The Semiotic Web

Sebeok, Thomas A. 1975. The Semiotic Web: A Chronicle of Prejudices. Bulletin of Literary Semiotics 2: 1-63.

A particularly wercome feature of Rey's book is its thorough index of forms and concepts. Anyone wishing to dig around seriously among the roots or later divarications of semiotics could do no better than to begin with this vade mecuum, the second volume of which will cover the busy decodes of 20th century semiotics that "really" began with Peirce. (Vol. , of Rey's book should be out by 1976. Very well conceived, it is, in fact, divided into two major sections, the first on foundations, the second dealing with epistemological considerations.) (Sebeok 1975: 3)
...aaaand it's in French.
As Charles Morris implied in his cursory note on "The history of semiotic" (Morris 1971:335-337), would-be historians ought to launch their searches either via the best pertinent secondary sources, such as standard histories of logic (e.g., Bochenski 1956, or Schenk 1973), or of other particular disciplines, such as linguistics (Sebeok 1975b) or medicine (Garrison 1929:884f.); but if their intentions are truly honorable, they must, of course, revert directly to the primary sources themselves, as elegantly expmplified by the "lost" Epicurean treatise of Philodemus (De lacy 1941). (Sebeok 1975: 3)
De Lacy's Philodemus: On methods of inference: a study in ancient empiricism is available on archive.org.
Perversely, however, a veritable orgy of Saussurean exegesis continues to inundate us. (Sebeok 1975: 4)
This was made me chuckle until a second later I realized how sad it is that this statement holds true even in 2013.
If Peirce was the fountainhead of today's semiotics, its most globally influential and revered living giant - yet one whose achievements are already integrated as a peerless episode in the history of the subject - is Charles Morris. His pertinent writings ale all at last readily available in a single volume (Morris 1971), and a veritable multinational industry has sprung up laboring to produce critical explication or analysis of his theory of signs (e.g., Apel 1973, besides Rossi-Landi's latest [1975] article, and a spate of dissertations, among which I found Eakins 1972 and Fiordo 1976 the most useful). Interesting problems waiting to be tackled will certainly focus upon the profound involvement of Morris with George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) (Muller 1973; Kang, to appear), whose social psychology itself has had a manifestly semiotic orientation, palpably resonant in, for example, Erving Goffman's masterful books; and, to the contrary, Morris' surprising intellective independentce from, although eventual terminological and otherwise surface reconciliation with, Peirce (cf. Dewey, and Morris' 1971:444-448 rebuttal). (Sebeok 1975: 6)
There is a rebuttal? Now I do have to read his Writings as soon as possible.
"Nonverbal communication" (Nelson 1975:315f.). It soon dawned on me that this deceptively simple phrase, widely bandied about and incorporated in a large miscellany of book titles (among others, Bosmajian 1971, Davis 1971, Eisenberg and Smith 1971, Hinde 1972, Knapp 1972, Mehrabian 1972, Ruesch and Kees 1956, Scherer 1970, Weitz 1974; see alse the entries under MacKay 1972 and Tavolga 1974), is well-nigh devoid of meaning or, at best, susceptible to so many interpretations as to be nearly useless. Mehrabian (1972:1f.) naively distinguishes a "narrow and more accurate sense," declared to refer "to actions as distinct from speech," i.e., "hand and arm gestures, postures, positions, and various movements of the body or the legs and feet," from a broader but supposedly traditional sense, by which he seemls to mean what Crystal (1969:293) had once labelled "content-free speech," intended to cover, among kindred phenomena, those called by some investigators paralinguistic events. (Sebeok 1975: 9)
That's a pretty exact evaluation. After three years of studying "nonverbal communication" I'm still studying nothing in specific.
The term "nonverbal," or "non-zverbal," is objectionable because it includes for too much, and, moreover, what it does comprehend varies according to each investigator's whim (Harrison, et al., 1972). Also, it wrongly implies the independence, indeed, usually the primacy, in some inplicit synchronic way, of the verbal component in humans. The formula, "communication minus language = nonverbal communication" is clumsily negative, simplistic, and obscurantist. In other words, "It make sno sense to speak of 'verbal communication' and 'nonverbal communication'. There is only communication, a system of behavior patterns by which people are related to one another" (Kendon 1972b:443). In brief, the subject of the holistic field of interaction ethology (alias semiotics), adumbrated in a conference (Amsterdam, August 31 - September 4, 1970), organized by Goffman and me for the Wenner-Gren Foundation (Sherzer 1971). Yet another hare, which I don't care to run with here, lurks in the careless way in which "communication" is confounded with "behavior," especially in the context of the nonverbal. This confidently assumes that all behavior (Scheflen 1972, 2974; Hinde 1974) neatly bifurcates into a kind that communicates and a kind that does not communicate - which is, in fact, a matter of controversy even among animal behaviorists, and hardly helped by the introduction of qualifying weasel words such as "social," "goal-directed," or the like. (Sebeok 1975: 10)
Sebeok figured me out - I AM "clumsily negative, simplistic, and obscurantist". And yet, nonverbal communication is still pursued today, and "interaction ethology" isn't, perhaps because it sounds even clumsier.
One could, of course, as I have done (Sebeok 1972:163ff.), set apart "anthroposemiotic" gestures, i.e., such as are species-specific in man (Efron's category of arbitrarily-coded, hence culture bound, emblems comes immediately to mind; see Ekman and Friesen 1969:63-68), and "zoosemiotic" gestures found in humans, i.e., such devices that we demonstrably share with some other form of animal life (a very nice example being the evolution of laughter and smiling; see Hooff 1972). This distinction is, however, both awkward and hard to maintain in practice. Another difficulty with this term is that its extension fluctuates widely according to the user's predilection; thus, for Ruesch, for example, in his sensitive classificatory scheme, gestures (Ruesch and Kees 1956:37) belong with the numerous "varieties of nonverbal language," one subdivision of which he names "action languages," among which gestures are singled out as only one category in about a dozen. Furthermore, Ruesch follows critchley (1939) in closely tying gestures to speech. (Sebeok 1975: 11)
I actually haven't seen it held by anyone. That is, I haven't met such a creature as anthroposemiotics.
Stokoe (1974:118) cites "motor signs" as "Jakobsan's term... and it is characteristically exact." I think that it is neither. Franz Boas, in his 1941 introduction to Efron's book (1972:10), carried over the word "motor" into the context (although he coupled it with "habits" instead of "signs"), but, to most linguists, the phrase will rather evoke an expression especially propagated by Stetson, "motor phonetics," which he defined as "the study of the siklled movements involved in the process of handling articulatory signals" (1951:6). It is not at all uncommon to find statements to the effect that "In Phonetics, the motor processes are the center of consideration" (Meader and Myskens 1962:20). What all this means is that "motor signs" can be equally of a verbal and a nonverbal character, unless one distinctly specifies what part of the body is at play. (Sebeok 1975: 11)
Stokoe is spot on in this. I haven't met talk of "motor signs" in Jakobson yet, because I've only read four articles, but I was thinking about this immediately after my first seminar on Jakobson: if he does speak of nonverbal communication then he is inclined to call it motor communication, as this is the Soviet term for (body) motion communication.
The expression "body language," perhaps suited for use in Sunday supplements (Davis 1970), became popular in this country through the title of a best seller (Fast 1970) with a conception of unmatched vulgarity, and yet it also recurs as the operative part of the title of a book with, presumably, earnest intentions (Scheflen 1972); (for an early, sophisticated use, in an unmistakably semiotic context, see Latif [1934:76f]). Such kindred labels as "body talk" (Poiret 1970), or "face language" (Whiteside 1974; cf. Mar. 1974) are also found, but more sporadically. These terms clearly imply a phenomenal dualism, postulating a body language opposed to - what? A "mind language"? (I really doubt that this view is in good conformity with the ideas about language as a direct "mirror of mind" that Chomsky imagined in his 1967 Beekman lectures [Chomsky 1972]!) (Sebeok 1975: 12)
"A conception of unmatched vulgarity" - I am amazed how right he is. "Mind language" is just funny. And: Latif, Israil A. 1934. The Physiological Basis of Linguistic Development and of the Ontogeny of Meaning. Psychological Review 41: 55-85, 153-176, 276-264. This is actually available on the web, or, at least the first two parts are. Latif talks of whole-body language in relation with infants. That means that both terms grew out of the study of infants: "body language" from "whole-body language" (Latif) and "nonverbal communication" from "preverbal communication" (Cooley). Also: Poiret, Maude 1970. Body Talk: The Signs of Kinesics. New York: Award Books. Again Sebeok seems to be the only one who has ever made any note of it (this document is the only search result).
In the field under scrutiny here, there is also a plenitude of quasi-classical coinages: "kinesics" (Birdwhistell 1970), "coenetics," with a superabundance of subsidiary terms like "haptics," 'geustics," and "strepitistics" (Wescott 1966:35), "proxemics" (Hall 1968, Watson 1970), "tactesics" (Kauffman 1971), and so forth and so on. Lexical innovations of this ilk may conceivably be of heuristic value;unfortunately, they also tend to map out crazy quils of territory which then compact into exclusivze feeding grounds for budding students, as well as fiercely defended fortalices against strange intruders, bristling with aggression and escalating counter-aggression. The recent history of "kinesics" can be looked at as a case study in territorial behavior or misbehavior, spoiling whatever utility the label may once have enjoyed. Wescott's pullulating vocabulary has totally misfired. (Sebeok 1975: 12)
This is the passage that led me to read this piece. I'm considering looking into the "heuristic value" of these lexical innovations, because they are so often misunderstood and mostly forsaken.
The latest, and is some ways the most attractive , proposal, introduced and, in some measure, developed by Stokoe (1974:118), is "gSign," where g stands for any "gestural manifestation," and sign for "sign-vehicle in a semiotic system." I can think of all sorts of ways of integrating "gSign" into semiotic theory and practice. (Sebeok 1975: 13)
At first sight this does seem attractive, but then I remember that Stokoe was not much interested in other varieties of bodily behaviour, so along with gSign I would have to use fSign ("facial manifestation") pSign ("postural manifestation"), etc.
On June 3, 1974, I proposed, during the First Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, to a convocation of over fifty interested scholars from many countries, a plan - subsequently ratified by the General Assembly - for an Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. This EDS would contain three categories of entries:
I. Articles tracing the history of all terms used in semiotics, with suggestions for standardizing current usage, for, as noted by Nelson (1975:317f.), the editors "will succeed at their task most surely if they clorify all the seemingly exotic equivalences among languages in technical terms, establish primacy or origin within the original context and system and simply list even the hapax legomena or nonce terms." (Sebeok 1975: 13-14)
I've used it to make sense of grammatology (with no remarkable success, I might add). Perhaps I should look into it, or even have it scanned... Also, "nonce" means "(a word or expression) coined for or used on one occasion" in American English, and "kiddy fiddler" in British English. This is whe the hip-hop group named The Nonce didn't do well overseas.
It is heartening to not that so many colleagues feel the need for taking steps to dispel the clouds of obfuscation which have threatened to permanently befog semiotics. We, of all people, must be ever mindful of Peirce's "Ethics of Terminology" (II; 219-226), where he teaches "that the woof and warp of all thought and science is the life inherent in symbols... Yet the scientific and philosophical worlds are infested with pedants and pedagogues who are continually endeavoring to set up a sort of magistrature over thoughts and other symbols. It thus becomes one of the first duties of one who sees what the situation is, energetically to resist everything like arbitrary dictation in scientific affairs, and above all, as to the use of terms and notations. At the same time, a general agreement concerning the use of terms and of notations - not too rigid, yet prevailing, with most of the co-workers in regard to most of the symbols, to such a degree that there shall be some small number of different systems of expression that have to be mastered - is indispensable" (II, 220). (Sebeok 1975: 14-15)
I don't know how to feel about this. I like new terms and old terms and hapax and even spelling errors ("semitoics" amused me for a good half an hour, as I remember). I think new and more exact terms is one way a science advances. And I'd rather agree with Jakobson, that it doesn't matter how you call it, as long as it is understood. That is, even "Ivan Ivanovitch Ivanovsky" will do as a term if everyone is on the same page as to what it signifies.
Whenever I am asked by neophytes desirous of entry how to gain immediate access to semiotics, I direct them to these indispensable twin keys - Morris and Buyssens, each marked by a simplicity of approach, limpidity of style, critical discernment, and captivating devotion to their subject matter. (Sebeok 1975: 15)
I don't wish immediate access to semiotics, but rather these qualities in my writing. Especially "a simplicity of approach", which I am lacking most discernibly.
Let me drive my aversion to bibliographies home, reverting, by way of documentation, to the field of "nonverbal communication," some terminological predicaments of which I mentioned above, in section 2. A respectable scholarly working bibliography, usefully annotated in part, was published by Hayes (1957) although in a hardly accessible rogional journal. Over the ensuing decades, several serious efforts of a similar nature followed, the most carefully wrought among them being Davis' annoted and indexed listing of some 931 titles (1972) (claiming [88] not to duplicate most of the references included by Hayes). The compiler explains the purpose, scope, and criteria for selecting her entries. Yet she nowhere alludes to the fact - which I find shocking - that solely English-language items are to be found in her book. Again, Davis does explicitly tell her readers: "Books and articles on... expressive movement... are cited" (vii). This notwithstanding, one searches in vain for mention of the most important book of the century on this subject, Bühler 1968 - or references to the works of Johann Jakob Engel, Th. Piderit, Guillaume Benjamin Duchenne, Louis Pierre Gratiolet, Wilhelm Wundt (cf. 1973), Ludwig Klages, to name only some contributors to the topic discussed by Bühler. How can any such bibliography omit naming Kleinpaul, whose book (19888, 1972) has, to this day, no peer? Or the Canon Andrea de Jorio's magnificent study (1832) of gesture in ancient art and literature compared with gestures in common use in the Naples of his time? Or Brilliant's examination (1963) of postures found in Roman statuary by reference to the known use of gesture as a code system, as set out in the ancient manuals of rhetoric? (Sebeok 1975: 19)
qcqc "The most important book of the century" on nonverbal communication is: Bühler, Karl 1968 [1933]. Ausdruckstheorie: Das System an der Gesichichte aufgezeigt. Struttgart: Gustav Fischer. It is available in Sebeok's collection. The importance of Johann Jakob Engel, Theodor Piderit, Louis Pierre Gratiolet, Ludwig Klages, and Rudolf Kleinpaul eludes me at the moment, because I haven't read Bühler and probably won't before I have mastered deutch on any level. On the other hand, his 600-page Theory of Language: The representational fuction of language, republished in 2011, is available and seems approcahable.
Bibliographies tend to reflect their compiler's cultural myopia in subtle ways. Those dedicated to nonverbal communication (like most recent general monographic accounts of the subject, including, surprisingly enough, the few - like Scherer 1970 - published abroad) seem tacitly to assume that this is a strikingly American game (or, sometimes, perhaps an Anglo-Saxon one, with Charles Darwin as its ritually cited godhead). Others suffer from a generation gap: they cannot see back beyond the early 1950's. Moreover, there is now a hazy but uneasy association of nonverbal communication studies with the clinical or social trend known as sensitivity training or encounter movements, and their off-shoots (Back 1972), embarrassing skeletons seldom paraded by scientific researchers in public, though obtrusive enough in their bibliographic closets. (Sebeok 1975: 21)
I don't recall anything about sensitivity training as such, but I think there's a trend like this still existent in, for example, the nonverbalists who deal with autism and still cling to the notion of "body language" (out of convenience or sheer ignorance).
As Stankiewicz has recently pointed out, the connection of poetics with semiotics was clearly formulated in 1929, in one of the Theses of the Linguistic Circle of Prague, which proclaimed that "Everything in the work of art and its relation to the outside world... can be discussed in terms of sign and meaning; in this sense aesthetics can be regarded as a part of the modern science of scene, of semiotics" (Stankiewicz 1974:630). (Sebeok 1975: 21)
It would be neat if Powys's discussion of the "poetic element of life" in 1929 disclosed something similar to this. But that's just wishful thinking (I think I'm beginning to get sleep-drunk).
As Morris has insisted, esthetics "becomes in its entirety a subdivision of semiotic," and the approach to it in terms of the theory of signs "is thus not merely significant for art, esthetics, and semiotic, but for the whole program of unified science" (Morris 1971:416, 433). Understanding the esthetic function of sign systems as displayed in the several arts, verbal and pictorial, two-and three-dimesional, pantomimic and choreographic, introversive and extroversive, and ranging in appeal from mass culture, like the comic strip, to more elitist strata, like the opera, thus becomes an essential concern and preoccupation of modern semiotics and in the human context beyond, with a vast, accreting, specialized literature. (Sebeok 1975: 33)
Today we could probably add web design and digital media to this list.


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