Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
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Social reproduction and language as work and "modelling device"

Contributions to socioeconomic and cultural innovation by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and Thomas A. Sebeok(*)

Susan Petrilli (Università degli Studi di Bari)



The paper is divided into three parts: 1. Studies by Rossi-Landi and Sebeok on signs and language. 2. "Language as work" and "language as primary modelling". 3. Contributions by Rossi-Landi and Sebeok to socio-semiotics understood as semio-ethics.

1. An illegitimate use of abstraction and of the relation between "abstract object" and "totality" consists in maintaining that an abstract object covers and exhausts the characteristics of a totality otherwise ignored or left in the dark. But Rossi-Landi and Sebeok take a stand against this fallacy, that is, the pars pro toto error. The term "semiotics" instead of "semiology" to indicate the general science of signs does not simply express a terminological preference. Semiology as the study of post- and translinguistic sign systems must not be confused with semiotics as the general science of signs, that is, of all types of signs. Both Rossi-Landi and Sebeok avoid identifying semiotics with semiology thus understood, consequently they both free the study of signs from semiological glottocentrism. According to Rossi-Landi, semiotics overcomes separatism among the sciences. Sebeok worked in a similar direction with his critique of the concept of bridge, which he substituted with the concept of web.

2. Rossi-Landi’s concept of linguistic work does not simply establish an analogy with non-linguistic work. On the contrary, work and language are interconnected by a relation of homology. Language is work. According to this approach, the two definitions of the human being as laborans and as loquens coincide. Natural divisions that oblige one to separate verbal work from nonverbal work, the production of messages from the production of merchandise, do not exist in reality. In both cases we are dealing with semiosis, with the linguistic work of modelling. On the basis of this claim we can establish a connection between Rossi-Landi’s concept of work, on the one hand, and the concepts of primary, secondary and tertiary modelling elaborated by Sebeok, on the other. Similarly to Sebeok, Rossi-Landi criticized those theories that reduce the problem of the origin of language to the problem of communication.

3. Rossi-Landi’s approach to semiotics focused on social planning, on the critique of ideology, and therefore on the human capacity for constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing new and better worlds. From this point of view, Rossi-Landi’s work may be associated with and approached in a sociosemiotics denominated "semioethics" by Susan Petrilli with Augusto Ponzio. Sebeok’s global semiotics also contributes to semioethics if we connect his global perspective to the presentday socio-economic context, that is, the context of global communication-production. Global semiotics focuses on the interconnection among signs and demonstrates the relation of interdependency among all life forms over the planet. The specific human modelling device Sebeok has indicated as language subtends deconstruction and reconstruction, the human capacity to produce many possible worlds, the capacity for semiotics, with the ensuing capacity for evaluation, responsibility, inventiveness, planning, criticism. This capacity renders the semiotic animal completely responsible not only for social reproduction, but for life on the whole planet, from which it cannot be separated.


1. Studies by Rossi-Landi and Sebeok on signs and language

An illegitimate use of abstraction, of the relation between "abstract object" and "totality" consists in maintaining that an abstract object covers and exhausts the characteristics of a totality otherwise ignored or left in the dark. This is the pars pro toto fallacy discussed by John Deely in his entry of Thomas A. Sebeok in the Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac. Sebeok took a clear stand against this fallacy, as did Charles Morris before him, and in his turn the Italian philosopher of language and semiotician, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi. In ‘Note di semiotica’ (first published in the journal Nuova Corrente, in 1967, and again in his monograph Semiotica e ideologia, 1972), Rossi-Landi observes that the pars pro toto fallacy occurs when we fail to distinguish between "semiology" and "semiotics".

Choice of the term "semiotics" instead of "semiology" to indicate the general science of signs does not simply express a terminological preference. Semiology as the study of post and translinguistic sign systems must not be confused with semiotics as the general science of signs, that is, of all types of signs.

Both Rossi-Landi and Sebeok avoid identifying semiotics with semiology thus understood. Consequently, they both free the study of signs from semiological glottocentrism. Instead, linguistics remains a separate glottological science until it becomes aware of its extrinsic connection with the general science of signs in the light of which it may better determine its object and method of analysis.

From Rossi-Landi’s perspective, semiotics is the theoretical place where separatism among the sciences may at last be overcome. Sebeok too worked in a similar direction with his critique of the concept of the bridge, which he substituted with the concept of the web.

Rossi-Landi analyzes the problem of barriers in the human sciences and in this context worked specifically on the relations between verbal production and exchange, on the one hand, and material production and exchange, on the other hand:

My attempt aimed at bringing together two totalities, that of linguistic production and that of material production in a greater totality, so as to disclose some of the structures of this greater totality (Rossi-Landi 1972a: 288).

This orientation characterizes the whole course of Rossi-Landi’s research from Il linguaggio come lavoro e come mercato (Language as Work and Trade), of 1968, to Linguistics and Economics, 1975, the papers collected in the volume Metodica filosofica e scienza dei segni, 1985, and his posthumous volume Between Signs and Non-signs, 1992.

The first point to highlight is that Rossi-Landi worked on and developed Marx’s approach to commodities, which he understood as a fact of communication and not as a relation among things, considering political economy as a part of semiotics. In the second place, Rossi-Landi studied linguistic phenomena with categories from the science of economics according to the tradition that unites Smith to Ricardo and Marx. Unlike marginalistic economy, this approach to political economy provides us with the necessary instruments to go beyond the level of linguistic exchange (the linguistic market) and focus on the level of production, here the social relations of linguistic production (the social relations of linguistic work).

In his "Preface to the American Edition" of Language as Work and Trade, 1983, Rossi-Landi clarifies that many of his ideas "were already present, if only in an embryonic form, in the 1961 book" (his allusion is to Significato, comunicazione e parlare comune). However that may be, we believe that this volume of 1961 represents an important editorial event in itself on the scene of studies in the philosophy of language and semiotics, independently of subsequent developments. From this point of view, we cannot but agree with Rossi-Landi when he says that his own criticism of his 1961 book as formulated in Language as Work and Trade (1968, Eng. trans.: 24-27), needs to be reviewed (see his introduction to the 1980 edition of Significato, comunicazione e parlare comune, Rossi-Landi 1980: 25-26). In 1961 Rossi-Landi developed the concept of common speech. But viewed in the light of his project for linguistic-semiotic reflection oriented in the sense of historical materialism, the concept of common speech seemed "mentalistic", which led to the need of its reformulation in terms of social work.

In his introduction to the 1980 edition of Significato, comunicazione e parlare comune, Rossi-Landi himself (1980: 26) gives us the key. The notion of common speech proposes a general interpretive model, a theoretical construction and not a direct, immediate description of real processes, though of course it refers to real processes. Common speech is different from the concept of ordinary language as developed by analytical philosophy, just as it is different from Noam Chomsky’s concept of competence and generative grammar. Common speech is a model with interpretive functions, an interpretive hypothesis applicable to different languages. With his common speech hypothesis Rossi-Landi aimed at identifying the general conditions of language-thought which make linguistic usage possible and which as such are valid beyond the limits of any one given historical-natural language. Rather than describe linguistic usage, common speech (or "speaking") proposes a general model, a "speech model", as Rossi-Landi also called it, intended to explain linguistic usage, identifying those elements common to and constant among the different single languages, and as such it is applicable to all historical-natural languages. From this point of view that which subtends linguistic usage is not mentalist or in any other way ontologically pre-existent with respect to natural languages, and the common speech model would at last seem to provide an appropriate conceptual apparatus for the analysis of real linguistic phenomena.

In his book of 1968, Language as Work and Trade, Rossi-Landi interpreted common speech in terms of work, linguistic work. Applying the "homological method" he transposed categories relative to material production to linguistic production. As he wrote to Charles Morris in a letter of March 20, 1965:

I am working on language, for a change - this time trying to take seriously what linguists and economists say about it. Linguists, for the obvious reason that most "linguistic philosophers" take so little account of linguistics as it is; economists, for the non obvious reason that I found an intriguing correspondence between certain analyses in the two fields (economics and linguistics) (in Petrilli 1992: 99-100).

Rossi-Landi continued his research across such theoretical volumes as Semiotica e ideologia (1972), Ideologies of Linguistic Relativity (1973), Linguistics and Economics (1975), and Ideologia (1978, Eng. trans. Marxism and Ideology), developing his common speech hypothesis into a theory of common semiosis.

For Rossi-Landi his theoretical and critical commitment was inseparable from his commitment to politics. In 1967 he founded the journal Ideologie dedicated to the critique of ideology and cultural prejudice (the last issue appeared in 1972). Rossi-Landi wrote some of his most important works while acting as Editor-in-chief of Ideologie. Important to remember is a long essay on the concept of language in Sapir and Whorf, with references to studies on Amerindian languages (Navajo, Hopi, Wintu), published in English as an independent volume entitled Ideologies of Linguistic Relativity, in 1973. From this point of view his essays collected in the Semiotica e ideologia, 1972 are also important.

Rossi-Landi’s essay on the homology between material production and linguistic production was first published in Ideologie, number 16-17, in 1972 (pp. 43-103), it was subsequently developed for publication in his volume Linguistics and Economics, 1975, and again in his 1985 volume, Metodica filosofica e scienza dei segni. Rossi-Landi devoloped what he called the "homological method" as his method of analysis and focused on homological relations between material artefacts and linguistic artefacts in the sphere of anthroposemiosis.

The homological method consists of identifying relations of structural and genetic resemblance among objects from different fields of knowledge, which were thought to be separate. The homological method searches for homologies and not analogies, the latter being relations of resemblance of the immediate and superficial order. Even though they seem separate and are studied by different disciplines, material and linguistic artefacts can be considered as part of the same totality insofar a they are the result of human work.

With the aid of his homological method Rossi-Landi contributed to the critique of hypostatization, that is, the tendency to hypostatize and reify the parts that form a totality, but that are considered as separate from the totality while, on the contrary, they constitute the totality, belong to it. On this basis, Rossi-Landi took a strong stand against separatism among the sciences, which he contributed to overcoming:

The homological element breaks with specialization: it obliges one to keep in mind different things at the same time, it disturbs the independent play of separate sub-totalities, and calls for a vaster totality, whose laws are not those of its parts. In other words, the homological method is an antiseparatist and reconstructive method, and, as such, unwelcomed by the specialists (Rossi-Landi 1967-72 [1971], 16-17: 62, in Rossi-Landi 1985a: 53).

The homological relation identified as connecting material production and linguistic production is confirmed in today’s social reproduction system, in the phase of development known as globalization which converges with a worldwide economic system. In fact, communication is no longer limited to the exchange phase, but also invades production and consumption, so that what we produce and consume is communication: not only have we discovered that commodities are messages, but also that messages are commodities. Rossi-Landi was well aware of the fact that linguistic work and material work had at last come together, commenting as follows during a seminar held at Bari University, in April 1985, just a month before his death:

One can ascend along what I called the homological scheme of production up to a certain point, where an incredible thing happens, which is that the two productions merge into each other. This is a thing of the last few decades, because in the production of computers, hardware (in technical language), that is, a material body whose elaborated matter constitutes the computer, combines with software, that is, a program, so that an ensemble of logically expressible linguistic relations merge. Therefore the non-linguistic, the objectual and the linguistic at a high definition of elaboration have merged into each other almost under our very eyes (Rossi-Landi 1985b: 171).

In Sebeok’s work semiotics emerges as global semiotics which unites signs and life. From this perspective semiosis is the behaviour of living beings.

A lire les ouvrages de Sebeok, on est confondu par sa familiarité avec les langues et les cultures du monde, par l’aisance avec laquelle il se meut à travers le travaux des psychologues, des spécialistes de neuro-physiologie cérébrale, de biologie cellulaire, ou ceux des éthologues portant sur des centaines d’espèces zoologiques allant des organismes unicellulaires aux mammifères supérieurs, en passant par les insects, les poissons et les oiseaux. Ce savoir plus qu’encyclopédique se mesure aussi aux milliers de noms d’auteurs, de langues, de peuples et d’espèces composant les index des ouvrages écrits ou dirigés par lui, et à leurs énormes bibliographies (Lévi-Strauss, "Avant-Propos", in Bouissac, Herzfeld, Posner 1986: 3).

In spite of a tendency towards totalization characteristic of semiotics, Sebeok in his monograph Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, 1976, uses neither the ennobling term "science" nor the term "theory" for his own approach. Instead he privileged the expression "doctrine of signs", adapted from John Locke who maintained that a doctrine was no more than a body of principles and opinions vaguely forming a field of knowledge. Sebeok also used this expression as understood by Charles S. Peirce, that is, as charged with the instances of Kantian critique. Therefore, not only did Sebeok invest semiotics with the task of observing and describing phenomena, that is, signs, but even more significantly he believed that semiotics was to interrogate the conditions of possibility of signs which are characterized and specified for what they are - as they emerge from observation which is necessarily partial and limited -, and for what they must be (see his Preface to Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs). This at once humble and ambitious character of the ‘doctrine of signs’ leads to interrogation à la Kant concerning its own conditions of possibility: the doctrine of signs is the science of signs which questions itself, which attempts to answer for itself, which researches into its own foundations.

Sebeok succeeded in avoiding biologism as occurs when human culture is reduced to communication systems that can be traced in other species; just as he avoided, conversely, the anthropomorphic reduction of nonhuman animal communication to characteristic traits and models specific to mankind.

Consequently his doctrine of signs insists on the autonomy of nonverbal sign systems with respect to the verbal. Such autonomy is also demonstrated through the study of human sign systems which depend on verbal signs only in part in spite of their importance in anthroposemiosis.

Semiotics is not only anthroposemiotics but also zoosemiotics, phytosemiotics, mycosemiotics, microsemiotics, endosemiotics, machinesemiotics, environmental semiotics, which study as many different spheres of semiosis in the great biosemiosphere.

Sebeok has extended the boundaries of traditional semiotics or more correctly semiology which is restrictively based upon the verbal paradigm and vitiated by the pars pro toto error. He tagged this conception of semiotics the "minor tradition" and promoted instead what he called the "major tradition" as represented by Locke and Peirce and early studies on signs and symptoms by Hippocrates and Galen. Semiotics, therefore, is at once recent if considered from the viewpoint of the determination of its status and awareness of its wide-ranging possible applications, and ancient if its roots are traced back at least, following Sebeok (1979) to the theory and practice of Hippocrates and Galen.

I Think I Am a Verb is a book which at once assembles a broad range of interests and which also acts as a launching pad for new research itineraries in the vast region of semiotics. The title evokes the words ringing with Peircean overtones of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses Grant, on his death bed. In Peirce’s view the human being is a sign and Sebeok’s choice of a verb instead of a noun to characterize this sign (which not only each one of us is, but also the whole universe in its globality) serves to emphasize the dynamic and processual character of semiosis.

A fundamental point in Sebeok’s doctrine of signs is that to live is to be involved in sign activity. This is to say that to maintain and to reproduce life and not only to interpret it at a scientific level are all activities that necessarily involve the use of signs. Sebeok theorizes a direct connection between the biological and the semiosic universes and, therefore, between biology and semiotics. His research develops Peirce’s conviction that the human being is a sign with the addition that this sign is a verb: to interpret. And in Sebeok’s own original conception of reality, interpreting activity coincides with life activity - in his own personal case all his life. If I am a sign as he would seem to be saying with his life as a researcher, then nothing that is a sign is alien to me - nihil signi mihi alienum puto; and if the sign situated in the interminable chain of signs is necessarily an interpretant, then ‘to interpret’ is the verb that may best help me understand who I am.

Sebeok explores the capacity for lying in the nonhuman animal world. We believe this particular interest has two main motivations. The first concerns his commitment to contradicting the belief that animals can "talk" in a literal sense. This claim invests animals with a characteristic that in reality is species-specific and exclusive to human beings. Nor does the specificity of human language exclude the possibility of establishing a homological relation between human verbal language and animal language.

A Sign is a Just a Sign includes a paper of 1989, "Semiosis and Semiotics: What lies in Their Future?" (pp. 97-99). Here Sebeok significantly adds another meaning to the term ‘semiotics’ understood as the general science of signs. This new meaning refers to the specificity of human semiosis and is of vital importance for a transcendental founding of semiotics as a doctrine of signs. Says Sebeok:

Semiotics is an exclusively human style of inquiry, consisting of the contemplation - whether informally or in formalised fashion - of semiosis. This search will, it is safe to predict, continue at least as long as our genus survives, much as it has existed, for about three million years, in the successive expressions of Homo, variously labelled - reflecting, among other attributes, a growth in brain capacity with concomitant cognitive abilities - habilis, erectus, sapiens, neanderthalensis, and now s. sapiens. Semiotics, in other words, simply points to the universal propensity of the human mind for reverie focused specularly inward upon its own long-term cognitive strategy and daily manoeuvrings. Locke designated this quest as a search for "humane understanding"; Peirce, as "the play of musement" (ibid: 97).

According to this meaning, ‘semiotics’ is the human species-specific capacity for metasemiosis. In the world of life which coincides with semiosis, human semiosis is characterized as metasemiosis, that is, as the possibility of reflecting on signs, of making signs not only the object of interpretation undistinguished from the response to these signs, but also of interpretation as reflection on signs, as suspension of response and possibility of deliberation.

Developing Aristotles observation at the beginning of his Metaphysics, that the human being tends by nature to knowledge, we can now claim that the human being tends by nature to semiotics. Human semiosis, anthroposemiosis, presents itself as semiotics. Semiotics understood as specifically human semiosis or anthroposemiosis can venture across the entire universe in search of meanings and senses considered in terms of signs. However, semiotics must not absolutize anthroposemiosis (as has occurred in the history of ideas), and, oversimplifying, identify it with semiosis in general.

The exquisitely human propensity for musement implies the ability to carry out such operations as predicting the future or "travelling" through the past, the ability, that is, to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct reality, inventing new worlds and interpretive models. The happy expression ‘the play of musement’ is used by Sebeok, interpreter of Peirce, as the title of his book of 1981.

In another paper included in A Sign is Just a Sign, "The evolution of semiosis" (pp. 83-96, now in Posner et al. 1997-1998), Sebeok explains the correspondences that exist between the various branches of semiotics and different types of semioses, from the world of micro-organisms to the Superkingdoms and the human world. Specific human semiosis, anthroposemiosis, is characterized as semiotics thanks to a modelling device specific to humans called by Sebeok "language" (it is virtually certain that Homo habilis was endowed with language, but not speech).

In another very important paper included in A Sign is a Just a Signs, entitled "In What Sense is Language a ‘Primary Modelling system’?" (now also in Signs, 1994), Sebeok describes language as a "modelling device". Every species is endowed with a model that produces its own world, and language is the name of the model belonging to human beings. However, human language as a modelling device is completely different from the modelling devices of other life forms. Its distinctive feature is what the linguists call "syntax". Syntax is what makes it possible for hominids to have not only one "reality", one world, but also to frame an indefinite number of possible worlds. This capacity is unique to human beings. Thanks to syntax human language is like Lego building blocks, it can reassemble a limited number of construction pieces in an infinite number of different ways. As a modelling device language can produce an indefinite number of models; in other words, the same pieces can be taken apart and put together to construct an infinite number of different models. Thanks to language not only do human animals produce worlds as do other species, but, as says Leibniz, human beings can also produce an infinite number of possible worlds. This brings us back to the ‘play of musement’, a human capacity which Sebeok considers particularly important for scientific research and all forms of investigation as well as for fiction and all forms of artistic creation.

Speech like language made its appearance as an adaptation, but for the sake of communication and much later than language, precisely with Homo sapiens. Consequently, language too ended up becoming a communication device; and speech developed out of language as a derivative exaptation (a term proposed by Gould and Vrba 1982). Exapted for communication, first in the form of speech and later of script, language enabled human beings to enhance the nonverbal capacity with which they were already endowed. On the other hand, speech was exapted for modelling and eventually functioned as a secondary modelling system. In addition to increasing the communication capacity, speech also increased the capacity for innovation and "play of musement". Such aspects as the plurality of languages and "linguistic creativity" (Chomsky) testify to the capacity of language understood as a primary modelling device, for producing numerous possible worlds.

The Forms of Meaning. Modelling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis, co-authored by Sebeok with Marcel Danesi, further develops the fundamental notion of "model". Sebeok uses the concept of modelling as proposed by the so-called Moscow-Tartu school (A. A. Zaliznjak, V. V. Ivanov, and V. N. Toporov. Ju. M. Lotman) where it is used to denote natural language ("primary modelling system") and the other human cultural systems ("secondary modelling systems"). However, differently to the Moscow-Tartu school, Sebeok goes further to extend the concept of modelling beyond the domain of anthroposemiosis. With reference to the biologist J. von Uexküll and his concept of Umwelt, Sebeok’s interpretation of model may be translated as an "outside world model". On the basis of research in biosemiotics, the modelling capacity is observable in all life forms (see Sebeok 1991b: 49-58; 1994b: 117-127).

The study of modelling behavior in and across all life forms requires a methodological framework developed in the field of biosemiotics. This methodological framework is what Sebeok in his research on the interface between semiotics and biology proposes to call "modelling systems theory". Modelling systems theory studies semiotic phenomena as modelling processes (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 1-43).

In the light of semiotics conceived in terms of modelling systems theory, semiosis - as we have stated a capacity with which all life forms are endowed - may be defined as "the capacity of a species to produce and comprehend the specific types of models it requires for processing and codifying perceptual input in its own way" (Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 5).

The applied study of modelling systems theory is called systems analysis, which distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary modelling systems.

The primary modelling system is the innate capacity for simulative modelling, in other words, it is a system that allows organisms to simulate something in species-specific ways (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 44-45). And as we have already pointed out Sebeok calls "language" the species-specific primary modelling system of the species called Homo. The secondary modelling system is the system that subtends both indicational and extensional modelling processes. The nonverbal form of indicational modelling has been documented in various species, whereas extensional modelling is a uniquely human capacity given that it presupposes language (primary modelling system) which, as mentioned, Sebeok distinguishes from speech (human secondary modelling system) (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 82-85). The tertiary modelling system undergirds highly abstract, symbol-based modelling processes. Tertiary modelling systems are human cultural systems (see Sebeok and Danesi 2000: 120-129).

Sebeok’s interests cover a broad range of territories ranging from the natural sciences to the human sciences. Consequently, he deals with theoretical issues and their applications from as many angles as are the disciplines called in question: linguistics, cultural anthropology, psychology, artificial intelligence, zoology, ethology, biology, medicine, robotics, mathematics, philosophy, literature, narratology, and so forth. Even though the initial impression might be of a rather erratic mode of proceeding as he experiments various perspectives and embarks upon different research ventures, in reality Sebeok’s expansive and seemingly distant interests find a focus in his "doctrine of signs" and in the fundamental conviction subtending his general method of enquiry that the universe is perfused with signs, indeed, as Peirce hazards, may be composed exclusively of signs.

As a fact of signification the entire universe enters Sebeok’s "Global Semiotics". Semiotics is the place where the "life sciences" and the "sign sciences" converge, therefore the place where consciousness is reached of the fact that the human being is a sign in a universe of signs.


2. "Language as work" and "language as primary modelling"

Rossi-Landi had already proposed and developed his hypothesis of "language as work" in his early writings of the 1960s. The idea of "language as work" develops his earlier concept of "language as common speech", that is, a system of common operations that subtend the various historical-natural languages. In both cases we are faced with the attempt at progressing from the level of description of linguistic behaviour (behaviourism), linguistic usage (Wittengstein), ordinary language (Oxonian philosophy), the "state of a given language" (Saussure), taxonomic analysis (Martinet), worldview connected to a given language (Sapir and Whorf), to the level of explication of the structures and processes that produce those different historical-natural languages.

Rossi-Landi tackled the problem of surpassing the tendency characteristic of language theory, including Noam Chomsky’s, towards descriptivism. Indeed, as much as Chomsky’s work is oriented in an explicative and genealogical sense he too believes that his task is to describe an innate universal grammar. In reality, Chomsky’s conviction is simply the result of his tendency to hypostatize language as much as he wished to explain it instead with his universal grammar. However, Chomsky fails to distinguish between the genotypic level and the phenotypical level of language. On the other hand, evoking Marx’s terminology, Rossi-Landi knew that it was necessary to shift the focus in the study of language from the level of "linguistic market" to that of "linguistic work".

As anticipated in the first part of this paper, we know that to speak of "linguistic work" does not mean to establish a relation of analogy with non-linguistic work. On the contrary, Rossi-Landi demonstrated that work and language are interconnected by a relation of homology. Language is work. According to this approach the two definitions of the human being as laborans and as loquens coincide. Natural divisions that oblige one to separate verbal work from nonverbal work, the production of messages from the production of merchandise do not in fact exist in reality. In both cases we are dealing with semiosis, with the linguistic work of modelling.

On the basis of such a claim it is possible to establish a connection between Rossi-Landi’s concept of work, on the one hand, and the concepts of primary, secondary and tertiary modelling as elaborated by Sebeok, on the other.

Similarly to Sebeok, Rossi-Landi criticized those theories that reduce the problem of the origin of language to the problem of communication. As writes Rossi-Landi in Metodica filosofica e scienza dei segni: "We must provide evidence for the non-reducibility of language to mere communication, otherwise it would not be possible to place the capacity of language in a coherent framework concerning the phylogenesis of nerve structures and relative psychic functions" (Rossi-Landi 1985a: 234).

In Rossi-Landi’s view, the problem is the same whether we are dealing with merchandise or verbal messages: in other words, the problem is that of human work which produces messages and merchandise and puts them into circulation. The concept of linguistic work is the third and founding element, which is not at all kept into account by Saussure’s dichotomy between langue and parole.

In Rossi-Landi’s view, language understood as work is at the origin of the different historical-natural languages; these in fact are viewed as the product of language as work. Linguistic work reactivates languages and endows them with new value through the parole. The latter is individual only because each single elaboration is individual. However, the model of production is social.

From our perspective, all this puts us into a position to relate Rossi-Landi’s concept of "language as work" to Sebeok’s concept of "language as primary modelling".

Commodified and alienated work is a characteristic of today’s social system. Work in the expression ‘linguistic work’ evokes something that is juxtaposed to play, and therefore may lead one to believe that linguistic work contrasts with the "play of musement", as described by Peirce. But let us remember that Sebeok too evoked the play of musement to the end of characterizing the human being as a semiotic animal, therefore to evidence specifically human primary modelling or what he calls "language".

The truth is that the concepts of "linguistic work" and "play of musement" do not contradict each other. As Rossi-Landi explained work and play are not juxtaposed, indeed play requires preliminary work as well as work for its performance, work no doubt that is particularly agreeable and playful.

Another point, where Rossi-Landi’s position and Sebeok’s come together, concerns the critical stand taken by both against hypotheses that attempt to explain the origin of language on the basis of the need to communicate.

For both Rossi-Landi and Sebeok language is what makes the constitution, organization and articulation of properly human work possible. Speech and historical-natural languages presuppose language understood as the capacity for syntactic construction and deconstruction proper to human modelling which, as a result of syntax, is capable of producing an indefinite number of possible worlds.

Rossi-Landi’s critique of the alienated social world presupposes the capacity to conceive different worlds and, therefore, to muse utopically or scientifically about their construction. To the extent that they are capable of linguistic work, of the play of musement, human beings are in a position to question reality as it is and to work for a better world.


3. Contributions by Rossi-Landi and Sebeok to sociosemiotics understood as semioethics

Rossi-Landi conceived a world that is other with respect to an alienated reality, therefore differently from dominant approaches in semiotics and even from Sebeok’s global semiotics, he did not limit himself to interpreting reality as it is, but rather he critiqued what he identified as "alienated reality". Rossi-Landi focused on social planning, on the critique of ideology, therefore on the human capacity for constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing new and better worlds. From this point of view, his approach may be associated to another approach to sociosemiotics called "semioethics", elaborated by myself with Augusto Ponzio (see Petrilli and Ponzio 2003 and 2005).

All the same, Sebeok’s global semiotics also contributes to this critical approach to sociosemiotics, or semioethics. In fact his global perspective can be applied to the present-day socio-economic context, that is, global communication-production. Global semiotics focuses on the interconnection among signs and demonstrates the interdependence of all life forms over the planet. Its gaze moves from the protosemiosis of energy-information to the overall processes of the complexification of semiosis in the evolution of life over the planet. The Superkingdoms coexist and interact with the microcosm and together form the great semiobiosphere. All this results in an indissoluble interconnection as presented by the network of signs, which, in Sebeok’s words, extends from the Lilliputian world of molecular genetics and virology, to the man-size world of Gulliver and finally to the world of Brobdingnag, the gigantic biogeochemical ecosystem called Gaia. At first sight this system may seem to be made of numerous separate living species, but, at a closer look, we soon realize that each one of its parts, ourselves included, is interdependently connected with all the others. This system taken wholly, so to say, is the only ecosystem which may really be considered as such (even though it, too, exists only relatively).

If we consider the contribution made by global semiotics to semioethics in relation to present day global communication, semiotics is faced with an enormous responsibility, that of making evident the limits of today’s communication-production society. Semiotics must now accept the responsibility of denouncing incongruences in the global system with the same energy, instruments and social possibilities produced by the global communication-production system itself. It must now be ready to denounce the dangers involved in this system for life over the entire planet.

The current phase in the development of today’s capitalist system is that of global communication. This expression may be understood in at least two senses: that communication is now characterized by its planetary extension, and that it is accommodated realistically to the world as it is. Globalization implies the omnipresence of communication in production and characterizes the entire productive cycle: not only is globalization present at the level of the market, of exchange, as in earlier phases in socio-economic development, but also at the level of production and consumption. Globalization is tantamount to heavy interference on the part of communication-production not only in human life but in life in general over the whole planet.

For an understanding of world-wide global communication-production we need a view that is just as global. The special sciences taken separately are unable to provide this. On the contrary, a global view is offered by the general science of signs or semiotics as it is taking shape today on the international scene thanks to the approach fostered by Sebeok and his ongoing work for further development.

A full understanding of the current phase in global communication implies a full understanding of the risks involved by global communication, including the risk of the end of communication itself. This risk, however, is not simply the risk of the rather banal phenomenon known as "incommunicability", theorized and represented in film and literature. Rather, we are alluding to the subjective-individualistic malady ensuing from the transition to communication in its current forms (and which can no longer be separated from production). When we speak of the "risk of the end of communication", we are referring above all to the recognised identification between communication and life, and therefore to the risk of the end of life on the planet, considering the enormous potential for destruction in today’s society by contrast with all other earlier phases in the development of the social system.

Therefore, the expression global communication-production does not only refer to the expansion of the means of communication and of the market at a world-wide level, but also to the fact that all human life is incorporated into the communication-production system: whether in the form of development, well-being and consumerism or of underdevelopment, poverty and the impossibility to survive; of health or sickness; normality or deviation; integration or emargination; employment or unemployment; transfer functional to the work-force characterizing emigration or transfer of peoples in their denied request of hospitality, characteristic of migration; whether in the form of the traffic and use of legal commodities or of illegal goods, from drugs to human organs, to "non-conventional" weapons. Indeed, this process of incorporation is not limited to human life alone. All of life over the entire planet is now irremediably involved (even compromised and put at risk) in the communication-production system.

Reflection on problems relevant to semioethics today in the context they in fact belong to, the context of globalization, requires an approach that is just as global. An approach, which is not limited to considering only partial and sectorial aspects of the communication-production system according to internal perspectives functional to the system itself, therefore, an approach which is not limited on an empirical level to psychological subjects, to subjects reduced to the parameters imposed by the social sciences, subjects measurable in terms of statistics. Global communication-production calls for a methodological and theoretical perspective as global as the phenomenon under observation, in other words a perspective able to understand the logic of global communication-production and to proceed therefore to a critique of the system it subtends.

An adequate analysis of today’s world of global communication in all its complexity calls for conceptual instruments which must be as precise as possible, and which a new theory of communication may furnish; these conceptual instruments must also be as rigorous as possible and this can only be provided through a philosophical grounding of such a theory. An attempt in this sense is made in the volume by Ponzio, La comunicazione (1999) as well as in the volume co-authored by Ponzio and myself, Il sentire nella comunicazione globale (2000).

Social reproduction in the global communication-production system is destructive. Reproduction of the productive cycle itself is destructive. It destroys: a) machines, which are continuously substituted with new machines - not because of wear but for reasons connected with competitivity; b) jobs, making way for automation which leads to an increase in unemployment; c) products on the market where new forms of consumerism are elicited, completely ruled by the logic of reproducing the productive cycle; d) previous products which once purchased would otherwise exhaust the demand and which, in any case, are designed to become outdated and obsolete immediately, as new and similar products are continuously introduced on the market; e) commodities and markets which are no longer able to resist competition in the global communication-production system.

It is not incidental that the European Commission which has devoted special attention to inventiveness and innovation functional to profit, to "immaterial investment" and "competitivity" (see European Commission 1995), should identify "innovation" with "destruction" in full respect of capitalist ideo-logic. The innovative character of a product is made to consist in its capacity for destruction: this product must destroy earlier products that are similar and still present on the market. The capacity for innovation abreast of the times coincides with the capacity for destruction to the extent that the criteria for evaluating innovation are completely adjusted to the interests of the market.

The conatus essendi of communication-production destroys natural environments and life forms. It also destroys different economies and cultural differences which tend to be eliminated by the processes of homologation operated by market logic: nowadays not only are habits of behavior and needs homologated and rendered identical (though the possibility of satisfying such needs is never identical), but so are desires and the imaginary even. The conatus essendi of communication-production also destroys traditions and cultural patrimonies that contrast with or form an obstacle or are simply useless, non functional to the logic of development, productivity and competition. It destroys those productive forces that tend to escape the limits of current forms of production which penalize intelligence, inventiveness and creativity by over-ruling them and subjecting them to "the reason of the market" (and of course production cannot avoid this in the current phase of necessary investment in "human resources"). The destructive character of today’s production system is also manifest in the fact that it produces growing areas of underdevelopment as the very condition of development, areas of human exploitation and misery to the point of non-survival. Such logic is behind the expanding phenomenon of migration which so-called "developed" countries are no longer able to contain due to objective internal space limitations - no doubt greater than in earlier forms and phases in the development of the social system.

Universalization of the market, that is, application of the status of commodities to everything, including relationships, is destructive. Moreover, the more so-called commodities are illegal and prohibited, the more expensive they are: drugs, human organs, children, uteruses, etc. The principle of exploiting other people’s work is destructive, work obviously costs less the more it produces profit: with the help of global communication developed countries are more and more turning to low cost work in underdeveloped countries ("stay where you are, we’ll come and bring you work"). The disgrace of the communication-production world is particularly manifest in the spreading exploitation of child labour that is heavy and even dangerous (much needs to be said and done about children as today’s victims of underdevelopment, in misery, in sickness, in war, on the streets, in the work-force, on the market).

The destructive character of world-wide communication-production is made obvious by the scandal of war. Global communication-production is the communication-production of war. War continuously requires new markets for the communication-production of conventional and unconventional weapons. War also requires increasing approval acknowledging it as just and necessary, as a necessary means of defence against the growing danger of the menacing "other", as a means therefore of achieving respect for the rights of one’s "own identity", "one’s own difference". The truth is that identities and differences are not threatened or destroyed by the "other", but by today’s social system itself which encourages and promotes identity and difference while rendering them fictitious and phantasmal. And this is precisely the reason why we cling to such values so passionately, a logic which fits the communication-production of war to perfection.

With the spread of "bio-power" (Foucault) and the controlled insertion of bodies into the production apparatus, world communication goes hand in hand with the spreading of the concept of the individual as a separate and self-sufficient entity. The body is understood and experienced as an isolated biological entity, as belonging to the individual, as a part of the individual’s sphere of belonging. This has led to the quasi total extinction of cultural practices and worldviews based on intercorporeity, interdependency, exposition and opening of the body (what remains is the expression of a generalized tendency to museumification; mummified remains studied by folklore analysts, archaeological remains preserved in ethnological museums and in the histories of national literatures).

The technologies of separation as applied to human bodies, to interests, to the life of individual and collective subjects are functional to production and to identification of production and consumption characteristic of present-day production forms. With respect to all this and thanks to its ontological perspective, global semiotics (or semiotics of life) can, if nothing else, oppose a whole series of signs showing how each instant of individual life is wholly interrelated, even compromised with all other forms of life over the entire planet.

To acknowledge such interrelatedness, such interconnection and compromittedness among signs involves a form of responsibility which far exceeds all positive rights and all limited responsibilities, that is, restricted responsibilities with alibis. Such acknowledgment is ever more urgent the more the reasons of production and of global communication functional to it impose ecological conditions which impede and distort communication between our bodies and the environment.

The specifically human capacity for "meta-semiosis" is also be called "semiotics" (see Deely, Petrilli, Ponzio 2005). Meta-semiosis or semiotics thus understood is determined by the specific human modelling device which Sebeok has tagged "language". Syntactics is an essential characteristic of the human modelling device. This determines the human capacity for deconstruction and reconstruction, therefore the capacity to produce a potentially infinite number of possible worlds, together with the capacity for creativity, inventiveness, planning, evaluation, critique and responsibility. All such capacities are the prerogatives of language and therefore of the "semiotic animal", that is, the human being who is endowed with language. Through language understood as the human primary modelling device, the being of communication finds its otherwise. Insofar as the human being is endowed with language, insofar as the human being is a semiotic animal, human behaviour cannot be circumscribed to communication, being, ontology. From this perspective the human being reveals its capacity for otherness. The human being can present itself as other and propose other possibilities beyond the alternatives foreseen by the being of the world of communication. We are not simply alluding to the capacity of being otherwise with respect to being, but to the capacity, specific to the human being, of being otherwise than being, that is, otherwise than being-communication. The capacity for otherwise than being in fact subtends all possibilities of being otherwise. This capacity is characteristic of the semiotic animal and consists of the capacity to transcend being and the communication world. This capacity renders the semiotic animal completely responsible not only for social reproduction, but also for life on the whole planet, the two things being inseparable. The capacity for something otherwise than being denies the semiotic animal all possible alibis offered by a capacity for interpretation, response, action, and choices limited to the being-communication of the world as it is, to the alternatives made available by the world as it is. Instead, the semiotic animal is endowed with a capacity for otherness, as its specific characteristic.

In the early phase of its development semiotics was understood as semeiotics (a branch of the medical sciences) and was focused on symptoms. Nowadays, the ancient vocation of semiotics as it was originally practiced for the care of life must be recovered and reorganized in what we propose to call semioethic’ terms. This particular orientation is specially urgent today in the face of growing interference in communication between the historical-social and the biological sphere, between the cultural and the natural sphere, between the semiosphere and the biosphere.

© Susan Petrilli (Università degli Studi di Bari)


(*) Plenary lecture delivered at the IRICS International Conference, ‘Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies,’ Section ‘Social Reproduction and Cultural Innovation. From a Semiotic Point of View,’ organized by the Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies INST, Institute for Socio-Semiotic Studies ISSS, Vienna, International Ferruccio Rossi-Landi Network IFRN, 9-11 December 2005, Vienna, Austria.


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1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht

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For quotation purposes:
Susan Petrilli (Università degli Studi di Bari): Social reproduction and language as work and "modelling device". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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