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Turning Corporeal

by Vicki Kirby

Semantics and the Body: Meaning from Frege to the Postmodern. By Horst Ruthrof (1997) Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4151-5 (bound) ISBN 0-8020-7993-8 (pbk.)

A good deal of contemporary research in the humanities and social sciences is comfortable with the idea that the world is a cultural object, "a significatory construal" rather than "an unmediated given" that our perception merely registers. However, the radical purchase achieved several decades ago by an emphasis on the reality effect of interpretation is today significantly attenuated, routinized by the vocabulary and proper names that have become vernacular in inter-disciplinary work. Semantics and the Body revisits the genealogical inheritance of the "linguistic turn" in postmodern and post-structuralist theorizing in order to reassess several assumptions that have become orthodox within its emerging canon. Happily, Ruthrof's critical evaluation of the privilege accorded to language is not motivated by the sort of anxious paranoia that identifies the uninitiated, those bewildered souls who wage "a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (xii). Quite the contrary, Ruthrof's achievement is both scholarly and generous, an acknowledgement of the importance of linguistics and language philosophy but one which attempts to rejuvenate the standard descriptions of meaning that enjoy contemporary currency.

Ruthrof's call for a broadly conceived semantics is answered by what he describes as "a corporeal turn", an intervention whose specific aim is to recuperate reference as a useful notion. And although he concedes the importance of verbal signs he argues for a more inclusive theorization of semantics that will understand meaning as "an event of linkage between different and only partially commensurate sign systems" (xii). Essential to his thesis is the premise that physiological processes, especially those of our sensory modalities, provide the base condition, the restraint and possibility, of human cognition in general. Indeed, it is in and through these different somatic "negotiations" that Ruthrof locates the "activating" energy upon which linguistic expression depends. The body provides a site of communicative complexity whose comprehensive stretch evokes the work of other thinkers whom Ruthrof finds helpful. For example, although the following passage is meant to clarify what an "uncaused cause" might mean, it seems reasonable to conclude that Ruthrof regards the body as similarly implicated:

an all-encompassing umbrella, something like Heidegger's Being, which acts as the inferred transcendental horizon for the 'totality of involvements' or like Charles Sanders Peirce's overall semiotics, which accounts for everything thinkable in terms of inter-connected signs. (190)

More than an emphasis on the sign's inter-semiotic linkages however, Ruthrof also expresses concern for what he regards as a creeping style of analytical impotence that seems to celebrate the dissolution of reference. In Ruthrof's assessment, this tendency to evacuate the lived dimension of sociality and to replace it with "a kind of significatory 'entropy'" or "closed circuit" of communication, information and media simulation (231) carries some very real dangers because it effectively disables political conviction and direction. In the exemplary figure of Jean Baudrillard Ruthrof detects the sort of cynical self-satisfaction whose intellectual paralysis is evident in the theorist's own words:

Every event is today virtually inconsequential, open to all interpretations, none of which could determine its meaning: the equiprobability of all causes and of all consequences -- multiple and aleatory imputation. (Baudrillard cited in Ruthrof: 232)

Against the vertigo of such conclusions, Ruthrof argues that the experience of making sense of the world is a corporealized reading practice whose inter and hetero-semiotic exchanges must necessarily involve the non-verbal. Building on Wittgenstein's Lebensformen, Ruthrof states that "the non-linguistic bedrock of language... can now be defined as culture-specific clusters of non-verbal sign practices which determine the character of language games" (164). Reference, then, emerges in the weave of communally shared experiences and perceptions whose significatory corroborations make our world meaningful. Not surprisingly, Ruthrof considers the separationof reference from meaning, or syntax from semantics, as entirely misguided. And much of Semantics and the Body is a justification of this conclusion as well as an attempt to recuperate a battery of theories of quite diverse and even opposing conviction, whose value has been compromised by an inability to make the connection.

This is an ambitious and important project both exegetically and analytically, engaging in some detail theorists as diverse as Carnap, Frege, Heidegger, Quine, Wittgenstein, Peirce, Lyotard, Derrida and others. However, it is also modestly contained, restricting itself to particular aspects of each theorist's oeuvre that can usefully be made to illustrate what Ruthrof regards as the inadequacies of current theories of meaning as well as possible ways to reconceive a more comprehensive semantics. As the breadth of Ruthrof's concerns can't be given adequate assessment here, I am going to focus my attentions on a premise which is fundamental to his thesis, namely, the nature of the sign as the fundamental atom of meaning. And in keeping with the inquiring and conjectural spirit of Ruthrof's argument, I will then go on to explain why I think the value of Ruthrof's "corporeal turn" and its possible implications have been unnecessarily restricted by an allegiance to the metaphysics of the sign that presumes a mind/body, form/substance split.

Firstly, Ruthrof's project takes its point of departure from the Kantian division between a "noumenal" or physical reality, and a "phenomenal" or sensible reality that is constituted in the act of perception and interpretation. The noumenal necessarily escapes comprehension because it exceeds, or transcends, our ability to grasp it: in other words, it is veiled behind the tissue of interpretation and therefore quite outside the hermeneutic circle. Ruthrof glosses Kant's question from the Critique of Pure Reason:

How can intuitions (Anschauungen) be subsumed under concepts? How is it possible for us to apply categories to appearances? How can such heterogeneous entities be associated with one another?... In order to establish such a relation Kant makes a transcendental move to a more general level, that of representation. (27)

Ruthrof's assumption then, is that human reality is the product of mediating schemata that represent a world whose brute facticity can only be inferred. And he concludes from this that even perception is embedded in this schematic process of production:

Meanings, from the most corporeally sensual, such as a caress, to the purely formal of symbolic logic, find their place in the holistic perspective of the way humans typically 'realize' the 'world'. (27)

Inspired by Heidegger's notion of an "essential fore-structure of interpretation" which is always "a whole of significance" (14), Ruthrof discovers a way to think a holistic semantics whose shared generality is referral. A consequence of this is that he eschews analytical explanations of meaning that focus on definitional or derivative rationales of reference. And with the proviso that Derrida's "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" must include the body, Ruthrof aligns much of his project with this sense of an enclosed, if generalized text ,where "the open-ended interpretive schema of a reflective teleology... adjusts its explanatory functions as interpretive difficulties arrive" (28). In other words, semantic closure occurs. However, its strictures at any particular historical conjunction are always a product of pragmatic and political forces rather than an extra-textual reality's causal or derivative dictates.

Ruthrof concludes that there can be no straightforward appeal to Nature as an originary and transcendental signifier of meaning, yet he disagrees with Wittgenstein's famous dictum that the limits of our world are consistent with the limits of our language. Extending its semiosis, however, Ruthrof recuperates its essential wisdom. "The limits of our 'world' are not constituted solely by our language but by our sign systems in toto. The limits of our signs are the limits of our 'world'' (34). Consistent with this view, Ruthrof rejects any sense that somatic signs have temporal priority over verbal language, as if signs of "Nature" originate in Nature. For Ruthrof then, language does not occupy a parasitic, or supplementary relation to perception, for as he reminds us, "This is a deviation from an orthodoxy in semantics which says that meaning is a relation either between language and world or between linguistic expressions and the dictionary" (144).

Given this, how does Ruthrof theorize the difference between the various sign systems whose negotiation across this "text's" internal disjunctures is the very frisson of meaning? Of course, this question also carries an implicit query about the presumptive identity of, for example, perceptual modalities, or verbal and written languages as particular and separable sign "systems". For we might also wonder what gives these systems their integrity if, as Derrida argues, they are bound and dispersed in difference? In a way, this question again returns us to the problematic of origins, and I mention Derrida because Ruthrof calls on him to explain the paradox:

Derrida coined the term 'supplementarity' to better undermine the idea of the stability of our conceptual structures and the assumed origin and essential nature of things, which he says are no more than 'the myth of addition, of supplementarity annulled by being purely additive'. Instead there is always 'a supplement at the source,' the supplement as 'always the supplement of the supplement' which renders originary purity inconceivable. (201)

If we take Derrida's insight seriously, however, such that différance is not the supplement of an identity already given, then the entity "sign", as well as its corollary, "signification", must be placed under erasure. Placing something under erasure is a Heideggerian strategy adopted by Derrida, and one which should not be confused with the negative sense of erasure and obliteration. Indeed, it is through this gesture of preservation as reconfiguration that Ruthrof enlists deconstruction for a different understanding of meaning.

Unfortunately, however, Ruthrof's attempt to enlarge the scene of semiosis by an incorporation of the non-verbal is an intervention based on addition, the very logic which Derrida strives to problematize. To put this another way, Ruthrof provides an account of meaning that he regards as more adequate to "the totality of involvements" than current understandings. Yet the circumscribed nature of Ruthrof's intervention is, ironically, revealed most clearly in this attempt to achieve a more inclusive conceptualization. This is a difficult point to explain and the task is made even harder because Ruthrof's motivation is in the direction of comprehensive generosity. As the consequences are considerable, a detour via Derrida's discussion of supplementarity will help to clarify what is at stake here, and why I regard Ruthrof's intervention, however important, as inevitably compromised. Ruthrof agrees with Derrida's argument about the logic of the supplement and draws on its strengths to further his own thesis. For this reason, a discussion of the supplement provides an appropriate place to illustrate what Ruthrof's explication elides and why this has larger implications for a "corporeal turn".

It will be remembered that Ruthrof places importance on the Kantian assumption that there is an absolute outside, or exteriority, to representation that escapes comprehension. And this commitment allows Ruthrof to judge as naive any notion of reference that presumes to access an unmediated reality. Yet it is interesting that Derrida's criticisms of originary purity which Ruthrof glosses above, "there is always a supplement at the source", and with whose wisdom he clearly concurs, is simply abandoned in regard to his own argument's originary departure point. Ruthrof makes the mistake of assuming that Derrida's "there is no outside of text" is evidence of the philosopher's basic allegiance to its opposite, namely, to a Kantian division between substantive reality and representational form, with mediation the identifying attribute of the latter.

Derrida's style of "inclusiveness" however, absolutely refuses an outside, and the interventionary effect of this is to completely refigure and problematize our conventional notions of substance versus form, and materiality versus ideality. As a result, "language as such", as well as its fundamental building block, "the sign", are seriously destabilized, their epistemological and ontological status turned into a question rather than something to be reconceptualized through augmentation. In the process, divisions between syntax and semantics are blurred, and even the difference between physis and thesis assume quantum implications. To this end, Ruthrof's thesis regarding the need to understand linguistic meaning by way of "corporeal supplementarity" should not be regarded as wrong. For perception and the entirety of the body's "bio-logics" are already at work within a verbal sign, a notion evoked in Derrida's description of deconstruction as "virology" or "parasitology". (Derrida: 1994: 12)

But perhaps the following example will help me better to illustrate this rather elusive point. Ruthrof is taken with Peirce's notion of an infinite semiosis and he explains its importance by remembering that Umberto Eco likened semiosis to the workings of a dictionary:

The multi-dimensional, infinite regress of signs has been noted in somewhat different terms by Umberto Eco. He draws our attention to the point that one could unravel the total of signs in any culture by beginning with an isolated sign and following its myriad interconnections... The end of this process is of course forever deferred... (44)

This spatial and temporal metaphorics, a metonymous sliding from one word to another through a chain of associations, captures Ruthrof's sense of referential implication, and it is to this that he would add corporeal signs. The metaphysical investments in the sign however, are quite undone in Derrida's notion of "the trace", a term that reinforces his critique of supplementarity by rupturing the sign's internal cohesion. Ruthrof's enduring investment in the sign is quite contrary to this, aiming to enlist the sign's variety into an enlarged field of semantic reference. The outcome is a reparative one, and this attempt at a correction is licensed by Ruthrof's uncritical commitment to the metaphysics of the sign, that is, his assumption that the sign is a substitute for something absent. As Ruthrof explains:

Like Heidegger, Derrida understands signification as fundamentally decentred. Signs are proxies not only for something else -- such as things, emotions, ideas, action, the world -- but also in the sense that their semantic content requires further signs in order for the transformation from syntax to semantics to take place. (203)

Given this reading it is not surprising that Ruthrof is confused about passages from of Grammatology that describe the logic of supplementarity, a logic whose metaphysical investments Derrida uncovers in Rousseau's argument. Ruthrof quite mistakenly interprets Derrida's explication of the problem, something he goes on to critique, as a description to be endorsed. For example, when Ruthrof relates that "the assumption that signification depends on the primary differentiation between presence and absence is modified by Derrida's claim that 'the supplement occupies the middle point between total absence and total presence' (202), he assumes that his own sense of meaning as indebted and contiguous deferral is being affirmed. However the context of Derrida's comments reveal that he is describing the restricted economy, or blindspot, of Rousseau's metaphysics. Derrida has said many times that différence is not a third term or intermediary between two others, for his aim is not the reaffirmation of the supplement as an extra sign, an assumption assumed in Ruthrof's gloss on the dictionary:

Every case of constituting meaning occurs via the detour of a supplement. We understand something with the help of and as something else. Dictionary entries are a case in point. The left side of the page would be nothing semantically if the right side did not act as the necessary supplement. Meaning simply could not take place. (202)

Derrida's point is a very different one because it challenges this dictionary understanding of reference as an exchange of mutual and necessary support -- the very definition of supplementarity that he critically engages. Derrida questions this notion of the sign that likens it to a tiny piece in a jigsaw puzzle, its meaning dependent on its exterior context. Because, as we have seen, Derrida argues that there is always a supplement at the origin, and this would mean that the entirety of the jigsaw puzzle would already be in operation within each tiny piece.

The relevance of all this to Ruthrof's "corporeal turn" is certainly profound. Although the direction of his argument is affirmed in Derrida's work, Derrida's insistence that there is difference at the origin would mean that the body is already alive within words. If Ruthrof is comfortable with this possibility, and his argument suggests that he could be persuaded, then his notion of semantics would require serious revision. And an important corollary whose implications extend across the humanities and into the sciences, is that we would not be able to assume, at least in any definitional sense, exactly what or where a body is!

Perhaps I should finish with a suggestive passage from Derrida, taken from an interview that Ruthrof also found interesting:

What I do with words is make them explode so that the non-verbal appears in the verbal. That is to say that I make the words function in such a way that at a certain moment they no longer belong to discourse, to what regulates discourse... And if I love words it is also because of their ability to escape their proper form, whether they interest me as visible things, letters representing the spatial visibility of the word, or as something musical or audible... Thus, I explain myself with the bodies of words -- here I think that one can truly speak of 'the body of a word', with the reservations mentioned earlier, that it is a body that is not present to itself -- and it is the body of a word that interests me to the extent that it doesn't belong to discourse. (1994: 20)


1.See Arkady Plotnitsky's fascinating argument about the connection between Derrida and Bohr. (1994)Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology After Bohr and Derrida Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Back to where you left off.


Derrida, Jacques (1974) Of Grammatology. translated Spivak, Gayatri. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques with Brunette, Peter and Wills, David. (1994) "The Spatial Arts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida." In Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media Architecture. Brunette, Peter and Wills, David (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vicki Kirby teaches in the School of Sociology at The University of New South Wales in Sydney. She received her PhD from the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz and her current research concerns questions of technology and information, especially posthumanism. She is the author of Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal (1997) New York and London: Routledge.

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