Sensitive Semiotics: From Sensation to Intuition

The classification of semiotic systems on the basis of the sensory channels, which constitute the substance of their expression, is a persistent temptation, in particular in academic discourse, where one thus distinguishes verbal, visual, audio-visual, auditory, olfactory semiotics, etc. This is equivalent to taking the problem for a solution, because the problem, precisely, is first to know what is properly semiotic in sensation and in the different sensory channels.

The research perspective that we propose here consists in starting from these different sensory modes (touch, hearing, vision, olfaction, sensorimotor) to first examine their phenomenological appearance, and then to extract their distinctive semiotic properties. These properties will then make it possible to distinguish between different semiotic sensitive modes, each characteristic of a specific field of sensitive presence.

Thus, we will have gone beyond the ordinary distinctions between sensory channels, and will have access to schematic forms specific to the semiotic organization of the sensitive world: categories such as the “envelope body”, the “hollow body”, the “point body” or “ flesh body”, as well as those which take charge of respective sensory dynamics (deformation, agitation, deictic locating or intimate motions), will mark the passage from an ontological and common sense classification to typologies of semiotic forms and dynamics.

Faced with semiotic products such as a text, a painting, a film, a choreography or a symphony, all of the aforementioned sensitive modes are mobilized each time, and not just the one that would be closest to the dominant sensory channel in the expression substance of the particular object. Polysensoriality and metamorphosis of modes are the general law, and not the particular case. In general, the sensitive modes provide the form of expression of the semiotic product, independently of the dominant sensory channel. This is especially evident in figurative representation. In a painting, for example, the schematic properties of the sensitive modes allow for the constitution of the plastic dimension, whose immediately available content, under iconic conditions, is the equivalent of a figure as it is perceived in the natural world.

But the process of schematization can go beyond its role in "figurative representation", and target modes of expression available for other types of content, particularly in the case of works of art and their aesthetic effects. In this last phase of the process, we access the trans-sensitive dimension, beyond or below the sensitive itself, to schematic forms that become expressions for aesthetic or ethical content: for example, tensions and internal activities at work, anagogical, spiritual, occult or symbolic meanings; in short, the very contents of the creative activity integrated into the work of art.

The trans-sensitive dimension operates a synthesis, be it harmonious and peaceful or tensive and conflictual, between all the sensitive modes; this synthesis, as is the lesson of Kant, is not of the conceptual order: it operates in intuition, it uses imagination, but it is always at the same time sensory, emotional, in a word, sensitive.

Jacques Fontanille

Semiotic Research Center (CeReS), University of Limoges

Jacques Fontanille is professor of semiotics at the University of Limoges, of which he was President in 2005–2019, and member of the Institut Universitaire de France. He is Honorary President of the International Association for Visual Semiotics, and Honorary President of the French Association of Semiotics. He is the author of over two hundred and seventy scholarly publications, in the fields of theoretical semiotics, literary semiotics, visual semiotics, rhetoric and general linguistics. Most of his books have been translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Korean, Arabic. He has been visiting professor or guest lecturer at eighty American, European, Asian and African universities.

modes of the sensitive
field of presence