Abstract The critical task of semioethics implies recognition of the common condition of dialogical interrelation and the capacity for listening, where dialogue does not imply a relation we choose to concede thanks to a sense of generosity towards the other, but on the contrary is no less than structural to life itself, a necessary condition for life to flourish, an inevitable imposition. With specific reference to anthroposemiosis, semioethics focuses on the concrete singularity of the human individual and the inevitability of intercorporeal interconnection with others. The singularity, uniqueness of each one of us implies otherness and dialogism. Semioethics assumes that whatever the object of study and however specialized the analysis, human individuals in their concrete singularity cannot ignore the inevitable condition of involvement in the destiny of others, that is, involvement without alibis. From this point of view, the symptoms studied from a semioethical perspective are not only specified in their singularity, on the basis of a unique relationship with the other, the world, self, but are above all social symptoms. Any idea, wish, sentiment, value, interest, need, evil or good examined by semioethics as a symptom is expressed in the word, the unique word, the embodied word, in the voice which arises in the dialectic and dialogical interrelation between singularity and sociality.


1.1.  Responsibility, a Human Prerogative; 1.2. Otherness, Dialogism and Intercorporeity: On Sign and Communication Models; 1.3. The Dialogic Nature of Signs, Interpretation and Understanding; 1.4. Subjectivity and Interpretation; 1.5. Otherness between Singularity and Interconnectedness; 1.6. The Extracommunitarian Other; 1.7. Transcultural Communication, Ideology, and Social Planning; 1.8. Signs of Difference; 1.9. Global Communication and Subjectivity: The Critical Task of Semioethics; 1.10. More Social Symptoms of Globalization: Migration and Unemployment; 1.11. “The open society of open selves”; 1.12. Listening, Hospitality, and Restitution; 1.13. From reason to reasonableness; 1.14. Redefining subjectivity; 1.15. Mother-sense: an a priori for subjectivity, signification and critique; 1.16. Sense and Expression in Sociality; 1.17. Semioethics and the Humanism of Otherness



1.1. Otherness, a Human Prerogative


To develop the general science of signs in the direction of semioethics means to evidence mankind’s social, political and ethical responsibilities towards semiosis in all its aspects. In an article of 1949 entitled “Why Socialism?,” originally published in the inaugural issue of the journal Monthly Review and reproposed in 2009 to celebrate the journal’s sixtieth birthday, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) claims that while science cannot create ends for human beings, it can supply the means by which to attain given ends. The ends themselves are conceived by personalities with high ethical ideals which are carried forward by human beings who, in the main unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society. The same principle may be applied to semiotics as the general science of science, especially when developed in the direction of semioethics. Progress and understanding do not only imply knowledge in a strictly technical or neutral sense, but closely involve values and human relationships. Einstein underlines the problem of responsibility and the need for co-participation in the common quest for progress and well-being of humanity. However, when a question of human problems, we must not overestimate science and scientific methods, nor assume that experts alone have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society. Responsibility is a prerogative of mankind and should be promoted through an educational system that is oriented towards social goals. Rather than promote such values as power, competition and acquisitive success in preparation for a future career, education should encourage development of the individual’s abilities together with a sense of responsibility for the other, whether human or nonhuman, distant or less distant.


In “Why Socialism?” Einstein prefigures the development of presentday globalization when he describes humanity as already constituting “a planetary community of production and consumption”: “the time—which looking back seems so idyllic—is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient” (Ibid.: 58). He denounces the evils caused by the “economic anarchy of capitalist society,” not least the crippling of individuals, in a system where members of the community strive to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor, not by force but in compliance with the law. In fact, the entire productive capacity may legally be the private property of individuals. In a system where production is carried out for profit and not for use, private capital tends to become concentrated in the hands of few. Moreoever, with the alliance between legislative bodies, political parties and private capitalists who provide the necessary financial support, a truly democratic political system cannot be guaranteed, with the consequence that the interests of the exploited and underprivileged sections of the population are not sufficiently protected. Add to this the fact that the capitalist not only owns the means of production, but controls the main sources of information, from the press to the educational system. In the present day and age the ruling class is the class that controls communication, as Ferruccio Rossi-Landi amply demonstrated in the 1960s and 1970s with his acute semiotic analyses of the relation between signs, ideology and social planning. Nor can we ignore that the globalized world enacts a social system that is based on profit, privilege and power and is guaranteed by control over communication (eloquent cases are represented by the media magnates Ruprecht Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi).


Einstsein’s article was published at a time of crisis and instability, of violence and destruction in the aftermath of the second world war. In the face of offended humanity, of widespread solitude and isolation, he questions social behavior and the possibility of a future, convinced that another world war would mean the end of society. In the face of concern for the well-being of the single individual as much as of society at large (formed of individuals) which, translated into semiotic terms, resounds as concern for the health of semiosis, consequently for life, we must inevitably ask the question, “Is there a way out?”. Einstein’s answer focuses on the relational and social constitution of the human being in terms that very much recall reflections in a semiotic key by such thinkers as Charles Peirce, Victoria Welby and Charles Morris, author of the The Open Self published in 1948, just a year before publication of Einstein’s own article “Why Socialism?” Each of these scholars evidence in their own terms the irrepressible interconnection between identity and otherness, self and other, the human being as a single individual and society, between singularity and sociality:


Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of this fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individal can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of this direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotion existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society.”


” […] dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished—just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the last detail by rigid, hereditary instinct, the social pattern and interrelationship of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human being which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.” (Morris 1948: 57-8)


According to Einstein, the essence of the crisis of his own day concerns the nature of the relationship of the individual to society and the dominant tendency in the direction of egotism and isolation. In the capitalist reproduction system, the individual has become more conscious of his dependence on society and this condition is perceived as a threat to one’s natural rights or even to one’s existence in terms of economy. But the truth is that from the point of view of the properly human, the single individual can only find the sense and meaning of life in sociality, that is, by cultivating the otherness dimension:


Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while this social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from the process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society. (Ibid.: 59)


1.2. Otherness, Dialogism and Intercorporeity: On Sign and Communication Models


The semiotics of Charles S. Peirce covers many aspects that orientate it dialogically, on the one hand, and contribute towards a more profound understanding of dialogic structure and practice, on the other. His thought-sign theory evidences the dialogic structure of the self imagined as developing in terms of dialogue between a thought acting as a sign and another sign acting as an interpretant of the previous sign. The Peircean sign model has now gained wide consensus in the sign sciences, especially general semiotics, philosophy of language and related disciplines. This particular sign model has been gradually supplanting the Saussurean model which because of the general success enjoyed by structuralism has spread from linguistics (and semiology) to other human sciences that refer to linguistics as their model, significantly influencing them, as in the case of structural anthropology in the interpretation of Claude Lévi-Strauss.


We know that the Saussurean sign model is rooted in a series of dichotomies such as langue and parole, signifiant and signifié, diachrony and synchrony, the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language (Saussure, 1916). These paradigms have been related to the mathematical theory of communication (Shannon and Weaver, 1949) and reformulated in such terms as code and message, transmitter and receiver. This explains why semiotics of Saussurean derivation has been described as “code” or “decodification semiotics” (Rossi-Landi, 1968, 1975), “code and message” semiotics (Bonfantini, 1984, 1987; Eco 1984, 1990), “equal exchange semiotics” (Ponzio, 1973, 1977, 1993). Despite their reductionist approach to expressive and interpretive processes, these concepts were thought to adequately describe all types of sign processes: not just the signal type relative to information transmission, but also complex sign processes, therefore the sign in strictu sensu relatively to the different aspects of human communication in its globality (for the distinction between sign and signal, see Voloshinov, 1929).


In the framework of “decodification semiotics” the sign is divided into two parts: the signifier and the signified (respectively, the sign vehicle and its content). These are related on the basis of the principle of equal exchange and equivalence—that is, of perfect correspondence between communicative intention (which leads to codification) and interpretation (intended as mere decodification). In Italy, this sign model was early criticized by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1961), who described it ironically as a  “postal package theory.” As Rossi-Landi pointed out, decodification semiotics proposes an oversimplified analysis of communication in terms of messages (the postal package) complete in themselves, which pass from a sender to a receiver (from one post office to another) ready for registration: all the receiver need do is decipher the content, decode the message.


Furthermore, as amply demonstrated by Rossi-Landi and subsequently by his collaborator, Augusto Ponzio, the Saussurean sign model is based on value theory as conceived by marginalistic economy from the School of Lausanne (Walras and Pareto). Assimilation of the study of language to the study of the marketplace in an ideal state of equilibrium gives rise to a static conception of the sign. In this framework, viewed synchronically the sign is dominated by the logic of perfect correspondence between that which is given and that which is received, that is, by the logic of equal exchange which currently regulates all social relations in today’s dominant economic system.


However, so-called “interpretation semiotics” evidences the inadequacy of the sign model subtending decodification semiotics. “Rediscovery” of interpretation semiotics no doubt has been favored by new orientations of a socio-cultural order which arise from signifying practices intolerant of the polarization between code and message, langue and parole, language system and individual speech. Detotalizing and decentralized signifying practices tend to flourish as the centripetal forces in linguistic life and socio-cultural life generally tend to weaken. These privilege the unitary system of the code over the effective “polylogism,” “plurilingualism,” “multiaccentuativity” and “pluri-availability” of signs and language. Moreover, by comparison with the claim to totalization implied by the dichotomies elaborated by decodification semiotics, the categories of interpretation semiotics keep account of the “irreducibly other,” as theorized by both Mikhail M. Bakhtin and Emmanuel Levinas.

That the instruments provided by decodification semiotics are inadequate for a convincing analysis of the distinguishing features of human communication had already been demonstrated by Valentin N. Voloshinov (therefore Bakhtin who spoke through Voloshinov among others) in his monograph of  1929 Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Eng. trans. 1973). Reference is to such features as “plurilingualism” which includes “internal plurilingualism” (when a question of different languages internal to a single so-called “national language”) and “external plurilingualism” (the plurality of different languages beyond the boundaries of any one language), “plurivocality,” “polylogism,” “ambiguity,” “polysemy,” “dialogism,” “otherness.” Even if we limit our attention to the characteristics just listed, it is obvious that verbal communication cannot be contained within the two poles of langue and parole, as had been theorized instead by Saussure. Signs cannot be reduced to the mere status of signality: that which characterizes the sign in a strong sense by comparison to the signal is the fact that its interpretive potential is not exhausted in a single meaning. In other words, the signifier and the signified do not relate to each other on a one-to-one basis. As mentioned above, meaning cannot be reduced to the status of an intentional message formulated according to a precise communicative will. Consequently, the work of the interpretant sign is not limited to the very basic operations of identification, mechanical substitution, or mere recognition of the object-interpreted sign. By contrast with signals, signs at high levels of semioticity cannot be interpreted simply by referring to a fixed and pre-established code. In other words, to interpret signs does not simply mean to decodify them.


Moreover, sign models are intimately related to our conception of the subject: in the perspective of decodification or equal exchange semiotics, the subject is rooted in the logic of identity at low degress of otherness or dialogism. According to this approach, the subject coincides perfectly with consciousness and has full control over the sign processes that one is concerned with; therefore, the subject is convinced that what a message communicates is completely determined by intentional will as sender and encoder.


On the contrary, those trends in semiotics which somehow refer to “interpretation semiotics” (as distinct from “decodification semiotics”) and to the Peircean sign model describe the generation of meaning as an ongoing, dynamic and open-ended process without the guarantees of a code regulating exchange relations between signifiers and signifieds (see Eco, 1984; Peirce, CP 5.284). In “Semiotics between Peirce and Bakhtin,” Ponzio associates categories developed for the study of signs by two epochal thinkers, Charles Peirce and Mikhail Bakhtin, and in this light demonstrates how the sign model proposed by decodification or equal exchange semiotics is oversimplifying and naïve (Ponzio, 1990a: 252-73). In fact, according to this model the sign is: 1) at the service of meaning pre-established outside communication and interpretation processes; 2) considered as a pre-constituted and passive instrument in the hands of a subject who is also given and pre-established antecedently to semiosic and communicative processes, therefore capable of controling and dominating signs and sign processes at will; 3) can be decoded on the basis of a pre-existing code shared by partners in the communicative process.


Instead, the sign model proposed by interpretation semiotics is triadic (at least) and is largely constructed with reference to Peirce’s astounding classification of signs, in particular his tripartite division of the interpretant into “immediate interpretant,” “dynamic interpretant,” and “final interpretant,” and his most renowned triad that distinguishes among “symbol,” “index,” and “icon,” etc. Peirce places the sign in the dynamic context of semiosis, open-ended, infinite semiosis, which also means in the context of the dialectic and dialogic relationship with the interpretant. Keeping account of such aspects, Ponzio’s association of Peirce and Bakhtin is highly relevant: Bakhtin places the sign in the context of dialogism and intercorporeity (in which alone can the sign fully flourish as a sign) and describes signs and sign processes in the dynamic terms of “text,” “otherness,” “dialogism,” “responsive understanding,” “answerability,” “intertextuality,” “polyphony,” “extralocalization,” “multiaccentuativity,” “unfinalizability,” “plurilingualism,” “listening,” etc. (Bakhtin, 1970-1971; Barthes, 1981, 1982). Though working independently of each other and despite their different focus—Peirce worked mostly on questions of a cognitive order, Bakhtin on literary language which he used as a kaleidoscope for his own philosophical work on signs and language –, both scholars recognize the fundamental importance of the logic of dialogism and otherness for an adequate understanding semiosis and of the ethical and pragmatic dimensions of signifying processes. In fact, both also focus their attention on what we have identified as the “semioethical” dimension of semiosis (see Petrilli and Ponzio, 2003b, 2005; Petrilli, 2010).


1.3. The Dialogic Nature of Signs, Interpretation and Understanding


The word is structurally a dialogic word, a word born in relation to the other, as such the word is a response, an answer, a reply, and a question. The constitutive character of understanding is dialogic. Dialogue is an external or internal discourse where the word of the other, not necessarily of another person, interferes with one’s own word. Reading together Peirce and Bakhtin has led to the elaboration of a sign model that is dialectic or “dialogic” (that is, the result of dialectics grounded in dialogism) according to which the sign and semiosis converge. Considered dialectically or, better, dialogically, the sign does not emerge as an autonomous unit endowed with a pre-consituted and pre-defined meaning, with a value of its own determined in the relationship of mechanical opposition with the other units forming the sign system. Once the sign is no longer viewed as a single element or broken down into its component parts, it is difficult to say where it begins and where it ends. The sign is not a thing, but a process, the intersection of relations which are social relations (Ponzio, 2006a).


Bakhtin works on the concept of text which, like the sign, can only flourish and play the game of understanding and interpretation in the light of a still broader context: the intertextual context of dialectic/dialogic relationships among texts. The sense of a text develops through its interaction with other texts, along the boundaries of another text. Bakhtin’s approach to signs and language gives full play to the centrifugal forces of linguistic-cultural life, theorizing otherness, polysemy, and dialogism as constitutive factors of the sign’s identity. Says Bakhtin in his essay of 1959-1961, “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis”:


The text as utterance included in the speech communication (textual chain) of a given sphere. The text as a unique monad that in itself reflects all texts (within the bounds) of a given sphere. The interconnection of all ideas (since all are realized in utterances). The dialogic relationships among texts and within the text. The special (not linguistic) nature. Dialogue and dialectics. (Bakhtin, 1986: 104-5)


The categories developed by decodification semiotics are oversimplifying especially in their application to discourse analysis, writing, and ideology. On the contrary, interpretation semiotics with its theories of sense, significance, and interpretability (“interpretanza,” Eco, 1984: 43), with its broad, dynamic and critical conception of the sign accounts more adequately for signification and communication, providing a far more comprehensive description of human interaction. As anticipated, the sign model developed by decodification semiotics is founded on the logic of equal exchange, on the notion of equivalence between one sign and another, between the signifiant and the signifié, the system of language and the utterance (langue/parole), etc. Instead, the sign model developed by interpretation semiotics is grounded in the idea of deferral forming the open chain of signs, of renvoi among signs in a triadic progression whose minimal factors include the sign, object and interpretant. However, it is important to underline that these factors only effectively emerge in semiosic processes and are connected by a relation of non-correspondence determined by the logic of excess and otherness. According to such logic the interpretant sign never corresponds exactly to the previous sign, but says something more, developing and enriching it with new meanings.


A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea,which I have somethies called the ground of the representamen. (CP 2.228)


The interpreter/interpretant responds to something and in so doing becomes a sign which in turn gives rise to another interpretive response, etc. From this perspective, the function of the interpretant sign is not limited to merely identifying the previous sign, but rather is taken to various levels of responsive understanding (or answering comprehension) which implies the existence of a concrete dialogic relationship among signs regulated by the principle of reciprocal otherness. As Bakhtin says (1986: 127): “Being heard as such is already a dialogic relation. The word wants to be heard, understood, responded to, and again to respond to the response, and so forth ad infinitum.” Semiosis ensues from this live relation and certainly not from an abstract relation among the signs forming a sign system. Bakhtin’s concept of “responsive understanding” may be associated with Peirce’s “dynamic interpretant.” And like Peirce, Bakhtin believes that the human being is made of sign relations, sign activity. As explicitly analyzed by Voloshinov (1927), both the conscious and the unconscious are made of sign material, that is, dialogically structured verbal and nonverbal sign material.

In the situation of impasse characterizing decodification semiotics, Peirce’s approach represents a means of escape. His Collected Papers, which include studies on signs going back to the second half of the nineteenth century, only began appearing in 1931 and have the merit (among others) of recovering the forgotten connection with sign studies from the Middle Ages (for example, Peter of Spain’s Tractatus1 is cited frequently by Peirce). In his famous paper of 1867, “On a New List of Categories,” Peirce describes the concepts he believed most suitable for a satisfactory analysis of the polyhedric nature of the sign. However, an even more articulate version of this description is generally considered to be his letter of 12 October 1904 to his correspondent Victoria Lady Welby, in which, with reference to the relationship between signs and knowledge, he maintains thata sign is something by knowing which we know something more. With the exception of knowledge, in the present instant, of the contents of consciousness in that instant (the existence of which knowledge is open to doubt) all our thought & knowledge is by signs. A sign therefore is an object which is in relation to its object on the one hand and to an interpretant on the other in such a way as to bring the interpretant into a relation to the object correspond-mg to its own relation to the object. I might say “similar to its own” for a correspondence consists in a similarity; but perhaps correspondence is narrower. (Peirce to Welby, in Hardwick, 1977: 31-2)


According to Peirce, a sign stands to someone for something in some respect or capacity. The sign stands to someone in the sense that it creates “an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign” in the interpreter; that is, it creates an interpretant sign (CP 2.228). Moreover, the sign stands for something in some respect or capacity in the sense that it does not refer to the object in its entirety (dynamic object), but only to some part of it (immediate object). A sign, therefore, subsists for Peirce according to the category of thirdness; it presupposes a triadic relation between itself, its object, and the interpretant thought, itself a sign. Given that it mediates between the interpretant sign and the object, a sign always plays the role of third party.


Peirce’s semiotics focuses on the concept of interpretation, identifying meaning (which Saussurean semiology leaves unexplained) in the interpretant—that is to say, in another sign which takes the place of the preceding sign. Insofar as it is a sign, the interpretant only subsists by virtue of another interpretant in an open-ended chain of deferrals forming the “semiosic flux” (for this expression, see Merrell, 1996) thanks to the potential creativity of interpretive processes. According to this perspective, semiosis is not guaranteed a priori by appealing to a code fixed antecendently to a specific semiosis, for the code itself even does not subsist outside interpretive processes, but rather is established and maintained as a function of semiosis.


“Mediation,” which is closely interrelated with interpretation and infinite semiosis, is another fundamental concept in the architectonics of Peirce’s thought system. The sign is mediated by the interpretant, without which it cannot express its meaning and in turn mediates the relationship with the object in any interpretive act whatsoever, from the simplest levels of perception to the most complex levels of knowledge. Meaning does not effectively reside in the sign, but in the relationship among signs.


Peirce’s semiotics has been mostly read as cognitive semiotics in which logic and semiotics are related on the basis of the assumption that knowledge is mediated by signs, indeed is impossible without signs. Interpretation semiotics replaces the dichotomy between signifier and signified with the triadic relationship between sign, object and interpretant where the type of sign produced, in particular whether symbol, index, or icon, is a question of which relationship predominates (symbolic, indexical or iconic) in the connection between sign, object and interpretant; but whichever it is, the role of interpretant remains fundamental. Meanings evolve dynamically in open interpretive processes: the greater the degree of otherness in the relationship between interpretant sign and interpreted sign, therefore of dialogism, the more interpretation develops in terms of active dialogic response, creative reformulation, inventiveness and critique rather than mere repetition, literal translation, synonymic substitution, identification.