texts. It is not immanent structure but Reference and Quotation that become the main subject of interest and the generators of a text's meaning. Analysis is directed not to the relations between elements within the text but to the relations between elements and their constellations within a "semiotic universum" containing in itself all real and potential texts.

Such a pan-semiotism, however, alongside the re-ontologisation of language, inevitably fails to deal with the problem of non-sign reality. As Gadamer put it: "Semantics and hermeneutics have abandoned their efforts to exceed the bounds of language as a primary form of the giveness of every spiritual experience".

The logical consequence of this is the development of the conception of the non-referential sign, i.e. a sign which refers only to other signs. (Cf. also Baudrillard's "simulacra" which are signs totally substituting reality by themselves.)

Moreover, intertextual analysis erodes the boundaries of the particular text and dissolves it in a limitless "intertextuality". This total openness of the text implies its semantic voidness. This void may be arbitrarily filled by the reader using various interpretative codes, i.e. those texts through which he reads the text. If the criteria of verification are thus dismantled, as in deconstructive thought, a crisis of truth occurs. In the loss of orientation which results from this crisis, the world-text seems to lose (its definite) sense and meaning. Unlike the structuralists, the bearers of such psychotype describe their texual practice not in terms of "science" but rather in terms of play and escape the power of language.

The whole "intertextualism" is based on the conception of culture as a reservoir of meanings interpreted in the sense of information, that is, naturally given knowledge. Therefore, the procedure of finding a formal linguistic similarity (quotations, paraphrases, etc.) allows to conclude about a similarity or identity between meanings of the compared textual segments. Culture is reduced here to "ready-made knowledge", parts of which migrate from one text to another, and this is what forms the "life" of culture.

On the level of ideology of "intertextualism" (I don't speak here about the actual practice of the investigator) the problem of UNDERSTANDING of the text (that is, a reconstruction of the subjective situation of its generation) seems to be irrelevant. Here again, as in the structuralist approach, a personal thought in the text is considered impossible: thought is always objectified in signs (quite in the spirit of Peirce's conception of "sign-mind"), and all signs are "nobody's". The right to have the own thought turns out to be an exclusive privilege of the analyst (who is, therefore, always "higher" or "more smart" than those whose texts he analyses).

3

The third approach concerns the investigation of semiosis, i.e. the problem of arising sign structures from certain non-sign or pre-sign reality. This reality has usually been identified with nature (as opposed to culture) and designated as "life", "instinct", "psyche", "desire" etc.

From Bakhtin on, cultural acts have been conceived in terms of a ceaseless interaction, a struggle or dialogue between a culture and its own otherness. Attention has shifted to the frontiers of the field of culture, and this problematisation of the boundary has characterised approaches such as psychoanalysis.

The crucial problem of this approach is the continual slippage of the non-sign which, caught up in an analytical frame, loses its identity by virtue of signification. Thus the analyst finds himself dealing with secondary, converted and culturally given forms instead of with "natural phenomena".

(As a matter of fact, the treatment of the (un)conscious as a natural phenomenon entails its objective interpretation. This means that in trying to observe the (un)conscious, we observe only its objectifications).

The Philosophical Foundations of Semiotics

Historically, semiotics has been created by the representatives of a narrow circle of scientific disciplines, first of all, of logic, mathematics, and linguistics. Positivism, in the forms of pragmatism, utilitarianism, behaviourism, etc., was shared by the fathers of semiotics as a common world-view.

What are the basic features of positivism?

In his essay Questions concerning certain faculties claimed for man Ch. S. Peirce has asserted that:

  1. we have no ability for intuition, all knowledge flows from the former knowledge,
  2. we have no ability for introspection; all knowledge about the inner world is produced by hypothetical reasoning on the basis of observation of outer things, and
  3. we cannot think without signs.

On this solid foundation he builds up his entire theory of signs. He suggests that people have not and cannot have direct access to reality. Signs are nothing else as the universal medium between human minds and the world. Since signs are not private but socially shared, it is society that establishes their meaning. Therefore, the transcendental principle in Pierce's philosophy is not intuition (even if in Decartes' sense), but community, and the criterion of truth, social consensus. Since truth is conventional, then the task of a Scientist or Philosopher is not to seek knowledge of reality as it is (because such a knowledge is impossible) but to clarify accepted ideas about it.

This idea, rediscovered by logical positivists, and reinforced by Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign, Marx' s notion of false consciousness, and Freud's conception of the unconscious, became the working basis for both structuralism and semiotics. It has remained unshakable up to our days. Even post-structuralism and deconstruction do not dare to call in question these antiquated truths.

Perhaps, positivism had been very progressive and useful for the development of the XIXth century science. The times, however, are changing and science is changing together with them. In the course of the "paradigm shift", to quote Fritjof Capra, the mechanical and positivistic view of the world has been found "to be severely limited and in need of radical revision". The main traits of the new paradigm include:

Semiotics, with its ideal of scientific objectivity, seems to remain in its initial (often implicit) premises in the frame of a world-view characteristic to yesterday's science. Exceptions are few: note, for example, the interest of late Yu.M. Lotman (broadly influenced by I. Prigogine) to unpredictability and spontaneity in history and culture, which may be regarded as an attempt to introduce the factor of consciousness (even if naturalistically treated) into the realm of semiotical thinking.

Semiotics as a State of Mind

The basic semiotical concepts are indefinable in a similar way as the basic concepts of mathematics, such as point, set, number, etc. Moreover, sign cannot be considered an initial concept because it is not elementary. It is a composite concept consisting at least of the "name", "referent", and "relation" between them. However, any study of semiotics begins with an explanation of sign as a primary object of the science.

Yuri Shreider in one of his works of the 1970's suggested to consider as initial (though also indefinable) concept of semiotics not sign but "sign situation". What it is? If semiotics has everything as its object, then the first question must be: "under which condition something is perceived as a sign, that is, semiotically?" The situation when something is perceived by somebody as a sign is called sign situation. It is evident that such situation takes place when something is perceived in its duality. As such, it characterises not so much the properties of "something" as the mental state of the perceiving "somebody".

Hence follows that semiotics is nothing else than an objectification, or self-expression, of a certain kind of mind. It is dualistic mind, or mind in the structure of duality. If we accept that reality is self-existent, that it simply is in itself and by itself, i.e. beyond duality, then semiotics is a creation and apologetic self-assertion of the blind mind, separated from reality, unable to see it as it is, without mediation, that is, of mind in the state of ignorance.

Semiotics, ontologising the "binary oppositions", can deal only with illusory, or relatively real, phenomena. It denies, or is blind to, the deeper, ultimate reality, reality as it is. The semiotic mind, which has governed the Western culture approximately the last six centuries and acts as an almost universal "censorship of understanding", cares about that what is not really real.

It is not by chance that the problems of ideology and persuasion are between the favourites for modern semiotics. Both ideology and persuasion possess the same nature as semiotics itself - they are possible only in the realm of ignorance. Only those who cannot see what and how reality is can be persuaded or manipulated. I think that such persons as, for example, the Buddha or Christ could not be manipulated at all. And it is not by chance that the "semioclastic" (i.e. intended to crush the relations of power concealed in language) endeavours of Barthes and Derrida ended in creation of very strong and aggressive ideologies. It was inevitable because semiotics is an ideology itself, imposing a narrow and exclusive world-view upon its unfortunate adepts.

The pretensions of semiotics to be an universal key lay in the main-stream of the evolution of Western science (at least, up to recent times), which has forced out the quality by the quantity, immediate seeing by "interpretation" of things, loosing its ability of clear vision and proudly ousting it by the short-sighted dogmas of "positive knowledge". Science is, of course, of great public benefit. However, as one Indian guru said, "To think is necessary but not enough. One must know to live also!" Or as one Russian philosopher said, "Such utterances as 'we live in the world of signs' or 'man live in the world of signs' are as much unreal as such utterances as 'man lives in the world of things' or 'man lives in the world of ideas'. It would be more correct to say that 'man lives in the world of choice'".

And the last question. Why semiotics is so enduring and attractive? One of the reasons, I think, is that it makes life more predictable, and, therefore, more comfortable. It acts as an effective psychological defence - defence against reality. Reality in its nakedness is too overwhelming and too dangerous for our limited egos and our cherished "fixed ideas". It is much easier to deal with it, if first it is reduced to "signs".

Tartu, 1994


The ideas found in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. No fundings or scholaships were used to produce this work.
A shortened version of this atricle was published in Creator Magazine #3, London 1995.
See also Russian version.


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