Occupy Semiotics

Paul Bouissac

The production of knowledge should not be confused with the production of discourse. Contemporary semiotics unfortunately tends to be a set of text-producing algorithms which run on their own steam like mad machines with little concern for empirical constraints. Semiotics, though, originated in nineteenth century speculations on signs with the explicit goal of founding a new science. It is all too easy to forget that these speculations were meant to answer some fundamental questions raised in the context of the Enlightenment. However, the concepts and models which were then put to use in this new, mostly secular discourse were borrowed from ancient Western theological and philosophical terminologies and intellectual traditions, an ideological load they continue to carry. Today’s students of semiotics are confronted by a grand multi-stream narrative which articulates a catalogue of categories which portends to describe the whole of natural and cultural processes. These axiomatic propositions are marketed as a doctrine grounded on self-evident epistemological truths which are irrefutable, that is, unfalsifiable. Like any set of very general categories it is bound to apply to a vast sample of objects. But does it explain anything? Does it allow us to predict and to control the phenomena which initially prompted this early quest for fundamental knowledge?

During the twentieth century, semiotics in its many hues has taken the form of a dogmatic discourse. Self-appointed fountain-heads have provided axioms and models derived from traditional mantras such as the bi-facial or triadic nature of signs, and they have devised mandalas such as the semiotic square and the semantic triangle which are still holding sway over a number of uncritical disciples. This multi-pronged discourse and its graphic avatars have spread in the humanities and, to some extent, in the social sciences. Some have tried to import this discourse in the natural sciences where it is met by researchers with a mixture of irony and indifference. These models keep generating more discourses without yielding new knowledge.

Semiotics has thus become a kind of epistemological territory owned by high-profile individuals and institutions which endeavor to perpetuate their dogmatic doctrines. Students who are attracted to semiotics because they perceive the potential novelty of a transdisciplinary approach which dares to raise real questions and tackle taboo topics are made to learn first what the masters have said in a remote past and are trained to uncritically trust their authority following the mediaeval model which keeps inspiring many mainstream semioticians. But they soon discover that the knowledge of these past systems of thought leads nowhere except to reproducing themselves endlessly. None of the most urgent problems encountered by humans today can be solved by semiotics as it is marketed in contemporary academic institutions. It is high time to get back to the questions that these obsolete systems tried to solve in their own time in light of the state of knowledge which was theirs then.

The notion of sign and its putative architecture might be a convenient shortcut to handle the gross anatomy, so to speak, of communication. But it is a phantasm which does not do justice to the complexity of the processes this notion implies to the point of being useless as a scientific concept given its incommensurability with the knowledge which has accrued in the age of genomics, connectomics, and nanotechnology. What folk semiotics calls a sign is a dynamic universe of its own into which we now have limited but definite access. Only at the highest possible level of resolution can we hope to explain, predict, and control the processing of information and the creation of meaning in living organisms.

“Occupy semiotics” means: reclaim the right of addressing the problems of the evolution and development of information processing, meaning-making, representing and communicating with the resources provided by the current state of knowledge, not in view of the philosophical speculations of another age. Dare to ask whether we really need notions such as signified and signifier, semiotic squares, icon, index, symbol, primary and secondary modeling systems, and their cognates with the ideological baggage they carry. Once upon a time, they had heuristic value. Construed as a doctrine, they stop the inquiry. Forget Saussure and Peirce: Start thinking anew!


  1. I wrote most of what is below as a response to Paul Bouissacs editorial in the previous issue and did not get around to submitting it. I address below his error in suggesting we seek applications. The current issue offers a new editorial by Professor Bouissac, and I would suggest that it advances the related error of looking to semiotics for new knowledge. What semiotics should offer is not new knowledge—it has no equipment for this task—but what Peirce identified with the summit of sign production, new understanding. What is common in both these errors is the failure to identify what semiotics is actually good at. Semiotics is actually very good at constructing global, universal perspectives, as my second-to-last remark below meant to suggest.
    —————-from earlier:

    My 30-40 years of happy engagements with semiotic theory took their departure and greatest sustenance in the initiatives and critical acumen of Prof. Bouissac. In this instance, I disagree with him. What we need in semiotics is bold, unified theory. Applications, beneficent and evil, will follow of the own accord if semiotics achieves more clarity.
    It has, indeed, happened here and thee. Notions of token and (perhaps also) icon shaped—not as well as we would like—in the writings of C. S. Peirce do play a role in progressive social thought (as when a token representation is deemed inadequate to its presumed type.)
    That is a mere tidbit, a crumb compared to ‘applications’ of Darwin’s thought or or Einstein’s or . . .—thinkers who did not seek applications but ideas. Do we know what semiotics is yet? To say semiotics is ‘the study of signs’ is a dog’s breakfast. [Einstein, I recently read, told his post-docs, if you can’t explain your project to your grandmother, you don’t understand it yourself.] Semiotics needs to recapture its ambitions for universality. The post-structuralist movements sucked the wind from our sails. Everybody studies signs. What is the truly distinctive offering of semiotics? (I have written that it is the project of constructing a comparative perspective on the different capacities of our various media and genres to establish structures and references, but the question is what needs to be re-established, not my answer.) Let’s get our axioms and questions in gear. To look for applications is a Sebeok error.

  2. I doubt that Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and Algirdas Greimas themselves would have studied semiotics if they were young today. The impressive disrupting force of thought has become simply conservative.

    We are at a bivium leading either to semioticism (any -ism has a character of sacralisation and sacred images, we employ squares and triangles) or finally to a discipline with a dignity on its own.

    I could not agree more with your thoughts and I hope that the discipline will find in itself the strength to mature. Big data is an opportunity, let’s try to catch it and not to cover our eyes and turn to what Peirce thought that morning in 1887 or what Saussure really said to his students.

    Occupy semiotics!

  3. After coming across references to semiotics in Davies and Gregerson (2010) Information and the Structure of Reality, I looked on the web for explanations of semiotics. It seems to pseudoscientific vapor. Apparently there is no research, no falsiable claims, no cumulative science, nothing but words about concepts. By contrast, the concept of information and its relationship to physics, computers, communication, and cognition is thoroughly embedded in modern natural science. Where is the need for semiotics if it is always vague, has no real world implications, and produces no testable ideas?

  4. Which school of semiotics Dr. Bouissac talking about? What Semiotics is Russ Dewey talking about? I understand the critique. As a semiotician, i constantly ask myself questions brought up here.. But what I don’t understand (yet) how this article is supposed to be pointing us in a new direction. This “occupy semiotics” thing asks us to dare question things and think critically and test our hypotheses, to use our current state of knowledge and be concerned with empirical constraints,etc.. Isn’t that the point of doing semiotics? Isn’t that what is making semiotics move forward? (It is, by the way).
    I wonder which semiotics he is talking about, because in some cases, I agree with him. I do find that some semiotic approaches do little for me and many often dwell on the past philosophies without offering new advances. I also believe that calling semiotics a “theory of signs” defeats the purpose of understanding semiotic performance, interpretation, experience, and meaning making. I also refuse to see semiotics as a “doctrine” as well. (I don’t quite agree with David lidov when he says that semiotics needs to recapture its universal ambitions either). In sum, for some schools of semiotics, I have to say that Bouissac had made some excellent points! For some semiotic approaches, the article is right on point. However, it doesn’t apply to all semioticians! Not at all. Yes: think critically. Yes: start thinking anew. This is what the great, innovative semioticians are doing all the time! I appreciate Bouissac’s call to “occupy”. But we should also consider “Occupying Bouissac” for a moment: to reclaim the fact that we are daring to think anew – all the time – and that not all semiotics is as he describes it (thank goodness!), and we have the innovative, groundbreaking literature to prove it.

    A note to Russ Dewey: what semiotics are you talking about in your last question? Sounds like the opposite of what semiotics is supposed to be. Vague + no real world implications + no testable ideas? If it’s those three things than it’s not semiotics in my book. So, once again, i can’t say i agree with you or not unless I knew WHICH semiotics you are talking about.

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