Sign, Text, Scripture: Semiotics and the Bible

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Sign, Text, Scripture: Semiotics and the Bible, by George Aichele. Interventions 1. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Pp. 163. $14.95/99.95 (paper).

As current chair of the SBL's Semiotics and Exegesis Section, George Aichele is well equipped to write a book on semiotics and the Bible. Originally the Section was called Structuralism and Exegesis, and indeed the history of biblical semiotics is intimately bound up with the history of biblical structuralism. Given that structuralism's profile in biblical studies has been more prominent than that of semiotics, an "obvious" place for Aichele to begin this book would have been to distinguish semiotics from structuralism, its nonidentical twin. But structuralism is an object of repression in this book. As far as I can tell, it is not so much as mentioned. Certainly it does not feature in the glossary, and the best-known exponent of biblical structuralism (and indeed of biblical semiotics) does not feature in either the bibliography or the index of authors. I speak of Daniel Patte. Murdered twin? Slain father? There are Gothic undercurrents in this book.

But what is semiotics, for Aichele, at least the semiotics for which his book is a manifesto? In a word, poststructuralism--and another word that seems to be absent from this book. Aichele prefers to speak of "postmodern semiotics," contrasting it throughout with "modern semiotics." The exemplars of the latter, for Aichele, are Ferdinand de Saussure (here relieved of his more familiar role as "father of structuralism"), Roman Jakobson, Gottlob Frege (a surprise choice, perhaps), and C. S. Peirce, aspects of whose work shadow forth postmodern semiotics. Modern semiotics subscribes to "container" and "channel" models of language: the physical elements of language contain mental elements ("meanings"), and it is the function of the former to relay the latter from mind to mind without loss or distortion. Postmodern semiotics, in contrast, collapses the distinction between the physical elements of language (the signifier, in Saussurian terms), and its mental, ideal, or "metaphysical" elements (the signified), dispensing with the "container" model in the process and casting doubts on the comforting image of fragile meanings borne safely from the cranium of the sender to that of the receiver. Exemplars of postmodern semiotics, for Aichele, include Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Umberto Eco. Aichele's "poststructuralization" of semiotics sets it at a far remove from what normally marches under that banner in biblical studies-except in the United States? Long before the Structuralism and Exegesis Section underwent its name change it had become a forum for poststructuralist exegesis, and now as the Semiotics and Exegesis Section it is a forum too for what has come to be known as "cultural studies." Biblical studies in the United States appears to have a penchant not just for interdisciplinary borrowing but also for interdisciplinary retooling: narratology becomes narrative criticism, ideology critique becomes ideological criticism, and semiotics becomes--what? A cipher for poststructuralism combined with cultural studies? …