Semiotic profile: Augusto Ponzio
Portrait of the Semiotician and Philosopher of Language on the Occasion of his 40th year of teaching
By Susan Petrilli, in Semiotix 5
Augusto Ponzio is a pivotal figure in semiotics and philosophy of language which he has shown to be closely interconnected, indeed inseparable. The expression "philosophy of language" conveys the scope and orientation of his research as he addresses problems of semiotics from the perspective of philosophy of language, updated with references to the latest developments in the sign sciences, from linguistics to biosemiotics. As such his approach may be more properly described as pertaining to general semiotics. Nonetheless, Ponzio practices general semiotics in terms of critique and the search for foundations, which derives from his work in philosophy of language. As critique of semiotics Ponzio’s general semiotics overcomes the delusory separation between the humanities, on the one hand, and the logico-mathematical and the natural sciences, on the other. His semiotic research relates to different disciplines proposing an approach that is transversal and interdisciplinary, or better, as he prefers to say, an approach that is ‘undisciplined’. Moreover, general semiotics as conceived by Ponzio against such a background continues its philosophical search for sense. This perspective evidences the interconnectedness of the sciences. And most significantly the problem of their sense for the human being is also addressed.
Augusto Ponzio was born on February 17, 1942. He is Full Professor of Philosophy of Language and member of the Department of Linguistic Practices and Text Analysis, at Bari University, Italy. His principal research areas include philosophy of language, general linguistics, semiotics, and theory of literature. At Bari University Ponzio has been teaching Theoretical and Moral Philosophy since 1966, Philosophy of Language since 1970, he has also taught Semiotics from 1995 to 1997, Text Semiotics from 1997 to 2001, Communication Theory from 1995 to 1998, and now since 1998 in addition to Philosophy of Language he teaches courses in General Linguistics and Semiotics of mass media. From 1981 to 1999 Ponzio directed the Institute of Philosophy of Language, which he founded at the Faculty of Foreign Literature and Languages, in 1981. From 1999 to 2005 he acted as Head of the Department of Linguistic Practices and Text Analysis, which he founded in 1999. Also, he directs the Doctoral Program in Language Theory and Sign Sciences, which he inaugurated in 1988. With Claude Gandelman (University of Haifa), in 1989 he founded the annual book series Athanor. Arte, Letteratura, Semiotica, Filosofia of which now he directs the new series inaugurated with Meltemi publishers in Rome, in 1998. Athanor: this Arabic word evokes the alchemist in the laboratory mixing and transforming the elements.
In addition to Italian publishers such as Bompiani (Milan), La Nuova Italia (Florence), Laterza (Bari-Rome), publishers who have presented Ponzio’s works (in various languages) include Mouton De Gruyter (Berlin), John Benjamins (Amsterdam), l’Harmattan (Paris), Catedra and Corazon (Madrid), Toronto University Press, Nueva Vision (Buenos Aires), Editions Balzac (Candiac, Canada), Skolska Kniga (Zagabria), Legas (Ottawa), and Icon Books (London) (cf. Augusto Ponzio 2002, bibliografia e letture critiche, Edizioni dal Sud, Bari).
Ponzio also has made a significant contribution as editor and translator to the dissemination of the ideas of Levinas, Bakhtin and Adam Schaff in Italy and abroad. He has also authored the first monographs ever at a world level on each of these thinkers: respectively, La relazione interpersonale, 1967, dedicated to Levinas, Michail Bachtin. Alle origini della semiotica sovietica, 1980, and Persona umana, linguaggio e conoscenza in Adam Schaff, 1977. Each of these monographs has been reworked over the years and presented in new enlarged editions, such as the recent volume, Individuo umano, linguaggio e globalizzazione nella filosofia di Adam Schaff, 2002, which includes an interview with Schaff held in Bari in 2000, specifically for this volume.
Also, Ponzio has promoted the Italian translation of numerous works by Bakhtin and members of the Bakhtin Circle, including Valentin N. Voloshinov and Pavel N. Medvedev, but also the biologist I. I. Kanaev. Ponzio has also contributed to Marx studies in Italy and in 1975 published the Italian edition of his Mathematical Manuscripts (new revised and enlarged edition 2005).
Moreover Ponzio has contributed significantly to the dissemination of Sebeok’s work in Italy and of his global semiotics in particular. In addition to Tom Sebeok’s numerous visits to Bari University for encounters with our graduate and postgraduate students sponsored by his Department, Ponzio has promoted the Italian translation of most of his books and has authored (with S. Petrilli) two monographs dedicated to his thought: Sebeok and the Signs of Life, published in 2001, and I segni e la vita. La semiotica globale di Thomas A. Sebeok, 2002. Moreover, he is co-author with Sebeok (and Petrilli) of the volume, Semiotica dell'io, 2001.
Among Italian scholars Ponzio has focused particularly on the work of his master Giuseppe Semerari, on the semiotician Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and philosopher of language Giovanni Vailati. In 1988 he published the monograph Ferruccio Rossi-Landi e la filosofia del linguaggio, and since then has promoted various reeditions of his works with Bompiani, Marsilio and John Benjamins.
In a brief biobibliographical note entitled ‘Sidelights’ (see his bibliography of 2002), Ponzio explains his interest for the various scholars mentioned in this presentation – Bakhtin and his Circle, Levinas, Marx, Schaff, and Rossi-Landi – in the following terms: ‘from these authors I have developed what they share in spite of their differences, that is, the idea that the life of the human individual in his/her concrete singularity, whatever the object of study, and however specialized the analysis, cannot prescind from involvement without alibis in the destiny of others’ (p. 6).
Ponzio’s particular interpretation of the general science of signs derives from his phenomenological formation, with special reference to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In fact, Ponzio’s search for the sense for the human being of scientific research in general and of the general science of signs in particular, is subtended and oriented by the Husserlian distinction between ‘exact science’ and ‘rigorous science’, theorized in ‘Philosophy as a Rigorous Science’ and in The Crisis of the European Sciences: the latter interrogates the sense for human beings of scientific knowledge, avoiding all forms of scientism and technicalism which lead to separating the production of means from effective awareness of ends (as distinct from alienated and false consciousness). In this sense semiotics also presents itself in the form of ‘telo-’ or ‘teleosemiotics’ (cf. Ponzio and Petrilli 1994).
On the other hand, the fact that Ponzio, following Thomas A. Sebeok, identifies the genesis of semiotics in medical semeiotics or sympomatology, placing the general science of signs in a tradition that leads from Hippocrates to Galen, is not only a question of agnition, that is, of knowledge about the origins. More than this, to relate semiotics to the medical sciences, that is, to the study of symptoms, also means to recover the ethical instance of semiotic studies. In other words, it means to recover the ancient vocation of ‘semeiotics’ for the health of life, an immediate concern for the study of the science of signs given that semiosis and life coincide (Sebeok) – life globally, that is, over the entire planet Earth. In this sense semiotics also presents itself as semioethics (cf. Ponzio and Petrilli 2003). The ethical instance of Ponzio’s approach to semiotics has also been developed in connection with another two authors who have been at the centre of his interests from the very beginning of his studies: Emmanuel Levinas and Michail A. Bakhtin. Semioethics as conceived by Ponzio and Petrilli is not a discipline standing in its own right, but rather a perspective in the study of signs.
We may characterise and classify Augusto Ponzio’s production by saying that it addresses the problems of logic, ideology, dialogism from a semioethical perspective. In fact, the title of the Special Issue of Semiotica, which presents the papers occasioned by the International Colloquium organized at Bari University in February 2002 under the auspices of the International Association for Semiotic Studies (IASS) to celebrate Ponzio on his sixtieth birthday is entitled Ideology, Logic and Dialogue in Semioethical Perspective. A title intended to evidence just this propositional and projectual orientation of Ponzio’s research. This issue of Semiotica and the theme of the Colloquium, ‘Logic, Dialogic, Ideologic. Signs between Functionality and Excess’ connected to it are intended to signal the centrality of problems relating to ‘ideology’, ‘logic’ and ‘dialogue’ in Ponzio’s research. Research which now spans a period of approximately fourty years, with an intense commitment to teaching activities, personal publications and numerous editorial enterprises of various sorts. Logic, dialogic and ideologic indicate the triple dimension of sign life which has been evidenced by the natural sciences and the human sciences, and assumed as irrevocable by general semiotics. Logic, dialogue and modeling of the world by signs also involve the human sign capacity for excess with respect to function. Excess renders signs autonomous from need and necessity, opening them to desire, inventiveness, creativity, nonfunctional planning, in light of which the human being emerges as an end in itself, as a value that cannot be reduced to the status of means.
Concerning logic, Ponzio has dedicated numerous essays to the problem of the relation between formal logic and dialectic logic and to relations between dialectics and semiotics. He has translated from Latin, edited and amply commented the Italian edition of Petrus Hispanus’s Summule logicales (2003). Recently he has collected a series of papers on logic and semiotics in his volume Semiotica e dialettica (2004).
In relation to ideology, Ponzio’s research begins from his book of 1970 (new enlarged edition 2005), Linguaggio e relazioni sociali. In his 1973 book Produzione linguistica e ideologia sociale (amplified in a French edition of 1992), he promptly takes a clear stance against Noam Chomsky's approach to language analysis. Some aspects of this study are subsequently developed in a volume of 1991, Filosofia del linguaggio 2. In 1973 Ponzio's attitude involved critiquing dominant trends in the linguistic sciences given Chomsky's widespread influence over the intellectual globe. Ponzio's main contention is that Chomsky mistakes linguistic use in a specific language—English (his sentence examples are often untranslatable)—for the essential or universal in language-in general. Furthermore, according to Ponzio, Chomsky confuses levels of analysis, mistaking the description of the objects of analysis for the construction of the models of analysis. Ponzio's critique is in line with Sebastian K. Shaumjan’s research and his bigradual theory of generative grammar articulated at two levels (the genotypical and the phenotypical ), as against what he describes as Chomsky's unigradual linguistic theory.
As regards dialogism Ponzio’s research method promotes philosophical and semiotic investigation into the sciences of verbal and nonverbal languages in terms of heteroglossia, polylogism, reciprocal otherness and dialogism, by contrast with the tendency toward prevarication, unquestioning authority, and monologism. This approach is coherent with the orientation inherent in language toward "dialogic plurilingualism", "multi-voicedness", "heteroglossia" and otherness interrelating different languages, cultures and ideologies. In this sense the expression "philosophy of language" implies philosophizing by language and not just about language. Even when research conducted in the sciences of language, is oriented monologically and regulated by the centripetal and unifying forces of linguistic life, the original philosophizing immanent in language, its constitutional dialogic heteroglossia, is often betrayed. Philosophy in general (and not just that immediately concerned with language) and general semiotics works within the framework of dialogic heteroglossia inherent in language. This acts as a sort of a priori and transcendental condition in philosophical reflection as in all forms of critical consciousness. The main books specifically focused on dialogism are Dialogo sui dialoghi (in collab. with Massimo A. Bonfantini), 1986; Dialogo e narrazione, 1991; Signs, Dialogue and Ideology, 1993; Scrittura, dialogo e alterità tra Bachtin e Lévinas, 1994; Sujet et altérité. Sur Emmanuel Lévinas, 1995, I tre dialoghi della menzogna e della verità , with M. A. Bonfantini and S. Petrilli, 1997; La revolución bajtiniana. El pensamiento de Bajtin y la ideologia contemporanea, 1998; Basi, Significare, inventare, interpretare (in collab.), 1998; Philosophy of language, Art and Responsibility in M. Bakhtin (in collab. with S. Petrilli), 2004.
The same sign model proposed by interpretation semiotics is the heterogeneous product of dialogically related results achieved in different contexts. These include: theory of knowledge (Peirce), literature (Bakhtin), and axiology (Morris). Furthermore, research on the relation between semiotics and ideology (Rossi-Landi, Schaff) also led to greater attention during the 1980s on the relation between signs and (socio-ethical) values. In this connection, an important contribution is represented by Charles Morris who explicitly theorized the necesssary relation between signs and values in his book of 1964, Signification and Significance. By contrast with a view of semiotics as a solely cognitive, descriptive and ideologically neutral science, a major trend in semiotics today aims to recover the orientation toward problems of an axiological order and to achieve, therefore, a global reconnaissance of man and his signs.
Since his critical groundwork of the 1970s covered in such books as Produzione linguistica e ideologia sociale (1973), Filosofia del linguaggio e prassi sociale (1974), Dialettica e verità (1975), and Marxismo, scienza e problema dell'uomo (1977), Ponzio demonstrates the inadequacy of trends which reduce the (verbal and nonverbal) sign and the human subject to exchange value, viewed separately from the historico-social relations of production processes. With reference to the various human sciences—philosophy, semiotics, linguistics, philosophy of language, political economy, anthropology, esthetic creation, and especially literature —, Ponzio conducts a series of studies which might be defined as explorations and exercises along the boundaries of such sciences where they interact and contaminate each other and, therefore, along the boundaries of discourse.
In Ponzio's opinion, what Chomsky calls "linguistic creativity" in reality refers to a situation characterized by the use of rules, codes, and programs, which the speaker does not control. This is true not only at the phonologic, syntactic and semantic levels of language, as believes Chomsky, but also at the ideological level. Chomsky dedicates a great part of his attention to questions of ideology both on a theoretical level and on a pragmatic level without hesitating to commit himself publicly (think of his critique of U.S.A. politics). Nonetheless, he keeps his theoretical work on linguistics completely separate from his critique of ideology and political commitment. A central category used by Ponzio in his critique of Chomsky is "linguistic work" which the former develops from Rossi-Landi's important book entitled Language as Work and Trade (Rossi-Landi 2003 ; English trans. 1983). Rossi-Landi ideates the concept of "linguistic work" by relating different human sciences (political economy and linguistics), in other words, by identifying a homological relationship between sign production and the production of artifacts. Contrary to Chomskyian categories of competence and performance which repropose traditional problems, terminologies and mechanistic oppositions (e.g., consciousness vs. experience, behaviorism vs. mentalism, physical vs. psychic, internal vs. external, empiricism vs. rationalism), Ponzio following Rossi-Landi and dialectic materialism, calls attention to the dialectic relation between the subject and the social and natural environment, to language conceived as work and to the different languages viewed as the product of work, as the result of linguistic production processes, to the principle of the "methodics of common speech" or of "common semiosis" (cf. Rossi-Landi 1998 ).
For a linguistic theory to be functional, it must be explicative and critical, it must go beyond the limits of a simply descriptive and taxonomic approach to language analysis, and to achieve this it must reckon with the social processes of linguistic production in relation to a critical theory of ideology. As stated above, a weak point in Chomsky's research is represented by his failure to theorize the relation between language and ideology. This leads him to ignore the problem of the ideological structures that determine linguistic production processes. According to Ponzio, his separation stops his theory from becoming a critique of language and his critique of ideology from being grounded, on a theoretical level, in the study of language (Ponzio 1991a: 7). Using categories developed from Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Marx, Schaff, Rossi-Landi and Prieto—such categories as language as work, language as historico-socio-ideological reality—Ponzio criticizes the reduction of linguistic use to mere behavior or activity, and works on the human's potential for truly creative (abductive) and critical intervention on language and on one's surroundings at large.
The problem of ideology is strictly connected not only to language theory but also to logic ad knowledge theory (see Dialettica e verità, 1976, and Individuo umano, linguaggio e globalizzazione nella filosofia di Adam Schaff (1st ed, 1974), 2002). Contrary to Chomskyan dualism between experience and competence, experience in modern conceptions after Kant, as interpreted by Ponzio, is described as a series of interpretive operations, including inferential processes of the abductive type (Charles S. Peirce) through which the subject completes, organizes, and associates data which is always more or less fragmentary, partial, and discrete. Experience as such is innovative and qualitatively superior by comparison with the limited nature of eventual input. In Ponzio's view, experience coincides with competence which thus conceived does not need to be integrated with an innate supplement, a piece of natural equipment supposedly inherent in the human infant.
In two more recent book (1l linguaggio e le lingue, 2003, and Linguistica generale, scrittura letteraria e traduzione, 2004). Ponzio returns to the question of the development of linguistic competence and knowledge generally, to what Chomsky in 1985 baptized as "Plato's problem". This expression refers to how a finite number of entities generates knowledge extending beyond such entities both qualitatively and quantitatively. According to Ponzio, that we recognize, know how to use, and understand a previously unexperienced linguistic expression (constructed, however, according to the rules of the language the speaker knows) is no more surprising than the fact that we recognize and use something as a hammer, though never having seen this object before (but which is constructed according to the rules and functions that model a hammer). On the basis of the connection between language acquisition and performance of inferential-abductive operations, the relation between abduction and language learning (which is never finished and complete) appears as a relation of reciprocal support: language learning – Ponzio says – makes use of abductive processes, while abductive processes in their turn benefit from language learning because they are necessarily grounded in linguistic interpretive work as accomplished by the generations that have preceded us historically leaving us the linguistic materials and instruments which go to form the language we experience. (Ponzio 1991a: 97)
For a linguistic theory that goes beyond the dualism of competence and experience and of deep structures and surface structures, Ponzio draws on suggestions from Peirce and his particular sign theory. In this framework, and taking his distances from the Chomskyian concept of deep structures, Ponzio proposes what he calls an "interpretive linguistic theory" in the light of which the theory of different levels, of antecedents and derivations, no longer holds. The "interpretive linguistic theory" (ideated for application to both verbal and nonverbal signs) explains one's ability to comprehend the utterance or verbal sign in general in terms of its relation to another utterance that interprets it, an utterance acting as interpretant in Peirce’s sense. All utterances are produced, characterized, identified, and developed by their interpretants. According to this approach, the interpretant of a sentence (or, rather, utterance) is not a deep structure grounded in underlying elementary sequences, but another verbal sign. An interpretant, identifying an utterance or any verbal sign whatever is simply 'unexpressed', until the conditions are realized for its expression, explicitation.
In Ponzio's terminology, an interpretant is either an "identifying interpretant" with the function of recognizing the sign at the level of its phonemic or graphic configuration, semantic content, morphological syntactic structure, or an "answering comprehension interpretant" focusing on the pragmatic dimension of signs. Viewed in such terms, and this is a particularly significant aspect of Ponzio's approach, the relationship between "interpretant signs" and "interpreted signs" is characterized by dialogism, active participation, and otherness. This level of sign interpretation is closely related to the ideological level of discourse (see Ponzio, Man as Signs, 1990, Signs, Dialogue and Ideologie, 1993, and Fondamenti di Filosofia del linguaggio, 1999).
Working in such a theoretical perspective, Ponzio was only too glad to welcome the transition from decodification to interpretation semiotics as it began taking place in Italy in the early 1970s (cf. his pioneer book La semiotica in Italia, 1976). The Peircean-Morrisian sign model at the basis of interpretation semiotics is a dynamic sign model, rooted in the concept of infinite semiosis in an open chain of deferrals from one interpretant sign to another. The supporting logic is not the logic of equal exchange, but rather of non correspondence, excess and otherness in the relation among interpretants forming the sign network. The interpretant sign says something more with respect to the interpreted sign, which in turn has its own semiotic consistency by virtue of which the latter resists any single interpretation, or "interpretive route", to use Ponzio's terminology (cf. 1990). In the framework of interpretation semiotics the sign is always part of a sign situation in which all the components of semiosis—the sign vehicle (signifiant), meaning (signifié), referent, interpreter, interpretant and codes regulating sign systems—are considered as different aspects of complex and articulate semiosic processes, and not separately from one another.
The modalities of logical inference, the dialogical dimension of semiosis, and the critique of ideology inevitably call for analysis in a semiotical key. Indeed, for analysis with any claim to adequacy the sign nature of such phenomena must be fully recognized as the very point of departure. No doubt, we must necessarily distinguish between the different functions carried out by the sign. However, if we are not to lose sight of the constitutively innovative, inventive and creative dimension of inferential processes, of dialogue and ideology, a description of signs in terms of functionality will not suffice: the life of signs also foresees a broad margin of nonfunctionality.
In “Logic, Dialogic, Ideologic. Signs between Functionality and Excess”, theme of the International Colloquium of 2002 to celebrate Ponzio on his sixtieth birthday, the subtitle was intended to evidence another complex of interests in Ponzio's research. The interests we are now referring to are represented by such books as Spostamenti. Percorsi e discorsi sul segno (1982), Lo spreco dei significanti. L'eros, la morte, la scrittura (1983), Tra linguaggio e letteratura (1983), Filosofia del linguaggio (1985), Interpretazione e scrittura (1986), Il filosofo e la tartaruga (1990), Tra semiotica e letteratura. Induzione a Michail Bachtin (1992), Signs to talk about signs (1995), El juego del comunicar. Entre literature y filosofia (1995); I segni dell’altro Eccedenza letteraria e prossimità (1995), Che cos’è la letetratura (1997), Semiotica della musica (in collab. with Michele Lomuto, 1997), La coda dell’occhio: letture del linguaggio letterario (1998); Fuori campo (in collab. con S. Petrilli, 1999), Enunciazione e testo letterario (2001); Views in Literary Semiotics (in collab. con S. Petrilli, 2003).
Ponzio's interlocutors in these book at the philosophical level include: Plato, Kierkegaard Nietzesche, Lévinas, Blanchot, Bakhtin, Bataille, Derrida; at the literaary level: Leopardi, Manzoni, Foscolo, Sterne, Orwell, Poe, and Proust. Ponzio's books just listed especially the sections dedicated to literary writing, are written essentially from the viewpoint of literature. Here the expression "of literature" is not only intended in the restricted sense of applying given models and categories to the study of literary texts, but more broadly in the sense that literature, the "excess" and "otherness" of literary writing, the dialogic, digressive, and indirect word of literature provide the perspective according to which the sign is described. As averred by Levinas and Bakhtin, literary writing is the place par excellence for the full realization of "extralocality", whose guiding value is not "egocentric identity", but "absolute otherness", where time and space do not belong to the order of productive accumulation, but of dispersion, digression, expenditure, and dialogic heteroglossia. The main values theorized are represented by such terms as "ephemeral", "otherness", "discontinuity", "discretion", "passion", "expenditure", "waste", "transience", "drift", "shift".
Similarly to the expressions the “logic of expenditure”, “dispersion” and “waste,”the word "passion" indicates that which escapes the logic of equal exchange. As such it constitutes a critique of bourgeois economy, of the logic of accumulation, functionality, efficiency and productivity. The subject affected by passion is a "passive subject"; as such, it is considered negatively in relation to those conceptions of the human being that exalt such values as the Subject's authority, initiative, activity and consciousness. But the properly human subject, "subjectum", is constitutively passive, subject to..., dependent on..., interested in..., oriented toward.... Such a subject is characterized by openness to the other, by the capacity of listening to the other, of tuning in with the other. In this perspective, alongside the "passive subject" understood as the subject which fails in its intention of being a controlling subject, in a position to answer for itself and reach its own personal aims, another modality of being "subject to..." is delineated. Here being "subject to..." is not measured in terms of volition and capacity for planning, but, on the contrary, concerns the subject's availability with respect to dialogism, otherness, listening. Thus intended, passivity is not alienation, the condition of the unquestioning subject passively experiencing external constriction. On the contrary, in Ponzio's description passivity denotes the possibility of surpassing the limits of identity, private individual interest, and is connected with a concept of the subject as a totality open to unlimited interrogation and critique. Among the volumes by Ponzio dedicated to subjectivity and the problem of “I” should be remembered Sujet et altérité. Sur Emmanuel Lévinas (1995) and Semiotica dell’io (in collab. with T. A. Sebeok and S. Petrilli, 2001).
Consumer society today is regulated by the frenetic rhythms of the production-exchange-consumption cycle. Paradoxically, a condition for continuity of today’s production cycles is production of the ephemeral, the discontinuous, superfluous, of the private sphere—the "addomesticated" ephemeral, says Ponzio. Instead, Ponzio proposes a different kind of "ephemeral" from that programmed by the logic of accumulation and equal exchange, and that is, as a value that disrupts the latter, is refractory to it, and is therefore the place of the nonalienated self, the properly human, creativity, difference, freedom. Thus conceived, the ephemeral denotes the body's resistance—with its pulsional economy, needs, experiences, maladies, even death—to programming, productivity, efficiency and functionality as established by a plan regulated by a specific aim. Viewed in relation to the human person, the ephemeral represents otherness, the right to be other with respect to identity as it is fixed by roles, contracts and commitments connected with officialdom. With respect to the bourgeois system of values in current capitalistic society, the ephemeral represents excess and loss; with respect to the time of (Hi)story, accumulation, edification, it is the place of irreducible discontinuity, disgregation, digression, discretion.
In more recent phases of his research, Ponzio has continued his work on the critique of the logic of identity and communication-reproduction developed in such books as La differenza non indifferente. Comunicazione, migrazione, Guerra (1995), Elogio dell’infunzionale. Critica dell’ideologia della produttività (1997, new enlarged ed. 2003) and Metodologia della formazione linguistica (1997). With the instruments of the language sciences Ponzio proposes a critique of social programs the aimed at subjecting science, education and socio-cultural experience generally to market logic and to the logic of profit.
To lose sight of sign life in its non-functional dimension means to lose sight of the otherness of signs. Semiosis that is functional is semiosis of identity, signs that are functional to identity are signs of difference, in the sense of signs that differ from other signs, that fix difference, tending to reduce signs to the status of signals. But semiosis also implies difference understood as deferral, renvoi, openness to alterity. Semiosic processes that foresee nonfunctionality are structural to signs, and impede the reduction of sign processes forming the sign network to a two way process based on the logic of return, gain, in the economic sense as well. On the contrary, semiosis is an irreversible process towards the other that transcends the logic of equal exchange between the signifier and the signified, finding its specific expression of signness in expenditure without a counterpart, without gain, and therefore in excess. As such the specificity of signs means that they cannot be reduced to the status of semiosic processes dominated by signality. If, instead, this were the case, sign interpretation is limited to the terms of decodification and identification. On the contrary, to recognize the specificity of signs in their capacity for nonfunctionality and alterity means to situate signs in a chain of interpretants that is open and dialogic. Such logic, or better dia-logic, acknowledges that signs and sign relations are oriented by the creative logic, or dia-logic, of responsive or answering comprehension, and not merely by the logic of identification.
These days more than ever before a critique of communication based on equal exchange logic, on the logic of identity, which is connected with the defence of one’s rights, one’s short-sighted self-interests, calls for an understanding of the concepts of otherness and excess. The dimension of excess is refractory to the logic of identity which is always ready to sacrifice alterity, one’s own and that of others. In other words, excess requires that we recognize the logic of otherness, therefore the dimension of the nonfunctional, the unproductive, of gift logic as the irrevocable condition for an adequate critique of communication.
Communication today is communication-production, that is, communication that totally adheres to the ideo-logic dominating capitalist social reproduction in today’s globalized world. In fact, communication in the globalization era is world communication not only in the sense that it extends over the entire planet, but that it accommodates the world as it is. Global communication in today’s globalized world is a function of a world without the least opening to critique. And in this context, by ‘world’ is understood the time-space of ontology, individual and collective identity, being, things as they are, the realism of politics to the very point of accepting the ‘extrema ratio’ of war.
The themes proposed in this volume (or simply alluded to) enter the general orientation of Ponzio’s research, which is subtended by his critique of the logic of identity. Following Lévinas and his phenomenological analyses, Ponzio theorizes the connection inscribed in Western culture between World, Narration, History, Duration, Identity, Subject, Liberty, Work, Donation of Sense by Intentional Consciousness, Individuality, Difference-Indifference, Interest, Well-Being, Ontology, Truth, Force, Reason, Power, Work, Productivity, Politics, and War. This connection has always been exploited and exasperated by Capitalism, in the present-day globalisation era more than ever before.
With respect to a World that exploits and functionalizes the other to its own ends, a world that defends the rights of identity, self-interest, that is ready to sacrifice alterity for the sake of identity, a world in which politics is functional to persistence in being and identity to the very point of acknowledging the reasons of war – where peace as momentary repose, respite, is functional to war just as the night, free-time, rest is functional to returning to work, to the necessities of the day –, Ponzio interrogates the possibility of establishing relationships that are not of this world, and all the same are of the material and earthly order.
The properly human can only be traced outside the space and time of ontology. It belongs to a dimension where interhuman relations cannot be reduced to the category of identity, to relations among predefined subjects and objects, or to relations of exchange, equality, functionality, productivity, interest. Ponzio explores the possibility of response in a dimension beyond being, in what with Levinas he calls otherwise than being. By contrast with ‘being otherwise’, the expression ‘otherwise than being’ indicates the outside with respect to ontology, to the world as it is. This is a question of earthly transcendence with respect to the world, in a dimension of sense that is other with respect to the sense of the world. By contrast with the humanism of identity, another form of humanism is possible based on the logic of otherness, the humanism of alterity, of otherwise than being (cf. Ponzio, “Introduzione”, in Lévinas, Dall’altro all’io, 2003, p. 50).
Ponzio develops Levinas’s concept of otherwise than being in relation to the Bakhtinian concept of dialogue. Dialogue here is not understood as formal dialogue, the place of common encounter and exchange of ideas. Nor is it understood as superseding contradictions dialectically in synthesis. Rather, dialogue in this context of discourse is understood as exposition to otherness, intercorporeity, involvement with the other, where the allusion is to relations of unindifferent differences rather than of indifference. Working in this direction, Ponzio formulates his original proposal for a critique of dialogic reason, and, therefore, his critique of today’s production system of globalized communication-production also in light of Levinas’s existential dimension of otherwise than being and of the extralocalized dimension of Bakhtin’s great time. I segni tra globalità e infinità. Per la critica della comunicazione globale (2004) and Semiotics Unbounded. Interpretive Routes through the Open Network of Signs (in collab. with Susan 2005) are his most recent works where these aspects of his research are studied in depth.
What can be described as the semioethic turn in semiotics is a development on Sebeok’s global semiotics in terms of a special interest for the relation between signs and values and for the question of responsibility which invests the human being as a semiotic animal (see Ponzio and Petrilli 2003, 2005, 2010). To focus on signs and values means to focus on the ethical-pragmatic-critical dimension of semiosis which is closely connected to the propositional and projectual orientation of semiotics as practised by the Bari-Lecce School headed by Ponzio and inspired by the originality of his intellectual work and overwhelming commitment to the quality of scientific research and of life (Caputo, Petrilli, Ponzio 2006).
Among his most recent books, the title Levinas, Globalisation and Preventive Peace (2009), at once an introduction to the thought system of Emmanuel Levinas and the expression of theoretical enquiry into problems proposed by Levinas. Ponzio believes that focus on otherness as against the ideology of identity and interest is one of the most significant aspects of Levinas’s work. His writings constitute an essential guide for research into the sense of life beyond reduction to abstract categories – World, History, Reality, Politics (as a criterion for making choices, including the extrema ratio of war), and represent a point of confrontation not to be ignored by contemporary research in the field of semio-philosophical studies. Chapter titles: 1. Recruiting identities, and war; 2. Otherness and preventive peace; 3. Reason and religion. Atheism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam; 4. From identity-indifference to non-indifferent otherness.
In a monograph published in French with L’Harmattan, L’Ecoute de l’autre, 2009, Ponzio returns to the problem of language, speaking, and communication which he describes as subtended by the otherness relation, where the other is understood in terms of singularity or uniqueness, as an end in itself, outside identity, outside roles, outside social position, outside national, ethnic, cultural difference, etc. He continues investigating these themes as a continuation on his studies presented in another Italian monograph, Fuori luogo, of 2007.
The I-other relation is a face-to-face relation (Levinas), a relation among singularities, of single to single, of unique to unique. It refuses all forms of exclusion of the other, all forms of violence. This relation is presupposed by all forms of communication and representation, by all forms of objectification and nomination of the other. In this relation the self is responsible towards the other in an absolute sense, which means to say responsible without alibis (Bakhtin), without the possiblity of escape, in the condition of having to respond to the other and for the other. All communication presupposes hospitality towards the interlocutor. The word, whether written or oral, is addressed to the other, to the otherness of the other, which as such is contextualized in a face-to-face relation and cannot represented or thematised. Listening to the other transcends space and time as these pertain to the world, to the world as it is, to the world of work, to work-time, as they pertain to war. Contrary to preventive peace which produces nothing else but infinite war, listening is the condition for real preventive peace.
These themes are further developed by Ponzio in Da dove verso dove: la parola altra nella comunicazione globale (2009), Incontro di parole / Encounters among words (2011), and In altre parole (2011). The alterity relation is an essential characteristic of the word, the utterance. In the word we may perceive the presence of another word, which renders it internally dialogic. One’s own word alludes always, in spite of itself, whether it knows it or not, to the other word, to the word’s otherness. Encounter among words is not an initiative taken by self.
The word is dialogic because of its passive involvement with the word of the other. This is also a consequence of the dialogic nature of the sign in general as demonstrated by Ponzio in his lessons entitled, The Dialogic Nature of the Sign, in Semiotics Institute Online (available since 2006). Dialogue is not something we choose; on the contrary, we suffer dialogue, are subjected to it. Dialogue is not the result of an open attitude towards the other, but, on the contrary, it is the impossibility of closing to the other. Furthermore, dialogue and body are closely interconnected. Words are voices, embodied voices. Dialogue is not possible among disincarnated minds. The illusion of the word’s autonomy is the illusion that individual bodies are autonomous. Dialogue excludes all forms of equality, reciprocity between self and other, as well as all forms of synthesis. From this perspective the dialogic relationship is asymmetrical, irreversible.
Identity is not only false but also dangerous and destructive – whether a question of consciousness of self or of collective identity (a community, a historical language, or a culture) – when conceived in terms of separation from the other and of conflict in accord with dominant ideological tendencies.
The living dynamic reality of language cannot be grasped through the categories of official linguistics, which abstract from internal dialogism of the concretely oriented and specifically intonated word, that is, from the word’s valuative, pragmatic, and ideological orientation. On all these isues see also the Italian monograph co-authored by Ponzio in collaboration with Susan Petrilli, Lineamenti di semiotica e di filosofia del linguaggio (2008).
Several books by Ponzio have been published not only in translation but as originals in Portuguese (see Bibliography), in Brazil, where in 2010 he held a series of lessons on Mikhail Bakhtin and his Circle, programmed to continue in 2012.