An Essay on Appearance

Cultura 4 (1):44-61 (2007)
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One need not know much history of semiotics in order to recognize the background of my title. It is of course an allusion to Umberto Eco’s classic Struttura assente from 1968, which turned out to be a major touchstone in the history of European semiotics. At that time, everything about semiotics had become “structural”. But why, for Eco, was structure “absent”? This notion of absence reveals something essential in both the history of structuralism and in the reasoning to which most semiotics has remained faithful – namely, that “true” reality is not that which can be seen, heard or felt, but the structure behind and causing any manifest phenomenon. As Greimas put it, any surface reality was only an “effet du sens”, a meaning-effect. In a word, manifest reality is only Schein – appearance, illusion – a notion that may be found as early as in the teachings of Schiller and Kant. Getting at the structure involves the kind of reductionism described by Mireille Marc-Lipiansky: réductionnisme qui cherche à ramener le supérieur à l’inférieur. Under the category of “antihumanism”, she distinguished among four different phases of reductionism: the reduction of the individual to the collective; the reduction of the conscious to unconscious categories; the reduction of consciousness to an unconscious regulative agglomeration or “combinatory”, which eliminates the creative activity of a subject and of history; and finally, the reduction of freedom to necessity. One cannot think of a better summary of the issue, and to judge from the world around us, this world-view has certainly won out.



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