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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Sensing Corporeally: Toward a Posthuman Understanding by Floyd Merrell ( Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Communication Series: University of Toronto Press) In Sensing Corporeally, Floyd Merrell argues that human sensation and cog­nition should be thought of in terms of continually changing ‘signs’ that can be accounted for with reference to topological forms. This book swims against the current of linear, mechanical, quantitative, dualistic, Boolean logical and rational thinking, by submerging itself in the flow of nonlinear, organic, qualitative feeling and sensing and thinking. It draws heavily from qualitative and analogical feeling and sensing rather than quantita­tive and digital reasoning. It does this through continuous topological drifts and folds rather than discontinuous breaks and crisp lines of demarcation.

Focusing on quali­tative and analogical sensing, Merrell, professor of Theory, Semiotics, Culture, and Latin American Literature in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Purdue University, begins by reflecting on the concept of consciousness as developed by neurologist Antonio Damasio, whose work in turn reflects Charles Peirce's conception of ‘the sign’. By expanding Peirce's notion of the sign in light of Damasio's work, as well as that of Oliver Sacks and the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, Merrell demonstrates the importance of the relationship between cognition, consciousness, and fantasy. The phi­losophy of science espoused by Michael Polanyi and the analytic and postanalytic philosophies of Donald Davidson, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty are also explored in light of what they bring to Peircean concepts of vagueness and generality, inconsistency and incom­pleteness, and abduction, induction, and deduction. Merrell concludes by moving to the conceptual world of biologist Jakob von Uexkull and his Umwelt theory in order to complete the journey into the realm of ‘posthu­man’ understanding, which is charac­terized by instinctive, tacit knowledge, continuity, and possibility.

From the Preface: This book, then, is about posthuman understanding through subjective, qualitative sensing, and above all it is about sensing corporeally. It focuses chiefly on modes of feeling and sensing and thinking by way of sign use and abuse. In this sense, topology plays a key role in all aspects of semiotic activity. That is to say, I consider feeling and sensing and think­ing in terms of continuous change, in time, of signs that can perhaps best be accounted for as spatial forms. After all, we ourselves are topo­logical: each of us is a two-dimensional surface with a few holes enclosing an impressive, mind-bogglingly complex collection of three-dimensional temporal processes, each enclosed within a two-dimensional surface, most of these with a few holes. Why should we expect our feelings and sensations and thoughts and our perceptions and conceptions and our sign making and taking to be of a non-topological nature?

And how is the topological strategy carried out between the covers of this volume? Through the creative, insightful, and highly suggestive work of neurologist Antonio Damasio and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks, and through the equally impressive fictions by Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, and through brief meditation on writings from science and postanalytic philosophy. The topological strategy in this book also emerges visually, through my rather liberal use of figures, diagrams, and tables. These images depict interrelations that might appear static in their spatial outlay. Yet they are dynamic, within the unfolding of time.

Merrell aims to overcome linear, mechanical thinking by underlining the role of the body and, in turn, the role of feeling and sensing, in the development of cognitive processes. Sensing Corporeally is a forceful and timely challenge to traditional models of human understanding.

The Impact on Philosophy of Semiotics: The Quasi-Error of the External World With a Dialogue Between a 'Semiotist' and a 'Realist by John N. Deely (St. Augistine’s Press) is a reformulation of philosophy within the light of semiotics as well as a realist critique of semiotic practice. It begins as a coherent argument about the meaning of the term "postmodern" as it applies to philosophy at the opening of the twenty-first century. Deely makes the case that the twentieth-century development of the doctrine of signs, com­monly known as semiotics, represents the positive essential thrust giving birth to a postmodern era of philosophy, as clean a break with modern thought as modern thought was with Latin scholasticism in the time of Galileo, Poinsot, and Descartes - but with a difference. Contrary to what the author dismisses as false claims of postmodernity, the work shows that what is truly postmodern in philosophy both goes beyond modernity and recovers philosophy's past in a renewed understanding of the human condition. The "problem of the external world," which modern philosophy began by creating, postmodern philosophy begins by revealing as a quasi-error. The book concludes with a philosophical dialogue revealing the inadequacy to the postmodern situation of a simple return to any past form of "realism," and explaining Why the postmod­ern situation calls for a new definition of human being as "the semiotic animal" Deely work is a useful and balanced Thomistic realist account of current trends in philosophy.

John Deely is Professor of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies of the University of St. Thomas ( Houston ), and author of numerous works on philosophy and semiotics, most recently The Four Ages of Understanding, and, from St. Augustine 's Press, What Distinguishes Human Understanding.

Media Semiotics: An Introduction by Jonathan Bignell (Manchester University Press) is a lucid investigation of the critical approach in contemporary media studies. Using examples such as Big Brother and Billy Elliot, Jonathan Bignell steps easily from basic concepts to more complex theories, while devoting chapters to specific media forms. New material in this second edition includes sections on men's style magazines, docusoaps and "realityTV", digital interactive television, and mobile phone text messaging. Introductory.

 Language Within Language: An Evolutive Approach by Ivan Fonagy (Foundations of Semiotics: John Benjamins) is a major systematic attempt to map out and identify the primitive associative sonic mechanisms of language as a sort of proto-grammar. Following up on a psychoanalytic insight into the primitive styles of language performance and how these iconic procedures influence in hidden ways the meaning of speech.

Fonagy follows in the tradition of Freud's thought on language, literature, and culture utilizing the further work of such psychoanalysts as Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Otto Rank, Theodor Reik, Wilhelm Reich, Hanns Sachs, Ernest Jones, Ernst Kris, and Victor Rosen. Language Within Language essentially centers around questions of dynamics, change, and evolution of language. At the phonetic level, noting the expression of mental content by speech sounds, developing a sort of semiotics of sound-making and nonverbal vocal and gestural behaviour. Eventually appropriating the systemic approach of the Prague School of phonology as expanded by one of its founders, Roman Jakobson. His more psychologically oriented analysis gave shape and extended the utility of Saussure's basic principle of opposing the systemic synchronic and nonsystemic diachronic linguistics. Jakobson felt it to be insufficient by itself and so established a systemic diachronic and a dynamic synchronic concept of language.

According this primitive unconscious of language is still effectively present in living speech acts. Phonetic, syntactic and semantic rule transgressions are evidence for a universal iconic apparatus. Fonagy’s attempts to show how we can approach this unconsciousness of language systematically, providing many tools and procedures by which we can uncover hidden messages in speech.

For any one interested in translation of literary texts and for a truly provocative account of double reading of texts this volume may become a important landmark in the semiotic analysis of poetics.


In the first half of the century, German scholars in the fields of Romance languages and literatures developed a new `stylistic' approach to compensate for the lack of such a dynamic synchronic analysis. I am especially indebted in this area to the works of Leo Spitzer. Spitzer was able to comprehend the movement and change of lexical and syntactic phenomena by means of highly sensitive analyses of literary texts. He taught me to see how structural and lexical dynamics create aesthetic surplus value.

Eduard Sievers' daring enterprise, the analysis of the melody of literary texts and their authors' vocal characteristics, encouraged my (much more limited) attempts in this domain. I was especially fortunate in having been able to verify his approach with the help of Milan Fust, an outstanding Hungarian poet and writer.

The aesthetic messages conveyed by the special verbal and thematic organisation of literary texts, beyond the sentence, first became evident to me in reading the poetic works and theories of German Romantic literary theorists. The young Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis, and Tieck likened the structure of literary works to musical compositions. I would like to express my belated thanks to Professor Janos Koszo, who introduced me to the universe of German Romanticism. Clarification about the potential parallels between music and literature was gained in frequent conversations with Bence Szabolcsi, who drew my attention to the existence of a standard musical language in each epoch on which the highly individual work of the great composers was built.

My understanding of the synchronic dynamic aspect of language has also been influenced by the Marxist concept of dialectics. It has prepared me to see in the contradictions inherent in present‑day language the projection of linguistic change.

In view of this manifest intellectual experience, there is one conscious silence in the book: the lack of an attempt at analysis of stylistic phenomena in their sociological context in both the synchronic and the diachronic sense. Conversations on this matter have been conducted with Leslie Bodi, who has already attempted to establish such connections between rhetorical figures, literary genres, and specific socio‑historical conditions.

A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy by Robert S. Corrington (University of Cambridge Press) deals with the concept of nature from an unusually broad perspective, viewing nature as encompassing every order of the world. It is innovative in method, weaving together different disciplines, methods and attunements, but at the same time rich and imaginative in its poetical style and metaphors. It opens up a new understanding of the depths and vastness of nature, worlds strange, scary but also fascinating. It reflects on the mystery of the sacred in nature and the meaning humans can make of their lives.

In this book Robert Corrington has managed to hold together the vital threads of his earlier books and add new insights as well to his thought of ecstatic naturalism.

A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy is capstone of his six previous books as they have developed his unique perspective of ecstatic naturalism. This form of naturalism, while rooted in classical Euro-American forms of naturalism (think of Dewey and Buchler here), makes a decisive break with the past by arguing for the primacy of the unconscious dimension of nature and for the reality of the potencies that enter into the world often when they are least expected. In order to frame his general philosophy, he engages in an ongoing respectful dialogue with psychoanalysis (especially that of Jung, Reich, and Kristeva), semiotic theory in the Peircean tradition, and a universalistic religiosity apparently shaped by his encounters with Hinduism and American Unitarianism. One of the key distinctions in the book is that between nature naturing (which he calls the underconscious dimension of nature) and nature natured (what he calls the world and all that it contains). Nature is not split into two halves, but exhibits two dimensions, the first of which is rarely probed by philosophy. He has an almost mystical sense of the pre-semiotic ground of nature and sees it as the birthing ground of the potencies (taking this word from Schelling). The other dimension of nature natured is explored in terms of an evolutionary semiotics that is bold enough to see sign usage in all of the prehuman order of the world. His phenomenological descriptions of these processes are often quite powerful. In this condensed but readable text he deals with the specific issues of what he calls the four infinities, the archetypes, the nature of time, the structure of the sign itself, the traits of natural verses interpretive communities, and concludes with a description of four types of sacred folds (a concept that he developed in his previous book Nature's Religion). Corrington already has a small but growing community of sympathetic interlocutors, and with the publication of this book from the distinguished Cambridge University Press, this community is sure to grow further. I can give this book my highest recommendation and I see it as an important milestone in the development of Corrington's ecstatic naturalism

Corrington's criticism of ecofeminist theology and philosophy struck me as unfair. It is my guess that ecofeminism and ecstatic naturalism will have an interesting, lively and productive discussion in the future. I would recommend this important book to anyone interested in the connection between nature and the meaning of life, from a philosophical or a religious standpoint- ecofeminists too.

The concern of this work is with developing an alternative to standard categories in theology and philosophy, especially in terms of how they deal with nature. Avoiding the polemics of much contemporary reflection on nature, it shows how we are connected to nature through the unconscious and its unique way of reading and processing signs. Spinoza's key distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata serves as the governing framework for the treatise. Suggestions are made for a post‑Christian way of understanding religion.

Robert S. Corrington's work represents the first sustained attempt to bring together the fields of semiotics, depth‑psychology, pragmaticism, and a post‑Monotheistic theology of nature. Its focus is on how signification functions in human and non‑human orders of infinite nature. Our connection with the infinite is described in detail, especially as it relates to the use of sign systems.

 The immodest proposal in this book is that the interdisciplinary science and art of semiotics can transform philosophy and theology and pave the way for a new metaphysics. To frame a problematic semiotically is to focus on those elements in the world that signify in some respect, no matter how primitive or complex. Closure marks both ends of the human journey, but profound traces of the whence and the lure of the whither enter into and shape everything that the human process contrives, thinks, and assimilates. Semiotic reflection can evoke and describe these traces as well as enter into and articulate the more manifest meanings that we can communicate with each other.

Yet on a deeper level, semiotic theory remains itself provincial insofar as it refuses to enter into the much more capacious horizon of a metaphysics of nature, a metaphysics that refuses to let anxiety or narcissism divert its native generic drive toward an encompassing perspective. The failure to develop an adequate and compelling conception of nature has haunted thought down through the centuries, but we are now at a historical nexus in which our categorical framework can be broadened through a semiotic cosmology that probes into the ultimate texture of meaning in an evolutionary world. This is not to equate semiotic cosmology with the cosmology that is experiencing such a profound revival in astrophysics, although, as will emerge, there are striking points of convergence between the two enterprises. The "object" of semiotic cosmology is broader in scope than the worlds of energy and matter, and includes anything that is an order in any respect whatsoever, whether discriminated by human sign users or not.

The convergent streams that support and nourish semiotic cosmology are ready to enter into a creative intersection in which they can both enhance and challenge each other. Among the more important streams are: (t) a transformed philosophical naturalism that is open to the depth‑dimension of nature, (2) a more generic psychoanalysis that honors the insights of Freud, Jung, Reich, and Kristeva, but moves toward the depth‑fields that undercut the narcissistic frameworks of Western psychology, (3) a genuine paleopragmatism that honors the spirit of Peirce and Dewey while avoiding the subjectivism and historicism of neopragmatism, and (4) a truly universalistic religious consciousness that can move thought beyond the patriarchal tyranny of the three Western monotheisms. Needless to say, these are each complex threads in their own right, but it is possible to weave them together into a tapestry with some contour that can provide a map for the future work of semiotic cosmology.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to envision in such an enterprise is the true depth-dimension of nature, a dimension that lies just beyond our categorial frameworks, no matter how robust. In a fine unpublished manuscript on my work, Catholic theologian Guy Woodward pluralizes the notion of natura naturans (nature naturing) that continues to play such a large role in my still‑evolving perspective:

Natura naturans are at once in these chaoses the self-fissuring, thus the rending. Differences crackle through them, like hghtenings through a night, quartering the darkness. Differences thus fissure (ceaselessly) natura naturans in all their magnitudes, and, thus fissured, constitute them as domains (as mappings constitute once "uncharted" lands into domains, realms); these same fissurings are as plowings, cultivating natura naturans by rending them (as the plough blades did the prairies), thus rend‑erring them seed beds, seminaria. (Woodward 1998)

He has clearly grasped my intent; namely, to evoke or show those fissures that open up beneath both thought and the innumerable orders of the world. This depth‑dimension is presemiotic yet finds its way into the life of signs. Each of the four conceptual horizons noted above contributes in its own way to a much broader understanding of an inexhaustible nature and its depth‑dimension that can appear to finite and horizon‑bound experience when the lightning‑like potencies of nature naturing punctuate the world of signs and objects.

This work is the natural outgrowth of my previous six books. Yet the present work also struggles to advance into new territory, especially around the phenomena associated with infinite semiosis, sacred folds, the ontology of signs, and the depth‑field that is linked to the underconscious of nature. Theologically, this work has been influenced by both the universalist criteria of contemporary Unitarianism and the Westernized form of Hinduism known as Vedanta. But these twin sources operate in the wings, as it were, providing a sense of the sheer scope of the matter of religion rather than presenting particular doctrines.

As Heidegger knew so well, no way station can still that hunger that sign users have to get closer to the ultimate origins and goals of the elusive world of meaning. Any linguistic contrivance such as this one can satisfy the hunger only for a brief time, but it represents a necessary concrescence of those energies that propel us forward.


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