Semiotics Right and Left

Christopher Norris

  • On Signs: A Semiotics Reader edited by Marshall Blonsky
    Blackwell, 536 pp, £27.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 10261 2

The sheer bulk of this volume – as well as its highly miscellaneous character – suggests one of the problems about modern semiotics, considered as a discipline or field of study. It is hard to draw the line as to just what should count as a properly ‘semiotic’ line of enquiry, given that the field extends to every kind of signifying process or activity. At the limit (as in many of the essays here) it is not so much a method, theory or discipline as a generalised pretext for making observations that would otherwise lack any handy descriptive label. Of course there have been those – Saussure and the early Roland Barthes, among others – who held out the prospect of a unified endeavour that would place semiotics on a genuine scientific footing. Such was the dream of method that found its most ambitious expression in the structuralist ‘revolution’ of the human sciences proclaimed by various disciples of Saussure. Linguistics was to serve as the pilot methodology, the basis for a universal science of signs. Anthropology, political theory, psychoanalysis and even (according to Piaget) mathematics and the ‘hard’ sciences – all were to be seen as constituent fields of this overarching programme. Their interests converged on a handful of propositions about the workings of language – derived mostly from Saussure and Jakobson – which seemed to point beyond ‘linguistics’ as such to a much larger theory of mind, culture and signifying systems in general. Semiotics (or semiology, as the French preferred to call it) was set to usher in this bright new age of interdisciplinary endeavour.

Structuralist thinking was characterised chiefly by its faith in systematic modes of explanation. It assumed, that is to say, the possibility of attaining a knowledge that transcended the various first-order languages and cultures which made up its field of application. Thus literary theorists set about discovering the ground-rules of narrative structure and the complex typologies of figure and device that governed the production of literary texts. Levi-Strauss’s great project of structural anthropology was likewise intended to demonstrate the invariant ‘grammars’ of collective representation, such that the analyst could discover an underlying logic at work in the myths, customs and kinship-systems of even the most diverse or far-flung cultures. The goal of these endeavours was to reduce multiplicity to the manageable compass of a unified general theory. Structuralism was in this sense an heir to the tradition of large-scale systematising philosophies that sought a perspective encompassing all local differences of language and culture. It searched for explanatory principles – like Jakobson’s celebrated binary distinction between metaphor and metonymy – which would give the analyst sufficient theoretical grasp to transcend all such natural relativities.

Hence the strongly Aristotelian cast of much early structuralist writing on narrative theory and poetics. Hence also the impressive confidence and sweep with which Barthes, in his Mythologies, claimed to lay bare the signifying codes of ‘bourgeois’ society. Myth today, Barthes explained, was best understood with the aid of Saussure, as a process involving the mystification of language and the treatment of cultural (or class-based) values as if they belonged to some natural, timeless order of things. Thus Saussure’s basic premise – the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign – becomes in Barthes’s hands a key to interpreting all kinds of cultural phenomena, from the face of Garbo to all-in wrestling, from striptease to the mythical Brain of Einstein. Theory lays claim to a massively generalised explanatory power, as it does when Jakobson advances his famous definition of poetic language as that which ‘projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination’. In each case there is a kind of linguistic a priori which enables the theorist to move beyond mere description to the level of systematic method.

It is a mistake to assimilate ‘semiotics’ and ‘structuralism’ as if they were the same activity under different names. Undoubtedly the revival of interest in semiotic theory had much to do with the emergence of Parisian structuralism as an intellectual gathering-point during the Sixties. But there was always, in the structuralist enterprise, a commitment to paradigmatic notions of system and method that set it apart from other, more free-ranging styles of semiotic activity. It was the failure to achieve this ambition – or the problems thrown up in pursuit of it – that led to the widespread shift of direction signalled by French post-structuralism. It is simplifying matters to treat the prefix ‘post-’ as suggesting any kind of straightforward theoretical advance beyond the structuralist paradigm. At most, it is a label of convenience adopted in the effort to make narrative sense of a complex and bewildering history. But it does have some point if taken to suggest the passage from a structuralist hankering for system to a broadly post-structuralist insistence that language must always exceed or elude the grasp of any such methodical enterprise.

This shift came about under pressure from various quarters. It was prompted partly by Derrida’s showing how the concept of ‘structure’ tended to preserve all the deadlocked antinomies and blind-spots of classic philosophical reason. Then there were the lessons of Lacanian psychoanalysis, denying all appeal to a transcendental subject outside and above the unconscious play of linguistic figuration. Among literary critics, Barthes took perhaps the most decisive step when he announced (in S/Z, 1970) an end to the structuralist quest for some universal ‘grammar’ of narrative forms, and a beginning to that new kind of critical activity that would liberate the text from all such oppressive regimes. Post-structuralism was thus borne in on a wave of revolt against the scientistic notions that had so far characterised the modern semiotic turn. The effect was to question those established methodologies that had staked their claim on a firm distinction between language and meta-language, text and theory. Henceforth such appeals could only be regarded as evidence of a lingering attachment to old, logocentric habits of thought. Of course this didn’t mean – far from it – that ‘theory’ would be chastened and subdued to the point of closing down the whole post-structuralist enterprise. What it signalled was the growing awareness that theory was itself just another kind of writing, uncommonly alert to its own textual ruses but not, for that reason, wanting to escape into the pure heaven of abstraction.

On this view, semiotics is the larger, encompassing discipline, and structuralism (with its various ‘post-structuralist’ offshoots) a single episode within that broad tradition. Semiotics can claim an intellectual ancestry going back at least to the Stoic philosophers and their thoughts on the logic of signification, the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the sign, and the extent to which reasoning is always bound up with the rhetorical dimension of language. In modern terms, there is another tradition – quite separate from Saussure and French structuralism – which descends from the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce. Here the main stress is not so much on achieving a unified general theory as on getting people (theorists included) to recognise the variety of meanings and purposes at work in human communication. For Peirce, there is no end to the semiotic enterprise, the business of interpreting signs, simply because any working definition of this or that sign-in-context will itself be reliant on signs which then need interpreting on their own account. If a theory is to be of much use then it will have to come to terms with the fact of this potentially infinite regress. Peirce’s pragmatist convictions come out in his insistence that semiotic theory respect the multiplicity of sign-situations and the open, dialogical character of human understanding. There is no final resting-point of system or structure whereby the theorist might hope to escape this unsettling predicament. Semiotics is the discipline best-equipped to show that such claims are self-defeating, in so far as they ignore the productive open-endedness of meaning and the non-availability of ultimate explanations.

One could say that Peirce’s pragmatism brought him round by a wholly different route to that same mistrust of generalising theories that typified French post-structuralism. The difference lies mainly in the sense of scandal – the affront to certain deep-lying rationalist convictions – that attended the movement ‘beyond’ structuralism in thinkers like Derrida and Barthes. And this transgression of the rules was felt to go along with a commitment to radical causes, not necessarily those of ‘the left’ in its mainstream political forms, but to any kind of discourse that appeared to challenge (or deconstruct) the legitimising codes of ‘bourgeois’ representation. Barthes struck this note in a retrospective piece on his own Mythologies, finding the book altogether too preoccupied with the mere formal mechanisms of bourgeois myth. Henceforth, he argued, criticism must seek to ‘change the object itself’, moving on from an abstract taxonomy of meaning to an active ‘semioclastics’ whose aim would be to radically transform the relations of language, ideology and power. As for Derrida, the politics of deconstruction are notoriously open to dispute, claimants on the left (like Michael Ryan) asserting its indispensability to Marxist critique, while others – among them Terry Eagleton – see it as merely a last-ditch retreat from pressing social and political realities. But it is certainly a central part of Derrida’s project to question what he sees as the conservative implications of a structuralism unable to perceive its own blind-spots of governing method and assumption. For all his refusal to confront the Marxist challenge – beyond, that is, a series of oblique local comments – Derrida has insisted (more forcefully of late) that deconstruction is quite pointless if it doesn’t take aim at institutional structures of power and authority. That this work is carried on through an activity of textual close-reading is no justification – Derrida would argue – for charges of political irrelevance or self-indulgent word-play. To extend the sense of ‘writing’, as he does, to all those power-laden strategies of language inscribed within the ‘text’ of social life is to give deconstruction a pertinence and force beyond any narrowly ‘textual’ application.

So the time seemed ripe – according to Marshall Blonsky, the editor of this volume – for a broad-based survey of current semiotics with a view mainly to its social and political bearings. The old concern with method (and ‘theory’ in the narrow sense) has now given way, he argues, to a wide variety of semiotic gambits – some of them overtly political, others more concerned with exploring the prospects opened up for a radical critique of language and the modes of cultural representation. This critique extends to the project of semiotics itself, no longer viewed as a ‘scientific’ enterprise possessed of its own self-evident rationale. Wlad Godzich has a fascinating piece which relates the rise of modern semiotics to that stage of late-capitalist consumer culture where the economy depends in large measure on the marketing of images and meanings. As familiar modes of explanation begin to break down – including the ‘classic’ Marxist emphasis on material forces and relations of production – so the interest shifts to those other, less tangible sources of value whose workings may be analysed, for instance, in the advertising market. This means that increasing amounts of surplus-value have to be diverted to the end of establishing a product’s desirability or usefulness. ‘To give meaning to an artefact is to convince a potential buyer that the artefact has a use-value’, which ‘requires a further deflection of surplus-value, making less of it available for the production of the object and its actual use-value, as opposed to the establishment of the latter’. And this, according to Godzich, helps to explain just why semiotics has lately become such a fashionable field of enquiry. It is as much the product of consumer capitalism as a discourse empowered to analyse its workings. There is a certain structural complicity between semiotics and the socio-economic conditions where its methods seem really to deliver the goods. And this raises the question as to whether semiotics can become a properly ‘critical’ science, one that might enable us not only to recognise but in some sense to break with the present self-image of consumer capitalism. That is scarcely possible, Godzich thinks, so long as semiotics remains unwilling to examine its own participant role in the circulation of meanings and values required by the dominant culture. If it is to become such a ‘critical science’, then it needs to re-think, among other things, the opposition between historical and structural (synchronic) modes of explanation that Saussure raised into a high point of modern semiotic theory. Otherwise its powers will be exhausted in merely reproducing, at a ‘higher’ theoretical level, those same habits of thought engendered by capitalist market conditions.

There is evidence elsewhere in this volume that semiotics can indeed be co-opted by interests (whether those of big business or of government policy) that draw upon its real or presumed expertise in mass persuasive techniques. Like the ancient discipline of rhetoric – to which, in many ways, it stands as a latterday equivalent – semiotics has a curious double role: on the one hand providing the means of persuasion, while on the other working to explain such techniques and thereby (presumably) render them less effective. This ambivalence is everywhere apparent in Blonsky’s anthology. Thus he cites the example of a ‘friend in advertising’ who had developed a semiotic theory of commercial life, but whose firm – for understandable reasons – persuaded him not to write an essay for the book. There was another man, it seems, who did break the rules and ended up with a job in Pittsburgh (‘in the United States, going to Pittsburgh would be a little like going to hell’).

So clearly semiotics has its threatening side for those with an interest in manipulating the codes. But this doesn’t prevent others like Ronald Weintraub (company president, marketing consultant, private investor) from explaining with relish how a grasp of semiotics can help pull customers in off the sidewalk. Milton Glaser likewise has some canny things to say about the breakthrough of post-modern styles and ideas into the world of commercial interior design. Glaser is described as ‘one of the foremost designers in the United States’ and as ‘a specialist in the effects of signs on their consumers’. His essay combines both roles in a perfectly unembarrassed way. Postmodernism has no use for those old, élitist notions of artistic integrity and truth. It adapts quite happily to the play of market forces which dictates a periodic revolution of styles in keeping with the latest commercial whim. ‘Basically,’ Glaser writes, ‘I am responding to what is a clear culture-societal desire – and taking advantage of it.’

This all lends weight to Godzich’s argument that there exists a kind of structural complicity between modern semiotics and the strategies engendered by late consumer capitalism with its periodic crises of management. At least it suggests a more sceptical view of the idea that semiotics is a ‘radical’ discourse simply by virtue of its power to demystify the workings of naturalised sign-systems. Thomas Sebeok’s contribution is evidence enough that such expertise can always be enlisted by the interests of big business or state policy. Sebeok was engaged as consultant to a working party (the ‘Human Interference Task Force’) set up to devise some foolproof system of signs and codes for warning people not to tamper with lethal nuclear wastes. His employers, the Bechtel Group Inc., laid it down that the codes would have to remain effective over a period of some ten thousand years ahead, since the materials would be toxic for at least that long. So Sebeok’s problem was to come up with a language – or, as he decided, a meta-linguistic system of signs – that would somehow get around the awkward facts of diachronic change and semantic attrition. The upshot of his and his colleagues’ deliberations was a bizarre scenario that involved an atomic ‘priesthood’ charged with administering the rituals of exclusion from age to age. Theirs would be the task of ensuring continuity despite the ‘entropic’ or distorting effects of historical distance. No matter what the message at any given time, it would need to be supplemented, Sebeok writes, ‘by a meta message ... incorporating a plea and a warning that the object-message at the site be renewed by whatever coding devices seem to be maximally efficient, roughly, 250 years hence’. And this future message would contain a similar coded instruction that its own codes be updated to allow for intervening shifts in the context of language and symbol usage.

Sebeok maintains a careful neutrality as regards the ethical and political issues raised by this application of semiotic method. His essay is an example of the purebred professionalism that Godzich, for one, would think symptomatic of the discipline’s deep involvement with socio-economic structures of power. Other contributors remain convinced that semiotics is a liberating discourse in so far as it works to analyse such forms of complicity, and thus point the way to an ideological critique. This project is undertaken from various theoretical positions, some (but not all) drawing on the heady mixture of Marxism, semiotics and psychoanalysis that characterised Parisian structuralist thought in the Sixties and early Seventies. Thus Julia Kristeva (in ‘The Speaking Subject’) seems almost to be reviving old memories as she works out a radical feminist topology of language and desire based on the Lacanian re-writing of Freud in terms derived from structural linguistics. (Lacan himself is represented here by the brief and unusually accessible essay ‘Sign, Symbol, Imaginary’.) But the volume as a whole gives the distinct impression that things have moved on since that period of high and rather self-supporting theoretical activity. One cause of this shift, as Blonsky argues, is the sense – among Americans especially – that theory can always find a home within current institutional structures so long as it refuses to dirty its hands with the business of practical politics. There is more than a touch of radical chic about some of those theories that claimed to read off the imminent demise of bourgeois society in the crises of its textual representations. Blonsky finds room for a handful of pieces that recapture this particular moment in the history of left-structuralist debate. But he clearly wants the main emphasis to fall elsewhere, showing how semiotics has come of age at a time when political realities demand a more serious reflection on its own pressures and commitments.

One sign of this new orientation is the prominence given to essays that deal with Latin American themes. The object here is to force semiotics out of its domesticated routine assumptions by confronting it, not merely with images of a ‘different’ world, but with evidence of how that world has been constructed in the eyes of a dominant (North American) culture. In a sense, this violent juxtaposition is the heart of Blonsky’s anthology. It is here that the self-appointed ‘sciences of man’ – whatever their radical credentials – come up against a reality that stubbornly resists their preconceived modes of explanation. For Blonsky, this encounter marks a crucial moment in the process of annexing semiotic theory to the concerns of American politics and cultural critique. His book contains essays by the novelist and film-maker Edmundo Desnoes, on First World perceptions of Third World politics; by Jean Franco, who writes about El Salvador and the link between militarisation, mass murder and the destruction of traditional symbolic spaces, like church and home; and by Michel de Certeau on the ‘long march’ of American Indians toward some form of organised, united political stand. They are written from a variety of standpoints, some from way outside the established (North American) consensus view of such matters, others from within, but always with the purpose of challenging its dominant codes and values. What these essays have in common is a keen, often painful sense of their own inadequacy in the face of such alien and disturbing material. And yet, as Blonsky argues, it is only by accepting this challenge – to its political as well as its methodological complacencies – that modern semiotics can claim any kind of genuinely radical alignment.

Desnoes puts the case most forcefully in his brief introduction to Susan Meiselas’s ‘Portfolio on Central America’. Meiselas is one of the best-known of those American photographers who have made a speciality of ‘covering’ wars and revolutions. Her entry in the Notes on Contributors pinpoints exactly what Desnoes has in mind when he writes of the problems faced by such engaged individuals as they try to make sense of Latin American experience for a North American audience. Her photographs from Nicaragua were published in the most prestigious US magazines and newspapers. They earned wide acclaim and a number of prizes. Some of them are reproduced here: dead bodies mostly, or the living in postures that seem to anticipate sudden, violent death. As Desnoes says, they are all the more effective for not providing the kind of easy empathy – the ‘human interest’ angle – that typifies modern news coverage. ‘Many photos taken in the North are self-referential, rely heavily on what is happening inside the frame. They are images constructed or acted out for the camera. And they are often author-referent. The photos of Susan Meiselas have a historical, social, political and moral referent. And so the author wishes to vanish, to lose her face.’ If this seems to fit in with modish ideas about representation and the ‘death of the author’, it is altogether different when the strategy is adopted, in Desnoes’s words, ‘for safety reasons as well as respect for a moral cause she only purports to witness’.

Meiselas can hardly be blamed for the fact that her work has been taken up and processed for consumption by the arbiters of North American ‘radical’ opinion. Desnoes has an essay on Cuban photography which shows how the dominant conventions invade even the most determined attempts to throw off their stifling cultural grasp. One image in particular brings home the fact of this struggle for mastery over meanings and codes. It is a Chicano nude, presented very much in the Playboy style – full frontal, against a background collage of anatomical details – but somehow resisting the assimilative gesture. As Desnoes reads it, ‘the face and features are Chicano, but the whole body responds to the aesthetic standards of the North.’ Here the photographer was conscious of his own ambivalent designs – on the one hand, wanting to expose the mechanisms of cultural dominance, while on the other remarking how his work was still influenced, ‘subliminally or otherwise’, by the plethora of American erotic styles and images. His situation is thus paradigmatic of the conflicts engendered by all such attempts to wrench back an image of self-determination from the codes of a dominant consumer-culture. And the same contradiction applies – if less violently – to those dissident insiders, the critical theorists and semioticians who seek to do more than give back an image of their own privileged social status.

Blonsky’s Introduction takes a fairly sanguine view of the prospects for a radical semiotics, even while acknowledging the forces that are massed against it in Reagan’s America. In fact, he regards the very strength of this pressure-to-conform as a likely cause of oppositional activity among those with access to the right kinds of critical discourse. ‘Today, advanced thinkers pivot from the literature, history, philosophy or art they read or watch to the power effects induced by it, or apparatuses subtending it.’ And clearly his anthology is meant to communicate a sense of the new horizons opened up by this radicalised semiotic discipline. There are pieces here – like Jan Kott’s self-consciously Proustian meditations on the aftermath of a heart-attack – that can only be counted examples of applied ‘semiotics’ by considerably stretching the term. And there are others which do indeed warrant the description but which show small signs of any radical intent. Although Barthes gets a good deal of space under various pretexts, the selections are entirely from his later writing where he often appeared to renounce politics (along with ‘theory’) as a form of self-evasion or collective bad faith. There is nothing here from Mythologies, which might seem an odd omission, given that Barthes was then much closer to what Blonsky sees as the emergent destiny of modern semiotics. Instead we have Barthes on the pleasures of reading the bon viveur Brillat-Savarin; Barthes on Guido Crapax’s sado-erotic illustrations to The Story Of O; and Barthes in a series of day-to-day pieces from Le Nouvel Observateur, touching on all manner of topical trouvailles from the aesthetics of mugging to cellular biology and the boredom that tends to set when one is not sufficiently the centre of attention at dinner parties.

As always with Barthes, one risks being duped if one takes such texts at face value as a species of whimsical self-indulgence. Even where the writing seems most frankly anecdotal, Barthes finds constant occasion to remind us that language is endlessly deceptive, the unitary self a mere consoling fiction, and ‘autobiography’ an impossible project which had best acknowledge its own illusory and self-defeating character. These convictions were put to the test in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, where the turn toward a style of detached yet curiously intimate self-address goes along with a muted rejection of the various ‘systems’ – Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis – which had once exerted such a potent appeal. In ‘Barthes to the Third Power’ (reprinted here) he adds a further twist to the spiral by reviewing his own autobiography and treating it as yet another text for which he, the notional ‘author’, can assume no special or privileged responsibility. Writing becomes ‘the clandestine act whereby Barthes “imagines himself” an idea, puts himself in quotation-marks and then removes them: a dislocation which obviously lends itself to every sort of misunderstanding, thereby beginning (intentionally or not?) to go un-noticed’. And yet, for all these strategies of cunning self-effacement, Barthes retains both a style of the utmost individuality and a desire to confront the apostles of ‘theory’ with an ethical discourse that will somehow elude their systematising efforts. To some (like Jonathan Culler in his ‘Modern Masters’ volume on Barthes) this seemed a regrettable lapse into just the kind of mystified essentialist thinking that he had once set out to deconstruct. For others – and undoubtedly for Barthes himself – it signified a resistance to prevailing ideas that was none the less ‘radical’ for not falling in with any current line of theory or politics.

Still one suspects that Blonsky is pointing an ironic contrast when he chooses to print Barthes’s reflections on The Story Of O directly after Meiselas’s Nicaraguan photographs. For with Barthes, as with Derrida, translation into the currency of American criticism has often involved a selective reading that tends to filter out any serious concern with the politics of signifying practice. Hence the diffusion of hedonistic slogans (‘freeplay’, ‘the pleasure of the text’) as against the rigours of structuralist analysis or deconstruction in its more potentially unsettling forms. This is no doubt what Blonsky has in mind when he writes of the various professional deformations that threaten the current enterprise. Too much expert juggling with the codes and semiotics becomes – among other things – a handy tool for the advertising business and the mass-manipulation of ‘public opinion’. Too many moments of Barthesian jouissance and it will risk falling in with the pleasure-industry that wants nothing more than to spread its narcotising imagery and style into every last corner of cultural resistance. Too often, Blonsky writes, ‘semiotics has been a futile gaze at the world’s seeming pleasures, its drunken stupidities.’ It often appears trapped between opposite temptations: on the one hand, a joyless ‘science’ of signs, aimed at unmasking every form of bourgeois complicity, and, on the other, a sophisticated alibi for indulging those very same ‘pleasures’ and ‘stupidities’. Unless they can avoid this disabling choice, ‘semiotic intellectuals’ will occupy the role of licenced academic jesters, ‘merely grazing the lives of the lawyers, politicians, entertainers and journalists they occasionally encounter’.

All the same there is heartening evidence here that semiotics can indeed get to grips with the politics of everyday experience without giving in to either temptation. Umberto Eco has a marvellous piece, ‘Strategies Of Lying’, which analyses Nixon’s shrewd manipulation of narrative codes in the televised ‘confession’ that followed the Watergate scandal. What the President tried to bring off was a crafty mid-sequence switching of roles, from innocent victim of intrigues beyond his command to courageous scapegoat and ‘rescuer of the American way of life’. Where the ruse went wrong was in Nixon’s manifestly nervous and shifty appearance during parts of his broadcast, captured here in a series of revealing stills. So the public drew the moral, as Eco puts it, that ‘this Little Red Riding Hood was actually a Big Bad Wolf caught with his pants down.’ Here and elsewhere in the volume, Eco presents the best possible case for semiotics as a genuinely liberating discipline, its powers of analysis closely geared to a keen perception of social and cultural realities. His essays go a long way toward justifying Blonsky’s hopes for a revitalised semiotic practice that would carry its message far beyond the sphere of graduate seminars and specialist scholarly journals. And the same can be said of those other contributors – Frederic Jameson and Michel de Certeau among them – who apply various forms of rhetorical or narrative theory to the business of decoding the modalities of lived experience. This anthology is a motley assortment in many ways, but it does make sense of Eco’s remark on the manifold disintegrating forces at work in present-day ‘advanced’ industrial societies. ‘No one says that the new Middle Ages offer an exactly cheerful prospect. As the Chinese used to say when they wished to curse someone: “May you live in an interesting age.” ’