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This review appeared in Volume 7 (1) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

The Semiotics of Post-Semiotics

Scott Simpkins

Language As Articulate Contact: Toward A Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication. By John Stewart. Albany: State University Press of New York. xiv + 303 pages. 1995. ISBN 0-7914-2288-7.

The notion of a "post-" discipline always raises questions about the status of the discipline it presumably supersedes. Moreover, this displacement is all the more complicated because it often seems merely figurative rather than literal. Structuralists, for instance, blithely continue with their practice despite the assumed obsolescence that poststructuralism would herald. The same is true for radically ahistorical designations like postmodernism which often is said to include writers such as Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), relatively pre-modern or early modern writers at best from a historical standpoint, but decidedly postmodern in the literary sense. The mid-nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelites, who actually came more than 300 years after Raphael (1483-1520), would similarly dramatize this phenomenon.

What, then, of John Stewart’s assertion of a post-semiotics? From the onset, Stewart forcefully denies the possibility of the mutual existence of semiotics and its "post-" discipline. In fact, Stewart repeatedly contends that a post-semiotics can exist only at the "death" of semiotics. While it is illuminating to explore the finer points of Stewart's contention, it also may be revealing to examine the semiotics of a post-semiotic practice as well, to analyze, in effect, the nature of a sign system that takes as its primary assumption the necessary abandonment of a discipline based on what Stewart calls the symbol model.

While acknowledging "the profound usefulness of symbolic vocabulary in discussing a variety of human artifacts and actions," Stewart draws the line at the explanatory capacity of semiotics when it comes to the nature of language: "semiotic accounts of the nature of language are crippled by . . . serious problems of plausibility, coherence, and applicability" (xii). Stewart cites this last criterion as the major shortcoming of semiotics (and, on a larger scale, any symbol-based discipline like speech act theory, etc.): it is not "informatively applicable to paradigm instances of the phenomenon it purports to describe" (xiii). Although he acknowledges that there are numerous variants to the symbol model, Stewart uses the term collectively to indicate any communicative paradigm that utilizes sign-based concepts.

To Stewart, all semiotic accounts of language assume that it is "fundamentally a system of signs or symbols" (3) and, as a result, they limit their explanatory power by virtue of adhering to five "theoretical commitments":

1) An assumption of "a fundamental distinction between two realms or worlds, the world of the sign and the signifier, symbol and symbolized, name and named, word and thought" (6-7). Stewart's contention is that this claim cannot "coherently" explain the possibility of intelligible exchange between a linguistic realm and the realm it refers to because it posits "an ontological distinction between two realms or worlds, typically the linguistic and the nonlinguistic, and [contends] that language establishes a relationship between them" (103). "To accommodate" this commitment, he concludes, "one has to view the mind as a container of some sort filled with entities of very puzzling ontological status" (20) because "to distinguish ... between two worlds alters the historical sense of the term world as the single coherent sphere that humans inhabit" (105).

2) "The belief that the linguistic world consists of identifiable units or elements (e.g., phonemes, morphemes, words, utterances, speech) that are its atoms or molecules" (7). Atomism, Stewart asserts, has led both to a misleading division of whole entities into parts, and to a potentially distorted privileging of some of those parts at the expense of others. The allure of segmentation, as well as the tendency to elevate the status of certain synecdoches, have distorted the overall gestalt view of language in exchange for the analytical advantages derived from emphasizing select examples. For Stewart, the study of conversation demonstrates that interactive language (as opposed to isolated examples) "cannot simply or clearly be divided into signifying unitsthat stand in some representational relationship with their alleged signifieds" (104).

3) "The claim that the relationship between these units of language and the units that make up the other of the two worlds is some sort of representational or symbolizing relationship" (7). For Stewart, this representational commitment posits an incoherent relation between representations and some types of the things they represent (such as "negative terms, articles, prepositions, and conjunctions") that make it "difficult to locate the 'thing named'" (10). This position "ultimately keeps a wedge driven between the two worlds... because one entity of a given ontological status cannot coherently be said to 'represent' another entity of the same ontological status" (103).

4) "The belief that these ontologically distinct, representationally functioning units make up a system, the system called language" (7). By identifying this commitment, Stewart argues that semioticians tend to totalize and separate language into a monolithic, and presumably static, entity - like Saussure's sense of langue as a system - instead of conceiving of it as an interactive "event or as a mode of human being," a form of parole that Saussure declared beyond systematic analysis (11). "Living language," he declares, "is not reducible without remainder to a system made up of atoms or molecules and rules for their combination" (104).

5) The final commitment stems from the stance that "Language is a tool or instrument humans use to accomplish their goals" (7). This instrumental orientation "hypostatizes what is lived as event and imports the subject-object distinction into language scholarship" (29), Stewart asserts, whereas he believes that "humans do not live in a subject-object, instrumental relationship with the tongue they routinely speak" (104).

In the course of surveying a history of symbol models from ancient accounts to the present in Language As Articulate Contact, Stewart finds in each instance at least one reliance on these "commitments" that he contends significantly undermines the effectiveness of semiotic accounts.

Opposed to the incoherent, impractical, and conceptually flawed models aligned with semiotics, Stewart offers post-semiotics as a "credible alternative" which, again, necessarily "cannot be developed from either a semiotic foundation or from an analysis of what Austin and John Searle term speech acts" (ix). "Unlike the view it replaces," he adds, "it is coherent, which is to say that its elements fit together in a plausible whole;... it captures a significant contemporary consensus among philosophers and communication theorists; and... it avoids many of the pitfalls and conceptual cul-de-sacs of semiotic accounts" (xi).

Stewart's alternative to semiotics - a post-semiotics he characterizes as "articulate contact" - essentially is configured antithetically to the five commitments. He suggests, for instance, that the two-worlds model "be replaced by acknowledging that there is only one human world and it is linguistic" (30). It is clear, however, that Stewart establishes his own - and not insubstantial - shortcomings through positions of this nature, and that they derive largely from both the rhetorical implications of his assertions and the dogged insistence that alternative views (e.g., the semiotic one) cannot be profitably entertained even as merely tentative propositions.

Post-semiotics also emphasizes the use of instances of parole for analysis. "The paradigmatic site of language's occurring is in events of speech communicating;" accordingly, he suggests, "any account of the nature of language should begin with this event and be informatively applicable to instances of it." As opposed to an instrumentalist explanation of the nature of language, Stewart's explanation stresses that "language as living event can best be understood by recognizing that its first business is contact" which "generates distinctions" and "occurs paradigmatically as oral-aural event" (30). And, "language is constitutive" as opposed to representational; "it does not represent world but builds or develops it" (31).

His proposed method of selecting and collecting data emphasizes conversation, which he depicts as "naturally-occurring interchanges" (17). Despite the obvious question begging that underlies the conception of a "natural" instance of language usage as opposed to an "artificial," atomistic one, Stewart asserts that the former enables the corroboration of applicability derived not from constructed examples that may skew results by providing data consonant with the commitments of the symbol model, but instead, from actual instances (derived from "language as it is lived" [19]) that are not shaped by these commitments. "Any instance of reported speech integrates three perspectives: that of the original speaker, that of the reporter, and that of the audience to whom the reporter speaks," Stewart notes.

"This is why the study of reported speech can provide insights into the basic processes of understanding and communication, conceived of as social, dialogical processes" (188).

Stewart employs transcriptions of conversation to test these postulates and repeatedly resorts to strategies based on a rhetoric of what amounts to bullying about practicality, coherence, plausibility, consensus, and applicability that fosters a somewhat alarmist dynamic of patronizing and moralizing superiority. Kenneth Burke's philosophy of language is "at risk," for example, because he draws upon the symbol model and, as a consequence, he cannot "generate the kind of philosophy of language that engenders the highest confidence." "A similar fate," he concludes gravely, "threatens other theorists who treat language as symbolic" (227). A limited sampling of his strategy of argumentative support through intimidation should adequately demonstrate his approach: "Today," Stewart observes, "virtually every school child knows that the mind is not coherently describable as a container filled with the kinds of entities that are required by the symbol model" (20); or, "all this [analysis of symbol model presuppositions regarding representationality] may seem a little silly" since "no contemporary scholar would seriously contend that one can specify any sort of one-to-one correspondence between specific signifier and specific signified" (21); or, my favorite: "protests that the two worlds commitment of the symbol model is no longer a part of serious language theorizing, and therefore that any attempt to test it againt living language is irrelevant or unfair, can be sustained only if one ignores a substantial part of the significant contemporary literature in philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, and communication theory" (23).

As these excerpts demonstrate, Stewart pinpoints potentially significant limitations to symbol models, but unfortunately, he does so in a manner which is either so vague or begs so many questions that the superiority of post-semiotics remains undeveloped and unconvincing. That he ultimately portrays post-semiotics as a humanistic and morally responsible alternative to semiotics may explain the fervor of his conviction in its tenets. "Semiotic accounts of the nature of language permit discourse to be disconnected from its ethical and ontological consequences," he suggests. "This post-semiotic account permits no such disconnection; it points toward the intimate connection between human speech communicating and human being" (130).

A significant component of Stewart's concept of a post-semiotics (or, what he calls "constitutive articulate contact") is the contention that "understanding is a mode of being manifested in concrete events of conversing and that ultimately these events are what the term language labels" (112). Accordingly, "efforts to analyze syntactic or semantic aspects of what has been viewed as the 'system' of language need to be broadened to acknolwedge [sic] both the indivisible interrelationships between the verbal and the nonverbal and the inherently relational nature of events of articulate contact" (123). From this perspective, a sign "system" such as language needs to be approached from the perspective of "languaging," which Stewart characterizes as "understanding in events of speech communicating".

Post-semiotics also embraces the single-world view, as opposed to the irreconcilable two-world view that Stewart locates within semiotics. Moreover, this one world consists of a materiality that is rendered coherent and even proven to exist by the social interaction of articulate contact. Thus, language users participate in an "acknowledgement or affirmation" of the "facticity" of this world as it exists "separate from the viewer" (117). The world is not both a linguistic construct and a material entity referred to, but rather, it is constituted and confirmed through the social agency of "languaging". "By engaging both proactively and responsibly in the play of language events," Stewart asserts, "humans participate in the constituting of the coherent spheres we inhabit" (119).

Stewart constructs a "holistic" method of analysis for post-semiotics as opposed to the atomistic approach he aligns with semiotics. "Little purpose is served by focusing one's explicative energy exclusively on reducing language to its atoms," he contends. "The anchor for understanding languaging should be the contact event as its participants live it" (125). While continuing in this vein of establishing post-semiotics in opposition to semiotics, Stewart proposes an alternative to subject-object differentiations by viewing language as "constitutive or productive of (necessarily partial, tentative, and changing) ways of understanding rather than reproductive of cognitive states, things, or other units of language" (125). From this perspective, "language is primary rather than secondary" and "speech communicating is a principal not a surrogational dynamic."

Instrumentality, from the post-semiotic standpoint, is likewise decried as "incomplete and misleading" since "humans cannot live in the subject-object relationship with language that the tool analogy requires" (126). "It is most fruitful to treat language as the primary way humans be who we are and as a dynamic we are subject to or used by at least as much as we 'manipulate' or 'use,'" Stewart argues. "Insofar as world is linguistic, we inhabit or live in our language; we do not simply use it as a tool."

Even from this sketchy overview it should be evident how Stewart builds upon concepts of language articulated by Heidegger, Buber, Gadamer, and Bakhtin to configure his version of a post-semiotics.

In addition to outlining Stewart's position on semiotics and post-semiotics, the first half of this study also offers a selective account of 2,700 years of language philosophy that is framed to support his claim that attempts to explain the nature of language have been repeatedly and consistently hindered by reliance upon one or more of the commitments implicit in the symbol model. One example will suffice: Plato, who in Stewart's view "laid down the first detailed version of the symbol model," hampered his theory of language by relying upon "a fundamental distinction between the linguistic (phenomenal) and the nonlinguistic (noumenal) world" (40). To Plato, "The relationship between these two worlds is representational, in that language is made up of words that function to name aspects of this other reality." Stewart assesses Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine of Hippo, Medieval speculative grammarians, the Port-Royalists, Locke, Condillac, Rousseau, Herder, Horne Tooke, Humboldt, Peirce, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Cassirer, and Susan Langer among other figures in a similar fashion.

(Mention of Rousseau - whose name is repeatedly misspelled "Rosseau" even in quoted secondary material - reminds me to note the excessive typographical errors and inconsistencies in this study, too, something that is bound to disturb certain readers and may even lead them to question the accuracy of Stewart's far-reaching claims.)

Stewart's analyses of potential limitations to semiotics nonetheless contain a number of illuminating observations. This in particular can be found in "Diverse Friendly Bedfellows," a chapter that explores projects of inquiry related to the issues embodied in articulate contact. Here, Stewart examines research on Sign language and deaf education, models of human cognition related to artificial intelligence research, and Gary B. Madison's "hermeneutics of intersubjectivity" to demonstrate the existence of projects that are in some ways parallel to the post-semiotics he proposes.

Madison's work on "poststructuralist phenomenology" (his The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity [1990], for instance) develops a notion of "praxical linguistic ontology" that Stewart uses to support his own belief that "the event of speech is constitutive of humanity." But unlike Madison, Stewart refuses to adhere to subject-object divisions and emphasizes the transactive, dialogic nature of communication as opposed to a model positing "an (intentional) action performed by one speaker" (135). Stewart's support, again, for this contention is that "reciprocally constitutive contact is not simply the outcome of one speaker's 'aim,' but is first and foremost the situation in which humans find themselves as they accomplish everyday coping" (137).

The commentary on Sign language (cowritten by Susan K. Dyer) surveys different theories of language subtending three education approaches for the deaf: oralism (spoken English), combinism (spoken English and Sign), and bilingualism (Sign and ESL). Oralism and combinism, they observe, rely upon symbol-based models of language while bilingualism incorporates the type of articulate contact Stewart promotes in this study through the belief that "members of deaf culture function best socially by utilizing their natural facial, gestural, and bodily communicative resources, thereby adapting to their deafness rather than attempting to overcome it" (141).

Problems encountered in research on artificial intelligence are also used to support Stewart's critique of analyses of language based on the symbol model (and specifically representationalism). "Because the commonsense knowledge that informs our linguistic productions is essentially openended, it cannot be captured within the predefined limits of any computer program," Stewart declares, and thus he maintains that AI research is destined to remain mired in this dilemma until the more recent research challenging this model is able to sketch out an alternative, "connectionist" approach that does not rely on a representational concept of language.

The second half of Language As Articulate Contact continues to demonstrate how the retention of even one facet of the symbol model perpetuates what Stewart views as the flaws of such language studies. He focuses specifically on positions fleshed out in Volosinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, selected writings by Kenneth Burke on language as a symbol system, and recent work by philosopher Calvin O. Schrag.

Stewart finds Marxism and the Philosophy of Language especially relevant for his study since, as he observes, it wavers between adhering at times to either the symbol model (in terms of representationalism and binary oppositions) or to post-semiotics (with a stress on dialogic, interactive, event-oriented communication). Significantly, it is this very coupling of the two positions that Stewart highlights as the study's substantial shortcoming; that Volosinov, in other words, cannot leave behind the conceptual vitiation of the symbol model and therefore is unable to present a fully responsive account of the nature of language.

Stewart addresses Schrag's two studies, Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity (1986) and The Resources of Rationality: A Response to the Postmodern Challenge (1992), from the standpoint of "communicative praxis" which is distinctly parallel to "articulate contact." While Schrag's emphasis on analyzing "living speech communication" (230) is obviously attractive to Stewart, he asserts that Schrag "burdens his analysis with vestiges of the symbol model" (230) such as atomism and instrumentalism, and ultimately fails to "formulate a coherent nonrepresentational account of linguistic or discursive reference" (238) because he embraces the belief that "‘speech is the saying of something about something'" (235).

The account on Burke (cowritten with Karen J. Williams) considers his writings on "symbolicity" from Counter-Statement, The Rhetoric of Religion, and Language as Symbolic Action. And, as with the case of Volosinov and Schrag, Stewart and Williams use Burke to demonstrate what happens when "semiotic and post-semiotic views collide" (198). Since Stewart fervently opposes blending of this nature - the metaphor of "collision" is not insignificant - it is hardly surprising that fault is found with Burke's reliance upon all five of the symbol model commitments despite his promising post-semiotic views on "speech as a mode of making present or presencing" (207) and "the constitutive power of the oral-aural nexus humans experience as language" (209).

This section on Burke also contains a good example of Stewart's insistent claim of the impossibility of successfully combining concepts from semiotics and post-semiotics in a manner that would advance communication theory. Whenever this has been attempted, Stewart argues, implausibility, incoherence, or conceptual tension have been necessarily the outcome. In Burke's case, a "pervasive tension" results from his belief that, on the one hand, language can be seen as consisting of "identifiable, discrete units," and, on the other, as a "dynamic and processual" entity (226). "It is not possible coherently to embrace both sides of this tension," Stewart adds, "especially in chapters and essays that treat issues systematically" (212). It is easy to detect Stewart's goal for outlining his objections in this way: he is clearly attempting to craft a compelling alternative to communication models that fail to resolve the problematic components of an entity that is arguably chaotic - and even anarchic - in nature. While he insists that "Language cannot most fruitfully be viewed as simply an objective system of word-symbols, but as the activity or process of oral-aural articulate contact" (212), the implicit inference in this statement is that articulate contact can only be conceived without a remaining "tension" when it is modeled on a coherent, reductive, plausible, objective system. Of course, Stewart is not unaware of the argument that "a pluralistic view of language is preferable to a narrowly unidimensional one," but it appears that he prefers the "theological" comfort of this latter position as opposed to the assumptions and compromises he would have to live with if he were to embrace the other.

"One might wonder," he writes elsewhere in this study, "why semiotic and post-semiotic language scholars can not just agree to coexist, with those committed to the symbol model using it to pursue their questions and those who view language as constitutive articulate contact applying their own perspective?" (129). But, the symbol model, from Stewart's perspective, is not capable of "coherent and useful" analysis because it is not "informatively applicable to paradigm cases of the phenomenon it is designed to elucidate." Because of this barrier, Stewart remains "skeptical about coexistence, eclecticism, or theoretical pluralism when what is at issue is the understanding of the basic nature of language itself." To support this position, Stewart performs a comparison and contrast analysis of a transcribed conversation; while the post-semiotic approach "prove[d] useful for elucidating several ways this talk is operating syntactically, semantically, and pragmatically," the semiotic analysis Stewart applied came up with nothing. As a means of reinforcing the humanistic/ethical agenda that underlies this study, Stewart belittles the investments of semioticians through this exercise by concluding: "Of course, the symbol theorist might not be interested in the relationship between the individual and the social, the dynamics of narrative collaboration, the discursive development of subject matter, or the conversational achievement of intimacy."

Anybody familiar with semiotic theory and practice could see what is going on here: Stewart is so convinced about what he perceives as the limitations of semiotic accounts of language that he resorts to presenting his own totalized accounts of vastly differing and heterogeneous practices under presumably monolithic terms as "the symbol model" or even "semiotics". For, clearly within general semiotics Stewart could find many models parallel to his own that could yield fruitful hybrids. For instance, it could be argued from this perspective that, by stressing the "linguisticality" (116) of the semiotic universe, Stewart is essentially extending the notion of a "translinguistics" as briefly outlined by Barthes (1964), with the difference located in Stewart's emphasis on what could be called the "asystemic" nature of his system. The same could be said for Paul Hopper's work in linguistics on emergent grammar that explores the position that "grammar is provisional and incomplete and emerges in discourse" (1985:118) and that "language is a real-time activity, whose regularities are always provisional and are continually subject to negotiation, renovation, and abandonment" (120). Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress's Social Semiotics (1988), Jean-François Lyotard's Libidinal Economy (1974; reviewed here in volume 6.1, January, 1995), James S. Hans's The Fate of Desire (1990), and Paul J. Thibault's Social Semiotics as Praxis (1991) are just four among many additional works that illustrate this point.

One could ask, then: is what Stewart offers here really a post-semiotics? Or, is it perhaps more accurately a variation of existing manifestations of communication analysis such as social semiotics? Either way, Language As Articulate Contact will certainly generate a great deal of discussion of these issues.

In fact, Stewart has edited a companion volume of essays, Beyond the Symbol Model: Reflections on the Representational Nature of Language, also to be published by SUNY Press later this year. With three divisions of essays on "Alternatives to Representational Accounts of Language and Meaning," "Postmodern Rediscoveries," and "Resuscitations of Semiotic Dimensions," written by Stewart, Gary Madison, Roy Harris, Gillian L. Roberts and Janet Beavin Bavelas, Ernst Behler, Andrew Smith, D. S. Clarke, Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, John Wilson, and Marcelo Dascal, this discussion will doubtlessly refine, question, and perhaps advance contentions Stewart raises here.


Barthes, Roland. 1964. "Éléments de sémiologie." Communications, 4; reprinted in L'Aventure sémiologique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985: 17-84.

Hans, James S. 1990. The Fate of Desire. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. 1988. Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hopper, Paul. 1985."Emergent Grammar and the A Priori Grammar Postulate." Linguistics in Context: Connecting Observation and Understanding. Ed. Deborah Tannen. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1988: 117-134.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1974. Économie libidinale. Trans. as Libidinal Economy by Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Madison, Gary B. 1990. The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity: Figures and Themes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Schrag, Calvin O. 1986. Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

---1992. The Resources of Rationality: A Response to the Postmodern Challenge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simpkins, Scott. 1987."Naming Names: Plato's Cratylus and the Ground of the Sign," Semiotics 1987. Ed. John Deely. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988: 473-478.

Thibault, Paul J. 1991. Social Semiotics as Praxis: Text, Social Meaning Making, and Nabokov's "Ada". Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Scott Simpkins, Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Texas, has published essays and reviews on Romanticism, modern literature, and semiotics in journals such as Semiotics, Style, Novel, Studies in Romanticism, The American Journal of Semiotics, European Romantic Review, Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici, Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy, Twentieth Century Literature, Comparative Literature Studies, and the James Joyce Quarterly. In addition to serving as editor of Studies in the Novel, he is currently preparing studies on the Romantics' subversion of the book and their representations of stigma.

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