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copyright 1997, Gary Genosko.
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Sémiurgie (semiurgy) is a French neologism which came into use in the early 1970s in discourses concerned with mass mediated environments. Part sign (semi[o]-) and part work (-urgy), the concept often appears today alongside other identifying features of postmodernity, especially its purported depthlessness and nihilistic tendencies. Although numerous scholars trace its lineage to Baudrillard who, for his part, seems to have modelled it on McLuhan's concept of massage, this line of descent has been uncritically accepted and insufficiently analyzed.
I will rethink this lineage by considering the important differences
between Baudrillard and McLuhan as they concern semiurgy. Indeed, Baudrillard
was not the only thinker for whom semiurgy had descriptive valency. The
Swiss aesthetician and communications theorist René Berger - in whose work
some believe the term semiurgy first appeared - developed the concept along
a line which diverged sharply from Baudrillard's work and converged instead
with that of McLuhan.
For some postmodernists, semiurgy alone is not enough; it must be radicalised by an act of adjectival oneupmanship whose effect on the concept is pejorative. According to Kroker and Cook in The Postmodern Scene (1986: 24), sexuality has died two deaths. They attribute the first - a murder - to Michel Foucault, on whose hands no blood remained after he announced that our experience of natural sex with secretions was mediated by a discursive sexuality. The second - an unnatural or rather, sociological death - saw discursive sexuality pass away due to an irreversible and incurable postmodern condition. Henceforth, sexuality will be experienced 'as an endless semiurgy of signs: panic sex'. Panic is the psychological mood of postmodernity understood semiurgically.
Sex, then, is dead; secretions are simulated, seduction is liquidated, bodies are designed products. Sexuality is experienced through technological and mediatic representations as sign play. It is not only sexuality that is dead. If Foucault murdered natural sex, and Calvin Klein killed discursive sexuality, it is left to Baudrillard to identify the corpse of experience as such. Kroker and Cook attribute the concept of 'radical semiurgy' to Baudrillard. They derive several rather extreme consequences from this concept: there is no way out of the pure sign system of postmodernity; everything is exchangeable within the system; all experience is structured relationally, just as a sign's value is determined by its place in the system from which all value issues; there will be no extra-systemic emancipation, such as a resurrection of natural reference or a vertical ascension to Being. In these terms, experience is dead precisely because one is trapped in an endless series of exchanges, in a structural relationism. This is why they claim that the prevailing cultural mood is one of panic.
A few words on panic are in order. I have pointed out elsewhere (Genosko 1994: 113) that Kroker lacks a sense of the history of the aesthetic applications of the concept. No matter, though, since panic in a contemporary frame is merely another way of describing postmodernity in terms of a psychological disorder. In Jameson's (1983: 118ff) semiotic shorthand, the perpetual present of the postmodern moment is described by the breakdown of the interdependent relationship between signifiers leading to the loss of identity over time and, paradoxically, the intensification of experience in the present as long as it is understood that the one whose experience is under consideration lacks an identity. 'In other words,' Jameson writes, 'schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up in a coherent sequence'. Psychologically, panic is a genuine disorder understood as an acute form of anxiety. In its crisis phase panic disorder takes the form of an attack in which the familiar suddenly seems like a threat: the symptomatology includes sweating, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, unsteadiness, tingling, faintness, feelings of unreality. In short, jagged emotions and physical discomfort that are concentrated in an attack, which then subsides. A panic syndrome is indicated by two or more attacks per month, often leading to anticipatory anxiety and related phobic behavior.
Sociologically, panic has been seen as a symptom of normal problem solving, a phenomenon of collective life not at all particular to postmodernity. Panic is an analyzable breach in the everyday, an aberration subjected to a restricted understanding with a very mechanical character: panic is a response to being overwhelmed; in short, it is an adaptive response to a stimulus, usually a tragedy of some sort. In postmodern terms, panic designates the extreme character of everyday life. Panic is not limited to an aberration in an adaptive economy; rather, it is a general condition, the form of life; life is overwhelming, an emergency. Panic is, for Kroker and others, assimilated to life. It's not an irrational breach but synonymous with contemporary life lived as a catastrophe in the ruins of the end of the century. Hence, this generalization allows Kroker to apply panic to just about anything. Panic lacks specificity and shape: it is one long attack in the perpetual present, a continuous emergency. In the Panic Encyclopedia (Kroker, Kroker and Cook 1989) the alphabet serves as a delivery mechanism for the 'key psychological mood of postmodern culture'. It is a device that covers a lot of bases, in other words, and provides a readymade organisation around letters; Kroker calls the entries a collection of 'post-facts' or non-empirical descriptions, little factionalized sketches of events and things that come and go in a flash. This encycloedia is without doubt a challenge to conservative programs for cultural literacy.
Kroker and Cook advise their readers to turn to Baudrillard's first book Le systéme des objets (1968) for an account of 'radical semiurgy' in relation to the practice of consumption. Although Baudrillard does not use the term in this book, this is surely beside the point for Kroker and Cook. For the semiurgic manipulation of signs irreparably severed from their referents is akin to consumption understood as an 'activity involving the systematic manipulation of signs', as Baudrillard defined it. Signs are consumed in virtue of their abstract and systematic differences with other signs as opposed to their materiality. For example, 'functionality', Baudrillard argues, is an abstract system of manipulable signs interpolated between the materiality of objects and the materiality of needs. This is 'meta-functional' to the extent that an object has 'become an element of play, combination and calculus in a universal system of signs' (1968: 77). But for Kroker and Cook, it is not only consumption that is semiurgical since experience is subjected to the combinatorial possibilities of the code of the sign system. Charles Levin similarly explains this death of experience in the semiurgical manipulation of signs in terms of the loss of personal significance resulting from an advanced kind of fetishism in which 'objects have become increasingly closed off from human interaction in their systematic self-referential play'. This fetishism of the system as opposed to individual objects impoverishes and ultimately prevents meaningful social communication since 'the semiurgy of social objects reduces the availability of things for mediating social relations ... and assigns them to mediating systems of signs instead' (Levin 1984: 42). The relations between objects are no longer lived; such structural relations have become exterior to lived situations. The abolition of real, concrete, personal and conflictual differences between persons with the homogenisation of products and persons allows for the emergence of the cult of differentiation. Differences are industrially produced for the mass consumer market. The consumption of differences involves a strategy of personalisation requiring affiliation with an abstract model of combinatory possibilities constituting, for instance, a fashionable 'look' or adherence to a model of masculinity in which one can exclaim 'he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke the same cigarettes as me'.
The trajectory of Baudrillard's thought over the last thiry years has been away from an analysis of objects in terms of systems and structures towards objects as destiny, as pure signs or crystals; the latter are fundamentally enigmatic and inaccessible to the subject's knowledge to whom they are indifferent. The reversal - one of Baudrillard's key rhetorical figures - of the subject orientation to the object orientation has a rich tradition to draw upon from theatre and literature (Genosko 1994: 135ff). But analyses of objects have a tendency to reveal a peculiar movement toward the object pole, and Baudrillard (1987: 12-13) has acknowledged the influence of Barthes's description, suggesting the growing insignificance of the scene and the emergence of the interactive screen, of automobile design, specifically the Citroën. The tendency at issue here is the passge from the car as the prize possession to be projected upon and phantasized about - the 'little deuce coupe' - to the car as a sanctuary, a partner coordinating the exploration of various vectors in an 'uninterrupted interface', what Baudrillard calls, abandoning the imagery of speed, triumph and phallic representation, an ecology of driving.
Douglas Kellner also picks up the concept of 'radical semiurgy' in his critique of Baudrillard. He defines it in general Baudrillardian terms: 'Radical semiurgy, the production and proliferation of signs, has created a society of simulations governed by hyperreality: images, spectacles, simulations proliferate and terrorize, fascinate, and mesmerize ... ' (1987: 127-28). In particular, however, the 'Satan of radical semiurgy' - which is Kellner's name for Baudrillard's so-called 'demiurge of postmodernity' - is television. For Kellner, Baudrillard aligns semiurgy with a series of deaths (of the social, use value, Marxism, political economy, class, feminism, etc.). What does television kill? This "semiurge", a master artificer whose relationship with the demiurgic invention of evil is made explicit by Kellner, collapses critical distinctions, exhausts meaning, volatilizes reference, and blocks communication by simulating it as a response already integrated into the system - among other things. In these terms semiurgy is not only reductive but evil. It will follow for Kellner that television is also evil, and since McLuhan developed a defence of television, in courting an evil medium, he was contaminated. Television is the brush that Kellner uses to try to paint his opponents into a critical corner.
Despite their differences on many other points, Kroker and Cook, and Kellner agree that semiurgy is a key term in the 'Baudrillard scene'. Moreover, they trace this concept from Baudrillard's theorizing to the work of McLuhan. The closing of the 'eye of the flesh' first theorized by St. Augustine and much later painted by Magritte as a disembodied eye, Kroker and Cook claim, symbolizes the exteriorization of the human senses in postmodern experience. The disembodied eye turns experience inside out by trapping the body in a closed loop in which it becomes a servomechanism controlled by a digital logic and activated by media technologies. The inner relational structure of this narcissan loop is semiurgical. Kroker and Cook note that:
Baudrillard's theorization of the 'radical semiurgy' at work in the imposition of an 'image-system' as the structure of social exchange is very similar to McLuhan's conception of the 'massaging' of the ratio of the senses in a cybernetic society. (Kroker and Cook 1986: 298, n.17)
Technological extensions of human faculties (psychic or physical) demand 'new sense ratios', among other extensions, as McLuhan argued in Understanding Media and The Medium Is The Massage. Media work over the body completely, massaging it as it were, by intensifying certain faculties, diminishing others, and establishing new proportions between them. The term 'servomechanism' was used by McLuhan to describe how one relates to technologies, that is, how one narcissistically serves extensions of oneself.
McLuhan used the Narcissus myth to indicate that the beautiful youth Narcissus did not fall in love with himself, as the myth is commonly read. Rather, Narcissus fell in love with a technological extension of himself. While McLuhan recognized Narcissus's narcotic autoeroticism in relation to the nymph Echo's spurned love, he believed the youth's loss of his ability to communicate sexually may be nonetheless repaired. The thin film of water which kept Narcissus apart from his double no longer interferes with the New Narcissus's sexual relations with extensions of himself. As Donald Theall has observed, the New Narcissus 'fecundates his images, the technology that he has generated and that is changing him' (1971: 124). Despite this recognition of machinic sexual relations, Theall notes that the massage is never fully mutual because McLuhan was more interested in how one is massaged by the media, each of which has specialities which produce internal and external changes in oneself.
Kellner, too, has linked Baudrillardian semiurgy to McLuhan's focus on the form of the media, and he uses the concept of 'media semiurgy' to describe the multiple collapses toward entropy of the means by which critical distinctions are made and maintained. The media demiurge fashions new social relations and experiences out of signs freed from their concepts and referents. Kellner decries any capitulation to the power of televisual semiurgy.
Understood semiurgically, massage is unilateral and the New Narcissus will at best have to simulate a countermassage. Kroker and Cook (1986: 198, n. 17) credit John Fekete (1982) with a 'superb account of the semiurgical process in McLuhan's thought'. But Fekete's generous explication is Baudrillardian; this is certainly a far cry from his earlier comprehensive Marxist critique of McLuhan as a counterrevolutionary - 'the major bourgeois ideologue of the one-dimensional society' (1973: 121). Baudrillard's claims concerning the media's fabrication of non-communication and the prevention of response are used by Fekete (1982: 57-8) to demonstrate the analytic value of McLuhan's polysemic sense of massage. Semiurgy and massage both designate powerful forces reshaping social experience. As mass processes, they are similar; but, the effects of this processing of the masses are quite different.
Baudrillardian semiurgy is a disruptive force which traps, breaks, collapses, reduces and simulates experience and communication; it is alienating. Technological massage also can be numbing, exhausting, and bewildering, and require protective ablations. McLuhan believed that this numbing fades over time as sensitivity and awareness are regained. New shifts in sense ratios require certain perceptual displacements which are stressful, and a new sensory equilibrium results from these shifts. Understood physiologically, massage stimulates circulation; and it is supposedly emancipatory with respect to social communication, as McLuhan insisted in his description of the involvement demanded by electronic environments. Semiurgy is, however, finally involved with itself and the relations of a closed system.
In the Canadian context, the relationship between McLuhan and Baudrillard has been underlined in the work of Kroker. Kroker's own intellectual development has become the occasion for the fusion of business, performance and postmodern theory, very much in the manner of McLuhan in his prime.
In the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (CJPST) of the early 1980s, Kroker's articles (1980, 1981, 1982) were inspired by critical theory and flavoured with dashes of Foucault and even the left-liberalism of PET (Trudeau). With a significant article exposing Augustine to the winds of contemporary French sociological theory (1982a), we are introduced to a wild Augustine and an ecumenical textual practice. Lyotard (1984) would also make a similar 'foundational' claim for Augustine, but in relation to modernity rather than postmodernity. By the time this essay resurfaced in Kroker and David Cook's (1986) vision of 'excremental culture', there was no doubt that Augustine was the first link in the 'great chain of nihilation' leading up to Baudrillard. If the classicist Charles Norris Cochrane made Augustine dangerous again, and Baudrillard made Marx dangerous once more (Kroker 1985), then it would be difficult to deny that it was Baudrillard who made Kroker dangerous. Where's Marx? He doesn't come into his own until Baudrillard teases out the Nietzsche in him. Kroker does not so much read Capital as re-position it in his genealogical chain of Western nihilism. 'Dangerous' seems to signify both the renewal of the ability to intervene critically and the adoption of a manner, an attitude which jeopardizes this ability by dissolving into posturing, no matter how ironic it may understand itself to be. Where's McLuhan? Despite his affiliations with Baudrillard and, even more importantly, his place in the Catholic humanist tradition, McLuhan did not cut a nihilistic figure. The figure of McLuhan in Kroker's writings anticipates his more recent adoption as a patron saint of new media technologies.
Kroker rode out a wave of his own generation, like a wave machine in a postmodern mall, onto the beachhead of Baudrillard's challenges by means of calculated mimetic extensions of the 'multiple refusals' of the social, the subject, and emancipatory politics. The final refusal understood as an extension was to refuse Baudrillard himself:
[his] ... insight in Simulations that the "real is that which it is possible to give an equivalent re-production" is now rendered obsolescent by the actual transformations of the simulacrum with its hyperreality effects into its opposite: a virtual technology mediated with designer bodies processed through computerized imaging-systems. When technology in its ultramodernist phase connects again with the primitivism of mythic fear turned radical, it's no longer the Baudrillardian world of the simulacrum and hyperrealism, but a whole new scene of virtual technology and the end of the fantasy of the real. (Kroker and Cook 1986:15)
While in this mature nihilism we are 'bored but hyper' or, as Steven
Maras (1989: 174) puts it, this Warholian witticism 'can also mean that
we're hyper but bored': shakin' with panic. Kroker and Cook ask us to 'forget
Baudrillard' and move into a 'postmodern primitivism'. The vehicle of this
movement is none other than the 'potlatch gone postmodern', a souped-up
version of Baudrillard's lost referent of symbolic exchange. It's a high-tech
potlatch of global proportions: McLuhan inspired electric tribalism based
upon interiorisation rather exteriorisation. Kroker's McLuhanism is most
evident in his technological determinism. Virtuality contributes to a vision
of an asemiological wave, a post-symbolic splash, to tamper with Kroker's
(1984) description of McLuhan's attempt to humanize a technological field
which washes over human beings. Baudrillard lights the way for Kroker's
journey from McLuhan - a massage to an open-handed slap, from a wave to
a tsunami - to a 'tribal' virtuality. In Kroker's Technology and the
Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant, George Grant is ground to McLuhan's
figure. Using the trajectory of this study as way of situating Kroker,
one begins with the 'technological dependency' of Grant, advances to the
'technological humanism' of McLuhan, graduates to the 'technological realism'
of Harold Innis, wallows in the 'technological hyperrealism' of Baudrillard,
and soars into the 'technological virtuality' of Kroker. Here, Baudrillard
is figure to McLuhan's ground and Baudrillard is ground to Kroker's figure.
None of the aforementioned critics have focused on Baudrillard's specific use of 'semiurgy'. The concept comes into play in his essay 'Design et environnement ou l'Escalade de l'économie politique' in Pour une critique de l'économie politique du signe (1972). Indeed, the English translation of this essay heightens the sense of the semiurgical processing of human experience by rendering the consequent terms of the disjunction as 'How Political Economy Escalates Into Cyberblitz' (Baudrillard 1981: 185). Metallurgic or industrial society has mutated, Baudrillard writes, into a semiurgic society, a techno-culture or post-industrial society. During this mutation products have become objects and objects have become forms. For Baudrillard, objects are neither things nor categories. An object is a form which is neither determined specifically by the forms of the commodity nor the Saussurean sign; indeed, an object's status is not determined in relation to a subject; neither is it established by its use as an implement by means of which things in the world are worked upon. Work in metals has given way to the work of signs.
An object, then, 'is a status of meaning and a form' which is determined by its interdependent and oppositional relations with other objects. In short, an object's value is determined by the system. In Baudrillard's analysis, the system in question is the design theory of the Bauhaus school which admits of coded combinatorial possibilities following from the dictate that 'there is for every form and every object a determinate signified - its function' (Baudrillard 1972: 244-45). Baudrillard traces, in fact, the birth of the system of objects to the Bauhaus: 'It is the Bauhaus that institutes this universal semantization of the environment in which everything becomes an object of a functional calculus and signification. Total functionality. Total semiurgy' (1972: 230). In the designed environment, everything is an object; each of its elements can be mastered and manipulated (assembled and reassembled). This operational semiology or semiurgy entails the control of participation in the environment; that is, one 'participates' in the designed world by its own means and in its own terms - 'in the data processing mode', as Baudrillard puts it, 'by the circulation of signs and messages' (1972: 251). In other words, 'participation' is simulacral because it is dictated by the combinatorial possibilities of the code. Remember that simulation was a Bauhaus speciality: objects appeared to be machine-made by the most intense handicraft-based operations.
Baudrillard has had a long-standing interest in designed environments. This is evident in the conception of ambiance he developed in Le système des objets. The calculus of objects requires that one treats residential dwelling spaces as problems to be solved. Solutions are provided by interior designers with reference to abstract models that create, contradictorily, a personal arrangement or solution suitable to one's own taste. Atmosphere is a calculus of colors, materials, forms; that is, a calculated equilibrium of tones and rhythms far beyond the poetic, metaphoric and even visceral-subjective qualities of objects.
Baudrillard treats design as a meta-political economy of the sign seeking to stage 'communication' between humans and the environment by means of a proliferation of signs and messages. This project is couched in terms of restoring or healing estranged relations, but ultimately only serves to better align, in Baudrillard's estimation, and hold such participants in their places (in their abstract separateness) in the system so that what he believes to be 'genuine' communication is structurally precluded.
Baudrillard's conclusion that the meta-political economy of design has produced a 'society that has become its own environment' is precisely the point at which McLuhan arrived and advertised on one of his 'posters' in the The McLuhan Dew-Line Newsletter:
The 70's will see:
A rampage of ecological legal prosecutions for disservice environments created by old "services". This legal rampage against corporations will seem mysterious, polymorphous, perverse. In fact, it stems from the END OF NATURE, the beginning of the satellite environment. When the planet became the content of a man-made surround, it ceased to be NATURE for its occupants. It has to be programmed totally from now on. It is our oikos, our household. (McLuhan 1969d)
McLuhan delivered this piece of forecasting in 'the exalted mode', Baudrillard laments. Ecology is, in McLuhan's terms, a service environment 'beyond nature'; the planetary village is wired. This is the kind of nature Baudrillard considers to be reconstituted, like a fruit drink, as environment, by means of crystals with simulated flavours. Although in general terms Baudrillard and McLuhan may be said to share a similar understanding of environment as semiurgy and massage, Baudrillard refuses McLuhan's optimism because communication and participation in this designed universe cannot measure up to his own exalted vision of genuine communication: a reciprocal, simultaneous (immediate and unmediatized), transparent, inter-personal, incessant and agonistic exchange between persons which smashes the digital logic of the code and breaks the structure of the communication grid by injecting ambivalence (and not ambiguity) into messages.
Baudrillard was busy in the early 1970s lecturing on design to groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce in Reims, the Institut de l'environnement in Paris, and to students at Vincennes and the Äcole des Hautes Ätudes Commerciales. At the same time René Berger, a less well known reader of McLuhan, was engaged in a parallel study of the semiurgical enterprise of post-industrial society at the Université de Lausanne.
In Simuler/dissimuler, Jacques Monnier-Raball (1979) claims that the French neologism sémiurgique (in its adjectival form) was coined by Berger in his book La mutation des signes, published the same year (1972) as Baudrillard's Pour une critique. Monnier-Raball himself evokes the devalued semioscape of advertising as a kind of 'semiurgic frenzy [that] grips the city, like the devaluation of visual "money" prompts the hasty issue of new notes, as so many overdrawn cheques' (1979: 12). Pan-sémie is another of the neologist Berger's coined terms. Although it does not directly imply the overdrawn accounts of the urban semiosphere, it is not the sort of neologism which can be met, Berger observes, with an occasional smile since it designates the everyday reality of living in an environment saturated with trademarks and, in general, with commercial signs of all kinds. Berger (1977: 87) would later coin the term enseignerie by combining the word for a shop's sign (enseigne) with the gallicized term for the work of an engineer (ingénerie), retaining the latter's etymological link with engin (both instrument and ruse), in the service of designating the signs, signals and visual stimuli of the urban environment. Pan-sémie is a semio-cultural phenomenon corresponding to massification in industry and communications. Berger (1972: 406) thinks that the relationship between products and needs has been broken and reconfigured by the focus of needs, wishes and desires on the valorized representations of products.
Pan-sémie operates at the speed of advanced communications technologies and thus surpasses the relatively slow and limited circuits through which cultural traditions were disseminated. Like McLuhan, Berger held that mass mediated electric environments were poorly understood by many of those for whom such environments were commented upon critically. But speed is itself, Berger specifies, a transmitter; it 'strikes the set', to use one of McLuhan's theatrical metaphors (McLuhan 1969a), of reflective humanist pedagogues (and traditional educational institutions) who lag behind a culture which is no longer their own. Berger (1972: 298-303) praises explicitly McLuhan's critique of arguments based upon good and bad uses of the media and the somnambulism of traditional humanists for whom content is the object of knowledge.
Berger asks us to consider that signs are produced and these products themselves have in their turn products specific to the demiurges of public relations and advertising firms. Such signs are fabricated and targeted in the name of producing identification and consumption, and they are also 'products' subject to study by semiologists. Berger asks:
For how long a time will intellectuals accept professing to be semiologists when many manufacturers, admen and owners of mass media are already 'semiurgiens' [semiurgists or semiurgians] who make signs and impose them on us? (Berger 1972: 21)
No science can escape this question, Berger thinks. Reflection is indissociable from action. No change can take place until this relation is understood and pseudo-objectivity, false neutrality, and traditional conceptions of critical distance are called into question. Berger's key contribution to answering the question 'what is semiurgy?' lies in his analysis of the relationship between semiology and semiurgy or, more generally, between 'logies et/ou urgies'? (1972: 409)
On the one hand, '-logy' designates sciences (geology, semiology, et alia) in which certain phenomena (objects) are identified and incorporated into a body of knowledge. The accent is on, Berger writes, mise en forme reglée (imposition of a model); that is, on information, discourse and the comportment of the knowing subject in relation to its objects. On the other hand, '-urgy' signifies the mise en oeuvre (implementation) contained in metallurgy, demiurgy, semiurgy, et alia. Rather than a cognitive attitude, '-urgy' demands a creative intervention. Berger suggests that although '-urgies' have proliferated with the rise of the mass media to the detriment of '-logies', complementarity rather than combat should be sought between them in the face of the problematization of disciplined knowledge posed by the communications revolution with its demands for interdisciplinarity and 'involvement'.
Ultimately, for Berger 'semiology ... must be coupled with a "semiurgy" which ... participates in the production of signs, their transmission, in short, in the reality produced by signs' (1972: 412). The semiologist must become, then, a creative worker and educator; both a sign reader and maker. By contrast, this is precisely what semiology cannot become in Baudrillard's terms, since the imposition of a model in a so-called 'universal semiotic' always implies the model's anteriority and finality with regard to whatever content it may structure; semiology is operational in the sense that it is a closed system which is brutally functional. Baudrillard's virulent anti-semiological and anti-structural arguments in the end demand the destruction of the semiurgy. Berger's conception of semiology as '-urgy' (work) is closer to McLuhan's understanding of the indispensability of a 'producer-orientation', an 'artistic strategy' of making and taking, especially in mass mediated environments.
Constructive and creative variations on the theme of 'semiology' were part of the practice of the Collectif d'art sociologique in Paris in the 1970s. Although Berger cannot strictly speaking be counted among its members, his socio-semiotic interests brought him into contact with the group's founders (Fred Forest, Hervé Fischer, and Jean-Paul Thenot) in their efforts to engage French sociologists on the broad terrain of the relation between art and society. Founded in October 1974 with a Manifesto published in Le Monde, the Collectif d'art sociologique was to 'function as a reception facility [une structure d'accueil] ... for all those whose research and artistic practice have as their fundamental theme the sociological fact and the relation between art and society' (Fischer, Forest, Thenot 1975: 4). The publishing activites of the Collectif brought together McLuhan and some of his early French readers such as Morin, Berger and Jules Gritti. Gritti, for example, developed a sense of semiurgy similar to that of Berger by using Forest's conceptual art involving communications technologies such as telephones and their social effects as the occasion to pursue two lines of inquiry regarding the practice of semiology. On the one hand, a semiologist may be a semiologue who 'reconstitutes laboriously, "scientifically" ... the codes which rule over communication'; on the other hand, a semioclaste 'criticizes and denounces the ideologies which insinuate themselves into codes, adhere to them and invest themselves with a sort of constrictive necessity'. Gritti continues: 'Thus the approach which wants to be scientific searches and brings to light necessity. Does one establish or end the necessity of codes?' (Gritti in Fischer, Forest, Thenot 1975: 48) Gritti considers the work of art as a kind of 'dew line' on the frontier of previous codes, surpassing old codes by establishing new uncodified rules of interpretation. The work of art arrives in advance of cultural codes - it is literally a distance early warning system. This notion of invention on the cutting edge requires a semiurgical intervention into the existing codes which shape communication and hence, the artist qua semiurgian is a semioclaste who scrambles and rewrites the rules of aesthetic and social communication.
Recall that the neologism sémioclastie (part sign and part 'breaking') entered into circulation through Roland Barthes's use of the term in his reflection on the methodological conjunction and respective maturation of ideological criticism and semiological analysis as he practiced them in his Mythologies. Thirteen years after its original publication in 1957 (most of the little cultural sketches were written as regular columns from 1954-56 in Les lettres nouvelles), what remained for Barthes was that no criticism of the bourgeois norm could take place without an 'appropriate method of detailed analysis', and no semiological analysis could be undertaken which did not come to terms with its semioclastic elements. That is, semiology never became for Barthes a simple semioclasty, a practice which broke signs. Barthes awoke from the so-called dream of 'scientism', of a science of literature in particular, shortly after what is recognised as his final effort to scientifically ground literary analysis with the structural analysis of narrative (thus, after 1966). His ambivalence toward methodological rigor was already evident in a book of the same year Critique et vérité, in which he positioned alongside the developing science of the 'immense "sentences"' of literary works the non-scientific production of meaning called criticism and the practice borne of desire for and identification with the work, named reading. Beyond the linguistics of the sentence postulated in Critique et vérité lay for Barthes a second linguistics of discourse whose object was the language of narrative. Narrative was the object of the structuralist science of narratology, and literature was the privileged vehicle of narrative. By 1970 with the publication of S/Z, a landmark study of Honoré de Balzac's short story Sarrasine, Barthes's scientistic period had ended. Structural analysis was displaced by a gradual, textual analysis. The so-called 'second Barthes' wrote reflective and aphoristic works marked by the personal and sensual apprehension of the life of textual signs. By the time Barthes accepted the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France in 1977, semiology had become for him non-scientific and active, an artistic practice in which one savors and plays with signs as so many fictions. Although Gritti found inspiration in Barthes's reflections, the latter in the end preferred semiotrophy to semioclasty 'Turned toward the sign, semiology is captivated by and receives the sign, treats it and, if need be, imitates it as an imaginary spectacle' (Barthes 1979: 14). Barthesean semiurgy is an artistic practice which 'nourishes' signs; it is essentially playful, and follows the lead of signification rather than digging into its depths.
In Berger's work semiurgy is taken literally since it calls for involvement on the part of semiologists with the popular culture they often decode. Moreover, the mutation of signs is evidence, Berger concludes, of our own mutation, and of the necessity for dynamic, multidimensional approaches sensitive to the characteristics of each medium in today's world. For Berger in the end holds out the ideal that 'signs will shift in the direction of those who take the initiative, of those who combine power and imagination' (1972: 425). This does not mean that McLuhan would have concurred with this modified semiology since he had little use for this 'science'. McLuhan's writings animated rather than sanctioned the critical reflections which these two of his French readers directed at the interpretive edifices of semiology and structuralism. Berger's approach to semiology was enhanced positively by McLuhan's writings; Baudrillard's efforts were devoted to the destruction and transgression of semiology, while grudgingly acknowledging McLuhan's significance and rhetorically derogating his work, at least circa 1972, with such mocking references to McLuhan's 'usual Canadian-Texan brutalness' and 'McLuhan (for memory's sake)'. The relationship between Baudrillard and McLuhan is more complex than this, and it is bound up with the rhetoric of nominations for the position of the 'French McLuhan' running through the English literature on Baudrillard.
1. Panic theory owes a great deal to Arthur Kroker
and David Cook (1986) The Postmodern Scene. Montréal: New World
Perspectives and Kroker, Kroker and Cook (1989) Panic Encyclopedia. Montréal:
New World Perspectives. They seem unaware of the history of panic. On this
matter see the 'panic man' of Fernando Arrabal in my Baudrillard and
Signs (1994). Stan Fogel (1989-90) published a review of the Panic
Encyclopedia as an example of cultural post-literacy, "Panic Compendiums,"
in Borderlines 17: 40-2. On semiurgy see Charles Levin (1984) "Baudrillard,
Critical Theory and Psychoanalysis," CJPST 8/1-2: 35-53 and,
supposedly, Baudrillard (1968) Le système des objets. Paris: Gallimard.
I read panic together with schizophrenia as pathologies of the postmodern.
See also Fredric Jameson (1983) "Postmodernism and Consumer Society,"
in The Anti-Aesthetic. Seattle: Bay Press.
Back to where you left off.
2. The primary reference is to Doug Kellner (1987)
"Baudrillard, Semiurgy and Death," Theory, Culture & Society
4/1: 125-46. Kellner appreciates none of the complexity of Baudrillard's
conception of death in his theory of symbolic exchange. 'Radical semiurgy'
is also used in much the same way, but without the unacknowledged, McLuhanesque
fetishization of television, by Kroker and Cook. They prefer new information
Back to where you left off.
3. See Don Theall (1971) The Medium is the Rearview Mirror. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press; John Fekete (1982) "Message in the Mass Age: Remembering McLuhan," CJPST 6/3: 50-67.
Kroker's articles include: (1980) "Capital of Hell," CJPST
4/1: 133-46; (1981) "Life Against History," CJPST 5/3:
93-8; (1982) "The Cultural Imagination and the National Question,"
CJPST 6/1-2: 5-11; (1982a) "Augustine as the Founder of Modern
Experience: The Legacy of Charles Norris Cochrane," CJPST 6/3:
78-119. In his Tombeau de l'intellectuel et autres papiers, Lyotard
(1984: 77) referred to Augustine as 'the first modern'. Elsewhere, Lyotard
thinks of Augustine as a kind of young Hegelian; Lacan thought he was a
structuralist; others read him through deconstruction. Kroker continues
with: (1984) Technology and the Canadian Mind. Montréal: New World
Perspectives; (1985) "Baudrillard's Marx," Theory, Culture
& Society 2/3: 69-83. See also the review essay by Steven Maras
(1989) "Baudrillard and Deleuze: Re-viewing the Postmodern Scene,"
Continuum 2/2: 174-86.
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4. On environments after nature and operational semiology see Baudrillard
(1972/1981) Pour une critique de l'économie politique du signe/For a
Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign and McLuhan (1969d) "Profile
of the 70s [Poster 6]," in "The End of Steel and/or Steal: Corporate
Criminality vs. Collective Responsibility," The McLuhan Dew-Line
Newsletter 2/3 (nov.).
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5. Berger developed the concept of semiurgy around
the same time as Baudrillard. See René Berger (1972) La mutation des
signes. Paris: Denoël and (1977) "L'enseignerie," Diogène
100: 87-111. See also Jacques Monnier-Raball (1979) Simuler/dissimuler:
Essai sur les simulacres des masse. Paris: Payot.
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6. The neologisms inspired by semiotics were produced fast and furiously,
but usually with some reference to Roland Barthes.
An example is found in the writings of Jules Gritti (1975) "Une pratique
sémioclaste," in Collectif art sociologique, eds. Fischer,
Forest and Thenot. Paris: Musée Galliera. See also Gritti's (1972) earlier
"Un nouvel opium," l'Arc 50: 50-54. The opium in question
is television. The abovementioned Collective first met in 1972 and in October
1974 published its Manifesto in Le Monde.
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7. It was Barthes's questioning of his relationship
to semiology that gave impetus to McLuhan's readers to pose the question
of what participation in the life of signs actually entailed. Barthes (1966)
Critique et vérité. Paris: Editions du Seuil; (1970) S/Z.
Paris: Editions du Seuil; and (1979) "Lecture in Inauguration of the
Chair in Literary Semiology," October 8: 3-16.
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