AUTHOR: Floyd Merrell TITLE: Entangling Forms SUBTITLE: Within Semiosic Processes SERIES TITLE: Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 5 PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton YEAR: 2010
Jamin Pelkey, Canada Institute of Linguistics, Trinity Western University
The late linguist/ethologist Thomas Sebeok is largely responsible for the current revival of interest in process semiotics. In 1993 he appraised Floyd Merrell as ''one of our strongest semioticians'' (1993: xii). Since then, Merrell has also become one of the most honored and prolific (see Deely 2005), and his philosophical contributions to the study of semiosis (the action of signs) are among the most innovative, playful and eclectic. One of his trademarks is a penchant for sensibly illustrating otherwise hidden features and implications of semiotic theory. Merrell's book, ''Entangling Forms,'' is no exception in any of these regards. The book seeks to apply major themes from Charles S. Peirce's semiotic philosophy to recent developments in physics, chemistry, mathematics, logic and biology - all 'entangled' with suggestions from ancient eastern thought and forays into art criticism. The purpose of this transdisciplinary conversation is an attempt to show, via paradox and process, how contradiction need not be fatal or meaningless. Twentieth century approaches were particularly divided along either-or dualist lines. In linguistics alone artificial divisions into synchronic and diachronic approaches and segregation into behaviourist vs. formalist camps have dominated the field. Today linguists and practitioners in other disciplines alike seem to be moving beyond such rigid divides, recognizing that tidy monochrome illusions of either-or certainty need not blind us to the colorful realities of both-and complexity. This new interest in complexity also involves inquirers in the exploration of ambiguity, evolution and paradox - interests that lie at the heart of Merrell's inquiry, through an ever-present application of Peircean process. With this in mind, the book might be summed up in two of its key phrases: ''Interdependency, Interaction, Interrelatedness'' (i-i-i-) and ''Contradictory Complementary Coalescence'' (CCC).
The book is organized into 17 short chapters framed by a preface and an epilogue appendix. The idea for the book emerged after Merrell read an essay by John Archibald Wheeler (1984) dealing with the implications of some of Neils Bohr's concepts in quantum physics (ix). In the quantum world, according to Wheeler, information is in the process of becoming reality. This clue sent Merrell further down the semiosic trail. After all, in Peircean semiotics (unlike the glottocentric semiotics of Saussure), the communicative, problem-solving action of signs ranges far beyond language and culture into biological, chemical and even physical processes.
In the process of introducing key terminology in Chapter 1, Merrell sets the stage for his intrepid exploration of vagueness, indeterminacy, uncertainty and the like - labels that must not be confused with their would-be counterparts in relativist textualism. He then moves on to a more detailed discussion of Peircean Firstness, or vaguely suggestive possibility, in Chapter 2. The conditions of Firstness are the present moment, and an awareness of Firstness comes through a playful mood of curious wonder, a mood which in its most intense form leads to what Peirce dubs ''play of musement'' (1908/1998). In this state, which is decidedly non-linguistic, artificial distinctions between mind and body, culture and nature, ego and community are dissolved. Although less intensely realized in daily life (if realized at all) Merrell argues that our ordinary conversation and interpretation rely on this same non-linguistic ''empty zero'' (EZ) possibility - the possibility of ambiguity underlying all speech and thought - always allowing for alternative interpretations.
In Chapter 3, Merrell introduces the concept of plurimorphic creativity or coalescent process. Plurimorphity is engaged in the dialectic integration of seemingly contradictory extremes, but it must not be confused with Hegelian synthesis, which results in a static product. Peircean dialectics, on the contrary, are thoroughly processual and abductive. Drawing illustrations from Einstein, Pascal, Picasso and others, Merrell argues that processual dialectics engages us in ''non-cerebral, non-conscious, kinesthetic-proprioceptive-somatic bodymind feeling'' (40).
Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the emergence of 'bodymind-knowing' and abductive responses to surprise as pre-linguistic states that constantly enable our conceptual and linguistic capacities. The pre-sign basis of knowing in the present instant is an immediate corporeal state (neither inner nor outer, yet both inner and outer). What we tentatively know, how we know it in the present instant and how we change our minds about it should be approached as the 'Included-Middle' itself. Paradoxically, however, just as the middle of a wheel must be empty, zero possibility is the ground of all possibility. This state prepares us to face conflicting possibilities that we constantly encounter even in everyday sign processing when we stumble upon surprising circumstances that conflict with our habituated conceptual frameworks. When, for pragmatic ends, we make abductive guesses to resolve such ambiguities, we always run the risk of overdetermining our sign choices or underdetermining them.
In Chapters 6-9, Merrell turns to his distinction between the classical human Lifeworld and the physically existing Quantum world to show how the two presumably incompatible domains are not only interrelated but complementary. This discussion climaxes in a review of the importance of C. S. Peirce's purposive, process-oriented thought for the understanding of paradox in general and various ancient and contemporary paradoxes in particular. Crucial to this discussion is Merrell's theme of 'co-participation' inspired by John Archibald Wheeler, which Merrell reframes as semiosis itself. In order to benefit from this discussion, however, the reader must be willing to critique the entrenched classical-modern myth of the detached observer.
Chapters 10 and 11 provide numerous illustrations of process-oriented paradoxic complexity. The emergence of multiple geometric dimensions from empty zero, the emergence of a Möbius-band from fractal dimensions, the emergence of a Klein-bottle from a Möbius-band, the emergence of a fourth dimension as the Klein-bottle comes to contain itself, the emergence of a fifth dimension as the hypercubic cosmic Christ peers into the reaches of a Salvador Dalí painting - all suggest the strangely familiar complexities of our own experience of containing while being contained and yet uncontained. Heisenberg and Schrödinger are brought into the discussion to illuminate the entanglement of past, present and future in our experience of time. Past events which did not happen, but which could have happened, exercise a pre-conceptual, non-linguistic influence on our corporeal sense of the future in the present moment.
Merrell illustrates the interdependence of vagueness and generality in Chapter 12 and then applies his developing insights on paradox and process to Peirce's ten basic sign categories in Chapter 13 using diverse illustrations, including two works of visual art and a scenario involving the Pink Panther theme song.
Chapters 14-16 return to previous themes such as empty zero and co-participation in order to inquire into the connection between the initial emergence of a given process and the phenomenon of musing. An application of the linguistic concepts of portmanteau derivation and polyfunctional polysemy is applied to signs in general in Chapters 15-16 with reference to the work of Kauffman (2001) on key developments in Peirce's mathematical and logical diagrams.
The final chapter and postscript appendix round out the book by continuing to review, expand and coalesce numerous themes hinted at above (and more). Notably, Merrell provides a schematic of his proposal that the processual sign features a three-way complementarity, thus illustrating the compatibility of decision making (either-or) with what would otherwise appear to be crippling tensions between overdetermination, or possibility (both-and), and underdetermination, or changing conventions (neither-nor).
From a Peircean perspective, Merrell's preferred mode of exploration in Entangling Forms is Firstness - or vaguely suggestive spontaneity. Due to its inherent uncertainty, Firstness may be neglected in Peirce scholarship, or so Merrell suggests on page 5 (see footnote 9); but we should note that Firstness is never absolutely devoid of Secondness (mechanical regularity) and Thirdness (analogic mediation) in Peirce's system. In Peirce's own words, ''Not only does Thirdness suppose and involve the ideas of Secondness and Firstness, but never will it be possible to find any Secondness or Firstness in the phenomenon that is not accompanied by Thirdness'' (1903/1998:177). Merrell may, at times, lose sight of the interdependence of the three. On the other hand, when Firstness prevails, ''transparency elude[s] us'' (27), and Merrell rightly insists that we must not ignore the necessity of slippery inconsistency. In assessing the overall tenor of the book's argument, then, we may turn to the author's own estimation of his progress midway in a discussion of one of his many illustrative summaries: ''I've tried vaguely, tentatively, and tenderly fallibly, to imagine process, by showing impermanence, interconnectedness, process, flow, by vaguely suggesting three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional plane ... for limited time and space allow for evocation and provocation rather than detailed explication'' (134).
Some readers, unfamiliar with the style of Merrell's argumentation in Entangling Forms, may object that his prose is dizzying in its abundant use adjectives, adverbials and reflexive arguments, or lacking in syllogistic precision, or confusing in its labyrinth of transdisciplinary references and vaguely suggestive diagrams. Such readers should first consider the possibility that these effects are intentional and even necessary for apprehending Merrell's argument. After all, in the Peircean universe of pervasive semiosis, means and ends are profoundly congruent. Merrell himself prepares us for this inevitability in his Preface, where he notes that ''the reading moves in nonlinear fashion, from each chapter back to preceding readings and forward to future readings'' (x).
Later, in a passage that also has much relevance for linguistic communication theory, Merrell makes a key paradoxical claim: ''our words often conceal more than they reveal. In fact, they reveal only insofar as they conceal, and it is only when we become aware of the concealment that we are able to become aware of what is possibly revealing. I can't say all I mean, for there is always something unrevealed in what I manage to say, and you can't absorb all the meaning of what I say, for there is always something concealed in your estimation of my saying what I say. In all saying, there's an element of implication, of suggestion, of that which was left unsaid: a remainder (Lecercle 1990). This is to say that when saying is at its best, it is never monological, nor is it dualistic; rather, it is dialogical, in the triadic sense'' (26-27).
It is this very juxtaposition of triadic semiosis and perplexing paradox extended as an invitation for recognition and participation that makes Merrell's contribution such an important one to contemporary semiotics. Naturally, other substantial merits may also be cited: for instance, as suggested above, the book also makes numerous fascinating and fruitful correlations between semiosic processes and various enigmas encountered in widely diverse disciplines. Peircean semiotics has always been transdisciplinary, and semioticians following Peirce have long been willing to trespass orthodox lines of institutional demarcation. Relatively few such semioticians, on the other hand, seem willing to grapple publicly and at length with the paradoxical tensions that pervade Peirce's system, and perhaps none do so to the degree that Merrell embraces. For this he deserves our admiration, and for this his book should serve as a milestone.
As for technical caveats, in addition to the compressed nature of the text, and its obligatorily entangled discourse, we might point out a few unnecessary inconveniences such as the limited, but widely scattered technical acronyms. Although an easily accessible list of abbreviations is available in the front matter, and although the author hopes for the best in a footnote (vii) and devotes a chapter to their explication, abbreviations such as CCC (Contradictory Complementary Coalescence), OAH (Object, Act, and/or Happening), BSO (becoming something other) and i-i-i- (Interdependency, Interaction, Interrelatedness) will likely prove to be cumbersome for some readers. On the other hand, Merrell's strategy has, for the attentive reader, the potential to facilitate a shift in consciousness toward unifying an otherwise complex jumble of concepts through repeated exposure in various contexts as the reading progresses.
A modest collection of editing lapses also surfaces. For the sake of future editions, editing errors in the book include the following: p. 5, ''in order address this question'' > in order to address this question; p. 27, ''transparency elude us'' > transparency eludes us; p. 132, ''textualism hold'' > textualism holds; p. 140, SBO > BSO; p. 163, ''gives is an'' > gives an; p. 164, ''Yes, and yes'' > ''No, and yes'' (?), p. 252, ''which is itself continuity derived'' > which is itself derived; p. 255, ''all possibilities possibilities'' > all possible possibilities; p. 269, ''as it flow along'' > as it flows along.
Naturally, these minor caveats find a fitting apologia in Merrell's own text - in a passage that is also a fitting summary of the text itself: ''contradictions and inconsistencies are not simply 'meaningless' or 'nonsensical' ... They are necessary ... they are part and parcel of complementary interrelations that usher in process where there would otherwise be static product'' (267). Here we have a book that should prove to be anything but a static product. Anyone willing to peer into the colorful vortices of paradox-in-process that Merrell models for us will be sure to find themselves, how else? Well, no longer themselves: Changed.
Deely, John. 2005. Floyd Merrell named sixth Thomas A. Sebeok Fellow of the Semiotic Society of America. Sign Systems Studies, 33 (2), 477-480.
Kauffman, Louis H. 2001. The mathematics of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 8 (1/2), 133-140.
Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. 1990. The violence of language. New York: Routledge.
Peirce, Charles S. 1903/1998. The categories defended. In The Peirce Edition Project (eds.), The essential Peirce, vol. 2, 160-178. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Peirce, Charles S. 1908/1998. A neglected argument for the reality of God. In The Peirce Edition Project (eds.), The essential Peirce, vol. 2, 434-450. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Sebeok, Thomas A. 1993. Preface. In Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A life, 1st edition, ix-xiii. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Wheeler, John Archibald. 1984. Bits, quanta, meaning. In Theoretical physics meeting, 121-134. Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jamin Pelkey currently lives in British Columbia, Canada, where he is
Assistant Professor of linguistics at Trinity Western University and
Instructor in the English Department at University of the Fraser Valley.
His research interests include the Burmic branch of Tibeto-Burman, the
intersection of embodied cognitive science and Peircean semiotics,
historical-comparative linguistics, dialectology, metaphor and the
philosophy of language.