Three fascinating books

Fascination is a double-edged mental phenomenon. It captures and mobilizes our attention, and facilitates our absorption of the information a particular pattern foregrounds. But it also neutralizes our critical power. Some predators are wont to fascinate their prey with confusing chromatic design or unexpected movements. Humans are no stranger to this behavior when they produce enhanced icons of insects in order to lure fish to their hooks or when they (used to) attract larks to mirrors reflecting the sun to catch them in their deadly nets. From times immemorial magicians have exploited this vulnerability of the human brain which can be made to perceive what is not there and to be blind to what is. Intellectual fascination is no different. The human mind easily falls prey to models, narratives, and theories which appear so compelling that they often stop the enquiry.  The three books under review are examples of such fascinating works. Not that they are necessarily misleading – in fact, they are exceptionally rich in contents  relevant to the concerns of semioticians – but their skillful designs challenge our capacity to step back and question the rhetoric of evidence which each one, in its own style, deploys with art and conviction. Perusing these masterly works should prompt us to think laterally and reconsider the dichotomies they propose.


Thinking, Fast and Slow. By Daniel Kahneman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2011 (499 pages).

Nobel prize winner for Economic Sciences, Daniel Kahneman wrote this hefty volume in part as a tribute to his late friend, Amos Tversky (1937 – 1996) whom he credits for having largely contributed to the ideas which earned him the prestigious award. Couched in a crystal-clear style and conducted at a leisurely pace, this book is addressed to a general educated audience. It retraces the path taken by these two psychologists toward redefining the profile of Homo economicus.  At a time when many are puzzled by the unpredictability of the economy, Kahneman endeavours to recount how he and his friend developed over the years a psychological explanation of why humans make decisions which are not as rational as traditional economic theories contended. Their own theory, although it fell short of enabling us to predict the outcome of the messy conundrum of economic decision making, at least provides some explanations based on the nature of the human brain.

But there is more to this semi-autobiographical work as the author offers a comprehensive interpretation of the human condition assumedly caught between two systems of thinking a term by which he means the process of making decisions: on the one hand, the fast processes which drive us to act spontaneously in response to the situations we encounter; and, on the other hand, the slow processes of explicitly reasoning which intervene when the former fail to deliver. Although some statistics pop up at times in the discussion, the method followed in the demonstration is essentially qualitative including, for instance, deceivingly simple equations such as: “success = talent + luck” and “great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck” (p. 177).  The most enjoyable aspect of the book is Kahneman’s recollections of the conversations he had with his friend while they were strolling in the countryside. He makes us privy to the informal way in which the counterintuitive ideas which brought them international fame emerged from casual dialogues often primed by the question “what if ….?”

The book is divided into five parts: (1) Two systems, 19-105; (2) Heuristics and biases, 109-195; (3) Overconfidence, 199-265; (4) Choices, 269-374; (5) Two selves, 377-418. Appendix A (419-432) is a reprint of the seminal article on judgment under uncertainty which Tversky and Kahneman published in Science, vol. 185, in 1974. Appendix B (433-448) reproduces an article on choices, values, and frames by Kahneman and Tversky which appeared in American Psychologist, vol. 34, in 1984. The notes and the index are found in the last fifty pages of the book.  Like many such books which are targeting a general readership, the references are not integrated into the text but are found in notes numerically organized chapter by chapter at the end of the volume. From chapter to chapter we are presented with empirical and anecdotal evidence, as well as thought experiments, purporting to prove that all our decisions are reached at times by a kind of default semiotic automaton, and at other times by a consciously computing brain which explicitly uses rational algorithms. Countless insightful inferences regarding the ways informational inputs relate to behavioral outputs could be interestingly translated into the metalanguage of semiotics. But, more importantly, the focus of this fundamental reflection on the decisional dimension of the mind calls our attention to the fact that central concepts of semiotics such as decoding and interpretation are instances of decisions and should be conceptualized as such. Recasting some semiotic questions into the epistemological language of Kahneman and Tversky could open novel perspectives in the study of signs in social life.

But critical semioticians will undoubtedly resist the dichotomies suggested first by System 1 and System 2 (28-39), and, later in the volume, by “experienced utility” and “decision utility” which lead to the quasi-ontological opposition between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self” (378-390). Although Kahneman, at times, qualifies his dichotomies of “useful fictions”, there is a risk that many readers will take them for granted. The human mind is fond of these kinds of broad categorizations which bring apparent order to the chaos of experience by providing an all-encompassing formula to classify events and behaviours. Hegelian dialectic, Freudian topicality, the brain’s hemispheric specialization, Peircean triads, religious dichotomies, and cultural binarism are examples of such algorithms which become easily viral and are prompt to spread among large populations.  Their explanatory power, though, is delusional because the universal patterns they propose are precisely what needs to be explained.

From a methodological point of view, Kahneman’s approach considers the brain as a “black box”. References to the neurosciences are sparse and confined to the very last chapters. This is not the case for the next book under review, Simplexity, which address similar problems but from the inside out, so to speak.


Simplexity. By Alain Berthoz. Translated by Giselle Weiss. Yale University Press. 2012  (265 pages).

This book’s title is almost a pun. It is coined by both contrast and similarity with the term “complexity” which refers to states of affair which challenge our understanding through the sheer number of their components and their mutual relationships. In a complex world, there cannot be simple solutions to the innumerable problems encountered by evolving organisms. But there are nevertheless solutions which make it possible for surviving organisms to constantly respond as fast as necessary to the never-ending assaults of their environment. If they don’t, they simply disappear. Adaptations are efficient expedients but they carry a cost. They must meet innumerable challenges with appropriate speed and robustness. This means that they must have happened to evolve relatively simple solutions by natural selection in spite of the inherent complexity of the organisms which have packed layers upon layers of entangled neural networks within the limited space of their cranium. Simplex solutions cannot, of course, be simplistic.

The project of simulating the entire human brain is probably the most daunting enterprise ever conceived. The Blue Brain Simulation, a prototype for the Human Brain Project, constructs simulated sections of cortex from the bottom up, starting from detailed models of individual neurons (Nature, Vol. 482, 23 February 2012, p. 457). Such a direct confrontation with the actual complexity of the brain is met by scepticism. However, for the proponents of the project, current advances in simulation computing and in the understanding of neural networks will make this goal achievable during the current century. But in the absence of the big picture, many neuronal architectures and functional processes have already been identified and partially understood in some regions of the brain. Some of these processes are remarkably adaptive although the way they exploit the neuronal resources available is complex and, at times, convoluted, taking detours to reach their goals.

This is the quality which the author attempts to capture by the term “simplex”. Signalling processes, if not all semiotic behaviors, have necessarily evolved as instances of “simplexity” which transform information into adaptive anticipatory behavior. In some respects, Berthoz’s volume somewhat contributes to filling the “black box” of Kahneman’s System 1.  By the same token, it casts light on the numerous “black boxes” which the semiotic discourse tends to gloss over.

This book was initially published in French in 2009 and makes constant references (through notes) to the neuro-scientific literature from the first decade of this century, a time of great advances including some which were achieved by the author of the volume and his laboratory. It is comprised of twelve chapters organized into three parts. As the titles of the parts are purely metaphorical, the enumeration of the chapters themselves will provide a more accurate reflection of the contents:  1. Making the complex simplex; 2. Sketching a theory of simplexity; 3. Gaze and empathy; 4. Attention; 5. The brain as emulator and creator of worlds; 6. Simplexity in perception; 7. The laws of natural movement; 8. The simplex gesture; 9. Walking: a challenge to complexity; 10.  Simplex space; 11. Perceiving, experiencing, and imagining space; 12. The spatial foundation of rational thought.

Alain Berthoz is a neurologist whose research has advanced the scientific knowledge of the human body in motion. He is also conversant with the languages and issues of philosophy, and often refers to poets, artists and musicians in his examples. It is both challenging and enlightening to work one’s way through a volume which embodies the third culture, building bridges between the humanities and the natural sciences without compromising either, an endeavour which should be an inspiration for contemporary semiotics. It is indeed high time that semioticians move from simplistic to simplex models. Perusing Berthoz’s book could contribute to a healthy emancipation from their infatuation with the few fascinating categories which have been inherited from the past and have proved to be unable to open up new epistemological horizons.


Elements of Meaning in Gesture. By Geneviève Calbris. Translated by Mary M. Copple. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 2011 (378 pages).

Geneviève Calbris’s research on gestures has produced over the years a fascinating constellation of data. The sheer number of her observations and recordings can make one dizzy trying to figure out the organizing pattern in this rich carpet. This is not particular to her work, though. The field of gesture research is long on data and short on theory. But her way of meticulously capturing gestural details in relation to speech is exemplary. Countless utterances have been recorded and coded as two lines, the upper one showing the written interpretation of the speech rather than its phonic realization, and the lower one indicating through a variety of symbols the gestures which accompany the delivery of the sentences. Some generalizations are proposed along the way but the whole book remains anchored in an accumulation of data and metadata since some of them are tagged with categorizations. This potential database, though, is not exploited by higher levels of computerization and hardly goes beyond an open-ended repertory of gesture-speech correlations.

The title of her book, Elements of Meaning in Gesture, clearly indicates that the author stands clear from making excessive theoretical claims regarding the results of her research. That gestures are meaningful is not in doubt. It is a matter of common sense, if not a tautology since erratic and disorganized movements of the limbs would not be called gestures but would be considered symptoms of some neurological pathology. What kind of meaning is conveyed by gestures, and to which extent this meaning is autonomous or dependent on other factors is what is at stake. What is the respective part of cultural habits and universal constraints in the dynamic patterns which are observed is a question which has been inconclusively debated. There has been a persistent search for constants and norms in studies which, by necessity, deal exclusively with individual instances of gesturing rife with idiosyncratic elements and for which true experimentation is hard to conceive and implement. There are epistemological limits to the knowledge which can be gained from empirical studies which consist of eliciting gestural responses in carefully built contexts. Calbris is undoubtedly mindful of these problems and modestly uses “elements” as an indefinite grammatical category in the title of her book. It is indeed a rich collection of documented gestures which are tentatively classified with respect to their assumed grammatical, semiotic, or social functions in French cultural contexts and in relation to the spoken French language of some social groups with various regional variants. Of course, these are samples from which generalizations can only be tentative. But very few books in the field of gesture research offer the same level of phenomenological perceptiveness. It is, in many respects, a French equivalent of Ray Birdwhistell’s collection of essays, Kinesics and Context (1950/1970), which documented gestures among English-speaking North-Americans. Calbris refers to this early work but mistakenly blames its author for “[not having taken] into account gestures used in everyday life” (p. 42). Birdwhistell’s celebrated analysis of a family breakfast is indeed such a compelling analysis. Calbris does not endorse, though, the same linguistic model as her predecessor and does not assume that gestures are structured like languages in the examples she considers.

After the first chapter which introduces the reader to the definition and discussion of “the gestural sign and related key concepts”, the book is divided into four parts. I. The function of gesture in relation to speech; II. The systematic organization of gestural signs; III. The symbolic relations between gestures and notions; IV.  The gestural sign in utterance. The conclusion (p. 344-354) summarizes and justifies the method which has been followed and specifies the theoretical frame upon which it was based, essentially a phenomenology derived from Merleau-Ponty.  A few hypotheses are formulated regarding, for instance, the anticipatory function of gestures with respect to notions, the iconic origin of language, and the multimodal system of human communication. The author then does not shy away from outlining a universal theory of communication in which gesture is a necessary constituent. Readers interested in learning from this book without being fascinated by the myriads of data it displays should first peruse this conclusion which spells out the assumptions and agenda of the whole inquiry.

Calbris’s contribution to the field of gesture studies is among the very best to date without being a definitive one. The questions it raises are defining ones. But a lingering issue raised by this book is bound to be whether a research on gesture in a given language and culture is at all translatable, let alone generalizable. Comparative research in gesture is still to be developed. Only this could lead to a compelling theory.



Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.