This editorial appeared in Volume 1 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
by Linda Hutcheon
The "pluridisciplinary scope" intended for The Semiotic Review of Books will be the obvious outcome of a journal devoted to reviewing material in the special sciences that is relevant to both the specific and general intellectual interests of semioticians. But it will also fill another important need, and it will do so by providing an additional way of looking at the "state of the art" -- or science -- of semiotics today, additional, that is, to the very real need to come to terms with the sheer accumulation of data and the conceptual developments in other sciences. In other words, it will be a significant resource for those of us interested less directly, perhaps, in the other "sciences", but intrigued by the exciting achievements in and new possibilities for the cross-fertilization of semiotics with other discourses, primarily in the humanities.
For instance, in the fields of literary and film studies, the last decade has seen a certain impatience with and even serious challenges to what many have seen as the scientific pretensions and the universalizing and objectivizing tendencies of some of the more positivistic versions of the semiotic model, or more accurately, perhaps, of some ways of deploying them. As Thomas Pavel has put it: "while its strongly advertised call for a rational, scientific study of literature was indeed worth pursuing, the structuralist way of implementing its own program more often failed to do just to the expectations raised".(1986: 2-3) I take it that what is being objected to here particular what Umberto Eco has called "first-stage" semiotics, that is, a semiotics of the sign, concerned with "strustures, systems, codes, paradigms, semantic fields, and abstract opposition" (Eco 1981: 35). The subsequent historical move that Eco has outlined -- from sign to text and text grammar, and then to pragmatics -- has done much to answer to the objections Pavel notes. But that move to "third stage" semiotics has also entailed a shift in focus and interest from structure to context, from signification to the signifying act. And it is precisely such a shift that has made pluridissiplinarity unavoidable.
The question that much work in both literary and cinematic theory today has been asking is the following: Can one consider the very notion of context today apart from concerns of, for example, ideology -- be that term thought of in terms of class (as in Althusser's model) or gender (as in feminist theorizing) or race (as in postcolonial investigations) or any other particular variable whose very acknowledgement would serve to contest both positivist and humanist universalizing tendencies? As Bill Nichols argued in Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media, "(i)deology arises in association with processes of communication and exchange" (1981: 1). As such, many would argue, it inevitably impinges on semiotics, however strictly or loosely we choose to define the term.
This kind of unavoidable interaction between what have traditionally been considered different discourses or even disciplinary domains goes beyond even this "poststructuralist" truism, however. To offer only one example -- but an illustrative one -- of new directions: when Teresa de Lauretis, in her 1984 study entitled Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, wants to find a way to theorize the centrally important feminist concept of "experience", she first turns to Peirce's general concept of semiosis (as expanded by Eco) to designate "the prowess by which a culture produces signs and/or attributes meanings to signs" (1984: 167). To this her complex argumentation adds a Lacanian psychoanalytic dimension (via the work of Julia Kristeva and Christian Metz) and a complementary semiotic concern for the social aspect of signification in interpersonal communication (via Eco's theories) in order to re-read Peirce's notion of "habit" as the issue of a series of "significate effects" and thereby offer a feminist theory of subjectivity and agency in which "experience" becomes a "complex of habits resulting from the semiotic interaction of 'outer world' and 'inner world', the continuous engagement of a self or subject in social reality. And since both the subject and social reality are understood as entities of a semiotic nature, as 'signs', semiosis names the process of their reciprocally constitutive effects" (1984: 182).
The innovative and provocative thinking of de Lauretis is only one example of the crossfertilization that semiotics allows -- and today, perhaps, even demands. Arguably, in many ways the field of film studies in general has been most open to and thus has best revealed the exciting potential of such work. This can be seen in any issue of the journal, Screen, as well as in the somatically-inspired feminist and psychoanalytic work of particular critics like de Lauretis or Kaja Silverman, whose early work, The Subject of Semiotics (1983) did much to open up new areas of study into subjectivity and the apparatuses of enunciation in narrative.
Of course, the modes and functions of pluri- and inter-disciplinarity do not stop there. From entirely different angles Fredric Jameson's Marxist rereading of Greimasian semiotics in The Political Unconscious or even Dominick LaCapra's investigations into the overlapping of the discourses of semiotic and critical theory with those of historiography in History and Criticism are still further testimony to the intellectual fruitfulness of the kind of pluridissiplinary studies that a journal like The Semiotic Review of Books hopes to address and perhaps even promote. Perhaps the more accurate verb, however, would be "extend", for we must not forget that the last decade and a half have witnessed exciting interchanges between, for example, the philosophical study of modal logic and possible-world semantics and the work in narrative semantics by literary semiotician such as Thomas Pavel or Lubomir Dolezel, whose recent book, Occidental Poetics: Tradition and Progress, traces the evolution of poetiss in the West.
In many areas of study in the humanities, that initial and understandable attraction to the scientizing, or at least the systematizing, possibilities of the "first-stage" semiotics of the sign has been tempered by resistance, and sometimes even rejection. And yet, I think it might still be argued that the increased interest in the 1980s in what has been called post-Saussurian (Belsey 1980) or simply post-structuralist semiotics has not in any way eliminated the still urgent need to study specific new developments in the "special sciences" -- or, to put it more generally, in other discourses. Few would disagree that cross-disciplinary cross-fertilization has opened up new areas of study for the 1990s and this new journal at one and the same time is an effect And we hope -- will also be a cause of new intellectual growth.
Belsey, Catherine (1980) Critical Practice. London and New York: Methuen.
de Lauretis, Teresa (1984) Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Dolezel, Lubomir (1990) Occidental Poetiss: Tradition and Progress. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Eco, Umberto (1981) "The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader." The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association vol.14.1 (35-45).
Jameson, Fredric (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
LaCapra, Dominick (1985) History and Criticism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Nichols, Bill (1981) Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Pavel, Thomas G. (1986) Fictional Worlds.Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
Silverman, Kaja (1983) The Subject of Semiotics. New York and London: Oxford University Press.A member of the Senior Editorial Committee of The Semiotic Review of Books, Linda Hutcheon is professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. She is author of Narcissistic Narrative: the Metatiotional Paradox (1980); Formalism and the Freudian Aesthetic (1984); A Theory of Parody: the Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (1985); The Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988); The Canadian Postmodern (1988); The Politics of Postmodernism (1989).