Put that in your pipe and smoke it

Semiosis in the Postmodern Age
September 22, 1995

Readers who can barely stifle a groan on seeing yet another title containing the word "postmodern" may take heart. This book has very little to say about the postmodern age. What little it does say, admittedly, is embarrassingly banal. The postmodernist mind, we are told, is in the business of demolishing "landmarks of epistemological stability". "Territorial divisions are swept away by the whirlwinds of change. Distinctions between science and non-science, art and non-art, are levelled. And we discover that we are all - human and non-human, living and non-living, organic and inorganic alike - in this thing together."

This thing, one might suppose, is the universal boat. But no. That would be an abhorrent metaphor from the bad old days of modernism. A boat suggests an enclosed structure of some kind. And that must be wrong. We enlightened postmoderns will have no truck with closure of any kind. We believe only in open-ended processes. We are immediately suspicious not only of boats but of anything that looks remotely like a discrete physical object. We are ever on our guard against such sinister modernist concepts as the finite, the static, the determinate and the mechanistic, not to mention those seductive modernist twins, signifier and signified. (Saussure was a false prophet, who led true seekers up the modernist garden path.) Dichotomies are definitely out. But trichotomies are OK. For everything is structured by the semiotically ineluctable dimensions of firstness, secondness and thirdness.

No prizes are offered for guessing where all this regurgitated pseudo-philosophy comes from: the source is none other than C. S. Peirce, now posthumously hailed as the great prophet of the postmodern age.

Perhaps the saddest fate that can befall an original thinker is to be resurrected as the hero of a later cult. What happens then is that anything that was sharp and penetrating in the original thinking becomes blunted by mindless repetition. At the same time, whatever may have been obscure or erratic will be eulogised as "insight". Nowadays there is not much to choose intellectually between the cult of Peirce and the cult of Presley. The chief difference is that most of Elvis's cult members do not hold posts at universities in North America. There is not a great deal that serious students of Peirce can do about this situation except grin and bear it.

Critics of Peirce will tell you that this fate was something the great man richly deserved. For Peirce was probably the most prolific purveyor of half-baked ideas in western philosophy since Jeremy Bentham, and he supplied a whole hideous vocabulary of neologisms in which to enshrine them for posterity. These neologisms, needless to say, have a fatal fascination for the cult disciples, who make litanies of them with which to astonish the vulgar. Some neophytes may even, sacrilegiously, dare to improve on the master. Eager-beaver readers of the Oxford English Dictionary will probably spot the neonate monstrosity "autosemiopoeitic" cradled in the thick bullrushes of this volume. Let us hope that for once their keen lexicographer's eyesight fails.

The keyword in these neo-Peircean litanies is always semiosis. What is semiosis? Well, take, for example, the sentence "'Is not a pipe' is not a pipe." Rather an odd sentence, you might think at first. But bear with it. This sentence says "what semiotics is all about: the study of semiosis, the process of signs of their respective semiotic objects for particular semiotic agents in some respect or capacity, and, at the same time, the process of signs denying that they are what they signify. That is, just as our semiotic agent, at the inception of the process of interpreting a sign, is such that it is as if he were to say 'I am not that which I am, and I am that which I am not', so also the symbolic sign, suspended within its own linguistic medium, says what it is not and it is not what it says. The sign's becoming a sign renders it a sign only in the sense that it is an ongoing act of becoming, therefore a perpetual denial of what it is."

Passages like the above lead one to suspect this book was written by someone who suffered a mental trauma by being introduced to the classic conundrums of self-reference at too early an age, and has never quite recovered. This impression is borne out by the author's frequent references to fiction by Borges and to Godel's theorem. The latter is naively interpreted as proving something about the nature of the human mind.

Insofar as the book can be said to present a thesis, it is that Peirce's amazing but controversial insights about semiosis are amply confirmed by the discoveries of 20th-century science. The science brigade paraded in support of this thesis includes good old General Heisenberg with his indeterminacy principle - a formidable weapon - and Colonel Bohr with his no less lethal complementarity principle. Einstein ranks only as captain, because in weaker moments he was inclined absentmindedly to come out on parade singing disloyal modernist ditties about an observer-independent reality with deterministic laws. And, in addition to these seasoned warriors, there is a motley assortment of scientific irregulars and new recruits.

The most curious thing about the whole neo-Peircean campaign when waged in this way seems to be that it makes sense only if the basic account of the difference between modernism and postmodernism is correct. Not only is it far from clear that this is so but - horror of horrors - that distinction itself seems to be the product of discredited "binary" thinking. Although this has long been obvious to the impatient reader throughout 11 turgid chapters, it is only on page 6 that the author himself wakes up to it and admits that "my own critique is itself binary in nature: the postmodern spirit against its decadent predecessor, non-Booleanism against Booleanism, nonlinearity against linearity, and so on". In the remaining 30 pages of the book, he tries hard to "save face", as he puts it.

The face-saving exercise consists mainly of a tirade against computers and artificial intelligence. In other words, more binarity-bashing. So we are left in the end with evasion and paradox. Are we downhearted? No! For to us postmoderns, paradox is meat and drink, both delicacy and iron rations, the never-failing manna for our proudly muddled minds.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

Semiosis in the Postmodern Age

Author - Floyd Merrell
ISBN - 1 55753 055 6
Publisher - Purdue University Press
Price - £35.95
Pages - 374

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