Academic journal article Genders

On the Semiotic Basis of Knowledge and Ethics: An Interview with Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio

Academic journal article Genders

On the Semiotic Basis of Knowledge and Ethics: An Interview with Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio

Article excerpt

[1] DP: Let me start by thanking you for agreeing to talk about your book with me. I found Semiotics Unbounded a really fascinating attempt to synthesize a lot of material in the field of semiotics that will be unfamiliar to many of us (especially in the U.S.) who were trained according to a rather narrow equation of semiotics with Saussure and with the general principle of the arbitrariness of the sign. I suspect that for many readers of Genders, one of the things that will surprise them initially about this book is how robust the field of semiotics is, and how little it depends on familiar Saussurian principles.

[2] As a way to start our discussion and provide some background for readers, could I ask you to discuss the definitions and assumptions about the field from which you are trying to "unbind" semiotics?

[3] SP and AP: The attempt to "unbind" semiotics, as you say, from a restricted and reductive view began precisely in the United States. The protagonists of this operation were in fact all Americans (in the sense of being American despite different national origins, which is the case of all Americans): Charles S. Peirce, Charles W. Morris, Thomas A. Sebeok who was of Hungarian origin.

[4] The restricted view we are referring to is Ferdinand de Saussure's. But we must be careful here. We are not referring to Saussure as he is now emerging ever more clearly from his manuscripts and unpublished lesson notes (this Saussure is yet to be fully discovered). Instead, we are referring to the official Saussure, as he has circulated in relation to his Cours de linguistique generale, published posthumously by his followers, Bally and Sechehaye.

[5] The first part of our book, Semiotics Unbounded, is entitled "Semiotics and Semioticians." This forms a conspicuous part of the volume, which begins by illustrating the semiotic reflections of these authors.

[6] A women immediately appears on the scene in close connection with Peirce, the English Victoria Lady Welby. Consequently, this particular route in the history of semiotics intersects with another concerning women's history in spheres that are generally occupied by male roles: philosophy, logic, linguistics, ethics, education, biology, mathematics, etc. Victoria Welby crosses over all these fields from the perspective of the general science of signs, that is, semiotics, given that none of these fields can do without signs.

[7] But semiotics, like other branches in the study of signs and language, for example, semantics, the study of meaning, had already been rather strictly oriented and in fact their very names, "semiotics," "semantics," were connected with preconceptions, theoretical and practical. Welby spread her point of view--a specifically feminine point of view (the importance she gave in her studies on the problem of sense, meaning and significance to what she called "mother sense" and values is symptomatic).

[8] Given such an original perspective, Welby introduced a neologism and called her approach to signs and language "significs." This approach and the name she chose for it found consensus in trends and among authors that have become well established to Victoria Welby's disadvantage in the sense that her pivotal role is only now emerging in all its force and importance. Significs spread throughout England, America, even Holland where it became a full-fledged movement with ethical and political developments.

[9] It is worth mentioning on the side that these renowned authors of the time were all males, beginning with two famous authors in semiotics, Charles K. Ogden and Ivor A.Richards, who published a book together generally considered to be of epochal importance, The Meaning of Meaning (1923). Ogden was strongly influenced by Welby, similarly to Charles S. Peirce (think of the essays by the latter from his mature phase collected under the title Chance, Love and Logic, 1923). Welby and Peirce corresponded intensely and discussed issues of a philosophical and scientific order: a series of important essays by Peirce come to mind such as those on existential graphs. …

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