Over the past few years I have dedicated a good part of my time to the works of Victoria Welby (1837-1912) and her significs, or theory of sign and meaning, as formulated in her two monographs, What Is Meaning? (1983) and Significs and Language (1985 ), in addition to her numerous papers, a good part of which is still unpublished. This has resulted in two publications that are particularly dear to me, the volumes: 1) Signifying and Understanding. Reading the Works of Victoria Welby and the Signific Movement (De Gruyter Mouton, Berlin, 2009), and; 2) Victoria Welby and the Science of Signs. Significs, Semiotics, Philosophy of Language (Transaction, Brunswick, NJ, 2015).
Using Welby’s work as a pretext, the text I am now proposing – with its references not only to the work of a woman from the Victorian era, more than ever topical today, but also to women from the contemporary world – is fundamentally a critique, in a semioethical key, of human relations and their current organization into the socio-economic form generally known as globalization. Under this aspect, my main focus in this paper is on a specific characteristic of today’s globalized world, that is, the logic of “identity,” therefore of “difference” and the central role they carry out in interpersonal relations, in society at large. My allusion here is to identity understood as closed identity, and to difference based on the logic of identity thus described, therefore “identity-difference”. In the first place, identity concerns this world itself, mainstream values and dominant socio-economic practice in a globalized world, which are oriented by the logic of identity. Identity as we understand it here does not admit of anything else, it does not admit of any other, outside itself. In the relation of identification with itself, the globalized world is a world devoid of alterity, of otherness.
On the contrary, the sign, semiosis, which is the material out of which this world and the human being that inhabits it is made, has a vocation for “otherness“ and for difference understood in terms of otherness, “otherness-difference.” Otherness distinguishes the sign from the signal and its static nature, from univocality, monologism, thereby opening it to the dialogism and plurivocality of infinite semiosis. Instead, the sign used to fix difference and identity, the sign reduced to the status of signal, is the sign that has lost its capacity for deferral, for otherness. In fact, well before Jacques Derrida (1967) replaces the ‘e’ with an ‘a’ in the French word différance to indicate the process of deferral, Charles S. Peirce had already conveyed the dynamical sense of difference, in the sense of deferral among signs, with his idea of infinite semiosis. Deferral among sign and interpretant may be understood in the dialogical terms of question and answer: the interpretant responds to the sign which presents itself as a question and which as such sets clear limits to interpretation, according to a dialogical relation that is open to, oriented by and at once restrained by the irreducible otherness of its terms. Here, with the expression “limits” we are referring to the so-called “semiotic materiality” of the sign (see Petrilli 2010, 137-158), that is, its otherness, precisely, and not at all to the limits of identity, when proposed in terms of closed identity that does not recognize the other, that is indifferent to the other, that expunges the other.