The SemiotiX Review of Books


Book Review by David Lidov


The semiotics of X: chiasmus, cognition and extreme body memory.

Jamin Pelkey.

London ; New York, NY : Bloomsbury (Advances in Semiotics), 2017.

Jamin Pelkey, a linguistic anthropologist teaching at Toronto’s Ryerson University in their Department of Languages, Literature and Cultures, provides a breakthrough analysis of embodied cognition in this new work.  The broad family of signs he studies shows how our representations of visceral feelings and our expressions of logical structure (and much in between) share common ground.

The Semiotics of X is rich in engaging themes, clear demonstrations. and striking illustrations drawn from, among other repertoires, those of anthropology (e.g. intercultural communication), visual art (from petroglyphs to logos), from religion, linguistics, rhetoric, sport and poetry and much more.  We sense right from the start a train of interpretations radiating import in all directions.  As the author understands how to exploit the inherent drama of good argument, these and his far-flung examples might incite accelerating page turns.  Resist the temptation to read too quickly. The matters most central defy quick summary and deserve sustained attention.  

His thesis: Fundamental conceptualizations of opposition  and symmetry emerge from the dynamics of  highly charged properties of our living, animate body.  

The family of cognitive schemas that includes the figure called chiasmus in rhetoric—a b b’a’—and familiar to us in diverse forms (for example, squares of oppositions) obtain their persuasive force and their emotional weight in virtue of their orientation by one specific and surprisingly ubiquitous posture that is known in English as the “spread-eagle” position, legs and arms maximally extended and wide apart, forming as it were an “X”, a posture of extreme tension and symmetrical polarities.  Chiasmus, a figure that coordinates a complex of crossed or nested contrasts, is traditionally diagramed by an X, and takes its name from the Greek letter, chi, which is X.

If the previous paragraph suggests merely a visual analogy, it is misleading.  Should your immediate circumstances permit, I beg you to take a stretch, now, a hard stretch, before you go on.  Stand in that X, with your legs and arms in a single plane, making crossing diagonal diameters of a circle centered at your navel, one diameter with the left hand and right foot, the other, left foot to right hand.  Can you hold it?  Can you hold it and relax without compromising your stance?  

Pelkey’s evidence indicates that this posture, or the movement that brings one into this posture, carries powerful, reversible and language-independent significations around the world and from pre-historic times to our own.  My preceding how-to-do-it instructions are close to a paraphrase of the description quoted by Pelkey from Vitruvius’ de Achitectura (25 BCE), the immediate pretext for various Renaissance visual images of a straight-limbed man circumscribed by a circle.  Pelkey reproduces four. The one you are likely to recall, that by Leonardo da Vinci, is the only one of them which does not angle the limbs to approach forced square diagonals, an exception that introduces issues I will touch on a bit further along.  

Figure 1.6 Two Renaissance-era interpretations of the Vitruvian man: Embodied polarity and proportion according to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s de Architectura. Left: Leonardo da Vinci (c.1487); Right: Cesare Cesariano (in Vitruvius Pollio 1521[25BCE]).

Figure 1.7 More Renaissance-era interpretations of the Vitruvian man. Left, by Geoffroy Tory (1529); Right, by H. C. Agrippa (1531).

The graphic form of the X, Pelkey’s “X-Mark”, draws its significance from the posture, the “X-pose.”  For Pelkey’s very inclusive data base, neither expression needs to conform to the peak schema, square diagonals for the mark or maximum muscular extension for the pose.  His mountain of data is recognizable, as mountains must be, by its peak, not its edges. Towards the peak, the X-pose is jubilant or threatening when achieved voluntarily with or after extreme effort —as it often is in sport. (He shows it in ice skating and parachuting and even in a music video’s parody of preaching.)  It leads to extreme pain if imposed—as it is in several variations of torture and execution.  The tensions of the posture are the deep grounds of Pelkey’s analogies.  Visual or linguistic analogies arise as ready receptacles for memories of its tension.  The letter, ’X’, the X-mark, is not immune to such colorations; it may participate or not.  A stunning portion of Pelkey’s illustrations demonstrate many modes of exploitation of the X-mark as a polysemic element in ads and flags and logos, ranging from the crossed bones of medieval and later pirates to Marvel Comics’ X-men.  In many, the X, surmounted by a large dot, must be taken to stand for a full body.  The possibility of this pose and of its wide-ranging employment to express extreme arousal is a consequence of our gaining upright posture in our evolution.  Our upright stance affords us access to spatial regularities in three mutually perpendicular planes that play determinate role in our notions of balance, symmetry groups and polarities, all foregrounded in the X-pose.

Pelkey’s study is organized as eight chapters following an informative and densely packed preface.  Chapters 1-3 are pointedly focused on the signifying body itself and its immediate representations, both literal and distant.  We begin with an incident in cultural anthropology which is so explicit and dramatic that I do not want to spoil it for you by recounting.  A number of themes that will be developed later are introduced in the first chapter, including chiasmus and various methodological issues.  

The second and third chapters explain in some detail the presentation and significance of the X-sign through examples in sporting events, in traditional torture and ritual practices and in identity advertising.  With Chapter 4, the analysis turns gradually towards more abstract elaborations of the X-sign’s deployment and of the conceptions it guides.  The hourglass figure studied in Chapter 4 is an X plus horizontal lines, one connecting the “feet”, the other, the “hands”; it does not call on an embodied experience different from that of simple X, but affiliates predominantly with the dystopic aspect of the latter, enriching the sign with reference to time and death.  

Figure 3.1 Spread-eagle designs in corporate logo for One Laptop Per Child (top) and brand mark logo for the XO Tablet (bottom).

Both Chapter 5 and 6 examine plays of symmetry, coordinated oppositions and equilibria.  Chapter 5, “Semiotic Squares and Double Binds.” is a deeply probing analysis of the relation of logical concepts to embodied knowledge.  Pelkey notes subtle differences between Greimas  “Semiotic Square” and Peirce’s square of “Existential Graphs”.  In Pelkey’s comprehension of the square, an hour glass plus two vertical lines, it conveys not points and relations primarily but movements and operations.

. . . the new experiential template that results is realized in terms of basic oppositional sets of kinesthetic relationships that come to be shared between our hands, arms, feet and legs as we coordinate their motion through space and time. (p118, my italics.)

As I understand it, what we acquire in this framing is both a more dynamic sense of the diagram itself and an explanation of why our first interpretant of a given logical square so readily attributes to that diagram qualities of truth and clarity.

Chapter 6, deploying evidence from diachronic linguistics, from style and much else, explores our expression of the mirror-symmetry of the upper and lower halves of the body.  A trailer for this chapter is on the Semiotix site:

The final two chapters interpret connected X’s as representations of connected people and also, where the space between joined X’s becomes charged with significance (the argyle motif)  as representations of foreground-background reversals.  Thematically, we turn to oppositions between solipsistic and social experience,  power relationships and reversibility. The reversibility of the X-pose itself, which can be euphoric or dysphoric depending on context, is explicitly represented as either-or becomes both-and.

Embodiment theory is of fundamental importance to current semiotic studies. In addition to offering new and explanatory perspectives on our forms of thought and expression, embodiment theory provides a continuum between motivated and arbitrary signs, repairing a division which has at times been interpreted as invalidating the unity of semiotics presumed when we address both categories at once.

Pelkey’s perspective on embodiment builds primarily on the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and authors inspired by his work.  In addition, and I think fairly independently of that school, Pelkey finds another starting point in Mark Johnson, who approached embodiment via cognitive linguistics.  He finds further strong support in the work of Sheets-Johnstone whose perspective emerges from dance.  In the performance arts, signification grounded in body movement is almost impossible to avoid (though English language academic musicology tried to do that for about 50 years.)  Merleau-Ponty’s special priority for Pelkey is due to his emphasis on chiasmus as the schema of thought that provides an integrated sense of oppositions and inversions so that they form a unity without losing their identity.

Chiasmus is the figure (perhaps really a family of figures) that employ patterns like A B B’A’, with A’ (or B’) a variant or negation or repetition of A(or B).  In the New Testament Gospel of Matthew we have:  “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (23:12).  Examples short and long, simple and complex, abound in the Bible, in Shakespeare, throughout verbal culture, and some might argue by analogy, non-verbal culture.  A rich tradition of scholarship explores the chiasmus.  Insisting on the form’s embodied ground, Pelkey sees his project as extending Merleau-Ponty’s.

Some Conceptual Issues

Pelkey notes that in the interpretations of “Vitruvian Man” in Renaissance drawings, Leonardo’s well-known contribution stands out as the only one that does not impose strict diagonals on the body.  Leonardo’s drawing, true to his penchant for realism, is the only one that looks relaxed and natural.  When does culture begin to impose straight lines and perfect angles on our bodies or on our images?  Pelkey, following Sheets-Johnstone, notes that kinesthesis prompts us to imagine lines and paths, but not, on its own, the straight lines of Euclid.  The moments of thought or the epochs in cultural history that bring the felt, kinesthetic schema and the seen geometric schema into a superposition surely have a special force in launching the development of creative analogy that become the focus of Pelkey’s study.   In the earliest remains of epic architecture we can see that visually straight lines or fairly straight lines are already a factor in human cognition, but apart from the ephemeral vertical of the path of a dropped object and the superbly close approximations (also vertical) of certain tree trunks and grasses, truly straight lines are hard to find in nature.  At the seashore the horizon is curved.  Making a straight line is hard to do without some bit of technology.  In the  earliest evidence, straight lines are lacking.

In classical ballet, geometry is imposed on the body.  Sometime before, the X-pose and the X-mark become identifiable with each other.  Once that happens, the case for identifying the X-mark with embodied tension becomes additionally persuasive, and furthermore, that same cognitive schema may feed back an influence on comportment.   Conversely, in Pelkey’s earliest images, petroglyphs and other early artifacts, I don’t know how much tension ought to be read into the depictions of this posture he reproduces.  The ancient coding could have been something quite different.  To quibble about history might seem beside the point in a book which displays wide scope and earns authority in dealing with modern cultures; yet, these questions bear on claims of innateness.  Embodiment theory does make such claims.  Still more important to me, the historical question is connected to the issue of  reciprocity by which symbolic abstraction changes embodied experience.  (The too-hasty cultural history in the second half of Ian McGilchrist’s  mammoth study of handedness and cerebral asymmetry hinges on this very question of reciprocity.  Pelkey cites McGilchrest but in another context.)

Figure 8.3 Two Sets of X-pose advertisements with lattice-pose complements. Top Left: Movie poster for Second Chorus (Paramount Pictures 1940), starring Fed Astaire and Paulette Goddard; Top Right: LP Album cover of Second Chorus movie sound track. Bottom Left: P90X Extreme Home Fitness ad poster; Bottom Left: Still frame at 21:38 of a P90X training video.

Returning to Pelkey:

“Embodied cognition theory is endangered. . . . Sheets-Johnstone suggests that [dominant cognitive theories] expose the embodiment enterprise itself as little more than a ‘lexical bandaid’ covering a centuries-old suppurating wound:  the Cartesian lesion separating mind and matter.”  (Sheets-Johnstone 2011 p453; Pelkey, p142-3.)  

The danger lies elsewhere.  I suggest that our effort to rediscover the grounds of either abstract concepts and representations of emotion in vestiges of our own memories of learning to use and imagine our own bodies will not hold firmly unless we try to understand how we forgot what we are trying to recover.  It will not do to blame Descartes. We need to look with renewed vigor and appreciation at the reverse side of the same operation of thought, our powerful, creative and constructive work in making abstractions.  Metaphor and analogy, notions that appear frequently in this book may well be keys to understanding abstraction but are not the whole answer.  Our ability to freeze metaphor, is as important as our ability to invent it.  My hope to be able to put my foot in my shoe without putting it in my mouth is due this capacity. (Johnson speaks of the “tongue” of the shoe as a dead metaphor, but because rhetoric or poetry can awaken it, I prefer “frozen.”)  

Consider an analogy between adding and multiplying:  

a + b + c = b + c + a;

and analogically:

a x b x c = b x c x a.  

(If you think that’s trivial, try it with subtraction and division.)  What precisely is our dependence on the body in recognizing such an analogy?  Do we not at a certain point transcend our bodies, like the ostriches in the Samsung’s Virtual Reality YouTube ad who can fly thanks to their virtual reality goggles?  

Pelkey persuades me that nature equips us with a powerfully communicative X-pose, but to feel a diagonal from right hand to left foot we may need both cultural input and a bit of sweat.  We can get it in yoga practice, and that shows us that concepts deeply alter embodied experience.  To accommodate such considerations, Pelkey’s theory needs no correction; it invites a further extension, perhaps by him, perhaps by you.

I can say precisely what Pelkey’s work has done for me in this regard.  The notion of reciprocity between grounding in embodiment and transcending embodiment by abstraction had become my hobby-horse, but I did not see its range or unity before I read this book.  A highlighted theme of my Elements of Semiotics is the competition between structure and reference.  The title of the ante-penultimate chapter is “Concept and Expressivity in Art,”  Yet, I had not seen the extent to which those two polarities were each variants of  the same dialectic I mean to draw attention to here: the reciprocity of embodiment and abstraction.  This reciprocity is at the core of the Nineteenth century aesthetic ideal of ‘Absolute Music’, music shorn of  reference but with an aspiration for transcendence.  It must be there as well in Islamic non-figurative design.  Because Pelky’s construal of embodiment gives us so pervasive and animated a model for  grounding, we must hope to respond with an equivalently explicit notion of its converses.

The Semiotics of X is a vital contribution to semiotics, a vibrant work that shows exceptional mastery of the field, and it is a good omen for semiotics research in coming decades.  I think Jamin Pelkey will be very influential.  Beginning students will have a field day with the first three chapters; those already immersed in the controversies of semiotics will find  inspiration right through.  Make sure your library has it, and get a copy of your own you can mark up.



Lidov, David.  Elements of Semiotics. 1999.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.  Online edition in preparation,

McGilchrist, Ian. 2009.  The master and his emissary:  The divided brain and the making of the Western World.  New haven: Yale University Press.

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine. 2011. The primacy of movement, 2nd ed. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.



David Lidov, a composer, a founding member, now emeritus, of the Department of Music at York University in Toronto, writes on general and musical semiotics.  Publications include Is Language a Music? (2004, Indiana University Press) and his general theory, Elements of Semiotics (1999, St. Martin’s Press) to be released in a new digital edition this summer at  

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