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Gary P. Radford

Remarks on the Top Three Papers Submitted to the Semiotics and Communication Division of the National Communication Association, Boston, MA, November 18, 2005

Copyright 2005 by Gary P. Radford. All Rights Reserved

1. Reading the top papers in Semiotics and Communication (Catt, 2005; McHugh, 2005; Williams, 2005), I found myself traveling back in time to 1983 and 1984 when I was a Masters student in the Department of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. I took four courses with a certain Dr. Richard Lanigan who introduced me to the teachings of Michel Foucault (1972), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962), and Umberto Eco (1976) and, in doing so, exposed me to terms such as semiotic phenomenology and the human science of communicology (see Lanigan, 1992).

2. I must confess to you all today that, at the time, I had little to no idea what any of this material was about. My Bachelor’s degree in communication had nurtured me on a steady and rich diet of social psychology and linguistics where communication was about one brain transmitting ideas to another brain and where sender-message-receiver was not a theory of communication, it really was communication. Dr. Lanigan also claimed to be talking about communication, but it was no communication I had ever heard of. At many times during my year at SIU, I felt that Dr. Lanigan was speaking a different language, which, looking back, I realize that he was. Like Eco’s (2005) character of Yambo awakening from his coma in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I felt like I was wandering in a dense discursive fog, struggling to make out discernible features which I might use to guide myself through this foreign landscape. At the time, I constantly told myself that there was something extremely profound and interesting lying beneath the surface of all this language. If only I could understand it. I was waiting for that magical day when the language would “click,” the fog would lift, and the landscape of semiotic phenomenology and the human science of communicology would appear to me in all its beauty.

3. That day never really arrived during my Masters Program. I did well in Dr. Lanigan’s classes, but only because I could manipulate the language to craft some presumably articulate papers. Like the hypothetical person in John Searle’s (1984) Chinese Room, I could move the symbols around to produce an output that resembled a meaningful discourse. But I never really “grasped” those ideas. I never really made them my own.

4. It’s been over twenty years since I had those experiences at SIU, and I have spent the bulk of those twenty years trying to avoid having experiences like those again. However, reading the Top Papers in Semiotics and Communication, I felt Yambo’s fog licking at my window frames, especially when I encounter sentences such as this one, from Professor Catt’s paper:

The habitus through which we experience our lives is in ontological complicity with the fields to which we belong, because we make investments in our disciplinary games. The illusion takes over and we are susceptible to a doxic sleep wherein we no longer notice the rules by which we play. In fact, the more competent we become, the stronger the isomorphic collusion between field and habitus. (Catt, 2005, p. 4)
I am sure sentences like this are perfectly transparent to everyone in this room today, and certainly everyone on this panel. But for me, I found myself experiencing the same anxiety I felt back in Dr. Lanigan’s classroom, knowing that something very interesting was being said, and wishing that I also could talk like that. I find myself back in Searle’s Chinese Room faced with the prospect of having to articulate a discourse that will give you the appearance that I know what I am talking about. So, as you can see, this response will say more about me than it does about these authors, but, as good semioticians, we also know that this must always be the case in any act of reading and any interpretation of texts and signs.

5. So here I am, back in the fog. We must realize, of course, that Yambo’s fog is not a literal fog. It does not refer to some failure of the brain resulting in the “fogging up” of the mind in the same way that the windshield of your car might get fogged up. Yambo’s fog is a textual fog. It represents a condition where all of the key texts in Yambo’s history have become unmoored and disconnected from each other. Yambo has signs, but no codes with which to order them. His experiences in the present spark associations with texts from the past, but he has no ability to order these associations into a coherent pattern. Yambo’s doctor attempts to explain the situation this way: “It’s as though you remember all the things you read in a book somewhere, or were told, but not the things associated with your direct experience. You know that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but try to tell me the name of your mother.” (Eco, 2005, p. 13) To which Yambo replies: “I suppose I had a mother, since I know it’s a law of the species, but . . . here again . . .the fog.” (Eco, 2005, p. 13) Eco’s novel is a wonderful exercise in describing Yambo’s quest to reconstruct the connections amongst his textual associations in order to find his place within his collection of texts and signs. It is an engaging and very accessible parable of the some central themes of semiotics. Reading this book also offered me a semiotic way to understand my own failure to understand semiotics back in the 1980s. Perhaps Wittgenstein said it best in his introduction to his Tractatus, where he wrote that the Tractatus: “Will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. . . . Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.” (Kolak, 1998, p. xxxi) Well, as one who has been deeply ingrained in the social psychological view of the world, it was clear that I had certainly not shared any thoughts at all with Merleau-Ponty and Lanigan and there was certainly very little pleasure being gained from the experience. Like Yambo, my exposure to unique textual experiences, such as trying to read Merleau-Ponty or listening to Dr. Lanigan lecture, could only result in the most random associations with texts I had from my own experience. But these connections had no shape and no system. They were signs without a language. It took me many years to realize and understand that I wasn’t learning something about the world, or about the nature of people. This was not an ontological question. I was being asked to learn a new language: a set of signs and a code by which to use them. And by learning a new language, we discover a new world, and a new relationship of ourselves to that world. As Professor Catt (2005, p. 9) points out: “Reality exists. Signs symbolize it, lending it structure; indexically reference it; and iconically resemble it. But, a signifying relation is all we may ever know of reality. If we could experience primordial reality ‘in the raw,’ so to speak, we would have no recourse to signs, nor reason to speak. In short, reality is constructed in semiois.”

6. Reading these Top Papers in Semiotics in 2005, I think I have enough chinks of light in my textual fog where my associations hang together in more or less appropriate ways. But how can we ever know for sure? Eco (2000, p. 57) wrote that: “Often, when faced with an unknown phenomenon, we react by approximation: we seek that scrap of content, already present in our encyclopedia, which for better or worse seems to account for the new fact.” Richard Rorty (1992, p. 105) described the situation even better: “Reading texts is a matter of reading them in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or whatever, and then seeing what happens.” That is what I am doing here. This paper is “what happened.” I love the way reading and interpretation are presented as such fragile exercises. There is always a hint of uncertainly and danger. It is though our reading is always subject to unpredictable and uncontrollable currents. I have these texts before me, but my reading of these texts remains unknown until I actually engage in the act. Creating meaning from a text is like opening a present on Christmas morning. There is always a sense of anticipation and excitement of revealing something unknown. Maybe this will be best text I have ever read that will change my life forever. Who knows what other text or scrap of content will be invoked as I read? What past lives will be made real again as I read this text? Eco (2005, p. 117) captures this experience in Yambo’s experience in the attic:

I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I were flying over a landscape, and as I did as I was aware of already knowing what was written in them. As though a single word could summon back a thousand others, or could blossom into a full-bodied summary, like those Japanese flowers that open in water. As though something were striking out on its own to settle in my memory, to keep Oedipus and Don Quixote company. At times the short circuit was caused by a drawing, three thousand words for one picture. At times I would read slowly, savoring a phrase, a passage, a chapter, experiencing perhaps the same emotions sparked by my first, forgotten reading.
And so think of these remarks I am making now. How did I come to form these particular remarks from reading this particular papers? Did I know that these were the remarks I was going to make? Absolutely not. They opened up like Eco’s Japanese flowers almost of their own volition; language spawning language, text creating text, signs creating signs.

7. The main scrap of content that was invoked by these papers was, as you can see, the character of Yambo and Eco’s (2005) The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I recently read this book last summer and I made it a required text for the students in my Literary and Communication Theory course this semester. So it would be no surprise that practically everything I am exposed to these days is sparking some association with The Mysterious Flame. I have also told my students that I am preparing and giving this response today, and many have expressed interest in reading what I write. So my act of reading and responding to these papers is being significantly colored by the knowledge that this audience today will not be only ones to hear and read this. My remarks will also become part of the learning experience of my students, the vast majority of whom approach the subject of semiotics the same way as I did in 1984, as an incomprehensible language.

8. I realize that the theme of these remarks, my act of reading these papers and my consequent reflection on this act, is also the theme that unites these three papers. For example, Professor Catt (2005, p. 3) writes: “Semiotics and phenomenology are inseparable. Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and that something is nothing other than a sign embedded in a code.” Reading this against the textual backdrop of The Mysterious Flame, I can understand Catt’s claim in terms of Yambo’s predicament of trying to reconnect consciousness through the recovery of a code. Yambo’s consciousness is constructed entirely through signs and codes and nowhere is this better expressed than in the final sections of the novel where Eco writes of Yambo’s experiences within a comatose state. At this point, Yambo’s experience is completely structured by texts and relationships between texts since he no longer has any access to the so-called real world. Through Yambo’s condition, I come to realize that there is no experience without text and, at the same time, no meaning without experience. Does this mean I have finally grasped the meaning of semiotic phenomenology? Mary Ann McHugh (2005) writes about the struggle surrounding the appropriate meaning of the veil. Again, she explores the question: What is the code in which the meaning of this sign, the veil, is to be read? Who decides what that code should be? We know that changing the code can change the meaning of a sign. But can changing the meaning of a sign change the structure of the code such that it will change the meaning of other signs, or even of a whole culture? According to McHugh’s reading of Frantz Fanon, this was the goal of the French administration of the 1930s who were committed to a destructuring of traditional Algerian society by launching a direct assault on the meaning and the status of the veil. McHugh (2005, p. 4) writes:

As a conspicuous sign of adherence to the values of Islam, this ‘symbol of the status of the Algerian woman’ presented a strategic target for a colonial campaign waged in the assimilation.’ If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and where the men keep them out of sight.
For the French, unveiling the Algerian woman was framed as enlightened, emancipatory action. McHugh (2005, p. 4) writes: “Converting the woman, winning her over to foreign values, wrenching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over men and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture.” McHugh writes eloquently of the very real struggles waged around the right to claim the code against which the veil is to be read. It emphasizes in wonderful concreteness the claim that all meaning is created out of a perpetual struggle of competing codes. Yambo wrestled constantly with the problem of competing political codes in The Mysterious Flame, especially in those chapters where Eco describes Yambo’s discovery and reading of his pro-Fascist school books and other propaganda from 1930s Italy. Encountering such material from a post-Fascist world, Yambo attempts to reconststruct his own experience of knowing a world through the codes and signs of a pro-fascist discourse: “How did I experience this Schizophrenic Italy? Did I believe in victory, did I love Il Duce, did I want to die for him? Did I believe in the Chief’s historic phrases, which the headmaster dictated to us?” (Eco, 2005, p. 205) Yambo’s questions lead me to Kevin Williams’ (2005) paper, whose driving questions are: “How is that advertising persuades even well educated people?” and “How is it that ads work to foster a social reality that functions even when people poke fun at them?” Williams is addressing essentially the same questions that Yambo posed in response to his discovery of his pro-fascist schoolbooks. How do sane and normal people assimilate the essentially absurd and self-contradictory messages of consumer advertising (or pro-fascist literature) and make them a normal part of the way they see themselves and the world?

9. The act of reading your papers and formulating this response has led me to actively reflect on my act of reading these papers, of how my position as a unique reader brings meanings to your texts, and how it is that if I had read these same papers five years ago, or maybe five years in the future, the remarks I would give would be totally different. Today everything gets filtered through The Msyterious Flame of Queen Loana. Five years ago, it might have been Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco, 1989) or The Name of the Rose (1983). Who knows what I will be reading five years in the future? All this tells me that interpretation and meaning is a very dynamic and changing experience. Foucault (1972, p. 25) wrote in his Archaeology of Knowledge that:

We must be ready to receive every moment of discourse in its sudden irruption; in that punctuality in which it appears, and in that temporal dispersion that enables it to be repeated, known, forgotten, transformed, utterly erased, and hidden, far from all view, in the dust of books.
We are all like Yambo, seeking a meaning and an identity that will never stay still long enough for us to say, “This is it. I have arrived at the answer. I have arrived at the meaning.” Even if we do fool ourselves into believing such a thing, our interpretation of that answer will inevitably shift as our own exposure to new and different texts constantly changes the ground from which we will interpret that meaning.

10. There’s no end to process within our lifetimes. The ultimate answer can only come when our acts of interpretation through texts ceases, and that moment can only arrive at our death. At that point, all reference points are fixed. There is no future to move into. We will know and understand everything with complete clarity since there will be no more future experiences to make our present understanding ambiguous. It is no coincidence, then, that death plays a key role in Yambo’s own revelations about his life and of himself at the conclusion of Eco’s novel. Similarly, The Knight of Malta, a character in Eco’s (1995, p. 208) novel The Island of the Day Before, asks Roberto, the main character: “Perhaps it would be right to die now . . . Are you not seized by the desire to hang from the mouth of a cannon and slide into the sea? It would be quick, and at that moment we would know everything.” Roberto replies: “Yes, but at the instant we knew it, we would cease to know.” And with that “the ship continued its voyage, moving through sepia seas.”

11. In listening to this response, I am sure many of you want know what I think about these three fine papers. Well, what do I know? What do I know today? What will I know tomorrow? Following the logic of the Knight of Malta, I could tell you, but to make it certain and unambiguous, I would have to kill you. So it is probably enough to say that I enjoyed these papers immensely, and to let you leave the room alive.


Catt, Isaac, E. (2005). Embodiment in the semiotic pheneomenological matrix of discourse. Paper presented at the 91st Annual Conference of the National Communication Association, Boston, MA (November 18, 2005).

Eco, Umberto (1976). A theory of semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Eco, Umberto (1983). The name of the rose (William Weaver, Trans.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Eco, Umberto (1989). Foucault’s pendulum (William Weaver, Trans.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Eco, Umberto (1995). The island of the day before (William Weaver, Trans.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Eco, Umberto (2000). Kant and the platypus: Essays on language and cognition (Alistair McEwan, Trans.). New York, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Eco, Umberto (2005). The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Geoffrey Brock, Trans.). New York, NY: Harcourt.

Foucault, Michel (1972). The archaeology of knowledge (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon.

Kolak, Daniel (1998). Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Lanigan, Richard (1992). The Human Science of Communicology: The Phenomenology of Discourse in Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

McHugh, Mary Ann (2005). Veiled others in the work of Frantz Fanon and Fatima Mernissi. Paper presented at the 91st Annual Conference of the National Communication Association, Boston, MA (November 18, 2005).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The phenomenology of perception (Colin Smith, Trans.). London, UK: Routeldge and Kegan Paul.

Rorty, Richard (1992). The pragmatist’s progress. In Umberto Eco, Interpretation and overinterpretation (pp. 89-108). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John (1984). Minds, brains, and science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, Kevin (2005). From rationalization to incantation: A semiotic phenomenonology of advertising. Paper presented at the 91st Annual Conference of the National Communication Association, Boston, MA (November 18, 2005).

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