Claims that semiotics is dead have been made quite frequently over the past couple of decades. These pronouncements recall other prophecies regarding the death of the novel, of the author, and even of "man" or "God," or the end of ideology.
What is the bona fide semiotician to do, in face of these dire predications? One might wish to keep the faith that semiotics will go on, whether the prophets of doom like it or not and whether they know it or not. What is for sure, semiosis will go on. But semiotics, well, that might be a horse of a different colour. The difference between the two terms is this: semiosis is the general process that carries on with its business, in spite of what we might wish to think about it, while semiotics consists of our meagre efforts to account for and comprehend semiosis. That is to say, semiotics - in addition to our theoretical inclinations, our methodological procedures, and our analytical and narrative techniques - is ultimately a matter of the way in which we perceive and conceive semiosis. And our perception and conception of semiosis will be by and large what we choose to make of it - assuming we wish to pay heed to recent cognitive psychologists, phenomenologists, hermeneuticists, and recent trends in the social sciences. So then, what will we make of semiosis? That depends upon how the variety of disciplines to which we semioticians belong carve it up according to the prevailing theories, methods, and analytical and narrative practices.
These days, the way of the carving has become a matter of the world as cosmos or as chaos, of harmony and balance and equilibrium or of symmetry breaking and dissonance and far-from-equilibrium conditions. Ultimately, it is a matter of stability or instability, of permanence or impermanence. On the desired metaphysical level one would like to claim that the universe radiates stability, that reality and stability are one. Opposed to this view is the idea that instability, change, flux, is the norm. Proponents of the first view could go by the name of "monists", those who lean toward the latter view are in general of "pluralist" orientation. There is also a middle view consisting of the idea of inherent stability in an incessant struggle with inherent flux, and it is precisely this struggle that keeps the world alive and kicking.
The question is: How can there be a science of signs that goes by the name of semiotics if signs, that is semiosis, is process, flux? In search of a possible answer, let us take a quick look at three venerable view of centuries past and our century present which encapsulate the two views given above: one of permanence (Parmenides, Spinoza, Einstein, for example), one of flux (Heraclitus, Marx, Nietzsche, for example), and the moderate view. The moderates come in many leanings and expressions, such as Plato's (ideal) world of permanence and that other (experienced) world of flux, or that of classical physics which changes but adheres to immutable mechanical laws. Much closer to the premonition of flux, we have the process philosophers, Charles S Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead.
Perhaps for psychological, social, or intellectual reasons, most of us would like our view to be injected with a saturated solution of stability, order, and certainty. Our very struggle for survival, from biological to social to academic levels, dictates certain capacity for putting things in their proper place and making them stay there. But, in general, we are really quite mixed up about things. We secretly long for Parmenidean security but crave Heraclitean excitement; we groove on the sense of semiosis but in spite of ourselves semiotize our world, breaking it up into as many taxonomizable bits and pieces as we can, for after all, that is what we academicians are paid to do.
But whether we like it or not, semiosis seeps into every nook and cranny of our signs, our physical world, and our presumed rock-solid conceptual systems. we might like to suppose that by and large our practices are in harmony with the moderate view. That thought should leave us all with some discomfort. Who dares declare herself a Platonist these days? That is pretty risky business. Aside from running the risk of incurring the wrath of some colleagues one would rather impress, there is the impossibility of orchestrating Platonism with any viable notion of the sign. So are we back to the kinky-process-or-neat-order sort of conundrum? Not necessarily. Let us lean toward the left side of the moderate view, toward process. More problems arise, for we still fail to find pristine purity of one and only one perspective, theory or methodological stance. Peirce himself, for example, was a believer of indefinite semiosis, of a chance universe, of the incorrigible process of it all, and at the same time he longed for an indelibly architectonic grasp of the whole. The entire project, it would appear, cannot help but encompass a conflict of interests. If we want to look at the problem under the glare of a bright light and with cool temper, we must ask ourselves the question: How can the two extremes account for the common phenomena of relative stability in some times and places and the flux of instability at other times and place? Actually, they cannot. The universe of signs presents us with a plethora of as yet unexplained phenomena, so even from the most discerning and noble broad view we can have hardly more than a vague diamond in the rough, explanation of which cannot but remain quite hopelessly and helplessly incomplete and perhaps even ambiguous and inconsistent. Nevertheless, we might boldly stumble forward with an explanation, analytic package, or theory in hand, hoping that with a little more practice, some good luck, and proper dialogue with our fellow investigators, the most adequate account will eventually be forthcoming.
Utopian dreams, once again. And yet... it most often seems that we never cease trying to rationalize our wish for an orderly account of things. We may come to the conclusion that there is a chasm of difference between what Parmenides said and our own Parmenidean desires or compulsions, whichever the case may be. Searching for order and stability is one thing, proclaiming that the universe reflects stability above all else is another thing entirely. We may even take on the playful notion that the fun is in the search, with nary an idea of actually reaching the end of the line. Heraclitus, it bears mentioning, labelled Parmenides a charlatan. We may wish to ignore the Eleatic philosopher entirely. Perhaps we would do better to ignore his view of the universe and admire his intellect, just as we might be in awe of the early Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Derrida, Rorty, or whomever, without necessarily believing in what they say. Parmenides may have been mad, for all I know, yet he was a master thinker. Heraclitus may have been equally mad, yet I think I can get a pretty fair feel for what he was saying.
Perhaps we semioticians might need a modicum of a Parmenidean impulse for survival purposes regarding our functioning in society, and our very sanity. At least a tinge of a Heraclitean impulse is also quite necessary in order to infuse life and the life of our signs with an exciting touch. Put the two impulses together, and we may end up with a virtually unintelligible mush of overcooked stew, at least from our hopeful scientific view - that is, of the classical, and lingering positivist, conception of science. On the other hand, those who revel over the play of the world might not have things otherwise, for they can spew forth words in the classroom and at cocktail parties and on the printed age without expecting that the artesian well will ever go dry. But, then, in the troubled practice of semiotics I would suspect that the playful pushers of signifiers piled upon signifiers are still in the minority. Most of us would like to consider ourselves hard-nosed scientists, or at least theorists, analysts, and observers and commentators of natural, social, and cultural phenomena who take their business seriously. Those of us who fall into this latter category are semioticians whose self-proclaimed task is that of ordering the disordered, of cutting the flow of semiosis at its most propitious spots in order to make it intelligible. And after we have done so, we wrap our findings up into a tidy package of cogent argumentation, attach a colorful rhetorical bow to it, and send it out to some editor or other. Eventually, if we carry the proper credentials, appear in the proper journals, presses, and conferences, we may have the good fortune of enjoying a captivating audience. They will be most appreciative, for they now have even more sources from which to quote. Besides, who can resist an effective argument? And an entire community of like-minded, ergo right-minded scholars is in the making. Ah, the sweet smell of success.
But this is not what semiotics should be about. It is not even good science. Take the upstart philosopher of science who still had a foot in the doorway of logical positivism, Karl Popper. Popper, even though otherwise a believer of scientific objectivity and realism, opposed the idea of the universe as permanent and knowledge of it as stable. Science, he reiterated time and time again, is successful precisely when it is most open-ended. And it is by and large open-ended because it is constantly at war with itself. In a loose way of putting it, this was also Peirce's view of science: after abducting a possible answer to a question put to nature and formulating a hypothesis which appears initially to be verified, the next step is to try one's best to refute it. For both Peirce and Popper, the more we find we are wrong the better off we are, for that way our knowledge stands a better chance of advancing a whit. This means that as long as our knowledge is in a state of flux, we needn't worry, for, self-correction will by and large tend to put us on the road to the promised land. Yet, especially regarding those hard disciplines, mathematics, logic, and science, stability is coveted and instability is avoided at all cost. In general, the other hot pursuits of knowledge, power, and the good life they bring, follow suit. How can Peirce and Popper account for this push for stability? Is stability-mongering bad knowledge seeking? Is knowledge settling down to a stable form itself a refutation of Peirce and Popper's very theory? Above all, can semiotics, the pursuit of signs revealing knowledge about any and all pursuits of signs, be any more stable or unstable than are the various pursuits of knowledge of social and natural phenomena - which are, themselves, pursuits of signs, hence in a roundabout way semiotic enterprises as well?
In the hardest of the sciences, physics, it was Einstein who upset the classical idea of knowledge as stable - aided by venerable nineteenth-century precursors, including Peirce himself. Actually, knowledge, and even science, had been a matter of process rather than fixed product all along; only in our century did it cease to be a well-kept secret. The fact is that there is still some controversy over relativity theory; quantum theory suffers from - or enjoys, depending upon the eye of the beholder - a spectrum of interpretations, some of them out-and-out contradictory, and a grand unified theory remains a pipe-dream, in spite of a few optimistic proclamations to the contrary. Science is flux. That much seems quite apparent, as argued effectively by Joseph Agassi some twenty years ago. It has become commonplace, in light of studies in the sociology of science over the past couple of decades, that in science there are no objective and absolute standards of rationality, method, technique, language, and meanings of terms. Where the scientist stands within her community is a matter more of commitment following conversion than certainty following empirical evidence. Doxa (opinion, dialogue and debate), rather than episteme (objectivism, rationalism, inevitably culminating in dogma), community rather than throwing the spotlight on a few romantic heroes, wily openness rather than hedgehog tunnel-minded burrowing: knowing that what was thought to be known is wrong and that what is now known will not weather the test of time, knowledge in flux.
Science, or better the desire to know more, then, is never product, but rather, it is dialogic process. It is a matter of abductions and ideas or hypotheses and their eventual refutation or rejection in order to make way for more abductions. This is to say that ideas, and signs in general, are more often than not self-corrective in a negative way. If they are taken as the most proper signs for the occasion, be they signs of scientific theories to be tested, signs within artistic or literary movements, or signs issuing forth from the mouths of politicians, in any case they are signs that will eventually prove themselves wrong or at least inadequate to the task for which they were engendered. We are then bound to the notion that whatever support a given set of signs may be able to garner, that support will somewhere at some time become nonsupport. The initial support may illuminate an abduction in a somewhat positive way, but such illumination cannot but be ephemeral. This being the case, nonsupport is more important than support. For example, consider the hypothetical world where any and all signs are immediately discarded because they are inadequate. Would this obsessive via negativa be antisemiotic in the sense that no interpretants could possibly be forthcoming? Would this world then not be contrary to Peirce's concept of the sign as something that relates to something for someone in some respect or capacity? The answer must be, I'm sorry to say once again, negative, for the very signs of that query are simply not up to the task. That is to say, in this hypothetical world signs would become other signs with mind-boggling rapidity, a rapidity approaching continuity, which is actually the best of all Peircean worlds, an approach to the most genuine expression of a sign's generality in terms of its uses in all possible contexts, an approach to sinechism, the doctrine of continuity. This world would then have a Popperian science proper and also a Peircean semiotics proper, for it would be the living example that sign interpretants in the positive and nothing but the positive sense can have little to nothing to say, for there is no alternative interpretant against which they can be gauged and ultimately replaced by successor signs;signs becoming more signs is the spitting image of signs in flux.
Self-criticism of one's signs, the process of signs becoming more signs, is not, contrary to most rational and analytical practices, the hors d'oeuvre, but the entrée. It is the Socratic maxim that we learn best when we find we are mistaken. It is the Peircean pragmatic maxim according to which we put some signs to the test in terms of their expected performance on the stage of every conceivable world theatre. There are no ends in sight, only the hope that whatever empire of signs might happen to pop up, it won't last long, for a better set of signs is sure to come about, to emerge, somewhere, and at some time. With a new set of signs, spirits rise, there is renewed enthusiasm, hands and minds are put to the task. But, of course, this flurry of activity serves to usher in alternative signs hopefully with more dignified credentials. And the game goes on.
The intriguing project would be to follow through with this idea of science and knowledge - and hence semiotics - as more a matter of flux than of stability. This would require genuine dialogic imagination and practice and processual thinking rather than each semiotician as a romantic hero-theorist fighting off all oncomers and defending his/her turf until burn-out time, death, or retirement. It would demand dedicated inquiry and serious yet playfully engaged debates at conferences rather than conferencing for the sake of socializing and greater visibility. It would exact a commitment to theory, however tentative and fallible, and to method, however ad hoc, in addition to practice, instead of cute tales from the field about texts, flicks, sitcoms, and other facets of popular culture and exotic cultures, or whatever. It would, in short, be work, much work.
In the final analysis, is semiotics as a hopeful science dead? Yes, if we had any expectations of semiotics as a science in the classical sense. On the other hand, if by science we mean fluctuating theories, a dash of methodlessness, a healthy dose of ad hoc procedures - all of which falls in line with the nature of semiosis and is contrary to the classical notion of science - then we might just be on the right track, that of a semiotics of flow, flux, and even occasional order out of chaos. And in such case we do semiotics, we study semiosis.
Floyd Merrell earned a BA from Arizona State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. His areas of concentration are Spanish American fiction, literary theory and semiotic theory. Among his recent publications: Signs Becoming Signs (IU Press), Semiosis in the Postmodern Age (Purdue University Press), Signs Grow (University of Toronto Press), Peirce, Signs, and Meaning (University of Toronto Press, to be published in April of this year).