The rigors of imagination. An interview with Paolo Fabbri

Text by Pino Donghi, Punctum. Semiotic Monographs n.1 Unfolding semiotics – Pour la sémiotique a venir edited by Isabella Pezzini, 2021, pp-175-178.

He argues that there were general influences, outside and beyond the field of semi¬otics here in Italy, an unbroken heritage as regards the supremacy of a historical-natu¬ralistic cultural stance in academia, that contributed to resisting semiotics, including the diffidence of glottologists, for instance, or the approach of traditional Italian lin¬guistics researchers. on the other hand, there were also, and continue to exist, reasons that are wholly internal to the discipline itself.
Broadly speaking, during the 20th century there were two major paradigms, to use Thomas Kuhn’s words, milling about in semiotics: one loyal to the north American philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, and the other following the european tracks laid down in A Course in General Linguistics by the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure, followed by the lessons of the Dane louis Hjelmslev, and ending with the structural semantics of Algirdas Julien Greimas. Greimas had to make a life-saving escape from communist lithuania and taught in egypt and Turkey before ending up in Paris and becoming a naturalized French. He was Paolo Fabbri’s professor and mentor. Fabbri’s opinion in hindsight was that umberto eco had made interesting attempts to create bridges be¬tween the two approaches as he borrowed from Peirce’s vision of semiotics. The out¬come, however, was less than successful.
The effort of trying to combine two perspectives that by definition are not given to ‘merging,’ where the sum of the parts cannot create a whole, led to a process of what Fabbri called mutual sterilization, a lowering of their respective immune systems and one that has condemned semiotics to a ‘flat’ theoretical attitude when it comes to the analysis of texts.
This foundering came about at a time that happened to coincide with certain world events and a cultural outlook that umberto eco looked into with his Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. The Italian title for this collection of articles is Il Passo del Gambero, literally translating as the ‘gait of the prawn,’ alluding to the way prawns swim backward. eco reckons that this was the social attitude of western coun¬tries now that they had let go of notions of large-scale collective progress as an ideal, following on from the youth movements of the 1960s and 1970s and the consequent disillusionment. we may look to the future with our social attitudes, yes, but we seem to be ‘swimming’ backward as we do so, retreating into a more personal rather than collective outreach where our purposes are concerned. The age of ‘small is beautiful’ makes this an age looking to more localized, private, short-term, or even ephemeral goals.
This attitude also percolated to theories, that went from major to minor, from full-scale ‘fighting for’ ideals to what Fabbri calls ‘guerilla’ cultural skirmishes. As a result, semiotics began to go down the route of one-off essays and articles via newspapers and weekly magazines or through the various books penned by brilliant intellectuals such as umberto eco and roland Barthes. Their brilliance is unquestionable; they were uniquely effective in drawing impressionistic brushstrokes of the social movements and mores. The trouble was they were not founded on, nor had the support of, a scien¬tific method.
It was Fabbri’s firm conviction, instead, and in this he furthered the baton of Grei¬mas’s most powerful legacy, that a semiotic approach ought to work “in vista della scienza,” i.e., keeping science in mind, keeping it well in sight. Semiotics should strive to follow the most formal method possible within its reach, as modern science does so that it will prove to be accessible, applicable, and truly advantageous for all scholars in the field addressing the meaning of whatever text they are dealing with.
worthy of note, also, as regards the workings of semiotics in Italy specifically but more widely afield when it comes to structuralism in general, was the way semiotics implicitly presented itself as critical of Marxist philosophy; this did not sit at all well with the intelligentsia and intellectual zeitgeist within Italy.
Contributing factors to the status of semiotics in Italy (and perhaps not just in Italy) as we have seen then was a defensive attitude towards ‘external’ disciplines beyond its borders struggling with, and concomitant to, the ‘split’ and ambiguity presented by the two ‘internal’ paradigms, as well as the expedient provided by the ‘il passo del gam¬bero’ approach (the idiosyncratic short-cut impressionistic descriptions of social real¬ities) and, last, the hostile attitude on the part of a great many intellectuals. The current dated/out-of-date state of semiotics in Italy can easily be attributed to these factors in answering our initial question.
To counteract this Fabbri was adamant that what was needed now – as it always had been – was to take up the methodological framework provided by Greimas’s body of work. In brief, a ‘marked’ kind of semiotics, ‘una semiotica marcata,’ one that would take over from the sort of pop analysis that became fashionable as of the mid 1908s. what semiotics needs is ‘rigore e immaginazione’ – this the title of the book edited by Pino Donghi – i.e. both scientific rigour and the sort of imagination that Fabbri culled from Italo Calvino. Calvino was also known for his philological study of the Italian lan¬guage and cultural evolution; he argued that the accepted understanding of a line of development that began with Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio down to leopardi and Man¬zoni was incomplete. what’s missing is the line connecting Galileo and Ariosto. Ariosto can be considered the epitome of how imaginative thinking can be transposed onto prose fabricated with the greatest rigor. And Galileo, for his part, has every right to be included in the company of great Italian writers; indeed, he ought to be recognized as one of the inventors of Italian prose (leopardi was of this opinion too), which he used in a very imaginative way as he described his rigorous scientific observations. The con-clusion Paolo Fabbri came to was that semiotics has to become similarly more rigorous and more imaginative, a manifesto combining Galileo Galilei and ludovico Ariosto.
Fabbri did not doubt that scientific literature could become an object of study – one of the most interesting and challenging – of semiotic analysis. His thoughts on this issue are presented in the second part of the book, comprising a set of four essays orig¬inally published in the proceedings of Spoletoscienza. Spoletoscienza was an annual conference ground devoted to the dissemination of the culture of science, held during the town of Spoleto’s summer Festival of Two worlds, and created and organized by the Fondazione Sigma-Tau. It was held from 1989 to 2011 and Paolo Fabbri was a frequent, highly regarded, and most influential speaker.
The third part of the interview is concerned with a discourse about science (Sui discorsi della scienza) and the above-mentioned essays help to bolster the scope of the interview with Fabbri. He analyzes the crucial difference between the kind of scientist who observes and catalogs the physical and biological aspects of nature and the kind who goes into a laboratory to invent and produce new elements. This is a very impor¬tant distinction, highlighting the difference between observation and manipulation. with the invention of the laboratory with a capital l, modern science introduced the question of the far-reaching social and political consequences of its undertakings.
All of this is of extraordinary interest to whoever is concerned with the analysis of meaning. As are extraordinarily interesting all of Paolo Fabbri’s observations. As Ste-fano Traini notes in his afterword to the book, Fabbri was a giant of an intellectual who was capable of combining method and imagination, scientific rigor, and impressionistic descriptions.
Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider likening him to Galileo and Ariosto when it comes to his place in semiotics? Paolo Fabbri was a real Maestro, whose absence is regretted worldwide.

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