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Critical Semiotics

Instructor: Scott Simpkins

Lecture Seven: Semiotics Based on Radical Polysemy, Structuration, and Play

Assigned Readings:

Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author," Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 142-8.

Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

Jacques Derrida, "'I have forgotten my umbrella,'" Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979): 122-143.


"There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it."
-- James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Voluntary Finitude

Although in this assertion about finite games, Carse is making a point about the necessity of being able to choose to play or not, another implication exists here as well. For, one can also choose the type of game one plays and, here, Carse is talking specifically about finite games. In this lecture, however, an alternative concern will be pursued to outline some provisional, initiating components for a semiotics geared toward what Carse identifies as infinite games. (Or what James Flanigan calls "loopy games," characterized by "the existence of repetitive cycles of moves [or loops ] or an infinitude of positions" [46].) This activity will be grounded -- un-grounded, to be more precise -- on an approach to signification that celebrates the potentially energizing effects of radical polysemy. It attempts to frame some components of an a-systemic model briefly sketched out in Lecture 5 as "semiosystemics" and conceptually based on Barthes's concept of "structuration".

Throughout these lectures I have argued that the Indiana Group's discussion of semiotics tends to promote a finite version of semiosis that will be configured here as a form of "play". In the process, the IG portrays semiosis as the ground for an ethical, epistemologically progressive version of play.

This kind of play is not much fun, though. In fact, it's more like the compulsory play that Carse repeatedly associates with non-play. "No one can play who is forced to play," he contends (4). "It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play ."

One of the more attractive components of Carse's commentary on these two contrasting game orientations is the immense empowerment characteristic of each. As he suggests, even those who choose to play a limited game demonstrate autonomous agency by doing so. Of course, the freedom for those who opt for infinite play is far more substantial -- and, in fact, different in kind. "Unlike infinite play, finite play is limited from without; like infinite play, those limitations must be chosen by the player since no one is under any necessity to play a finite game," Carse suggests. "Fields of play simply do not impose themselves on us. Therefore, all the limitations of finite play are self-limitations" (12). Such a limitation necessitates at least partially forgetting the impulse behind play, resulting in a phenomenon Carse casts negatively as "veiling". "Some self-veiling is present in all finite games," he observes. "Players must intentionally forget the inherently voluntary nature of their play, else all competitive effort will desert them" (12). (This would parallel Johan Huizinga's earlier assertion that "all play is a voluntary activity" [7].)

Signs of Play

Theorists have partitioned the phenomenon of play in numerously divergent ways that, in the end, basically reveal only the individual preferences of each investigator. The "play-concept" (Huizinga 2) is variously configured as catharsis, entertainment, relaxation, symbolic fulfillment, playing a role/pretending, flexibility (intentional slackness allowing for multiple movement), exercise, training, performance, ceremony/rite, the non-real, and even eroticism/intimacy.

There are many parallels between the situation of play in play theory and that of semiosis in sign theory. Given this connection, a close analysis of some of the contested issues regarding play may illuminate related problems in semiotics. For example, the alarmist perspective on unlimited semiosis views it as meaningless, lack of economy, noise, or simply silence. The same is true for those who cannot comprehend the possibility of a social value of play. Roger Caillois provides an illuminating account of this perspective. "A characteristic of play...is that it creates no wealth or goods, thus differing from work or art," he notes. "At the end of the game, all can and must start over again at the same point. Nothing has been harvested or manufactured, no masterpiece has been created, no capital has accrued. Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill..." (5-6). This position frames play and games as undertakings that fail to yield a constructive form of knowledge qua capital. Or, if play is seen as having some social worth, it is granted this only because it has a structure independent of the players who are thus constrained by its order.

Typically, when play is thought to possess a redeeming purpose, this worth is expressed in fuzzy, "human" needs that are difficult to quantify concretely. In part, this "indivisibility", as Huizinga calls it (175), accounts for the resistance to accepting play as a serious or constructive social semiotic practice. It often is viewed as figuratively akin to an aberrant onanism (i.e., "playing" with oneself), something an adult purportedly leaves behind in the process of maturation. Those who choose to continue engaging in play, accordingly, are thought to be somehow immature. "Play is superfluous," Huizinga claims. "The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need" (8).

Several play theorists -- I'll use Huizinga's prominent study, Homo Ludens, as a convenient illustration -- try to gauge the merit of play through the way it is conducted by a given player. Total concentration and sobriety, for example, indicate play that qualifies for inclusion as a respected undertaking within the human sciences. "The consciousness of play being 'only a pretend'," Huizinga argues, "does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome 'only' feeling" (8). (Admittedly, Huizinga [ca. 1955] didn't have the postmodern theoretical commentary that valorizes the simulacrum to draw upon regarding this issue, a development that has substantially revised the epistemological and ontological status of the constructed non-real. This is not to imply, however, that this orientation is specifically postmodern in nature. Witness Lyle Rexer's recent article in The New York Times, "Doctoring Reality to Document What's True," which describes an exhibit on anthropologists's efforts to gather photographic documentation of North Pacific people at the turn of the century. Rexer points out that the relatively primitive photographic technology at the time proved difficult to use under actual circumstances so that photographs had to be staged under better conditions to show how things actually looked. Again, this is circa 1897-1902. A photograph from the exhibit of anthropologist Franz Boas with a big grin on his face while he's helping to fabricate such a photograph dramatizes the delight that can accompany a less-than-serious form of this "play".) Huizinga's emphasis on seriousness is surely ironic, however, insofar as he privileges the one thing that arguably threatens the entire practice of play, which is often defined antithetically as the "non-serious".

Despite the difficulties involved in anatomizing play, a number of play issues can be clearly identified, and here play theory provides a host of illuminating observations for semiotics. Huizinga observes that play is often site-specific, with designated grounds delimiting an arena where one is authorized to play. (For example, the "play-ground" [10] or "play-sphere" [31].) One's sense of being within these spheres is altered as a "tension", aligned with "uncertainty" and "chanciness", is not only cultivated, but savored as integral to the experience of play (10). (Whereas, in non-play, presumably one seeks to avoid these sensations.)

In fact, one's entire being itself changes when moving from the "real", as one is suddenly transformed, "in-play" in the "play-world" (Huizinga 11). Martin Heidegger might cast this as an interpellative act, a calling-into-being within a world whose modality is grounded by play. Moreover, this isn't an isolated form of consciousness, for the player joins a larger "play-community" (12) consisting of other players involved at the time. Huizinga sums this up with his rather simplistic conceptualization of play as an

activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation that follow. (132)
(This would be similar to Caillois's sense of play as something that is "free", "separate", "uncertain", "unproductive", "governed by rules", and "unproductive" [9-10].)

The Problem of Vertigo

Rules are almost universally cited as a criterion for distinguishing between play and non-play, and the same can be said for differentiating between intelligible and unintelligible signs. "All play has its rules," Huizinga declares. "They determine what 'holds' in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt" (11). This distinction also holds for the extensive and often explicit rule-bound nature of all social intercourse. Politeness strategies (as Brown and Levinson and Janet Holmes among others have demonstrated) are just one of many illustrations of this. Like Eco's dictum about the ruled condition of openness, however, this emphasis on rules and play may be more prescriptive than descriptive, an attempt to impose a limitation on the truly generative and creative potential of play. In this respect, then, play would become domesticated like the finite scenarios that I've contended are promoted by those among the IG. It may well be, as Caillois suggests, that "rules themselves create fictions" (8).

Caillois makes a similar restrictive point when he asserts that a possible implication of this rule-binding is instrumentally theological in nature, insofar as the resulting "meaning" provides a "logical" (i.e., valorized) motive for engaging in play. "The confused and intricate laws of ordinary life are replaced, in this fixed space [of the game] and for this given time, by precise, arbitrary, unexceptionable rules that must be accepted as such and that govern the correct playing of the game," Caillois asserts (7). Rules -- and playing by the rules -- are central concerns within this perspective on play, but they can be employed in finite ways that preclude the element of "surprise" in play that seems especially important to maintain itself as play. For, while "play is free activity," Caillois points out, "it is also uncertain activity" (7). In other words, the very element which constitutes play is a requisite inability to calculate its movements with absolute certainty. "An outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result, is incompatible with the nature of play." This observation helps to explain while a totalizing structuralistic analysis of play as a form of semiotic determinacy is counter to the concept of play itself. "Mathematical theories that seek to determine with certainty, in all possible situations, which piece to move or which card to put down, are not promoting the spirit of the game but rather are destroying its reason for being" (174), Caillois observes. These analytical orientations are, he concludes, "as destructive as they are perfect."

Nonetheless, a "play attitude" toward rules typically is viewed as essential to constitute play of a socially recognized order. "Rules are inseparable from play as soon as the latter becomes institutionalized," Caillois remarks. "From this moment on they become part of its nature. They transform it into an instrument of fecund and decisive culture" (27). This is not unlike what Eco proposes in his distinction between a Work and noise. For instance, vertiginous play, which is characterized by Caillois within the larger category of this class of play as "the taste for gratuitous difficulty," is distinguished from the play aligned with games "to which, without exaggeration, a civilizing quality can be attributed." In fact, this latter form of "constructive" play "give[s] the fundamental categories of play their purity and excellence" (33) that is aligned with Huizinga's contention regarding the aesthetic capacity of play (8, 45). Caillois suggests that these games (and their accompanying types of "play") "reflect the moral and intellectual values of a culture, as well as contribute to their refinement and development" (27). He notes that this explains why certain types of games -- "wild" ones that apparently resist restraining orders -- seem to deserve their lower position within the hierarchy of play. Caillois observes that "games of vertigo, to really merit being called games, must be more precise and determinate and better adapted to their proper goal, which is to provoke a slight, temporary, and therefore pleasant disturbance of perception and equilibrium" (169). However, vertigo is considered a risky pursuit in play theory. Louis Stewart and Charles Stewart maintain that "play generates an internal tension of disequilibrium polarized around dimensions of success and failure, acceptance and rejection, etc., which inevitably evokes emotional reactions in the players" (43). This, in turn, can "incubate an emotional seizure" which leads either to a transformative effect or destroys the play in motion.

If vertigo is taken to an extreme, or becomes a commonly engaged mode of play, not only play itself, but the larger social order may be threatened. Janet Harris observes that "if play involves behavior which may be varied according to the whims of the players, then play could pose a threat to cultural stability; unlimited play within culture might even result in the destruction of culture" (30). This alarm is evidently based on the assumption that one could sacrifice the transformative element of play in order to generate greater personal pleasure as a consequence. "While play may be necessary for cultural change which arises from creative behavior," Harris notes, nevertheless, "extensive playful behavior might result in the dissolution or destruction of culture rather than in the gradual change or development of culture." Harris adds that this may account for the widespread enforcement of "normative controls upon playful behavior" (33). "Play does not appear to be completely eliminated by norms, but neither is play permitted to go unchecked and uncontrolled; play in moderation seems to be legitimated."

This desire for control appears in Carse's observation that finite games have concretely delineated "rules of play" that effectively "establish...a range of limitations on the players" (8). These limitations determine when someone can be said to be playing a given game in order to establish whether one is playing or not to begin with. Accordingly, such rules can identify conditions of entry and exit, and are characterized by consensually acknowledged perimeters consisting of time, space, and quantity (4). "It is, in fact, by knowing what the rules are that we know what the game is" (8). But, "in the narrowest sense rules are not laws;" Carse says, "they do not mandate specific behavior, but only restrain the freedom of the players, allowing considerable room for choice within those restraints" (8). These rules are also necessary prerequisites, he adds, that enable the designation of who "wins" such games.

Still, this is a hopelessly self-legitimating, and decidedly finite, form of establishing an economy of play. For, "the agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules" (Carse 8). And, again, this validity of these rules is established "only if and when players freely play by them" (8). Yet, it is important to note here that Carse is talking about finite games in this assertion, a form of playing where a player either wins or loses at the end. (With the exception of the "tie", of course.)

"Winning" is an entirely different matter for the infinite player, however.

The phenomenon of the "game" provides a type of reserve for play, a safe locale for keeping potentially threatening behavior from infecting the prescribed gravitas of "mature", everyday life. Play is thus civilized, and consequently it contributes to an enablement and even refinement of the human character. Caillois observes, for instance, that "the desire to freely respect an agreed-upon rule is essential" (168) to constructive play. In a manner quite similar to Eco's version of openness, Caillois maintains that the condition of entry for the game system presupposes self-imposed limitation. "The game consists of the need to find or continue at once a response which is free within the limits set by the rules," he says. "This latitude of the player, this margin accorded to his action is essential to the game and partly explains the pleasure which it excites" (8). A specific, game-oriented frame of mind is also essential -- not unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notion of voluntarily embracing a "willing suspension of disbelief" in order to experience a specific type of imaginative play. As Caillois suggests, to argue otherwise is to misunderstand the ostensive point of play: "The game is ruined by the nihilist who denounces the rules as absurd and conventional, who refuses to play because the game is meaningless. His arguments are irrefutable. The game has no other but an intrinsic meaning" (7).

While adhering -- freely, by choice -- to the rules of play may justify its social value for some theorists, Caillois's alternative emphasis may be of greater use for constructing an energizing model for a future semiotics. Caillois conjectures that Huizinga ignored vertiginous games

because it seems impossible to attribute a cultural or educational value to games of vertigo. The ethical creativity of limited and regulated conflict and the cultural creativity of magical games are doubted by no one. However, the pursuit of vertigo and chance is of ill repute. These games seem sterile -- if not fatal -- marks of some obscure and contagious malediction. (169)
As an alternative, Caillois proposes a process of maturation whereby the individual begins life in a vertiginous mode and eventually progresses to increasingly refined and productive forms of play characterized by an emphasis on skill, rules, discipline, consecration, transcendence, and accomplishment (28-9). (What is important about this point, I will argue later, is that Caillois allows for the transformative potential -- even to a limited degree -- of vertigo.) "The desire to overcome an obstacle can only emerge to combat vertigo and prevent it from becoming transformed into disorder or panic," he says. "It is, therefore, training in self-control, an arduous effort to preserve calm and equilibrium" (31). This kind of play "provides the discipline needed to neutralize the dangerous effects" associated with vertigo (the "emotional seizure" identified by Stewart and Stewart, etc.). To Caillois, this individual model of advancement is effected on a larger, cultural scale in the social process of "transition to civilization" (97) when a group tries to transcend "the vicious circle of simulation and vertigo" (141). This sense of progress is aligned with "winning" the finite game. Yet, this advancement comes at the cost of necessarily banning, or at least squelching, certain forms of play that would otherwise threaten this progress. Caillois adds:
Each time that an advanced culture succeeds in emerging from the chaotic original, a palpable repression of the powers of vertigo and simulation is verified. They lose their traditional dominance, are pushed to the periphery of public life, reduced to roles that become more and more modern and intermittent, if not clandestine and guilty, or are relegated to the limited and regulated domain of games and fiction where they afford men the same eternal satisfactions, but in sublimated form, serving merely as an escape from boredom or work and entailing neither madness nor delirium. (97)
Caillois describes two forms of social regimentation based on these competing models of play (i.e., progression versus regression). One involves control by a "rational" leader who strives to maintain advancement at the expense of infinite play. This figure operates as
a sovereign god presiding over contracts, exact, ponderous, meticulous, and conservative, a severe and mechanical assurance of norms, laws, and regularity, whose actions are bound to the necessarily predictable and conventional forms of agon, whether on the list in single combat and equal arms or in the praetorium interpreting the law impartially. (101-2).
This is the type of leadership espoused (albeit in radically different ways) by both Eco (as was seen in previous lectures) and Derrida (as will be seen later here). One of the obvious attractions to this play leader is that it presumes an attendant certainty. The player following this lead is always grounded -- finds sure footing on this ground -- and, therefore, never risks entering into a presumably undesirable vertigo. Vertigo is banned from this republic of play because if it is experienced, the player has necessarily passed through a condition of exit out of play. (A maddening example of this would be an adult trying to teach an impatient, short-attention-spanned child how to play an entirely rule-bound game -- checkers, for instance. The child may play along for awhile -- and thus is playing the game as a form of training, so to speak -- but inevitably the constraints are too much and child will be no longer tolerate playing by the rules. The "game", as such, is then over.)

The other form of direction is based on the control of a "charismatic" leader (the early Jean-François Lyotard, as will be seen later) who is "also a sovereign god, but inspired and terrible, unpredictable and paralyzing, esctatic [sic], a powerful magician, master of illusion and metamorphosis, frequently patron and inspiration of a troop of masked men running wild" (102). These oppositions can be illuminated by comparison with the competing orders seen in postcolonial texts such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, in which a complacent, but somewhat efficient, civilized "order" is contrasted with an energizing, but dangerous, natural "dis-order". While the charismatic leader seems more in keeping with the paradigm of infinite play, the emphasis on dominating hierarchy among the play inspired remains, hence its main deviation from infinitude. Moreover, both of these orders function as opposing -- instead of mutually supporting and integrative -- forces, which sets the dynamic of finite play (i.e., win or lose) into motion when they interact. (Lyotard's contiguous opposition to a widespread structuralistic inclination in Libidinal Economy illustrates well the unfortunate limitation of just such a defensive response.)

Arguably, the key component of Caillois's assertion about these leader orientations is revealed by his stress on the construction and maintenance of authority. This highlights the potentially threatening aspect of infinte play that has to be defused in order to posit a hierarchically progressive social model for play. Countenancing the infinite player would be tantamount to effecting the potential dissolution of this "progress". With civilization, Caillois observes,

excesses or paroxysms could no longer be the rule, nor appear as the time or sign of fortune, as an expected and revered explosion...The madman is no longer regarded as the medium of a god by whom he is possessed. He is not viewed as a prophet or healer. By common agreement, authority is allied with calm and reason, not with frenzy...For this price the city could be born and grow, men could pass from the illusory, magical, sudden, total, and vain mastery of the universe to the slow but effective technical control of natural resources. (127)
Essentially, by prohibiting vertiginous play, "heritage replaces obsession."

In an observation similar to Eco's pleas for semiosic economy, Caillois suggests that another threatening aspect of infinite play is its potentially unchecked proliferation. Vertiginous play "present[s] the disadvantages of overabundance" such as "confusion" (27).

Related to its carcinogenically unstoppable generation, infinite play also could transform the controlled dis-order proffered by Eco (as discussed in Lecture 6) into a genuine disorder. Clearly, this orientation would undermine the efforts of those who try to portray semiotics as an orderly/ordered discipline (such as those in the IG). As Caillois remarks, vertigo appears "in every happy exuberance which effects an immediate and disorderly agitation, an impulsive and easy recreation, but [it is] readily carried to excess, whose impromptu and unruly character remains its essential if not unique reason for being" (28). It is, moreover, both a physical and psychological stimulation that "one produces in oneself, by a rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness and disorder" (12). By practicing vertigo, the player "gratifies the desire to temporarily destroy his bodily equilibrium, escape the tyranny of his ordinary perception, and provoke the abdication of conscience" (44). (Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the common conception of play as "a moratorium from reality" [16])

This myopic yearning to correct a skewed development in a body of social practices can be found in part 4 of Jonathan Swift's satirical novel, Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver fails to consider the benefits of irrational, "useless" pleasures. As Gulliver tries to explain the human use of alcohol for intoxication to a member of a race of beings who are rationalists, he reveals his own incipient seduction into a narrow rationalism as he negatively frames the consumption of wine: "it was a Sort of Liquid which made us merry, by putting us out of our Senses; diverted all melancholy Thoughts, begat wild extravagant Imaginations in the Brain, raised our Hopes, and banished our Fears; suspended every Office of Reason for a Time, and deprived us of the Use of our Limbs..." (230). Like Gulliver, Caillois focuses primarily on the potential shortcomings that would result if one were to "adapt vertigo to daily life" (50). It would have to have to entail, he contends, artificially inducing vertigo through drugs and so on, which would distance the player from the defining criteria Caillois prescribes for play. (Play, he says, should consist of "brief, intermittent, calculated, and as discrete as games or successive encounters.")

For Caillois, then, vertigo is an unsustainable, life-threatening condition that can only safely and reasonably be experienced through very controlled and moderate forms of play. "Physical vertigo, an extreme condition depriving the patient of protection, is as difficult to attain as it is dangerous to experience," Caillois insists. "That is why the search for unconsciousness and distortion of perception, in order to spread into daily life, must assume forms very different from those observed on contraptions that gyrate, speed, fall, or propel and which were devised to stimulate vertigo in the closed and protected world of play" (50). Caillois expresses considerable fear about this transition, arguing that it essentially violates the principal intentions behind play. In addition to purportedly degrading and ultimately harming the vertiginous subject, this form of play also runs in opposition to the goals of progress associated with the human sciences, Caillois asserts. (Hence, his alliance with Gulliver...) To Caillois, progress involves "the development of grace, liberty, and invention, always oriented toward equilibrium, detachment, and irony and not toward the pursuit of an implacable and perhaps, in its turns, a vertiginous domination" (142).

Significantly, Caillois pairs vertigo's threat to this sense of progress with the loss of a potential accumulation of the capital of progress. (The same sort of acquisition Lyotard disdains, as will be seen later.) One cannot acquire the "wealth" derived from winning finite games (status symbols, school degrees, and other "trophies") if vertiginous play is allowed. This also manifests itself in the nomenclature used in semiotics to establish concrete evidence of systemic order (another form of capital) and the designation of competence for those who agree to a consensual view (with "acceptable" variation) of that order.

"Vertigo and simulation are in principle and by nature in rebellion against every type of code, rule, and organization" (157), Caillois argues. On the other hand, vertigo, simulation, and chance are all threats to "a world dedicated to the accumulation of wealth." Only controlled competition is beneficial within this arena. "The others are dreaded," Caillois adds. "They are regulated or even tolerated if kept within permitted limits. If they spread throughout society or no longer submit to isolation and neutralizing rules, they are viewed as fatal passions, vices, or manias" (157-8). Without this allowance progress cannot be posited. This displacement of vertigo, Caillois contends, is "the decisive and difficult leap, or the narrow door that gives access to civilization and history (to progress and to a future)" (141).

The membership within "civilization" thereby transforms those who will play along with this agreement into teamplayers. In fact, Caillois emphasizes the necessary presence and participation of other players as conditional for play itself, and undoubtedly for this reason. His contention that play requires an audience before the player can receive the greatest amount of pleasure from playing as a social act additionally certifies the communal aspect of this activity (against the presumably onanistic solitude of the infinite player mentioned earlier) (40). In finite games, "we cannot play alone," Caillois says. "In every case, we must find an opponent, and in most cases teammates, who are willing to join in play with us" (5).

For the reasons surveyed superficially so far, it is not difficult to understand how and why vertigo has achieved its bad reputation. Caillois's depiction of its effect serve well to illustrate this. He proposes that vertigo is an experience "common to diversion, turbulence, free improvisation, and carefree gaiety" (13). It is "uncontrolled fantasy" and "frolicsome and impulsive exuberance." It can be "pleasurable torture", "corresponding...more to a spasm than entertainment" (26), or even "special disorder or sudden panic" (26). Even when he describes one of its manifestations as "a pure state of transport" (31), one has to wonder if this is negatively cast (like Csikszentmihalyi's sense of a hiatus from the "real").

However, Caillois is hardly unaware of the considerable allure of vertigo. "To be sure, vertigo presupposes fear or, more precisely, feelings of panic, but the latter attracts and fascinates one; it is pleasurable," he observes. "It is not so much a question of triumphing over fear as of the voluptuous experience of fear, thrills, and shock that causes a momentary loss of self-control" (169). Yet, this panic -- despite its attractions -- cannot override its undesirable connotation, for Caillois, who sees it ultimately as an abandonment of an ostensive self-possession. "The pursuit of vertigo...consist[s] of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind," he says. "In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusquesness" (23). Still, to Caillois, the alternative (and competing) orientation away from vertiginous play is nevertheless tainted by its zealous attempt to avoid all vestiges of it. Thus, finite play entails "a growing tendency to bind [play] with arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions, to oppose it still more by ceaselessly practicing the most embarrassing chicanery upon it, in order to make it more uncertain of attaining its desired effect" (13).

Another threat to the progressive goal of finite play is the presumed goalessness aligned with infinite play. If this play has no desired end, then evidently it appears without purpose, and is therefore an empty undertaking. As Caillois maintains, "the disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake" (23). Moreover, by its very nature, vertigo can also engender negative outgrowths that could easily become dysfunctional or disruptive. Caillois contends that it issues from an "elementary need for disturbance and tumult" and a "primitive joy in destruction and upset" which "readily can become a taste for destruction and breaking things" (28). But, as I will argue here, the positive side of vertigo -- described so aptly by Caillois and others -- could offer precisely the kind of rejuvenating and electrifying catalyst to semiotics that it so often lacks. Finite play, on the other hand, like Derrida's "sure" play (to be discussed later), runs exactly contrary to the presumed goals of play.

Roland Barthes offers a flamboyant example of someone who undeniably sensed the need for an enlivening impetus for semiotics along these lines. Significantly, the relatively widespread denigration of his contribution to semiotics (several scholars have told me that, in the end, they couldn't take him "seriously") demonstrates the risk one takes when opening semiotic theory and practice to methodologies generally incompatible with institutionalization. Consider, though, what Barthes provides for the potential future growth of semiotics. (Lecture 3 develops a facet of this at length.)

In his reflection on the significative parallels within pedagogy, "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers," Barthes proposeds that "the problem is not to abolish the distinction in functions...but to protect the instability and, as it were, the giddying whirl of the positions of speech" (205-6). The identification and manipulation of textual "functions", Barthes notes, often serve as a means of cementing one's authority as a teacher, as opposed to acting as a levelling device for drawing students equally into the classroom dialogue about language. Obviously, this discussion can also extend to semiotics. Accordingly, Barthes's teacher could be considered as the encoder, and the students as decoders. Or, alternately, the text can be considered as the product of an encoder; the teacher, as the master decoder; and the students, as decoders-in-training (another form of play itself). Barthes's idea would thus be, in this last instance, to position all the elements involved equally, thereby privileging none. Barthes envisions a type of "signifiosis" in textual analysis (and its discussions) and conjectures about a critical orientation that "dismisses all meaning of the support text." This text then would "lend itself only to a signifying efflorescence" in which "one associates, one does not decipher" (207).

Infinite play would thereby be invoked as a semiotic model for this form of criticism which allows for

the right of the signifier to spread out where it will (where it can?): what law, and what meaning, and with what basis, would restrain it? Once the philological (monological) law has been relaxed and the text eased open to plurality, why stop? Why refuse to push polysemy as far as asemy? In the name of what? ("Writers" 207)
Unlike the threat posed by the vertiginous riot of infinite play, Barthes's hermeneutic would operate only as a means of extending semiosis. In effect, he imagines a condition "in which the efflorescence of the signifier would not be at the cost of any idealist counterpart, of any closure of the person" (208).

Infinite Rules

The common emphasis on rules in play/game theory serves as a useful beginning for orienting play toward its infinite register. Carse notes that while rules for finite games cannot change if one is playing that specific type of game, the situation is the reverse for infinite games. "Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries" (10). Accordingly, the infinite player considers rules as opportunities for creative responses. Knowing what the rules delimit, this player can then build upon them, constrained only by the bounds of her creativity. While this doesn't mean the infinite player is free to ignore given rules, it does mean that the play response is nonetheless generated in relation to them. The rules for infinite play are "like the grammar of a living language," Carse contends, while finite rules "are like the rules of debate" (9). Additionally, the infinite player can then create new rules based on the paradigmatic and syntagmatic orders of the existing ones. These new rules have the advantage of sharing a common system between them, thereby making them intelligible to other players despite their originality. This ongoing generativity is also necessitated by the constitutive impetus of infinite play, in that all the players sharing this inclination are mutually inspired to maintain ongoing play.

One way to guarantee this development lies in the ceaseless potential for new rules. "The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play" whenever the players "agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome" (9), Carse says. Such an outcome is aligned with the poverty of "winning" characteristic of finite play. But, "the rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play." This contention is illuminating when juxtaposed with Eco's comment about the text "winning" the game with its decoders in his conception of controlled semiosis (as discussed at the end of Lecture 6). Carse notes that there is a rule-based order for this rule changing, because not just "any rule will do" (10). From this perspective, there's no reason that infinite play should ever have to cease, with obvious exceptions. "The rules are always designed to deal with specific threats to the continuation of play," he says. "Infinite players use the rules to regulate the way they will take the boundaries of limits being forced against their play into the game itself." Therefore, the infinite player always uses rules as means for play continuation, as opposed to allowing them to constrict her play. "No limitation may be imposed against infinite play," Carse argues. "Since limits are taken into play [i.e., time, the players' energy, etc.], the play itself cannot be limited" (10).

Infinite play thus uses player input to generate ongoing cycles of play. Rather than implying that this play is chaotic and undesirably subject to the idiosyncratic whimsy of each player, this player freedom merely ensures that they are always pursuing -- if not actually generating -- new avenues of play pursuit. Infinite players, Carse adds, "are not concerned to find how much freedom is available within the given realities -- for this is freedom only in the trivial sense of playing at -- but are concerned to show how freely we have decided to place these particular boundaries around our finite play" (39). In the end, infinite play is not competitive; rather, it is "play that affirms itself as play" (54). Consequently, the concept of "rules" is given a markedly distinct sense in infinite play, serving not as communally accepted, even essentialistically determined, codes for behavior, they stand solely as provisional directives that can always (and must ) be discarded when play might otherwise be forced to conclude. Rules, then, are not abandoned in infinite play. "Infinite players have rules; they just do not forget that rules are an expression of agreement and not a requirement for agreement" (56).

One rationale for accepting the restrictive agency of rules in finite play is that it leads to the illusion of masterful apprehension. This type of "winning" thus assumes the guise of something epistemologically akin to "explanatory discourse." "All laws made use of in explanation look backward in time from the conclusion or the completion of a sequence," Carse asserts.

It is implicit in all explanatory discourse that just as there is a discoverable necessity in the outcome of past events, there is a discoverable necessity in future events. What can be explained can also be predicted, if one knows the initial events and the laws covering their succession. A prediction is but an explanation in advance. (100)
Belief in the viability of explanatory play, however, neglects the obviously inherent metaphoricity of signification in which a sign stands for something to someone. Friedrich Nietzsche illustrates this well his his essay, "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense." "If someone hides an object behind a bush, then seeks and finds it there, that seeking and finding is not very laudable: but that is the way it is with the seeking and finding of 'truth' within the rational sphere," he says (251). Nietzsche's point is that an explanatory apparatus can readily be fabricated to create the illusion of having thereby revealed a truth. To borrow an idea from Carse, this "self-veiling" can be so convincing that despite the complicity of the sign user involved, he can still actually believe that the overall analysis of a sign operation he has constructed somehow actually explains or reveals a truth. But, to paraphrase Nietzsche, this truth is an illusion that the sign user has forgotten is an illusion.

Carse employs a dichotomy that is especially apt to buttress this point. Nietzsche would have it that this “discovery” narrative is a type of myth, as opposed to a true explanation. Similarly, Carse opposes "narrative", which operates under "no general law," with "explanation" (104). While "explanation sets the need for further inquiry aside," Carse argues, "narrative invites us to rethink what we thought we knew" (105). Those who yearn for an explanatory yield are basing their desires on just such a finite desire. But infinite play constantly endeavors to keep narratives in movement because of the invigorating stimuli that they generate. "Knowledge is what successful explanation has led to; the thinking that sent us forth, however, is pure story" (139), Carse suggests. In order to maintain this form of thought, Carse proposes resonating in a story, rather than engaging in the stultifying finitude of merely repeating it (142-3).

Infinite Play

This sense of infinite play -- story versus explanation -- would be consonant with Barthes's commentary on the limitlessness of the Text (as opposed to the needless circumscription of the Work). For Barthes, the Text -- like rules for the infinite game player -- prompts endless permutations of signification, limited only by the decoder's semiosic agility. It "practises the infinite deferment of the signified, is dilatory; its field is that of the signifier and the signifier must not be conceived of as 'the first stage of meaning', its material vestibule, but, in complete opposition to this, as its deferred action " ("Work"158). He adds:
Similarly, the infinity of the signifier refers not some idea of the ineffable (the unnameable signified) but to that of a playing; the generation of the perpetual signifier...in the field of the text...is realized not according to an organic progress of maturation or a hermeneutic course of deepening investigation, but, rather, according to a serial movement of disconnections, overlappings, variation.
Stories, in effect.

Barthes's rendition of (literary, in this case) semiosis is diffuse and explosive, hardly the controlled sense of polysemy advocated as a timid radicalism by some semioticians (e.g., Eco as the champion of semoisic openness). For Barthes, such a moderately "open" sense of signification is rich only in the poorest of senses. To identify the "plural" mode of the text is "not simply to say that it has several meanings, but that it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural," Barthes says ("Work"159).

The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers.
Barthes additionally reconfigures play not in its "trivial" association, but rather, in its suggestion of incalculable movement. In fact, it is this same resistance to calculation that lends Barthes's preferred notion of play its luxurious infinitude. This resistance is not impenetrable. It is irreducible without restricting access to the decoder. Barthes contrasts the accumulation goal of finite play with the avoidance of accumulation in infinite play as indicative of the latter's desire to merely play on. "Reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text," he declares ("Work"162).
'Playing' must be understood here in all its polysemy: the text itself plays (like a door, like a machine with 'play') and the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it, but, in order that that practice not be reduced to a passive, inner mimesis (the Text is precisely that which resists such a reduction), also playing the Text in the musical sense of the term.
Despite Barthes's musing on an equal distribution of weight among everyone/-thing involved in semiosis, infinite play has seemingly dire consequences for the encoder. In part, this occurs as a counterbalancing response to a long-standing privileging of the sender as a presumably authoritative means for grounding significative certainty. (Lecture 5 addresses in greater depth some implications associated with consideration of the encoder.) This "death" may come across as gratuitously strident and needlessly restrictive -- and for good reason, since it is. It does serve, though, as a liberating impetus for expanding play by overruling the presumed "director" of signification (what Deleuze and Guattari call the "General"). In other words, while the lack of an encoder (as with an "anonymous" text, for example) would appear to hamper one's decoding of a given message, Barthes provides license that frees this undertaking from an arguably undue reliance upon an encoder.

Barthes contends that linguistics has taught us that "the whole of the enunciation is an empty process, functioning perfectly without there being any need for it to be filled with the the person of the interlocutor" ("Death"145). From a gameplay standpoint, the author functions like the originator of a game (e.g., James Naismith as the inventor of basketball). This point of origin supposedly provides a key for unlocking the transcendental signified and, by implication, may appear to reduce the perimeters of allowable play to those authorized by the encoder. Hence, the rationale behind Barthes's stress on the message's autonomy.

This, in turn, can lead to importation of semiotic ethics, as is demonstrated in the call by Eco and others for decoders to show polite deference to a reasonable array of authorial "intentions" (or authorially directed text-intentions) when interacting with texts. Barthes, on the other hand, emphatically condemns this obeisance as needless. "No vital 'respect' is due to the Text," he insists. "It can be broken...; it can be read without the guarantee of its father, restitution of the inter-text paradoxically abolishing any legacy" ("Work"161). (Similarly, it may be recalled that in S/Z, Barthes speaks of "manhandling the text, interrupting it" [15].) But, a respectful attitude toward the sign-vehicle countenances the establishment of play that is anything but infinite. To the contrary, it is needlessly limited, allowing for only a small portion of creative input by the decoder, who is never allowed to move significantly beyond the encoder's dominion. In this respect, the only participant who can win such an interpretive game is the one who plays finitely according to the rules it dictates. However, "once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile," Barthes argues ("Death" 147, emphasis added). "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well...when the Author has been found, the text is 'explained' -- victory to the critic." Barthes suggests a compelling correlation that hinges on this form of gameplay. "There is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic..."

The view that stresses the Text and infinite play, however, resists this semiotic hegemony. To Barthes, the Text "decants the work...from its consumption and gathers it up as play, activity, production, practice" ("Work"162). A form of intertextuality also appears in Barthes's conception of play. The Text is seen in this light as an infinte skein of echoes with other texts. This play expands temporally as new texts appear, ceaselessly broadening the semiosic activity of the initiating Text. The infinite play model of semiosis thus refuses to limit sign production to a restrictive playground monitored by a powerful supervisor (i.e., the encoder as sign originator). For instance, Barthes views a text as "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash" ("Death" 146). This sense of structure is actually a multiple structuration in which a given framework is posited in solely a provisional and non-privileged sense.

An especially revealing dramatization of this approach is seen in the closing paragraph of Susan Gallagher's introduction to her study, Nobody's Story, in which she frames her analyses in this fashion. "That the most popular women writers [from 1670-1820] openly link their authorship to the flickering ontological effect of signification suggests that the linking is a strategy for capitalizing on their femaleness," she writes. "I invite the reader to enjoy these constructions, savor their ironies, analyze their mechanisms, and discern their complex exigencies; I do not recommend believing in them as universal truths" (xxiv). Barthes likewise posits a sense of "writing" that "liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases -- reason, science, law" ("Death" 147). In effect, the originator (the "God" of the trandscendental signified) may be rendered dead, but only to serve instead as the instigation of a vast semiotic polytheism of variegated "stories". "In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered," he observes, "the structure can be followed, 'run' (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced..." It is always to remain, in other words, nothing but pure storytelling.

Actually, the decoder takes the place of a god in this schema Barthes has outlined, functioning as a creator limited only by her capacities as a sign user. Barthes contends that "the total existence of writing" is based on the assumption that "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation" ("Death" 148). He adds that "there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader" who functions as "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost." Of course, Barthes scandalously takes this too far and insists that such a reorientation necessitates the figurative "death" of the individual traditionally privileged in the dynamic of signification:

"to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
Perhaps a more fruitful way to rearrange this relationship could be found through a dismantling of semiotic hierarchicalization altogether, replacing it with a spatial model patterned as an infinite field of players with no designated status above or below the other players. (This would unseat both of the play "leaders" Caillois identifies.) That way, every player has the maximum amount of agency available, thereby insuring the greatest potential for openly engaged play by all the players involved. "The Text is that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confesssor, decoder" ("Work" 164), Barthes suggests.

Barthes extends his view of openness in this fashion by not only denying the overweening power of the encoder, but also that of system and structure as well. He promotes a form of decoding that

endeavours to 'see' each particular text in its difference -- which does not mean in its ineffable individuality, for this difference is 'woven' in familiar codes; it conceives the text as taken up in an open network which is the very infinity of language, itself structured without close; it tries to say no longer from where the text comes (historical criticism), nor even how it is made (structural analysis), but how it is unmade, how it explodes, disseminates - by what coded paths it goes off. ("Struggle" 126-7)
In this way, Barthes's Text is "structured but off-centred, without closure"; an open system, in other words, with "neither close nor centre" ("Work" 159). The analyses that this method generates "are not argumentations but enunciations, 'touches', approaches that consent to remain metaphorical" (156). What remains, then, is a focus solely on process. This orientation was discussed in Lecture 3 regarding Barthes's depiction of his method of analysis in "The Struggle with the Angel." He argues that he is trying to produce in this essay "not a 'result' nor even a 'method' (which would be too ambitious and would imply a 'scientific' view of the text that I do not hold), but merely a 'way of proceeding'" (127). Try to imagine the response of a finite player to this stance. Touches? A way of proceeding? It sounds as though Barthes is suggesting a leisurely ramble, a walk in the park. For such a player, the semiotician-as-flaneur will never do.

But, for the infinite player, this approach to signification would strive for an endless tracing of decoding potentials without resorting to a missionary purpose bent on uncovering the transcendental signified. Barthes offers "reading the text not in its 'truth' but in its 'production' [or elsewhere -- in its "dissemination" ("Struggle" 141)] -- which is not its 'determination'" (129). An approach like this could yield, he suggests, "vision without barriers of meanings" (134). This, of course, would similarly align with the infinite play stance toward rules, which acknowledges them as barriers without allowing them any effective sway as such. Barthes demonstrates the mindset that has to accompany a method of this design when he discusses a point of undecidability in his reading of a certain element of "cultural ambiguity" in Genesis. "No doubt the theologian would grieve at this indecision while the exegete would acknowledge it, hoping for some element of fact or argument that would enable him to put an end to it," he says. Yet, "the textual analyst, judging by my own impression, savours such friction between two intelligibilities" (131). This "friction" is like the "tension" cited in infinite play theory as the desired outcome of engagement. Barthes, then, would understandably seek additional ways to cultivate this otherwise seemingly undesirable effect. "The problem, the problem at least posed for me, is exactly to manage not to reduce the Text to a signified, whatever it may be (historical, economic, folkloristic or kerygmatic), but to hold its signifiance fully open" (141). (Elsewhere, Barthes defines "signifiance" as "meaning in its potential voluptuousness" ["Grain" 184].) "The text cannot stop," he insists. "Its constitutive movement is that of cutting across" ("Work" 157) -- or, like the game, once it "stops", a condition of exit has taken place. And, also like the game, the Text -- in Barthes's conception -- has to remain always unpredictable and never liable to analytical "consumption". As he asserts, "the Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed" (156). Or, this computation would be acceptable only if the process can be carried on indefinitely. (This would be consistent with Eco's fear, cited in Lecture 6, about the unlimited rendition of semiosis "blabbing away like a crazed computer".)

Vulnerable Play

A semiotics inclined toward multiplicty could also find a suitable model inS/Z (as discussed in Lecture 3) which is vulnerable precisely because of Barthes's unwillingness to "play" the game of conventional semiotic scholarship. Barthes, it will be recalled, declares that he is striving in that study "not to give [the text] a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it" (S/Z 5). Barthes argues that his method "avoids structuring [his analysis of] the text excessively, avoids giving it that additional structure which would come from a dissertation and would close it" (13). In effect, "it stars the text, instead of assembling it," he observes. Manfred Frank identifies the infinite play component ofS/Z quite accurately. He notes (in an observation cited earlier) that Barthes endeavors to persuasively conceptualize the Text as "a form of multiple meanings...by regarding the text as the intersection of codes often crossing and communicating with each other" (156). From this angle, "their basically open interaction is not determined by any rule that has been taken out of play." This principle of keeping all rules in play would be crucial for the hyper-inclusivity of infinite play. From this position, Barthes establishes his reading as rule-based, but by no means rule-constrained.

InS/Z , Barthes views this strategy as imperative for maintaining infinitude. "If we want to remain attentive to the plural of a text (however limited it may be)," he argues, "we must renounce structuring this text in large masses, as was done by classical rhetoric and by secondary-school explication" (11-12). He offers, instead, "no construction of the text" (12). "Everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure." Accordingly, in the course of analyzing codings of a single literary text, Barthes is simply tracing some potential reading responses without "interested" order and unnecessary privileging of any in particular. Unlike analysis by narratologists and typologists, then, Barthes's analysis assumes that "the one text is not an (inductive) access to a Model." Rather, it simply highlights an "entrance into a network with a thousand entrances..." In this way, Barthes attempts to dramatize the analytical potential of an approach that is careful to always leave in its wake "a triumphant plural, unimpoverished by any constraint of representation (or imitation)" (5).

It may be useful to recall (from the discussion in Lecture 3) Elizabeth Bruss's contention that, in Barthes's work, "it is an easy matter to find passages, fromS/Z on, that seem to celebrate the end of certainty, indeed, of meaning itself" (419). "Barthes manipulates the language of the text," she declares, "until it exposes its own hollowness and contradicts its own desire for solid and stable signs." It seems as though Bruss is citing this as a fault of Barthes's study, but this is exactly what he is "celebrating", I'd argue. Moreover, the "hollowness" and contradiction of desire Bruss laments are wholly of her own making, for Barthes projects this "end" of meaning undesirably as the ossification of a monosemous meaning. To return to this point raised earlier, a view of polysemy associated with that stance characterizes semiosis as a progress-less void of infinite sign slippage and deferred signification. Polysemy is viewed, correspondingly, as a lack of determinate/determinable meaning, a chaotic plurality of signifiers without, evidently, corresponding signifieds. This recalls the commentary on Derrida's identification of the "structuralist thematic of broken immediacy" ("Structure" 292). Derrida identifies this orientation as "the saddened, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rousseauistic side of the thinking of play." He views this as a manifestation of "sure play," which is "limited to the substitution of given and existing, present, pieces." The main preoccupation of this orientation is a fear of semiotic loss, the kind of lamentation that would find little to hope for in the unlimited semiosis of infinite play. On the other hand, Derrida argues, there is play that embraces a "Nietzschean affirmation, that is the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation." This, essentially, is also the dynamic of infinite play.

The cultivation of affirmative play was Barthes's goal, as he reveals when he contends that the response toS/Z "showed that I had succeeded, even timidly, in creating an infinite commentary, or rather a perpetual commentary" ("Interview" 140). Barthes's discussion of a "loosening method" ("Inaugural" 476) behind his analysis seems consistent with this undertaking as well. He declares, for instance, that he was endeavoring "not to manifest a structure" inS/Z , but instead "to produce a structuration" (20) that does not limit itself to thematic reductions. (Many of my students have remarked upon finishingS/Z : "That's how it ends!?") Still, that is exactly what Barthes apparently was trying to achieve. This deliberate openness ensures additional play (like the end of Alfred Hitchcock's film, "The Birds," or Julio Cortázar's novel, Hopscotch). "For those of us who are trying to establish a plural," Barthes announces inS/Z , "we cannot stop this plural at the gates of reading: the reading must also be plural, that is, without order of entrance" (15). This non-ordered, a-thematic analysis thus ensures ongoing semiosic play, refusing to close it off a given arena in exchange for the pathetic dividend of a decoding "victory".

Consistent with this plurality, Barthes posits the "ideal text" (to return to a point from Lecture 3) in which

the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we can gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable...the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language. (S/Z 5-6)
"For the plural text," he concludes, "there cannot be a narrative structure, a grammar, or a logic" (6). There can only be, in the end, an infinite structuration. And, since this is exactly the opposite strategy employed by many members of the IG, obviously this "play" leaves its practitioners open to stinging criticism for not producing the expected "yield" of finite, thematically reductive analysis.

Serious Play

Perhaps the most frequently cited shortcoming of play -- cited by its detractors, anyway -- is that it isn't serious. Some play theorists, as discussed earlier, try to forestall this claim by casting intensely focused play as, indeed, serious (albeit serious play). (In semiotics: the play of musement, etc.) But it is clear that this charge derives from a preference for a type of behavior that is presumably explanatory in effect. ("Training" would be a good illustration of this mode of play, since the trainee is not necessarily performing her task in a genuine fashion, but is learning how to do it later under actual conditions.) However, the constraint of this manifestation is surely consistent with the tame play that Derrida justly derides. Carse aligns this activity with finitude and all of its concomitant implications. "From the outset of finite play each part or position must be taken up with a certain seriousness," he observes. "In the proper exercise of such roles we positively believe we are the persons those roles portray. Even more: we make those roles believable to others" (12). Carse characterizes this sobriety as a form of false consciousness that violates what could be called the spirit of play.

To return to his conception of "self-veiling," Carse notes that "some persons may veil themselves so assiduously that they make their performance believable even to themselves" (13). And, he adds, "the issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to face the world through a mask" (13). Carse identifies a crucial component of the consensual development of discipline-specific assumptions here, as the case of the IG discussion of semiotics attests. As he remarks, group agreement on terms and concepts, for example, can lead to the illusion of "explanation" mentioned earlier. This creates a moral dilemma that becomes increasingly difficult to break free from precisely because of the considerable benefit that goes along with investing in it at increasing levels of dependence. (This would involve what Erving Goffman calls "in-deeper-ism" [83] in which the semiotician who invests his identity as such, based on finite play paradigms, risks losing it if he challenges the very conditions that produce this status.) As Carse suggests, "if no amount of veiling can conceal the veiling itself, the issue is how far we will go in our seriousness at self-veiling, and how far we will go to have others act in complicity with us" (14). It's not as though, however, that by taking this stance toward veil recognition, infinite players are morally superior to those who embrace their play with serious finitude. It's just that infinite players approach play with arguably greater awareness of the compromises that attend their preferences. As Carse maintains:

Since finite games can be played within an infinite game, infinite players do not eschew the performed roles of finite play. On the contrary, they enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness, and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully.
One particularly stultifying aspect of finite play is that its explanatory investment restricts its players from what could be called genuine creativity. This play is never completely transformative -- instead, it's merely performative in nature. "Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence" (15), Carse observes. Finite play thus always sacrifices spontaneous generativity for the certain worth that accompanies "serious" activity. To play, by no means implies that "nothing of consequence will happen." This activity, Carse suggests, draws out consequences of simply a different, yet at least equally important, nature. "When we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence." In fact, Carse argues that serious play eliminates the prospects of generating this outcome. "It is...seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility," he says. "To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself."

This "cost" is always too dear for the finite player. It is seen as a frivolous expenditure compared with acquiring solid, substantial "worth" from a game whose end is to achieve a victory. Carse identifies the emphasis on winning as a particularly detrimental characteristic of finite play. "Because the purpose of a finite game is to bring play to an end with the victory of one of the players, each finite game is played to end itself," he says (23). "The contradiction is precisely that all finite play is play against itself." To the contrary, the only victory to be achieved in infinite play is to play on, and as transformatively as possible. "The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish" (26). (On this issue, recall the commentary cited in Lecture 6 about unlimited semiosis as goal-driven despite its infinitude.)

Additionally, the infinite player constantly maintains uncertainty -- not unlike the "vulnerability" discussed earlier -- while attempting to extend play. "A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future, to prevent it from altering the past. This is the finite player in the mode of seriousness with its dread of unpredictable consequence" (18), Carse argues. "Infinite players, on the other hand, continue their play in the expectation of being surprised." While this would come across to the finite player as an uncontrolled environment, it is the embrace of disorder that guarantees non-contingent infinite play. "Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness," he contends. "It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability" (18).

"Vulnerability", in this sense, is not necessarily a safe form of this condition for the infinite player. In fact, this element serves as the energizing force behind surprising play. Infinite play exposes the player to the same kind of potential threat that an automobile driver faces in the thrilling tumult of rush-hour traffic in a large metropolitan city. The finite player, on the other hand, engages in the equivalent of driving carnival bumper cars within a secured rink for a set amount of time. And always under the half-hearted supervision of a bored carnival employee who secretly harbors the wish that, just once, some real accidents would take place to alleviate the tedium of surety.

Significantly, Carse points to a facet of infinite play that is more commonly discussed play theorists who study the instructional value of "educational" play among children (e.g., roleplaying). This type of play actually parallels the neoclassical dictum of art serving the dual purposes of both pleasing and instructing. "The infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but one's own personal past," Carse claims (18-19). Part of the transformative impetus of infinite play is generated by the necessity of group interaction. While this exchange among players is agonistic (as is also the case in finite play), by no means mediated as finite competition. It offers, in contrast, the potential for group experience which cannot be achieved alone by the individual player. Consequently, infinite play is not geared toward eliminating players through accepted stages of competition with an eye toward victory. It strives ceaselessly to draw upon whatever transformative contribution each player can give to the others, while maintaining play at all costs. "Infinite players look forward, not to a victory in which the past will achieve a timeless meaning, but toward ongoing play in which the past will require constant reinterpretation," Carse suggests. "Infinite players do not oppose the actions of others, but initiate actions of their own in such a way that others will respond by initiating their own" (31).

Carse aligns this inclination toward interactive play with the "essential fluidity of our humanness" which, he argues, is "irreconciliable with the seriousness of finite play" (38). This creates a difficult situation: "how to contain the serious within the truly playful; that is how to keep all our finite games in infinite play" (38). But, "the need to find room for playfulness within finite games" is the incorrect way to approach this need, for it produces "a kind of play that has no consequence" -- perhaps what is meant in the conventional sense of playing with no goal or progress. "Inevitably," Carse says, "seriousness will creep back into this kind of play." Anyone who has seen an entertaining game suddenly turn serious knows what this is like. (Huizinga also notes that "the play-mood is labile in its very nature. At any moment 'ordinary life' may reassert its rights either by an impact from without, which interrupts the game, or by an offence against the rules, or else from within, by a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment" [21].)

Limited Infinite Play

A suitable illustration of this irrepressible creeping seriousness appears in Derrida's essay, "'I have forgotten my umbrella.'" In his readings of a sentence from an unpublished text by Friedrich Nietzsche (consisting merely of: "I have forgotten my umbrella"), Derrida shows how a form of the infinite play like the one Carse outlines could be applied (in the vulgar sense of applying theory). But, he does so in a way that perhaps is not fully open to infinitude by virtue of its residual investment in the "theology" of finite play. Although Carse claims that infinite players can play with finite games, Derrida appears mired in finitude here in the end.

Derrida's point of entry into the system of Nietzsche's fragment consists of speculations about the sentence's uncertain ontological status. He notes that it might be a quote from someone or some other text, or may have functioned as a personal reminder for something Nietzsche wanted to recall later. "There is no infallible way of knowing the occasion of this sample or what it could have been later grafted onto," he concludes (at the beginning of his essay!). "We never will know for sure what Nietzsche wanted to say or do when he noted these words, nor even that he actually wanted anything" (123).

Even the authenticity of assessing the origin of this sentence is questionable, Derrida notes, since the proposition of anchoring this "possession" or discerning its authenticity is undeniably questionable. "It is possible that it is not Nietzsche's sentence, and this notwithstanding any confident certainty that it is indeed written in his hand." This observation leads Derrida to speculate on the authenticity of handwriting as well which, again, is vulnerable to forgery, and verifiable ironically only through the presence of the usual amount of variation in one's penmanship. (The perfect forgery thus signifies its falseness through its perfection.) The same is true, as he argues elsewhere (in "Signature Event Context"), about the status and authority of the autograph.

Let's pause to reflect on this argument as an opening strategy, for it holds considerable potential for a playful form of a progressive semiotic analysis. Derrida's introductory ambit can be seen as an attempt to rule out the possibility of his essay leading to the outcome associated with a finite game. At the same time, however, he is also playing a finite game in an infinite fashion. This is revealed when he notes that he engages two opponents in the "game" of his essay. One consists of the editors of a specific volume of Nietzsche's work who, through a footnote, attempt to classify the differing values of his unpublished texts. (The other opponent will be discussed later.) This imposition of degrees of philosophical "worth" appears to stand as the first move in this game (with the editors attributing value only to those fragments that appear to them as "over-wrought"). Derrida's counterplay is to characterize this gesture as "a monument to hermeneutic somnambulism" (125). "In blithest complacency," he adds, "every word" of these editors "obscures so well a veritable beehive of critical questions that only the minutest scrutiny could possibly recover there those questions which preoccupy us here."

While Derrida adopts the stance of accepting that one can determine the "internal and external context" (125) of Nietzsche's sentence, even that outcome would not serve to end the game. "Such a factual possibility...does not alter the fact of that other possibility which is marked in the fragment's very structure." It appears here that Derrida is playing into the editors' hands with this observation, for he utilizes a term generically complicit with that of over-wroughtness. He immediately notes, though, that "the concept of the fragment...since its fracturedness is itself an appeal to some totalizing complement, is no longer sufficient here." The pursuit of a grounding context and origin is motivated by a finite semiotics, and the alternative to this deadening project is to consider elements that are "in principle" perpetually "inaccessible". After all, locating these elements would bring semiosis to a halt. In effect, belief in context and origin is essentially aligned with limited semiosis. This belief, furthermore, is nurtured by a need for an end, for the possibility that a semblance of comprehension, or explanation, has to be attainable. Without this possibility, it would seem to the finite semiotician that one could not generate something of value through signification (similar to the concept of the low "worth" of unpublished -- or at least some unpublished -- manuscripts).

For the infinite semiotician, however, this possibility of worthlessness is accepted as simply one mode of play. While acknowledging this outcome, Derrida turns it into new play mode potentials. Although there could be "no significance at all" to the sentence, it could also harbor "some hidden secret" or stand only as "an inconsistency" on Neitzsche's part (125). "What if Nietzsche himself meant to say nothing, or at least not much of anything, or anything whatever?", Derrida asks. Or, "what if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?" (125-7). (It also could be argued that Derrida's use of rhetorical questions here emphasizes the open engagement of play he's ostensibly promoting. For, at least on the surface, they rehearse the indeterminate spirit of his approach to Nietzsche's sentence.)

Unlike Barthes, who denies the sway of the encoder over the decoder, Derrida takes this speculation on significative scenarios a step further by questioning whether the encoder here (although this could extend to all encoders) could be identified satisfactorily to begin with. "It is even possible that it is not Nietzsche's sentence" (127), Derrida adds. (Of course, one could draw upon Foucault's strategy in "What is an Author?" [discussed in Lecture 5] and simply designate an author function without worrying about its legitimacy.)

Still, this identification would not necessarily give the decoder a firm grounding for decoding. The citational plurality entailed in the release of a sign-vehicle is a similar problem, especially in this case where quotation marks draw attention to such a condition. "If one is going to suppose that this sentence is not 'his' through and through, it is hardly necessary to recall the fact that this sentence appears in quotation marks in Nietzsche's text" (127). Derrida argues that the intentional context of a given sign-vehicle cannot reliably be implanted within it, or identified with certainty once it is released into the whorl of semiosis.

Could Nietzsche have disposed of some more or less secret code, which, for him or for some unknown accomplice of his, would have made sense of this statement? We will never know. At least it is possible that we will never know and that powerlessness (impouvoir) must somehow be taken into account. Much as a trace which has been marked in what remains of this nonfragment, such an account would withdraw it from any assured horizon of a hermeneutic question. (127)
The process of reading is problematized and simultaneously each foothold becomes a compromise. This is true even for a so-called literal, commonsense assessment of language, in which simple intelligibility is not a matter of literary competence. Nevertheless, an infinite play form of intelligibility -- a provisional playing model (as opposed to a more serious, "working" model) -- can be bandied about fruitfully. "As far as the unpublished piece goes, it is indeed still a matter of reading it, its what for, or why....it passes itself off for what it passes itself off for" (127). The one thing this play resists, however, is obeisance to the tyranny of the "obvious" reading, a poor form of play that can't be denied, but also shouldn't receive privilege merely by virtue of its obviousness.
No fold, no reserve appears to mark its transparent display. In fact, its content gives the appearance of a more than flat intelligibility. Everyone knows what 'I have forgotten my umbrella' means. I have...an umbrella. It is mine. But I forgot it. I can describe it. But now I don't have it anymore. At hand. I must have forgotten it somewhere, etc. I remember my umbrella. (129)
Contrary to Foucault's employment of the author system, Derrida offers examples of a systemic approach that recalls Geoffrey Hartman's analysis of a Wordsworth poem discussed in Lecture 5. Those who share a "common belief that this unpublished piece is an aphorism of some signifiance" would look for a difficult to find meaning (131). "Assured that it must mean something, they look for it to come from the most intimate reaches of this author's thought. But in order to be so assured, one must have forgotten that it is a text that is in question, the remains of a text, indeed a forgotten text." Derrida "plays" on this notion by returning to systemic resonances of Nietzsche's sentence. It can function, in this respect, like "an umbrella perhaps. That one no longer has in hand" (131).

Or, the sentence could be played from a psychoanalytical standpoint somehow grounded plausibly on Nietzsche's "idiom", for instance, given that "the umbrella's symbolic figure is well-known, or supposedly so" (129). Thus, it can be construed as "the hermaphroditic spur (éperon ) of a phallus which is modestly enfolded in its veils, an organ which is at once aggressive and apotropaic, threatening and/or threatened." And, the direction implicit for this reasoning could be justified on the assumption that "one doesn't just happen onto an unwonted object of this sort...."

Or, the umbrella can be entertained as "the metaphor of a metapsychological concept, like the famous Reizschutz of the perception-consciousness system" (131). Moreover, this form of recollection is based on a dual operation of absence and presence. "It is not only the umbrella that is recalled but also its having been forgotten," Derrida notes. "And psychoanalysis, familiar as it is with forgetting and phallic objects, might yet aspire to a hermeneutic mastery of these remains." However, these systemic grids readily lend themselves to the abuses of finite play. Psychoanalysts, Derrida argues, "can still continue to suspect that, if these generalities were to be articulated and narrowed and the context itself thus prudently completed, they would one day be able to satisfy their interpretative expectations" (131). In addition, Derrida offers a wholly subjective play connection with the sentence. Through a personal assessment regarding potential psychoanalytical connotations, he observes: "I remind myself of my umbrella" (129). Furthermore, he adds, one could reflect on the myriad human paradoxes related to the inevitability of needing precisely what one has neglected to bring. And, moreover, the uncertainty, the surprise, the vulnerability imposed by the weather is consistent with Carse's notion of the constant variabilities of infinite play. "An umbrella is that sort of thing that, just when it is really needed, one might either have or not have any more (n'avoir plus). Or else one still has it when it is no longer needed. Simply a question of the weather at the time (of temps, time and/or weather)."

These views do not restrict the text to any set, presumably traidic movement of semiosis. Rather, they unshackle the decoding process so that it can move beyond wholly vestigial boundaries. As a result, Nietzsche's sentence remains free from the confines of a concrete and logical etiology of signification. "The remainder that is [this sentence] is not caught up in any circular trajectory. It knows of no proper itinerary which would lead from its beginning to its end and back again, nor does its movement admit of any center," Derrida says. "Because it is structurally liberated from any living meaning, it is always possible that it means nothing at all or that it has no decidable meaning" (131-3).

This form of semiosic play nevertheless does not careen off into a meaningless universe, as it is typically characterized by those who fear the apparent emptiness of unlimited semiosis. Instead, it instigates an infinite play of semiosis that attempts only to perpetuate the pleasurable transformation that its operations yield (that is, if this can be configured as a "yield" of some kind).

One must not conclude, however,...that any knowledge of [its inscrutable play] should be abandoned. On the contrary, if the structural limit and the remainder of the simulacrum which has been left in writing are going to be taken into account, the process of decoding, because this limit is not of the sort that circumscribes a certain knowledge even as it proclaims a beyond, must be carried to the furthest lengths possible. To where the limit runs through and divides a scientific work, whose very condition, this limit, thus opens it up to itself. (133)
Derrida views this "limit" as nevertheless unlimiting, a horizonal boundary that never successfully imposes itself in a totalizing fashion. "If Nietzsche had indeed meant to say something, might it not be just that limit to the will to mean, which, much as a necessarily differential will to power, is forever divided; folded and manifolded."

This conclusion leads Derrida to posit that "I have forgotten my umbrella" may have a synecdochic relationship to the "totality" of Nietzsche's work. "Which is tantamount to saying," he notes, "that there is no 'totality to Nietzsche's text,' not even a fragmentary or aphoristic one" (135). But, this contention also instigates Derrida's own frame surrounding Nietzsche's sentence, which entertains the possibility of a parodic valence for it. "Suppose...that in some way the totality which I (so to speak) have presented is also an erratic, even parodying graft. What if this totality should eventually be of the same sort as an 'I have forgotten my umbrella'?"

In keeping with this possibility, Derrida proposes an oddly playful encoding upon the fragment. He cites a fragment from Nietzsche's Joyful Wisdom -- "for we dwell ever closer to the lightning!" (135) -- which establishes his shift toward play that is as dangerous as it is exhilarating. "There is evidence here," he maintains, "to expose one, roofless and unprotected by a lightning rod as he is, to the thunder and lightning of an enormous clap of laughter." Additionally, he declares, "my discourse...has been every bit as clear as that" of Nietzsche's sentence. "You might even agree that it contained a certain ballast of rhetorical, pedagogical and persuasive qualities. But suppose anyway that it is cryptic." Derrida goes on to explore the ramifications of his contention regarding his potential possession of a secret code in his essay -- or possibly that he himself is unaware of its actual code. Or, furthermore, that no single encoder or decoder can possess the overall capacity to designate a specific code in relation to a given sign-vehicle.

In this situation, one might be tempted to side with Saussure and suggest that "one person does not make a code" (137). "To which," Derrida replies, "I could just as easily retort that the key to this text is between me and myself, according to a contract where I am more than just one." This contract is further problematized by Derrida's own mortal limit. The same would apply if a limited interpretive community of "accomplices" shared his secret. Derrida asserts that his own text is "really cryptic and parodying," yet this assertion doesn't deplete its signifying reserve. Despite his claim, one that carries with it the putative "authority" of the encoder, "the text will remain indefinitely open, cryptic and parodying." Playing again on the umbrella parallels, he concludes: "In other words, the text remains closed, at once open and closed, or each in turn, folded/unfolded (ployé/déployé), it is just an umbrella that you couldn't use (dont vous n'auriez pas l'emploi). You might just as soon forget it..."

Earlier, I mentioned that Derrida identifies two "opponents' within his self-reflective discussion. The second one comes into play after the conclusion of his essay (or, rather, to complicate an easy sense of his conclusion). In the first of two postscripts, he recounts a story that he revisited when it was brought up five years after it took place. The story involves a conversation with Roger Laporte. "During this encounter," one Derrida says he can't recall, "we found ourselves, for other reasons, in disagreement with a certain hermeneut who in passing had presumed to ridicule the publication of Nietzsche's unpublished manuscripts" (139). "'They will end up...publishing his laundry notes and scraps like "I have forgotten my umbrella",'" he had complained. Derrida claims that when discussing this encounter later, others who were present could attest that it had indeed taken place. "Thus I am assured of the story's veracity, as well as the authenticity of the facts which otherwise I have no reason to doubt. Nevertheless I have no recollection of the incident. Even today." What follows, significantly, is the date: 1.4.1973. (That Derrida is using the day-month-year form of dating is suggested by the date of his second postscript: 17.5.1973. Obviously, what Derrida is doing is framing what Gérard Genette refers to as a "paratext" (Palimpsestes 9) as part of a much larger joke: an April Fool's joke, no less. (Which, itself, is a form of decidedly finite play.)

I would like to turn from Derrida's emphasis on the lightning passage from Joyful Wisdom (which diminishes the range of play one can propose for Nietzsche's sentence) to explore another scenario also from Nietzsche that might be more consistent with his other commentary on the will to power. This will demonstrate, possibly, that by selecting and characterizing the modality of a specific passage from Nietzsche the way he does, Derrida chooses an impoverished form of play like the finite game or the leading question. In effect, Derrida's essay is a joke (as my students consistently point out with disdain), a semiotic construct with a simplistic punchline of an ending that neatly wraps up his play in the very manner that has contributed to play's low status in recent years.

The passage I have in mind appears at the end of Nietzsche's essay mentioned earlier ("On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense"). After extensive commentary on the metaphorical nature of language, Nietzsche closes his discussion by comparing two representative approaches to engaging this metaphoricity, neither of which is privileged. He establishes this dynamic by positing the oppositions of monistic views grounded either in intellect or intuition. "Man," he claims, "has an unconquerable tendency to let himself be deceived" and will remain "enchanted with happiness" while he can sustain the illusion (255).

As long as it can deceive without harm, the intellect, that master of deception, is free and released from its usual servile tasks, and that is when it celebrates its Saturnalia; never is it more luxuriant, richer, prouder, more skillful and bold. With creative nonchalance it scrambles the metaphors and shifts the boundary-stones of abstraction.
The intellect perspective happily accepts the belief that "everything contains dissimulation" because this stance seems superior to the joyless life of a transcendental idealism in which everything perspectival "contained distortion" (255). The intellect "copies human life, taking it for a good thing, and seems quite satisfied with it," Nietzsche asserts. "That enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts, to which the poor man clings for dear life, is for the liberated intellect just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices." The intellect does not harbor any false assumptions about the truth behind this undertaking. "When he smashes" this structure "apart, scattering it, and then ironically puts it together again, joining the most remote and separating what is closest, he reveals that he does not need the emergency aid of poverty, and that he is now guided not by concepts but by intuitions." Nietzsche then turns this project into a venture that fails by virtue of its necessary limitations of conceptual investment:
From these intuitions no regular road leads to the land of ghostly schemata, of abstractions. The world is not made for these intuitions; man falls silent when he sees them, or he speaks in sheer forbidden metaphors and unheard of conceptual compounds, in order at least by smashing and scorning the old conceptual barricades to correspond creatively to the impressions of the mighty present intuition. (255-6)
Does the man of intellect, then, the one who stands "in fear of intuition," find solace over the man of intuition, who stands in "mockery for abstraction"? ("The latter being just as unreasonable as the former is unartistic" [256].) "Both desire to master life," he adds. One does so "by managing to meet his main needs with foresight, prudence, reliability." The other accomplishes this mastery "as an 'overjoyous' hero, by not seeing those needs and considering only life, disguised as illusion and beauty, to be real."

For Nietzsche, both of these figures fail in a sense because they refuse to acknowledge the benefits of a mediated rendition of their views of reality. In the case of the man of intellect, the world has to exist as an ideal manifestation separate from what is only insufficiently perceived, and thus any perception always has to be warily gauged by the extent to which this action may alter his apprehension of the actual world. Thus, "the man guided by concepts and abstractions merely wards off misfortune by means of them, without extracting happiness for himself from them as he seeks the greatest freedom from pain" (256). The intuitive man, on the contrary, views the world as only the result of perception, and not materially present itself, so whatever "real" that attempts to impose itself upon his consciousness has to be treated as something wholly at the disposal of his perceptions. This man, "standing in the midst of culture, in addition to warding off harm, reaps from his intuitions a continuously streaming clarification, cheerfulness, redemption," Nietzsche contends. "Of course, he suffers more violently when he does suffer; indeed, he also suffers more often, because he does not know how to learn from experience and he falls again and again into the same pit into which he fell before." Accordingly, the intuitive man is "just as unreasonable in sorrow as in happiness; he cries out loudly and cannot be consoled."

Nietzsche shifts terms here, so it is difficult to discern whether he is continuing this comparison (which seems to be the case) or is introducing a third figure. But enough parallels between the earlier discussion and the latter one suggest he is still comparing the intellectual man with the intuitive man who is condemned to repeat his mistakes, since they are an integral part of his ontology. However, in times of strife, "the stoic person" -- by which Nietzsche evidently means the man of intellect -- "has learned from experience and controls himself by reason" (256). Through repeated -- and repeatedly frustrated -- testing of his world around him, he resigns himself to remaining unable to change it in any substantial way (significantly, including changing his perception of it). As a result, he merely suffers it to remain as it is -- beyond his agency.

While the man of intellect typically "seeks only honesty, truth, freedom from delusions, and protection from enthralling seizures," when he falls upon hard times, he engages in a strategy remarkably similar to that of the intuitive man. He "produces a masterpiece of dissimulation" himself (as he did, Nietzsche notes, in times of happiness as well) (256). "He does not wear a quivering and mobile human face but, as it were, a mask with dignified harmony of features, he does not scream and does not even raise his voice," Nietzsche asserts. "When a real storm cloud pours down upon him, he wraps himself in his overcoat and walks away under the rain with slow strides" (256-7).

The parallel here with Nietzsche's "I have forgotten my umbrella" should be clear at this point. Either way -- that is, either the intuitive or the intellectual approach -- problematizes the status of a device like an umbrella as well as the situation of the subject who announces that it has been forgotten. For the intuitive man, this forgetting is the instigation of a rehearsal of woe. Not only is he getting wet, it is his own fault. His well-being -- like his overall perceptual apparatus -- was entirely under his control and as a result of his forgetfulness alone (disregard the role of nature here) he will suffer as a result. The man of intellect, however, simply bears down on his suffering, finding no means for transcending it perspectivally, and endeavors to move beyond its range, all the while neglecting to use his intuitive powers to frame this negative situation somehow positively.

Derrida hovers about these perspectives of the forgotten umbrella scenario, but then resorts to a dodge that encompasses both the intuitive and the intellectual perspective. In other words, instead of playing Nietzsche's text infinitely, he decides he has to choose both of these losing propositions to return the "game" of his decoding back to a type of originary, solid ground. Either Nietzsche's text is beyond the decoder's control, and thus Derrida can say all sorts of wild things about it, or it is a joke that can be revealed monosemously and thus decoded with "success", as designated by the date of Derrida's first postscript. (Thereby allowing the decoder who also understands this joke to become a member of the winning team within this game, like Eco's "model reader.")

The infinite player of this text, however, need not resort to either of these refuges.

Consider's Nietzsche's sentence again from this approach. The infinite player borrows from both orientations (to keep this example simple). She can cathect onto the "real storm" an array of joyous, figurative scenarios. Yet, at the same time, she doesn't deny that the storm is materially real. She doesn't have to necessarily suffer its reality, as does the man of intellect. But, neither does she, like the intuitive man, resolutely ignore the fact that its materiality is able to impinge itself upon her in a manner that is temporarily beyond her control. She can walk slowly from beneath the storm clouds, like the man of intellect, but she doesn't do so to intensify her martyrdom, as he does. Rather, she plays with the unfortunate situation (it's raining and I've forgotten my umbrella), refusing to make it either needlessly stoic or needlessly ironic.

One has to imagine the infinite player smiling as she walks away from the clouds, though well aware that she's getting wet and could have prevented it; learning a lesson, perhaps, that might lead to a different form of play the next time it rains. (Whenever it rains, I inevitably run into former students who have read this essay and make a point of reporting -- empty-handed, wet, yet also usually smiling -- that they've once again forgotten their umbrellas.) This response to umbrella forgetting would be consistent with Carse's commentary on the transformative, as well as enjoyable, component of infinite play, even though this transformation is by no means the straightforward conditioning that binds the man of intellect's future behavior. In fact, the infinite player will accept the likelihood that this forgetting will probably happen again, despite her best efforts. Forgetfulness not necessarily being an error she can learn from as much as an occasional lapse in her diligence, which if maintained, after all, leads to a sour restraint on her consciousness. (Like that of the man of intellect who will become obsessed with never forgetting his umbrella again.)

A New Semiosic Order

While Derrida outlines (ironically) a less-than-open form of infinite play, Floyd Merrell may offer a path that leads to a greater freedom for analyzing semiosic movement. To contextualize the potential desirability of a "true" openness, Merrell uses an example of the change in flow from a water tap as the volume is increased. What earlier might look like an orderly flow alters with this increase, but rather than destroying that earlier order, this other flow can be seen as "a new form of order" (Signs 22). Merrell conceptualizes this form of structure as "not schematic, determinable, or rigid," which, of course, is consonant with Barthes's structuration. As "a dynamic, ever-changing regime regulating the varying levels of flow," Merrell's water tap model would function as a chora-like perimeter of ineffability (as Julia Kristeva describes it).

Other useful models to draw upon for this schematization could be found in Ilya Prigogine's concept of "dissipative structures" or Erich Jantsch's "process structure" (cited in Merrell, Signs 22). This general class of structures, Merrell contends, consists of "dynamic interconnectedness and nonlinearity." Clearly, however, one of the main difficulties entailed in grasping this formulation resides in the challenge to articulate it. Kristeva's depiction of the chora is an apt illustration as she employs as an example an individual going through psychological constitution. The individual eventually is constructed as a chora, or "a non-expressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated" (25). It is, in other words, "an essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral stases." Moreover, it exists as both "rupture and articulations (rhythm)" (26) and since it is "neither model nor copy," it "precedes and underlies figuration and thus specularization, and is analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm."

Merrell's conception of semiosic modeling likewise emphasizes "process, not static product" (Semiosis 180). Significantly, he suggests that semiosis operates separate from our conceptualization of it. "Ultimately, semiosis is neither continuous nor discontinuous for us; our categorization tends to make it so," Merrell says. "Categories, historically contextualized, can be no more than hazy topologies of the mind" (Signs 223). This would mean, then, that any attempt to grasp the mechanics of semiosis is always undermined by the limitations of that attempt. "The agent, a sign among signs, is part of the very process she strives to alter, and, as a sign, she is in the process invariably altered" (260).

An important consideration here is that the individual preferences of the conceptualizer of semiosis serve to further account for the emphases within that model. (For example, someone who esteems high-level order may privilege similar orders -- and subsequently denigrate level-low orders -- in his rendition of semiosis.) It is perfectly understandable that we would yearn for a concept that fits the thing described (like Nietzsche's man of intellect), but at the same time, we should constantly be aware of the impact of that desire on the shaping of our paradigms. Merrell posits a gloomy metaphorical depiction of the human dilemma when it comes to grounding this desire on something that, out of desperation, comes across as even remotely objective. "We have no semiotic sonar mechanism with which to gauge the depth of the stream [of semiosis], no periscope so as to bring its banks into focus, no anchor we can drop to halt our movement within the flow, no sextant to determine where we are, no map to see how we arrived at this point or where we are headed" (Signs 240).

Clearly, this is a frustrating situation for human sign users to admit that they are, ultimately, "finite, fallible human semiotic agents" with idealistic drives for infinite, infallible semiosis (Merrell, Signs 275). The problematic issue of sign origin only complicates this scenario. "Given the disconcerting irretrievability of a first sign and the impossibility of reaching a final sign," Merrell argues, "there can be no interpretant without a predecessor and a successor" (Semiosis 177).

Yet, Merrell proposes several ways around the challenges offered by some of the troubling aspects of this confrontation with an uncontainable semiosis. While these may in some respects smack of avoidance strategies characteristic of Nietzsche's man of intuition, they more compellingly serve, I would contend, to help theorize an infinite-play rendition of semiosis. The lack of a sign origin (as Barthes noted with the absent encoder) by no means signals a consequent inability to hazard provisional frames for decoding nevertheless. Moreover, Peirce's idea of sign "generacy" can be viewed (like Eco's disorder/dis-order) as stimulating an ongoing dynamic of "de-generacy" which would stand as a less terrifying version of the degeneracy feared by many semioticians among the IG (Merrell, Signs 23).

These perspectives could supplant the security aligned with the stasis that supposedly results from the construction of the "habit" which, unfortunately, can lead to a variation of Derrida's own "hermeneutical somnambulism." Sleepwalking through a narcotized haze of significative familiarity, the decoder can easily lose the ability to more actively engage in a transformative semiosic experience. Still, at the same time, this familiarity carries with it considerable allure since it undeniably provides a stable simulacrum of semiosis. While being lulled into a torporous state of bliss in this manner may indeed have its benefits, it is hardly a viable means for creating and maintaining a forceful future semiotics. Indeed, the habituation alternative to the infinite coping strategies that Merrell raises is hardly positive. As he notes,

just as signs can develop from relative simplicity at the pole of iconicity to relative complexity at the pole of symbolicity, so also they can become, by convention and repetition (for example, Peirce's habit taking), so channelled in general sign use that they function as if they were signs of lesser complexity. Their use becomes habituated (embedded, automatized), thus compelling their makers and interpreters to process them in rather mindless fashion. (Signs 24)
While this characterization of habitualized signification sounds predominantly negative, Merrell does emphasize the one virtue it produces. "In this sense, sign processes following habitual pathways tend to become relatively stable" (Signs 229). Should this stabilization occur, though, inevitably a new flux can arise to disrupt its illusory totality, even if the dialogic energy of infinite play is not allowed to intercede. "Habitually, soporifically generated signs sooner or later risk losing face," he contends. "Their balance may become precarious, and, deprived of equilibrium, dissipation can erupt, which then makes them likely candidates for a new form of order." But, for Merrell, the apparently chaotic eruptions of semiosis lead only to new potential structurations. Infinite play could, by extension, serve as the catalyst for this development, given that it is based solely on the drive to carry on active exchanges. "By and large the growth and decay of signs, like all life-forms given their capacity for self-organization through fluctuations leading to dissipative structures, tends to favor symbolicity: generacy rather than de-generacy, life rather than death, asymmetry rather than symmetry."

Merrell's commentary on the impact of one's perspective on infinite semiosis is quite similar to Carse's view of the individual game player's attitude. In other words, one can somberly engage in finite play or play essentially the same game, but infinitely so. "If the yield" of Peirce's semiotic, Merrell suggests,

breeds nightmares of uncertainty, oceans of ambiguity, and an apparent promiscuity of paradoxes threatening to dissolve all dreams of reason, harmony, and stability, I see no call for despair. Rather, it opens the door, if not exactly to a Nietzschean-Derridean joyous play of free- wheeling signifiers, most certainly to a vision of open, creative, self-organizing dialogue with one's self, with the other of one's community, and with the other of nature at large, engaged in the process of its own self-organizing project. (Signs 232)
Of course, Merrell's linking of Derrida with Nietzsche in this way can be questioned, as I have done in the previous discussion. In fact, even Merrell's emphasis (through repetition) of self-organization as a consequence of this stance entails a regressive shift in the modality of this idea, I would contend. For, Merrell posits this distributional settling into positions as a phenomenon related to the Romantic preference for organic structures (asymmetries -- like gnarled trees -- nonetheless constituting an overall "whole", a "natural" symmetry of its own making). By suggesting that "mere happenstance generation may be the dominant fact in the process of evolution" (Signs 220), Merrell may be merely accommodating those who need a sense of progress undergirding their conception of semiosis. "Semiosis is ordered," he argues, "according to its own style of ordering" (Signs 221).

Nevertheless, Merrell serves as an especially useful guide in this instance as he demonstrates the vital embrace of openness that is available for those amenable to the very real vulnerabilities that attend it. Within this semiosic economy, he proposes, an "entire system is poised and ready for the possibility of eruption into semiosic chaos via dissipative structures from whence can arise ever-more-novel forms of order" (Signs 41). By rearticulating "chaos", "eruption", and "dissipation", Merrell takes precisely the consequences that finite players wring their hands over in despair, and turns them into limitlessly fructive, chorastic venues of possibility.

An "indefinite semiosis" (Signs 42) like this would essentially, again, appropriate what is conventionally viewed as negative (through a stress on definitude) so that it becomes a site of inexhaustible wealth (in a positive sense, as opposed to the "waste" perspective on uneconomical semiosis). Merrell thus concludes that, in Peirce's rendition of the mutual and ongoing interplay of the interpreter and interpretants, "semiosis becomes circular, which is actually neither tragic nor vicious" (54). In an apparent nod to the reliance on Peircean models within the IG discussion of semiotics, Merrell finds that this infinitude is sanctioned there, too. "Peirce learned to live quite comfortably with [the] apparent logical antinomies taunting us from the swamp of infinite regresses, since they are incapable of dictating the course of concrete, everyday existence" (60).

Vertiginous Play

A less cheerful perspective on this issue may help to balance what might otherwise come across as a bit too negligent of the real need for semiosic security that all signs users seem to share. Perhaps no better tonic for such a counterbalancing can be found than Jean-François Lyotard's Libidinal Economy. In retrospect, Lyotard called this book "a piece of...provocation" (14). Yet, combined with the positive stress on infinitude seen in Merrell's work, this is precisely where a future semiotics may be destined to go. Admittedly, it sounds as though Lyotard is using this expression negatively (and since he subsequently apologized for writing the book, this would make sense). But, in the manner of Carse, Nietzsche and Merrell, this provocation would be a wholly desirable condition, one that instigates potentially energizing sign linkages as a consequence.

Historically, Libidinal Economy in many respects serves as a significant appearance of a program like the one offered here under the rubric of critical semiotics. In the early 1970s, Lyotard was disgusted with the ways in which a structuralistically inclined semiotics was turning the study of signs into a purely "informational" (48) venture. To Lyotard, semiotics was developing into a "voyage of conquest," or even less heroically, into a "business trip" (45) whose practitioners were sorely hampered by their alliance as "men of the concept" (211). "There is no sign or thought of the sign which is not about power and for power" for these semioticians, he insists. For them, "the model of all semiology is not The Purloined Letter, it is The Gold-Bug " (45). The characterization of signification as a routine "trip" outlines what Lyotard will subsequently oppose. For semioticians inclined toward a closed, predictable sense of semiosis, a "thing is posited as a message, that is, as a medium enriched with a sequence of coded elements, and that its addressee, himself in possession of this code, is capable, through decoding the message, of retrieving the information that the sender meant him to receive" (43). In effect, what Lyotard saw happening as a result of what he calls "structuralist enthusiasm" often resulted in "the simple reduction of sensuous forms to conceptual structures, as if understanding were the unique faculty qualified to approach forms" (Peregrinations 10).

In contrast, Lyotard promoted an alternative form of semiotic "analysis [that] could be flexible, incorporating ambiguities and paradoxes" (Peregrinations 10). Lyotard's proposal involved an active "cutting across semiotics," as Marc Eli Blanchard describes it (24), so that one could "tap sign-systems for the intensity, not the structure of their communication" (21). To Lyotard, "the road towards libidinal currency ...must be opened by force" (43), and this opening has to be effected by the insurgent power of vertiginous provocation. Iain Hamilton accurately assesses Lyotard's strategy in response to this situation as designed to "exploit and accelerate the movements of generalized disruption in a fundamentally affirmative manner, seeking to 'conduct' new and unheard-of intensities" (xvii). Significant here, in relation to the decidedly chirpy humanism of Merrell's commentary, is Hamilton's qualification of Lyotard's stance as "fundamentally" positive. For, in exactly the way that Merrell's emphasis seems too affirmative, Lyotard's may well seem too negative without this consideration.

It's important to stress this nurturing side of Libidinal Economy because a prominent component of the argument against the effects of a genuinely unlimited semiosis also appears in Lyotard's critique, but with a different emphasis. While the detractors of this view express fear that a nihilistic abyss will result from endless deferral of meaning, Lyotard's complaint is that their conception removes semiosis from the realm of the "real" altogether (like Nietzsche's intuitive man). He rejects the bloodless notion "that signification itself is constituted by signs alone, that it carries on endlessly, that we never have anything but references, that signification is always deferred, meaning is never present in flesh and blood" (43). This notion implies that, "if we have religious souls like Freud or Lacan, we produce the image of a great signifier, for ever completely absent, whose only presence is absentification" (44).

Lyotard's commentary on what he refers to as the "tensor" outlines the element of most interest to semiotics here as he proposes the "tensor sign" (as opposed to the conventional "intelligent sign") as the vehicle for making such studies vertiginous. This shift is necessitated by the spiritual and physical paucity of "intelligence" that, Lyotard contends, leads to a type of relentless negativity. "Semiotics is nihilism," he asserts (49), largely due to the emptiness that seems to loom over the prospect of unlimited semiosis in which "there is nothing but signs" (44).

In this apparently senseless pursuit, the constitution of meaning, . . . there will be some hermeneut or pessimist who will say to us: look, we never have meaning, it escapes us, it transcends us, it teaches us our finitude and our death, -- so, while the edifying pastor tells us this, his soldiers and his businessmen collect organs, pulsions, pieces of the film, stockpile, capitalize them. And the time we "know so well" ... is fabricated in the double game of this despair and this hoarding, despair of lost- postponed meaning, of the treasure of signs which are simply "experiences" happened upon, run through, the Odyssey. (47)
For Lyotard, then, the analytical dividend of a semiotics inclined this way constitutes little more than "the zero of book-keeping" (164). The endeavor of semiotics, accordingly, is portrayed as an endless rehearsal of listless bad faith. "To continue to remain in semiotic thought," Lyotard remarks, "is to languish in religious melancholy and subordinate every intense emotion to a lack and every force to a finitude" (49).

Lyotard's proposal for taking advantage of this position in semiotics involves harvesting the energetic residue that can be generated by semiosis. A non-intelligent, fleshy, rhythmic flow that in and of itself is of no use, produces no epistemological progress, and exists merely as a thrilling engagement with signs. The cultivation of conflicting and directed tensions allows Lyotard to cast the outlines of an alternative to this vision of semiotics. A form of play, serious only insofar as it is viewed as potentially transformative, encapsulates Lyotard's vision of a semiotics that has entered wholeheartedly into vertiginous flux.

A revealing element of Lyotard's conceptual model is found in its vehement denunciations, its vicious assaults, as well as its relentless resistance to structural closure. Libidinal Economy "advertizes itself as some sort of impossibility," Marc Eli Blanchard notes. It "simply rejects, not only the possibility of any metacritical position, but also possibility itself as an expression of the will to structure with which we limit and shortchange our desire" (18). To do justice" to Libidinal Economy, he adds, "would be to insist that it is a theoretical piece only malgré soi, in spite of itself." Years later, Lyotard recalled that "my prose tried to destroy or deconstruct the presentation of any theatrical representation whatsoever, with the goal of inscribing the passage of intensities directly in the prose itself without any mediation at all" (Peregrinations 13). While, of course, this is contradictory, it is precisely this dissonant agon that Lyotard evidently was endeavoring to dramatize. Libidinal Economy "induced a manner of acting out, the relationalization for which (now it was my turn to rationalize) was the pretension to make writing so bent and flexible," he argues, "that no longer would the representation of errant feelings but their very presentation be performed in the flesh and blood of words."

This style-as-attack appears in an especially virulent manner as he addressess semioticians. "We know your objection, semioticians," Lyotard declares (50). "Whatever you do or think, you tell us, you make a sign of your action and reflection, you cannot do otherwise, due to the simple perspective it provides on the referential axis of your action-discourse." Not only is semiotics inclined toward structuralistic modeling that effortlessly strips semiosis of its life, he argues, it further rigidifies by drawing upon dichotomous renderings. Such a semiotics takes the sign and makes it "hollowed out into a two-faced thing, meaningful/meaningless, intelligible/sensible, manifest/hidden, in front/behind; whenever you speak, you tell us, you excavate a theatre in things." Lyotard appropriates what he identifies as the theatrical "nihilism" of semiotics and attempts to rejuvenate it through a physicalized interaction, a dramatized spectacle of semiosis itself. In this respect, Lyotard accepts the claims of what he conceives of as mainstream semiotics, but employs them openly like the infinite player reworking the contours of finite play.

Fair enough, we don't deny it, we've been through it and go through it all the time, it is in no way a matter of determining a new domain, another field, a beyond representation which would be immune to the effects of theatricality, not at all, we are well aware that you are just waiting for us to do this, to be so "stupid" (but such an error does not warrant this name, we will soon reclaim stupidity) which amounts to saying: we quit signs, we enter the extra-semiotic order of tensors.
In several respects, this strident resistance to engaging semiotics at the time is not unlike the infinite player who refuses to countenance the self-imposed limitations (i.e., the rules) of the finite player. Thus, when Lyotard offers as his goal the pursuit of "the chance of new intensities" (210), his emphasis on "chance" has at least two connotations. On the one hand, it suggests the "surprise" of infinite play that Carse describes. And, it also invokes the prospect of perpetual opportunity. Both orientations clearly provide a great deal of growth potential for something like a vertiginous semiotics. Not surprisingly, though, like those who play without discrete goals in mind, Lyotard was criticized for endorsing a semiotics that refuses to acknowledge the rules at all.

Reminiscent of the criticism ofS/Z , this observation reveals the risk one takes when engaging in play that will not limit itself gratuitously. Alphonso Lingis, for instance, contends that "for Lyotard the libidinous effect is without aim as it is without cause" (97). Lyotard himself falls prey to the security that attends the confines of finite play when, years later, he characterizes Libidinal Economy as "a little impulsive" (Peregrinations 13). While earlier, he had viewed this as one of its greatest strengths (to create new pulsions, etc.), later this seems somehow "immature" (not unlike the common adult perspective that banishes most play to the realm of the child while it wearily assumes the status of the play supervisor). Geoffrey Bennington similarly charges that "the book in general is violent and in a sense advocates violence in thought, by the very celebration of intensity and force over theory and concept" (31). In fact, he characterizes Lyotard's method at the time in terms remarkably similar to those used by adults when describing active children at play. Libidinal Economy comes across, he asserts, as "a perpetual running out of control of what was to have been a rational theoretical enterprise" (32). "Despite [its] violent anti-theoreticism, it is in fact still too theoretical a book, as such still embroiled with the theatre, with representation and critique" (46).

As was mentioned earlier, it is precisely the acceptance of wholly arbitrary limitations that in many respects is usually considered constitutent of play itself. It is amusing, in this light, to recognize, then, that the very element that is thought to accord certain forms of play (most often, forms of finite play) a higher value than others is something that specifically is imported into it arbitrarily so. Again, this situation returns to the absurd "truth" Nietzsche describes in the constitution of a "finding" scenario of one's own making. From this perspect, however, it should be easy to grant Lyotard's project in Libidinal Economy based on "dissimulation" (52) of the sign the same status as other forms of "elevated" play. Of course, this infinite play stance dismantles that hierarchy entirely, and thus only the twin goals of play extension and player transformation actually need to be considered. And it is this latter concern in particular that interests Lyotard and can simultaneously help to stimulate the development of a vertiginous semiotics.

Lyotard stresses that this project need not conceptualize "another kind of sign" to do this (50). Like the infinite player who appropriates the rules of finite play, the vertiginous semoitician can similarly draw upon the current discussion of semiotics for materials without being limited to finite uses of them. "Signs are not only terms, stages, set in relation and made explicit in a trail of conquest; they can also be, indissociably, singular and vain intensities in exodus." Lyotard reiterates his proposed manifestation of this analytical model as one based on processual soundings. "To understand, to be intelligent, is not our overriding passion," he claims (51). "We hope rather to be set in motion." This would manifest itself as a form of dance, "not composed and notated, but on the contrary, one in which the body's gesture would be, with the music, its timbre, its pitch, intensity and duration, and with the words (dancers are also singers), at each point in a unique relation, becoming at every moment an emotional event." The movement Lyotard depicts is conceptually akin to the boundlessness of infinite play which nevertheless creates this effect by playing with the bounds associated with finite play. This dance is thus, simultaneously, "a sign which produces meaning through difference and opposition" as well as "a sign producing intensity through force and singularity." Lyotard's reorienation in semiotics immediately withdraws whatever self-privileging that usually attends such undertakings, viewing aggrandisement of this nature as simply the return to a finite position.

Libidinal intensity; we are almost tempted (but we will not do this, we have become sly old foxes, too often trapped) to give it a priority, and to say: in the last instance, if you, semiologists, have any cause to set up your nets of meaning, it is primarily because there ... is, in short, a given, and this given is indeed the intensification of a ... region ... which has become an intelligent-intelligible sign! But we are not even saying this, we are indifferent to priorities and causalities, these forms of guilt, as Freud and Nietzsche said. Order matters little ... (54)
Lytoard's impassioned descriptions of numerous manifestations of "incandescent vertigo" (60) are created in opposition to (in more than one sense of "opposition") to what he charges semiotics for pursuing: "intention rather than intensity" (63). Vertiginous semiotics, to the contrary, would pursue "intensity ... dissimulated in signs and instances."

Against his notion of the tensor sign Lyotard juxtaposes the supposed "capital" that accrues from finite play-oriented semiotics. This sense of "profit", he argues, is doomed to a rapidly entropic undoing as a result of its closure-ridden economy. "If all interest is only an advance from an energetic remainder yet to come, obtained by inhibition, and if one supposes a closed system of energies," he argues, "capital would not be able to grow at all, but would simply allow, through the game of interest and profit, energetic quantities ... to pass into the hands of the creditors, with the total quantity of the potential system not increasing at all" (221). Lyotard's vision of sign play is hyperbolically "closed" here, yet despite its caricatural register it does accurately pinpoint the stifling "limit" of finite play. Semiosis is thus viewed as remotely similar to playing a board game in which, in the process of "winning" (this is a finite game, after all), one merely ends up at the same place where one once began. Lyotard's response to this scenario consists of positing a means for rising above the constraints of this hermetic arena and investing it with a constant flow of, paradoxically, "savings". (This connection would be similar to the shared common denominator of "play" between its infinite and finite modes. In other words, both orientations consider the prospect of accumulation within a "commerce" of signs.) Lyotard endeavors to take exactly the same situation invoked by a finite play-oriented semiotics and turn it into one whose containment provides sufficient circumstances to generate infinite non-containment. Lyotard suggests that "if the supplement to be put into circulation is already there in some way, if it is enough to postpone the fulfilment of desire to free new energetic resources, then it is because these latter are due only to a saving, whether this is through constraint or spontaneous" (222). It is important to stress here that Lyotard is indeed emphasizing a movement-oriented approach to an already enclosed system. This would be similar to Carse's commentary on playing with rules, as opposed to playing by them, in that Lyotard is identifying a form of accrual like that of the finite semiotician, but he is doing so only to continue semiosic play. Saving of this kind "is in reality a matter of the introduction of new quantities of energy into the system, but the important thing is that when the system is not isolated, it finds its supplements of wealth, not by internal inhibition, but by external expansion, by the seizure of 'external' energetic sources."

Horizonal Semiotics

Perhaps the main source of resistance to a vertigo model of semiosis is derived from the possibility of a resulting (figurative) nausea. A good example of a parallel sitatuion can be found in the work of several contemporary feminists (Hélène Cixous, Juliet Mitchell, etc.) who propose that women reappropriate "hysteria" as a means to possibly regain the power that has been denied them through the social symbolic order. (Or, similarly, the ways in which other marginalized groups have rearticulated terms of invective used against them as an attempt to defuse the stigmatizing force of those terms.) However, anybody who has ever been sickened by something like vertigo or psychologically unhinged by a bout with hysteria is well area of how genuinely unsettling those experiences can be. Perhaps a less disturbing model may be found in the endless extension of the "horizon".

Carse contrasts the "boundary" in finite play with the "horizon" in infinite play. "A horizon is a phenomenon of vision," he argues. "One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see" (57). In this respect, the horizon is particularly illuminating in that it captures the ineffable character of semiosis (like the chora ) without making this captivity unnecessarily reductive through a material articulation. Moreover, the horizon establishes a partition that is never actually manifested. "There is nothing in the horizon itself...that limits vision, for the horizon opens onto all that lies beyond itself," Carse observes. "What limits vision is rather the incompleteness of that vision." This also would reiterate Merrell's point about the shortcomings of paradigms of semiosis that result from the perspective of the individual who constructs them. A horizonal semiotics could clearly help to demonstrate that. As Carse suggests, "what will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited" (62). From this perspective, the inadequacies of models of semiosis would by no means render them useless. Carse points out that examination of such faults can usefully assist us to "see the way we use limitations" (70).

A future semiotics might establish a perimeter for its practice, then, that is not based on the presumed authority of a monologic perspective (what Carse calls "magisterial speech"), since each perspective would be accompanied by its own unique blind spots. In fact, Carse argues that it is solely through this hegemonic singularity that finite players can assert and effect their "victories". Semiotics might better benefit from the stress by Carse, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others on the unmediated exchange of perspectives distinct to dialogism (and, coincidentally, embodied in the unfettered, hypertextual medium of the Internet). Carse casts this as a "dynamic of open reciprocity" in which, "if you are the genius of what you say to me, I am the genius of what I hear you say. What you say originally I can hear only originally" (68). "This does not mean that speech has come to nothing. On the contrary, it has become speech that invites speech." Or, semiosis that engenders further semiosis. Lo, another infinite series.

Barthes sees this happening in his sense of the Text, which for him is a "space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate (keeping the circular sense of the term)" ("Work" 164). For Carse, this is "infinite speech" which ceaselessly parades its ultimate "unspeakability" (108) in that it never posits an identifiable or discernible ground of denotation. This speech "bears no claim to truth, originating from nothing but the genius of the speaker," he says. As a result, it is "not about anything; it is always to someone. It is not command, but address. It belongs entirely to the speakable" (108-9). (This echoes Nietzsche's point in "On Truth and Lying," too. As Carse argues, this situation confirms the metaphoricity that guarantees that "language is not about anything" [109, emphasis added]. "Metaphor does not point at something there," he says, since it's solely the result of significative relation. "Metaphor is horizonal.")

A stress on subjective impact on semiotics is obvious here. This is reflected -- typically in a negative vein -- in the IG discussion that endeavors to eliminate the "taint" of individual perspective as a means of generating an "objective" explanatory discourse. A science of signs. In Chaosmosis, Félix Guattari contends that this is endemic to scientistic discourse and its investments. "The paradigms of techno-science place the emphasis on an objectal world of relations and functions, systematically bracketing out subjective affects," he suggests (100). Consequently, "the finite, the delimited and coordinatable, always take precedence over the infinite and its virtual references." Figures like Barthes are historically significant for resisting this yearning for depersonalized analysis -- recall from Lecture 3 his commentary on developing what he called "my semiology" ("Inaugural" 471). To Barthes, this was a desirably "negative semiology" (475), "apophatic" in nature as it "denies that it is possible to attribute to the sign traits that are positive, fixed, ahistoric, acorporeal, in short: scientific" (473). While some might find this leads to a chaotic dispersal of semiotics as a discipline, it's difficult to support the claim that sign users are complacently subordinate and predictable. And, if that's the case, then this "limitation" may well serve as a vitalizing advantage for working with the human practice of engaging in "messy" semiosis, maybe even yielding lively engagements with what Guattari refers to as a "transindividual subjectivity" (101).

A Thousand Semiotics

What Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have to say about binary systemics ("this system of thought has never reached an understanding of multiplicity" [5]) is also true about the IG discussion of semiotics where one finds such "fake multiplicities" (16) as the open work. In part, this development is comprehensible for all the reasons Merrell cites about the vulnerabilities of human nature and our apparent needs for security. But, again, alternative articulations of these needs could plausibly function as catalyzers for new constructions of models and applications in semiotics. As Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus, and Lyotard stresses in Libidinal Economy, these models do not have to radically diverge in nature from those that already exist. (Again, Carse makes the same point about using the existent rules of finite play to generate infinite play.)

What critical semiotics can do is draw together the myriad concepts raised (and sometimes abused) here in order to forge a polymorphous model that doesn't attempt to represent -- analyze, anatomize -- semiosis. Rather, it will follow Deleuze and Guattari's suggestion for making semiosis in the process of discussing its contours and operations. Carse also provides a number of beneficial tools through his observations regarding infinitude, and these will be incorporated conceptually rather than instrumentally in the development and application of this model. In other words, Carse offers a manifesto for entry into a host of multiplicitous fields that can be relevantly extended to thought on signification as a whole. Perhaps the most useful notion that can be derived from play theory in general, and Carse in particular, is that of active participation of all components and agents involved in semiosis. And, since the decoder is typically relegated to the lowest position on the hierarchy of the IG discussion, it is this figure who needs to take the greatest initiative in exercising agency to ensure a larger sense of polysemy. The selection of a model that is amenable to this input would, of course, be extremely important, especially since it would have to eminently plastic in nature if it is going to allow for a responsive engagement with semiosis through the decoder's activity.

"The multiple must be made," Deleuze and Guattari emphasize, "not always by adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available..." (6). The model they play with, for instance, is based on the rhizome, on which "any point...can be connected to anything, and must be" (7). Consisting of an open field of operation, "possessing no points or positions" (8), the rhizome serves wonderfully as a paradigm for semiosic effects. (Especially in that it rules out that myth derived from finite play -- intentionality.) The rhizome is also resistant to systemic reduction since "one of [its] most important characteristics...is that it always has multiple entryways" (12). Deleuze and Guattari argue that, to the contrary, hierarchies are imposed on these entrances only as a desperately finite move. "The notion of unity (unité) appears," they suggest, "only when there is a power takeover in the multiplicity by the signifier or a corresponding subjectification proceeding" (8). "Follow the plants" (11), they argue.

To be rhizomorphous is to produce stems and filaments that seem to be roots, or better yet connect with them by penetrating the trunk, but put them to strange new uses. We're tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They've made us suffer too much. All of aborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. (15) Unlike rhizomic modeling, they add, "the tree and root inspire a sad image of thought that is forever imitating the multiple on the basis of a centered or segmented higher unity" (16). Through their alternative, Deleuze and Guattari encourage the creation and employment of "acentered systems" (17). They view the rhizome, for example, as an "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states" (21).

This program is hardly without consequences to some. Elsewhere, Guattari asks: "But how, with this explosion of the individuation of the subject and this fragmentation of interfaces, can we still speak of Universes of value?" (Chaosmosis 108). Perhaps this is the wrong question, though. As Merrell suggested on a different point, this inquiry fails to consider the undeniably subjective aspect of signification. In other words, semiosis is merely a personal interaction with signs; there is nothing immanent to them. This is what play theory has suggested as well. "Any given activity can be utterly earnest or entirely playful at the same time, depending on the perspective held by the viewer," Csikszentmihalyi argues (19). "Play cannot be understood with reference to structure or behavior, but only in terms of an individual's stance towards reality" (20). What this means, then, is that the problematic blind alleys of both play theory and semiosic modeling are ultimately constructed by those who confuse a process with an object.

What this also means is that the moral stance assumed in the discussion of semiotics about explanatory discourse, seriousness, and finitude, is really nothing more than the result of individual preferences. It is difficult, naturally, to assign an ethical status to something that is ultimately a matter of taste. Harris discusses this in play theory in terms of "concern for goal-attainment" (28) and posits "a continuum between relatively weak and relatively strong commitment to goal attainment." Those with a strong concern in this area are certainly free to pursue the finite games they require. But, Harris adds, "within the cognitive context involving relatively weak concern for goals, individuals may be rather free to shift from one activity to another as frequently as desired; they may have the option to begin, to continue, and to end activities at will" (29). The resulting dialogic play of signs within this orientation among individuals serving alternately as encoders and decoders would thereby constitute a "creative reordering" similar to what Claire Farrar calls "contesting" (195). This is parallel to Carse's notion of infinite play and points to numerous possibilities for more emphatic, vitalistic engagements with semiosis to come.

A subtitle within Caillois's "The Classification of Games" chapter suggests moving "From Turbulence to Rules." In the final installment of these critical semiotics lectures, I'd like to propose an opposite operation, moving thus from rules to turbulence. This would attempt to avoid only the unproductive realms of vertigo -- in other words, those that are unpleasurable and non-transformative for the player, in keeping with the play orientation that views its "product" as pleasure/transformation. (William Blake: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," "You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough," etc.) It would incline as well toward the boundlessness of horizonal engagement without leaving behind the blooded grappling with physicality that is a necessary, "human" counterbalance. Indeed, it would seek to provide a supportive scaffolding for the human need for peace of mind, groundedness, and community (i..e, "audience"), but at the same time it would never treat this yearning with anything other than a measured, yet amused, skepticism.

It could even "play" at seriousness, at searching for "explanation" and progress, without going too far in trusting that the figuratively speaking "metaphorical" results have anything like a substantial epistemological basis. Its trajectory would assume the shapeless "shape" of the rhizome -- which means that it has no predetermined structure, but instead can assume any structuration as needed (or as desired, more appropriately). It would have no goal, no outcome in a finite sense; there would be no "winning" involved, except insofar as the pleasure and transformation it engenders can continue on. From the standpoint of a literary semiotics, it can take a text (actually, a Text) such as James Thurber's short story, "The Catbird Seat," and infinitely play with it. In the same way (but beyond!) that Derrida demonstrates how an ostensibly thin, "underwrought", indeed monosemous text, can serve as the springboard for a genuinely unlimited array of pleasurable engagements.

Without pursuing this too far ("Enough! or Too much," Blake would say), it is easy to see how a perpetually accretive, rhizomorphous agenda could generate a host of new entrances into conceptualizing signs and sign systems through an enterprise like James Bunn's "polydimensional semiotics" (cited in Merrell, Signs 108). As Deleuze and Guattari conclude, it is possible that a "logic of the AND" (25) could lead to the appearance of "an unexpected semiotic" (119). This practice would be spatial by nature, possibly, because positing a point of grounded entrance would run counter to the idea that such a ground does not exist. This method would entail "proceeding from the middle, through the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing" (25), but it would hardly be an implicitly pointless procession (any more than infinite play is pointless in this sense). After all, Deleuze and Guattari contend, "the middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed" (25).


Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text," Image-Music-Text, Trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 155-164.

---. "The Grain of the Voice," Image-Music-Text, 179-189.

---. "Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France," A Barthes Reader, Trans. Richard Howard, Ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Noonday Press, 1982), 457-478.

---. "Interview: A Conversation with Roland Barthes," The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 128-149.

---. "The Struggle with the Angel," Image-Music-Text,125- 141.

---.S/Z : An Essay, Trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

---. "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers," Image-Music-Text,190-215.

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Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. "Some Paradoxes in the Definition of Play," Play as Context, Ed. Alyce Taylor Cheska (West Point, NY: Leisure Press, 1981), 14-26.

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Merrell, Floyd. Semiosis in the Postmodern Age (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1995).

---. Signs Grow: Semiosis and Life Processes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense." Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language, Ed. and trans. Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, and David J. Parent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 246-257.

Rexer, Lyle. "Doctoring Reality to Document What's True," The New York Times (Nov. 9, 1997), AR25.

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Next Lecture

8) Semiotic Analysis of James Thurber's Short Story, "The Catbird Seat."
Assigned Reading: "The Catbird Seat."

copyright Scott Simpkins 1998
Send comments or questions to Scott Simpkins: scotts@unt.edu

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