The sheer bulk of this volume - as well as its highly miscellaneous character - suggests one of the problems about modern semiotics, considered as a discipline or field of study. It is hard to draw the line as to just what should count as a properly 'semiotic' line of enquiry, given that the field extends to every kind of signifying process or activity. At the limit (as in many of the essays here) it is not so much a method, theory or discipline as a generalised pretext for making observations that would otherwise lack any handy descriptive label. Of course there have been those - Saussure and the early Roland Barthes, among others - who held out the prospect of a unified endeavour that would place semiotics on a genuine scientific footing. Such was the dream of method that found its most ambitious expression in the structuralist 'revolution' of the human sciences proclaimed by various disciples of Saussure. Linguistics was to serve as the pilot methodology, the basis for a universal science of signs. Anthropology, political theory, psychoanalysis and even (according to Piaget) mathematics and the 'hard' sciences - all were to be seen as constituent fields of this overarching programme. Their interests converged on a handful of propositions about the workings of language - derived mostly from Saussure and Jakobson - which seemed to point beyond 'linguistics' as such to a much larger theory of mind, culture and signifying systems in general. Semiotics (or semiology, as the French preferred to call it) was set to usher in this bright new age of interdisciplinary endeavour.
LRB 4 September 1986 | PDF Download