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This editorial appeared in Volume 9 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Dangerous Semiosis

by Joji Mori

It now is about time that we paid more attention to Kenneth Burke's work. With the exception of a seminar given by Greig Henderson at the Twelfth International Summer Institute for Semiotic and Structural Studies in 1990 at the University of Toronto, I have never heard that his work was seriously discussed in connection with semiotics. For instance, Winfried Noeth's otherwise thorough coverage of the field in his Handbook of Semiotics (1990) mentions him once in passing in relation to the New Rhetoric movement and only lists his Rhetoric of Motives (1950) in his bibliography. In other disciplines, it also seems that his thought is attracting scant attention. He has not founded a school and seduced hosts of followers like Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida. Hayden White writes that one needs "stamina" to read extensively his vast oeuvre, and that, although a courageous reader " cannot fail to perceive its manifest integrity", Burke "remains for many much too richly personal to be grasped as a whole".

This distant attitude towards Kenneth Burke is all the more surprising as, in my opinion, Burke's ideas are intimately connected with the very nature of the intellectual project of semiotics. I understand the claim -- though I do not agree with it -- that semiotics can deal with anything that can take place in the world because anything that exists around us functions as a sign that may or may not elicit a response from us. This approach is not restricted to humans but may involve the response of inorganic objects. If signals are considered to be a kind of sign, an artefact like a radio that responds to the waves emitted from the broadcasting station comes under the purview of semiotics. This comprehensive conception of semiotics may be correct as long as it remains on an abstract, unspecified, unspecialized, and, let us say, amateurish level. However, this sort of semiotics will instantly dissolve and be replaced by the more rigorous disciplines which have developed a true expertise in the respective domains concerned by such processes. Molecular biology may be regarded as relevant to semiotic study, considering that the DNA, an inherited sign system, emits signs towards the components of the future cells, instructing them how to construct a cell. But this study is certainly not undertaken by semioticians but by biologists. We semioticians are painfully aware that we can talk endlessly about such things but not in great technical details, and that the vast majority of us are totally unable to design a biological cellular model, a computer circuit or even to fiddle with the programs on which we depends for our electronic communications. We claim that all disciplines consist of sign interpretations but we find ourselves totally impotent when confronted with the real objects or situations.

This is why I consider Kenneth Burke's thought particularly relevant to semiotics: As I understand it, his claim is that humans are language-driven animals. Without language we would not possess what we call our inalienable self (which is perhaps a mere artefact of signs and symbols). Thus, it may be not the case that there is a kernel beyond language in me that I can call "my self". Nor is it likely that the role of language would be to discover this kernel and interpret its assumed voice. Nor that language is a reflection of our mysterious deep being which is there hidden, only waiting to be decoded or romanticized through a symbolic parable or a myth. But it may be that language -- whatever this might be -- is at the center of everything, and that when it goes inward and sinks, so to speak, into the inner "mind", penetrating its surface, it becomes our "subconscious" -- another name for our psychological ocean where the debris or flotsam of language are drifting and sink to the bottom floor on which we dream while asleep. When language moves outwards, it begins to construct a world of its own, armed with its "isms" and explanations about anything around us, persuading people who foster it, prompting them to action, encouraging or discouraging them. This eternal chatterer even often succeeds in making them believe the unbelievable, such as, for instance, that there are little green "men" who are driving the comet Hale-Bopp.

On a day of early April 1997, in a Santa Fe mansion, 39 bodies were found dead, neatly laid out on their backs on beds. They were members of the Heaven's Gate cult led by a charismatic religious fanatic who called himself Do. There has always been more than a few handfuls of zealots like him since history began. From our secular modern perspective we tend to gloss over their antics and smile them off. But Do's talk was taken seriously by beautiful people endowed with more-than-average intellect and personality who followed him , calmly getting out of their "containers" as they called their bodies at a set time in order to leave the planet earth which, they believed, was due to be "recycled". How on earth could such a thing have happened?

Burke's keywords are "dramatism", "logology" and "symbolic action". His basic idea is that humans are actors more than anything else. For him, even thinking is acting with the use of symbols. Our brain is a very busy switchyard that connects and disconnects trains of symbols. We have of course a bundle of organic instincts, obscure fears and desires. But when they emerge onto the verbal level they acquire the force to motivate people. The sense of danger becomes real when it is verbally articulated. Language to a certain degree reflects reality, but only by deflecting it can language lever our heart and mind. Burke's thought is intimately related to the very nature of semiotics. Herff Applewhite, alias Do, was "imprisoned by his own passions" (Time, April 7, 1997). But those passions had been instigated or nurtured by language, and, not surprisingly, were communicated to others through linguistic signs. Of course we can discard all this as mere illness or dysfunction, and claim that medicine or psychiatry could have cured it like a mechanic can readjust a faulty ignition plug. But the problem is that a perfectly tuned car can be driven recklessly. For me, this is the proper topic of semiotics.

I sometimes wonder if Sigmund Freud was less a psychiatrist than he thought he was. His inspiration is drawn from the Oedipus myth, which ultimately is a fabricated and only culturally inherited language artefact. Moreover he grew up in a cultural context in which the language of the Old Testament was prominent. Frankly, I find it difficult to believe his theory about the father complex, perhaps because my Japanese culture does not share the same myth system. Shinto's most revered deity, Amaterasu, the Heaven Illuminator, is a Goddess. If there were no gods, or goddesses, would theology be a mere nonsense regardless how vast the corpus of sacred texts is and how numerous are the scholars engaged in their study? I do not think so. They are living evidence of phenomena taking place in our brains. Semiotics has to do with what is actually happening. It is concerned with persuasion. But it is more than just rhetoric. It studies the way in which stories, more often than not absurd, are told and how they control human behavior. Tojo, Hitler, Lenin, the Khmer Rouge killed millions of people by telling and acting out such stories.

Less tragically, -- or is it really? -- any discipline or theory first got launched and developed by their initiators who were less researchers than innovative story tellers. As they were telling their stories, they kept inventing their terms that they proclaimed to be "objective" or "adequate" but which appear "true" only in so far as they nicely fit with each other within their favorite plot and make the reader feel intellectually comfortable. Freud, Marx and Mao have been among the best semiotic practitioners of such story telling.

For long, our souls have been insulated by the great walls of national institutions, most of our information sources being the newspapers, radio and television programs created within our own language boundaries. Exchanging letters with friends, strangers and foreigners was mostly a matter of mutual greetings, not soul searching or information gathering. Religious sects used to need large financial resources or exceptionally charismatic leaders to spread wide and large. We could ignore, or tolerate a neighbour's beliefs. In the ecology of faiths, individual beliefs tend to keep each other under control. In such contexts, I could, if I wanted, remain uncommitted or uninterested, and foster my own pet beliefs. The last communication revolution has drastically altered this situation. Getting plugged into the Internet means digitalizing our identities and dissolving our selves into some mysterious reel of words that stream through the display screen, proclaiming mystifying messages and issueing orders. Of course we still retain our freedom of thought, but we may also be "freely" persuaded at any time of the existence or truth of something we have never heard about before. Lest you think that we cannot be so naive, consider that we already believe in many things which we never experienced directly. I think I know there exists a place called Perth in Australia or a virus called HIV, or even a mountain called the Popocatepetl. But I know this only by hearsay, or by a map, or other ways of presenting or representing. We are suffused with signs that control our imagination and behavior. Eventhough we have developed methods for sifting true from the false, we overwhelmingly rely on the authority of the word, of the book. Don't we ask where it is written, when in doubt, before trusting a piece of information? The "Book" proliferates in the new Information Age. "The medium is the message" said Marshall McLuhan. Let me add: technology is spirituality. Our spirit lives on, and even flourishes under the action of the semiotic adrenaline that pilot our foggy journey. Now we are aware that our ship is heading towards a new Aegean sea where Homeric demigods are waiting to catch us in their semiotic traps, looking forward to enjoying a luscious feast on our flesh.

For Burke, language is a system of idealization. This verbal simplification of experience may be necessary for communication and memorization. Most "white" paper is not pure white from the chromatic point of view. But we say: "This piece of paper is white". Later we can refer to it without remembering exactly how white it was. Also, during conversations, we always want to take short-cuts and quickly reach the conclusions to which these verbal transactions lead. Here starts the tyranny of language. It requires that we do not pay attention to processes and things as they actually are but, rather, as they ought to be or are supposed to be according to some stereotypings which control our perception. Things become the signs of words. For instance, a group of people who have different opinions in every respect from ours begin to look like our "perfect enemies". We even might just think of dropping a H-bomb on their head as a desirable thing to do. It is this alienating, controlling, destructive aspect of language and discourse, and more generally of semiosis, that Burke endeavored to dismantle, ranging from the major foundational texts of the western civilization, such as Augustine's, to its modern perversions such as Hitler's Mein Kampf which he confronts with all his "deconstructive" arsenal in his 1939 essay "The rhetoric of Hitler's ‘battle'". The task of semioticians is not to stroll among signs as if they were in a semiotic Garden of Eden, but to call the attention of their fellow humans: "Beware! Semiosis at work!"

Joji Mori is Professor of Literature at Waseda University (Tokyo), and Past-President of the Japanese Association for Semiotic Studies. He has published numerous books and articles on English, American and Modern Japanese literatures. He is also the author of two books of poetry.


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