Towards the IASS11 in China
Semiotics lives in historical times. Namely, what Thomas A. Sebeok envisioned when he entitled his last book Global Semiotics, is no longer a utopia, challenge or prophecy; it is the reality in which we dwell in the contemporary world. One would even call it a ‘technosemiotic’ stage of societies, a situation which is quite evident. Never before in the history of mankind have the majority of people living on the globe had such extensive access to communication. Never before has the atmosphere been so full of messages flying through the air. What A. J. Greimas said as early as at the beginning of his career – namely namely, that man lives from cradle to grave surrounded by signs – has become a fact, and in a manner in which one could never have anticipated.
Thanks to the internet, email, Facebook, blog writing, Google Search and more, not only does information move from one place to another without hindrances, but also a totally new sense of community has emerged. As the Italian newspaper La Repubblica just wrote, we have become not just world citizens, but ‘netizens’. The bridging of civilizations technologically has become an everyday reality.
Yet, have we also overcome cross-cultural misunderstandings of civilizations? This was the question asked by the pioneer of this issue, Walburga von Raffler-Engel (who passed away this year). Technological progress cannot be reversed, and even the most fervent and radical ecological movements admit that, with modern technology, mankind improves and masters its Umwelt. So apocalyptic voices about the ‘ecstasy of communication’ and its disasters, which some philosophers just a decade ago propagated, have since fallen silent. We can nevertheless pose the same question as the French Academy of Dijon did as early as 1765: Do civilization and manners promote the progress of mankind? To which Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave his classical answer: No! Now we might reformulate the question for our time: Does the development of media and technology improve mankind?
When semiotics was launched as a movement in the 1960s, it was closely linked to computer studies, cybernetics. It claimed, with its formalized language and terminology, to represent a new type of ‘efficient’ methodology in the humanities. So semiotics was one factor in the huge expansion of technology-oriented semiosis. But that was fifty years ago. How does semiotics fit in relation to the contemporary world of global communication? Does it only stand aside and comment on that world, or is it still an active force directing and guiding our sign actions? I think semioticians have taken seriously the new situation, not only studying how all those new forms of communication ‘function’, but also scrutinizing all this in relation to what is always the other side of the whole issue of semiotics: namely, signification. When millions of us netizens, from ‘old’ Europe to China, to Africa, to Latin America, daily write Facebook messages to our circles of friends, we do not only report on what happens in everyday life; we also show that what we think, what we feel, what we do, has a meaning: I am signifying or expressing myself to others, however they make take it. In sum, everyone is suddenly brought to the core of semiosis: its center is here, there or anywhere. No society can as yet control or prevent this new type of communication/signification; information and knowledge have become more than ever a common property, belonging to any and everyone.
This has strong social implications for the structure of societies all over the world. Values and ideologies have not disappeared, but are made more and more visible, more ‘transparent’, as it is called.
We can immediately see the impact of this situation on the role of a semiotician as a scholar, who seeks to know and master the laws of communication/signification. A central question is, Can one become a semiotician by only looking at the internet and remaining within this cyber-reality? Probably not. If a semiotician is to be what we call a ‘learned’ man/woman, such mastery can be attained only by reading books as well. Further needed is personal contact with classic texts of the discipline and, when possible, with the masters living among us. Likewise necessary is attendance at international congresses and seminars. For example, in the EU-funded project, the ‘Paneuropean Doctoral Program for Semiotics’, students are required to spend semesters abroad. Hence to become a learned man or woman is also an international matter, to which is linked the requirement to master several languages. I hope the ‘old-fashioned’ type of scholar – one who reads books and engages in traditional scholarly discourse – does not disappear altogether.
The learned semiotician is also an intellectual, talking about the values, choices, and actions of people. Recently Umberto Eco spoke about ‘disorganic intellectuals’, by which he meant that an intellectual cannot deliver and surrender his reason to any ‘higher’ agency, be it state, society, institutions, or whatsoever corporate entity. Semioticians belong to this caste even to the extreme, in their questioning of certain types of communication; or as Augusto Ponzio put it: we have a right to be unfunctional (diritto di infunctionalità). Semiotics distinguishes itself from other approaches to communication by staying in touch with the reality of values; signs are axiological units. Semiotics may not be able to prevent clashes of civilizations, but in crises it can provide analyses and discourse with which we can discuss them reasonably.
Here we come to the fundamental question of the nature of semiotics, which is this: Is semiotics universal? How can we argue that this discipline, with roots in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, then in European philosophy of the classical age, then Charles S. Peirce (who maintained contact with Kant, Hegel and the tradition of German speculative thought) – how can we claim that it would be relevant to our task of bridging civilizations? Is it not rather a new form of postcolonial discourse, which tries to dominate the world with its conceptual framework? As we know, such a notion as ‘orientalism’, rather than a plain fact, was a Western attitude towards different civilizations, which the West sought to take into its possession. I remember once that, in a seminar of Greimas with 200 participants, there was talk about modalities and their definitions. I said innocently that of course we could not know whether they were valid in non-Western cultures; in China, for instance. Afterwards two female Chinese students came to me quite upset; they thought I had meant that the Chinese were not capable of applying or conceiving such refined concepts as the modalities. Heaven knows, that was not at all my intention! I said it only regarding the lack of crosscultural experience about how semiotics is conceived in a civilization like China. Also, the Finnish anthropologist Elli-Kaija Köngäs Maranda, friend of Claude Lévi-Strauss, said once to me in Paris, that she wondered whether the Polynesian aboriginals she studied had any idea of ‘dürfen’, ‘wollen’, ‘können’, ‘wissen’, and so on. Yet, now, there is already evidence that such notions and many others can serve as a ‘universal’ metalanguage whereby civilizations can be bridged. At this very moment, for instance, a doctoral thesis is underway at Helsinki University, by the Lithuanian composer, Ramunas Motiekaitis, who is studying the impact of ‘oriental’ philosophy (mostly Japanese, in his case) on Western avant-garde art music, from Debussy (his symphonic poem La mer was inspired by Hokusai’s painting Wave) to Toru Takemitsu and John Cage, with his well-know, if Americanized, Zen-Buddhist thought. Greimas’s method serves, in this dissertation, to theorize the link between two civilizations.
Therefore, in preparing the Nanjing World Congress of Semiotics, we must note that we face that moment in which – for the first time – such a global gathering will be organized in the ‘East’. But there we Westerners do not meet with unprepared soil. We are not like missionaries, since the East has long had its own philosophy of semiotics, as well as an awareness of the classical achievements of Western semiotic research, thanks to the unflagging dedication of You Zheng Li to bring this tradition into the Chinese language.
The core problems of communication and signification are of a similar nature to all of us. Thus, may this encounter, on both sides, count among those creative scientific adventures and discoveries of new worlds. The history of semiotics will certainly be different after it.
May this be the beginning of further interaction and mutual understanding among diverse cultures, and may it be a lesson in listening to the Other.
Filed under: Presidential Message