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This review appeared in Volume 11(1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Mindful Semiotics

by Robert E. Innis

Elements of Semiotics. By David Lidov. St. Martin's Press 1999. 288pp. ISBN 0-312-21413-8


The goal of David Lidov's engaging, nuanced, and sophisticated book is to review "foundational options in the construction of a semiotic theory" and to furnish us with an "arrangement of distinctions regarding signs" (251). This arrangement of distinctions makes up the 'first cut' of Lidov's analytical scissors: the decomposition of the plenum of semiosis into its constitutive units and the putting of them into an intelligible pattern of relations. Lidov aims to delineate a "system of technical usages" that, formally, make up what he is calling elements (11). The guiding idea is to always keep in mind just what difference a semiotic approach, in the various spheres of possible applications, would make. "What sorts of phenomena will we understand better in the perspective of semiotics than we could without it?" (37). The 'second cut' of Lidov's analytical scissors, accordingly, is into a wide, though primarily illustrative, field of phenomena that both benefit from a semiotic perspective and reveal the limits of a purely semiotic analysis. Lidov, without going into acribious philosophical detail, resolutely rejects the notion that we are enclosed in some sort of "semiosic jail" or "'prisonhouse of language'" (121), that there is no 'outside' to the spiral of semiosis. Lidov's central thesis is that the "fundamental phenomenon" for semiotics is the field of "fluctuations of sign consciousness" (8). Semiotics is the study of the "ubiquitous activity of interpreting signs" (13), a position which clearly indicates, at the very outset, a confluence of semiotics and hermeneutics. And just as hermeneutics arises out of failures to understand, or breakdowns in understanding, so semiotic consciousness "simply emerges from our spontaneously heightened sign consciousness as an extended and structured occasion for signs to reflect (on) themselves" (24).

Lidov's main objective is to "track the principles which lead from simple to elaborate signs" (44). Sign use -- or semiosis -- for Lidov "pertains to consciousness exclusively" (97), which "is a scramble" (97). But semiosis is a "component of conscious experience but not the whole of it" (118). Affirming at one and the same time that "semiotics is not a part of psychology" (125) and the undeniable existence of a "simmering soup of thought" (125), Lidov wants nevertheless to draw his study of "mental life out of psychology and back into the world of signs" (85), a public and intersubjectively shared world. The basic idea, which is fundamentally Peircean, is that the mind and mental life, whatever else they may turn out to be, are at least, for semiotics in its distinctive task, invested in external media. The logic of these media becomes the logic of mind in so far as it is involved with signs. The 'scramble' of consciousness is defined by a complex 'web' of sign-factors and experiential components that give it a distinctive felt 'quality' at every moment. Consciousness itself is a phenomenon that, to different degrees, is accessible at every moment. Its structural scaffolding is so connected with its contents that its 'appropriation' and thematization is a constant challenge. Lidov thinks of consciousness as a dynamic field of 'presencings' and as the 'place' of semioses. It has no clear boundaries (98), indeed, no greatest upper bound, if we take seriously the recursive nature of reflection on consciousness.

Consciousness, which is not to be thought of as a 'thing' or 'substance,' is full of 'items.' An item is "anything we attend to" (98), certainly as broad and as neutral a notion as we can imagine. Items, in this sense, belong to the "foreground" (98) of consciousness and emerge as figures out of a ground. Semiosis can be thought of as a kind of figuration or itemization of consciousness. The first term emphasizes the processual nature of semiosis and consciousness. The second term emphasizes the work of segmentation that comes from 'acts of attending,' in the way, say, Iris Murdoch or Simone Weil used the notion of 'attending.'

There is, on Lidov's analysis, no a priori limitation of what can be an item: anything that is, or can be, attended to -- or from -- is an 'item,' in the sense defined. Sign-factors, the proper and distinctive object of semiotics as an analytical and self-reflective discipline, are par excellence items in consciousness (99). The equality of all items in consciousness, Lidov thinks, devalues the often drawn distinction between formal and instrumental signs (99), because, as Lidov sees it, consciousness blends internal and external phases in its awareness of items (100). There is, in short, no essential difference between our awareness of tools and instruments and our awareness of signs. The 'internal-external' contrast is ultimately of no importance for semiotics -- or for semiosis. It is to be supplanted by a creative extension of the type-token relation. The issue for any sign-mediated conscious act of attending is the stabilization of a unity: an idea -- the idea of a bicycle, say -- functioning as a focal item, can tie together (synthesize or subject to a rule) "a disparate group of external experiences" and thus label or 'bind' the stream of experiencings. This is a classic, realist, position on the constitutive nature of concepts, where external experiences are 'tokens' of the 'type' encapsulated in the concept. However, in a powerful and illuminating observation, Lidov notes that an actual physical bicycle can be used to tie together and control the "myriad images I have have of it" (100), that is, it may, functioning as a sign, exemplify what a bicycle is. Signs are not 'substance' or 'things,' but anything that is used in a particular way. The 'idea' of a bicycle and the bicycle itself are both signs, 'items' in consciousness. Here is a kind of pansemioticism in potentia but not in actu. Signs 'are' not; they are 'taken.'

Lidov wisely makes no attempt to 'define' consciousness, since it is not clear that all the phenomena we include under the rubric of 'consciousness' are able to be subsumed under an essentialistic definition. 'Consciousness' is a kind of analytical primitive for Lidov, synonymous with 'presence' or 'attending' or 'noticing.' It encompasses our awareness of our bodies as felt centers of movement and expressive gestures, sensory consciousness of impressions and experiential qualities, consciousness of the development and unity of a musical theme, consciousness of the meaning of a sentence or a text. These are all instances of 'consciousness.' What we are conscious of defines consciousness and its types and patterns. Mind -- as the place of semiosis -- is, to use Lidov's formulation, invested in signs. It is to signs and their configurations that we are to look to understand what consciousness is. Consciousness 'is' a function of what we are attending to and the means we are using to attend to or 'access' it. Each distinct form of consciousness for the type of semiotic theory Lidov is concerned to develop is a distinct way of accessing meaning created through investment in an item or complex of items functioning as a sign or system of signs.


Although Lidov offers no definition of consciousness, the rest of his book is resolutely definitional. The definition of the sign is fundamentally Peircean, but with "consequential differences" (104): (a) its basis is ad hoc psychological categories rather than ontological categories (i.e., first, second, and third do not appear), (b) the interpretant is not considered "necessarily" to be a sign, and (c) the dynamic object is not considered to be essential to a properly formulated semiotic theory. Opting for a Peircean foundation for the "schema of the sign" does not eo ipso set it in irreconcilable opposition to Saussure's differential model based on an extrapolation from structural linguistics, which in fact Lidov treats even-handedly and insightfully. The tracking of the paths from simple to elaborate signs involves a general schematization of signs and then the development of a series of distinctions and categories that 'modulate' or 'torque' the general schema, depending on the phenomena that are provoking the investigation. The general schematization has both a stipulative and a descriptive dimension, while the following out of its various ramifications or branchings leads Lidov to furnish us with stimulating and novel systematic comparisons of different genres of sign. This, he clearly shows, is one of the main tasks of semiotics. Lidov's book oscillates creatively between two poles or foci: the descriptive or analytical and the comparative or methodological.

Lidov's actual definition of a sign comes rather late in the book. "A sign-complex ('sign' for short) is a triplet of three distinct factors. The factors of a sign are items in consciousness" (103). These conscious factors or items are, unsurprisingly, three of the (five) Peircean factors of semiosis: representamen, object, and interpretant. The 'interpreter' and the 'ground,' which Peirce explicitly differentiates as essential to the constitution of a semiosic event, are implicit in Lidov but not thematized in the definition. The conscious interpreter is the 'place' where representamina are brought into conscious relation with objects by means of interpretants. These three factors effect the relation of representation, which Lidov considers, resolutely and most convincingly, as a "relation in consciousness" (7). Semiosis, carried out by the construction of sign-complexes and our existential investment in them, is a phenomenon of consciousness qua tale. Any item of consciousness whatsoever, functioning as a representamen, "evokes and constrains an interpretant of the object" (104). The 'material phase' of an external representamen is a vehicle, since the representamen must be 'carried' or 'invested.' When the representamen is internal, the material phase is an image, broadly understood, certainly a distant echo of Peirce's insistence on the role of 'mental diagrams' or schemata.

The interpretant is defined in orthodox Peircean fashion: it is the "factor of the sign that instantiates, or realizes, the relationship of the representamen to the object" (107). It is what is created as a result of the connection between representamen and object. Lidov, in spite of his belief that the notion of the interpretant is "probably Peirce's most original contribution" (92), deviates from Peirce here in that rather than taking over the Peircean schematization of interpretants into emotional, energetic, and logical, he distinguishes an immediate interpretant, a responsive interpretant, and then a "seven-league-boot interpretant" (108-109). The immediate interpretant, on Lidov's reckoning, is "intrinsically tenuous," always involving "a supplement or some redundancy." Although he does not refer in any systematic way to Peirce's notion of the time-binding character of consciousness as a sequence of self-appropriating interpretants, Lidov does affirm that "the interpretant is drawn out in time. Often a sign allows a range of interpretants" (109). The object -- the thing-meant -- is, on the first cut, divided by Lidov into the immediate object, which is something in the mind, something that can develop, and the construct, "the object of a sign that is not firmly linked to a distinct and influential dynamic object" (106), a notion that in the last analysis he wants nothing to do with.

Lidov opts (though not exclusively) for a division of signs that is fundamentally Peircean, with the terminological substitution of 'terms' for Peirce's 'symbols' in the differentiation of sign-types. But the book is not organized around this well-known and exhaustively commented on division. For Lidov, icon, index, and symbols are "aspects" of signs rather than ontologically distinct sign-types. Iconic, indexical, and symbolic elements co-occur in different weightings in the various sign-complexes produced and interpreted in intrinsically labile semiosic activities. Because sign-situations are "evanescent" (104), the focus of Lidov's analyses is the sign-situate, that is, an item that is a sign "only when situated as one," not the sign-designate, that is, an item that is a sign "even if idle or misused" (90). Lidov is, as noted, concerned with signs in use. Indeed, while Lidov clearly admits that "Peirce's semiotics is ... the most elaborate, audacious, inventive, and grand that we have" (87), his book is by no means either another commentary on Peirce's texts or a systematic application of Peirce's schema in order to show its comprehensiveness and heuristic fertility, which he nevertheless clearly and forthrightly admits in word and deed.

This is exemplied in his discussion of the 'contexts' of the three factors of the 'sign-complex.' The contexts of a representamen is its medium and its structural environment. But Lidov points out that many different types of things are called a medium: a material, or a grammar, or a technology, a vagueness, he notes, that is perhaps "more useful than obstructive" (109). The chief orientation of a comparative semiotics is to be found here in the comparison of media, the guiding principle of which is that "in general, a sign system or a pattern provides the structural contexts of its elements" (109). This is clearly the syntactic component of a sign-system, which functions as a field. The contexts of an object is its world. Lidov distinguishes, from the semiotic point of view, two worlds: the world the object was extracted from, albeit with the help of signs, and the one into which the sign inserts it (109). Designation is the semiotic work of extraction. Modality marks the sign's power to determine a new context for the object. This polarity between designation and modality is a permanent feature of semiosis and one of the distinguishing marks of human mentality as invested in the work of signs. The context of an interpretant is a perspective. "A group of signs may be interpreted in a way that expresses a unity (be it of feeling, of attitude, of situation, of argument, or whatever). These share a perspective" (110). Lidov connects the notion of a perspective with a remarkable passage from Peirce dealing with personality.

[P]ersonality is some kind of coordination or connection of ideas. Not much to say, this, perhaps. Yet when we consider that, according to the principle that we are tracing out, a connection between ideas is itself a general idea, and that a general idea is a living feeling, it is plain that we have at least taken an appreciable step toward the understanding of personality. This personality, like any general idea, is not a thing to be apprehended in an instant. It has to be lived in time, nor can any finite time embrace it in all its fullness. Yet in each infinitesimal interval it is present and living, though specially colored by the immediate feelings of that moment (cited from Charles S. Peirce, the Essential Writings. Edited by Edward C. Moore. New York: Harper and Son 1972, p.213).

To have a perspective, and to know one has a perspective, is to be a person in the deepest sense of the term. A person is a living time-bound perspectival feeling-process. A person is marked by a definite qualitative feel of each pulse of consciousness. Lidov goes on to say that we perceive perspectives, but it seems to me to be better to say that perceiving, as continuous pulsings of experience, is itself perspectival and is felt as such, and that we can reflect, by means of a new 'perceiving,' on our perspectives. This avoids the loss of perspective as a category and also pinpoints the self-augmenting and self-reflecting nature of perception and consciousness.

Lidov claims that the third factor of a sign could be a rule rather than an interpretant. "All the plausible interpretants of a designated sign, when it is launched into a sign situation, are governed by its rule, and they form a class. The rule defines the class; the interpretants are the members of the class" (111). Lidov is very astute when he writes that "we note a tendency for consciousness to provide its own supplement to the rule, true interpretants if weak ones" (111). More puzzling perhaps is his contention that "the interpretant is simultaneously essential and superfluous" -- it is "something more" that is added in consciousness when the mind employs a sign. It amounts to "grasp or understanding" (112). Following his insistence on the importance of consciousness Lidov correctly writes that "it is only the awareness of a sign that allows for the differentiation of meaning from effect" (112). I am not sure, however, that Lidov has quite understood -- or at least put sufficient value on -- the significance of Peirce's notion of the energetic interpretant, thinking that Wittgenstein's analysis of 'non-mindful' behavioral and automatic responses is sufficient. Lidov takes it as essential that "the interpretant must be conscious" (112), a position with which I can certainly agree, but that certainly does not mean that it must be thematically attended to or operatively reflected upon. We can prethematically live through, and consequently be conscious of, our actions and bodily movements without making them focal and an action can in this way be a true 'interpretant' of a sign-situation.

Although sign-complexes and forms of consciousness are, I noted, correlative, for Lidov, and semiosis is a phenomenon of consciousness exclusively, it is nevertheless a "component of conscious experience but not the whole of it" (117). This means that consciousness as semiosis has vague and complex boundaries that constantly shift. As a result, representation, the Urakt of semiosis, is "one part of the larger whole of experience" (117). Since not all items of consciousness are signs -- unless taken to be such -- "thought develops signs where there were none" (117). A radical consequence of such a position for Lidov is that there are no unconscious signs and that sign-complexes attain stability within constantly shifting boundaries of semiosis. The unconscious, as Lidov sees it, has no semiotic relevance as a field of interpretations. It is interpreted, but not interpreting, and we are related to it as we are related to the external world. Strangely enough, Lidov contends that "perceptions as such are not signs, even though he also wants to hold that "every species has its own way of constructing an objective world" (118), a thesis that has become central to certain powerful semiotic theories such as those of von Uexküaut;ll, Cassirer, and Thomas Sebeok. As Lidov puts it, "normally, the resultant object is a true substitute for the sensations that it replaces, the output of their input, not their sign" (119).

There are exceptions when this does not hold. "Minimally interpreted sensations" can function as signs of possible objects, but "most of the time, appearances are all we have to go on. They make our actual world, not signs of it" (119). But, we may ask, with Peirce, Cassirer, and Büaut;hler, and others, what if "appearances" are structured semiotically (see Innis 1994)? Later, in his discussion of 'features,' Lidov seems to give back what he has just taken away. A feature, as he puts it, "is a sign factor component that is atomic in a given perspective; that is, it is an element that we do not want to regard as a combination of subelements. The vocabularies that some combinatorial systems depend on in turn depend on a combinatorial vocabulary of features" (134). Does not perception, as conscious process, treat the existential properties of its objects as indexical features? Lidov seems to admit this himself, which brings him very close to Peirce's position on the semiotic structure of perception itself. "Features are perceived as single parts that confirm the identity of the whole; therefore, a feature also can be understood as a representamen in another (and usually trivial) sense in that it determines or identifies the articulated complex. (The systematic phonological theory of 'distinctive features'..., though it concerns identity, is certainly not trivial)" (134). But this passage actually shows that features are indexical configurations that are existentially connected with their objects, from which they can only be distinguished by a kind of prescissive abstraction.

The notion of a vector also pushes semiosis down to the perceptual level, which is already a form of 'articulation.' Vectors, as Lidov conceives them, are "articulations whose origins we must attribute to the physical world, including our sensory capacities....Vectors establish distinct aspects of the texts or vocabularies that exploit them" (140). "Articulation emerges in the negotiation of structural with biological and physical factors" (140). Vectors can be scaled by 'scalars.' But, according to Lidov, vectors are not signs. While it may be true, as he puts it, that "vectors do not originate in signs" (144), nevertheless, "our world of experience is, to a very large extent, an articulated world, and its articulations arise in semiosis, where the interpretant imposes the articulation of the representamen on its object" (144). But the representamina of perceptual objects share the properties both of features and of vectors and are true indices in the Peircean sense. I am not sure, accordingly, that features and vectors cannot function as indices, without there having to be an absolute identity of meaning of the terms. In this way we would avoid the problem of there being a "basic vocabulary of experience common to all of us" (144), since the field of indices, which makes up the 'ground floor' of experience, so to speak, are so widely variable that it is purely a contingent matter to what degree we indwell the 'same' perceptual world.


Beyond the fact that Lidov accepts the basic lines of the Peircean semiotic schema, however, is the question of why he prefers it to the schema derived from Saussure's structuralist project. Structuralism, according to Lidov, views semiotics as a "map of differences" (133), with semiosis as the actual mapping of differences. But, as Lidov sees it, pure difference does not exist (133). Difference is always positive because it is always in situ. Peirce's representamen "may comprise positive qualities and positive facts, not just empty 'difference.'" (91). What, then, is the alternative to reified difference? "A more particular conception of articulation" (133). Furthermore, "the purely systematic view of language implicit in Saussure's opposition of signification and value can be overlaid on other kinds of signs to only a very limited extent" (52-53). This point is also connected with the issue of conscious qualities, with the feel of signs, of qualia as essential to signs. At the same time "the systematic study of differences within any medium is a potent analytical tool whether or not such a perspective can survey the whole territory" (53). In short, "Saussure gave us a practical model of signifiers but only a vague conjecture about signifieds. The practical model finds wide application outside language. Indeed, his main ideas about signifiers are no more linguistic than they are musicological or anthropological. They belong -- as he proposed -- to semiology or semiotics" (56). Peirce and Saussure, it appears, can sleep in the same room but not in the same bed. They are, in fact, assigned to beds of different sizes. Saussure's great discovery is of a model of signifying structures that, generalizing from linguistics, "most dynamically connected the philosophy of signs to the concrete data of culture" (46). Strangely enough, in criticizing Saussure's conception of the sign, Lidov asserts that it is "inadequate to give us a handle on the behavior of signs in mental life. What it leaves out are the angles. The sign is biased. Representation is of something as something" (85). This is, then, the great role of the Peircean 'interpretant,' a much more powerful notion than Saussure's global category of a 'signified.'

As to Saussure's model of the signifier, however, Lidov acknowledges its power and indicates its range of application. A theme that runs throughout his book is that "reference and structure compete" (62). In aesthetic signs, for instance, we find that "any sign takes on aesthetic function to the extent that it is regarded as an end in itself. Whether this happens or not is ... a question of social norms" (60). This involves the simultaneous foregrounding of "internal structural arrangements within the sign" and the "positioning of the sign with respect to cultural systems of value" (62). Structural analysis stresses three factors: heightened artifice of symmetries of all sorts, departures from stylistic norms, and transformation of the sign's logical character. The cultural perspective, for its part, "stresses the relativity of aesthetic valuation" (63). Lidov is especially strong in his brilliant structural analyses which belong to the comparative dimension of his book. But the analyses are structural without being structuralist in the strict sense and they also rely on tools taken from functionalism. Functionalism, exemplified in the Prague School and in the work of Mukarovský and Jakobson, "might be said to extend Saussurian structuralism from langue to parole " (65). Lidov thinks that the various functions are referential functions (65) and that in the last analysis functionalism does not so much extend as contest "the division of langue from parole " (65). But Lidov is not satisfied with the results so far, which he calls an "ad hoc method ... of parsing the social situation of the sign," but not a new conception of the sign itself (65). Functionalism's greatest power for him, it seems, is in analyzing the aesthetic. It does so because, like structuralism, and unlike Peircean pragmatist semiotics, it offers us a " generalized understanding [of] how parts relate to wholes within sign factors" (89). Structuralism, with its functionalist continuation, has to do "with our consciousness of order and organization" (129) and in this sense it must be seen as "an unfinished project" (129). It is, however, a supplement to pragmatism not an alternative to it. But the permanent influence of structuralist and functionalist concerns is clearly seen in the nuanced comparative aesthetic analyses that make up a large part of Lidov's book, where 'the signs of art' are subjected to a most insightful analysis and flesh out and give bite to the scheme of elements, the construction of which is the main task of the book.


I cannot reproduce the delicacy, detail, concreteness of Lidov's presentation and argument. I must restrict myself to drawing attention to some representative positions which exemplify the valuable 'take' on semiotics that Lidov has constructed.

First, Lidov, in spite of his love of the musical and plastic arts, resolutely holds to the distinctiveness, indeed superiority, of language as a semiotic system. While he admits that the differences between language and other signifying media are "not all black and white," it appears, nevertheless, that language is not only "unique in its capacity to define its own terms" but that sentences, the carriers of human utterances, "seem unique in their capacity to designate aspects of a situation and combine them" (148). The referential function of language is encompassed by the work of designation, analysis, and modality. Designation, as Lidov uses the term, involves the indexical component of a sentence, the hooking of the complex linguistic sign onto a part of the world 'outside' of itself so as to 'extract' it and 'mark' it off. Analysis is exemplified in the division of the fundamental units of the 'marked' experiential continuum into the three basic categories of agent, action, object. Modality is an internal function of the sign. Modality is an interpretant that "assigns the object to a world" (149). The 'modal' object of a sentence, on this analysis, would would be the "proposition it expresses and its context is a world: a world of existing fact, a world of desiderata, a world of obligations, a world of necessities, a world of hypothesis, and so on" (150). There is no limit to modal worlds nor is there a "universal vocabulary for modes" (150). Moreover, it is the "capacity to encode designation, modality, and semantic analysis with precision" that is sui generis for verbal signs. "No exact equivalents to these appear outside language. No other medium sustains the contrasts of designation with denotation (the indication of a class rather than an individual). However, once teased apart, these ingredients of verbal reference turn out to play roles, albeit often more vague, in nonverbal semiosis" (150). This vagueness is not to be construed as a sign of weakness, however, as if forms of nonverbal semiosis are poor relatives of verbal or linguistic forms of semiosis. The point is that the self-reflective and self-analysing nature of language enables us both to highlight its distinctive features and to read off the features that it shares with all other sign media. The choice of a signifying medium will condition the actual form that these three kinds of reference can take.

Second, the stable result of verbal semiosis is a text, the labile result being a conversation or dialogue, assuming, that is, reciprocity of voice, which relations of power do not always allow. Lidov formulates Foucault's great lesson as teaching us that "there are very few domains of discourse in which language furnishes all the signs in play" (176). Texts display a permanent tension found in all semiotic constructs to which Lidov also grants the honorific of being 'texts,' even if they are not language-constituted stricto sensu: a tension between grammar and pattern. Grammar attaches a semiotic work to society. Pattern individualizes the work. Grammatical structure is not the same as the structure of a particular work. "A grammar for assembling texts is a set of rules that governs the text's constituents and their relations by reference to categories " (154). Parts of speech, types of steps in dance, classes of chords in music belong here. These categories and the rules for combining them or selecting them are known a priori. When a combination realizes a grammatical rule we have a form: sentence, syllogism, still-life, musical sonata, standard types of plot, and "perhaps the standard press conference" (154).

While 'categories' and 'forms' define grammar, 'units' and 'sets' define patterns. Individual texts are characterized by distinctive patterns. "A pattern is a concrete ad hoc arrangement of constituents that establishes relations of similarity and contrast" (154). These take two forms: sets, which are "'paradigms' determined by similarity and contrast," and units, which are "'syntagms' determined by similarity and contrast" (154). Here is a clear reference to the two-axis theme of linguistics (paradigmatic and syntagmatic) and the parallel notion of an axis of selection and an axis of combination. Lidov points out that we cannot predict pattern. Pattern is discovered by induction or abduction. It is known only a posteriori and "develops from perceptions of symmetries of all kinds: repetitions, variations, and transformations and contrasts" (154). Examples of pattern are the rhyming of words in a poem, thematic motifs in a symphony, distribution of colors on a canvas, and so forth. Set is to pattern what category is to grammar. Understood in this way, Lidov is certainly right in holding that there is no prior blueprint for pattern which can work within grammatical constraints or contradict and escape such constraints. This is also why pattern is so often connected with the aesthetic (157). But at the same time, as Lidov points out, "the role of grammar and pattern in the plastic arts is more fragmentary because visual articulation structure is so widely various" (156). There can be, in other words, no 'language' of art except in the most attenuated sense of the term. Which does not mean, however, that art works are not sign-complexes, in the sense defined. It is just that the sign-object-interpretant triad is not torqued according to the logic or model of language. Lidov is utterly convincing here, especially in his insistence on the close connections between perception and semiosis as exemplified in art.

In the course of discussing the issue of closure and autonomy in connection with the well-known distinction between open and closed texts, Lidov remarks that the issue is "tied to [a] fundamental question in epistemology: Is our own experience, as whole, open or closed?" (171). Although Lidov resolutely tries to reduce the philosophical component of his book to a minimum, this is one of those (big) philosophical problems that he cannot quite manage to avoid. His treatment of it is suggestive, short and sweet, and correct. He points out that "our objective worlds are plural, contradictory, interpenetrating, and in part unstable" (172) in that sign-complexes accomplish the world-building work of designation, analysis, and assignment of modality in radically different ways. "The worlds engendered by immersion in texts and grammars control our perception of experiences external to them. In a sense, texts act like theories" (172). We dwell in theories and interpret the world in light of them. But we can also step outside any given theory and view it from the outside. We use it to refer while ascribing to it at the same time its own autonomy. In the same way, with texts and complete semiotic systems we can be both inside and outside them. But what we can do with texts and systems we cannot do with our own minds. "We cannot see our own minds from the outside" (174). Consequently, "semiotic closure is tenuous" (174). Our encounter with any text involves our ascribing a "syntactic diagram" to it, but "complex texts do not fully yield to neat diagrams, and this is crucial" (174). Complex texts establish "grounds for competing interpretants" and hence establish a discourse. In this way "the text becomes an image of thinking. Discourse embodies the movement of thought" (174).

I would like to cite a representative passage bearing on this theme to illustrate the richness and acuity of Lidov's project.

A text offers us a world when three conditions are met: (1) it must capture attention but be too complex to be comprehended readily in its details and organization; (2) it must suggest closure -- the associations among its parts must suggest that they belong to a consistent scheme in which they define each other by similarity and difference or by grammatical relations; and (3) the text or grammar must not actually yield to the unitary diagram that it seems to promise. These three characteristics are also characteristics of the 'real' or 'everyday' world to which we are referring our comparison: The world is complex and absorbing; it seems to have unity or at least continuity (which is close to unity); yet we can't quite make out what the unity and articulations are. The loose ends and leftovers create conceptual instabilities that are the representamen of the life of thought, the buzz of unprocessed experiences around the edge of our articulated objective world (174).
To understand the world and to understand a text is to enter into a dialogue, where we answer both world and text with counterwords. "Where semiotic worlds collide, they enjoin dialogues" (177).

Third, Lidov has an extremely interesting, but not altogether unproblematic, discussion of what he calls 'processive signs,' which encompass ritual, symbol, and art. The sign-complexes that constitute these central domains of semiosis are situated within the great polarity of structure and reference that is one of the constant themes of his book. To the degree that sign-complexes foreground their structure and thus become more internally elaborate "they tend to lose or loosen their hold on their objects" (128) and in that sense become more 'opaque.' To the degree that they tighten their referential hold on their objects they become more 'transparent.' In ritual, symbol, and art "the axis of opacity and transparency doubles back on itself..., for these may be so opaque as to seem beyond interpretation and at the same time so involving as not to call for any" (181). Processive signs are signs with a special aura, "signs that are absorbing, salient, problematic" (181). They are signs that deal with the processes of feeling, processes of consciousness. The pivot of Lidov's analysis is that there is no rigid distinction between items in consciousness and processes in consciousness. "A feeling can be taken as an item" (182). A process, as Lidov is using the term, "involves a sustained engagement in environment, orientation, feeling, and/or disposition" (182). It is precisely that engagement that is a sign factor in the processive sign. Accordingly, Lidov offers the following definition of a processive sign. It is a "sign in which the representamen, the object, or the interpretant is a process" (182). Such a notion allows Lidov to schematize processive signs in three ways: (1) process as representamen gives us ritual, (2) process as object gives us symbols, (3) process as interpretant gives us works of art.

In ritual one participates, either as actor or as witness, in an action with which one identifies. "Participation establishes a situation, an orientation, and a feeling, which is to say that it induces a process in consciousness proper to the ritual" (182). A ritual, a time-defined representamen, is coercive of feeling or behavior. It is the fact of experiential immersion that marks rituals. "In ritual, there is no substitute for personal presence. Presence permits a process to be engaged, and that process represents whatever the ritual represents" (183). A symbol, as Lidov is using the term, is "a sign that does not merely indicate or designate its object but also involves us in a feeling or disposition affiliated with its object" (183). Lidov parallels here the deep and vital work of the theologian Paul Tillich. In fact, his analysis also parallels the work of Michael Polanyi in his last work, Meaning. Flags, tombstones, and other such objects, for example, are symbols in that they evoke sets of feelings and attitudes, such as a "sense of belonging and loyalty, of death and horror, and of romance and madness" (183). In short, the symbol "specifies a whole field of experience as its object" (183). Symbols "entrain" a dense penumbra of associations and dispositions. A symbol does not merely designate this penumbra. It engages it (and its contents). "The symbol actually provokes a sample of the experience it refers to" (183). Artworks induce us to sustain a perspective by casting us into it. "The perspective sustained is an interpretant-process" (184). A work of art, in this schema, strives to heighten our perception of the work "as a structured sensuous material," heighten our "imagination of its object," and assimilate us to "the viewpoint toward the object induced by the work" (184). Art engages and merges perception, imagination, and 'viewpoint' as three "dimensions of experience" (184). Lidov notes that this scheme works best when we can identify an object of the representation. But even when the object has been removed, say, in a non-figurative work, it is still parasitic upon a prior representational form or scheme. In this sense art works display in perspicuous fashion the "eradication of reference with the elaboration of structure" that is intrinsic to semiosis and is one of its constitutive principles (185). Even in the absence of the object a work can suggest how it would relate to an object is there were one.

Rituals, symbols, and art works, as sign-complexes, so engage us that they provoke and sustain "a continuous experience." Ritual does so by the controls of perception "entailed by the conditions of presence at a sign situation" when they "compel a structured conscious experience" (186). A symbol depends on the interaction between the sign and a base of knowledge . While a symbol can be a relatively simple, unified vehicle -- sun, moon, flag, stars, circles, squares, serpents, etc. -- it is "attached to a rich network of cultural lore" (186) in which we have embodied or invested ourselves. The symbol immerses us in this network. While art works certainly control perception and immerse us in rich networks of socially shared meanings Lidov in the last analysis pinpoints "the opacity of the vehicle itself" as the mark of aesthetic signs which, by reason of its structure, and not by reason of any recondite object, 'defamiliarizes' our experiences. We are directed to the vehicle itself and not what it refers to. Art works 'obstruct' thought, enforce a detour of perception in two directions: (1) "toward reconstruction of structural coherence" and (2) "toward immersion in sensation" (186). We meet once again the "fundamental antithesis of structure and reference" (186) that marks sign systems of all sorts. Lidov insightfully points out that art works, while being embodied sign-complexes, depend upon a "continuous material surface" that furnishes the "background of sensorial continuity" which is the normal prerequisite condition for the "unmarked state for aesthetic engagement" (187). This is the port of entry into the kingdom of "sensory qualities" (187). The artist in constructing the art work is marked by the "ability to create continuity" (187), which can be present in many forms: undercoating in oil painting, the steady tone of the musician, the "relaxed flow" of the drafter's hand, and so forth. It is in comments such as these that Lidov shows his geniality and mastery. It also indicates the rootedness of Lidov's semiotic elements in the lived structures of experiencing.

In spite of my substantive agreement with the thrust of Lidov's distinction between and analysis of ritual, symbol, and art, I think they are best thought of as 'aspects' of processive sign-complexes where it is the weighting of the various sign-factors that marks off something as primarily ritual, symbol, or artwork. I find the schematization forced and really not in accord with Lidov's own refusal to reify sign-types. As classification, I find the schematization inadequate. As phenomenology of the work of sign-complexes, however, I find it stimulating and cogent.

Fourth, Lidov's comparative orientation allows him to throw sharp light on topics the full explication of which would take complete studies in themselves. He points out that natural and artificial languages are not so strictly and definitively distinguished. Indeed, games can be assimilated to artificial languages. They involve a demarcation of a playing field (a ludic space) and an articulation of the moves allowed (194). Pure notation systems, which Lidov first discusses with Nelson Goodman as dialogue partner, are rare and are exemplified in musical notation: pitch and rhythm are clearly notated, while the conductor's beat is a nonnotational model for a symphonic performance. And theories are, on Lidov's reckoning, models for their objects. Lidov, in the Peircean mode, emphasizes the 'iconic' character of models. A sign-complex is a model if: (1) we can construct the representamen from a "vocabulary of known elements and known relations," (2) the representamen makes the object known by means of resemblance, (3) the relation between representamen and object is not indexical (197). Diagrams, accordingly, aspire to the status of models (197). Their function is to make all the parts of a system able to be regarded simultaneously, even if the clarity of diagrams is, as Lidov astutely observes, more sensorial than logical and even if we frequently use diagrams "to make our ideas look better than they are" (198). At the same time the feeling of control of an object domain that attends our use of graphs leads to "free play" (198), as do all formal systems. A formal system as invested in a graph can be used as a notation (199), with graphs such as tree graphs and net graphs being considered models of mental diagrams, which are not immediately available. The important and fertile mplication that Lidov wants to draw is that "different sorts of comprehension of sense are suggested for melodies and sentences in adapting these different models" (199). Tree graphs model the comprehension of sentences while net graphs model the comprehension of melodies: both types of graphs are attempts to model boundary and region hierarchies, whether situations and actions that are proper to narratives, or states and transitions proper to melodies and flow charts. On all these topics Lidov is a laconic and insightful guide.


It is, however, in his comparison of music and visual art that Lidov truly excels. For Lidov the arts quite generally are "the true laboratories of the great human project of sign making" (191). Repudiating the all too facile opposition between the musical and the plastic -- the arts of time and the arts of space -- Lidov insists on the much more semiotically informative fact that we "can acknowledge hierarchy of content, perspective, and suggestions of designation and modality in both" (191). Two major questions arise for the semiotic treatment of art. First, "How is the signifying structure equipped to entrain, designate, or generalize various objects?" Second, "How does it constrain and elaborate their interpretation?" (191). The signifying structure of art works shares with artificial languages and games a 'playful' delimitation of means which promotes "musement." Lidov speaks of the "discipline of the signifier by limitation of means" (203). Such limitations -- proper to artifice, models, graphs, and notations -- attribute text structure to their objects and thus belong to a class of conceptlike representamina. These representamina are to be distinguished from holistic representamina which resist 'articulating' their objects. Unarticulated inflections, as in paintings and performances, are "more holistic than formal graphs and notations, but they include conceptlike aspects" (203). In art -- but not just in art -- there is a continuous axis of "complex mixtures of conceptlike and holistic elements," and signs are not to be divided into two sharp classes. While it is true that "conceptlike representamina facilitate play" by allowing us to be immersed in a "closed and insulated world" of "playful inventions" (204), it is also true that "you cannot play with the whole universe at once. To play requires focusing, and a closed, artificial world assists that focus" (204). "Focusing and closure both in programming languages and in the languages of art demonstrate the reciprocity of play and formality" (204). Ballet and algebra are both shown to share a common principle.

Lidov's 'take' on the visual arts can be summarized in the following way, some of it traditional and some of it relatively new, especially in terms of emphasis and weighting. Works of visual art have a double appearance: the visual vehicle, the appearance of the formed material, and the visual scene (Langer's virtual object). A picture, for example, is legitimately thought of as a composition and a text, though it is not modeled on language. It combines, to be sure, size, shape, color, texture. But visual art has no "universal articulatory framework" (206), and there are no universal grammatical or pattern schemata. In this sense the visual arts are the great domain of visual novelty, making appear in a continuously variable stream "the relations among perceptual aspects" (205-206) as well as novel forms of depiction, which is the "most characteristic relation of reference for visual art" (207). Nevertheless, isomorphism between representation and object is to be rejected. The substitution of a grammar of depiction for a grammar of vision makes possible the "understanding of pictures as signs" (209). Lidov is especially good at pointing out that a picture sign can have three objects: (1) the depicted object, which can also be a state of affairs, proper to 'representational' art, which is subject to multiple grammars, (2) the stipulated object, which is the object referred to when a depicted object itself becomes a representamen of another object, for example, halo, gallows, balance as representing sanctity, death, justice -- certainly a blend of symbolism and convention, and (3) the inflectional object, a concept that covers a large range of phenomena. Inflectional objects are holistic elements: illusions, color dynamics, distortion, synaesthetic values, color warmth and color distance. "In general, the inflections of pictures are representamina of nonvisual objects -- such as feelings -- which we may call, collectively, the inflectional objects of the picture" (209). Non-depictive painting focusses our attention on inflectional objects, the 'reading' of which differs greatly from the 'reading' of depictions, inducing, in Lidov's opinion a kind of entrancement.

Lidov maintains a firm grip on the dialectical tension between a picture as a text and the picture as a whole or holistic unity. A picture has a "more or less unitary overall object (the scene)" and, "for any one reading, a more less unitary significance, its interpretant as a whole" (211). Lidov in this way throws off hints and insights on every page. Pictures can clearly signify more than they depict. Pictures depicting events can have component figures that are not events and in this sense are like, on the one hand, words in a sentence and, on the other hand, parts in a whole. The inflectional unity is an emergent property, a unifying quality, as Dewey so perspicuously showed in his Art as Experience, which Lidov could have exploited to the benefit of his argument. "A picture as a whole encompasses the arrangement of all its inflections as a unity" (212). Balance emerges out of the perception of 'reciprocities': of weight and counterweight, tension and countertension, structural features that are not rooted in categories but in magnitudes. The fusion in artistic texts of conceptlike elements and holistic elements leads to "a conception of feeling" and "the feeling of concept" (212), a genial and important formulation. The distinctive feel or quality of a painting -- or sculpture, for that matter -- is the interaction of inflection and depiction.

Turning to music, which is Lidov's professional field, we find Lidov once again tracing the intricate relations between semiotic and non-semiotic aspects. Lidov illuminatingly applies the semiotic triad to the analysis of melody. The melodic representamen is compounded of discrete parts, revealed in pattern analysis and foregrounding disjunct entities and a hierarchy of regions, and of modulating continuities, revealed in grammar analysis and foregrounding rising and falling conjunct intervals and a hierarchy of boundaries (216). The pattern of disjunct elements is highly articulate and assists us to reify the melody (216). It reveals the unique vocabulary of the melody. The modulation hierarchy is like waves on a lake. Conjunction is identified by us perceptually "with continuity and with processes in consciousness rather than items" (216). It is this double character of the melodic representamen that "prepares us for the surprising complexity of its references" (216). The motional object of music is rooted in proprioceptive knowledge, which Lidov discusses with reliance on the stimulating work of Pierce and Pierce. "We may interpret the melodic reference to motion as the expressive behavior of a subject" (219). This involves an ascription of subjectivity, of a persona, to music or to a musical theme (219). Lidov thinks of a melodic shape as "encoding two simpler, simultaneous contours" (219), which are ultimately the rhythmic and the pitch structures. We are presented in the musical line with a constant tension, played out in the perceiving body, between effort and momentum. Rhythmic and pitch structures are in constant dialectical relationship, with acceleration and deceleration of rhythm playing against rising and falling pitch (221). As to the musical interpretant, Lidov points out that not only motion but also emotion has an essential affinity with music. While the recourse to emotion is, as Lidov says, "no shortcut to understanding music" (221), he does want to sustain the thesis that in spite of the vagueness of the notion of emotion and its confusion at times with mood and sensation, "it remains a fact that music can indicate qualities of feeling and that qualities of emotion are a salient subclass of these....Music represents specific characteristics of movement that are indices of emotion" (221), that is, really connected with them in a Peircean and Deweyan sense.

Connected where? In the body of both performer and perceiver of the music. Lidov performs an invaluable service to the semiotic community by his rich and allusive appropriation of the work of Manfred Clynes on 'sentics,' which offers support for what Lidov calls the "gesture hypothesis," one of the most stimulating ideas of his book. Music, for Lidov, arises in gesture, embodies gesture, and gives rise to a distinctive gestural shape or 'sentic form' in the perceiver. A gesture, in Lidov's formulation, is a "single, molar unity of expressive bodily movement or posture. One single gesture has no parts that are experienced by the actor or perceiver as volitionally distinct, that is, as the products of distinct impulses" (222). One gesture, while not compound, is nevertheless complex, according to Lidov. Lidov distinguishes between the articulation of the gesture (which body parts do what) and the inflection of the gesture, which is determined by its rhythm, "its profile of force" (222). Gesture I, as he calls it, both accepts cultural control and is subject to notation. Gesture II is biologically determined and incapable of notation, "subject to cultural modification only in that it can be contextualized, facilitated, or inhibited" (222). Here is where the presentation and defence of Clynes's position on sentic forms enters the discussion. Clynes's main point, as understood by Lidov, is that expressive patterns "converge on a shape that is distinct for each of several different emotions but the same for most people" (223). These shapes are sentic forms, "images of gesture II" (223). "Sentic shapes are temporal patterns of fixed duration that describe the growth and decay of muscular effort (and momentum)" (223). Music, on this analysis, is a sonically embodied sentic form, a position extremely close to Susanne Langer's as developed especially in her Feeling and Form. Only such a position, thinks Lidov, permits us "to address a variety of issues that otherwise would be intractable" about the types of meaning music can have. In spite of the 'physicality' of its analyses it avoids being a push-button theory even if it focuses on an "indexical component of artistic expression" (226). The expressive quality that marks any musical realization is connected to the precision of the innate gestural form that defines the intensity of the expression (226).

Sentic forms are in principle "incapable of notation" (226). Inflections of musical performances are not in the score, just as inflections of dance are not in the Labanotation. Something slips through the net of formal notations. "Just as with musical notation, what we are inclined to call the quality of movement is not caught in the sieve of formal notation" (227). In all the arts -- and even in casual communication -- Lidov clearly establishes that we are dealing with two planes or streams, "one bound up with conceptlike structure, subject to playful manipulations, and one bound up with inflection, subject to inhibition and release" (227). Lidov thematizes the streams as analogous to ocean currents that mingle and interact without fixed boundaries. Lidov in this way is able to throw a penetrating light on the issue of emergent properties or emergent qualitative values in art. His thesis and theme is that "in art holistic elements are framed and manipulated so as to become conceptlike; conceptlike elements are transformed and inflected to convey holistic inflections" (230). Art evolves, consequently, on two planes: a plane of composition and a plane of inflection. Composition deals with pattern and grammar in so far as they are amenable to notation. Inflection encompasses unarticulated elements that "have a character dependent on their exact shape" (230) and are subject to continuous graphing (but not notational graphing). The role of inflection is to account for "accurate realizations of the same score" (230). But these realizations do not have to be identical. Indeed, they cannot be. The upshot is that "what is most magical and mysterious in art is the intertwining of expressivity and conceptualization" (230).

The semiotic relevance of the body and the 'deintellectualization' of art is given a clear and precise treatment in Lidov. Lidov shows the heuristic fertility of Clynes's work beyond the sphere of music. "It seems that we comprehend spatial relations, time relations, and force relations in part by projecting body images" (231) -- as in moving lines and colors. "We project our own feelings into the objects or events that evoke them readily if those events or objects embody expressive physical inflections" (231). Lidov thinks that the gesture hypothesis is more suggestive than Goodman's notion of metaphorical exemplification. In the case of Michelangelo's Pietà, for example, Lidov traces its power to the provoking of subliminal mimicry and it appears that we "project the feeling resulting from our own muscular tensions onto the sculpture as a sort of illusion" (231). In brilliant analyses of the Funeral March in Beethoven's Eroica and of the Joseph window in Chagall's Jerusalem windows Lidov enriches the semiotic frames that he has been so much at pains to develop in the course of the book. The analyses are most endebted to Clynes and the main theoretical or semiotic point is to show that "the relations of conceptualization and expressivity in art are infinitely variable" (247) and that semiotic theory is not "wedded to particular interpretations" (248). Lidov's main concern is to try to display the heuristic fertility of "foundational elements and relations of semiosis" (248). Semiotic analysis, he thinks, should "celebrate individuality" (249) and the tools developed in a foundational semiotic theory are not meant to amount to a "rigid method" (249).


Lidov's book offers in more ways than I have been able to indicate a direct and nuanced survey and discussion of these foundational elements and a demonstration of how they are to be used in concrete semiotic analyses. It establishes a subtle network of concepts and distinctions and it displays with admirable clarity and scope their consequences for the ubiquitous activity of interpreting signs. Although I am not sure that he has done himself an unequivocable service in downplaying the philosophical premises and implications of semiotics, he, no doubt, did so n order to offer a common platform for readers of different philosophical persuasions. While by doing so he has managed to avoid certain types of controversy about philosophical method and subject matter, they nevertheless might be intrinsic to semiotics as such. Those who want extended philosophical discussions will have to look elsewhere. As will those who are more concerned with the social role of signs. Moreover, Lidov's book is not a book of exposition nor is it a primer. Yet Its directness must not be confused with simplicity. The focusing on elements is by no means elementary and the level of discussion is resolutely high. Indeed, his book presupposes a degree of sophistication and familiarity with the background discussions that challenges the reader on every page. It occupies, in fact, a valuable middle ground between being an initiation and being for the initiated.

At the end of his book, in a compact and clear-headed discussion of education, Lidov argues that "education is the primary locus for the maintenance of sign systems and texts" (261). Proper education, dependent on 'discipline,' needs "manageable packages of signs" (262). The expert teacher's job is to match students with the right-sized projects and in this way lead them out of themselves. Creativity in its authentic, non "flabby," sense arises in interaction with sign systems and texts, in the opportunities to "encounter structured works" (264). Education in the elements of semiosis and the elements of semiotics is the task Lidov set himself in this book, which is part of his own self-confessed project of fighting, both in his life and in his professional career, to maintain "well-structured texts" (267) and to offer us a manageable package of signs about signs. It is a record of an attempt to appropriate and place in a systematic frame the elements of semiotics and to establish the groundlines for their future application. In short, his book is written for all those who eschew fads and "who appreciate the importance, complexity, and privileges of elaborate semiosis" (267).


Clynes, Manfred (1989) Sentics: The Touch of the Emotions. Introduction by Yehudi Menuhin. Bridport, Dorset: Prism Press.

Dewey, John (1934) Art as Experience. Critical edition: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Innis, Robert E. (1994) Consciousness and the Play of Signs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Langer, Susanne K. (1953) Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art. New York: Scribner's.

Pierce, Alexandra and Roger Pierce (1989). Expressive Movement. New York: Plenum.

Polanyi, Michael and Harry Prosch (1975) Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Robert E. Innis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His books include Karl Büaut;hler: Semiotic Foundations of Language Theory (Plenum 1982), Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology (Indiana University Press1985), Consciousness and the Play of Signs (Indiana University Press 1994). He is currently preparing Forms of Sense.

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