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This review appeared in Volume 9 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Alternative Semiotics

by Scott Simpkins

Beyond the Symbol Model: Reflections on the Representational Nature of Language, Ed. John Stewart. Albany: State University Press of New York, 1996. 343 pages. ISBN 0-7914-3084-7.

"Deconstructionists proper do not write Beyond... texts."
--Marcelo Dascal, "The Beyond Enterprise"
Post-semioticians certainly do, however. Indeed, as numerous commentators have already suggested, the consideration of semiotics frequently hinges on its status, or whether it even has a status as such anymore. John Stewart, in Language As Articulate Contact: Toward A Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication (1995), reflected this development by proposing to effectively instigate a "post-semiotics." (For extended commentary on this study, see Simpkins 1996.) To further continue this project, Stewart invited a handful of scholars to discuss (directly or indirectly) the undeniably substantial contentions he raised earlier, and Beyond the Symbol Model is the result.

Rather than belaboring a review of Language As Articulate Contact, I will focus here primarily on the new contributions to the discussion initiated by Stewart after a quick overview of the main claims he levelled against "semiotics": Stewart condemns semiotics for using the "symbol model" as its foundational paradigm, announces its consequent obsolescence, and asserts that the only possible hope for an enlightened communication studies hinges on a "post-" manifestation of semiotics. (For Stewart, "the symbol model" refers to an eclectic assortment of paradigms sharing a common feature configured as a sign.) In effect, Stewart identifies as the main shortcoming of semiotic studies of language the assumption that language is "fundamentally a system of signs or symbols" (1995: 3). Consequently, "semiotic accounts of the nature of language are crippled," he asserts, "by...serious problems of plausibility, coherence, and applicability" (xii). These "problems" result from "theoretical commitments" that hamper a productive and accountable analysis of linguistic communication.

The commitment that most significantly hinders semiotic analysis for Stewart is the two-world "problem". This results from "a fundamental distinction between two realms or worlds, the world of the sign and the signifier, symbol and symbolized, name and named, word and thought" (1995: 6-7). Such a distinction does not "coherently" account for a comprehendable interface between two realms that cannot coexist simultaneously, Stewart argues, and an ontological impasse results. Since these worlds do not intersect, this position must rely upon the assumption of an unnecessary second plane that impedes the intelligibility of a semiotic account of language. To Stewart, "distinguish[ing]...between two worlds alters the historical sense of the term world as the single coherent sphere that humans inhabit" (105). We do not live in the world of conceptual signs, this position holds, and as a result, we cannot conceive of such a sphere. Nor can it be used to adequately explain a pragmatic sense of language usage that we all draw upon every day in "conversation" consisting of "two-person dialogue in real time" (xiii).

The other commitments Stewart aligns with semiotics extend from this initial assertion. Stewart attacks the use of partitioning, identifying small (or the smallest) units of a given aspect of language as a means of breaking it down to what are assumed its essential elements. This practice, he insists, produces illusory confidence in assumptions regarding primary or foundational segments in language. It also promotes an accompanying skewed view of a synergistic process because its disparate constituent elements are not considered as a whole.

Representationalism similarly extends the independent-unit fallacy. It posits a two-world combination that resists our tangible conception of only one existent world, the one we inhabit consciously. The particular shortcoming of this commitment arises, for Stewart, in the case of represented concepts (like negations) that would exist only in the world of representation without an accompanying real-world correlative. In other words, this situation "ultimately keeps a wedge driven between the two worlds...because one entity of a given ontological status cannot coherently be said to 'represent' another entity of the same ontological status" (1995: 103). Stewart stresses analyzing "living language" (104) to ground analysis in the realm of a practical, and dialogic, discourse, as opposed to proposing a language system separate from its demonstrable use.

His final commitment attacks the instrumental view of language as a semiotic system which, he says, "hypostatizes what is lived as event and imports the subject-object distinction into language scholarship" (1995: 29). Language is rendered even further distant from its social facet if it is conceived as not only a system, but a system with a merely pedestrian use-function. It should be considered instead, he maintains, as a decidedly human practice characterized by common-sense competence gained through interpersonal communication.

Because Stewart surveys his main points from the first study in both his introduction to this volume and in its first essay ("The Symbol Model vs. Language as Constitutive Articulate Contact"), this volume is largely self-contained. Yet, it rehearses the same arguments, in admittedly different manifestations, and continues the discussion of the first study in approximately the same vein instead of offering an altogether distinct undertaking.

The presentation of the volume in Stewart's Introduction is revealing in itself, for he strategically frames the essays as though they are part of a larger, diverse discussion. "All" of the scholars Stewart invited to contribute, he says, "are interested in the promises and pitfalls of characterizing language as a representational system" (1). (The illusion of pluralism is initiated here by the syntactical prioritizing of "promises and pitfalls," although Stewart more often than not uses "promises", it turns out, in its negative sense, as something that will dissolve under subsequent scrutiny, as opposed to providing substantial "promise" for future development.) Significantly, contributors Gary Madison, Janet Beavin Bavelas, John Shotter, D. S. Clarke, and John Wilson figure in Stewart's arguments in Language As Articulate Contact. (Additional commentary by newcomers Gillian L. Roberts, Ernst Behler, Andrew R. Smith, Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, and Marcelo Dascal evidently functions to round out the discussion by providing new blood.)

Stewart depicts this collection as "an interdisciplinary conversation about the nature of language" (1). And, clearly, his "two philosophers [Madison, Dascal], three psychologists [Bavelas, Roberts, Shotter], a professor of comparative literature [Behler], a semiotician [Clarke], a sociolinguist [Wilson], and three communication theorists [Leeds-Hurwitz, Smith, Stewart]" might well have provided this outcome. Of course, other mixes could have produced different results that might have been more heterogeneously dialogic than what is generated here. That this was Stewart's goal is indicated by his assertion that this edition will appeal to those "who believe either that language can fruitfully be characterized semiotically as a representational system of signs and symbols" or believe that "postmodern critiques of representationalism raise important questions about the nature of language" (1).

Nevertheless, Stewart's own agenda is quite apparent. Despite his claim of openendedness, he adds that "this book as a whole is meant to encourage" readers to "reflect on their assumptions about the nature of language and take seriously the criticisms by some postmodern philosophers of the dominant belief that language is fundamentally a system of signs and symbols" (1). Thus, even as early as the first page of this "companion volume," it is evident that Stewart has crafted this collection primarily to reinforce his earlier thesis instead of genuinely opening queries about his ideas. In light of this, the back-cover claim that this volume "presents arguments on several sides of the contemporary debate over the representational nature of language" is true only insofar as sides refers to disciplines, as opposed to orientations which differ in terms of conceptual "interests". Even though the back cover suggests that "three chapters extend" Stewart's argument, "two frame it historically, three disagree, and one contextualizes the 'beyond enterprise' itself," closer examination may reveal otherwise.

Stewart divides the volume into essays on "Alternatives to Representational Accounts of Language and Meaning," "Postmodern Rediscoveries," and "Resuscitations of Semiotic Dimensions," and by surveying the overall contours that these essays outline, it is possible to assess what Stewart actually accomplished by compiling this project.

Gary Madison's "Being and Speaking" is one of the inclusions Stewart acknowledges as "very friendly" (65) to his own position, as is effectively indicated by Madison's characterization of "our current semiotic hang-up about language" (71). Madison critiques "the 'semiotic' theory of language" as "the idea that words are nothing more than signs" (69). Words are, in this view, "only labels, signs pointing to things" (70). Because language accordingly "enables us to get a grip on things," it is "essentially but a tool" from this perspective. This, of course, is the same point Stewart makes in his own condemnation of an instrumentalist view of signs as he sees it in "semiotics". Madison contends that post-semiotics must "eschew the 'sterile formalism'" of a method that "reduces words to mere 'symbols'" and, at the same time, it must endeavor "not to land in the quicksand...of meaninglessness laid bare by post-Nietzschean deconstructionism" (77). Consonant with Stewart's notion of inseparability between language and human consciousness, Madison attacks the "referentialist" idea that "thoughts are only indirectly signs of things--mere re-presentations of things, not direct images of them" (78).

The argument rehearsed here is familiar, insofar as claims of ultimately stable meaning are derived from the insistence that semiotics promotes a hopelessly infinite rendition of semiosis. (Madison: "it is true that if words are not signs, it is also true that they do not 'refer' to or 'denote' anything whatsoever" [81].) Madison attempts to salvage the "semiotic" condition of empty referentiality by claiming that seemingly endless signification (signs refer only to other signs, etc.) does not mean that signs (or, in this case, words) are necessarily "without meaning." To the contrary, Madison asserts, words "mean exactly what they say, namely: thoughts, experiences, things" (81). In effect, Madison equates linguisticality with a vaguely Heideggerean ontological projection: "to be and to speak," he declares, "are one and the same" (77). "Language is the way in which we, as humans,...experience what we call reality;" he maintains, "it is the way in which reality exists for us" (82). Clearly, Madison makes this contention in order to dismiss the supposed vacuum that attends most semiotic conceptions of the process of signification. "Words are not signs" (86), to Madison, insofar as "signs" constitute (or are constituted by) a chain of signifiers that ceaselessly defer meaning.

In acccordance with Stewart's preference for interactional data, Madison asserts that "language genuinely exists only in its use" and he cites "speech or dialogue" as examples that distinguish this sense of utility from the base instrumentality that Stewart decries (87). This operation eventually enables the post-semiotic project to make truth-claims about language usage that, presumably, would be untenable from a semiotic perspective. With the godless condition of signs forever echoing off of one another without hope of ever leading to a transcendental signified, semiotics can not even begin to harbor such aspirations. Furthermore, Madison distances his approach from the "theoretical" aspects of semiotics (something post-semiotics evidently transcends). In keeping with the honesty of a post-semiotics, he suggests, "we can no longer pretend to assess the truth-value of our stories by the degree to which they 'correspond' to 'reality'" (88). For the post-semiotician, "the notions of truth and falsity must be viewed not as theoretical but as practical concepts." This is based on the assumption that "the criterion of truth,...of the appropriateness of our various ways of speaking about the world...can only be the function of the worthiness of the particular way of being-in-the-world that they both bring into being and serve to legitimate" (88-89). Consequently, "truth in thinking is a matter of rightness in acting" (89).

John Shotter's "Before Theory and After Representationalism: Understanding Meaning 'from within' a Dialogical Practice" continues this line of thought by insisting that semiotics (or its "beyond" manifestation) has to account for our "living, reactive, responsive" (106) interaction with language as an alternative to "the thrall of the 'way of theory'" (107). To escape this thralldom, Shotter emphasizes Wittgenstein's theories of language and the collective effects of interpersonal contact (e.g., "it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game" [109]) by focusing on the "interactive moment" where "joint action" takes place in communication (120).

Shotter approaches this endeavor by giving prominence to seemingly extra-systemic aspects of language usage, in part, to extend Stewart's disapproval of considering language in the abstract, as opposed to investigating its operations during actual use. By contending that "it is something other than rules, conventions, representations, or theories, that make[s] our conversational talk possible" (111), Shotter reiterates the various preferences Stewart articulated earlier. Moreover, his vocabulary is revealing: discipline, dialogue, closeness--all markers of superiority in terms of the assumed advantages of post-semiotics. For instance, by studying the social dynamics of the "kind of talk...interwoven into our everyday, spontaneous ways of acting in the world," he suggests, we may be able to "make a more disciplined use of such forms of talk in our academic practices" (111). This would entail "a more dialogical and involved, a less monological and distanced stance toward our own construction of our own abilities." Like a teammate maintaining an agreed-upon line of argumentation, Shotter follows through with the post-semiotic program consistently with the others in this collection. "It is in the actual, living interplay of responses and reactions in everyday concrete circumstance--not in the play of signifiers within an abstract system in a person's head or anywhere else--that practical meanings are made," he insists (119).

In this manner, Shotter aligns himself with Stewart by demonizing the presumably excessive "theorizing" within semiotics which, he declares, prevents us from considering "practical behaviour out in the world" (103). In part, he believes, theoretical modeling keeps us from recognizing that "we hardly ever act independently of each other" (105); that systemics, in other words, is alien to "real" social communication. "Theory" is an impediment in this respect. For Shotter, "if we are to grasp the character of our practical, everyday, dialogical dealings with each other, and the indefinitely many different ways of relating ourselves to each other they make available to us," we must abandon--temporarily--theorizing and, instead, "attend to other more practical or 'instructive' forms of talk--those we actually use in our everyday conversations with each other, prior to any theorizing that we might do" (105-106). "Theory", he contends, is motivated by "the overarching aim of placing [events] all within a framework or system, thus to create a single, fixed, stable, coherent, and intelligible unitary order amongst them that can be intellectually grasped by an individual" (109). Post-semiotics, on the other hand, is based on a "natural" communication model that resists the needless strictures of a semiotics enamored with onanistic theorizing.

Gillian L. Roberts and Janet Beavin Bavelas, in "The Communicative Dictionary: A Collaborative Theory of Meaning," focus yet again on "meaning as a collaborative creation of interlocutors" (13). They contrast the relative fixity of written language with the "dynamic, dialogic, and inherently interactive" experience of "spoken language" (137). When speaking, "participants constantly create, draw upon, and update their own context, on-line." In effect, Roberts and Bavelas situate the exchange of semoisis as an at least two-way experience, with neither side receiving privilege over the other (in terms of intention, context, etc.). Furthermore, by stressing what Clark and Schaefer (1987) refer to as an act of "contribution" (140), they stress a dynamic of "semantic collaboration" that is "accomplished by speaker and addressee together." They concentrate in particular, then, on the different competencies required when an individual is ratified as an "insider" within communication (speaker and addressee) or an "outsider". One mitigating consideration to add here, is that Roberts and Bavelas fail to acknowledge the differentiation between ratified and unratified overhearers (e.g., the eavesdropper) in this distinction. (On this issue, see Bell 1984.)

Roberts and Bavelas focus on strategies that individuals within either communicative position can refine through interactive feedback and corroboration to create "effective meaning" in an exchange. Asking questions, attempting to establish context, and so on, would fall under these categories involving "utterance", "reaction" and subsequent "confirmation" (144). Once more, like Stewart et al., Roberts and Bavelas utilize "observable social interactions" for data to support their contention regarding interpersonal cooperation. As their contribution to this discussion, they identify a "communicative dictionary" (145) as "the effective meanings accomplished through semantic collaboration," something furthermore that is "always being created and recreated by dyads within the contexts of finite interactions." In their efforts to ground this endeavor in practical, intensely human, experience, they offer numerous "empirical" illustrations based on "real" recorded dialogue (146). The diction choices they make obviously say a grat deal about what Roberts and Bavelas privilege in this discussion and the accompanying implications of such an investment.

Ernst Behler's "Friedrich Nietzsche's Theory of Language and Its Reception in Contemporary Thought" has considerable theoretical "promise" consistent with the other essays included in this volume. Behler centers his discussion on Nietzsche's early essay, "On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense" (1873), as a "nonrepresentative, rhetorical conception of art and language" (175). Yet, his conception of "rhetorical" is geared specifically toward the Platonic sense of rhetoric, an undertaking that is progressively dialectical and, I would argue, hardly aligned with the Sophistic inclination toward relativism, but very much in keeping with Stewart's views on communication models. Accordingly, when Stewart's Introduction portrays Nietzsche's view of language as "a fundamentally rhetorical phenomenon" and contends that for him, "language is more event than substance or presence" (165), Stewart's use of "rhetorical" and "event" is much different from Nietzsche's, which inclines more toward the Sophists' rendition of these terms.

Stewart frames Behler's essay as demonstrating "how an account of the nature of language evolves when the centrality of communicating is affirmed" (165). Nietzsche would undeniably differ with this claim, considering his repeated emphasis on communication as an exchange of metaphors that always only refer to other metaphors, and so on. Behler strategically shifts this sense of rhetoricity into a Platonic key that brings Nietzsche usefully back into the fold that Stewart has gathered around him under the rubric of post-semiotics. Behler seems to be suggesting this very point when he observes that Nietzsche, in his pivotal essay, came to "reveal language as merely language, as a rhetorical means" (177). Still, Behler casts his discussion in terms that would appear, initially, to acknowledge this sense of "rhetorical". He calls Nietzsche's essay "a skeptical monster" in that it "denies fundamentally and categorically our ability to make any truth-related statement about the world surrounding us" (180). Behler's instrumental stress on "means" in the statement above is the key to his reworking of Nietzsche in order to portray his perspective on linguistic possibility into something that is even remotely tenable.

It is this maneuver that enables Behler to subsequently claim that Nietzsche's essay is "a decisive and perhaps the most important step in the development of Nietzsche's theory of langauge" (185), giving here a particuarly constructive spin on the concept of "development" as maturation, and not mere occurrence. Note how he can then foist a written/spoken-language distinction upon Nietzsche by asserting that, for him, "written language is dead, the language of speech is sounding, has intervals, rhythms, tempi that 'symbolize' a realm of feeling" (185). It should be clear that Behler's next move is to elevate spoken speech (Stewart's "natural" language) as a medium that operates beyond the symbol--as Behler's placement of "symbolize" in direct quotes suggests.

In his endeavor to rescue Nietzsche from the abyss of an out-of-control referentiality, Behler claims that "the particular character of [Nietzsche's] thoughts on language consists in a fundamental reflection on language, in a continuous process of questioning the problems of expression and communication in a basic manner" (172, emphasis added). While this certainly could be said of Nietzsche, Behler gives Nietzsche's essay an "interested" frame and turns him into an apologist for a type of linguistic essentialism that does not accord with his essay, or his body of work related to the nature of language, for that matter. Earlier in his career (in The Birth of Tragedy, for instance), Nietzsche's conception of the mechanics of language is based on what Behler characterizes as "a metaphysical theory of absolute representation" in that humans are "capable of representing and expressing the Primordial One [the last ground of all beings] in an immediate, that is, unmediated manner" (175). Behler claims, however, that with his emphasis on rhetoric (as in his essay on "Truth and Lie"), "Nietzsche's early theory of language begins to dissolve and that nonrepresentative, rhetorical conception of art and language emerges" (175). This is certainly true, but with exactly the opposite register that Behler gives it.

Behler wants to cast Nietzsche as refusing the notion that language is emptily referential, but in fact, Nietzsche celebrates the vast reserve that is created by what Behler characterizes as mere nothingness. To Stewart, ironically, Behler's essay indicates that Nietzsche ultimately suggested "language is more event than substance or presence" in that it is "a fundamentally rhetorical phenomenon" (165), yet again, Nietzsche saw this sense of "event" in a wholly different light than that portrayed by these post-semioticians.

Andrew Smith's "Simple Signs, Indeterminate Events: Lyotard on Sophists and Semiotics" explores post-semiotic claims in relation to one of the most insightful critics of semiotics, Jean-François Lyotard. Smith's accounting of Lyotard's writings on semiotics builds upon his attack of "the ideology of communication exchange [which] presupposes that everything real, and everything other, can and will be explained according to rational lights" (202). For instance, Smith maintains that "Lyotard's polemic against semiotics takes aim at the logocentric presupposition that a system of linguistic and extralinguistic signs can be negotiated in persuasive and revelatory ways" (201). Lyotard promotes the opposite view of representationalism: "not only can the thing never be known in itself, but any name is a provisional designation that bears no motivated relation to that which it ostensibly designates." As Behler points out that this position is directly aligned with Nietzsche's, the same could be said quite plausibly about Smith's account of "semiotics" as well. Although, obviously this denial of potential motivation is too sweeping (onomatopoeia, etc.), Smith makes this assertion as a prelude to reinforcing the "post-semiotic" stress on effective communication through dialectical negotiation.

Smith supports Lyotard's praise for the Sophists' conceptions of "designation and signification" (201) which contrasts with a semiotics derived from Augustine's writings on the sign (what Stewart refers to as "classical semiotics" [197]). While focussing on Lyotard's Libidinal Economy (1974), Smith recounts Lyotard's claim that Augustinian semiotics is based on a desire for enforced homogeneity. In keeping with Stewart's desire to simulate conversationality in this collection, Smith constructs "an improvised dialogue between a Lyotardian and a Peircian" (201) to flesh out this dynamic and stresses the benefits of Lyotard's "pagan notions of the sign" (202) which is "radically different" (203) than that of classical semiotics. In the latter, Smith contends via Lyotard, "the event is linked determinatively to other 'signs' that signify, a priori, the truth of the event" (207). As a consequence, "reality is determined according to culture-specific verification procedures." "The reality of the unverifiable or indeterminate is denied or suppressed," he concludes. "Difference is marked out in familiar signs and categories" (203). (Note here Smith's emphasis on the "improvised" nature of his dialogue, a gesture that presumably allows him to better approximate Stewart's call for studying "natural" data by using "invented" data that is somehow less artificial because it was composed extemporaneously.)

Stewart contends that classical semiotics "holds out the hope of adequate representaion, discourse that is true because it corresponds with that which is" (197). This leads to symbol-model based "discourse theories that strive for certainty, clsoure, and control." Such a development would be reflected, Stewart adds, in methods of analysis (e.g., some forms of ethnography) that attempt to "provide 'accurate' or 'true' descriptions."

Consonant with Stewart's insistence that conversation is an inherently "open" form of discourse, Smith notes with approval that, in Smith's dialogue, "appropriately, no resolution is reached" (198). This seems like a curious facet of this endeavor of post-semiotics to celebrate, given that other aspects of it are touted as leading to the very assumptions that Stewart challenges in this Introduction to Smith's essay. It does reveal a lot about his method for constructing a critical alternative to semiotics as he repeatedly characterizes semiotics in ways that are specifically related, antithetically, to methodological assumptions he prefers. In this case, then, the ostensive yearning to accrue epistemological capital from "semiotic" analysis is viewed as a powerplay that tries to mask its motives. From a post-semiotic standpoint, individuals engaged in conversation are merely being human in its fullest sense.

Smith suggests that his conversation is "not a dialogue in the Platonic sense but an agonistics in the sophistic sense," but this is not the case ultimately (209). He observes that, given their typical outcomes, the Platonic dialogues revealed that their participants "were determined to get the better of signs, to show that the truth of the referent could be revealed through proper dialectical methods that would not allow the weaker argument to prevail over the stronger" (203). His dialogue shares this desire, much in the same fashion that Plato depicts Socrates arguing with Sophists about the goals of rhetoric. In such a scenario, the Sophist participants are not really engaging in Sophistics or agonistics the way that Smith promotes. Rather, they have been lured into a captious arena of dialogue which, in itself, forces them to countenance, and eventually concede to, a method that they would otherwise disdain. This is what happens with Smith's Lyotardian who is eventually led to admit agreement with the Peircean on at least on one point and to acknowledge the construction of valid truth-claims in the course of their "agonistics".

This strikes me as far different from the Sophistic practice of rhetorical display that is not motivated by the desire for yielding "truth". In the end, accordingly, Smith actually rehearses the scenarios of so-called classical semiotics that he claims he avoids, concluding with a remarkable parallel between his dialogue and the last development of Plato's Cratylus. Another parallel with Plato can be found when Socrates, in the Gorgias, ensnares Gorgias in a debate rather than allowing him to put on a Sophistic performance. In this instance, it can hardly be said that Gorgias is engaging in a Sophistic agon, but instead, is significantly restricted in his dialogic interactions by the constraints Socrates imposed on him. This what happens in Smith's fabricated dialogue: the very employment of this speech genre prevents the kind of truly open dialogism that Stewart et al. propose for this volume.

Ironically, Smith notes that Lyotard's proposal for revamping semiotics is based on examining an "interdisciplinary event" (208) grounded by an ongoing agonistics, with "difference" ensuring an egalitarian status for all sign users involved. Smith's "dialogue", then, is designed to demonstrate an economy in which "contingencies are endless" (209) in a positive sense and "the end of the conversation does not end in truth," but rather, in an exhilirating openness. Still, such infinitude is somehow different from the kind the post-semioticians fearfully associate with semiotics, and it is a "difference" in Socrates', rather than Lyotard's, conception of the term ultimately.

The consistent orientation in Beyond the Symbol Model toward a constructive post-semiotics is reflected additionally in Smith's rationale for employing a dialogue, a mode of discourse akin to conversation which can be characterized as unproductively formless and therefore lacking in sufficient purpose. But, Smith asserts that the interchange that constitutes his conversation "does not mean that description is superfluous but simply that one description is always already in conflict with others, and this conflict...rather than the 'true' rendition of the event is the most fruitful site for critical inquiry" (214). Smith applies this theoretical orientation to a specific endeavor--"communication ethnography"--which makes an "attempt to articulate an identifiable culture as it is embodied in its communicating" and therefore is viewed as "a rhetoric of performance" (215) as opposed to a static, and thus knowable, entity.

This is conceived in Smith's schema as "linkage" (a "paratax" consisting of "an outbreak" of "highly improvisational, contingent, tactical, and often agonizing forms" that are localized and provisional [219]), "embodiment" (something that "takes up and takes on various 'human' positions" [220] within communication), and "power relations" ("the intensity with which one's body is taken up by a body of discourse" [221]). For the critical ethnographer, "rendering the other, and/or rendering self-other interactions, no matter how marginal s/he (or they) may be, is a presentation of a presentation of an event...and certainly not a semblance of any single event of practice in itself" (217). From this perspective, Smith concludes that communication theorists, and especially ethnographers, should "take up a position on the margins of the field...and learn the ways of the sophists," thereby increasing the chances of developing a position that is "critically self-conscious in any attempt to graphically present the practices of the other" (222).

Evidently, Smith is casting the post-semiotician in this position as a figure who is heroically resisting the countenancing of bad-faith modeling aligned with semiotics in order to act more powerfully through constant struggles to profitably reconfigure methodology, although one can argue that this assumption is made possible only through a decidedly skewed rendition of what constitutes "semiotics".

(Oddly enough, Nietzsche problematizes this arguably "easy" assumption of heroism in the conclusion of his essay that Behler discusses as he distinguishes between rational and intuitive individuals and their concomitant strategies for resisting ontological co-option. Nietzsche, it should be noted, craftily grants privilege to neither subject position, and thus successfully attains the methodologically nomadic stance by, contra Smith, placing these two figures in perpetually energetic opposition, while Smith's one-sided proposal for strategic marginalization seems needlessly reductive in comparison.)

Stewart concludes his comments on Smith's essay with a revealing remark about Lyotard's project. Although he concludes that Lyotard's "transformational account of language" is "radically different from the classical view," Lyotard "would have succeeded even more completely than he did" had he couched this undertaking without casting it as "a theory of signs" (199). This contention also is a telling indication of the manner in which Stewart has endeavored to formulate his post-semiotics. Overall, it appears that he may well be merely substituting one set of conceptual nomenclature with another, leaving "semiotics" thus largely the way it was before despite its newly added "post-" prefix.

D. S. Clarke's "Semiotic and Transactional Aspects of Language" stands out in this volume in part because Stewart declares that it "voices exactly the kind of contribution to the conversation that I envisioned when I first planned this volume" (233). Stewart consistently couches these observations, when assessing those not completely "friendly" to his position, as though such contributers are being tolerated or perhaps even patronized within this conversation because their views are somehow flawed. Regarding Clarke, for example, Stewart adds: "Readers can judge for themselves the degree to which Clarke affirms each of the five theoretical commitments making up the symbol model and the extent to which these commitments weaken his claims" (emphasis added). Clearly, Stewart's framing of this remark in his Editor's Introduction implies that, in his estimation, Clarke's argument falls prey to the "commitments" and that, consequently, this only detracts from its substance. Given his power as editor of this collection, Stewart functions like Plato relating Socrates's dialogues in this regard: even though the socratic dialogue is ostensibly "dialogic", the deck is undeniably loaded in Socrates's favor. In this respect, he repeatedly gets to have the "last word"--and he gets it in first, moreover.

Clarke's essay is worth examining closely in relation to Stewart's comments. He pursues a localized distinction between semiotic and semiotics, the former aligned with "vertical classifications of signs that compare and contrast the conventional elements of human communication" (236) and the latter concerned with "horizontal classifications comparing and contrasting cultural forms of communication." As Clarke's title suggests, his focus is on "semiotic", especially in its concern with "natural signs" (those "not used for communicative purposes but instead occurring 'naturally' within the environments of their interpreters") and rudimentary "prelinguistic signals" employed in animal communication. These "natsigns" provide a conceptual basis, Clarke says, that can usefully lead to a foundation for explorating more complex sign systems.

Clarke's strategy for changing the "traditional vertical classifications [of semiotic] to maintain its viability" (236) entails, in part, framing the "symbol" as a set of "conventional or rule-governed linguistic signs." He additionally proposes broadening semiotic's reliance upon considering "fact-stating language as a basis for its vertical classification" by considering expressive and instrumental functions of language, in addition to linguistic prescription--despite whatever challenges they may offer to systematic/systemic analysis. Clarke stresses relying on distinctions of "necessary" and "logical" features of language in order to "reintroduce a standard of simplicity in terms of which complex linguistic signs can be measured" (240). This is where "primitive" natsigns would come in, in that they "serve as a base to compare and contrast first signals without subject-predicate structure and then isolated sentences, discourse blocks of ordinary language, and finally the discourse frameworks used within...institutionalized specializations." Such signs, Clarke suggests, have "significance...derived from direct associations" and therefore stand as "that sought-for primitive base from which more complex signs can be derived" (241). (Clarke defines "primitive" as: "One type of sign S1 can be said to be more primitive than another S2 if the use of S2 is possible only on the condition that S1 is in prior use, while S1's use is independent of S2's" [240].)

However, Clarke promotes a reverse strategy for analyzing more complex signs by beginning with complex linguistic signs and "abstract[ing] from [their] complexity and variety basic logical features capable of extension to more primitive forms of sign interpretation" (242). Clarke projects this method onto a consideration of transactional aspects of language in order to situated his analysis in the realm of data derived from actual linguistic exchanges. "If iconic representations are indeed confined to language and signalling levels," he says, "they would be similar to aspects of conversational language that function to establish and maintain channels of communication between speaker and audience" (244). To ground this analysis in the "lived" component of communication that Stewart favors, Clarke emphasizes analyzing interpersonal markers that indicate interactive illocutionary import ("I promise you...", etc.) and significantly shape forms of address away from the abstract conception of language as a system separate from its use.

By attending to the mechanics of diverse conversational markers, Clarke demonstrates the purported goal of semiotic as "comparing and contrasting logical features of reference and significance present at different sign levels" (246). Furthermore, he argues, elements of transaction "provide contexts in which informational, prescriptive, and expressive content is conveyed." Although he contends that "these elements themselves do not perform representational, instrumental, controlling functions; they themselves neither describe nor prescribe," nevertheless, the "radicals embedded in such contexts do have logical structure and do perform such functions." In effect, within this schema, these elements "provide the primary basis for comparison both 'down' to primitive signs and 'up' to specialized forms of discourse."

To Stewart, possibly the greatest shortcoming of Clarke's claims (regarding the analysis of "primitive sign-radicals") is that they run contrary to Stewart's own assertion that "any viable account of language must be informatively applicable to paradigm instances of its explanandum and that the paradigm instance of language is naturally occurring conversation" (233). (Clarke, to the contrary, employs what Stewart calls "invented examples" of linguistic transaction in his efforts to highlight the engagement of language at the systemic level, even in informal conversation.)

This raises an important point regarding Stewart's overall project: does the type of data analyzed significantly affect its relation to the semiotic modeling employed to analyze it? Obviously, it does to various degrees, but one might propose that this difference is structural, and not qualitative. For example, Clarke differentiates between communication and signification depending upon whether "mentality" is involved. While Stewart makes the same distinction, he declares that a "purer" form of intentional impact is found in "articulate contact" that is untainted by structural or scripted characteristics. In other words, within this perspective an invented example (say, a line from a play) would possess a residue of systemic contamination that presumably "natural" speech (say, a spontaneous argument between two speakers) does not possess. Clarke's endeavor to develop models from "primitive" signs is, approximately, the same strategy in this respect.

"The conversation continues" (256) with Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz's "A Social Account of Symbols," an attempt to "rehabilitate" the "symbol" in a way that can presumably satisfy Stewart's requirements for a compelling communication model. "Participants use symbols during interaction as part of their efforts to jointly create meaning," Leeds-Hurwitz suggests. "Symbols do not stand alone as isolates, but rather are supported by and integrated into the meaning structures we erect as we participate in the process of communication" (259). In Leeds-Hurwitz's "social account of symbols," she draws, again, on "actual use" (257) of symbols as supported by a "real" example, all the more substantiated because it comes from her personal life: a necklace that she had cathected with a wide array of symbolic significance. The various social semiotic connotations of this piece of jewelry reinforce Leeds-Hurwitz's contention regarding the "use" of a signifying, nonverbal entity of this nature. (This last consideration also meets Stewart's preference for a mixture of linguistic and translinguistic illustrative data, along with the analysis of "natural" data.)

Leeds-Hurwitz outlines "a series of basic concepts" (257) for this symbolic "explication": three contextualize symbols (event, community, identity) and three identify instrumental usage (polysemy, bricolage, intertextuality). These then are employed to analyze numerous aspects of the necklace in relation to Leeds-Hurwitz's definition of the "symbol" as "something that stands for something else" (258). Stewart predictably takes issue with Leeds-Hurwitz's acceptance of instrumentalism as well as her employment of "semiotic vocabulary" (256) in the course of this procedure.

In "Discourse Worlds and Representation," John Wilson continues this discussion by addressing Stewart's insistence that "language cannot be both a way of being constitutive of humanity and a system instrumentally employed by already constituted humans to represent cognitions and accomplish other goals" (275). Significantly, he adheres to Stewart's other tenets regarding the analysis of what Stewart reiteratively identifies as "naturally occurring everyday language" (275). By studying recordings of personal testimony of both Catholic and Protestant college students as they assess Northern Ireland's "troubles," Wilson concludes that speakers can employ language as an already constituted system and yet do so in a way that contributes to self-constitution (through interpersonal behavior) at the same time. This allows Wilson to align himself with Stewart nevertheless, for, as he contends, "systemic choices from within language as an independent system allow us to create our world, not as a given, but, in agreement with Stewart, as something we constitute or create through our talk in interaction" (280).

In the course of setting up these explicitly two-way dynamics in this volume, Stewart has undeniably constructed a conversation of sorts (with the essays by Wilson and Smith essay standing as, perhaps, the most dialogically engaged among the bunch). Between the writers' response to Language as Articulate Contact, and Stewart's subsequent response to their responses (in his Editor's Introductions to each essay), the overall effect of Beyond the Symbol Model is one of constant dialogism--of a specific kind, anyway. But, the essay that readers of the SRB will probably find most intriguing is the final entry, Marcelo Dascal's The Beyond Enterprise.

While the other essays in this volume attempt to somehow make semiotics acceptable for Stewart, Dascal's explores the semiotics of this venture as a whole, and manages to bring a brief frisson to the collection in the process. Dascal catalogs aspects of "family resemblance" among a number of books that employ beyond-titles (including Stewart's edition under review here) to establish a "shared metaphor that serves to name and structure them" (304). Two principles shape these texts, he notes: "there is something wrong, unsatisfactory, or at least insufficient" with a method/theory, and "the author proposes a way to overcome the unsatisfactoriness" (305). Significantly, he offers some painfully accurate observations about Stewart's own enterprise in the course of his taxonomy. While Stewart frames Dascal's undertaking as an investigation of "both [Dascal's] weakening commitment to the symbol model and challenges that face scholars interested in moving beyond this metaphor" (301), I would argue that Dascal provides a trenchant critique of some of the conceptually myopic presumptions and contentions behind Stewart's rendition of post-semiotics.

Dascal identifies two central aspects of beyond-texts: hope and critique. These can be situated on a scale of increasing intensity and widening scope. For critique: 1) "building upon," 2) "inner critique," 3) "confinement," 4) "desacralization," and 5) "deconstruction". Briefly, these range in corresponding degrees of beyond-goals: (1) to build upon useful but flawed concepts and practices of a method/theory, or (2) to identify these flaws as increasingly disabling, or (3) to abandon this method/theory as hopelessly flawed, or (4) to attack the "sacred" status of an unshakably entrenched method/theory, or finally, (5) to make a "devastating critique of all constructions [that] holds the promise of a contruction-free world, a world where subservience to any system, theory, or narrative is perceived as contingent and therefore as not binding" (315). (Stewart, Dascal notes, is aligned with this schema at the third degree.)

His gradient for hope works along the same lines: (1) liberation, (2) developing an alternative, (3) transcendence, (4) reinventing language, and (5) acceptance of tu quoque. (Stewart is grouped among the second degree in this case.) To illustrate Dascal's ostensive critique of Stewart's volume, consider his elaboration on the apparent vulnerability of beyond-texts to tu quoque arguments: "if one has rejected the traditional notions of 'representation,' 'sign,' 'interpretation,' 'justification,' as components of the undesirable 'symbol model,' it is not easy to prove that one's alternative conception does not surreptitiously include remnants of these notions" (320). "Usually," he adds, "Beyond... texts reveal a surprising naivete concerning dangers attending the alternatives they propose, which makes them easy prey for tu quoque arguments" (320).

Rather than a shortcoming, though, this claim provides the beyondist with a means for escaping a trap that is deemed irrelevant--no real trap at all, in other words. Citing "deconstruction" to illustrate this extreme form of hope, Dascal contends that its optimism necessitates "either not to propose an alternative or else to express total indifference regarding the status of the alternative or account one proposes." Ultimately, this final strategy (i.e., "rejecting the idea that criticism must be 'constructive,' that is, that it must provide alternatives, and ignoring [or even welcoming] tu quoque arguments against their accounts") seems to invite a truly "open" form of dialogism, one that might provide a more nuanced model for critiquing semiotics than the more conservative one that Stewart et al. develop here, in fact.

Dascal argues finally for much more extensive pursuit of the Beyond Enterprise than he covers in this essay. (In fact, his essay was "interrupted," he claims, and therefore is itself incomplete [325].) He points out that its ubiquity makes beyondness especially powerful as an organizing convention, and to such an extent that some its significant implications may have been rendered relatively invisible. For, as he insists, the Beyond Enterprise "is not neutral" (326). "It imposes a certain structuration of the field of inquiry," he suggests, as "its choice carries with it a 'hidden agenda,' not devoid of epistemological and ontological implications." (For example, he continues, it privileges analysis concerned with flux over stasis, diachrony over synchrony, etc.) Once more, he relates this point as it pertains to Stewart by observing that "'the symbol model' is rejected mainly on the grounds that it views language as a system of synchronically fixed signs, each of which functions as a surrogate for that which it represents or stands for," while "post-semiotics" is portrayed in just the opposite terms (326).

Smith begins the first footnote to his essay in this fashion: "Along these same lines see Stewart..." (222). Unfortunately, this too often is the case in Beyond the Symbol Model, as each contributor does not stray far from Stewart in the course of this "conversation". (Admittedly, explicit references to Stewart's work disappear between pages 71 and 271 [out of 343 pages], but they appear throughout this volume implicitly.) In the course of acknowledging Stewart's role in this venture, some of the contributors go so far as to heroicize him. Madison offers a telling illustration of this when he gushes: "writers like John Stewart should not be deterred from doing their best to overturn the semiotic model. It is possible, on rare occasions, for a David to slay a Goliath" (70).

Moreover, one has to wonder about the pluralism that is possible within a collection of this nature, especially considering who is in charge of editing it. Readers may recall Stewart, on his openness in terms of entertaining competing theories, remarking in the earlier study that he is "skeptical about coexistence, eclecticism, or theoretical pluralism when what is at issue is the understanding of the basic nature of language itself" (1995: 129).

And, as Dascal points out, beyond-projects often attempt to conceal the motives that out of necessity have to operate beneath the surface. Take the significant vocabulary privileging among Stewart et al. as an example. Repeatedly, they emphasize concepts that are "practical", "demonstrable", "fundamental", "basic", "primary", "natural", "living", and "collective". This becomes quite frustrating after awhile, because as Dascal and Wilson (and the others, to far lesser degrees) suggest, a great deal can be done to fruitfully critique semiotics. Given how Stewart has constructed this volume, however, it is not that difficult to predict how he may, as he remarks, "frame" his "next contribution to this conversation" (302).


Bell, Allan (1984) Language style as audience design. Language in Society 13, 145-204.

Clark, H. H., and E. F. Schaefer (1987) Collaborating on contributions to conversations. Language and Cognitive Process, 2, 19-41.

Simpkins, Scott (1996) The semiotics of post-semiotics, The Semiotic Review of Books 7.1 (January), 8-10

Stewart, John (1995) Language As Articulate Contact: Toward A Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication. Albany: State University Press of New York.

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