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!

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