The Treasure Chest

Three Semiotic Jewels

By Paul Bouissac

Anticipation: The End Is Where We Start From (with DVD)

by Mihai Nadin, Lars Müller Publishers, 2003.

Mihai Nadin, the author of this extraordinary book, is one of the few creative semioticians alive. Far from rehashing, ad nauseam, the common places of the discourse derived from the pioneers of the “doctrine of signs”, Nadin opens new ways of thinking at the interface of information and neuro-cognitive sciences. His inquiry focuses our attention successively on the philosophical foundation of anticipatory behavior, pro-action and re-action, the nature of mind and the centrality of related notions such as expectation, prediction, forecast / plans, design, management / quantum semiotics, link theory, co-relation / necessity, possibility, probability. Echoing Einstein, Nadin characterizes anticipation as a “spooky computation”. For those who think that semiotics is in need of a refoundation in view of the scientific advances made since the early adumbrations of Peirce and Saussure, Nadin’s theses form a promising sprinboard. The book’s design itself is a semiotic jewel, a challenge to the curious reader and an potential object of prospective cogitations. Its multilingual (English, German and French) and multicolor (yellow, orange and black) pages are read sideways, opening like a surprise box, fun to unpack, that includes drawings, photos and an interactive DVD. Also worthy of note is the foreword by Lofti A. Zadeh, director of the Berkeley Initiative in Soft Computing (BISC). A seminar on anticipation by Nadin is available on line http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/Seminars/Archive/2002/Apr/020418.nadin.html

As anticipation is currently attracting much attention from researchers in computer science, psychology, philosophy, biology and the evolutionary neurosciences, an informative and stimulating complementary reading is Anticipatory Behavior in Adaptive Learning Systems: Foundations, Theories and Systems, edited by M.V. Butz, O. Sigaud and P. Gérard (Springer 2003), in which Nadin has a chapter. http://gal4.ge.uiuc.edu/ABiALS/abials2003book.html

Decisions, Uncertainty and the Brain

by Paul W. Glimcher, MIT Press, 2003.

Neuroscientist Paul Glimcher explores, in this provocative MIT Press book, an alternative to the classical model of the brain-behavior connection that was derived from Cartesian dualism and the notion of reflex. Instead, he calls upon the intellectual resources of evolutionary economics, probabilism and game theory to explain complex behavior such as, obviously, semiotic behavior. Glimcher first recounts the story of the birth of the neurosciences from Descartes to Sherrington. His critiques of the deterministic paradigm based on the reflex lead him to embrace David Marr’s (1945-1980) innovative vision that advocated a shift away from the logical calculus of reflexology toward a top-down approach consisting of describing what the neurological system was trying to do as formally and mathematically as possible. This is what is now called computational neuroscience. Marr argued that neuroscientists must take as a starting point of their inquiry a definition of the function of the neural system they want to study. Glimcher then ushers in the Darwinian perspective of the New Synthesis and describes the brain as a system created by natural selection to maximize biological fitness. His goal is to answer this most important question: how the brain makes decisions in view of the limited information provided by the environment? Upon reading this books, most semioticians will undoubtedly perceive how the probabilistic approach used in neuroeconomics could apply to, and probably solve, many problems traditionally encountered in attempts to formulate a theory of signs that is consistent with current neurological knowledge. Glimcher’s style is “user friendly”, and his book is accessible in spite of the vast range of disciplines he taps for expounding his theses.

The last chapters (11 to 14) provide a provocative hypothesis concerning the evolutionary significance of human free will. Based upon a distinction between reducible and irreducible uncertainty, Glimcher’s take on this perennial issue relies on game theory framed by the constraints of natural selection. He sees the need for complex organisms to outperform others through strategies which cash on the surprise of impredictabilty as opposed to ever more complicated strategies that can eventually be learned and exploited by their opponents. This opens up new theoretical territories in which some traditional semiotic problems could be productively recontextualized.

Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

by William Benzon, Basic Books, 2001.

The semiotics of music has been plagued since its inception in the 1960s by the assumption that the various linguistic models being developed at the time were appropriate models for analyzing anything making sense to humans. Benzon’s book explores afresh the meaning of music in mind and culture without even paying lip service to the house names of musical semiotics and their convoluted attempts to make music fit their Saussurean or Peircean models. The author’s main references come from the latest developments in the cognitive neurosciences, cultural evolutionism and ethnomusicology. Benzon is a cognitive scientist who happens to be also a noted jazz musician. His book has been hailed as a landmark for the deep understanding of the musical and social brain by Howard Gardner, Mary Douglas, Walter Freeman, Normand Holland among others. This indicates enough its pluridisciplinary relevance. Because this work proposes an original argument bearing upon both the organizing principles of music and its meaning, it should be of prime interest to semioticians in search of new epistemological paradigms. Grounded on musical experience and state of the art knowledge of brain evolution and processes, Beethoven’s Anvil provides a basis for a semiotics of music that is emancipated from linguistic fallacies while remaining functionally linked to the origin of language.

Semioticians can also read with profit two fascinating articles published in Science in 2001: "The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music" by Patricia M. Gray, Bernie Krause, Jelle Atema, Roger Payne, CarolKrumhansi and Luis Baptista, who explore the similaritiesbetween the properties and evolution of acoustic signalling in animals and humans (5 January 2001, Vol. 291, 52-54), and "Music of theHemispheres" by neuroscientist Mark Jude Tramo who reports on experiments aimed at determining how the brain processes musical informationand reacts toit (5 January 2001, Vol. 291, 55-56). Also of note is the volume edited in 2000 by Nils L. Wallin, Björn Merker and Steven Brown, The Origins of Music (The MIT Press)which was aptly reviewed by Donald H. McBurney and Steven Gaulin in Evolution and Human Behavior 21 (2000) 443-450.