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Formal Linguistic Approaches to Self-Reflexivity

Semiotic theory since Saussure and the discovery of the diacritical nature of the sign emphasizes the capacity of language to generate significance immanently from within itself by virtue of its structure as a differential system of signs. Through its resources of self-differentiation, selfreflection, and self-referentiality, language is able to confer significance on things outside itself. Especially semiotic theories of the aesthetic sign, as employed exemplarily in poetic language, focus this generative self-referentiality. The self-referentiality of language foregrounded in poetic uses is shown by semiotic research to be a condition of its ability to represent things outside language as well. Such autonomy is sometimes considered in semiotics as normative for the meaningfulness of language in general. Aesthetic auto-reference of the sign turns up at the base of semiosis and its communicative function in modern linguistic theories beginning from the seminal impulses imparted by Russian formalism.

The self-referentiality of poetic language in particular is an idea that has been analyzed acutely in twentieth-century poetic theory. Language is typically seen in its “poetic function” as peculiarly non-representational and, accordingly, as self-reflexive in nature. From the Russian formalists to the Prague Linguistic Circle, probing research into semiotics and aesthetics revolves around this central issue of the auto-reflexivity of the poetic sign: it comes to be recognized as not just a prominent characteristic distinguishing poetic language, but also as intrinsic to the functioning of language as such and at all levels. In crucial ways, this auto-reflexivity stands at the origin of semiosis, or of the signifying process tout court.

Vindicating the Aesthetic Autonomy of the Linguistic Sign

Pietro Montani in The Debt of Language excavates the broad basis of semiotic and philosophical thinking that underlies the seminal idea of the self-referentiality of the aesthetic object (‘Tautoriflessivita del segno estetico”) and more generally of the sign. In this perspective, the aesthetic


Pietro Montani, Il debito del linguaggio: Il problema dell-autoriflessivitd estetica nel segno, nel testo e nel discorso (Venice: Marsiglio, 1985), 48.

Linguistic Approaches to Self-Reflexivity 235 function of the sign is not thought of as simply added on to its communicative function. The aesthetic self-referentiality of the sign turns out to lie at the base of the very ability of the sign to signify—to represent reality under some form of objectivity and to mediate meaning inter-subjectively among members of a community constituted by common values.

Montani works from the premise that the scientific pretentions of semiotic theory limited appreciation of its artistic-poetic implications. Montani emphasizes the aesthetic side of the sign rediscovered in formalist semiotics and their aftermath, thereby bringing out the aesthetic presuppositions and constitution of the sign per se. This model illuminates Dante’s use of poetic language as analogy and as medium in the quest to articulate his experience of God. Dante’s experience in this genre comprises what is best described as a form of linguistic mysticism in which language itself becomes a vehicle to direct experience of the divine. It does not, however, imply that language is simply closed in on itself in a sphere of pure immanence.

Montani stresses how the auto-reflexivity of art proves capable of signifying in a way short-circuiting reference to a pre-existent external object. Yet such aesthetic auto-reflexivity paradoxically reinforces the solidarity between language and things and reinforces the grip of the symbolic upon the real. Self-referentiality creates a distance from extra-linguistic reality that turns out mysteriously to foster an even more intimate nearness to it by abrogating the need for an external connection. Montani traces the ways that this becomes the case in key theorists from Jakobson and Victor Schlovsky to Jan Mukarovsky, from Mikhail Bakhtin to Yuri Lotman, Umberto Eco, and Emilio Garroni, and he seeks to interpret the phenomenon philosophically with reference especially to Heidegger’s hermeneutics.

Defamiliarization, as an aesthetic principle conceptualized by Schlovsky, entails renewing perception of what is no longer perceived or noticed because it has become familiar through force of habit. In conjunction with making familiar things seem suddenly strange, defamiliarization calls attention self-reflexively to the sign that is normally supposed to be transparent to what it signifies. The sign is noticed for the first time as a thing in its own right with idiosyncrasies not considered in its use in communication. Language is thereby brought up close for examination, but the effect of this nearness is to provoke the sense of its strangeness. Poetry, accordingly, makes us vividly sense the form of language, which under normal conditions remains for us habitual and imperceptible. In poetry, we experience linguistic form as significant, like the forms of things themselves. Language itself becomes an object of our perception rather than only a medium. Especially when reference fails, language itself becomes perceptible as a thing with sensory qualities in its own right. Witness Rimbaud’s blazing, buzzing “Voyelles”: “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, / I shall tell, one day, of your hidden births” (“A noir,

E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles / Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes”).

Dante makes language perform in this way, conspicuously and programmatically, with the sparkling letters in the heaven of Jupiter: DILIGITE IUSTITIAM, etc. The letter itself becomes an aesthetic object. This can lead to an idolatry of language, but that is not Dante’s drift in this extraordinary scene in Paradiso XVIII. Instead, the strangeness evoked is ultimately that of the divine mystery dwelling in every letter. Dante presents the letters as preliminary foretastes of his experience of a purely intellectual vision of God. In principle, the whole of the Paradiso is an anticipation of an absolutely imageless experience of divinity without object and in suspension of all finite content.[1] Concretely, given the poem’s representational vividness, variety, and abundance, the divine vision is realized self-reflexively in Paradiso's poetic language.

Focusing on language as object can be a way to make objectivity disappear as an inescapable frame condition of perception. In the theophantic scene of writing in Jupiter, by focusing on language itself as sacred, Dante makes language manifest God directly through intensification of the self-referentiality of the linguistic sign. This is not exclusive of Dante’s continued, intensive use of language for reference to the world articulated in all its political-historical lineaments with stunning precision. Yet the pure, iconographical signifying of the sign in auto-referentiality is also given tremendous relief in the language of the Paradiso. This theme is concentrated into the vision of the letters of Scripture one at a time (or D or I or L ..., XVIII.78) displayed as fireworks in the heaven of Jupiter, where language itself shows up as object of the divine vision.

Dante’s poem realizes a contemplation in poetic language of divinity as scintillating letters, which metamorphose into the speaking sign or emblem of the imperial eagle. Paradiso highlights this dimension of language used not merely as a sign to refer to something else, but also as a concrete aesthetic object to be experienced in all its sensory intensity. Dante’s Paradiso, in effect, deconstructs the sign and its structure of reference in order to present absolute reality (God) immediately. Most intriguing and perplexing, this trespassing of the sign, this step beyond the referential signifying function of language, opens to an infinite realm beyond language, the realm of the unsayable.

This stepping outside of the statute of the sign is an un-founding and re-founding of language and even reveals the secret or forgotten origin of language. Encrypted in the encounter with Adam in Paradise is a mythical disclosure of the origin of human language. Adam’s phrase “the trespass

Linguistic Approaches to Self-Reflexivity 237 of the sign” (“il trapasso del segno”) is used in connection with his original sin, but it also describes the status of language as employed in the Paradiso. Dante’s poetry in the Paradiso redeems language by freeing it from bondage to the law of the sign, with its constitutive division between signifier and signified. The Paradiso liberates poetic language for embodiment of more polyvalent and concrete types of meaning—for example, the acrostic pattern LVE—“lue” for “plague” brought on by the unjust rulers in XIX.115-39. This concrete poetry, like the skywriting of Canto XVIII, produces a more direct form of presence that short-circuits and exceeds language’s capacities to signify referentially. Dante thus reverses the fall into duality of the sign as divided into rational and sensory components that he duly registers in De vulgari eloquentia (“rationale signum et sensuale,” I.iii.2-3). Reflexivity, beyond articulated reference, beyond signifying already existing objects, proves key to understanding language’s most essential and universal function—namely, to reveal and engage the real in its emergence. Such reflexivity proves to be understood best in a theological perspective that reverses certain typical assumptions and orientations of semiotic theory.

  • [1] Marguerite Mills Chiarenza, “The Imageless Vision of Dante’s Paradiso," Dante Studies 90 (1972): 79-91. 2 I pursue this in The Divine Vision of Dante’s Paradiso.- The Metaphysics of Representation (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
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