Sunday, April 22, 2007

To seek a quasi-scientific semiotics, I want to urge caution

'The Semiotic Turn', by Timothy Lenoir by rjon on Sat 21 Apr 2007 12:41 AM PDT Permanent Link Was That Last Turn A Right Turn? The Semiotic Turn and A.J. Greimas from Configurations, Vol.2 (1994): 119-136. Timothy Lenoir
In an effort to go beyond both moderns and postmoderns, who thought the Saussurian notion of semiotics need not be limited to linguistic phenomena, Latour now bursts through the sign barrier. An elision has taken place between actants as non-human in the Greimasian sense and actants as extra-linguistic entities in the world. Apart from my inability to find a satisfying discussion of how we get from Greimas's world of texts and narratives to the world of collective entities, quasi-objects, and nature-culture discussed in Latour's most recent essays and his latest homily, We have Never Been Modern, my concern is that, in the form of a grid of pre-existing competences and roles, we are being provided a map and potentially a set of taxa which specify certain types of actors and narratives, and with this we are back to the old ground of realism and representation. The sting comes when, reading a bit further in Greimas, we find the following advice about remaining scientific in our semiotic attitude:
Either we are content with the indications of the text, and we say: "Outside the text no salvation!", or we bring in psychology and psychoanalysis and history and sociology and we no longer have semiotics: there is a great deal of intelligence, genius, but no longer any coherent analysis.[23]
Against this injunction to seek a quasi-scientific semiotics to avoid Nietzschean perspectival seeing and the accidents or contingencies of history, I want to urge caution.
Latour's seductive plea, voiced in the definition of semiotics above, to find a grounding for signs in things-in-themselves, has recently become the refrain of a twelve-step program to rehabilitate postmodern junkies hooked on deconstruction. Since in his wild youth he enticed the rest of us to play epistemological chicken, it is perhaps both surprising and fitting that Latour is one of the first to take the sobriety oath, but the recent chorus of scholars joining him in calling for a return to objectivity and realism is truly remarkable. William Cronon's probing essay, "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative," written from the heartland of America in profound concern about saving nature expresses the mood to return to common sense currently appealing to many who have observed postmodernism from its margins. Cronon writes that his analysis of narrative is motivated by a struggle to accommodate the lessons of critical theory without giving in to relativism:
If postmodernism is correct in arguing that narrative devices are deeply present even in such a field as environmental history, which takes for its subject the least human and least storied of worlds—nature—must we then accept that the past is infinitely malleable, thereby apparently undermining the entire historical project? Given my biases, the answer to this question has got to be no, and so my story has worked its way toward an ending about the ultimate justification of history in community, past reality, and nature itself. For me, there is something profoundly unsatisfying and ultimately self-deluding about an endless postmodernist deconstruction of texts that fails to ground itself in history, in community, in politics, and finally in the moral problem of living on earth.[24]

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