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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Mouton November 1, 2016

A meta-theoretical approach to the history and theory of semiotics

Alexandros Ph. Lagopoulos
From the journal Semiotica


The object of this paper is the domain of semiotic theories, from “traditional” semiotics to poststructuralism and postmodernism, excluding “semiotizing” approaches such as phenomenology or cultural studies. Thus, it is metatheoretical. It is based on two matrices. The first maps semiotic theories on the basis of the continuity or discontinuity between them. The second displays the logical categories of the relationship between semiotics and Marxism, which has historically been an important influence on the field. The paper presents the views of the main authors of the domain in terms of these two matrices. Some of the conclusions are: (a) the irreconcilability between Saussurean and Peircean semiotics; (b) the greater historical development of the former in comparison to the latter; (c) the different orientation between Central and Eastern European semiotics on the one hand and French semiotics on the other; (d) the strong influence of Saussure and Levi-Straussian structuralism on poststructuralism; (e) the increase of the influence of Marxism from structuralism to poststructuralism; and (f) the transformation from poststructuralism to North American postmodernism.

The paper closes with some thoughts about the present status of the main semiotic currents and a proposal for a fertile future orientation for semiotics.

1 Theoretical observations

The object of the present paper [1] is not any specific semiotic system, in which case the level of analysis would be theoretical, i. e., metalinguistic. My object is the domain of semiotic theories in the strict sense – that is, excluding semiotizing approaches, such as phenomenology or the British school of cultural studies – and the emphasis is placed on their own and their comparative semiotic nature; given this object, my approach is meta-theoretical. Semiotic theories of the last century will be compared with their source of origin, namely, the work of Saussure and Peirce respectively, as well as with each other, and also there will be a comparison between the theories of these two authors. Within this framework, the guiding theoretical principle and major axis of analysis for comparison will be the opposition continuity versus discontinuity, both covered by the even more general concept of “change.” These two poles may seem straightforward, but it becomes clear on closer scrutiny that they are too general and not necessarily exclusive. From the further analysis of this binary pair, there emerges a series of concepts defining the following analytical categories (Table 1):

  1. (1)


    1. (a)

      lack of theoretical development between the succeeding theory and the initial theory, which I consider as “stagnation” and which results in repetition,

    2. (b)

      direct development, which I shall call “direct dynamic continuity” and which results in an “elaborated variant” of the initial theory,

    3. (c)

      less direct development, which I call “moderate discontinuity in continuity” and which results in a “less close variant,” and

    4. (d)

      transformation, which I shall call “marked discontinuity in continuity” and which results in a new variant.

  2. (2)


    1. (a)

      radical transformation, which I consider as “continuity in discontinuity” and which results in a new form, and

    2. (b)

      rupture, which I shall call “radical discontinuity” and which results in a different form.

Table 1:

Degree of continuity and/or discontinuity between semiotic theories.

RelationshipOriginal theoryRelated toResearch object
ContinuityStagnationPeirceLater developmentsGreatly extended
Direct dynamic continuitySaussureLinguistic Circle of Copenhagen, Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Eco, GreimasGreatly extended
Direct dynamic continuityPoststructuralismPostmodernismComparable
Moderate discontinuity in continuitySaussureRussian Formalism, Prague Linguistic Circle, Moscow-Tartu School of SemioticsGreatly extended
Marked discontinuity in continuityStructuralismPoststructuralismComparable
DiscontinuityContinuity in discontinuity

These concepts will compose the theoretical matrix for the comparison of the different semiotic currents. They are completed with an assessment of the degree to which the area of application of a theory was extended in comparison to that of a preceding theory. This assessment does not refer to the type of change of the theory, but to that of its object of analysis: thus, the limits of the domain of the object may remain more or less “comparableor they may be “greatly extended.”

My second axis of analysis turns towards the external influences on semiotic theories. I selected Marxism, due to its strong influence on poststructuralism. In such a case, we deal with the relationship between two theories, (A), the influencing theory (Marxism), and (B), the theory influenced (semiotics). The analytical categories of these relationships are the following (Table 2):

  1. (1)

    theory (A) is articulated with (B) on equal terms, in which case a new epistemological field is created,

  2. (2)

    theory (A) integrates (B), (A) functioning as the wider framework of (B), the latter conserving most of its structural traits,

  3. (3)

    theory (A) is integrated by (B), (B) functioning as the wider framework of (A), the latter conserving most of its structural traits,

  4. (4)

    theory (A) is used partially by (B), that is, elements of theory (A) are used by (B), without any structural alteration of (B),

  5. (5)

    theory (B) is used partially by (A), that is, elements of theory (B) are used by (A), without any structural alteration of (A),

  6. (6)

    theory (A) is absorbed by (B), losing its structural traits, and thus it is radically transformed by (B), and

  7. (7)

    theory (B) is absorbed by (A), losing its structural traits, and thus it is radically transformed by (A).

Table 2:

Possible relationships between Marxist theory and semiotics.

RelationshipSemiotic theory
Theory (A) is articulated with (B) on equal terms
Theory (A) integrates (B)Medvedev and Bakhtin, Bourdieu, Barthes, Rossi-Landi, social semiotics
Theory (A) is integrated by (B)Structural Marxism
Theory (A) is partially used by (B)Eco
Theory (B) is partially used by (A)
Theory (A) is absorbed by (B)Lévi-Strauss, Poststructuralism, Postmodernism
Theory (B) is absorbed by (A)

2 The course of Peircean semiotics

It has become a ritual habit in introductory courses in semiotics, handbooks on semiotics and semiotic papers to pay respects to the two founders of semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. This act is on the one hand justified both theoretically, since the theories of both authors treat of signs, and historically, since their life spans largely overlap (Peirce: 1839–1914; Saussure: 1857–1913). On the other hand, it levels out major differences, epistemological, theoretical and historical. Epistemological, because Saussure, a linguist, worked as a scientist and was interested in the study of natural language and by extension of all cultural systems, his “sign” referring exclusively to the latter: thus, his sémiologie is socio-logical; while Peirce, educated as a chemist, opted for philosophy and was interested in the philosophy of knowledge, his “sign” and “semiotic” forming part of a theory of logic: his approach is logical. Theoretical, because Peirce formulates a theory of the individual sign and its classifications, while Saussure, together with a theory of the sign, formulates a theory of the relationships between signs, opening the way to a theory of a whole of signs, the text. The historical difference is that the development of the two approaches was quite uneven, as will become clear below. An epistemological rupture divides the two approaches (Table 1).

The diffusion of Peircean semiotics during the first three quarters of the twentieth century was extremely slow. Peirce was known and admired among philosophers: Bertrand Russell considered him as the greatest American philosopher and Karl Popper as one of the greatest philosophers of all times. An anthology of Peirce’s writings was first published in 1923 and followed the landmark publication of the six first volumes of Collected Papers (1931). However, there was no diffusion of Peirce’s theory before World War II and only one author, Charles W. Morris, can be considered as his successor during this period. As Morris (1971: 7) states, he was helped in his 1925 doctoral dissertation by Charles K. Ogden and Ivor A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning – one appendix of their book is dedicated to Peirce (Ogden and Richards 1923: 269–290) – though his supervisor George H. Mead did not know Peirce’s ideas. Morris refers to Peirce in 1932 in his Six Theories of Mind and relies heavily on him in his Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938; included in Morris 1971: 13–71). In 1946, Morris translated Peirce’s terms for the triadic sign into behavioral terms, in the hope that in this way semiotics could be instituted as an empirical science. There were some random publications by Peirce’s followers after the War and in 1965 the journal Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society (a society founded in 1946) began to appear, including papers on Peirce, on pragmatism (of which he was the founder) and generally on American philosophy.

A key role in the diffusion of Peirce’s ideas after the War was played by Thomas A. Sebeok. Born in 1920, he read The Meaning of Meaning at a young age. When Morris became Research Professor at the University of Florida in 1958, Sebeok followed his courses; aside from Morris he was also influenced by Roman Jakobson and Peirce. As Sebeok himself recounts, he first became interested in what he calls animal communication in 1962 and soon turned to semiotics. The result was the delimitation of a new field, “zoosemiotics” (see Kull 2003: 50), a term he introduced in 1963. We observe from the bibliography of Sebeok’s writings from 1942 to 1985 that up to 1962, his papers concern linguistics and folkloric studies; his first paper on communication in subhuman species, “Coding in the Evolution of Signalling Behavior,” appeared in 1962, followed in 1963 by “Communication in Animals and Men”; in 1964 he participated in congresses dealing with semiotics; and in 1965 he published the paper “Zoosemiotics: A New Key to Linguistics” (Bouissac et al. 1986: 575–82).

The semiotics of zoosemiotics draw on Morris, who acted as a bridge between Peirce and Sebeok (Martinelli 2010: 4.171; Martinelli et al. 2011: 1). About 15 years later, Sebeok extended zoosemiotics to “biosemiotics,” a concept on which he had some doubts for more than half a decade; this passage was effected due to the decisive influence of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (Kull 2003: 51–52) and a direct grounding in Peirce’s semiotics. Sebeok had read von Uexküll in a bad translation as a student, but only much later read the text in German and from 1977 on (Kull 2007: 13) used these ideas as a major inspiration. In 1984, a manifesto of Sebeok’s new orientation was published in Semiotica (Anderson et al. 1984) – a copy of which the present author acquired in mimeographed form, since it was distributed during the Third International Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies in Palermo, Sicily, in 1984. [2] This manifesto wants to promote a new “paradigm” in semiotics, proposing a general and global semiotics, there called “ecumenical semiotics,” which would bring together on the one hand the social, cognitive, and humanistic sciences, and on the other the “life sciences.” Zoosemiotics may be considered as the first Peircean theory that created a school. Biosemiotics, its extension to the whole of life, should count as a second school in the Peircean tradition.

Sebeok’s ambitious “global semiotics” includes “anthroposemiotics,” that is, the semiotics of culture, as only one part of it, the other part being biosemiotics, studying natural processes in all kinds of living organisms; he avoids the further extensions of semiotics to a “semiophysics,” transcending life to include the study of inorganic matter, but the idea seems to attract some Peircean semioticians. For Sebeok, semiosis coincides with life and he divides biosemiotics into “zoosemiotics,” “phytosemiotics” (plant semiotics), and “mycosemiotics” (fungus semiotics); he also defines four levels of “endosemiosis,” that is, the processes that he considers as transmissions of signs inside the organisms of the above classes (Sebeok 1997). Sebeok played a central role in the universal diffusion of Peirce, zoosemiotics, and biosemiotics, a wave that encountered both classical semiotics (today marginalized) and the dominant Poststructuralism/Postmodernism (on Peirce, Ogden and Richards, Morris, and Sebeok, see also Lagopoulos 2004: 75–76, 98–101, 103–14; Gottdiener et al. 2003: vol.1).

In terms of the matrix I introduced above, Peircean scholars have the tendency to stay with Peirce’s work, without developing it, an attitude reminiscent of the hermeneutic tradition. Peircean semiotics is marked by theoretical stagnation. On the other hand, its research object has been greatly extended, even more if we take into account that there have been attempts to apply Peircean semiotics to the domain of cultural studies.

3 The continuity of development of Saussurean semiotics

3.1 Central and Eastern European structuralism and semiotics

Peircean and Saussurean semiotics [3] follow asymptotic courses; a radical discontinuity separates these two semiotic paradigms. Saussurean scholars choose to ignore Peircean semiotics while following the school of their preference and simultaneously developing their field, as we shall see; on the other hand, Peircean scholars are frequently explicitly critical of Saussurean semiotics (for example, of Saussurean binarism, which is considered as inferior to Peirce’s triadic definition of the sign). Sometimes, some concepts from the one camp slip into the other or, more consciously, there is a superficial and (very) partial use or even a (very) partial attempt at integration of concepts from the other camp – as, for example, is the case with the use of certain Peircean concepts by Eco in the context of Saussurean semiotics – but this is independent from any general epistemological synthesis. It is only a convenient ad hoc borrowing, which works only so far as the borrowed concept is treated as isolated from its wider epistemological foundation.

Unlike the development of Peircean theory, a succession of semiotic schools based on Saussurean theory have appeared. They are usually discussed in a linear fashion, according to their historical appearance. A closer look at them, however, shows two discrete general tendencies, one Central and Eastern European and one French, which of course were not isolated from each other. I shall start with the first tendency.

Roman Jakobson was the main propagator of Saussurean theory and a major personality of Russian formalism (1914–1934). Russian formalism evolved through three stages and during the last stage greatly widened the horizons of semiotics when its interest was focused on the relation of a text to its environment. This relation was conceived in two ways. The first is the insertion of the text into larger systems up to the cultural system as a whole, considered to be the “system of systems,” and the relationship between texts, that is, intertextuality. The second kind of relation between text and environment is founded on the communication circuit and focuses on the communication space between author or text and reader, including a wide set of mediations, such as the behavior of economic agencies, literary institutions and circles, and public opinion (Sebeok 1994 [1986]: Russian Formalism).

The tireless Jakobson moved to Prague in the early 1920s and was active in the foundation of the Prague Linguistic Circle (1926), the successor of formalism. In 1929 he was a co-author of the Theses of the Prague Circle (see Winner 1998), which were influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology, went beyond formalism and marked the constitution of structuralism (Steiner 1982), a term introduced by Jakobson. The general approach of the Theses is structural-functional and they pose major semiotic issues, such as the relationship between langue and parole, as well as that between synchrony and diachrony, the sentence instead of the word as the linguistic unit, and the concept of “poetic function.” Emphasis is also given to the phonological study of langue, developed on the basis of Saussure by Nikolai Sergeyevich Troubetzkoy. Natural language is seen as only one of the semiotic systems, and other systems, such as literature and the arts, are considered as objects of study, the whole of these systems constituting culture as a complex system of communication.

The Moscow-Tartu School of Semiotics, the descendant of Russian formalism and the Prague Linguistic Circle, was founded in 1964, around the central personality of Juri M. Lotman; the successor of the School since 1990 is the Tartu Semiotic School, based at the University of Tartu in Estonia. This school also had three phases, and during the third phase (1970–1979) formulated a manifesto on the semiotics of culture, the Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures (Uspenskij et al. 1973). In these Theses, culture is considered as the object of semiotics, the typology of cultures as its main object, and the text as the basic unit of culture. Culture is conceived as a holistic cybernetic system, composed of relatively autonomous, functionally correlated, and hierarchically ordered semiotic sub-systems. There is an opposition between culture and non-culture. Immanent analysis must be combined with functional analysis, that is, the study of the relationships between semiotic structures, and synchrony must be combined with diachrony. There is in every culture a differentiation between natural language, usually considered as the “primary modelling system,” and all other systems, which are built on language and are as such “secondary modelling systems.” In every culture there are two opposite types of signs, the tension between which is a major mechanism of culture: verbal signs, which are discrete, and iconic signs, which are non-discrete and continuous. According to the thesis on secondary modelling systems, the iconic systems should also be founded on language, but on this point there are diverging views within the School, such as that of Lotman himself who believes that the iconic systems have their own specificity.

In the early 1980s Lotman formulated the concept of “semiosphere,” which was considered as an important development of the School. Without abandoning close ties with the Theses, he used as his prototype in a metaphorical manner the biological concept of “biosphere,” whence he conceives of the semiosphere as a semiotic continuum and as a presupposition of the cultural sub-systems. Here Lotman unfortunately anchors the basic structure of all semiotic systems in the right-left asymmetry of the human brain, and argues that this is a universal structure ruling everything from the genetic-molecular level to the structure of the universe (Lotman 2005, 1990). In this manner he proposes an ambitious, bold, and organicist synthesis of the positive sciences and cultural studies, subject to the typical and visible danger of metaphorical thinking.

As I believe is clear from the development of the above three schools, while they remain generally faithful to the Saussurean theory, they hold a dynamic view on the semiotic systems which is not found in Saussure, and show a special interest in the study of texts, that is parole, which was for Saussure of secondary importance. In fact, already from its first stage, Russian formalism showed a special interest in aesthetic texts, namely, literature and the arts. Thus, the three schools may be characterized, when compared to Saussure, as moderate discontinuity in continuity, offering loose variants of their prototype. Simultaneously, they greatly extended Saussure’s research object (Table 1).

3.2 French structuralism and semiotics

The case is different with the French line of semiotics, because it is more strictly Saussurean; it can be considered as “classical” or “orthodox” semiotics. My first reference is to the most Saussurean among Saussureans, Louis Hjelmslev (1961 [1943]). The major representative of the Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen (1931), Hjelmslev together with Hans Jørgen Uldall elaborated “glossematics” (1936), in the form of a “linguistic algebra,” as a general theory of semiotics (see, for example, Johansen 1998). Eventually, Hjelmslev’s theory heavily influenced the course of French semiotics.

During World War II, Claude Lévi-Strauss met and took classes from Jakobson in the New School for Social Research in New York. Under Jakobson’s strong influence, he was introduced to structuralism, from which emerged his structural anthropology. Lévi-Strauss’s model is Jakobson’s and Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s structural phonology. For Jakobson, phonemes are defined by the oppositions between them, and the articulatory or acoustical traits by which these oppositions are described constitute their distinctive features. The latter appear in the form of binary oppositions, are limited in number and are organized according to a universal matrix, from which it is supposed that each existing language borrows the elements of its phonological system. This model [4] is precisely the model that founds structural anthropology.

Following Jakobson’s and Trubetzkoy’s views, Lévi-Strauss states that, just as phonology, anthropology moves from conscious phenomena to their unconscious “infrastructure” in the mind, focuses not on elements but on their relationships, is concerned with structures and formulates universal laws. Lévi-Strauss finds close parallels between kinship systems and phonological systems, although he believes that caution is needed against too literal a transfer from linguistics to anthropology. According to Lévi-Strauss, his approach to anthropology is founded on a theory of communication, namely, the exchange of messages, based on the rules of linguistics; the exchange of women between social groups, based on rules of kinship and marriage; and the exchange of goods and services, based on economic laws. He situates his anthropology on the plane of signification and calls it a “science séméiologique” (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 39–44, 48–49, 57, 95–96, 399).

About 15 years after Levi-Strauss’s establishment of structural anthropology with his Ph.D. thesis, semiotics as sémiologie, a novel approach to structuralism emerging from Levi-Straussian structuralism, was founded with Roland Barthes’s landmark Éléments de sémiologie (1964). It is Barthes’s merit that he took the next big step after Lévi-Strauss. While without any doubt strongly influenced by the latter, he went back to the source, Saussure, and his strictest follower, Hjelmslev. This origin is manifest in the title of his work above, the first treatise of European semiotics, because he replaces the formalist term “structural” with the Saussurean “sémiologie.” In creating a semiotics of culture by analyzing and interconnecting different cultural (sub–)systems, Lévi-Strauss was helped by the object of his field, given that anthropology studies culture in all its aspects, but such a holistic cultural semiotics was also sought by Barthes (for example, Barthes 1957), Algirdas Julien Greimas (for example, Greimas and Courtés 1979) and Umberto Eco, who is easily classified in the French tradition (for example, Eco 1972 [1968] and 1976).

Eco’s above mentioned books, La structure absente and A Theory of Semiotics, draw from the same sources as Barthes, as well as from Barthes himself, but also draw on certain ideas from Peirce (a notable exception of a European reference to Peirce, another one being Jakobson); these books are the first extended handbooks of European semiotics. They revolve around langue and, advancing beyond Saussure, around issues of communication, that is, the circuit of parole, but Eco does not extend his work to a systematic analysis of parole. This was done by the French literary semioticians and was given its most complete form by Greimas, the founder of the Semiolinguistic Research Group, also known as the School of Paris. Greimas completed Saussure’s study of langue with a sophisticated semiotics of parole. In the early 1990s Greimas opened new paths for semiotics with his “semiotics of passions,” which make the leap beyond binarism by taking into account the spectrum of “less” and “more” between two semantic poles (Greimas and Fontanille 1991).

With the French school we witness a direct development of a dynamic continuity from Saussure and the production of elaborated variants of his theory. Thus, it is closer to Saussure than the Central and Eastern European trend in semiotics. Due to this closeness the dimension of langue weighs more heavily on the French semiotic orientation, with as a result a more static character and a loss of the focus on diachrony and the dynamic relationships between semiotic systems that are part of the Central and Eastern European trend. Just as Central and Eastern European semiotics, however, the French school greatly extended the research object of semiotics in comparison to Saussure’s original theory (Table 1).

4 The influence of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss on poststructuralism

In order to assess the influence of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss on poststructuralism we need to examine some of their major concepts. We shall start with Lévi-Strauss.

Lévi-Strauss’s conception of culture coincides both with the formalist and the structuralist definition of it as a system of systems. Society for him is composed of a set of interrelated “orders,” such as the kinship system, social organization, mythology or the culinary system, each of which has the form of a structure. The formal properties of the relationships between these orders, which are highly abstract, constitute the “order of orders” of a society (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 346–348, 363–366). Lévi-Strauss sets himself the task of studying human universals and believes that “primitive” societies offer the ideal ground for the study, in its pure form, of the innate and unconscious universal logic; the unconscious is identified with the symbolic function, which imposes structural laws (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 40–41, 224–225 and 1955: 469–470).

Lévi-Strauss is in search of a kind of semantic algebra, which takes the form of an algebraic matrix. His methodology is the following. He starts by assigning, in an oversimplified manner as he admits, the mathematical symbol+to generally positive relationships and the symbol – to generally negative relationships. Then, he combines these relationships to create individual structures which incorporate pairs of opposition; he thus formulates a synchronic law of correlation. An individual structure belongs to a family of kindred structures, related to each other by rules of transformation and constituting a group of transformations; this is a system, ruled by a structure, which is a structural law. The overall whole of these groups follows general structural laws, which according to him are few. There is also a diachronic change of structures due to their conflict with chance (historical) events, which themselves are not structural, but diachronic change is structural and follows a rule of transformation. Exactly the same rules apply to diachronic change in time and synchronic change in geographical space observed in the case of synchronic comparisons, with as a result that the synchronic structures are replicated by the diachronic structures (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 49–60, 225, 252, 306, 342, 366). This theoretical foundation has multiple ramifications, some of which we shall immediately visit.

It seems to me clear that with structural diachrony historical change loses its historicity, because history is frozen within an a priori, which is the a-temporal, a-historical, super-synchronic unconscious matrix. While we may well conceive that it is history that creates the structures, Lévi-Strauss is not of the same opinion. For him, there is a struggle between history (that is, conjuncture, events) and system (the structural elements). The system may resist, be provisionally deregulated, even transformed, but system it remains. He believes that his proposal identifies real history and the systemic diachronic history of the anthropologist is objective. His history concerns a “mechanical” time, which is reversible and non-cumulative, contrary to the historian’s history, which concerns a “statistical” time, which is not reversible and has a determined temporal orientation (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 92, 207, 212, 342 and 1958: 314).

This history of the historians is not objective for Lévi-Strauss. Process is not an analytical object and cannot be studied together with structure. The historical fact is not given, it is constituted by abstraction, and this is equally true for its selection. This way of operating is used both by the historical agent and the historian. History is made possible because a certain group of events in a given period acquires approximately the same signification for a specific group and different experiences by different social groups, for example in respect to the French Revolution, lead to different and equally true histories. Lévi-Strauss concludes: “L’histoire n’est donc jamais l’histoire, mais l’histoire-pour” (‘So, history is never history, but history for someone’; Lévi-Strauss 1962: 339–342, 347–348).

Another conclusion from the universal matrix is Lévi-Strauss’s strong opposition to the idea of primitive thought. According to him, the logic of mythical thought and that of Western positive thought do not really differ in the quality of their mental operations, but only as to the nature of their object of investigation. Thus, there are two opposed modes of scientific thought, which are a function of the two strategic levels from which the physical world is approached: the one approach, utterly concrete, adjusted to perception and imagination and very close to intuition, is focused on sensible qualities, while the other, utterly abstract and not so close to intuition, is focused on formal properties.

These two modes of thought are not due to unequal stages of the development of the human mind and knowledge; they are equally valid, and “savage” thought is logical and of the same nature with our own logic. Given this position, we understand why Lévi-Strauss believes that the idea of progress cannot be considered as a universal category of human development. For him, there has been progress only in humanity’s products (not in thought), which, however, has not been continuous and presents changes in its orientation. Progress is a category of our own society and is subjectively determined.

Lévi-Strauss believes that his structural true history conceives of what the historian’s history is by definition unable to conceive: the equality between Western culture and other cultures. He believes that the result of Western history is to attribute to the Papuans, for example, the metaphysical function of the “Other,” a perspective satisfying a philosophical appetite that turns into an intellectual cannibalism worse than the actual one. Ethnocentrism cannot accept as natural the diversity of cultures, but considers it as a monstrosity (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 254–255, 368, 1962: 5, 21, 24, 32–33, 341, 354–357 and 1961: 19, 36, 38, 68).

Finally, the universal matrix lies behind a major philosophical reversal. Lévi-Strauss states that the aim of the social sciences is the dissolution of man. We understand that this dissolution is due to a double regression, the first from the “I” of an individual or a culture to the “us-matrix” of humanity, and the second from “us” to biology/nature. This continuous and overambitious regression, which aims also to cover animal psychology, ends, for Lévi-Strauss, with the integration of life within its physico-chemical origins (Lévi-Strauss 1962: 326–328, 347).

The set of Levi-Straussian ideas that we have presented above was integrated into the very core of what later was called poststructuralism. Even his universal matrix, which at first glance does not seem to have any connection with poststructuralism, lies behind reinterpretations that I shall discuss below.

Both Lévi-Strauss and Saussure had a profound influence on individual poststructuralist authors. I shall start with Saussure’s influence on Jacques Derrida. The cornerstone of Derrida’s philosophy is the concept of “value,” which Saussure relates to the arbitrariness of the sign. Value is for Saussure the foundation of langue, the social and systemic part of language, which he contrasts to its use, parole. The “first principle” in respect to langue is its arbitrariness, its conventionality, the lack of motivation with reference to the relationship between signifier and signified, but also between signs and the things in the world. The arbitrariness of the sign follows for Saussure from value, the real dynamics behind the sign. While the signified is positively defined as a content corresponding to a signifier, value is negatively defined as the relationships between (each plane of) a sign and the other signs of langue. The specific position of a sign in langue is only an abstract node in a network of relations. Thus, value is purely differential in nature, a quality which is correlative with arbitrariness, and langue consists only of differences. Value is a hierarchically superior concept to that of signified, because signification cannot exist without it. Value, as a relational concept, shows for Saussure the solidarity between the terms of langue, which is a system, indeed a social system consisting of signs or, better, of pure values (Saussure 1971 [1916]: 25, 30–31, 100–101, 116, 158–160, 163). [5] Here, I would like to point out another radical epistemological clash between Peirce and Saussure: while for Peirce the sign follows the traditional conception of representation, for Saussure representation and reference are abolished and the sign is given a radical relational and differential nature.

Derrida finds that the thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign, for which he prefers the term “non-motivation,” is fundamental, but he gives priority to the correlative thesis of difference as the source of value (Derrida 1967b: for example, 65–77). Due to the system of differences, no linguistic entity is in reality present as such, but relates to other entities, which are equally not present (the definition of value), and any assumed “center” or “central” signified which could be considered as original, positive, and transcendental is impossible, with as a result an extension ad infinitum of the freeplay of the substitutions of signification. The same conception is applied by Derrida at the macro-level of whole texts: there is no positive signification in a text, because the text is different from itself before it even exists (Derrida 1967a: for example, 42, 423, 1967b: for example, 73 and 1972: for example, 16–18, 37–38, 45–46, 78). According to Derrida, the differential effects in the semiotic systems are the “product” of the structurality of structure, différance. In order to avoid the language of metaphysics, Derrida states that it has no absolute origin, no positive existence, and cannot take the form of a presence, be described by any metaphysical concept or be the object of a science (Derrida 1972: for example, 16–18, 38–39, 78 n. 22 and 1967a: 83, 90–92, 95).

Derrida is also close to Levi-Straussian structuralism, but he is simultaneously strongly critical of it. He believes that the ultrastructuralism of Lévi-Strauss by focusing on structure rejects the most valuable and original intention of structuralism. The structure presupposes a present “center” – and the center haunts the Western history of metaphysics – only the existence of which stabilizes it. Structuralism is teleological, because it believes that meaning exists exclusively within the structure. Further, structuralism is essentialist and metaphysical, because it considers structure as real, as being in the object, and thus as presence, a view Derrida calls “structural realism.” The structures of ultrastructuralism are static, while what is produced by différance is ruled by systematic transformations attached to differences (Derrida 1967a: for example, 27–28, 43–44 and 1972: for example, 39). In this manner, Derrida proposes essentially a structuralism without structures. While the Levi-Straussian matrix is anchored in a “center” (the laws of the unconscious, the functioning of the brain), Derrida wants his own matrix of differences to have no origin. However, he believes that the center is a necessary function, with the aim of organizing a structure and limiting its freeplay. As we can see, for him, the structures of structuralism are not wrong, but the product of the ossification of meaning (Derrida 1967a: for example, 13–14, 27–28, 36, 41–44, 409–411).

The reality of freeplay disrupts presence and being, and generally all “centers” of Western thought. The subject, being one of these centers, is also derived from the semiotic movement of différance and there is no presence of the subject in itself outside and before that movement. It is thus not true, for Derrida, that the semiotic codes emanate from the subject, but on the contrary the subject is constructed through the semiotic system. Différance excludes the search for truth and leads us beyond the subject, man, and humanism (Derrida 1967b: for example, 37 and 1972: for example, 27, 39–41, 48).

The combination of the views of Derrida – without any reference to him – with the post-May-’68 climate in Paris, which I shall discuss below, marks Jean-François Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne (1979). Lyotard dismisses the legitimating “grand narratives” of modernism, such as the Hegelian dialectics of the Spirit and the Marxist emancipation of humanity – without abandoning the political Left – as unable to validate postmodern scientific discourse. This is another way of defending the abolition of a center. Having recourse to Wittgenstein and his language games, he states that science in postmodernity plays its own game and cannot legitimize other games, because it cannot in the first place legitimize itself; each game has its own rules and the games are “heteromorphic” compared to each other. Thus, scientific knowledge is just one type of discourse and there is no metadiscourse of knowledge, no universal metalanguage, there are no common meta-prescriptions, not even for the sciences (Lyotard 1979: 11, 32, 63, 66–68, 98, 104–107).

Lyotard opts for an anti-model to the grand stable system, an anti-model which for him corresponds to the actual pragmatics of science. It is an “open system,” where a “differentiating” (différenciante) activity is at work, according to which a meta-prescriptive discourse generates new discourses and rules of the games. This concept is manifestly an empirical use of différance, and Lyotard, once more like Derrida, rejects structure, but not the system (of differences), to which, as a social system, he states no pure alternative can be found. Contrary to the “grand narratives,” postmodern science operates with local “small narratives” (Lyotard 1979: 25–27, 28 n. 46, 29, 99, 103–105, 107).

The combined influence of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss also lies behind the mature form of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis. On the occasion of a lecture Lacan gave in 1946, we learn that he had just read Saussure, to whom he was introduced by Lévi-Strauss (Roudinesco 1990 [1984]: 144, 175). The post-war Lacan adopted linguistics as a pilot science – as opposed, for him, to a hypothetically generalized semiology – and starts from the concepts of the signifier (S) and the signified (s). His conception of their relation, however, amounts to a capital distortion of a major point of Saussure’s theory, the inseparable tie between the two aspects of the sign. Lacan presents their relationship as an “algorithm,” with the form S/s and this concept of algorithm implies a process by stages, that is, S → s. The signifier is the “superior” term, the signified the “inferior” and the bar resists signification. According to Lacan, the signifier does not represent the signified and has a signification of its own, “meaning.” The bar makes possible the study of the relationships between the signifiers themselves (Lacan 1966: 496–501).

The role of Saussurean linguistics in Lacan’s theory is generally recognized, but this is not the case with the influence of Lévi-Strauss, which is not generally noticed in the bibliography. Lévi-Strauss offers Lacan a guide in order to give a mathematical expression to what he considers to be the relationships between signifiers. He starts with a pair of binary oppositions +/–, which corresponds for him to the fundamental alternative between presence and absence. Next, he constructs triadic groups with all possible combinations between these mathematical notations, these first two operations being taken explicitly from Lévi-Strauss. Lacan classifies these groups according to their formal characteristics into three classes He applies these classes to a random series composed of the initial notations and proceeds to a superior level of classes on the basis of a combination by twos of the previous classes, arriving at four superior classes. Finally, he turns to the syntax of the succession of the latter. Lacan believes that he has achieved the elementary formalization of exchange, which presents an anthropological interest. This is Lacan’s universal matrix à la Lévi-Strauss and the model for his chaîne signifiante, the foundation of his theory (Lacan 1966: 47–50, 501–502). For him, only signifiers are structured, their structure resulting from their combinations, and due to the latter they have meaning. The whole of the symbolic order ruling the signifiers depends on the ultimate signifier of desire, beyond consciousness, which is the “Phallus,” a paternal metaphor. The structure of the signifiers, their syntax, produces effects within experience and is constitutive of the subject. Lacan relates this conclusion to structuralism in general, on the grounds that the latter conceives of experience as the field where “it speaks” (Lacan 1966: for example, 30, 50, 94, 98, 229, 268, 278, 413–414, 628, 649, 655–656).

What Lacan wants to show with this mathematical exercise is that a succession of random phenomena is ruled by strict symbolic determinations, in order to conclude that the theory and practice of free association in psychoanalysis is meaningful due to the autonomy of the symbolic; the power of psychoanalysis is to have recourse to this symbolic determination and its laws. These are the laws of what is above the bar, the laws of the unconscious, which are the same as those of natural languages and, just as for Lévi-Strauss, universal (Lacan 1966: for example, 47–52, 59–61, 276–277, 285, 594).

Michel Foucault, in the first form of his history – or “archaeology” – of the sciences and of knowledge in general, uses épistémè as his central concept. He defines épistémè as an unconscious epistemological “order,” a “grid,” a system of rules, corresponding to a specific historical period, which embodies the preconditions of knowledge in this period. These preconditions delimit a certain domain of knowledge within experience, set the context in which may evolve a discourse considered as true, impose a mode of being for the objects of knowledge constituting the above domain and offer a mode of organization for the concepts used. The systems of épistémè are subject to sudden historical transformations and are thus discontinuous, with as a result the exclusion of any continuous progress in the knowledge of what is considered as truth at any particular time (Foucault 1966: 11–14, 170–171, 384–385). The reasons for these historical transformations remain unaccounted for by Foucault.

According to Foucault, then, a supra-individual, unconscious but culture-specific “grid” presides over human thought. It is evident that there is a close connection between the concept of épistémè and the matrix of Lévi-Strauss, as well as the laws of the unconscious of Lacan, with the important difference that Foucault historicizes both concepts. In all cases, however, the subject is eliminated. One more similarity with Lévi-Strauss is the lack of progress in respect to thought systems.

Starting at the end of the 1960s, Foucault retreated one more step from the Levi-Straussian matrix, though without losing contact with it. There is now no longer one general system of knowledge in each historical period, but a plurality of discourses of knowledge. These discourses are given a processual character, because Foucault considers them as practices, which is a Marxist concept. As with épistémè, the discourses-practices are subject to internal rules, the “rules of formation” of the discourse or practice, and discourses are discontinuous with each other. The relationships between these discontinuous discourses lead Foucault to two major conclusions. First, the subject, being the node of these discourses, explodes in a plurality of positions; and second, there is the need to elaborate, outside the philosophies of the subject, a theory of “discontinuous systematicities,” which I believe we may consider as a new form of the épistémè. Now, the “order of orders” takes the historicized form of the “series of series” ruling the discursive formations. In respect to the referent of these discourses, Foucault once more follows Lévi-Strauss in insisting on the subjectivity of the historical fact. The positivist objective “fact” is replaced by Foucault with a semiotic entity, the “discursive event,” with the rationale that discourse absorbs reality (Foucault 1971: 54–62). We may conclude that any kind of history turns out to be purely a semiotic history.

Foucault’s cultural theory passed through four different stages and during the last two stages he distanced himself, as will become clear later, from the Levi-Straussian influence; evolving through these stages, Foucault acquired a greater originality of his own, though he never abandoned the Levi-Straussian semiotic foundation of history.

The discussion above emphasized the strong continuities between structuralism and poststructuralism, but there have also been external influences on the latter, which brought with them a remarkable discontinuity. Historically and geographically, both structuralism and poststructuralism emerged in the Paris of the 1960s. According to Manfred Frank, poststructuralism represents an opposition to mainstream philosophy and literature. It combined classical structuralism (the continuity) with a reinterpretation of German philosophy (the discontinuity), which became an instrument for the subversion of structuralism. Frank argues that poststructuralism revives the old German anti-modernist and anti-Enlightenment romanticism. It resumes the German critique of metaphysics from romanticism to Heidegger and proclaims the death of metaphysics and of any supreme and legitimating value, seeing this as part of the postmodern condition. The list of German philosophers is not short and preeminent on it figures Nietzsche with his anti-positivism and Heidegger with his phenomenology, himself connected to both Nietzsche and the idealism of Hegel, another major figure on the list. Frank also expands the list in two other directions, pointed out already by Lévi-Strauss: first towards psychoanalysis and secondly towards Marxism, mainly the idealistically tinged Frankfurt School. On the whole, the opposition between structuralism and poststructuralism is an opposition between a scientific and positivist orientation and a philosophical and interpretative orientation (for the above discussion concerning poststructuralism, see Frank 1989 [1984]: 7–30). Thus, Frank is right in concluding that essentially poststructuralism is more of a philosophical movement than an approach to the human sciences – however, and at first sight amazingly, postmodernism came to invade this domain, and not only. Finally, there are also certain other very important influences, with which I shall deal later on.

I would consider as the central theoretical opposition between structuralism and poststructuralism in Saussurean terms that between langue and parole. A very interesting sociological explanation of the impressive diffusion of Saussure’s theory in the West is offered by Roy Harris. Referring to the period after World War I, Harris argues that the concept of langue responded well to the post-war anxieties of a socially, politically, and economically unstable West, because Saussure’s synchronic linguistics was at that time a suitable tool for challenging pre-existing values, forgetting the past, and creating contemporary values. Thus, it is reasonable, according to Harris, that Western societies were ready not only to adopt this concept, but also to extrapolate it from linguistics to all discussion concerning the individual and society. In the post-war period, Harris argues, the diffusion of Saussurean ideas was even wider, with as a result that the structuralist explanation of culture occupied once more the center of scientific interest. He adds, however, that this time it came to be seen with skepticism, because the new war had erased the hope invested in synchronic constructions, which thus became the target of the critique of the poststructuralists (Harris 2001: 194–196, 200, 205–206). I cannot agree with his explanation of the post-war period, because structuralism dominated for more than two whole decades after the war and only then did poststructuralism emerge as dominant. Poststructuralism was to an important degree the product of a major event, but, as I will argue, this was not the trauma from the war, but the social unrest of May 1968. This was a turning point for the rejection of langue, the dangerous static structural system, in favor of parole, the supposed unbounded, “free” communication in conjunctural situations. This theoretical opposition was accompanied by an epistemological opposition: the rejection of the scientific attitude of structuralism as “scientificity” and the adoption of a science-hostile hermeneutic approach.

Similarities and dissimilarities both connect and disconnect structuralism and poststructuralism. Which in the final balance weighs heaviest? Frank concludes that poststructuralism is in reality a “neostructuralism,” and I believe that the preceding account leads to the same conclusion: there may be a marked discontinuity between them, but it is a discontinuity in continuity, resulting in the transformation of structuralism and the production of new variants of it. In respect to the research object, the research object of both approaches is comparable (Table 1).

5 The articulation between Marxism and Saussurean semiotics

As I already stated, Marxism exerted a strong influence on poststructuralism, and an understanding of poststructuralism would be incomplete without a discussion of this influence. In fact, the influence of Marxism did not suddenly appeared with poststructuralism but has a prehistory with classical Saussurean semiotics, for which it played a notable role and from which it is thus reasonable to start. One more reason for discussing this influence is that it is systematically ignored by semioticians. [6]

The influence of Marxism on structuralism/semiotics started as early as the 1920s with the work of Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev and Mikhail M. Bakhtin. While these authors as Marxists were critical of semiotics, their attitude was not one of dismissal; instead, they were the first to propose an articulation of semiotics with and within Marxist social theory. Culture here is seen as the product of ideology and all cultural products, as “semiotic material,” are considered to be meaningful, but also material things. For Bakhtin and Medvedev, the world of meaning is constituted in social communication and the “objects-signs,” in which ideology is incorporated and which are the externalized and materialized social consciousness of a collectivity, form the “ideological environment” of this collectivity. Each ideological sphere is determined by, but also determines, this ideological environment, “while only obliquely reflecting and refracting socioeconomic and natural existence” (Medvedev and Bakhtin 1978 [1928]: 7–15). The result of this encounter between semiotics and Marxism is the organic integration of the former within the latter (Table 2). A similar approach lies behind the much later work of Pierre Bourdieu.

Without such an elaborated theoretical rationale, Roland Barthes in his early work made the same connection between society and the semiotics of ideology. According to Barthes, the status of the bourgeois class is historically particular, attached to a specific system of property, and founded on technical and scientific progress. The function of bourgeois ideology is similar to that of myth, which is a parole, indeed a depoliticized parole. Its aim is to immobilize the world. The fundamental operation of this ideology is the transformation of the products of history into eternal universal essences (i. e., history into nature) and the maintenance of the inalterable hierarchy of the world. This immobile world lives within the bourgeoisie and does not allow it to change the world. Due to it, the bourgeoisie cannot imagine the Other, whom it opts to deny, ignore or identify with itself. In order to digest the “Negro” or the Russian, the bourgeoisie has recourse to exoticism and transforms the Other into spectacle, pushing him/her out to the limits of humanity (an issue on which Barthes and Lévi-Strauss agree). Barthes opposes to this kind of language the revolutionary parole, which, for him, is plainly political and does not contemplate the world but makes it; revolution abolishes the myth (Barthes 1957: 9, 193–195, 224–225, 234, 239–244).

The ideas of Medvedev and Bakhtin were rediscovered 40 years later by Louis Althusser’s structural, Levi-Straussian Marxism. Althusser, reading Marx structurally, argues that society is constituted by three major “instances”: the economic, the legal and political, and that of ideologies and theoretical formations (philosophy and sciences). Each instance is internally structured and relatively autonomous, and their interrelations create a structured complex whole, which is determined in the last instance by the economic level (Althusser and Balibar 1968: 120–125). Important authors were nurtured by this tradition, among them Althusser’s students, the anthropologist Maurice Godelier and the sociologist Nicos Poulantzas. Structural Marxism imposed on Marxism the static structuralist logic, thus integrating it, while however retaining major aspects of Marxism (Table 2).

The transformation of Marxism by semiotics is much more advanced in the case of Lévi-Strauss. He starts by stating that the universal logic he identifies was suggested to him by the convergence between Freudian psychoanalysis, geology, and Marxism, [7] three areas that he believes offer the framework for the location of ethnography. Their meeting point is that they integrate empirical phenomena into rational thinking and reduce the sensible, appearances, to another (deeper) kind of reality, which is rational, leading to a kind of “super-rationalism” (Lévi-Strauss 1955: 57–62).

In this context, Lévi-Strauss states that he was introduced to Marx at the age of seventeen and that he rarely clarifies a sociological or anthropological problem without having recourse to his writings. The reason is, he explains, that we learn from Marx that social science is built on events but then is in need of model building. I already made reference to Lévi-Strauss’s orders. Inspired by Marxist theory, he classifies them into two categories. The first includes the “infrastructural,” “lived” orders, such as the kinship system and social organization, which belong to an objective reality and can be studied from the outside and controlled experimentally, independently of the manner in which they are conceived by individuals. The second category is that of the mental, “superstructural,” “conceived” orders, such as mythology and religion (and art and cooking), which do not correspond directly to objective reality (Lévi-Strauss 1958: 347–348). This theoretical approach poses a major epistemological problem from the Marxist point of view, because Lévi-Strauss’s infrastructural orders are seen as pure semiotic systems, while for Marxism the foundational processes in society are not semiotic but material processes. This sociological reversal, according to which the whole of society is absorbed into the semiotic, became the hallmark of poststructuralism.

We find an interesting example of the influence of Marxism on semiotics in the foundations of Eco’s semiotic theory, but in order to clarify it we must go back to Ferruccio Rossi-Landi. Rossi-Landi applies Marxism directly to semiotic theory and considers linguistic objects, such as words and messages, as created by a collective form of work, linguistic work; he sees them as homologous with physical products, i. e., material artefacts, the products of transformative work. Linguistic productive activity is one aspect of human work. Carrying this analogy further, Rossi-Landi observes that linguistic products like material products have a use value or utility and an exchange value. The first form of value is due to the fact that they satisfy the basic needs of communication, while the second form follows from the existence of their interrelationships, as well as from their transmission and reception within a linguistic market. Language, like money, constitutes a constant capital, accompanied by the variable capital of the linguistic labor power expended by its users (Rossi-Landi 1983). This kind of approach belongs typologically to the integration of semiotics into Marxism (Table 2).

A trace of Rossi-Landi’s approach can be found in the work of Eco. In his A Theory of Semiotics, Eco counter-proposes to the traditional division of semiotics into syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics a division into a theory of codes (semiotics of signification) and a theory of sign production (semiotics of communication). Both the acts of signifying and communicating are social functions. He states that both the production and the reception of an utterance, linguistic or other, presuppose different forms of labor. These kinds of labor are social (Eco 1976: 3–4, 29, 151–156) – Table 2.

6 The influence of Marxism on poststructuralism

As I mentioned above, Frank identifies as external influences on poststructuralism German philosophy, psychoanalysis, and Marxism, mainly that of the Frankfurt School. I shall now try to further elaborate on and extend this group of influences, a task that cannot be fully understood without reference to the events of May 1968. Poststructuralism had begun to emerge a few years before the May 1968 uprising, but it was May 1968 that shook the French (mainly Parisian) intellectuals and with its social, political, and cultural turmoil played a catalytic role in its formation. The slogans and graffiti of May 1968, an active force of the uprising, combine surrealism and psychoanalysis to demonstrate a desire to surpass the divisions between reality and phantasy, the rational and the irrational, and to conquer lived experience. A central role in both the uprising and the graffiti was played by the Situationist International, a Leftist movement akin to surrealism whose leading figure was Guy-Ernest Debord. This complex mixture had a decisive impact on the major poststructuralist authors, though this does not imply that they had not been exposed before May 1968 to some of the above currents.

According to Debord, commodity relations, that is, alienated social relations, have penetrated and mastered the whole of everyday life, culture, art, leisure, even personal behavior; every domain of life has been transformed into a commodity. This is what Debord calls the “spectacle,” a social relationship mediated by images and created by the existing mode of production. Ways of life are sold in the marketplace as lifestyles. The consumer cannot find identity in anything except identification with the commodity and pointless consumption. Revolutionary criticism and class struggle will turn against these alienated social relations and the deep impoverishment of everyday life. The situationist action will take the form of a new kind of play, coextensive with everyday life. The post-revolutionary, post-capitalist society, like the one envisaged by dadaism and surrealism, aims at a new totality of social relations. It will be characterized by the abolition of work, the unification of art, politics, and scientific disciplines, and the achievement of a playful life, which will involve pleasure, uncommodified leisure, and the satisfaction of desires (Debord 1992 [1967]).

While the number of Situationists in the streets of Paris was extremely limited, their graffiti and Debord’s ideas played a crucial role. Surrealism came out of the galleries and was acted out in the streets. Psychoanalysts turned to radical social criticism and joined the political Left, psychoanalysis acquired a central position in it and Lacan, who had not previously notably inclined to the Left, came to be seen, perhaps with some help on his part, as a political radical. Preaching the primacy of desire, he became the leader of a Leftist “French Freud revolution,” the ideas of which were widely diffused in French culture and science. From May 1968 on, Lacanian psychoanalysis and surrealism, very close to situationism, were strongly connected in France (Turkle 1992: 6, 8, 10–11, 47, 49, 65, 68, 84–86; Plant 1992: 104).

Robert Wicks, receding further back in time than May 1968, argues that dadaism and surrealism had a strong impact, still underappreciated, on French philosophy and the whole of French thought in the twentieth century. He also points out the influence of the anti-establishment attitude of the Dadaists on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, and the later work of Barthes; and of the surrealist views concerning the artificiality, fragility, and changeability of norms in society on the three latter. To these two sources of influence on poststructuralism, Wicks adds a third influence, existentialism, which he sees as being transformed by its contact with Saussurean linguistics. According to him, existentialism is behind the views on the multi-dimensionality of language and the endless deployment of meaning held by Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, and Lyotard and its influence was such that they may be considered as “linguo-existentialists” (Wicks 2003: ix-x, 11, 14–16, 295–296, 298). I note here that Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault, together with Julia Kristeva and others, were close to the journal Tel Quel, a Left-wing literary magazine which broke with the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) in 1971 to adopt Maoism, from which it distanced itself in 1976.

An interesting example of a pre-May 1968 connection to surrealism is given by Lacan. In the thirties, during his passage from psychiatry to psychoanalysis, Lacan met Salvador Dali, who was then involved in the highly Freudian surrealist movement. Both Lacan and Dali were interested in paranoia, in particular in the process through which a paranoid person assigns meaning to reality. Dali’s “paranoid-critical theory of interpretation,” closely related to his paintings, asserts the intrusion of the unconscious in the field of visual representation. He believes that the unconscious uses the objects in the world in order to invest them with its own content, mediating in this manner the representation of reality; the unconscious assigns meaning to form (the signifier).

Dali’s influence on Lacan, in addition to the general cultural context of the thirties, led Lacan, who was studying the paranoiac delirium, to explore the function of the unconscious in the field of the representation of reality. On the other hand, Dali had recourse to Lacan’s views in order to argue that his paranoid-critical method of interpretation is an active method of artistic creation. Lacan, who was studying the paranoiac delirium, like Dali, gave central importance to the role of form as such in the process by which the unconscious assigns meaning to the objects of perception. This focus on form was crucial for Lacan’s re(mis)interpretation of Saussure and his apotheosis of the signifier, which marks his “return to Freud” and the whole of his psychoanalytic theory (Constantinidou 2012).

We may now understand that Saussure, and Lévi-Strauss, offered Lacan the instruments to formalize and deepen his pre-war surrealist ideas. This is a non-Marxist surrealism, in the climate of its first stage, when it revolved around psychoanalysis, before the forceful entry of Marxism in the late 1930s. It is this second aspect of surrealism that had a strong presence in May 1968, contributing to baptize Lacan as belonging to the political left.

While deconstruction seems to be the antipode of Marxism, Derrida finally came to take position on this issue with his Spectres de Marx (1993). Derrida was affiliated with the Left and participated in the demonstrations of May 1968. He combines a reverence for Marx’s thought with a determined attack on the discourses – which he rightly considers as aiming at imposing a world hegemony and tending to become dominant on the geopolitical stage – celebrating the death of Marx and Marxism and extolling capitalism, the economy of the market, neo-liberalism, and liberal democracy. He mentions the existence of different “spirits” of Marxism and states that he adopts one of them, which is not aligned with Marxist orthodoxy. He believes that Marxism needs to be radically changed, something which for him is in agreement with the Marxist spirit. For Derrida, who wants to be a “good Marxist” (his quotation marks), deconstruction would be impossible without Marxism and is faithful to it as a radical critique, a stance that is a heritage from the Enlightenment but is also a radicalization of Marxism, a critical discourse on the critique and ontology of Marxism without sacrificing its emancipatory promise (Derrida 1993: for example, 36, 90, 95–96, 101–102, 142, 145, 148–153, 269). This strikes me as too abstract a relation between deconstruction and Marxism, which is why I believe it is wiser to stay with the conclusion of Christopher Norris that “it is difficult to square deconstruction in this radical, Nietzschean guise with any workable Marxist account of text and ideology. Such attempted fusions in the name of a Marxian poststructuralist theory are fated … to an endlessly proliferating discourse of abstraction” (Norris 1982: 80, 83–85).

Barthes was a socialist, but a critical one. In literary theory we may speak about two polarized Barthes, on the one hand Barthes the classical semiotician of the 1950s and 1960s, and on the other the dedicated poststructuralist of the 1970s. Already in 1971, Barthes referred dismissively to his own early work, confessing that it only represents “a euphoric dream of scientificity” and rejecting the possibility of a scientific semiotics. His differentiation between the supposed passive “readerly” (lisible) texts of classical literature and postmodern “writerly” (scriptible) texts is well known. The readerly texts follow a representational model and condemn the reader to passivity and seriousness. The writerly texts, literature as labor, created by productive “writing,” empty out the meaning of the text and transform it into a constellation of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds. They thus transform the readers from simple consumers to active producers of the text and allow them to play with the text and have full access to the magic of the signifiers and the pleasure offered by them, a playing which is also a form of writing as linguistic labor (Barthes 1970: 9–10, 17). We recognize in these brief positions a complex node of influences: the Marxist concept of labor, the central situationist concept of play, the Lacanian signifier and the Derridian freeplay of signification.

On the author, Barthes adopts both a sociological and a semiotic point of view. In the context of the first, he argues that in literature the author as individuality is a correlative of positivism, the latter representing the culmination of capitalist ideology. From the semiotic viewpoint, the existence of the author provides a final signified (Derrida’s center) that limits the text and closes the proliferation of meaning. But the identity of the author (as authority and Father – Barthes 1970: 217) is destroyed by the practice of writing. The author turns into a simple function of the text, not a producer antecedent to it, and becomes a “scriptor,” producing a set of “traces” rather than expressing an interiority. By this practice the author disappears as the origin of the text and finds his/her own death (Barthes 1970: 9–14, 17, 146–149). Now, the death of the subject is joined by the death of the author.

Barthes agrees with the views on language of Stéphane Mallarmé, the downgrading of the author and the centrality of automatic writing of the Surrealists (Barthes 1988: 147–148). He identifies the pleasure of a text with “drifting” (dériveBarthes 1973: 32–33), which is a surrealist and situationist term that for the Situationists indicates a psycho-geographical wandering in urban space, subverting the city of pure visuality and disrupting the banality of the everyday. What remains unchanged is his position with the political Left, which however takes different forms in the two stages of his life. In his first stage he attacks bourgeois ideology, “the bourgeois Norm,” which is for him “the capital enemy” (Barthes 1957: 7, 9, 236–244). In a Derridean movement of his second stage, he writes that “writing” does not seek any ultimate meaning of the text or of “the world as text” (cf. objectivity and subjectivity “sont des imaginaires” [‘are imaginary’] – Barthes 1970: 17), a viewpoint that he considers anti-theological and revolutionary, because “to refuse to fix meanings is... to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (Barthes 1988). This is a long way from the early Barthes, who knew that, beyond the level of discourse, there is the world of social praxis!

The revolutionary situationist views, in combination with the approach to the city championed by Henri Lefebvre – who belonged to a satellite “groupuscule” of the Situationist International (Ross 2002: 275; see also Plant 1992: 63–64) – also inspired the Utopie group, founded in 1967. One member of this group was Jean Baudrillard, who knew Debord personally. Baudrillard openly acknowledged his debt to situationism and his approach is related to the latter, mainly in its early form. Later, Baudrillard disagreed with the active political situationist positions and totally inverted the final aims of situationism, though he never abandoned their common perspective on capitalism (Plant 1992: for example, 5, 35–37, 107, 111–112, 115, 117, 118, 121–122, 137 164–166, 172; Sadler 1998: 47, 66, 176 n. 101). The key concept that Baudrillard came to use later, simulacrum, is meant to describe the main characteristic of our era, which is to generate reality through models of reality, transforming it thus into the hyperreal (Baudrillard 1981: for example, 10–11). This hyperrealism of the simulacrum is a description of culture matching the surrealist credo (Wicks 2003: 15).

There were foretastes of May 1968. The student unrest started earlier, in November 1966 at the University of Strasbourg, with the direct involvement of the Situationists. In January 1968 a second student’s movement took shape at the University of Nanterre, where a preeminent part was played by the group of the Enragés that was politically close to the Situationists. In March 1968 a new movement emerged at the same university, the Mouvement du 22 Mars, and two person involved in it were Lyotard and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Lyotard was affiliated with the PCF and strongly criticized by its partisans when he left it. He was also a member of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group – with ideas close to those of the Frankfurt School – which Debord joined in 1959, only to abandon it about two years later, having however adopted a great deal of its political theory (Plant 1992: 5, 14–15, 96; Ford 2005: 113, 117–11).

I have already made reference to Lyotard’s dismissal of meta-prescriptions, i. e., grand narratives. He makes a furious attack against social systems theory, the “ideology of the ‘system’,” and its performance criterion. He identifies this ideology with technocracy as a totalizing tendency, cynicism, and terrorism, the terrorism that attempt to impose “isomorphy” on “heteromorphic” language games.

Lyotard argues that the referent (“reality”) is a function of the process of proof and that this process is the ascertainment of a fact. Today, technology has penetrated the management of proof, but technology is a game whose aim is not truth, but performativity and efficiency. Ultimately, capitalism controls research through power and power through technology controls “reality” (Lyotard 1979: 72–78). Sadie Plant points to the impact that May 1968 had on the views of Lyotard (as well as Deleuze and Guattari). She refers to Lyotard’s encomium of the avant-garde and argues that his attack against theory – and his economy of desire, as well as Deleuze’s and Guattari’s philosophies of desire – are of situationist origin. She also attributes to May 1968 the origin of Foucault’s problematics of power, to which I shall turn immediately below (Plant 1992: for example, 107–108, 111–112, 115–118, 121–122).

Since his youth, Foucault oscillated between phenomenology and a Marxism along the lines of Georg Lukács, until, as he stated late in his career, he was able to trace his own course. Under the influence of Althusser, he joined the PCF at the age of 24. He left the Party after about two years, but remained a left-wing militant to the end of his life (Gros 1996: 4, 7, 9; Merquior 1985: 20, 99, 101, 116).

While the early stage of Foucault’s thought is characterized by the concept of épistémè, underpinning and determining the horizons and limits of knowledge and truth for an entire culture, he later abandons this concept for the notion of “discursive formations.” Here, culture is conceived as multifocal and ultimately regulated by power, a conception derived from Marxism, but Foucault is interested in micro-scale power, the “micro-physics” of power. With this concept of power Foucault does not intend to contest the importance of the state apparatus, but to bring to the surface complementary and finer relations of power which, while they are not part of the state, “often sustain the state more effectively than its own institutions” and extend and intensify state power. Thus, he sees it as a limitation to identify power only with the state apparatus and to consider state power as the only form of power of a dominant class, a simplification he states is not found in Marx. This small-scale, diffused type of power Foucault calls the “panoptic apparatus,” after Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon.” He uses it as the model of the small-scale power apparatuses or power machines which are the anonymous mechanics of power: the prison, the military base, the hospital, the school, the factory. This apparatus controls and disciplines the body, a discipline which is a political technique of the body.

In this second stage of Foucault’s thought, power is the central factor for the organization of the discourses of knowledge, the definition of truth, and, through them, the constitution of the subject. In his third stage (from the end of the 1970s), Foucault’s nuclear concept of power is replaced by “governmentality,” which represents the articulation between three factors: forms of knowledge, power relations, and processes of “subjectivation” (processes concerning subjectivity as a relation to one’s self), which are now seen as incommensurable factors. Finally, in Foucault’s fourth stage, during the 1980s, his object becomes historical experience as the domain of articulation of the three factors above; the central position is now given to the subject as an historical subject, auto-constituted through practices installing a relation to itself including the body (Foucault 1971: 12 and 1980: 71–73; Gros 1996: 66–67, 73–74, 83–84, 90–97) – and thus the (historical) human subject is brought back to life.

To conclude, most masters of poststructuralism were affiliated to the political left already before May 1968. In the events of May 1968, Marxism of the leftist kind, surrealism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis became mixed together. A further mixture with German romanticism, this whole articulated on structuralism, had as a result the poststructuralist view that the referent is totally opaque and inaccessible and any kind of knowledge purely and solely refers to the semiotic domain. Material society – and I do not mean here an essence, but a cultural construction – is ignored and revolutionary social acts are replaced by revolutionary cultural products, whether they are products of knowledge, literature or the arts. Still, a fundamental contradiction remains: though the referent is inaccessible, one major referent permeates poststructuralist discourse: capitalism, whence a fundamental contradiction of poststructuralist thought. On the whole, the fate of Marxism with poststructuralism was a copy of its fate with Lévi-Strauss, i. e., it was absorbed into semiotics (Table 2), with the important difference however that it infused poststructuralism with Left-wing political thought of the kind that emerged in May 1968.

7 The relation between poststructuralism and postmodernism

We should keep separate in our minds cultural phenomena and cultural theories. Before becoming a cultural theory, postmodernism was a cultural phenomenon in the domain of the arts that appeared much earlier than the corresponding theory. Andreas Huyssen, for example, considers that from the mid-1950s there was a rebellion of a new generation of artists, soon joined by critics, against abstract expressionism, serial music, and classical literary modernism, though this did not yet constituted a truly postmodern movement. According to him, postmodernism as a phenomenon appeared in the late 1950s, when the adversary role of late high modernism was superseded, because the artists and critics alike had the feeling that they were living in a new situation fundamentally different from the preceding one. Huyssen observes that the term “postmodernism” appeared in North American literary criticism in the late 1950s (there were some earlier uses of the term) and was used emphatically in the sixties, but only from the early and mid-1970s was it extended to refer first to architecture and later to dance, theatre, painting, cinema, and music. Already in the 1970s, according to Huyssen, we encounter “a genuinely post-modern and post-avant-garde culture” (Huyssen 1988 [1986]: 61, 161, 183–184, 188–189, 190, 195–197).

A slow transmission of poststructuralism to the U.S. started after the mid-1960s. However, the decisive moment was the use by Lyotard of the term “postmodern” in his La condition postmoderne (1979). This was of major importance in provoking the theoretical encounter between local empirical American postmodernism and highly theoretical French poststructuralism; Lyotard’s book came to legitimize the bond of postmodernism with poststructuralism. According to Huyssen, in the late 1970s a theoretical discussion began the U.S. concerning the interface between the local tradition of postmodernism and French poststructuralism as understood in the U.S.; he points out that it was frequently based on the assumption that the avant-garde in theory must in some way be close to the literary and artistic avant-garde (Huyssen 1988 [1986]: 171, 184, 206–207).

Postmodern theorizing emerged from the close analogies between American postmodern culture and French poststructuralist theory, thus it represents the Americanised form of French poststructuralism. Unavoidably, however, poststructuralism was adapted and to a certain degree reinterpreted in the context of local cultural phenomena and habits of thought. The role of the latter for this transformation should be emphasized. The cultures and frames of thought in France on the one hand, and the U.S. and generally the Anglo-Saxon world on the other, are radically incompatible. The Cartesian and deductive theoretical thinking of France has nothing in common with the empiricist and inductive Anglo-Saxon tradition. The issue of the difficulty of understanding French thought in the U.S. is raised by Pamela Tytell when she observes with reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis that, with few exceptions, it is “the dominant ideology [in the U.S.] which blocks a real reading of Lacan”; she contrasts the different scientific points of reference in the two countries: Freud versus Skinner, Adler, Reich, and Fromm; Lévi-Strauss versus Mead and Goudenough (Tytell 1974: 80–81).

An illuminating account of this transformation as it relates to Derridian deconstruction is given by Christopher Norris. He detects two different tendencies among American deconstructionists. The one, faithful to deconstruction, is exemplified by the literary critic Paul de Man, of European origin, who is meticulous in the use of concepts and has recourse to systematic argumentation, not wanting deconstruction to lose its quality of close reading. Indeed, for Norris, de Man, while a consistent deconstructionist, invites us to go beyond the skepticism of deconstruction and states that the continuous regression of further and further deconstructions must finally arrive at a stabilizing point. This measured approach is far from being accepted by the second tendency, deconstruction “on the wild side,” represented by Geoffrey Hartman (also of European origin) and Joseph Hillis Miller, both literary critics, who push deconstruction to the limits of interpretative freedom.

According to Norris, Hartman’s project is a specifically American deconstruction, one that melds criticism with literature, pushing the critic to the extremes of self-indulgence. Hartman does not follow the rigorous aspect of deconstruction and merges impressionistically and rhetorically different philosophical traditions. For Miller also, the rhetoric of textuality professed by deconstruction allows the overcoming of the distinction between criticism and literature. For him, due to the unending proliferation of meaning, the critic has no responsibility to limit the freeplay of imagination and language. As Norris notes, the American reception of deconstruction had a direct impact on Derrida himself. The rhetoric he uses in his rejoinder to John R. Searle is quite unlike his usual rigorous rationality. This aspect of deconstruction follows the “uncanny” or “vertiginous mode,” which is not without continuity with its rigorous aspect, but is nevertheless more indirect and circumstantial. It is an aspect both created by the American deconstructionists and mainly addressed to them. Here, the freeplay of textual dissemination is the order of the day (Norris 1982: 15, 92–93, 97–99, 105–106, 113–115, 127 and 1990: 158, 159).

Postmodernism, like poststructuralism, is radically against grand theories, something that does not prevent its theoreticians from having a clear idea of the main traits of their own theory. These were very well formulated by Ihab Hassan (1987: 167–173), who identifies what he calls a tentative set of traits of postmodern culture, namely, postmodern theorizing, literature, and art. Hassan believes that the overarching trait is “critical pluralism” and gives two lists of traits, of which the first is as follows:

  1. (1)

    Indeterminacy. Indeterminacy includes ambiguities, ruptures, and displacements, which “constitute our world” and occur in science, literary theory, and art (in this context, Hassan refers to Bakhtin and Barthes’s writerly text).

  2. (2)

    Fragmentation. This is one of the traits that lead to indeterminacy and is opposed to any kind of totalization or synthesis in respect to science, society or the poetic domain. It is related to paradox and the operations of montage and collage (there is reference here to Lyotard).

  3. (3)

    Decanonization. This goes against all conventions of authority and languages of power, and decanonizes culture. Thus, it refuses grand narratives, adopting instead small narratives, espouses the idea of a series of deaths (of God, the Father, the author) and supports subverting tendencies, such as minority movements and the feminization of culture (once more the reference is to Lyotard).

  4. (4)

    Selflessness/depthlessness. This concerns the death of the subject, the latter being considered by poststructuralists, as Hassan reminds us, as a totalizing principle. The subject is lost in the differences that make up the play of language and this loss appears in depthless styles refusing interpretation (reference to Nietzsche).

  5. (5)

    The unpresentable/unrepresentable. This is the negation of representation. Postmodern art is non-realist and literature contests its own modes of representation (reference to Julia Kristeva).

These are, according to Hassan, the deconstructive traits of postmodernism. He continues with the following traits, which he considers as reconstructive:

  1. (6)

    Irony. Due to the absence of a grand narrative, the search for truth is continually postponed and the result is play and an ironic self-reflexivity, which assumes indeterminacy. This trait can be seen in literary criticism, philosophy, history (reference to Bakhtin and Derrida).

  2. (7)

    Hybridization. This is the transformation and mixing of genres and styles, leading to new relations between historical elements or the mixing of high and low culture. It is accompanied by parody, pastiche, and kitsch, and it appears in literature, literary criticism, cinema, and architecture (reference to Heidegger).

  3. (8)

    Carnivalization. According to Hassan, this concept, borrowed from Bakhtin, addresses all the traits above (with the exception of the unpresentable) and implies performance, polyphony, absurdity, and the comic.

  4. (9)

    Performance/participation. It results from the indeterminacy of the postmodern text, verbal or nonverbal, theoretical or artistic, and is the active participation of the addressee (cf. Barthes).

  5. (10)

    Constructionism. Due to its non-realistic nature, postmodernism constructs reality in fictions, a phenomenon traversing social relations, postmodern theory, science, high technologies, and art (reference to poststructuralism).

  6. (11)

    Immanence. This refers to the projection of language and signs, more specifically signifiers, into nature, “turning nature into culture, and culture into an immanent semiotic system,” and thus, for example, the hard sciences depend on the latter. This movement of immanence is the source of a reflexive irony, but in a consumer society it can lead to emptiness (reference to Baudrillard).

These traits, following more or less directly from poststructuralism, also directly encounter the positions of Lévi-Strauss discussed above. I indicated with reference to poststructuralism its major contradiction of denying the possibility of knowing reality, while simultaneously constantly referring to the very real phenomenon of capitalism, and this is also the case with postmodernism. Of course, both the Poststructuralists and the Postmodernists are right in referring to this extra-semiotic material socio-economic factor, because sociologically postmodern society is indeed closely related to capitalism.

There are different explanations of the nature both of recent capitalism and postmodern society. Thus, Zygmunt Bauman emphasizes the radical break between modern and postmodern society, which is no longer organized around the productive function, but is founded on individuals in a consumer market, operating on the pleasure principle. Postmodern culture – the object and environment of postmodern theorizing – is the surface symptom of this much deeper social transformation. Bauman also states that, given the differences between these two societies, a new rational sociology of postmodernity is necessary, as opposed to current postmodern sociology that is an intellectual genre in harmony with postmodern culture (Bauman 1992: 42–53, 64–65, 187–188, 223). On the other hand, Fredric Jameson holds that postmodern society is not a completely new type of social formation, an alleged “post-industrial” society, but just a new, “purer” stage of capitalism. According to Jameson, postmodern culture has a function in relation to the economic system of this late capitalism different from the function of modern culture in the previous stage of capitalism; late capitalism has abolished the previous relative autonomy of culture, with culture now becoming inseparable from all other aspects of society. The integration of culture within the new development of capitalism turns postmodern culture into the cultural logic of late capitalism (Jameson 1984: 55–58, 87).

We can generalize Bauman’s position about postmodern sociology, recalling Frank’s view about poststructuralism as a philosophical rather than a scientific movement, and state that generally postmodern theorizing, such as that by Hassan, is not a sociological metalanguage on postmodern culture, but a normative theorizing internal to it, reflecting the ideological-philosophical views of an artistic avant-garde. The traits of postmodernism presented by Hassan reveal a complex of theoretical positions which, like any other complex of this kind, is nothing other than the formulation of a grand narrative, which is inconsistent with a supposedly radical theory of small narratives. And this is the other major contradiction of postmodernism.

I believe that the preceding discussion shows the close connection between poststructuralism and postmodernism. Postmodernism is the direct, dynamic continuity of poststructuralism and the research object of both is comparable (Table 1). However, the difference between American and French culture is not erased: postmodernism is the depoliticized version of poststructuralism.

8 Some comments on today’s and tomorrow’s semiotics

Matrices 1 and 2 summarize my conclusions on the matrix for the comparison of the semiotic currents of the last century, the comparative extension of the objects of semiotic theories, and the nature of the influence of Marxism on semiotics, an attempt to follow the evolving dynamics of the domain during the past century. This last section extends this glance at the present dynamics of my two matrices, assesses the positions of the different semiotic currents, and makes some comments about the future development and possibilities of semiotics.

The semiotic explosion of the 1960s and 1970s had wide repercussions on the whole sphere of anthropology, the humanities, and the arts. This impressive diffusion was not without negative effects for semiotics. Frequently, while semiotics revitalized the multiplicity of the fields with which it came into contact, it was absorbed by their traditional habits. Semiotic terminology became part of their everyday vocabulary, but in a rather imprecise manner, thus losing its systematic character (something that also happened with Marxism). The width of classical semiotic theory, in combination with its tendency to neglect applied aspects of the field, has been an obstacle to its institutionalization in the academy and has limited semiotic teaching so far to isolated courses and a few postgraduate programmes. This width concerns not only the object of semiotics, but also semiotic theories themselves, as discussed in the previous pages. The domain of Saussurean and Peircean semiotics is today an evolving, splitting, and conflicting kaleidoscopic domain, creating a confusing nebula. We should add to this confusion certain historical reinterpretations, such as the local renaming of the Moscow-Tartu School as Tartu-Moscow School for nationalist reasons or the attempt of John Deely to nominate Peirce as the first postmodern philosopher and the philosopher of the twenty-first century.

Poststructuralism and postmodernism have been extremely influential in the last 40 years; like classical structuralism, they were diffused to the fields of the humanities and the arts and even more widely in the social sciences, where they reached even human geography. They thus marked the intellectual reflexes of many generations of students. It is noticeable, however, that while they were qualitatively dominant, this was not the case with their statistical presence in the bibliography, which shows the simultaneous existence of several other approaches.

At the same time with the postmodern stage of this ideological-philosophical current, from the beginnings of the eighties, began the diffusion of Peircean semiotics and biosemiotics, due initially to Sebeok’s activities in both the U.S. (where the Semiotic Society of America became Peircean) and internationally. This diffusion seems to have coincided with a certain decline of postmodernism and may be due to a certain desire to keep up with fashionable trends in the field, but due to the lack of any deeper knowledge of Peircean semiotics this influence usually takes a rather weak form, from ritual references to rather elementary attempts at applications; to all appearances, this diffusion will continue.

Peircean semiotics has, however, a major epistemological drawback. Any attempt to directly apply a philosophy to a scientific field encounters insurmountable epistemological obstacles. There is a radical difference between philosophy and science: philosophy is a global, universalist view of the world and man and uses general and abstract concepts, while science has to choose only one specific perspective on its object. This perspective is the necessary precondition for the epistemological definition of any scientific field. It follows the “law of relevance” (loi de la pertinence). We encounter this rationale already in Saussure, when he states that no single science is in a position to exhaust the theoretical description of any empirical object – for example, the empirical object “society,” “man” or “city.” According to him, each science has to limit itself to only one of the possible perspectives through which an empirical object can be approached. The importance of the adoption of such an epistemological perspective may be shown by Saussure’s thesis that, in the case of linguistics, the empirical object of research does not even exist prior to the development of the perspective, but is constituted by the very perspective itself (Saussure 1971: 23).

Hjelmslev similarly points out that a theory must be founded on the presuppositions that are necessary for its object and poses three conditions ruling scientific description (exhaustiveness, consistency, and economy). Within the framework of a typology of the different semiotics, he defines the epistemological object of Saussure’s sémiologie (Hjelmslev 1961 [1943]: 10–11, 106–120). Based on Hjelmslev, Greimas and Courtés define what they consider to be the rule for scientific description. This rule implies, according to them, that, of the numerous possible features of an object, only those necessary and sufficient to exhaust its description are selected, that is, that the object must be described from only one specific perspective (Greimas and Courtés 1979: Définition, Description, Opération, Pertinence, Procédure). The same rule is applied by Umberto Eco to define the domain of semiotics. According to Eco, all phenomena in society can and must be studied from a semiotic viewpoint and thus semiotics is a general theory of culture and finally a substitute for cultural anthropology; it is of central importance to approach social phenomena semiotically, “sub specie communicationis.” However, Eco clearly states that social phenomena as a whole are not reducible to communication and to study them in this manner does not imply that material life can be reduced to spirit and pure mental facts, since such an implication would lead to idealism (Eco 1972 [1968]: 25–30 and 1976: 6–7, 26–27, 158).

This difference between philosophy, whether Peircean or, for example, phenomenological, and science has a major implication. Each scientific field incorporates four levels of operations, from the more abstract to the more concrete: an epistemological level, a theoretical one, a methodological, and a level of techniques. Philosophy is the background of the first level, but it cannot be applied without the other levels. Let us take the example of positivism. There was never a direct application of positivist epistemology to any scientific field; instead, positivist epistemology led to the constitution of a great number of scientific fields, such as sociology, anthropology or psychology, founded on positivism, but defining a set of concepts specifically adapted to the needs of each field. This task cannot be accomplished by philosophy. Philosophy does not offer any elaborate and analytical methodology, and it never defines techniques, without which no application of theory and methodology is possible and thus also no verification of their scientific value. If Peircean philosophy aspires to be an operational semiotic theory, it can only demonstrate this by using itself as a starting point for the elaboration of specific semiotics for each cultural field, with their specific methodologies and techniques, a scientific work that has not been undertaken by Peircean scholars. Biosemiotics also suffers from this lack and the proof is that Peircean terms represent an extremely small minority among current biological terms.

Saussurean theory, on the other hand, belongs to the scientific domain and thus can be applied. There is historical evidence for that, which also shows that this possibility did not follow from a direct extrapolation of structural linguistics, even if initially this is what occurred. It took many years of intensive work, mainly in the francophone world but also elsewhere, by a very great number of scholars and for many decades to establish specific principles for the great variety of semiotic systems.

The above essential problem with Peircean philosophy is apparent in the direct transposition of certain terms, such as “firstness,” “abduction” or “index,” to attempts at concrete analyses. These terms are not only too general, but also strikingly few, probably no more than twenty. There are two reasons for this phenomenon. The first is the necessarily general nature of Peirce’s philosophical terms. The second is that Peircean scholars focus exclusively on the concepts given by Peirce and adopt an exegetical position towards them, with as a result the lack of a critical spirit and the ossification of his theory. Thus, there is a lack of philosophical labor on Peirce’s theory with an eye to the general development of semiotics. Still, as I already pointed out, this would only be the beginning for transforming Peirce’s philosophy into specific semiotics.

It is characteristic that Peircean scholars frequently adopt a ritual polemical reference to Saussure. The fact is that Peirce is absent from any textbook of cultural studies, which is not the case with French structuralism and poststructuralism. Some Peircean scholars attempt to face this lack by extending their scope to applications in different cultural areas, but they end up just renaming terms without any further contribution to the development of these areas, formulating static typologies or using terminology metaphorically, as is the case notably with biosemiotics, which attempts to found itself on concepts such as “sign,” “representation,” and “communication,” and thus suffers from anthropomorphism, that is, the naïve projection of culture on nature.

Classical semiotic theory is not in fashion, indeed it is dismissed as positivist and formalist, but the fact is that poststructuralism and postmodernism use a great number of its concepts (usually in an imprecise manner). The dynamic views and cultural typologies of the Moscow-Tartu School are missing from the textbooks, [8] though in spite of occasional exaggerated extrapolations their approach could be very useful for cultural studies. However, despite the marginalization of classical semiotics, there are certain fields in which they remain without postmodern competitors, and this holds also for linguistics and semantics, for example narratology, stylistics, rhetoric, behavioral semiotics, and the semiotics of the theatre, cinema, music, and cooking.

Classical semiotics is a scientific domain and thus the clash with poststructuralism and postmodernism was inevitable. Both these tendencies are not scientific, they do not want to be scientific (“scientistic” is the slogan), they are philosophical and, violently attacking positivism, adopt – usually in a messianic style – interpretative methods. They have a philosophical and theoretical background, imbued with ideology, some traces of methodology and no techniques. We should not, however, ignore the fact that they have had one very positive result, namely, the extension of the horizon of research objects.

Recently, we have witnessed an attempt to articulate semiotics with biology on the part of cognitive semiotics, for which neuroscience is thought to be the key for the understanding of semiotic systems. The attempt is in a sense symmetrical to that of biosemiotics: while biosemiotics aspires to the extrapolation of semiotics to biology, the whole of the living world, cognitive semiotics defends a regression and reduction of semiotics to biology, so as to derive semiotics from the neurological processes of the brain. There are clear epistemological limits to this approach, but, as is the case with Peircean philosophy, it seems that they pass unnoticed by the scholars involved in it. Biology may offer knowledge of the biological processes taking place in the biological brain, which are more or less common to the human species. They are not without interest, since they establish the framework within which semiosis takes place. So far this enterprise is legitimate, but what should be understood is that this articulation is unable to account for the cultural mind, that is, the structuring of the semiotic systems in their cultural relativity. Any extrapolation from the brain to the mind ends up in an unfortunate search for semiotic universals, a search which violates this relativity. It should be clear that, by definition, any concept of universals clashes with the concept of “value,” a key concept of Saussurean theory. Simultaneously, cognitive semiotics reduces a collective phenomenon to an atomistic paradigm, and does not have the theoretical concepts necessary for the study of collectivities.

In general terms, such an attempt is a residue of the obsolete positivist attempt to found the social sciences on the positive sciences, because (once upon a time) only the positive sciences were considered “real” sciences, and thus to apply common scientific approaches to these spheres of knowledge, a task that proved historically impossible and non-sensical. I have already made reference to similar attempts, namely, Lévi-Strauss’s ambition to interpret the semiotic laws through a continuous regression to biology and finally physico-chemical processes and Lotman’s comparable effort to anchor semiotics in the right-left asymmetry of the human brain, regressing to the genetic-molecular level and extrapolating to the structure of the universe.

To conclude, I believe that there is a certain interest in the articulation with biology, provided it is accompanied by the epistemological caution referred to above. However, this orientation is of marginal interest to semiotics. Semiotics should turn its attention to a totally different kind of articulation. Certainly, semiotics is defined according to the law of relevance and thus the level on which it operates is that of immanent analysis, which allows the description and interpretation of semiotic systems and texts. This is the common ground that unites classical semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism as well as Peircean theory, namely, operation within the world of signs. This enterprise is of course entirely legitimate. It cannot, however, account for the emergence and deeper transformation of the semiotic systems, that is, it does not offer an explanation of them, which is what the biologizing approaches are looking for. Explanation of a system, which is studied immanently, presupposes its integration within the wider system to which it belongs. Explanation of the nature and the logic of the structuring of the semiotic system leads to the need to define this wider system.

Contrary to the impression given by the invasion of cultural studies into the humanities and the academic institutions to which they belong, such as literature departments, the overall theory of semiotic – cultural – systems is not the domain of the humanities. The theory of semiotic systems is part of the theory of society and thus of the social sciences. Culture is not the only component of society: culture is inseparable from both the material socioeconomic component of society (including elements such as technology, the technical and social division of labor, social stratification) and its political component (including institutions). Culture thus is not isolated, but holds a specific epistemological position within the wider whole of society, depending, in a context of reciprocal relationships, on material social processes. Thus, the wider system integrating semiotic systems is society as a whole. The epistemological articulation of semiotic with material processes leads to a theory of social semiotics (Table 2), which needs to become explicit, or at least always implicit, in semiotic research.

Instead, then, of a biology of semiosis, I propose a political economy of semiosis, which would be in a position to account for the production of semiotic systems. It is not a novelty, since it is what Bakhtin and Medvedev, as well as Bourdieu, already have proposed. To avoid misunderstandings, political economy only illuminates the above articulation and explains the general structuring of the semiotic systems, that is, the general organizational axes that traverse them, through the factor of ideology. However, this only offers the framework for a systematic semiotic analysis and must be completed in depth with the instruments of immanent analysis, and only classical French semiotics disposes of all the necessary levels of analysis: epistemology, theory, methodology, and techniques.

This latter point brings us back to the disgraced positivism. Positivism is extremely problematic as a general epistemology and caused the isolation of scientific fields from each other. Due to the lack of a global theory in the social sciences and the humanities, each field in its attempt to achieve globality could do so only through extrapolation, extrapolation from the part to the whole. This way of operating is misleading, because exactly the opposite is true: the part is explained by the whole. Positivism was rightly criticized, but this does not imply that it should be totally rejected, and there are parts of it, necessary for any scientific investigation, which do not seem to have found a reliable replacement. I do not plead then for positivism as a general epistemological stance, but I believe that in certain areas of research the formal method is irreplaceable. It is in this sense that, in the case of culture, I would argue for the positivism of classical semiotics. And it is here that classical semiotics will have many things to offer in the future, even more if articulated with political economy, either explicitly or at least implicitly, an articulation that inescapably reshapes both semiotics and Marxism.


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