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This article appeared in Volume 3 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Elusive Semiosis

by Pierre Maranda

Semiotics, Romanticism and the Scriptures By Jacques M. Chevalier, Berlin -- New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990. Pp. v, 364. ( ISBN 3-11-012224-3)

The Elusive Covenant: A Structural-semiotic Reading of Genesis. By Terry J. Prewitt, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, Advances in Semiotics, 1990 Pp. x, 146 (ISBN 0-253-34599-5)

The Semiotic of Myth: A Critical Study of the Symbol. James Jakob Liszka, Bloomington and Indianapolis Indiana: Indiana University Press Advances in Semiotics 1990 Pp. xii, 243 ( ISBN 0-253-33513-2)

When the editor gave me those three books to review, he suggested to do it in the abovementioned order. His clue turned out to be valuable: it corresponds with a funnel structure. Actually, Chevalier offers broader scope and a bolder theoretical endeavour than previously monographic and more focused approach, a line that Liszka carries on further in terms of operationalization. A three books try to meet the same challenge, that of what I would call -- inspired by Prewitt's thesis -- "elusive semiosis". They do it on diverse corpora, all of great interest, of which they provide stimulating interpretations. Interpretations that all purport to demonstrate the validity of each author's tack and concepts.

Not being a specialist of the type of data discussed in the books I do not qualify to interpret the interpretations they generate. I shall therefore propose one of several possible readings, restricted to (1) a brief mention of the author s' Corpora, (2) the theoretical intertextuality they share, (3) their key concepts, to conclude with (4) a general comment on their approaches.

1. Corpora

Chevalier deals with Longfellow's poem Evangeline that he reads against John's Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The Book of Genesis constitutes Prewitt's target, while Liszka analyzes myths from the Netsilik ( Inuit ), Tlingit ( North-West Pacific Coast ), San Blas Kuna ( Panama's Caribbean coast ), and Bororo ( Central Brazil )

2. Theoretical Intertextuality

Structuralist Semiotics. All three authors are fundamentally " interpellated" by Lé-Strauss with whom Prewitt and Liszka agree while Chevalier refuses allegiance and takes a more critical stand. They also all resort incidentally to Ricoeur, mainly as a kind of tutelary figure that would express the cautions of wisdom in text interpretation. On the whole, structuralism looms large in these converging contributions to"Advances in Semiotics" -- Tom Sebeok's series in which the Prewitt and Liszka books appeared .

Chevalier calls much upon Nietzsche and somewhat on Freud, Lacan and Kristeva to define his non-Lé-Straussian position. As additional support to ground semiosis in "cultural history", Chevalier could have used the same anthropological references as Prewitt who, in addition to contributions by biblical scholars like Carmichael, refers to the "configurationalist" approach to culture ( Benedict, Kluckhohn, Opler) and states that Edmund Leach's "time essays represent one of his essential backgrounds to his analysis of social organization and textual construction in Genesis" (p. 134, note 22). As for Liszka, he draws considerably on Peirce and, to a lesser extent, Habermas, Baudrillard, Frye, Greimas, Bremond and a few other narratologists. For him, myth provides the foundation of communicative action and, in this respect one could say that Liszka achieves a synthesis of Pierce's sign theory and of Habermas' notion of communicative action.

Texte et hors-texte. Semiotics resolutely takes an anthropological stand with our three authors: they ali show a firm concern that their analyses should not remain on the level of mere "texts". Their approaches must each beyond signifiers, must show enough power to cope persuasively and competently with the sub- and metatexts of intertextual-as now required from up-to-date semioticians and against Derridean flotsam. Thus, Chevalier ( p. 73 h "in the end, encoded chains of signification are not entirely flexible; in reality the production of meaning is always chained to a particular place in cultural history-to the weightly fetters and the cultural bondage of a la parole" Prewitt states, "My interests in structure and custom, composition and theme, cause me to seek in Genesis stories the common features of plot which allow us to End the cultural order behind actions, words, and contexts" (p. 96)

And Liszka concurs for, in the last analysis, interpretation should rest on the type of semiotic exegesis also advocated by Chevalier and Prewitt, i.e." interpretation must rest on the teleology of the texts and not just drift about in echolalia. In his terms, "Just as Peirce and Saussure recognized an objective and subjective teleology involved in any given system so we should recognize in myth and its interpretation a variety of functions dependent on the interests and goals of its listeners and interpreters, but constrained by the objective telos of the narration itself" (p. 219).

Thus, we would have two context-related dependent variables: Chevalier's cultural bondage of la parole" and Prewitt's "total experience and on independent variable, teleology that, for Liska, governs the inscription of a text in the live (or reconstructed) history of its receivers.

3. Key Concepts

Chevalier. "Scheme analysis" characterizes Chevalier's data processing system that wishes to cast a theoretical net broader than "classical structuralism" -- a position that echoes the debate between Raymond Firth, Thomas Beidelman, Victor Turner and some others on the one hand and Lévi-Strauss on the other in the late sixties and early seventies. In Chevalier's terms,

the influence of structuralism and formalism in sign analysis is largely responsible for a tendency to grant primacy to the intellect over the affect, and to the synchronic ordering of signs over the narrative process. This threefold dislocation of structure, sentiment and event is not easily resolved. Rather than arguing a dialectical interaction between the logical. emotional and historical dimensions of language I have chosen to question these divisions instead. The theory of symbolling and mode of analysis offered here challenge the primary distinctions established between time. desire and the code. It is not their separation from each other. but rather the initial distinctions between them that must be brought into question (p.4 ) see also p. (p.4:see also p.59).

Chevalier ' s book consists of an " exercise in scheme analysis" -- a "theory" that has a "method" ( p.12) and "ventures to apply the art of translation to a New World variation of the myth of Genesis (p. 78, emphasis supplied). -- Note in passing the alignment on the "art of translation", a key concept in Liszka's book. -- "Accordingly, my reading of each scene of Evangeline and related biblical images starts with similarities, oppositions and mediation that govern the poetic or scriptural material at hand" ( p. 4) . The author presents his "fourfold method" on pp. 45 and his"threefold thesis" on pp. 7-8.

For Chevalier, a "twofold operation, suppressive and offensive, is at the heart of language" ( p. 52), and he proposes to represent it by the"s/s" -- "sign/sign" -- relationship, the slash ( he calls it "bar") endowed with a fivefold polysemy (binding, judgement, confinement, debauchery and line of attentions -- p. 36; see also pp. 42, 52 f., 67 -- and, on transgression, cf. Liszka pp. 140- 141).

In his "scheme analysis", Chevalier recasts the "dialectical interaction between the logical, emotional and historical dimensions of language" (p.4) in another operation -- in no manner less dialectical in my view --, that between "the inanity of schizophrenia and the naivety of 'metaphoria' " . For,

Elementary schemes of la significance ... make up the verbal machine that produces all the frame-works and the frame-ups of human semiosis. This two-sided machinery establishes the inner order of words laid out according to plans which also plotting against the limitations placed on such orderly grounds. On the one hand, the concept of schema involves a sense of direction that prevents words from drifting aimlessly about, into a chaotic sea of splits and cleavages falling under the whimsical rule of schizein. On the other hand, every schema is also driven by an opposite impulse, which is to tempt the flood-- letting the floating body of words keep on moving and flipping at the risk of losing its centre of gravity known as the metacentre. The powers of speech must cope with two threats of their own making the inanity of schizophrenia and the naivety of "metaphoria" (p. 68)

Prewitt criticizes "chiastic reading" as a linear approach ( p.68). Contrary to Liszka who explores some of its implications (pp. 103-9) he does not seem to be aware of the Lévi-Straussian non-linear development of chiasmus in his "canonical formula" (more on this below). Nonetheless, Prewitt finds chiastic wading useful to grasp -- or should one say "construct"? -- the inner coherence of text and context, of "structure and custom". Concerning the structure of Genesis 1-14, he writes "The vertical links of the chiastic formula form a bridge between what is intended to be myth and history showing how the character and situation of humanity is ultimately tied to the forces unleashed by the gods" (p. 70; see also p. 96).

An interesting concept, the of "mythscape", proposed by Prewitt for biblical interpretation would prove useful in many other analyses of myth. The concept rests on correlations of social relations and ethnogeography.

Among the features we have observed in Genesis stories so far in this book, kinship relations and place He at the core of most of the narrative. I have attempted to show the structural sense in which these, among with the narrative structure itself are a coextensive system What happens through spatia~ reference has importance in kinship reference, and the two together are the narrative structure (p 96 )

A "mythscape" (pp. 34-43 ) is a representation of the world, an imaginary geography more likely commonly associated with a social history, a cosmography and even with a cosmogony -- a mythico-empirical and polysomic map. A map that can operate as a transformer of dramatis personarum and as a structure of (chiastic) symmetry. In a mythscape,

Action can to a great extent be deducted from location. Thus, when Abram talks with God in Bethel he has encountered "men", but when the ''men" arrive at Sodom and Gomorrah they are called "angels". Variations in the manifestations of God or God's messengers are patterned according to place. Moreover, births, deaths, property acquisitions, conflict resolutions, burials, trees, and the building of altars, all occur most often in symmetrical associations. In this sense. the word map offered in Genesis 12-50 yields an extraordinary mythological space, or "mythscape" (p. 41).

And Prewitt specifies his "theory of the text" as follows:

A truly anthropological reading of Genesis and related biblical materials, a reading building 'ethnographic' interests out of the literary artifact. will provide for us the strongest means of cultural comparison while it channels our appreciation of the immediate cultural case (p. 97).

In the last analysis, Prewitt calls for personalized interpretation -- what Liszka calls "transvaluation". For the former, "interpretation is ... that activity wherein we allow our minds to move beyond structure to implication, and from implication to a total experience" (p.126).

Liszka focuses on "myth". To gloss his definition: myth serves as the basic referent that makes it possible for people to (have the impression that they) understand each other, that they can effectively adjust to one another when they interact. Myth is a culture-specific semiotic frame of reference at the same time as the universe of forms of representations dynamically stocked in a culture. To rephrase Liszka's definition in Augé's (1977) words, myths act as scanning devices of a society's 'possibles' and 'pensables', and they develop explanatory scripts to show the limits of a semiosis within a given 'idéo-logique'.

Liszka expands the Peircian "interpretant" by introducing his major concept, that of "transvaluation", which is "the most comprehensive species of interpretant" ( p. 71) . "Transvaluation" commands "transvaluative analysis", exemplified in chapters 8 and 9 through re-analyses of Netsilik, Tlingit, Kuna and Bororo myths. "Transvaluation" obtains also in human relations when people "read" other people. Liszka defines his key concept as follows ( p. 71):

The comprehension of sign translation in terms of rank and markedness is what I call transvaluation. In its most general form transvaluation is a rule-like semiosis which reevaluates the perceived, imagined, or conceived markedness and rank relations of a referent as delimited by the rank and markedness of the system of its signals and the teleology of the sign user.

Therefore, transvaluation works as a positional and situational process within a ., communication praxis. To "reevaluate" means to assess the position of a "referent" within a hierarchic pattern structured through "markedness" and " rank" ' . "Markedness" and " rank [see endnote]. " can be "perceived, imagined, or conceived" within the situational frame (1) of their " signans" -- i .e., of a "culture" in the broadest sense of the term -- and (2) of the locutor's intentionality in a communication situation -- the "teleology of the sign user", in communication with self (inner speech) or others.

Transvaluation would be the basic mechanism not only of adaptive intra-cultural communication but also of adequate intercultural translation:

The meaning of the reference is not the referent but is found in the process of semiosis. Peirce's notion of translation becomes a central idea in this respect; it establishes the sign-signatum relation, at more formal levels, as a series of rules through which the sign, in the context of purposes, values, and a community of inquirers, attempts some determination of interpretation. I have argued that the general framework of translation becomes more comprehensible as transvaluation. Under this concept sign translation is read as valuation of the signatum within the latitudes of the sign (p. 213) .

Liszka's focus on "translation" converges with Chevalier's and Prewitt's interpretative dynamics. Indeed, Chevalier, by reading Evangeline on the backdrop of the Book of Revelation performs a "transvaluation" similar to Prewitt's reading of Genesis who concludes it with a Lé-Straussian flavour (cf, the latter's Tristes Tropiques): "In some ways we can never meet these other (foreign) minds, but happily, in other ways we can touch across centuries of differences based in our common abilities" (p. 131 ) and, should we add with Liszka, "based in what our teleologies may have in common"?

Liszka's book culminates in the domain of sociosemiotics. It shows -- congruently with Lé- Strauss's canonical formula -- that myth operates as a dialectical structure to keep active the values of a society and the rules that consolidate them.

Finally, let us return briefly to chiastic reading. As mentioned above, chiasmas is only a restricted form of a more complex model, that defined in the Lé-Straussian canonical formula for the analysis of myth. Recently, a renewed interest in the formula has shown its heuristic value (see, among others, Maranda and Kongas Maranda 1971; Crumrine and Macklin 1974; Foster 1974; Hozven 1978; Milot 1979; Guilbert 1981; Bucaille 1987; Bordron 1987; Petitot 1988; Coté 1989; Mosko 1989; 1991). Lé-Strauss himself resorts again to it in his recent Histoire de Iynx (1991); see especially pp. 140,179,188-189,208 ff.)

Further developments will doubtless show this mechanistic approach should merge with probabilistic structuralism; and it should prove highly congruent with connectionism and neural nets in which -- according to Hebb's law in neurophysiology -- flow dynamics (a quantitative datum) impinges on structure (cf. Kamp and Hasler 1990; Maranda 1985; in print 2) .

4. Conclusion

I should like to end this partial review by developing summarily another, relatively subliminal, convergence between our three authors; that of a Markovian semiotic space and its intrinsic dynamics.

Time has not come yet for semiotics to synthesize structuralism and probabilism although indications do show up that could lay the grounds for that kind of "advances". Thus, Ricoeur (1984: 20, quoted by Chevalier p. 64) spoke of the "concordance of the intentions of expectation, attention and memory", following which Chevalier writes about the interplay of memory and expectation l'attente" ( p. 67; see also pp. 8, 62, 66) . In this respect, let us hope that such excellent work on neural nets and associative memory as that of Kamp and Hasler (1990) will impact semiotics and render semiosis less elusive.


1 I have set elsewhere (Maranda: in print 1) Liszka's use of the concepts of 'markedness' and 'rank' within a broader -- viz., semantic -- frame than the phonological one he uses in the book.


Augé, Marc (1977) Pouvoirs de vie, pouvoirs de mort. Paris: Flammarion.

Bordron, Jean-Francois (1987) Recherches sur les con traintes sémiotiques de la pensée discursive. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Bucaille, E. et al. (1987) Pigeons de Limage. Clermont Ferrand: Universite populair.

Cote, Andre (1989) "L'lnstauration sociale. Du scheme canonique a la formule canonique." Anthropologie et societes 13.3: 25 35.

Crumrine, N. Ross and Macklin, B. (1974) "Sacred ritual vs. the unconscious: the efficacy of symbols and structure in North Mexican fold saints' cults and general ceremonialism." In The Unconscious in Culture. Rossi, Ino (ed.). New York: Dutton: 179 197.

Foster, Mary LeCron (1974) "Deep structure in Symbolic anthropology." Ethos: 334 355.

Guilbert, Lucille (1981) "Le conte populaire et ses approches methodologiques", Canadian Folklore canadien 3.1: 16 45.

Hozven, Roberto (1978) "Un modelo estructural y tres relatos orales chilenos." Estudios filologicos 13:113-153.

Kamp, Yves and Halser, Martin (1990) Reseaux de neurones recursifs pour memoires associatives. Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes.

Lé-Strauss, Claude (1991) Histoire de lynx. Paris: Plon.

Maranda, Pierre (1985) "Semiography and artificial intelligence." International Semiotic Spectrum 4 (June): 1 3.

--- (in print 1) "Mappings in semiotics: James J. Liszka's theory and Giancarlo M. G. Scoditti's prectice." Semiotica, forthcoming.

--- (in print 2) Probabilistic structuralism. Mother Culture is watching us. In Testing Readers' responses. Nardocchio, Elaine (ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Maranda, Pierre and Kongas Maranda, Elli (1971) "Structural models in folklore." In Kongas Maranda, Elli and Maranda, Pierre, Structural Models in Folèlore and Transformational Essays (2nd ed., enlarged ). Paris The Hague: Mouton: 16-94 (first edition: 1962).

Milot, Louise (1979) "Claude Lé-Strauss avait-il tout compris de la transformation?" Etudes litteraires: 185-202.

Mosko, Mark S. (1985) Quadripartite structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--- (1991) "The Canonic formula of myth and nonmyth." American Ethnologist 18 (1): 126-151.

Petitot, Jean (1988) "Approche morphodynamique de la formule canonique du mythe." L'Homme 106-107:24-50.

Ricoeur, Paul (1984) Time and Narrative. Vol. 1. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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