This week's candidate is Marcel Danesi, professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1998, and throughout his distinguished career, he has authored many books, including Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives and Language, Society, and Culture: Introducing Anthropological Linguistics. He is the editor in chief of Semiotica, and edits both the Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Signs and Semaphors book series.
- Diana Wilson
My fellow travelers, I plead not to be taken with you, for I am just one life form among an infinitude of them. On your way to making your new society, I am asking you simply to listen to my plea for taking into account the fundamental principles that undergird the discipline I have espoused all my career and which has made me into a more understanding person than I probably would have otherwise been, aware of who I am, of what my limitations are, and of the importance of understanding others—indeed, of the importance of getting close to others, no matter who they are, so that I can understand myself.
So, I have written this “papyrus” (allow me to take liberty with words, since they are only signs anyhow), the seven axioms by which semioticians live—axioms I have constructed from the writings and thoughts of the great semioticians across time, from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to the contemporary semiotician and writer (also a good friend of the semiotics program at my university), Umberto Eco. I give you this papyrus to take with you to keep, treasure, and hopefully use as the basis for founding your new world order. It is best that you take it along without me, so that no subjective interference from its maker can be imposed on its use—which, by the way, is itself an indirect principle of semiotic practice.
1. Sign systems across the world are built with the same psychic need to reproduce the world on our own terms. We cannot survive without producing meaningful forms (words, symbols, rituals, and so on)—forms that allow us to reflect upon reality on our own terms. These are as important to psychic survival as food is to biological survival. We hunt for meaning (excuse my metaphor) with the same compulsion as we hunt for food. Imagine a human world without language, music, art, science, mathematics, and so on. Not possible, right? Well, you see what I mean.
2. These systems are constrained only by the force of history and tradition. We are as much descendants of historical forces as we are of biological ones. Each word, each symbol, each text carries with it the “meaning DNA” of a certain group of individuals living at a certain period of time. These signs, as they are called, allow us paradoxically to go forward by connecting with the past. Each sign is a “historical gene,” connecting us to the wisdom of the past and guiding us in our knowledge-making quests.
3. Particular signs are the cultural resources used to solve universal problems. As the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski pointed out, culture is the human vehicle invented to solve universal problems of survival (gathering food, cooperating, understanding the world, and so on). Semiotics teaches us that we do this with the same kinds of sign-making strategies, that is, with words to name the surrounding environment, with musical sounds to allow for communal bonding, with symbols that enshrine identity, and so on.
4. Differences in sign systems result from differences in human variability and contextual-historical factors. This is a corollary to axiom number 3 and thus needs no further comment.
5. Sign systems entail culture-specific classifications and thus explanations of the world. Again, this is a corollary to axiom number 3. Just keep it always in mind when you build your new society because, as the next axiom states:
6. These classifications influence the way people think, behave, and act, and therefore:
7. Perceptions of “naturalness” and models of “common sense” are really products of historical meaning systems, not of Nature. This axiom is probably the most important one, implying that we should always, absolutely always, respect diversity and differences in people, since all sign systems spring from the same need to understand the world and ourselves. The results differ because they are tied to time, place, and individual creativity, but the need is universal. We are literally in this all together, as the original Star Trek series constantly reminded us. Signs inform us of this and remind us that we all seek to give meaning to life, even if, as the writer Henry Miller once put it, we might be doing this because life has no obvious meaning. I hope that Miller is wrong and that you will take this papyrus with you to create a new “semiosphere” (as semioticians call it) to match and give meaning to the conditions presented to you by the new biosphere.