Amfion pro musica classica

Book review: Finnish Baroque of Existential Semiotics: Eero Tarasti’s musical synthesis of the voluptuous dance of signs

Sein und Schein KANSI

Tarasti E: Sein und Schein: Explorations in existential semiotics. Mouton de Gruyter: Berlin, 2015; pp. 461, ISBN-978-1614512511 ¦ price US$ 140 / 99.95

Reviewed by: Jaan Valsiner, University of Aalborg, Denmark

Reading Tarasti is not easy. The author’s enormous erudition shows on every page of the book, and his capability of weaving together various ideas into nice new improvisations seems well supported by his unique reliance on music as the inspiration for new ideas. Like the movement of a melody, the text in this book could be considered to approximate Der Ring des Niebelungen in its dramatic elaboration of the earlier version of existential semiotics into a transcendental one. Tarasti—much like Wagner—takes the reader through various dramatic expositions of the semiotic square of Algirdas Greimas, arriving at the basic scheme that takes on the form of letter Z (p. 31, and especially in chapter 10 where a new theory of performing arts is offered) of the relating of the personal and the social in the process of semiosis. That scheme—de facto anon-linear continuum between different structures of Moi and Soi—is subsequently applied to various phenomena of cultural construction—music, film, etc.

Tarasti’s book is delicious to read, yet for contemporary readers who are used to all kinds of dieting programs—both culinary and intellectual—it includes a thick layer of philosophical and historical accumulations of knowledge. This book is a treat to the philosophically sophisticated reader, while a layperson is likely to find it too complex for easy reading. The author’s style of writing lives up to that of a complex musical composition—deep existential philosophical ideas emerge in the middle of chatting about all key figures of semiotics of today and of the past. The personal stories that are interspersed with semiotic analyses are refreshing to the reader.

Being-in-myself <>Being-for-myself

Tarasti’s focus on linking Moi (‘‘being-in-myself’’) and Soi (‘‘being-for-myself’’) constitutes the core of his existential semiotics. In Tarasti’s own words,

My intention was to specify the category of Being by providing this basic modality with new aspects drawn from Kant and Hegel, and to follow the phases of this concept further, from Kierkegaard to Sartre and Fontanelle … Being-in-itself and Being-formyself were turned into Being-in-and-for-myself in existential semiotics. (p. 29)

This kind of intellectual tradition is deeply grounded in European cultural traditions, and might not resonate very easily with the philosophical traditions of the Anglo-Saxon world. Yet it links well with cultural psychology today, starting from the domain of dialogical self (Hermans & Gieser, 2012), and ending with the dynamic semiosis side of the field (Valsiner, 2014). Tarasti’s focus on the Moi<>Soi tensions and dynamics is a welcome innovation to a field where categorizations often dominate over the study of processes that generate new subjective moments in our lives.

Dynamics of signs

Tarasti’s important innovation is in turning the traditionally static focus of semiotics into a dynamic theoretical system. This gives promise – for connection with psychology – yet it also brings challenges. The label existential is in some sense a misnomer, since the dynamics of sign mediation includes both the exploration of the inner meaning systems of the person, as well as that of a society. What unifies all levels is the focus on dynamics:

Existential semiotics explores the life of signs from within. Unlike most previous semiotics, which investigated only the conditions of particular meanings, existential semiotics studies phenomena in their uniqueness. It studies signs in movement and thus in flux, that is, as signs becoming signs, and defined as pre-signs, act-signs, and post-signs …Completely new sign categories emerge in the tension between reality, as Dasein, and whatever lies beyond it. We have to make a new list of categories in the side of that once done by Peirce. Such new signs so far discovered are, among others, trans-signs, endo-and exo-signs, quasi-signs (or as-ifigure-signs), and pheno/genosigns. (p. 8)

There is much new in Tarasti’s book. Still most of the novelties have the character of little inventions while the author is chasing answers to basic questions. The latter include the need to make sense of communication.

New models of communication

New semiotics needs new theory of communication. Tarasti provides it (pp. 137– 139), overcoming the centrality of the message and the person, in favour of the context. The examples he provides (p. 138) are three models, all of which involve directional relation between signs. The relations can change in time, creating new configurations. Furthermore, there is a coordinated relation between the message and the context, both of which are constructed:

…an artist or a politician, when launching new ideas, at the same time creates the environment that is appropriate for them. Wagner creates Bayreuth, functionalists Bauhaus, semioticians Imatra,1 and so on …. It is hard to pay equal attention to both message and context. If the context is underlied, then no attention is given to the message which then acts as a side-effect. …Any element can cease to be pertinent if attention is focused on other elements that surround it. (pp. 137–138)

There is much support to Tarasti’s effort to re-think communication theory. The focus on coordination in the making of the message and its context—or, in other terms, creating the frame—is a key issue in all our communication processes. The attempted power of mass media testifies for that. Yet it also leads to semiotic crisis (semiocrisis):

In general semiocrisis means that the visible, observable signs of social life do not correspond to its immanent structures. Signs have lost their isotopies, their connections to their true meanings. Benevolent media try to improve the situation, returning to the stable good times before the semiocrisis. (p. 153)

If Charles Sanders Peirce were to comment on that situation, he would point out that it is precisely the openness of signs for new situations that includes rendering themselves useless. By making the person free from here-and-now, signs make themselves alienated from their immediate relations with phenomena. Semiocrisis can be aggravated by the pollution of the semiosphere (p. 148). How is ‘‘pollution control’’ possible? Tarasti’s answer is—through resistance.

Semiotics of resistance

A whole chapter (chapter 9) is dedicated to semiotic of resistance. This is appropriate. In social contexts involving active meaning-makers it is the role of signs to correct the avalanche of social suggestions encoded in a multiplicity of sign forms. We live in a cloud of semiotic dust that all sources of communication throw at us as more or less explicit social suggestions. We resist the suggestions—encoded through signs—by other signs. The process of communication is not that of a ‘‘communion’’ but that of a duel—fought by signs and counter-signs. The loser is to ‘‘participate in the society’’ that the winner has defined. The existential becomes consumeristic (Brinkmann, 2008), and the genre of entertainment becomes a basic need. Semiotics is existential also in the sense of the survival of the signifying powers, not just of the human beings.

Resistance makes negation possible. This idea is hidden in Tarasti’s coverage—the 13 types of negation appear long before (p. 11) in the book than the coverage of resistance (chapter 9). Furthermore, negation of the negation which is the cornerstone of any systematically dialectical perspective that is to explain the emergence of novelty, is not systematically covered. Tarasti’s teacher—Algridas Greimas—did not focus on novelty, that was left to Tarasti’s existential semiotics of year 2000 which now, 14 years later, becomes transcendental. In that move, resistance—and negation based on it—are crucial theoretical ideas, yet the synthesis through the second negation is not elaborated.2 It is implied, though. Tarasti’s transcendental semiotics recognizes the movement in time from what is to what is not (yet), but it does not chart out any trajectory of development. Developmental semiotics may need to come after its transcendental relative, perhaps.

The music of food

Semioticians like to eat well. This is evident in Tarasti’s coverage of semiotics of food and eating. The important feature of food-related actions is the construction of elaborate meaningful foods with the ultimate goal of their destruction. All the sophisticated preparations of fancy foods of deep symbolic meanings—the gourmet at its best—end up devoured by the receiving human beings who, despite using the sophisticated cutlery and dishes for eating, demolish the gentle foods in most barbarous ways. Culture of foods ends at the act of mastication:

The undeniable sad truth is that the semiotic sign of food is at its inception doomed to destruction, and that this species of signs does not have the same stability as, say, those of painting, literature or architecture. Gastronomy should thus be equated with the performing arts of music, theatre, dance, and the like, whose signs are always bound with time that is understood not only as fleeting and fragile moments but as the very physical basis on which they subsist (p. 247)

Yet before the food reaches the mouth it is an arena of cultural construction in many ways. Semioticians would always have their daily bread if they deal with semiotics of foods. Adding to it the possible analyses of the ways foods become to signify something else—patriotism, feeling at home, or negotiation of one’s beauty—and we have a full research program for future semioticians to consume.

Tarasti points to the similarity of eating and musical performance (p. 246), and this analogy is valid. A musician works with scores—written version of music—and needs to recreate the musical piece in practice, with one’s own interpretation. Similarly, a person who cooks may use a recipe, yet the precise creation of the food involves improvisation. Going to a restaurant is similar to an evening at a concert, and devouring a hamburger in a street corner fast-food place is the analogue of a use of one’s MP3 player.

Yet the analogy continues—following Marcel Proust, Tarasti adds the activity of receiving guests into the same category (p. 256). Here I have doubts—for sure such activity is transient, but the destructive component (as is present in the case of foods) might not be similar at all.

Signs as transient relations

Signs are transient—they change from floating to stable. The roots of this modification of otherwise static semiotic schemes go back to the disputes between Schelling and Hegel in early 19th century (p. 269), with further support from our contemporary John Deeley (p. 272). The critical innovation comes on p. 274—changing the significant and signifie relation, a static borrowing from de Saussure, into a membrane:


xx  xx  xx


Yet the arrows are oriented only in one direction. And what is missing is a set of conditions—catalytic circumstances (Cabell & Valsiner, 2014) perhaps—that could reverse the direction of these arrows.

Nevertheless, the new focus on relationship allows Tarasti to integrate Jakob von Üxküll’s biosemiotic model of semiosis into his programme of existential semiotics. Biological terms are seductive—Tarasti elaborates on the notion of semiogerm (pp. 278–279), but fails to take the implications of that notion to its full potentials. He also fails to understand the full meaning of Theodor Lipps’ notion of Einfühlung (p. 279) considering it ‘‘enlivening by acquaintance’’, and focusing on Ausfühlung instead. If one remains committed to von Uexküll’s Funtionskreis idea, the feeling into the world feeds further into new signs that emerge from that feeling.

In sum, Eero Tarasti has created his Magnum Opus. He has benefitted from his deep knowledge of music, and has used that knowledge at every junction of his theory building. The book is similar to a complex orchestra performance in which different groups of instruments are given less or more voice at different phases of the unfolding of the story by the conductor who is constantly ready to improvise. The result is a remarkable contribution to the sphere of understanding of the complexity of the human mind. The author allows no cheap shortcut to the superficial interests of the unprepared crowds. And that is a major contribution in the 21st century to any science of the human beings.


1 Tarasti himself has been the key figure in this history of semiotics summer schools, well documented in the book.

2 For instance, none of the 13 negation types on p. 11 are set up to work upon one another. They could—parody of destruction (both listed as negation types) can create a basis for new construction of idea. We see many examples of parody in efforts to overcome social fetishes and stupidities, in art, literature, and theatre.


Brinkmann, S. (2008). Changing psychologies in the transition from industrial society to consumer society. History of the Human Sciences, 21(2), 85–110.

Cabell, K. R., & Valsiner, J. (Eds.) (2014). The catalyzing mind. New York, NY: Springer.

Hermans, H., & Gieser, T. (Eds.) (2012). Handbook of the dialogical self theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Valsiner, J. (2014). Invitation to cultural psychology. London, UK: Sage.

[Published by permission of Jaan Valsiner]


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