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Ferruccio Rossi-Landi “Between Signs and Non-Signs”

Rossi-Landi, Ferruccio 1992. Between Signs and Non-Signs. Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.


Signs and Bodies 271-276

[…] materialistic semiotics starts with bodies, and by realizing that bodies can be or not be signs, comes to consider signs as a subclass of bodies-in-general; while idealistic semiotics works the other way round, i.e. starts with signs, and, while insisting on the differences between signs and bodies, reaches the apparently contradictory conclusion that, after all, all bodies are signs. (272)

[…] the demystification of idealistic semiotics must itself start with signs, not with bodies. The reason is that it is much more difficult to show step by step how bodies become signs, while remaining bodies, that it is to show that signs are also bodies, and that not all bodies are signs. (272-273)

[…] a sign is a sign because it is the center of a network of social relations, or because it belongs to such a network. (273)

When C [All bodies can be signs] is ignored, in fact, the process by which men and other living beings make a body into a sign, or read a sign in a body, is forgotten. Everything is a sign already. (274)

Bodies, and not signs only, are the world’s furniture. Bodies are to be met both outside of signs and within signs themselves. Interpreters are bodies with needs, desires, illnesses, etc., and not only bodies capable of using signs. […] Social life, while being entirely covered by sign systems up to the point that without signs it wouldn’t be social and, possibly, it wouldn’t even be life, consists also of something else. (275)

Semiotics needs bodies much as economics needs use-values. Neither is a complete theory of society; but no theory of society can avoid being founded on them. And, whatever the approach, the world continues to exist. (276)


Ideas for a Manifesto of Materialistic Semiotics 277-280

  1. Semiotic studies are deeply involved in the study of social reproduction. In fact, social repropduction is also, necessarily, the reproduction of all sign systems. […]
  2. The sign systems reproduced within social reproduction are both verbal and nonverbal. […] A proper approach to the sign factors of social reproduction cannot be but a fully semiotic approach. No merely linguistic approach would ever do. […]
  3. Everything that goes on in social reproduction is also a sign process. […] By this we mean, almost tautologically, that nothing made by man can be exempt from signs at the human level. […] There is, therefore, a a semiotics of material production. Sign processes which accompany or are at work even within material production are themselves a huge chapter in the semiotic enterprise.
  4. However, it seems that the semiotic approach acquires its full strength when applied to nonmaterial production, i.e. to the production of superstructural items […] Notice that, for instance, rituals and rules are nonverbal sign systems independent from whether or not they are also verbally expressed. In other words, not even at the superstructural level is a merely linguistic approach sufficient. […]
  5. […] sign systems as a „third item“ inbetween the economic base and the superstructures. This acquires perhaps more sense if we call the former mode of production and the latter ideological superstructures. (279-280)


Toward a Theory of Sign Residues 281-299

Sign systems, the object of semiotics are characterized by semiosis, viz. by the functioning of signs which are always organized in systems. […] Social reproduction is the totality of the processes by which any given society proceeds in time from generation to generation, keeping itself going in history […] while both preserving its internal structure and administering some changes in it. (281)

The economic structure comprehends all the processes required for the production of goods and can be basically described in terms of the prevailing mode of production. A mode of production is the sum of productiove forces and relations of production. (281)

Signs sytems can be first introduced as mediating between modes of production and ideologies, but they can also be considered as being mediated in their turn by either modes of production or ideologies. In other words, one can either start with sign systems, oppose them to ideologies and mediate between the two in terms of modes of production, or start with modes of production, oppose them to signs systems, and mediate the two in terms of ideologies. This dialectical terminnology represents the fact that a third item has been introduced into a previous two-item totality, and expresses the author’s approach to a materialistic semiotics as a portion of a general science of man. (282)

[…] every human action, whatever else it may be, must also be sign action. This is why it is social; or perhaps, with a more conservative formulation, this is the main reason why we call it social. (Notice that „private actions“ are themselves just a specief of the kind „social actions“; in fact, the very opposition between „private or individual“ and „public or collective or social“ is a social opposition.) (283)


  1. If a sign is a totality, then there must be some parts, at least two, which constitute the totality. A one-part totality would be a contradiction in terms.
  2. Such parts may exist in some way before the formation of the totality. Alternatively, they must be reciprocally present at the moment when the totality comes into being. […] We shall say that in such cases the parts are being produced or reproduced by the same process by which the totality itself is produced or reproduced.
  3. Whether pre-existing or not, no part as such can in any way perform the job performed by the totality, or represent it on the stage of communication. […]
  4. The complexity of the parts as such and the procedures by which they are produced or reproduced are irrelevant to the functioning of their totality. […]
  5. Once the totality „sign“ dissolves, there can be residues of the parts, residues in the sense that something survives the passing away of the totality. […]
  6. […] We must, in fact, distinguish at least the following items: a) The specific social work which has phylogenetically produced the various sign totalities since the first dawning of human communities; b) The social work necessary to continue to produce each sign totality as a distinguished entity within the global sign production of the community; c) The work of transmitting sign totalities from generation to generation. […] d) The individual work of transmitting sign reproduction of sign totalities. (285-286)

Residues on the Side of Signantia:

  1. typology of signs according to the different materials which have gone into their signantia;
  2. typology of signs according to the permanence/presence of the above materials before, during, and after the actual functioning of the sign;
  3. typology of signs according to the ways in which the materials have entered the signans, and by so doing entered the sign:
    1. signantia pre-existing in nature;
    2. signantia produced for other aims;
    3. signantia produced especially as such.
  4. typology of signs according to the level of socialization reached by the signans. (289-294)

Residues on the Side of the Signata:

  1. The signatum as interpretant, that is, either as a modification in the behavior of the interpreter, or as a modification within the interpreter, in his internal structure. […]
  2. The signatum as lekton, as Sinn distinguished from Bedeutung, as reference distinguished from referent, as intension vs. extension, as signification. […]
  3. The signatum as denotatum, Bedeutung, referent, or extension: a phyical or nonphysical objject, something that „really exists“ in some manner of existence and in some sense of ’really’. (295-296)

What is, then, the unifying element of all that goes with the signatum either within the totality „sign“ ot, outside of it, in the direction indicated by the signatum as opposed to the signans? The answer is – social substance: Human actions of any description, institutions, relations of men among themselves and with nature at large. The signatum is the coagulation of a piece of society. The residues on the side of the signatum are social residues to be classified in terms of social reproduction. It is also on the side of the signatum that we pass from signs to non-signs; and it is irrelevant whether the materials entering a given sign are themselves signs or non-sign materials before they enter it. (297-298)

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