Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives
This review appeared in Volume 4 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Semiotics in the United States. By Thomas A. Sebeok. Bloomington and Indianapolis: IndianaUniversity Press 1991, 173 p. ISBN 0-253-35134-0.
For over thirty years, Thomas Sebeok has written prolifically on semiotic themes, tirelessly seeking to expand the agenda of the 'science of signs' to encompass all fields of communication, human or otherwise. As an organizer of conferences, president of major academic societies, director of research programs, and as editor of journals and a book-series to boot, he has also played a major role in institutions devoted to the advancement and dissemination of semiotic ideas. Everything in his career has thus prepared him to reflect on Semiotics in the United States. However, while Sebeok's contribution to the semiotic vocation, from his long-standing base at Indiana University, has been an ecumenical and distinguished one, this is a somewhat frustrating book. True enough its contents offer a wealth of information and references. But from its title, the reader might expect the book to provide an account of how, and why, semiotics emerged in the United States or/and of what is distinctive about its national character -- i.e. what is especially 'American' about it. Equally, we might hope for some methodological issues to be raised regarding how a history of semiotics in one country, or more generally, might be written. Instead, the book offers less an analysis of semiotics in the United States, than a fresco of various themes adorned by the personal recollections and vignettes of its author.
The book consists of three Parts of unequal length, together with a quasi-autobiographical Appendix (dubbed 'Vital Signs') first published in the American Journal of Semiotics in 1985 as Sebeok's Presidential address to the Semiotic Society of America. Part I, 94 pages in all, comprises an identification of the semiotic object i.e. 'epistemology, understood in the broad sense of the cognitive constitution of living entities'(2); a sketch of some semiotic pioneers, notably Frederick A. Rauch, Alexander Bryan Johnson, Garrick Mallery, David Efron (8-20); an affirmation that linguistics is a branch of semiotics (23-30); a list of semiotic fields of investigation -- theatre, puppetry, television, etc. (32-33, 79-82), and a catalogue of disciplines drawing on semiotic inspiration (medicine, psychiatry, physics, anthropology, archaeology, among them (47-56)); a discussion of the meaning and scope of 'applied semiotics' (54-59); a commentary on 'the sustained impact of European semiotics upon American semiotics' (89-94); and, through-out, reference to the foundational figures of Peirce, Morris, and Jakobson.
Parts II and III constitute the remaining fifth of the text (minus the Appendix). The second Part (94-99) deals with the educational infrastructure of semiotics (its teaching practices, journals, book series' institutes); while Part III (100-118) speculates on where semiotics might be heading. Given Sebeok's belief that the 'sign science has always seemed to be a branch of the life science' (101), it is understandable that he should see the union of biological and semiotic research ('endosemiotics') as the most promising way forward: the genetic, immune, metabolic and neural codes are all message-bearing sub-systems amenable to semiotic decipherment (106-10).
In a main text of only 118 pages, this is a lot of ground to cover. But the problem is not simply one of ambition outstripping narrative performance. It is, more fundamentally, one of organization and method. Sebeok's approach to semiotics in the US is frankly 'highly eccentric, not to say idiosyncratic', a veritable 'harlequin braid' (6). 'At the most', he informs his readers, 'some of us are ready to contribute bits and pieces in the expectation that such scraps of bricolage, or recording, may eventually be gathered up into a reasonably integrated collective mythic record' (1). Assuredly, few of his readers will want or expect 'rigid chronology' (5); but fewer still will find plausible an exegetical procedure dedicated to 'the quasi-cinematic principle of flashbacks and flashforwards of experience, transporting my readership as and where appropriate within the confines of my own tenaciously associative memory' (5). So what might have been a more satisfactory way to proceed? Minimally, we require concepts flexible but rigorous enough to plot the trajectory of American semiotics. We might, for instance, wish to examine the traditions, and tradition segments, that constitute its field. Or we might want to isolate 'the response inviting structures' (Iser 1980: 62) or 'nodal points' (Collingwood 1946: 241-243) which have constituted, and the 'horizon of expectations' (Jauss 1982: 19) which have influenced the selective reception of semiotic themes. Or, yet again, we might want to investigate the idea that semiotics has 'founding' figures, as Sebeok suggests it does (60, cf.6, 126).Now it is true that all academic disciplines and endeavours make obeisance to their founding figures, 'our titans', as Sebeok calls them (105), and semiotics is no exception. But what elevates a particular person to the status of a 'founder'? Sebeok does not say, and in this he is by no means exceptional: the notion of founding has become such a commonplace that it is now rarely scrutinised by those who employ it. Yet if an account of semiotics is itself to be somatically reflexive, attention to its own 'vital signs' is mandatory. In order to show why, let us scrutinize more closely the founder mythology, and in the process use Sebeok's text as a resource to do so.
In the literature that makes (mostly casual) reference to the terms founder, two different senses of the word appear to be invoked. First, there are so-called discursive founders (cf. Foucault 1969: 88-94), that is, figures who owe their heroic stature to the belief that they are responsible for establishing a system of ideas formative of a tradition. From that perspective, Saussure or Peirce might figure as examples of founders of the semiotic field. In partial contrast to discursive founders are the institutional founders: people who initiated some artifact or organization devoted to the development and transmission of, say, semiotic ideas. They may have established a journal, a university Department, an academic society; or, like Charles Morris in the case of semiotics in the United States, have been the first to teach a course specifically dedicated to the subject (Sebeok 95).
To be sure, this is a crude distinction and an account of semiotics in the United States, or anywhere else, would require further, refining discriminations to make it serviceable: for instance between those figures who deliberately sought to establish the new field, who, as it were, saw semiotics as their metiér, and those who did not but who were subsequently appropriated by its practitioners. Moreover, it is of course possible for a figure to be considered both a discursive and an institutional founder at one and the same time -- as Durkheim usually is in the case of sociology. On the other hand we should note that the very term 'founder', in a discursive sense, is problematic in a way that in an institutional sense it is not. ln the latter case, we have well-established means of ascertaining the reality of the founding process; the criteria of validation are empirical: thus, in the case of the founding of a university Institute we can readily assemble the documents which bear witness to those who initiated the enterprise, secured the funding to launch it, composed its first management board, and so on.. However, the origins, range and authority of a discourse raise issues that can never be definitively settled: here we have an aporia, a controversy which is not susceptible to being finally resolved, because everything turns on how one defines the coordinates of the discourse in question. This aporia reveals itself in the dessensus that surrounds: which intellectual tradition the founder's work is closest to; which concept or theme in the founder's discourse is the 'central' one; who the first 'real' semiotician was; what kind of break with the past founding entails.
Equally, we need to recognize that the very concept of discursive founding (as distinct from institutional founding) is probably incoherent; essentially it involves a conflation between an author's work and the discussion that surrounds it. Now a body of work can be founded in the loose sense of it being the product of an authorial accomplishment; it is contemporaneous with, and derivable from, the author who furnished it (in concert with the traditions, idioms, material and collegial resources, etc. he or she enlisted in the process of textual production). Discourse, on the other hand, arises when the author's work is considered significant enough to be the subject of sustained discussion; and discussion is, by definition, dialogical: it involves two or more parties in a 'conversation' about the author's achievement. Now one does not found a discourse; one is subject to it, or one takes part in it; and the relationship between work and discourse is itself highly indeterminate: Marx's work, for instance, has been able to prompt widely diverging appropriations -- the humanistic (Lukacs, Sartre) and anti-humanistic (Althusser, early Hindess and Hirst) versions being only the most salient (for others, see Anderson, 1976, 61-74). So to put the matter somewhat differently: while one can produce work which is the focus for a discourse, one cannot found a discourse (work + interpretation) itself since discourse entails what happens to a work when it is identified as significant. This warrants the conclusion that semiotics' discursive 'founders' are best envisaged not as carved in granite, but as the product of a negotiated, ongoing process indistinguishable from the ways a discipline establishes its identity and its chief preoccupations; and these preoccupations derive both from dynamics internal to the discipline or field, and from developments occurring in the world outside the academy -- the issue-agendas established by social movements, for example. In short: if a discourse is a product of sustained interlocution, so is the notion of a founder of that discourse. Rather than founders being the ostensible source of a discourse, they are the constructions of it.
Uncritical usage of the received idea of discursive founding is also misleading in other ways: in particular, it is unhistorical in implying a clean break with the past, a clean slate for the future -- a conceptual annus mirabilis. Consider in this context Freud's own reflections on his relationship to psychoanalysis. In 1914 Freud -- that 'embattled founder' (Gay,1988:153) -- declared triumphantly that 'Psychoanalysis is my creation'(1986: 63), even though some years earlier, in 1909, he had given Josef Breuer the credit for bringing 'psychoanalysis into existence' (64). To square the circle, Freud settled on the following solution: Breuer's 'cathartic procedure' was demoted to 'a preliminary stage of psychoanalysis' (64) which really began with Freud's abandonment of the technique of hypnosis and his introduction of free association.
The logic of this kind of argument is as clear as it is delusive: Once the idea of discursive founding, or some variant on it ('my creation'), is entertained, the intellectual subordination of 'precursors, contemporaries, epigones, acolytes' (Sebeok, 6) becomes inevitable. Because founding suggests priority, a first step, an infrastructure upon which other contributions rest, it must entail too a narrative strategy in which the contributions of historical others and contemporaries become secondary and separable from the founding 'act'. For if they were not secondary and separable, then the act could not be a founding one, but instead would need to be envisaged as a transformation of the necessary conditions and materials without which it would be unthinkable.
The above comments suggest that a satisfactory account of semiotics in the United States will need to investigate not just the institutions which carried the semiotic idea forward, some of which are covered by Sebeok in the six pages dedicated to this theme (94-100). It will also require a related investigation into the processes of cultural reception through which semiotics was constructed and adopted. Both will necessitate an historical inquiry equipped with concepts capable of doing justice to the complexity of the phenomena in question.
Anderson, P. (1976). Considerations on Western Marxism. London: New Left Books.
Collingwood, R.G. (1946), The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Freud, S. (1986 (1914)), "On the history of the psychoanalytic movement". In A. Dickson (ed), Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis (Vol. 15, of the Pelican Freud Library). Trans. Joan Riviere. Harmondsworth: Penquin.
Foucault, M (1969), 'Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur', in Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie, Vol. 63, pp. 73-104. Partially translated by J.V. Harari in P. Rabinow (ed), 1986, The Foucault Reader, pp. 101-120. Harmondsworth; Penguin.
Gay, P. (1988), Freud. A Life for our Time. London: Dent.
Iser, W. (1980), "Interview", Diacritics Vol. 10:2, 57-74.
Jauss, H.R. (1982), Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Peter Baehr is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. He publishes mainly in the fields of social and political theory. His Ph.D. thesis (1987) investigated the political language of 'Caesarism' in nineteenth century European thought. With Gordon Wells, he is presently editing a book of Max Weber's writings on Russia (Polity Press). This review of Sebeok draws on issues discussed in a forthcoming work with Mike O'Brien (Department of History, Queen's University) on sociological traditions. Their research will be published as a full number of Current Sociology.