World Report

International conference Semiotics and Survival

By Scott Simpkins

The 32nd annual Semiotic Society of America conference with the theme of Semiotics and Survival was held in New Orleans of the United States of America on October 4-7, 2007 with more than 90 scholarly papers scheduled for presentation. Clearly, the city itself was chosen to reflect the conference topic, given that it still is recovering from storm-related catastrophe. In fact, a handful of scholars from a wide range of disciplines chose to focus on their immediate surroundings in the course of a number of conference presentations and all it took was a walk around the city to palpably feel what had been discussed indoors.

From the very start on Thursday evening, Edward Baenziger and John Deely focused on the ongoing debate regarding the current state of semiotics as a discipline constantly under fire and (by most appearances) losing steam in the USA, as is attested to by the apparent diminished attendance of SSA meetings in recent years and the reduction in publishing outlets for semiotic studies worldwide. The take on this dilemma by these two scholars under the subject heading of Critical Perspectives on Semiotics Today was clearly apropos in terms of concern about the “survival” of semiotics today.

Friday’s concurrent sessions (a practice followed throughout the conference) reflected the considerable diversity of the SSA.

Timothy J. Rogers and Michel P. Flaherty discussed “Perspective and Visual Architecture in the Sign Engine Theater,” arguing for the benefits that the consideration of perspective from a linear standpoint in theater and art, along with the Sign Engine framework and new developments in interactive visual displays, can offer to semiotics. In particular, the framework they explore “can be designed to leverage and accommodate perceptual and psychophysical aspects of the human visual system,” as can be seen in “regularity constraints and perspective compensation.” Their concluding speculation about the possible conjoining of mixed-reality technologies and human vision was preceded by outlining a model to merge virtual and physical architectures in relation to conventional spaces in the theater.

Additionally, papers in this area included Harris Dimitropoulos’s “Design Instruction and Semiotics: Representational Strategies in Architecture,” Luiz Carlos do Carmo Motta and Vera Lucia Moreira dos Santos Nojima’s “Methodological Paradigm to the Design Research,” and Susan Probasco’s “A Haunting in the Delta: Revisiting Childhood Spaces and the Sacralization of Space.”

The early work of artist Vito Acconci figured in John Paul McMahon’s “Discourse, Figure, Acconci” as he outlined a potential melding of the genres of performance art and conceptual art. McMahon drew upon the contributions made to semiotics by literary and art historian Norman Bryson in order to situate the phase of Acconci’s work spanning 1969-1973 in relation to a workable model that semiotics can provide. Accordingly, he endeavored to frame the concept of “betweenness” (both performance and conceptual art) in an operable and productive manner. The emphasis on process and physicality in performance art and the emphasis on language and mental activity in conceptual art are “often unnecessarily separated due to narrow categorizing schemas,” McMahon contended.

Others who addressed topics related to the arts included Reid Perkins-Buzo on “Real Film: Realist Film Theory, Semiotics and the Documentary Film,” Susan Bhattacharya on “Analogous Relations/Commonalities Between Re-writing, Oil-painting and Computer Data-fitting,” and Max Sills on “Semantic Density in Visual Signs.”

As an extension of the semiotics of politeness, Kevin Cummings explored “Decorum and Power in Cyberspace,” considering how power and decorum are exercised in the course of social interaction on the internet. Indeed, Cummings argued, communication that is mediated by computer entirely changed how we access the world and render it intelligible. In relation to our use of symbols, indexes, and icons, we regulate and guide our cyberspace practices according to interactions geared toward decorum. Of special interest to Cummings was the manner in which transgressions of consensually established norms lead to sanctions and regulations generated by cyberspace users.

Also reflecting related concerns in the media were Elliot Gaines’s paper on “Power and Proxy in Media Semiotics” and Adelin Gasana on “The F Word.”

Not surprisingly, a large number of papers, such as J. Raymond Zimmer’s “Category-based Diagrams of the Jungian Model of the Mind,” took semiotic theory into account. As a continuation of his paper presented in the 2006 conference, Zimmer maintained that it was possible to re-frame the four scholastic causes by way of a category-based schema related to meditation. This time, Zimmer drew upon Jung’s model of mind following the same method, which considers how behavior pattern by archetypes is manifested by individuals. Referring to these patterns as “archetypal complexes” allowed Zimmer to view situational elements and opportunities from the standpoint of this grid based on a schema of consciousness. The efficient causes derived from Jung’s model were thus based on interactive and personal conditions of the individual. Zimmer discussed some of the ramifications of a “re-presentation” of Jung’s model along these lines.

William James McCurdy, in “The Periodic Chart of Semeiotical Elements: Peirce’s Sign-Classification Systems as Trilattices,” offered a reconsideration of Peirce’s efforts to establish semiotics as a science–to help it better survive, in effect–by reflecting on his efforts to employ the model of chemistry, in particular from the standpoint of valency. “Valency in the logic of relations became the generative concept in Peirce’s semeiotics,” he argued, “just as the mathematical concept of valency...ultimately led to the Periodic Chart of Chemical elements.” Peirce’s systems of classifying signs, McCurdy suggested, featured the mathematical structure of the trilattice, which he defined as “generalizations of lattices which are based on partial-triordering relations.” Within Peirce’s “Periodic Chart of Semeiotical Elements,” McCurdy identified properties such as tritansitivity, trireflexivity, duality, triality and antirisymmetry.

The many related papers on semiotic theory included Frank J. Macke’s “The Dream and the Self: Consciousness, Identity, the Sign, and the Image,” Karen Haworth’s “The Bubble Analogy: Thoughts on Cognitive Transformations in the Evolution of Human Language,” Charles P. Linscott’s “‘Congratulations! It’s A...Sign’: Semiotics, Science Studies, and Procreant Language,” and Christopher Wilson’s “Justified True Belief or Dicent Indexical Sinsign?”

Among the papers focusing on what could be called applied semiotics, Katherine Romack explored the manner by which women during the English Revolution employed the pulpit as a means for finding voice in public in “Women Preaching in A Not So Plain Style.” Within this period during the seventeenth century, “the cultural constraints caused by theatre closures pushed some women to ‘performative disruption’ of rival church services,” Romack observed. Subsequently, this engered a response within their culture which yoked the stereotype of sexual freedom in the theater with the practice of women preaching.

In response to the preponderance of psychological theories support the hygienic benefits of recounting stories of emotional trauma, Scott Simpkins maintained, in “The Writing Cure?: The Semiotics of the Trauma Narrative in British Romantic Literature,” that the possibility of an undesirably negative response to this activity has not been fully taken into account. By centering his discussion on a late-eighteenth-century novel, Caleb Williams, by William Godwin, Simpkins outlined how at least one instance of the failure of trauma narration (among a great many) could merit consideration in this respect. Some traumas, he concluded, can take on a new life, can run amuck beyond the control and containment of the encoder, if released from a more safely contained interiorized memory.

Related papers in this area included Charles Edonmi’s “A Semiotic Reading of the ‘Not-I-Bird’ Song Text,” Raffaele de Bennedictis’s “Towards A Semiotization of Discursive Survival in Dante’s Inferno,” Julia Gallucci’s “Evidence of Gestural Dialects in Captive and Free-living Chimpanzees,” and Frank Nuessel’s “Language Games–A Semiotic Analysis.”

Consistent with one of the musical forms associated with New Orleans, Jonathan Means, Elliot Gaines, and Terry Prewitt hosted an Open Guitar and Acoustic Blues Session at the end of Friday evening.

Saturday’s sessions featured additional papers on semiotic theory, such as Tom Viaene’s “Signs, Values and Critical Evaluation: Charles Morris’ Semiotics Revisited in the Light of Today’s Urge for A Global and Unbounded Semiotics,” which also reflected the conference theme. Viaene campaigned for the continued development of semio-ethics as a way to bolster efforts to create a global semiotics. Morris’s view of valuing and signifying as establishing a form of continuity served as a jumping off point for Viaene’s attempt to provide a thick description of the potential development of semiotics. Morris’s interest in the practice of evaluation is derived in large part, Viaene said, from the influence of contextual or experimental naturalists following John Dewey’s influence. Viaene endeavored to place global semiotics within the enquiries in other fields into critical evaluation as well. By drawing upon one facet of pragmatism in relation to social science, Viaene argued for the development of a “value-related” theory and practice of global semiotics.

Selected papers related to this topic were Sean A. Day’s “Synesthesia and the ‘Hard Question’ of Consciousness,” Robert Philen’s “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing,” James Jacobs’s “Theological Sources for Augustine’s Theory of Signs,” Kirk G. Kanzelberger’s “Construing the Moral Universe: Aquinas’s bonum honestum,” Kyle Grady’s “Signs of Genius: Symbolic Presentation in Kant’s Critique of Judgment,” Benjamin A. Smith’s “Object and Affordance,” and Thomas F. Broden’s “Paul Ricoeur’s Critiques of Greimasian Semiotics and the Role of Science in Semiotics Yesterday and Toda,y.”

In addition to Friday’s paper on music by Byron Almén, “A Liszkian Theory of Musical Narrative,” Saturday also featured among others papers Timothy Best’s “Signifying the Heroic: Thematic Transvaluation in Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, Op. 35.” By examining Beethoven’s Variations for Piano, Op. 35 in light of the Heroic mythos, Best investigated the evolution of a Promethean theme, yet with a low social stature, into a transcendent state in the concluding fugue. Best centered on an analysis of the narrative from an actantial level (the variations) as well as the agential level (the theme), eventually taking into account its status as a subcategory of Almén’s “Romantic narrative archetype.” Best emphasized the ways in which Liszka’s notion of “transvaluation” is central to the narrative’s final outcome as the value perspective of the theme is reframed through oppositions of musical topoi. The Enlightenment itself can be seen as a metaphor for this process, Best concluded.

Other papers on musical semiotics included Yayoi Uno Everett’s “The Narrative Implications of the Grotesque in György Ligeti’s ‘Le Grand Macabre’,” Juan Chattah’s “Musical Narrativity in Electroacoustic Music,” Matthew Shaftel’s “Form, Sign, and Singing: Integrating Sign Systems in an Interdisciplinary Approach to Opera,” Justin Lavacek’s “The Dual Nature of Musical Signification in Handel’s Alexander’s Feast,” Victoria Ademenko’s “The Survival of the Religious and its Meaning in Late Soviet Music, 1960-1990,” and Aisha Ahmad-Post’s “Overcoming Rhymes ‘Solely For the Sake of Rhyming’: Marked Oppositional Settings in Cosi Fan Tutte.”

Peters Harries-Jones’s paper on “Ecosemiotics and the Collapse of Ecosystems” served as a fit introduction to several discussions on biosemiotics–in this case, the current crisis among the honeybee population. Consideration of the second-order communicative characteristics of ecosemiotics was the focus of Harries-Jones’ paper as he explored “organic mutualism” and the phenomenon of the loss of organisms’ mediators within the order of communication. The decline of these “go-betweens” appears to confirm Gregory Bateson’s position that communication within an ecosystem precedes physical degradation following the system’s collapse. Because James Lovelock, in The Revenge of Gaia, fails to account for this ecosystem phenomenon, Harries-Jones established a comparison between Bateson’s semiotic conception of ecosystemic order and Lovelock’s predominantly physical conception.

Donald Favareau yoked two frequent topics in the conference in “Natural Constructivism: Biosemiotics and Conversation Analysis,” as he described the manner in which “the notion of a perpetually built environment that is irreducibly relational and interactionally accomplished and sustained” is a shared topic in both biosemiotics and conversation analysis. The conclusions found in conversation analysis based on empirical inquiry, Favareau said, are shared by the biosemiotic perspective of the use of language, as it an interactional resource based on a deeper sense of semiosis found among all organisms. This understanding leads to non-conceptual, situated and operations means for solving the dilemma of determining, by way of experience, what actions exist as future options for an individual subject.

Among others, Jesper Hoffmeyer’s “Semethic Interaction,” Stacey E. Ake’s “Between the Stimulus and the Response Falls the Shadow,” Kalevi Kull’s “Biosemiotics After 2001,” and Eliseo Fernandez’S “Biosemiotics and Survival” discussed related perspectives on biosemiotics.

In addition to the biosemiotics papers related to survival, numerous other papers addressed this issue, such as Isaac E. Catt’s “The Struggle for ‘Truth’ in Everyday Therapy: A Communicology of Survival” on Friday. The human endeavor to utter the “truth” in a “truthful” manner is impeded, Catt suggested, by the dominant pathos in subjectivism and logos in objectivism. In his efforts to locate a model for communicative therapy that is indeed therapeutic, Catt offered some empirical observations by psychotherapists who employ phenomenological thinking and semiotics. Utilizing Carlo Sini’s “images of truth,” along with concepts from Cassirer, Merleau-Ponty, Peirce and Bourdieu, Catt considered the sacrality and ethos of “Thirdness.” Overall, Catt concluded that the “third way” paradigm offers a perspective to therapy that is “ultimately superior to the monologic and dialogic alternatives of perception and expression.”

In a similar vein, this topic was explored on Saturday by other papers including Inna Semetsky’s “The Healing Art of Tarot Symbolism: A Case Study,” Richard Carp’s “Everyday Art: Self, Environment, Performance,” and Elka Kazmierczak’s “Art of Survival: Transformation, Healing, and Self-Knowledge.”

The Friday keynote lunch address by James Liszka, “The Value of Signs,” aimed at supporting the contention that an “evolutionary advantage” is generated by the “enormous efficiencies” of signs attributed to rank (the hierarchical arrangement of signs) and markedness (asymmetrical, distinct) relations among signs. Liszka entertained a number of examples to back this up, such as the ability to make epistemological distinctions regarding the truth-value of significations, the assessment of sign relevance, and even the morality involved in given acts of semiosis. In particular, Liszka demonstrated this contention by way of analysis of the food-finding practices of E. coli bacteria and the communicative effectiveness of tropes. Finally, Liszka turned to the conference theme by relating his talk to the ways in which the narratives regarding the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans reflected valuative and normative organization in their contents.

Saturday’s Presidential Address by Nathan Houser extended this commentary further by focusing on the survival of semiotics as a discipline–if, indeed, it is even addressed any more as such. “It is a matter of personal survival for us as members of the Semiotic Society of America,” he declared, that semioticians become even more active in promoting it as a vital social institution worldwide. Beyond individual concerns, he argued that as a whole, “the link between signs and survival runs deep.” Houser projected this need for survival to the specific circumstances surrounding the attendees in a large hotel in downtown New Orleans, a city that was overwhelmed more than two years by hurricane-related floods.

Again, it is not an accident that this city was chosen as the site for this year’s SSA conference since it clearly serves as token of the challenges of survival. “Signs were critical throughout” during the disaster in New Orleans, Houser observed. The fact that the upcoming U.S. Democratic convention is not going to be held in New Orleans attests to its recovery difficulties, as does the recent announcement that New Orleans was cut from the finalists list for consideration of hosting the U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates in the general election campaign next year because the city had yet to revitalize itself after the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Even though the city itself stands as a testament to the human will to carry despite seemingly overwhelming challenges, there remains a clear concern for “loss of place” there, Houser said.

Among the related papers on the city included Vincent Colapietro’s “All That Jazz–and More,” William Pencak’s “Escape from New Orleans–Reading Between the Notes of ‘Satchmo’,” and Ganesh Trichur’s “Signs and Designs of New Orleans After Katrina.”

In many respects, the 2007 SSA conference perfectly matched the locale with the current state of semiotics, a discipline that is truly on the edge of reclamation, but still has a long period of recovery ahead of it. As this conference demonstrated, however, semioticians are well aware of what difficulties lie ahead for them along these lines.