Multiculturalism as multimodal communication: a semiotic perspective By Alin Olteanu

By Alin Olteanu

The aim of my recent book, Multiculturalism as multimodal communication: a semiotic perspective (2019) is to develop a criticism of culturalism based on semiotic theory. In the greater picture of humanistic research, the rationale of the book consists in providing a non-anthropocentric and non-culturalist framework for cultural studies that does not accommodate culturally discriminating and/or isolationist policies. This implies delimiting a semiotic framework for cultural criticism from culturalist assumptions inherited in and further cultivated by various semiotic schools, in the past. To this end, I argue that an understanding of meaning as pragmatic, multimodal and non-fixed (fluid, transitional, open to further articulation) is required. Biosemiotics and the recent multimodality framework provide reliable starting points for such a theory. This endeavor comes in the context of the academic crisis of the humanities and the current humanitarian (refugee) crisis and the surge of populist political discourse. I argue that the crisis of the humanities is in part due to an exaggerated (cultural) relativism that fails to answer to the current problems of a postindustrial and Global humanity, becoming more closely interconnected through digitalization. 


Culturalism, in brief, is the ideological doctrine that culture determines the behavior of humans, both groups and individuals, to a very large extent. It has been criticized by, for instance, Terry Eagleton (2000) and, more recently, Eriksen and Stjernfelt (2010, 2012), whose particular line of arguing I follow and extrapolate to the theoretical context of semiotics. Eriksen and Stjernfelt make a convincing case that culturalism is an empirically-unfounded yet commonly assumed theory in academia, in the vast plethora of cultural and social studies. They identify the academic origins of this theory in the early American anthropology established by Franz Boas. Very importantly they explain that the mainstream contemporary theories of multiculturalism are based on culturalism. From this perspective, multiculturalist-oriented policies aim at building societies where supposedly distinct cultures co-exist side-by-side, without properly mingling. If as a theory culturalism lacks convincing empirical grounding, translated into policy it is dangerous for democracy and often conflicts with human rights. It is worthy to note that Zygmunt Bauman (1995) explained that the construal of diversity as differentiation is defining of neofascism.

A broad spectrum of semiotic theories originate, implicitly or explicitly, in the meeting point between the Boasian concept of culture and the language-centric philosophy of the 20th century. Certainly, semiotics is a school of thought in its own right, but its development has been entangled with the general tendencies of cognate disciplines. While this is true of any impactful academic discipline, semiotics particularly displays an interdisciplinary dimension. I shall explain how, coming from the relativism of early anthropology, culturalism found a comfortable host in semiotics. 

For the noble intentions of justifying the need for cultural diversity and uprooting racist discourse from academia, the early American anthropologists (e.g. Boas 1938, Benedict 1960, Herskovits 1958) stressed the need for preserving cultural heritage. In general, they assumed that, by being culturally situated, the phenomenal world of human individuals is epistemologically strongly relativist. Their theory can be, and often is used to justify isolationism. The premises for cultural and linguistic relativism were already present in Romanticism, which the Boasian school did not refrain to adopt, finding inspiration in concepts such as the Humboldtian worldview. In the context of the American “melting pot”, and as a reaction to Western imperialism, classic American anthropology tended to overemphasize the need to preserve the cultural features of ethnic minorities. This idea carried on throughout 20th century humanities and social disciplines, which can be roughly characterized as sharing language-centrism, namely the idea that (native) language provides a rigid framework for the individuals’ mapping of the world and social organization. The requirement to preserve cultures at all cost, as Eriksen and Stjerfnelt explain, led to the construal of culture in the singular, giving the impression that cultures can be clearly distinguished from each other on various criteria such as ethnicity, nationality, profession, gender, social status, etc. Instead of understanding culture as a continuous phenomenon that some biological species have at their disposal for modelling their subjective reality, culture if often understood as the peculiar worldview of a group (e.g., Russian, African, corporate, middleclass culture). This supposes, for instance, that there is a distinct Spanish culture, which functions as a complete and whole system, which is clearly separated from a distinctively Portuguese culture, another complete and whole system. Translated into policy, this means that cultural identity must be recognized formally (i.e. politically) even to the point where different laws apply to differently identifying citizens. As two cultures are distinct one from the other, a boundary is supposed between them. The criteria that delineate cultures, then, become criteria for identity. Almost contradictory, while culture is construed as enclosing and dividing, it is rendered universally positive and overwriting human rights: no matter how atrocious, if a practice is part of a cultural heritage (tradition), it is justified.

Culturalism in semiotics

Semiotic theories, taking inspiration from Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of sign as based on the articulation of signifier and signified, which is deemed possible because of the opposition between these two, naturally aligned with the exaggerated cultural relativism of classic anthropology. Structuralism and poststructuralism, for instance, have been guided by the principle that meaning stems from difference (e.g. Barthes 1972, Derrida 1978). From this view, it is convenient to approach cultures as systems, with a high degree of autonomy. Plurality and diversity, then, are construed as the plurality of distinct cultural systems existing side-by-side. The “mixing” of cultures appears as a lofty endeavor, likely to generate conflict. This view misses the fact that culture itself is heterogenous and a manifestation of plurality.  

Discursive theories (e.g. Foucault 1988), while having the great merit of establishing cultural criticism and ringing the alarm about previously overlooked forms of discrimination, stressed the role that language has in humans’ shaping of their worlds to the point that intercultural communication is mystified. Following this line of thought faithfully implies that two individuals belonging to two different cultures can never properly communicate because their concepts are construed in differently and rigidly codified form-content mappings. I perceive such a suggestion in the metaphor of culture as “software of the mind” (Hofstede et al. 2010), which is major paradigm in intercultural communication. Thus, much of 20th century semiotics, of Saussurean inspiration, both played a major role in raising awareness of discrimination, as well as fighting it, and supported ideologically subtle but practically brutal cultural discrimination (i.e. culturalism). In this case, clearing semiotic theory of culturalist assumptions is imperative. 


Biosemiotics and the multimodality approach to meaning open the possibility for a different understanding of culture and communication, which does not justify cultural isolationism. They both rely on a refutation of the double articulation hypothesis, in its various forms. To begin with, Thomas Sebeok (e.g. 1991, 2001) justified biosemiotic theory on the idea that articulated language is the evolutionary result of an exaptation (Gould and Vrba 1982), not an adaptation in the strict Darwinian sense. First, this eschews the anthropocentric assumption that the use of language places human beings in an essentially different biological category than the rest of animals. Second, it implies that not only language, but also the nonverbal semiotic competences of humans are essential for how humans make sense of the world. While adopting Lotman’s (1977) concept of model, Sebeok fundamentally contradicted Lotman’s construal of natural languages as primary modelling systems. Primary modelling systems, argued Sebeok, are nonverbal and more basic than phonetically articulated language, which constitutes another level of modelling. Starting with Sebeok, it must not be overlooked, biosemiotic research displayed a preference for Charles Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics, rather than the tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology. As such, its development has been more sheltered from the double articulation hypothesis than other semiotic theories. As Cobley (2016: 28) explains, biosemiotics thus opens the perspective of analysing culture “in the interrogation of modelling”. Modelling, in this case, is not limited to cultural modelling. Rather, the emergence of culture in the biological world is a strategy for modelling. Albeit not without detours, this framework eventually led to the development of a semiotic notion of scaffolding (Hoffmeyer 2008) that brings a thorough theoretical justification, according to Cobley and Stjernfelt (2015: 303), of the common-sense view that “the mutual involvement of cultures with each other precludes any idea that some of them may survive unchanged, in splendid relativist isolation, in pristine, original shape, because no such shape ever existed.” Put simply, instead of conceiving of cultures as (distinct) systems, this suggests a mereological view wherein cultural features function as scaffoldings for modelling that can be (re)combined and (re)arranged in infinite ways.


Recently, the notion of multimodality (Kress, van Leeuwen 2001) has gained increased attention in research on meaning and communication. It fundamentally relies on a criticism of the view that meaning is the result of double articulation by acknowledging that meaning is multiply articulated, by the involvement of the many modalities (semiotic resources) available in humans (as well as in other organisms). Acknowledging the multiple articulation of meaning also further disturbs the rigid notion of meaning accessible through a conventional code. Around this notion, an entire framework for the study of meaning and communication developed, which marks not only the rise of social semiotics out of sociolinguistics and systemic functional linguistics but also the detachment from language-centrism in social semiotics. The multimodality framework proves particularly useful for understanding the social and cultural dynamics of contemporary media, which are increasing in modal and representational complexity. It is the emergence of new forms of media and their engagement of ever more semiotic resources, that inspired the theoretical development of multimodality, to begin with. Thus, particularly in an age of globalization through digitalization, representational theories must accommodate a notion of meaning as multiply articulated and at all times affording the new articulations to its structure. This framework, as well as semiotics and the humanities in general, would benefit from nesting this notion of meaning in an embodiment theory, such as biosemiotics offers.

Criticism and ways forward

Thus, a rationale for merging biosemiotics and the multimodality framework, in the scope of establishing a platform for multiculturalism in the contemporary Global human society, is suggested. The book does not go beyond pointing out such possibilities, which is one of the reasons for which it received the criticism of Claus Emmeche (2019), whom I thank for a very thorough, insightful and not sparing of criticism review. In this regard, I aim to shed more light in my ongoing work (see Olteanu 2020), which I hope the reader will find motivation to consider. From the unfinished bridge between biosemiotics and multimodality, I expect that a range of possibilities for the humanities to contribute to sustainable development will be visible. Most importantly, the joining of media communication theory and biosemiotics should reveal environment-friendly paths for digitalization. As such, this could serve as a theoretical support for the merging of digital communication channels and renewable energy grids, a project that Jeremy Rifkin (2011) terms the Third Industrial Revolution and considers essential in the achievement of a new and Global sense of empathy. As an evolutionary drive, empathy can also be scrutinized from the point of view of Peirce’s agapism and the consideration in biosemiotics that “Nature in fact is not so much about “tooth and claw” as it is about sensing, interpreting, coordinating and social co-operation.” (Hoffmeyer 2015: 154)


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Alin Olteanu is a researcher at the Semiotics Department of the University of Tartu and at Kaunas University of Technology. He completed his PhD in 2015, at the University of Roehampton, with a thesis exploring how Charles Peirce’s semiotics can be extrapolated as a philosophical underpinning for educational theory. Since then, he continued to develop the theoretical semiotic approach to education, often in collaboration with his former supervisor, Professor Andrew Stables. By observing possible correlations between new literacies and cosmopolitanism, his work on education led him to pursue research on multiculturalism. This further led him to look more closely, from a semiotic perspective, into environmental and digital literacies, and their possible overlaps. In the purpose of using digitalization as a means for sustainable development, at the moment, he is interested in bridging biosemiotic and ecosemiotic theories with the recent multimodality framework.


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