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Review of  Entangling Forms

Reviewer: Jamin Pelkey
Book Title: Entangling Forms
Book Author: Floyd Merrell
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.2586

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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
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.

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.