Semiotic Profile

Walter A Koch: Portrait of the Semiotician on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday

By Winfried Noeth

Walter A. Koch has been a key figure in semiotics since the resurgence of this trans-discipline in the context of European structuralism. His own career is characteristic of the development of structuralist semiotics from linguistic roots during the second half of the 20 th century. Koch’s academic background is in linguistics, but he has never been contented with a narrow focus on phonemes, words, or grammar, nor with structures, rules and systems in a static sense. In all of his writings, he has shown a tendency to go beyond “current trends”: from synchronic to diachronic structuralism, from structure to evolution, from descriptive to explanatory linguistics, from grammar to texts, from language to literature, media, and culture, from verbal to nonverbal and visual communication, from linguistics to semiotics and beyond, from atoms to topics of a literally cosmic scope.

Walter A. Koch was born on July 26, 1934. After studies in English, Romance languages, General Linguistics, and East Asian Studies at the Universities of Mainz, Neuchâtel, and Münster, his inaugural dissertation was on the Theory of Sound Change (1962; repr. 1971). In the same year, his first paper came out in Spanish and on a quite different topic. At a time when synchronic structure and descriptivism were on the agenda of the prevailing linguistic paradigm, Koch focused on language change and the problems of its explanation.

From the level of the phoneme, Koch’s studies progressively advanced to higher levels of analysis in the language system. Via the morpheme (Koch 1962), the word, and the sentence, he soon extended his scope of analysis to the level of the text and its context in the communicative situation. Three of his early books testify to this sequence of research fields in a programmatic way: From Morpheme to Texteme (1969), Taxologie des Englischen (1971) and Das Textem (1973). In the span of only five years after his PhD and despite a substantial teaching load at the University of Münster, Koch was not only able to conclude his postdoctoral thesis, later published as Taxologie des Englischen, but also another seminal monograph as well as a large number of articles for the most prominent linguistic journals of the time, all republished in the two volumes of collected papers of 1969 and 1973.

The Rubicon between grammar and poetry was crossed early with Recurrence and a Three-Modal Approach to Poetry (1966). In this book, Koch first set forth the idea that poetry is the result of the interplay of three mutually independent foci of poeticalness, an informational focus on meaning, an aesthetic focus on patterns of recurrence, and a stylistic focus on deviations from patterns of expectation. Koch’s early text linguistic models of poetry became progressively enriched by the more general elements of a semiotic aesthetics, soon to be placed within the still larger framework of an evolutionary theory of aesthetics: Poetry and Science (1983), The Well of Tears (1989), The Biology of Literature (1993), and The Roots of Literature (1993) were the milestones on this road to explore the wider evolutionary semiotic horizons of literature and the arts.

Never contented with the restrictions on the scope of research set by the predominant schools of contemporary linguistics and semiotics, Koch was one of the first German linguists to embrace the paradigm of semiotics. His own Bochum School of Semiotics was founded in 1968. As early as 1972, the designation of Koch’s chair at the University of Bochum, originally one of Linguistics, was extended to “Semiotics”, which made him one of the first professors with a chair of this designation in the world.

Koch’s decisive step from linguistics to semiotics proper is documented in his highly influential socio-semiotic theory of culture, which he developed in 1971 under the title Varia semiotica. Guidelines of his research program at that time were the concepts of sign, structure, and system, as well as the idea of applying by analogy the model of language in the study of the most diverse phenomena of visual and nonverbal culture, such as advertising, the comics, happenings, paintings, ballet, music, everyday gestures, or “body language”. The theoretical foundations of this most ambitious transdisciplinary program of a first semiotics of culture received a still more rigorous and philosophical elaboration in Philosophie der Philologie und Semiotik (1986).

In the 1980s, Koch founded the new paradigm of Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics, whose field is the semiotics of human culture and its evolution from prehuman nature. The roots of this new semiotic paradigm are no longer in linguistics, but in biology, ethology, cosmology, and philosophy. The organizational frameworks for Koch’s new School of Semiotics were the Bochum Semiotic Colloquies (BSC) and his legendary book series Bochum Publications in Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics and Bochumer Beiträge zur Semiotik . Although Koch, being everything else than a homo politicus, did not succeed in realizing his most ambitious project for the creation of an Institute for Integrated Cultural Studies, as outlined in detail in his Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics (1986), BSC was undoubtedly a historical success. Its founder did not only manage to convoke the internationally most renowned semioticians to his BSC colloquia, but also to publish a large number of their papers delivered in Bochum. The list of international speakers who came to Bochum invited by Koch is a real Who is Who in modern semiotics: Amsterdam, Bloomington, Boston, Bucharest, Helsinki, London, Milano, Moscow, Paris, Prague, Purdue, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vienna are among the universities from which lecturers in semiotics came to Bochum. In his fist Bochum years, Koch even managed to bring Umberto Eco, Christian Metz, A. J. Greimas, and Tzvetan Todorov to Bochum. At the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the BSC, in 1989, Paul Bouissac, quite appropriately, evaluated the results of the first eleven Bochum colloquia as follows: “At a time when the universe of knowledge seems to be driven toward an indefinite, fractal expansion, with the consequence that specialties are pushed further and further apart, BSC indefatigably, with Promethean courage and lucidity, attempts to mend the torn fabric of a unitary science” (in Koch: 1989 [ Perspektiven]: 113).

Semiogenesis (1982), Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics (1986), Genes vs. Memes (1986), Hodos and Cosmos (1987), and Evolution of Culture (1989) brought the foundations of Koch’s general semiotic theory of cultural evolution. In the context of this research in the evolution of culture in general, Koch also returned to his first field of study, linguistic evolution. With Language in the Upper Pleistocene (1991) and The Iconic Roots of Language (2004), he embarked on the most ambitious project of investigating the evolutionary roots of language in prehistorical times.

Semiogenesis, the evolution and development of semiosis since its origins, according to Koch (1982: 18), “covers the interrelated geneses of such phenomena as animal communication, computer systems, oral language, written language, theater, film, gestural systems, philosophy or religion as languages, the language of the drums and flags, pheromones or logic as sign systems, DNA as genetic ‘code’, painting etc. [...] as an array of apparently heterogeneous and yet somehow isomorphic systems.” In this framework, the evolution of semiosis can only be studied by going beyond the anthropocentric limitations of a semiotics restricted to human culture.

While semiosis, according to Koch’s programmatic statement of 1982, was still confined to signs of life (including artificial life), the horizon of Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics was soon after broadened from biological to physical nature. From now on, Koch began to embrace a pansemiotic view of the universe, according to which there are traces of semiosis as early as the origins of cosmos. In contrast to semioticians who have set up various dividing lines between the world of signs and sign processes and nonsemiotic physical, biological or even human nature, Koch emphasizes the continuity between the nonsemiotic and the semiotic realm, when he proposes his Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics as a project to “embark upon the reconstruction of an objective, ultimately indivisible, flow of reality, of which the evolution of matter, of life, of consciousness, of culture, and of signs are but special points of emergence” (1986: 54).

In his outline of a holistic account for the emergence of culture from nature, evolutionary cultural semiotics distinguishes the following eleven genetic stages since the emergence of our cosmic universe (Koch 1986):

  1. Cosmogenesis or physicogenesis, beginning 15 billion years ago with the physical expansion of the universe at the moment of the big bang.
  2. Galactogenesis, galactic evolution: 12.5 billionyears.
  3. Geogenesis, the origin of earth: 4.5 billion years.
  4. Biogenesis, the appearance of life on earth (from bacteria to protozoa): from 4 to 1.7 billion years ago.
  5. Sociogenesis, the origins of social organization: 500 million years ago.
  6. Semiogenesis [in the narrower sense], the origins of human culture: beginning with Homo habilis 2 million years ago.
  7. Glottogenesis, origins of language: 50,000 years ago.
  8. Eikonogenesis, origins of pictorial representation: 30,000 years ago.
  9. Graphogenesis, the invention of writing: 5,000 years ago.
  10. Typographogenesis, the invention of printing: 1400 A.D.
  11. Mediogenesis, the diffusion of television: 1950 A.D.

Semiogenesis, the sixth evolutionary level of this model, actually does not refer to the semiotic threshold at which semiosis emerges in general. It is rather one particular stage in the evolution of semiosis, the one in which anthroposemiosis emerges with human artefacts used as signs of and for humans. There is, of course, much evidence of an earlier life of signs at the evolutionarily lower levels of biogenesis and sociogenesis, where they emerge in the form of biosemiosis, zoosemiosis, and sociosemiosis. Even the genetically preceding evolutionary stages, cosmo- and geogenesis, are not without traces of semiosis. Physical nature does not only provide the material basis for processes of semiosis at later evolutionary stages, but it is relevant to the evolution of semiosis in so far as the cosmic and the geological world evince structural isomorphies with the realm of sign processes. Such isomorphies in the evolution from matter to semiosis are indicators of evolutionary continuity and coherence. They justify the assumption of an indivisible evolutionary whole with traces of semiosis since the very origin of our cosmos.

Besides its chronological dimension, evolution has also a variety of aspectual facets for whose study Koch provides an elaborate conceptual framework. In contrast to scholars who emphasize the differences between evolution and individual development, Koch emphasizes the similarities between genesis in phylogeny, the evolution of the species, and genesis in ontogeny, the process of individual maturation. Following Ernst Haeckel’s biogenetic rule, Koch formulates a general principle of echogenesis according to which phylogenetic processes tend to be recapitulated (“echoed”) in ontogenesis and other forms of development and evolution.

Genesis, evolution at large, is furthermore distinguished from metagenesis, the discovery and re-experiencing of genesis in human consciousness, e.g., in religious mythogenesis, philosophical theories of cosmogenesis, or epistemogenesis, the “epistemic reconstruction of the entire objective-subjective world”. The relation between both is typically one of chronological reversal: metagenesis tends to mirror genesis by ascribing historical primacy to phenomena which evolved later in the course of evolutionary history. For example, whereas Homo sapiens comes last in genetic evolution, the human I is imagined to be first in mythogenesis and epistemogenesis.

Besides ontogenesis, Koch distinguishes several other variants of evolution or modes of development. Actogenesis, for example, deals with the production and processing of signs in actual semiosis. Eugenesis is the processes of regressive simplification and progressive complexification of semiotic systems in their development. This mode of genesis is related to two more general evolutionary principles, anagesis, the complexification of matter, and catagenesis, the decomplexification of matter.

Koch’s pansemiotics has led to more and more daring extensions of his semiotic field, and Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics (ECS) finally became integrated within the still larger framework of his holistic world model ELPIS (Evolutionary Level-focusing Philosophy of Integrated Systems), which, according to Koch (1987: 54) “enables us to discover traces of semiosis, i.e., of sign processes, in everything: from original atoms through extravagant thoughts”. The preliminary climax of the evolution of Koch’s semiotics from linguistics towards pansemiotics is his semiotics of Everything under the Sun (Koch 1991) and, more recently, his Philosophy of Everything (see Aware of the risks of an academic scandal which such bold pansemiotism may cause, the founder of Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics gives the following apologetic captatio, which provides an excellent self-description of his heuristic approach to semiotics (Koch 1993: 99):

A word of apology is in order. I shall be inviting the reader to consider one of the most comprehensive of all possible cognitive problems, namely the ‘world’ – and I shall have neither at my disposal the intellectual energy nor the time/space needed for going into any kind of desirable depth. Nevertheless I shall yield to the temptation of sketching out a holistic panorama. It will be highly elliptic, simple, naïve, and yet – hopefully – based on some hypothetical principles that might be worth elaborating.

Walter A. Koch has certainly succeeded in putting Bochum on the international map of 20 th century semiotics. The fruit of his more than four decades of research in semiotics is not only his admirable edifice of semiotic theory and practice, but also the impressive library of semiotic books written, edited, and published by him. At the beginning of a new century of semiotic research, W. A. Koch deserves to be read and reread. Eugen Baer (1989: 342) was right in praising W. A. Koch’s project of Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics as “grandiose”, but only Myrdene Anderson (1990:150) put this praise into the poetic words appropriate to be inscribed, at the occasion of Walter’s 70 th birthday, in the book of famous semioticians: “Koch may simultaneously be a rock in the stream and a stream of fresh air”. The author of this article, who had the privilege to begin his own research in semiotics under Koch’s guidance in 1967 and to collaborate with the Bochum Semiotician closely from 1969 to 1977, sends his most cordial congratulations to Walter. Many happy returns, and all the best for the realization of the new projects which are undoubtedly in preparation!

Book publications by Walter A. Koch

Research monographs

Koch, Walter A. 1966. Recurrence and a Three-Modal Approach to Poetry. The Hague: Mouton.

–––––. 1971. Varia semiotica. Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––. 1971. Zur Theorie des Lautwandels. Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––. 1981. Poetizität: Skizzen zur Semiotik der Dichtung. Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––. 1983. Poetry and Science: Semiogenetical Twins. Tübingen: Narr.

–––––. 1986. Evolutionäre Kultursemiotik . Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1986. Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics, transl. S. C. Vogel. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1986. Genes vs. Memes. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1987. Hodos and Kosmos . Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1989. The Well of Tears. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1991. Gott und die Welt. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1991. Language in the Upper Pleistocene. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1993. The Biology of Literature. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 1993. The Roots of Literature. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––. 2004. The Iconic  Roots of Language. Lüdenscheid: RAM-Verlag@t-online.

Books edited and co-edited

Altmann, Gabriel & Walter A. Koch, eds. 1998. Systems: New Paradigms for Human Sciences . Berlin: de Gruyter.

Eschbach, Achim & Walter A. Koch, eds. 1987. A Plea for Cultural Semiotics . Bochum: Brockmeyer.

Walter A. Koch, ed. 1972. Strukturelle Textanalyse . Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––, ed. 1973-74. Perspektiven der Linguistik I-II. Stuttgart: Kröner.

–––––, ed. 1976. Textsemiotik uns strukturelle Rezeptionstheorie. Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––, ed. 1979. Semiotische Versuche zu literarischen Strukturen. Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––, ed. 1982. Semiogenesis. Frankfurt/Main: Lang.

–––––, ed. 1986. Philosophie der Philologie und Semiotik. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1989. Culture and Semiotics Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1989. Evolution of Culture. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1989. For a Semiotics of Emotion. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1989. Das Ganze und seine Teile – The Whole and its Parts. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1989. The Nature of Culture. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1990. Geneses of Language. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1990. Natürlichkeit der Sprache und der Kultur. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1990. Semiotics in the Individual Sciences, 2 vols . Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1990. Semiotik in den Einzelwissenschaften, 2 Bd. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1990. Semiotik und Wissenschaftstheorie. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1994. Die Welt der Lyrik. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1994. Simple Forms: An Encyclopedia of Simple Text-Types in Lore and Literature. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

–––––, ed. 1996. Mechanismen kultureller Entwicklung. Bochum: Brockmeyer.

Literary works

Walter A. Koch. 1972. Es steigt ein Mensch... Hildesheim: Olms.

–––––. 1979. Zwiegespräche zwischen möglichen Welten. In Die Außerirdischen sind da: Umfrage durch Matthes & Seitz anlässlich einer Landung von Wesen aus dem All. München: Matthes & Seitz, 294-299 [Article ].

–––––. 2004. die dinge und du: lyrisch-philosophische gedanken. Norderstedt: Books on Demand .

Book Series

Bochumer Beiträge zur Semiotik. Bochum: Brockmeyer; Aachen: Shaker.

Bochum Publications in Evolutionary Cultural Semiotics. Bochum: Brockmeyer; Aachen: Shaker.

Documenta Semiotica 1: Series Linguistica . Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

Documenta Semiotica 2: Series Literaria . Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

Documenta Semiotica 3: Series Semiotica. Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

Documenta Semiotica 4: Series Sociologica . Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

Documenta Semiotica 6: Series Philosophica. Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

Studia Semiotica: Collecta Semiotica. Hildesheim: Olms.

Studia Semiotica: Series Practica. Hildesheim: Olms.