The Global World and its Manifold Faces

Otherness as the Basis of Communication

by Susan Petrilli (Author)
©2016 Monographs 300 Pages


The Global World is a pivotal formula in present-day «Newspeak». The book’s leitmotif – if it is true that the faces of today’s global world are manifold – is that language opens to the other, that the word’s boundaries are the multiple boundaries of the relation to others, of encounter among differences. Otherness logic is in language and life. The aim is to evidence how, contrary to implications of the newspeak order, new worlds are possible, critical linguistic consciousness is possible – a «word revolution» and pathway to social change. The method is «linguistic» and concerns the language and communication sciences. But to avoid that the limits of the latter influence our perspective on «the global world and its manifold faces», this method is located at the intersection of different scientific perspectives. As such it pertains to «philosophy of language», but in dialogue with the science of verbal and nonverbal signs, today «global semiotics», therefore it is also «semiotic». And given that how to understand «the global world» is not just a theoretical issue, but concerns how we relate to others, to differences in all their forms and aspects, the method proposed with this book is also «semioethic».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Language and Social Reproduction
  • 1. On signs and language
  • 2. Language as work and primary modelling
  • 3. The critical work of sociosemiotics as semioethics
  • II. The Critique of Glottocentricism, European Signatures
  • 1. Glottocentrism and its stereotypes
  • 2. Modelling, language, writing
  • 3. On triadism, dialectics and automatism
  • 4. Global semiotics and responsibility
  • III. Translation as the Life of Signs
  • 1. Translation, dialogism and understanding
  • 2. The other as the vocation of the sign
  • 3. Translation from abstract entities to concrete singularities
  • 4. Grand ideologic narratives and transcultural communication
  • IV. Communication and Otherness in Philosophy of Language
  • 1. Philosophy of language as the art of listening
  • 2. Human sciences and the question of value
  • 3. The detotalising method in philosophical research
  • 4. Art, life, responsibility
  • V. Significs and Semioethics. Educating for Meaning and Value
  • 1. Semiotics and education
  • 2. The linguistic conscious and the linguistic conscience
  • VI. Perception and Understanding in the Era of Global Communication
  • 1. A phenomenological and a semiotic analysis
  • 2. Perception and understanding in and beyond global communication
  • 3. Perceiving time and space
  • 4. Stereotypes in the face of migration and alterity
  • 5. In, but not of, the globalised world
  • VII. Humanism Questioned. The Gift in and Beyond Exchange
  • 1. Language and value in a woman perspective
  • 2. Identity matters
  • 3. Significs to semioethics
  • 4. Mother-sense
  • 5. Ident, self, community
  • 6. Nurturing the other and social change
  • 7. Language and unilateral gift-giving
  • 8. The globalisation of indifference, a way out
  • VIII. The Self: Its Limits and Potentialities
  • 1. The self, the word and the other
  • 2. The self in becoming
  • 3. The semiotic self
  • 4. Telos and the body
  • IX. Two Assumptions in Legal Discourse: Answering for Self and Telling the Truth
  • 1. Additional or implicit meanings
  • 2. Hidden meanings in legal discourse
  • 3. Telling the truth in legal practice. Veridiction and jurisdiction in Foucault
  • 4. Answering for self and telling the truth in Peirce’s semiotics
  • X. Identity to Alterity, a Look Through Literary Writing
  • 1. Symbol, writing and life. A tale by M. Maeterlinck
  • 1.1 Cosmic vision and writing
  • 1.2 Telling stories and the resources of ambiguity
  • 1.3 The power of symbolism. Love, logic and the destiny of the universe
  • 1.4 Narrativity beyond the narrative text
  • 2. Re-writing and de-writing Shakespeare. Laforgue and Bene
  • 2.1 The word revolution
  • 2.2 Off-screen
  • 2.3 Theatre without representation
  • XI. Misunderstanding in Understanding
  • 1. The paradoxes of understanding
  • 2. Joyful ambiguity
  • 3. Vagueness and communication
  • 4. I love you/Me too
  • 5. The irony of infidelity, seduction and escape
  • 6. Imposture and representation
  • 7. A few words to conclude
  • References
  • Name and Subject Index
  • Series index

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This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands…

(William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 2, Sc. 1, ll. 46–49)

Organising a book, deciding on what problematics to present and at what point is already in itself an exercise in narrativity. It involves spinning a story like Anansi the spider, while keeping account of the other, the reader whose attention the writer wants somehow to capture.

On the question of narrativity today specifically in relation to the problematics addressed in this book, a first grand narrative – in spite of Jean-François Lyotard (1979) and his discourse on the end of grand narratives – is represented by communication itself and the ideology upon which it stands in the era of globalisation, which is the era of “global communication”. This narrative recites that the world is a “global community”, an expression that would seem to presuppose a community that is organic, homogeneous, somehow united. But today’s globalised world ensues from forcefully homologating the great plurality of different worlds – albeit unsuccessfully –, which it is not in a position to contain if not by subjecting, denying, repealing and abrograting them; hence this world ensues from monologising the different languages, historical-natural languages and special languages, many of which are destined to extinction, with their respective cultures which too in the global order are subverted, distorted and twisted. With respect to dominant ideology, to the official languages and values that characterise globalisation, such worlds, languages and cultures are redundant, they are judged to be superfluous, an excess, and as such are considered to be inconvenient, backwards.

Homologation and monologisation characteristic of the grand narrative that is global communication require sacrifice of the other, the superfluous other with respect to dominant social reproduction, to which this other will not conform, the other whose otherness is the otherness itself of this world, otherness rendered manifest by the very impossibility of finding a place ← 9 | 10 → in it. In reality, this narrative is a grand mystification given the pretension to containing the uncontainable, even if in the form of restriction and confinement, resulting in the destruction of the potentialities of the world as a place for encounter among different people, languages and cultures, for communication without frontiers in the sign of hospitality and living together.

Recent expressions of the “health” of global communication today are, for example, its marine cemeteries, like those in the Mediterranean, and all the new “walls” in construction. Allusion here is to barriers of various sorts, physical and virtual, built in the effort to oppose migratory fluxes moving away from situations that, to say the least, are unsustainable for life and at once part of the very same mechanisms that drive global communication.

But we know that other narratives are still possible, stories through history tell us as much. Literary stories and real stories, stories that stage the manifold faces of the world, of other worlds, telling tales fraught with significance, that capture and seduce. Consequently, that other narratives are possible is what the nature of communication itself tells us, communication which in life and the living word, in live interpersonal relationships is altogether other with respect to the monological voice and the monolithic face of the mask it presents today.

In reality, the communication globe has many faces to unveil, many voices to listen to. In fact, an irrevocable condition for total – but not totalising – communication is the other. Communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, language and languages, cultures and worldviews all presuppose the other: otherness as the basis of communication, otherness that generates communication. It is for this very reason that we know that global communication can still invent new tales, can still dream of a “happy Babel”, of many languages, as Augusto Ponzio teaches us in a tale that proposes this expression in the title, “Babele felice”. From the Premise (Ponzio 1982: 25–34):

This enquiry is conducted according to three main perspectives: 1) descriptive with reference to communication as it emerges today in terms of “global communication” in a globalised world; 2) theoretical-critical with respect to its different expressions and functions; 3) propositional with respect to the ethical-pragmatic dimension of sign behaviour and interpersonal relations.

Organised specifically for publication with Peter Lang, this book on the signs of language, communication and the interpersonal relation proposes a critical discourse on method, with concepts and categories intended to contribute to a better understanding of the manifold reality of the communication globe, verbal and nonverbal.

Overall the pages forming this book are engaged in the search for adequate instruments for the critique of signs and language and of the sciences that study them, keeping account of the most significant trends in “contemporaneity” – where this expression is not merely understood in the chronological sense, but rather we could say in the axiological: it is intended to refer to what counts today, to what is alive today, to what responds to today’s problems – from the “semiotics of decodification” to the “semiotics of interpretation”, from “global semiotics” (Sebeok 2001a) to “semioethics” (Petrilli and Ponzio 2003a, 2010).

Our specific focus is on language, that is, verbal language (identifiable as such only by a process of abstraction given the relation of interdependency with nonverbal language), considered as the essential means and material that model ideas, ideologies and identities. In this framework such concepts as “linguistic work”, “social reproduction” and “ideology” are fundamental. Language thus becomes an inevitable object of analysis, ← 11 | 12 → language understood as ordinary language, but also as special language, technological language, literary language, language for communication, but also language as modelling.

In fact, fundamental categories in our studies on signs and language include “language as work” and “language as primary modelling”, elaborated respectively by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1968) and Thomas Sebeok (1986). Rossi-Landi’s concept of “linguistic work” does not simply arise as an analogy with “nonlinguistic work”. On the contrary, work and language are interconnected by a relation of homology. Natural divisions that oblige one to separate verbal work from nonverbal work, the production of messages from the production of commodities, do not exist in the reality of sign practice. In both cases we are dealing with semiosis, with the linguistic work of modelling.

Rossi-Landi’s approach to semiotics is centred on “social planning”, on the “critique of ideology” and therefore on the human capacity for constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing new and better worlds. From this point of view, his work is easily associated with the orientation in semiotics denominated as semioethics. Sebeok’s global semiotics also contributes to semioethics if we associate his global perspective to the presentday socio-economic context, which is the context of global “communication-production” (Petrilli and Ponzio 2005: 518–527).

As the general science of signs, semiotics provides a general sign theory and correlate sign model. As such semiotics calls to question limitations connected with so-called Saussurean sémiologie, in reality resulting from the connection with information theory and the concepts of code and message. One limit of Saussurean sémiologie is glottocentrism which is phonocentric, anthropocentric and ethnocentric. When glottocentrism prevails, semiotics cannot adequately account for “communication”, “modelling”, and “dialogism” as generated in human biosemiosis at the interface between the verbal and the nonverbal (Ponzio 2003). It ensues that substitution of the term “semiology” with “semiotics” to denominate the general science of signs is not simply a terminological issue. Both Rossi-Landi and Sebeok avoid identifying semiotics with semiology in the effort to free the study of signs from semiological glottocentrism as much as from separatism among the sciences.

We propose a critique of glottocentrism in global semiotic terms, following the work of major exponents in the study of signs such as Charles Peirce, Victoria Welby, Emmanuel Levinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, ← 12 | 13 → Roman Jakobson, Charles Morris, Thomas Sebeok; and of those who have referred to the latter as signposts and continued their research developing it such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, Augusto Ponzio. Dialogue among these voices is transnational, translinguistic, transdisciplinary.

Sebeok underlined the fact that the study of semiotics went through a paradigm shift during the last century, with which it overcame its glottocentric boundaries to include life generally. The search for a general model of sign, one capable of accounting for all types of signs, verbal and nonverbal, human and nonhuman, the search for appropriate language to talk about signs, inevitably calls for a transdisciplinary approach to the life of signs, ranging from the natural sciences to the human sciences. A privileged interlocutor for the general science of signs is biology and in fact in the open dialogue between the sign sciences and life sciences today, “biosemiotics”, a field of study that can be traced back to the 1960s, is making headway (see Petrilli 2012a: 85–92). Global semiotics and biosemiotics as developed over recent decades have been a determining influence in overcoming the anthropocentric and glottocentric limits of studies in signs and communication (an outstanding expression of the project for global semiotics is the handbook of semiotics edited by Roland Posner, Klaus Robering and Thomas Sebeok 1997–2004).

Global semiotics underlines the interconnection among signs, therefore the relation of interdependency among all life-forms over the planet. The species-specific human modelling device denominated “language” orients the semiosic processes of deconstruction and reconstruction, the human capacity to produce many possible worlds, the capacity for “semiotics” understood as “metasemiosis” – a necessary condition for the generation of signs relatedly to values, for the propensity towards inventiveness, responsibility, planning and critique. Thanks to this capacity the human animal (unlike the nonhuman animal) is a “semiotic animal” (Rossi-Landi 1978a: 347; Deely, Petrilli and Ponzio 2005), responsible – without the possibility of exemption in the global scheme of things – not only for the health of social reproduction, but of life overall, human and nonhuman.

To deal with signs means to deal with life from a specific perspective insofar as it is made of “sign material”. As studies in “biosemiotics” have clearly demonstrated, life throughout the “biosphere” in its globality provides the context of language and communication, of the interpersonal relation in the human world. And “semioethics” (a term introduced by ← 13 | 14 → Augusto Ponzio and myself to indicate a special orientation in semiotics centred on the relation between signs and values, on signs, sense and significance) strives to recover the connection with values, with the properly human, in the overall context of life by questioning sign activity from the viewpoint of “sense”. Most importantly, the semioethic approach to semiosis in the human world underlines the sign’s vocation for the other.

In this exposition which is necessarily concise, conducted on the basis of brief indications and statements that warrant further argumentation, but that all the same should help the reader form an idea, however schematic, of the problematics addressed in this book, another aspect is important to evidence. And, precisely, that another distinctive feature of the “semiosphere” is the condition of continuous deferral among signs and sign systems in open-ended translation/intepretation processes. In this framework, the question of translation loses its specialised character and restricted sphere of interest and becomes emblematic as regards the alternative between two perspectives: one closed, oriented by egocentric identity, the other open and sensitive to otherness. It is not at all incidental that Roman Jakobson should have dedicated special attention to translation, adding to its most obvious and familiar sense, namely “interlingual” translation, another two just as important types of translation, the “endolingual” and “intersemiotic”.

The sign is always “in translation”: to translate into another sign constitutes the very possibility of being a sign. Moreover, inherent to sign material, to the material of life is “dialogism”, and insofar as it is structural to life itself “dialogism” following Bakhtin can be considered as synomous to “intercorporeity”. Thus understood dialogism is the condition for dialogue understood as a discourse genre in the human world. Meaning, value, experience and culture are all constructed in the relation among signs, signs in transit, according to the logic of dialogism, which is oriented by the other and implies listening and hospitality towards the other. Translation, in turn, does not only concern transferral among languages in the human world, whether historical-natural languages, special languages, or nonverbal languages, but is the condition of possibility of sign activity in the life-world at large and, consequently, of dialogue between “nature” and “culture”.

The question of translation is considered in terms of “transemiotics” or “translational semiotics”. In this framework translation is communication across identities, affiliations, genres, assemblages, and classes ← 14 | 15 → (whether sexual genders, social classes, professional roles, racial, ethnic, national and religious identities, etc.), across cultures. This means to view translation in terms of intercommunication or transcommunication processes.

Thus perspected translation theory enters the sphere of semioethics, that is, of semiotics when it recovers its ancient vocation as “semeiotics” concerned with symptoms. A primary issue for semioethics is the quality of life, which implies care for life, responsiveness to the other, listening to the other. Translation involves intertranslational processes as demanded by the sign which develops and flourishes in translational processes. With reference to the human world, the translational processes of semiosis enhance the possibility of dialogue and encounter among different languages and cultures, of dialogic intercultural or transcultural communication.

In terms of the “philosophy of language” with special reference to Mikhail M. Bakhtin, we propose a “philosophy of the word” or “philosophy of the utterance”. However, reference is not to the word in the system of language, the word understood as the dead cell of language, associated to the sentence. On the contrary, the word here is understood in relation to the utterance and to the text. As such this word is turned to the other, oriented by the other, and calls for listening. Such an approach evidences the dialogical and open nature of the utterance (which may even consist of a single word) in live discourse, whether from the everyday sphere or from the special spheres of language and experience, the literary included, the utterance as such is oriented by the logic of otherness.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
communication language globalization semiotics signs communication sciences
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 348 pp.

Biographical notes

Susan Petrilli (Author)

Susan Petrilli, Professor of Philosophy and Theory of Languages, University of Bari, Aldo Moro, Italy, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, 7th Sebeok Fellow, Semiotic Society of America, has published many books and essays as author, editor and translator presenting, among others, Peirce, Welby, Bakhtin, Levinas, Morris and Sebeok. She directs various book series and is member of the advisory board of several international journals.


Title: The Global World and its Manifold Faces