Published: April 1, 2008 By

[1] DP: Let me start by thanking you for agreeing to talk about your book with me.  I found Semiotics Unbounded a really fascinating attempt to synthesize a lot of material in the field of semiotics that will be unfamiliar to many of us (especially in the U.S.) who were trained according to a rather narrow equation of semiotics with Saussure and with the general principle of the arbitrariness of the sign.  I suspect that for many readers of Genders, one of the things that will surprise them initially about this book is how robust the field of semiotics is, and how little it depends on familiar Saussurian principles.

[2] As a way to start our discussion and provide some background for readers, could I ask you to discuss the definitions and assumptions about the field from which you are trying to “unbind” semiotics?

[3] SP and AP: The attempt to “unbind” semiotics, as you say, from a restricted and reductive view began precisely in the United States.  The protagonists of this operation were in fact all Americans (in the sense of being American despite different national origins, which is the case of all Americans): Charles S. Peirce, Charles W.  Morris, Thomas A. Sebeok who was of Hungarian origin.

[4] The restricted view we are referring to is Ferdinand de Saussure’s.  But we must be careful here.  We are not referring to Saussure as he is now emerging ever more clearly from his manuscripts and unpublished lesson notes (this Saussure is yet to be fully discovered).  Instead, we are referring to the official Saussure, as he has circulated in relation to his Cours de linguistique générale, published posthumously by his followers, Bally and Séchehaye.

[5] The first part of our book, Semiotics Unbounded, is entitled “Semiotics and Semioticians.”   This forms a conspicuous part of the volume, which begins by illustrating the semiotic reflections of these authors.

[6] A women immediately appears on the scene in close connection with Peirce, the English Victoria Lady Welby.  Consequently, this particular route in the history of semiotics intersects with another concerning women’s history in spheres that are generally occupied by male roles: philosophy, logic, linguistics, ethics, education, biology, mathematics, etc.  Victoria Welby crosses over all these fields from the perspective of the general science of signs, that is, semiotics, given that none of these fields can do without signs.

[7] But semiotics, like other branches in the study of signs and language, for example, semantics, the study of meaning, had already been rather strictly oriented and in fact their very names, “semiotics,” “semantics,” were connected with preconceptions, theoretical and practical. Welby spread her point of view—a specifically feminine point of view (the importance she gave in her studies on the problem of sense, meaning and significance to what she called “mother sense” and values is symptomatic).

[8] Given such an original perspective, Welby introduced a neologism and called her approach to signs and language “significs.”  This approach and the name she chose for it found consensus in trends and among authors that have become well established to Victoria Welby’s disadvantage in the sense that her pivotal role is only now emerging in all its force and importance.  Significs spread throughout England, America, even Holland where it became a full-fledged movement with ethical and political developments.

[9] It is worth mentioning on the side that these renowned authors of the time were all males, beginning with two famous authors in semiotics, Charles K. Ogden and Ivor A.Richards, who published a book together generally considered to be of epochal importance, The Meaning of Meaning (1923).  Ogden was strongly influenced by Welby, similarly to Charles S. Peirce (think of the essays by the latter from his mature phase collected under the title Chance, Love and Logic, 1923).  Welby and Peirce corresponded intensely and discussed issues of a philosophical and scientific order: a series of important essays by Peirce come to mind such as those on existential graphs.

[10] From this point of view we must also mention Bertrand Russell, another great philosopher who was strongly influenced by Welby’s theoretical thought and research projects.  (It is not incidental that Peirce reviewed Welby’s book, What is Meaning?, 1903, associating it with Russell’s, The Principles of Mathematics, published that same year.)  Welby’s influence on Russell concerned his interest in problems of meaning, which (given their relations) continued with the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and then with English analytical philosophy in Oxford and Cambridge. A monograph (by SP) on Victoria Welby is soon scheduled to appear, again with Toronto University Press, among other things presenting a great quantity of unpublished materials (a monograph in Italian by SP  appeared in 1998).  Not only does this book at last fully reinstate Welby, recognizing the importance of her contribution, but it also unbinds the boundaries of traditional semiotics.

[11] The approach to semiotics that improperly recalls Saussure (in reality Saussure from the Cours) reduces signs to the human sphere alone which has been wrongly described, by such authors as the Russian Juri Lotman, as exhausting the entire “semiosphere.”  Even more reductively, not only does this approach limit its reference to human signs but within the human sphere it only keeps account of voluntary and conventional signs.  And this happened after Sigmund Freud had already shown that most of the signs we emit are involuntary, unconscious and not at all circumscribed by social convention.

[12] Developing and specifying Peirce’s idea that the entire universe is perfused by signs, Charles Morris recognized that semiotics could be extended to the organic in its wholeness: for there to be a sign there must be interpretive activity by the living organism.

[13] Thomas Sebeok, following Morris, further develops this thesis declaring that the entire life sphere is made of signs.  This means that even a microorganism, for example a cell, flourishes insofar as it interprets signs.  Sebeok extended the boundaries of semiotics to a maximum proposing what he called “semiotics of life” or “global semiotics.”  Anthroposemiosis is only a small part of this.  And within the sphere of anthroposemiosis an even smaller part is represented by verbal language.  Even human beings, like all other members belonging to the sphere of zoosemiosis, communicate above all through nonverbal signs.  Furthermore, let us add that the basis of all voluntary communication is formed of endosemiosic processes like those relative to the immunitary and neural systems.

[14] In our book we refer to another important figure from the twentieth century, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, generally not taken into consideration in semiotic or philosophical circles, and unjustly relegated to the sphere of literary criticism; but in all his writings he continuously repeated, “I’m a philosopher.”  He says that his reflections belong to the sphere of philosophy of language.  He also qualifies his thoughts in terms of semiotics and metalinguistics. In his writings he continuously critiques the tendency to reduce communicative processes to relations between the sender and receiver and between langue and parole, as improperly established by Saussure.

[15] It is important to remember that, after publishing his book on Dostoevsky, in 1929 (offering what today is considered as the most relevant interpretation of this Russian novelist), Mikhail Bakhtin lived difficult years of silence and isolation—he had been accused during the Stalinist purges and pardoned because of his precarious health.  Bakhtin only resurfaced in official culture during the 1960s with the reedition of his book on Dostoevksy in 1963, and of his other book on Rabelais in 1965 (it seems that this book was ready as early as the 1940s).  Therefore, Bakhtin too may also be counted among those authors who have been relegated to the margins of philosophical, linguistic and semiotic studies and who has now been recovered thanks to the unbounding of semiotics as it at last crosses different frontiers.

[16] Most extraordinary and sad at the same time is the fact that of all the theoreticians that were somehow valued and revered during Soviet Union days, nobody has remained.  The only merit boasted these days is the name of Mikhail Bakhtin.  All his writings, many of which had remained unpublished, are now being published.

[17] A particularly interesting aspect of Bakhtin’s work is his insistence, from his early studies, on the problem of responsibility—he characterized this interest as “moral philosophy.”  Bakhtin established a very close relation between sign and otherness: signs flourish in the relation with others, and require a responsible standpoint towards them, without alibis and without evasion.  A close relation is also established between signs and values. From this point of view the association we have proposed between Mikhail Bakhtin, Victoria Welby and Charles Morris is not at all forced given that the latter as well (Welby always; Morris in his book of 1964 in which, like Welby, he discusses how it is impossible to separate meaning and significance, semiotics and axiology) insist on underlining that sign and value, sign and vision of the world, sign and ideology cannot be separated.

[18] These three authors—but without neglecting the Peirce interested in ethical problems, he too is neglected however to the advantage of the Peirce interested in logical-cognitive problems, nor should we neglect another extraordinary thinker, an Italian this time, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi who taught, published, and was known for his ideas especially in the United States, receiving recognition and appreciations—these authors together form a turning point or, if you prefer, the bend we in turn develop in the direction of what we call “semioethics.”  A book appeared in Italy authored by ourselves under that very title.

[19] And here Thomas Sebeok’s global semiotics comes back onto the scene.  In fact, Sebeok has shown how of the whole semiobiosphere the human being is the only animal capable of semiotics in the sense that s/he is capable not only of using signs but also of reflecting on signs.  In this sense the human being is a rational animal, in the sense that s/he is a “semiotic animal.”  We have authored a book with John Deely with this expression as the title.

[20] That man is a semiotic animal also means that s/he is the only animal existing that is capable of awareness, of responsibility: s/he is responsible for semiosis over the entire planet, that is, for life, which unless proven otherwise only exists on the terrestrial globe.

[21] Here the circle comes to a close connecting Sebeok and Bakhtin.  It is not incidental that Bakhtin too has always viewed the biological sciences with great interest.  In his book on Rabelais he evidenced the inseparability and intercorporeal composition of all living individuals, including human beings, in organic and nonorganic processes throughout the entire universe.

[22] Here then: this is the trajectory we have followed for our semiotic reflections.  It leads to recognizing the commitment, for each human individual—but above all of the semiotician who deals specifically with semiotic processes—to caring for life in all its aspects.  We must identify, diagnose, the symptoms of unease which these days are spreading and are ever more severe; it is indispensable to discover the causes if we are to propose solutions and therapies of some sort.  Proceeding in this sense, the semiotic science recovers its original vocation, having arisen in ancient Greece in terms of medical symptomatology.  This is the general framework of our book Semiotics Unbounded.  On this basis we can now proceed together to dealing with any specific problems you may wish to propose with your questions.  Indeed we both wish to thank you in advance for your much appreciated efforts.

[23] DP: Before we get into more specific issues, I’d like to ask you to clarify your understanding of “communication” itself, since this is a fundamental definition for your project.  Am I right in thinking that semiotics is, ultimately, about communication?  Or is that still too small of a box to put semiotics into for you?

[24] I ask this because of your reference to symptomatology; symptoms initially don’t seem like attempts at communication to me.  When I get a rash because I’m allergic to something, my skin isn’t trying to communicate, right?  Or have I fallen into the trap of reducing “communicative processes to relations between the sender and receiver”?  If so, what’s the alternative?

[25] SP and AP: Misunderstandings concerning communication are common and widespread, not only at the level of the disciplines that study them, but also in the organization of courses like those at university.  Naturally, in the first place this concerns semiotics as the general science of signs and the different special semiotics.  But it also concerns degree courses in communication sciences that are now available in universities all over the world.  First of all, most important is your observation concerning symptoms.  Three types of semiosis can be distinguished on the basis of a very broad view of semiotics, that is, of semiotics that is not reduced to some portion of the sign universe, a portion that is mistaken for the whole, according to the pars pro toto error: semiosis as information, semiosis as symptomatization, and semiosis as communication.  Each of these three types of semiosis presuppose a living being, not necessarily a human being, nor any organism living in one of the superkingdoms, but even a simple cell.  In semiosis as information, something inorganic is perceived as a sign by something that is organic.  In symptomatization semiosis, something in an organism is perceived by that same organism or by another organism as a sign (symptom), which however was not originally produced to be a sign.  Instead, in communication semiosis something is produced intentionally as a sign by an organism for another organism.  Therefore, communication is only a part of semiosis.  Consequently, semiotics must not exchange communication for semiosis in its globality.  To live, an organism must communicate.  If it doesn’t communicate it dies.  Life coincides with communication.  But it also requires interpretation of semiosis in terms of information and of symptomatization.

[26] Another important argument for re-dimensioning the concept of communication involves the concept of modelling.  It’s true that a living being that does not communicate dies, but how does it communicate?  It communicates inside a world and according to modalities inherited by the species.  All living individuals communicate in the world modelled by their species-specific modelling device.  All species have their own world within which the individual communicates.  Communication presupposes modelling as a sort of a priori for communication itself.

[27] Another aspect that needs to be considered is the fact that there are communication patterns.  One is the linear pattern that can be described as the Shannon and Weaver pattern; this involves a source and destination.  Another is circular involving a receiver that becomes a sender and a sender that becomes a receiver.  This can be attributed to Saussure.  These patterns have now been superseded.  Reference here is to Maturana and Varela and their concept of autopoiesis, and before them to Jakob von Uexküll and his famous concept of the functional cycle.

[28] All this involves the possibility of adding a third notion in addition to modelling, which is dialogism.  Dialogism in this sense is an original concept introduced by Augusto Ponzio.  It is understood as referring to an organism in its absolute, unique, unrepeatable singularity.  This organism is inevitably, autopoietically, related synchronically and diachronically, in the last analysis, with the entire universe.

[29] For all these reasons, only global semiotics can speak of communication in sensible terms, in terms that are not reductive, but relevant and functional to the development of knowledge and to the progress of the sciences that study it.

[30] DP: One of the main shifts that you observe in the field of semiotics is from “code semiotics” to “interpretation semiotics”; am I right in thinking that the attempt to broaden semiotics from a narrow focus on communication is part of this—but also perhaps a way of extending it?  I wonder, too, if this three-part structure is simply another formulation of Peirce’s distinction between firstness, secondness, and thirdness—the most familiar example of which is the distinction between icon, index, and symbol.

[31] SP and AP: “Code” is a much-discussed notion in semiotics.  The “semiotics of code” is superseded or absorbed now by the “semiotics of interpretation.”  The expression “semiotics of code” or “code semiotics” alludes to a general model of sign according to which messages are formulated and exchanged on the basis of a code that is defined and fixed antecedently to the actual use of signs.  And given that the code is based on a two way correspondence betweensignifiant (or signifier) and signifié (or significatum), it only calls for decodification without involving the risks of interpretation.  Code semiotics ensues from a distorted interpretation of Saussure and reformulates the information, or mathematical, theory of communication in terms of the Saussurean sender/receiver model.  As such code semiotics is connected with a notion of communication that describes communicative interaction in terms of an object that transits from one place to another.

[32] This model appears ever more inadequate in the light of Peirce’s “semiotics of interpretation” (but also Bakhtin’s philosophy of language: see Ponzio’s essay, “Semiotics between Peirce and Bakhtin,” now in his monograph Man as a Sign).  It is also inadequate in relation to today’s social-cultural transformations which tend toward new signifying practices that do not fit the code and message model.  These transformations give full play to the sign’s multi-voicedness and multi-availability and weaken the code’s hegemony.

[33] All this does not mean that we cannot use such dichotomies as code/message, information/redundance, first/second articulation in our analyses of semiosis and information.  In truth all these notions explain different aspects of information, of the semiosic and semiotic universe as conceived by a Peircean approach to semiotics as well.  For example, the concept of redundance is considered in linguistic studies of the utterance, in text semiotics as well as in biosemiotic studies of the genetic code.

[34] In keeping with what Sebeok calls “Ecumenicalism in semiotics” (the title of Chapter 4 in his book The Sign and Its Masters), certain basic concepts in endosemiosis can be explained in terms of binarism.  Endosemiosis is a branch of global semiotics which (following Peirce) recognizes semiosis as a pervasive fact of nature as well as of culture.  In the two seemingly antithetical tendencies of semiotics, binarism, a characteristic feature of systems grounded in oppositional pairs, has its basis in glottocentrism as represented by Saussurean semiology.  The broad scope of global semiotics encompasses our whole planetary biosphere and does not exclude binarism.  The ecumenical scope of global semiotics admits binarism, however it neither recognizes binarism as the sole characteristic feature of a semiosis in accordance with the verbal linguistic model, nor as limited to the human cultural world.  Such limits are characteristic of the traditional concept of binary oppositions.  All exponents of the theory of binary oppositions are scholars in the fields of verbal or cultural phenomena (Saussure, Trubetzkoy, Chomsky, Halle, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss).

[35] Instead, Sebeok extends the notion of binarism to the sphere of endosemiosis and maintains that the primal universal sign opposition in the ontogeny of an organism is that between self (ego) and other (alter).  The binary opposition self/other is the basis of the immune system, and the subject of new disciplines such as semioimmunology and immunosemiotics.  Sebeok has written a series of five papers on the semiotics of self published as chapters in his various books, such as Global Semiotics.  SP has translated all five papers into Italian and collected them in a volume with chapters by SP and AP entitledSemiotica dell’io.

[36] Therefore, such concepts as binarism, code, and message can be applied to semiosis in its globality throughout nature and culture.

[37] We believe that the scope of semiotic enquiry must transcend the opposition between semioticians oriented in a Saussurean/Hjelmslevian/Greimasian sense and semioticians oriented in a Peircean sense.  These two trends seem to require that we oppose binarism to triadism.  On the contrary, we believe that the heart of the matter does not lie in the opposition between binarism and triadism, but in the opposition between a sign model that tends to oversimplify things with respect to the complex process of semiosis and a sign model (like  Peirce’s) that seems to do more justice to the various aspects and factors of the process by which something is a sign.

[38] This is not merely achieved on the basis of an empty triadic form, but rather thanks to the specific contents of Peirce’s triadism. In other words, Peirce’s triadism works thanks to the categories it uses, the sign typology it proposes, the dynamic model it offers when it describes signs as grounded in renvoi from one interpretant to another. Such triadic categories as “firstness,” “secondness,” and “thirdness,” “representamen,” “interpretant,” and “object,” “symbolicity,” “indexicality,” and “iconicity,” all evidence thealterityand dialogism constitutive of signs from a semiotic perspective.  The merit does not go to the triadic formula.  Proof for this is offered by Hegelian dialectics where triadism gives rise to metaphysical, abstract and monological dialectics abstracted from the constitutive dialogism in the life of signs.

[39] The alternative in semiotics is not between binarism and triadism, but between monologism andpolylogism.  The limit of the sign model proposed by semiology of Saussurean matrix is not at all determined by binarism.  On the contrary, it is determined by the fact that such binarism is grounded in the concept of equal exchange between signifier and signified, and in the tendency to reduce the complex life of signs to the code and message dichotomy.

[40] DP: Let’s dig more deeply into the issue of modelling for a moment.  At the level of human semiosis, it seems obvious that language is an example of modelling.  Are there other, non-linguistic and non-communicative forms of modelling that shape human semiosis? Often we distinguish between semiotic (conceived in old-fashioned “code” terms) and material conditions for communication (for example, Jakobson’s distinction between code and contact), but one of the really interesting things about your book is that it seems to break this distinction down. Do you agree?

[41] SP and AP: The main concern in semiotics has generally been communication.  The question of modelling has either been neglected or never at all taken into consideration.  Instead, modelling has been at the centre of attention of the Moscow-Tartu school. However, this school of thought connected modelling to verbal language.  This immediately denotes an approach that is at once anthropocentric and glottocentric.  On the contrary, the scholar who has evidenced the omnipresence of modelling in the animal world, human and nonhuman, is Thomas A. Sebeok.  His approach clearly evidences the difference, the distinction between modelling and verbal semiosis.  Nonhuman animals are obviously not endowed with verbal language, but there is no such thing as a species that is not endowed with a species-specific modelling system.  Every species has a modelling system that produces its Umwelt, a species-specific world.  Individuals belonging to each species communicate according to their own world sphere.  Therefore, communication is secondary with respect to modelling. In other terms, modelling is an a priori with respect to communication.  This is also true for human beings.  Hominids have been endowed with their own modelling device since appearing in their own special niche.  Throughout the whole course of their evolution, from habilis to erectus hominids communicate with nonverbal signs like all other animals.  Even the typology is the same.  However, the difference lies in the fact that from the very beginning of its evolution, from the time it became a hominid, its modelling device was in a position to invent multiple worlds, something it seems that is unique on the planet.  This is what Peirce called the “play of musement” and what Locke had called “humane understanding.”

[42] Speech only appeared with homo sapiens.  Originally, speech came to existence through adaptation processes as a means of communication and subsequently it was ex-apted as a modelling system thereby enormously amplifying the inventive capacity of human modelling. Sebeok chooses the expression “language” as distinct from “speech” to name primary modelling in the human species, original modelling, which is mute modelling.  In spite of his explanations, the term language in English is ambiguous and can give rise to misunderstanding.  This is the reason why we prefer the expression “syntactics” which explicits the nature of primary modelling.  The specificity of the human modelling device is syntactics or articulation, a sort of ars combinatorial thanks to which human beings are able to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct different worlds.  Another possibility is to use the term “writing,” that is, writingante litteram.  Thus understood writing is the possibility of articulation in space-time, articulation of social relations.  According to Marx (nonhuman) animals do not have relations because they are unable to assume relations for what they are, distinguish between them, propose them or prohibit them.  Writing consists of articulating in before and after, in short and long, in above and below, right and left, mine and yours.  The human being is capable of this long before becoming loquens, that is, homo sapiens, and long before becomingsapiens sapiens, that is to say, before speech, as verbal language, also becomes a secondary modelling system.  On the basis of the secondary modelling system of verbal language, the human being constructs cultural sign systems, verbal and nonverbal, which in turn become tertiary modelling systems.  From this point of view the human being as such is endowed with writing (ante litteram writing).  Neither populations nor cultures exist that do not have writing.  That which is indicated as writing, considered as the condition for the transition from prehistory to history, that is, the written sign, according to which there exist languages endowed with writing and languages that do not have writing, in reality is the transcription of oral language and arises as mnemotechny.  Plato was well aware of this when he said that writing, that is to say, transcription used as mnemotechny, reduces, atrophies the memory capacity of human beings, given that transcription replaces remembering, makes remembering useless.

[43] However, Sebeok’s denomination of the human primary modelling system as language is also worth maintaining.  From this point of view Sebeok recovers Morris—Sebeok was at once a faithful and original student of Morris.  In fact, if we call the modelling system specific to human beings “language,” then, given that all other human communication systems depend on language, these too can be called languages, verbal and nonverbal languages.  Instead, no nonhuman animal communication system should be indicated as language; this causes confusion.  For example, it’s a mistake to speak of the language of bees.  We can only speak of language in the sphere of anthroposemiosis: gestural language, the language of mimicry, kinetic language, musical, poetic, literary language, the language of film, fashion, etc.  In fact, by contrast with the linguists who reserve the expression “general linguistics” for the study of languages alone, that is, of verbal systems, Morris uses general linguistics to refer to all human languages claiming that a human language does not necessarily have to be made of phonic material, just as the buildings of a city do not have to necessarily be made of bricks.

[44] Therefore, we can conclude stating that the human being is not the animal that speaks (this is offensive towards deaf-mutes), but the animal that is endowed with language, that is to say, with syntactics, that is, with writing.  On this basis we can also understand the specificity of human coding and decoding where interpretation, which is present throughout the whole living world, joins with inventiveness, creativity, innovation.  The human being is a simulating animal, capable of imagining what it must construct, what it must architect, an animal capable of intervening on projects to modify or reject and replace these projects even before actualising them.  Bees are great architects and know how to construct hives, but they are not capable of simulation, they are not capable of reflecting on the project for a hive before they actually construct it; and as long as the species survives the hive is always the same.

[45] All this helps us understand why Sebeok was indignant in front of the expectation, especially widespread in the United States, of teaching apes and dolphins, etc. how to speak.  He even wrote a series of ironical poems on the matter, where the names of these famous speaking animals recur (see “Averse Stance” in I Think I Am a Verb).

[46] A propos Jakobson’s classification we need to comment that the context, precisely what Malinowski (Ogden and Richards, The Meaning of Meaning) called ‘situational context,’ does not exist autonomously and pre-existently with respect to communicative exchange. A good part of the context is constructed in the relation among speakers. Depending on communicative exchange, the same ‘situational context’ can be a park for a picnic, a place where lovers meet, or for a duel at dawn. Even a code is decided in communicative exchange. In the case of a historical-natural language, it is not true that speakers speak language directly, according to the relation between langue and parole. We don’t only necessarily speak a language (in Italianlingua), but we also necessarily speak in a language of that language (in Italian linguaggio; the English language does not have this distinction, as in Italian and other languages, between lingua and linguaggio), that is to say, we speak in a given register, etc., and all this is also decided each time we speak, that is, on the basis of communicative exchange which allows for different discourse genres—a declaration of love, colloquial everyday language, chit chat about the weather, the language of football, etc. And this is also true for the functions established by Jakobson. As Voloshinov and Bakhtin have demonstrated in the essay “Discourse in Life and Discourse in Art,” originally published in 1926, the so-called poetic function is already present as such in the language of everyday life.  In fact here too there is always a “hero” that the utterance refers to—an anthropomorphized hero even when a question of a nonhuman living being or thing.

[47] DP: Dialogism is of course one of the most important terms in your book, and connected to the singularity of the organism.  Can you explain what you mean by this singularity in more detail, since it seems to run counter to the generality that I (at least) associate with semiotics.  Is an organism singular simply because it occupies a particular historical moment and location, or do you have something narrower in mind?

[48] SP and AP: Returning to what we said in our response to the previous question, beyond modelling and communication semiosis also includes dialogism.  This issue is amply discussed in our book.  If the evidencing of modelling can be attributed to Sebeok, instead for dialogism our reference is Bakhtin.  Concerning Bakhtin we need to insist on the very tight relation between his two monographs, that on Dostoevsky and the other on Rabelais. Dialogism (in Dostoevsky) and intercorporeity (the grotesque body inRabelais) are two faces of the same coin. Bakhtin studied biology.  He was not just an amateur, but rather wrote as an expert an essay in 1926 entitled “Contemporary vitalism” (published under the name of the biologist Kanaev).  Keeping account of all this we feel authorized to put together Bakhtin, Uexküll (whom Bakhtin cites directly), Maturana and Varela, as well as Vernadsky, author of a book entitled Biosphere which Bakhtin also cites.  On a thematic level the connection among these authors signifies the connection between dialogism (Bakhtin), the functional cycle (Uexküll), and autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela), according to a global vision that keeps account of the fact that all organisms, macro and micro, all belong to a general biosphere.  All this connects up with Sebeok as well and his idea of the connection between communication and modelling.  Sebeok cites Vernadsky directly in the context of his biosemiotics, or global semiotics, or semiotics of life.

[49] Singularity is given in a space-time that in spite of uniqueness and unrepeatability is part of relations not only of the synchronic order but also of the diachronic.  Before being provoked from the outside, these relations are inscribed autonomously, in terms of functional cycle and autopoiesis, in the very constitution of singularity, in its structure.  Singularity is always the singularity of relations, relational singularity.  Uniqueness is uniqueness of relations in a given organism.  Unrepeatability is unrepeatability of the relations involving the organism in its specific space-time.  Said differently, this means the impossibility of separating identity from alterity.  This also means that despite mistaken yet widespread interpretations, dialogism, as Bakhtin has amply demonstrated, is not the result of an initiative taken by the subject, of a precise will and choice.  Dialogism is inscribed in the very structure of the organism.  In this sense, dialogism and intercorporeity are the same thing: a living body is such only as part of its dialogical relations on the synchronic and diachronic levels; relations that are part of its autonomous, singular and unique constitution, whatever the species it belongs to.  All this evidences the importance of such concepts as autopoiesis and functional cycle, as well as of the concept of biosphere and global semiotics.

[50] Hopefully we have succeeded in replying to your question.  In fact we’d like to thank you for it because it has given us the opportunity of focussing on and maybe clarifying further some of the most fundamental ideas elaborated in our work.

[51] DP: I’d like to spend a moment longer on this issue of the uniqueness of the dialogic location.   In framing semiosis as occurring in a completely unrepeatable space-time, it seems like you’re naturally going to have a hard time talking about the ways that standardized locations influence dialogue.  For example, the speaking situation within a university obeys some regularities that differentiate student and teacher locations—both metaphorically and physically.  Standing in front of the class is different from sitting in the seats of a lecture hall, and this difference between two basic kinds of locations seems to apply to many classes within the university rather than being unique to each class and each day.  Could you address the way that your theory of semiosis responds to such institutional locations as part of dialogism? 

[52] SP and AP:  In semiosis we must distinguish between dialogism and exchange.  The relation between a student and a professor, cited in your example, is an exchange relation. Exchange occurs between two roles in locations that are pre-established, not only physical locations, the classroom, but also the locations or places of discourse prefixed in discourse genres, in this case the lesson.  The relation is not between unique single individuals, professors address students generically and students address professors generically. Between them there must be a relation of indifference.  In fact, the professor cannot make a difference between one student and the other, but on the contrary must treat them indifferently so as to be impartial. Instead, where there is dialogism, the relation is not between one genre and the other, one type, category or class and the other, one role and the other—representation of a pre-established role and discourse genre.

[53] The relation between one unique single individual and another calls for dialogic involvement and is always unedited, always new.

[54] In exchange relations the relation is between relative alterities.  This is what Peirce would call an indexical or dual type of relation: in Peirce’s language a binary or secondary situation.  To recall Peirce’s examples there cannot exist a wife without a husband, a father without a son, or to evoke your own example, a professor without a student and vice versa.

[55] Instead, in the dialogic relation between one unique single individual and another, in the face-to-face relation, without the mask of genre, including gender, without the mask of type, category, class, role, membership, belonging, nationality, in other words, all that which constitutes identity (and in fact is marked on our identity cards), the relation is between absolute alterities, therefore autonomous, self-sufficient alterities.  With reference to Peirce’s categories, this is the case of Firstness: something exists on its own account independently from something else; it is endowed with self-sufficient meaning; it is not an object that depends for sense on something else, that waits on something else for its sense, that expects to receive sense from a sense giving consciousness.  Self-sufficiency connected with firstness offers all but protection, guarantees, security, limitation to one’s responsibility establishing what one is held to do and what one is not held to do.

[56] On the contrary, such limitations concern subjects in their roles, individuals belonging to type, class, category, genre: the professor and student in their relation are mutually guaranteed in their mutual roles; their mutual responsibility is perfectly defined.  Their mutual rights and duties are rigorously delineated and limited; and that which is relevant and that which is not relevant in their discourse, that which enters the relation as it unfolds and that which is excluded is pre-established by discourse genre, for example, the lesson, an exam interrogation, etc.

[57] Therefore, to answer your question, communication in specific locations as established by the order of discourse and social institutions does not involve dialogue, it does not present relations of involvement, exposition, that is, relations without guarantees or protections.  In other words, communication thus understood does not put single individuals in the condition of exposition, in their absolute alterity without cover, without a definition pre-established by rights and duties.  In fact, there is no relation in exchange relations, because the relation is limited to that between dress, styles, uniforms, etc.  It is not incidental that in official situations the student and professor wear different clothes that characterize their roles.  The relation is between roles, classes, types, genres, genders, etc.  Between two single individuals involved in the exchange relation there is neither encounter nor compromise.  These actors are only responsible for each other to the extent foreseen by their roles.  A relation only subsists where there is dialogue, in the sense we are describing, that is, dialogue understood as involvement, exposition, mutual implication, compromise without shelter.

[58] In reply to your question, we must now ask ourselves what the relation is between semiosis of the dialogic and semiosis of exchange, that is, between exceptional, unrepeatable semiosis, semiosis without guarantees, semiosis of dialogic communication outside roles, on the one hand, and semiosis of official, ordinary, standard communication, semiosis made of stereotypes, repetitions, common places, confined to prefixed locations—the schoolroom between professor and student, the road between the drivers of a car and the policeman, the bedroom between husband and wife, on the other.  In terms of Peirce’s typology of signs, the answer is that we have the same relation here as that between the symbol and index, on one hand, and icon, on the other, expressed differently, between the categories of secondness and thirdness, on the one hand, and the category of firstness, on the other.  In other words, the index and secondness establish obliged relations of cause and effect, contiguity, dependence, and as anticipated above, of relative alterity.  The symbol in Peirce’s sense and the category of thirdness establish conventional relations, repeated through habit, ritualized to the point of becoming automatisms.  Semiosis of communication and exchange is made of relative and stereotyped relations, of what we can identify as non-relations, this type of communication ends up becoming void, asphyctic, sclerotical, in the last analysis, artificial and false.

[59] Only by recovering the relation between one unique single individual and another, only by tearing wide open roles and types, classes, categories, genres, etc.—thereby creating the conditions for a relation in the open air, a frontal, face-to-face, truly dialogic relation in our sense, that is, a relation of involvement—is it possible to renew, give new life and sense to roles, conventions, relations defined by contract, relations of identity.  Following your example, professors enter into real contact with students when they do not remain barricaded in their roles, when they succeed in establishing a relation of one unique single individual to another unique single individual, that is, a relation among unique single individuals, with each and every one of them, a relation based on mutual listening, a face-to-face relation.  With respect to such a situation, in terms of Peirce’s typology, the icon comes into play.  As Peirce says, the icon is the only type of sign capable of invention, innovation, creativity. In the icon, encounter occurs with something which has sense in itself, that resists confinement to a location, whether physical locations or the places of discourse, common places.  The term “icon,” juxtaposed to the “idol” in the religious sphere, can be used to indicate how with respect to the habitual places of everyday idolatry, the places of mass-medial communication, iconicity, firstness, the dialogic relation can carry out a function of release, renewal, liberation.

[60] We hope to have answered your question concerning the function carried out by dialogism with respect to locations and roles in ordinary communication: dialogism creates encounter.  Encounter does not occur between student and professor, father and son, husband and wife and their relative identities in the usual exchange relations.  Encounter occurs in the dialogism of the relation between one unique single individual and the other, outside roles and outside places, locations.  At this stage with reference to literary writing we can also observe that the writer is the person who is capable of drawing the unique single individual out of the armour of role, of seducing the unique individual out into the open as s/he relates to the other, in terms of inevitable involvement, without protections, in the life and destiny of others.  This is the innovative, but perhaps also the subversive function of literature with respect to ordinary communication.

[61] DP: I’d like to raise one more issue about the relation between location and dialogue.  There’s a great deal of interest in the way that electronic communication has changed the nature of dialogue and social interaction.  Email seems to undermine the role of physical location, since the same sort of dialogic encounter can take place even if I’m sending my messages from different buildings or different cities at different times.  Conversely, electronic communication makes it possible to stage artificial locations—as, for example, when players present themselves through an avatar in a space like Second Life.  How do you think that the dialogic location applies to these sorts of cases?

[62] SP and AP: We have to thank you for this question which seems to specify what you mean when you speak of the location of dialogue helping us to understand you better.  To the extent that it is encounter, involvement, listening, dialogue always occurs in specific space-time, and as such is unrepeatable.  Dialogue exposes the unique single individual to the other, so that, in dialogue, we are unique single individuals beyond role, class, type, genre, gender, unique single individuals without their masks, in relations where one unique single individual encounters another.  Earlier we spoke of face-to-face relations.  Here the relation to the other is a relation to someone who looks at you when you look at him/her, who watches you looking at him/her.

[63] But here we must eliminate a misunderstanding.  The face-to-face encounter, dialogic encounter, encounter among gazes does not necessarily take place in presence.  When we speak of gazes and face-to-face relations this is not to be understood in a literal sense.  Perhaps we could say that they should be understood in a literary sense.  Encounter does not involve the relation of a subject that looks at an object, but a relation with the other and the uniqueness of h/er face and the latter’s capacity to interrogate you as when someone looks at you while staying silent.  This is expressed well by Rilke in a poem entitled  “Antico torso di Apollo.”  This poem is about the bust of a statue of Apollo in which there only remains his torso.  It comes before the head.  All the same, the spectator looking at this statue perceives the beauty of Apollo’s body, contemplates his impressive pose, hears life pulsating, perceives warm skin even though the statue is made of cold stone.  The spectator cannot help but feel the statue’s eyes, perceive the statue’s gaze upon her/himself.  But there are no eyes even though we perceive the pupils, the imperious and at once obliging gaze.  This poem by Rilke presents the gaze of the other and may be considered as emblematic of the face-to-face relation.

[64] This also occurs when the person reading is captured in a listening relation with the text s/he is reading.  In this case as well, there are no eyes that are looking.  However, the reader feels as though the writer is looking at him, the reader feels observed and sees the writer’s face, the reader perceives the writer’s participative expression in h/er participative understanding.  Therefore, dialogic localization can also occur with a marble bust without a head, it can occur with a book, with an expression, with the countenance of a person who is present on the very basis of the distance between them, even when trying to forget that person.

[65] Consequently, it is not presence that decides the dialogic relation which actualises the unrepeatability of that presence, its uniqueness, its chronotopic location, just as it is not absence that impedes it.  Analogously, it is not the real that produces the dialogic event in its uniqueness and in its unrepeatability, just as it is not the virtual that excludes it.  Technological development in communication today neither favours nor impedes dialogic encounter.  Technology only provides a means, and like all means is not sufficient in itself to be effective in terms of achieving dialogic encounter.  A microphone simply amplifies the voice, but it does not guarantee listening, it does not ensure responsive understanding.  For this to occur we need hospitality, silence, time for the other.  We need involvement beyond the limits of role as discussed previously, involvement without shelter and protection as foreseen by the face-to-face relation among unique single individuals.

[66] DP: One of my favourite parts of this book is your discussion of the Helskinki Final Act as it was applied to the First Gulf War, since it provides a good example of your theory of semiosis at a political level.  Can you summarize what you’re doing with this case?

[67] You make the point, as I understand it, that one of the central failures of the act is that it made “no reference . . . to the nation-state in terms of difference” (495) and instead focused on commonalities.  I can understand why difference is important to your theory of semiosis, but an emphasis on difference runs counter not only to a notion of international law, but also U.S. domestic law.  In the U.S., the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment (at least in its more recent interpretations) declares illegal any attempt to impose laws differently on different groups of people.  What would it mean to start thinking about law and international policy on the basis of difference?

[68] SP and AP:  The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 is remembered by us as emblematic of a situation of international relations that completely excluded, abrogated war, even repudiated war as a means to the solution of conflicts.  The agreement not only involved undersigning countries, but was extended to all countries, even those that were not part of the agreement.  The Helsinki Treaty concerned cooperation and security in Europe and declares that security cannot be reached by resorting to war.

[69] The document produced by the White House National Security Council in 2002, entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, also concerns security which it mentions from the very title. However, the difference with respect to the Helsinki treaty is total and lies in the fact that the White House document foresees that security be reached through war, preventive war: the idea is that we must shoot first.  Whether or not the enemy really has (chemical) weapons will be checked out subsequently.  The turning point concerning these two conceptions of the solution to conflict came in 1992 with the Gulf War, a war that was quickly concluded but that in reality has never ended: this was the beginning of infinite war theorized by the White House.

[70] This is why the Helsinki conference is paradigmatic for us today.  A part from the historical events that have rendered it a dead letter, it included something that has made it ineffective.  In the Helsinki document cooperation is fundamentally based on respect for the accord and on historical-cultural affinity.  A third argument is also mentioned, but it is not sufficiently developed.  This concerns the inevitable situation of mutual involvement in the same destiny, of mutual responsibility independently from accords and agreements. Globalisation has enhanced this situation of mutual involvement.  Today, more than ever before, it is truly difficult to evade the consequences of the fact that others, in any other part of the world, suffer and are at the limits of survival. This is especially true when we begin to recognize that we ourselves are the cause of all this misery.

[71] On the other hand, globalisation has also provoked the crisis of identity. This has lead to the paroxysmal search and defence of identity itself at all costs.  The crisis of identity as emerges in the era of globalisation leads to ethnocentrism and racism; it confirms fear of the other, and consequently the need for recourse to war.  The crisis of identity is connected with the delusory assertion of difference.  We need to clarify that we are talking about indifferent difference, difference grounded in the logic of identity—class difference, sexual difference, professional difference, ethnic difference, national difference, religious difference, linguistic difference, etc.  Indifferent difference is difference that is not only indifferent towards all other external differences, but also towards internal differences, being a form of indifference which the very assertion of difference thus understood necessarily involves.  Difference based in identity logic ignores the difference of alterity, absolute alterity characterizing single individuals in their uniqueness, unrepeatability, unreplaceability, in their absolute otherness.

[72] In the best of cases indifferent difference achieves a condition of tolerance towards other differences, but tolerance has hatred at its foundations, disregard, even contempt for the other.  This is clearly felt by whomever feels s/he is being tolerated, as much as tolerance would seem to be a form of behaviour worthy of respect.  With respect to indifferent difference the imperative of not establishing differences not only is not a solution to abuse of power and tyranny towards difference, but does not open to encounter.  The imperative of not establishing differences goes hand in hand with tolerance.  Treating the other without making any differences does not at all help to avoid indifference towards that other, but if anything and as paradoxical as this may seem, it increases indifference.  The only possible process that leads to encounter with the other, to the face-to-face relation, to listening to the other is that which leads to unindifferent difference: a love relation, where the other in this relation, this unique, single, unrepeatable other is not indifferent to me.  This other is different from every other.  The effective relation with the other is a relation of unindifference where the other’s difference is not indifferent to me.  To reach this condition we need to cancel all indifferent differences, as in a love relation: membership, age, religion and even sex.  From indifferent difference to unindifferent difference passing through the elimination of all differences—the other no longer interests me in terms of social status, religion, nationality, sex.  Instead, I am interested in this other’s absolute difference with respect to which there is no possibility of being indifferent.  This is encounter.  And this is the relation that can renew any form of communication overcoming so-called respect of difference, the hyposcrisy of tolerance, respect of human rights which in reality are the rights of identity and denial, refusal to recognize the rights of the other.

[73] DP: Finally, one of the things that’s really remarkable about this approach to semiotics is that it takes very seriously current scientific research as the basis for semiotic theory.  You say that a semiotician working in this area has to stay up to date with developments in biology.  This is really clear in Sebeok’s work, which is an inspiration for this study.  And yet, a lot of us see the humanities and social sciences as a metainterpretive discipline whose job it is to ask the questions that the physical sciences overlook. I’m thinking, for example, of work by feminist scholars who have pointed out gender biases in the construction of anthropological and biological research.  It seems like one of the implications of the semiotics discipline that you’re helping to develop here is a change in the relationship between the physical and the social sciences.  Any thoughts about that?

[74] SP and AP: We very much agree with your considerations which it seems not only express an understanding of what we say in our book, but also a development on it.  The reference to Sebeok is not incidental.  Sebeok not only questioned the conflictual vision of the relation between human sciences and natural sciences, but also rejected, even ironized about the idea of building a bridge between two territories considered as being separate.  Under this aspect our localization in Italy leads us to remember a historical period only distant from us by half a millennium, and that is, the Renaissance.  At that time separation among human and natural sciences was simply inconceivable.  From this point of view, the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci is emblematic.  Semiotics in the direction of Thomas A. Sebeok’s global semiotics opens the perspective towards a second Renaissance.

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