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Lessing's "Laocoon": Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason by David E.

Wellbery
Review by: Michael Morton
The German Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 311-312
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
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BOOK REVIEWS 311
overview at the end of the
collection;
it comes second
last,
with
Siegrist's
article
functioning
de
facto-and disappointingly-as
the book's conclusion.
Its
shortcomings notwithstanding,
so
long
as it is taken on its own terms this
little volume has much to recommend it. It is
perhaps
best seen as an
"Auffrischungs-
kurs,"
a modest
undertaking
to be
sure,
but also
something
from which one can
certainly profit.
University of Virginia
THOMAS G. SAUER
WELLBERY, DAVID
E.
Lessing's
"Laocoon":
Semiotics and Aesthetics in the
Age of
Reason.
Anglica
Germanica Series 2.
Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ.
Press,
1984. ix + 275
pp.
Declaring
his intention to treat
Lessing's
Laokoon
"as if it
presented
a
global theory
of aesthetic
signification" (p. 110),
David
Wellbery
embarks on an
intriguing experi-
ment.
Employing
what
J.
P.
Stern
aptly
terms a method of "calculated
anachronism,
"
Wellbery attempts
to view one of the central works of
eighteenth-century
aesthetics
through
the lens of an
analytical
idiom- the
language
and
conceptual
framework of
contemporary
semiotics
-
largely foreign
to the intellectual
atmosphere
of that era.
Two
preliminary chapters
stake out the
ground
on which the discussion of the
Laokoon
will take
place.
In the
first, Wellbery outlines, chiefly by
reference to the
philosophy
of
Wolff,
what he takes to be the
important
features of a
general Enlighten-
ment
theory
of
signs.
He sees that
theory,
in
turn,
as the
key,
in
particular,
to the
rationalist aesthetics of
Baumgarten
and
others,
which is the
subject
of
chapter
two.
In his final
chapter (by
far the
longest, comprising
about half the entire
text), Wellbery
then
presents
the
Laokoon
as the
exemplary
realization of the "aesthetic semiotics"
(p. 68, passim)
adumbrated at the level of abstract
theory by Lessing's predecessors.
For his
analysis
of the Laokoon
Wellbery, adapting
a schema
developed by Hjelmslev,
distinguishes, first,
the
"planes" (or "functions")
of
"expression"
and "content"
(corresponding roughly
to the notions of
signifier
and
signified)
and
then,
within
each of
these,
the
"aspects"
of
"material," "form,"
and "substance"
(p. 110).
The
schema thus
posits
"six
components
of the
global sign function,"
to all of
which,
it
is
asserted, "Lessing's general
semiotic
approach
. .. attends"
(p. 111).
In
addition,
"since it is a
question
in the
Laocoon
of aesthetic
signification,
the
signs analyzed
are
subject
to aesthetic constraints as well as
purely
semiotic constraints"
(p. 111).
That the discussion thus introduced is not of a sort to be
digested
at a
single sitting
is not
entirely surprising.
Semiotic
criticism, though frequently jargon-ridden, typically
avoids the obscuran-
tism of some other critical
approaches
that have attracted attention in recent
years,
and, despite
an occasional close
call, Wellbery
also
succeeds,
for the most
part,
in
skirting
that
abyss.
It remains
true, however,
that
making
out what he wants to
say
is
by
no means
easy. (Wellbery's
cause is not
helped by
a
large
number of
relatively
minor but
irritating stylistic quirks,
for
example,
his
penchant
for
rendering
undeutlich
as,
in
Heideggerian fashion, "con-fused" (p. 14, passim).
In view of
this,
it is natural to
ask, first,
does an
analysis
of the
Laokoon
have to be this abstruse?
and, secondly,
if it
does
not,
does it nonetheless have
advantages
that
compensate
for that
difficulty?
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312 THE GERMAN
QUARTERLY Spring
1986
The answer to the first
question
is
surely
no. The
Laokoon is,
in one
respect,
as
Wellbery says,
a
"complicated
text"
(p. 109),
but that
is,
as he also
notes,
because
of the number and
variety
of
topics
that
Lessing pursues
without
troubling
to
integrate
them all to a
single
line of
exposition.
The central
argument
of the
treatise, however,
that
part
to which it owes its
place
in the
history
of aesthetics and with which alone
Wellbery
is
concerned, is, though brilliant,
not
especially complicated
at
all,
and
much less so than
Wellbery's
discussion of it.
Moreover,
after
negotiating
a thicket
of such statements as that the
"materiality
of the
plastic
arts'
expression
material
is a
legitimate
distinctive feature of these arts from a
comparative semiotic perspective
if it is
presumed
that the
expression
material of
poetry
is immaterial"
(p. 122),
most
readers will in the end find
that,
beneath the elaborate
terminology,
what
Wellbery
presents
as the burden of
Lessing's argument
does not differ
fundamentally
from
what
they always thought
it was: to show how literature and the
graphic arts, properly
understood and
practiced, pursue
a common end
-
the
highest possible degree
of
illusion in
representation--through
entirely
different means.
What, then,
of the second
question?
Does
Wellbery's semiotic approach, despite
its recondite
quality,
nevertheless
provide
a
significantly
new
way
of
thinking
about
his
topic?
Here the answer
varies, depending
on where one looks in the text:
sometimes
yes,
sometimes no. To take an extreme
example
of the latter
category,
the obvious
point
that a
painter
or
sculptor
cannot
depict
at the same time a cloak
and the
body
it covers is not
improved by being
recast as: "The two content units
'cloak' and
'body'
are
mutually
exclusive in the
plastic
arts because
of
the
syntactical
relation
of covering
that their
respective expression
tokens entertain"
(p.
126).
Notwithstanding
the
all-too-frequent
occurrence of this sort of
thing
in the
text,
however,
there is also a
good
deal here that is both
insightful
and
suggestive
of
further research.
Examples
include what
Wellbery
calls the
"Enlightenment myth
of the
sign" (p. 40),
and the related ideal of
"progressive
semiosis"
(p. 41),
in which
is
envisaged
an eventual transformation of
arbitrary
into natural
signification
and
thereby
of
symbolic
into intuitive
cognition.
His
typology
of aesthetic theories
(per-
formance, representational,
and
expressive), though
in need of refinement and elab-
oration,
is also of much more than
passing
interest. If this
study
is
unlikely
to
change
many
minds with
regard
to the
Laokoon
itself or to
provide
a more useful
way
of
speaking
of its contents than we have
already,
it nonetheless offers much that should
stimulate further reflection on
eighteenth-century aesthetics,
its
place
within the
overall matrix of
philosophical
and artistic concerns of the
period,
and the
relationship
of that
body
of
thought
to the
corresponding
concerns of our own time.
Duke
University
MICHAEL MORTON
OSINSKI, JUTTA.
Uber
Vernunft
und Wahnsinn: Studien zur literarischen
Aufkldrung
in der
Gegenwart
und
im
18.
Jhdt.
Bonner Arbeiten zur deut-
schen
Literatur,
41. Bonn:
Bouvier,
1983. 338
pp.
Osinski seeks to illuminate the current debate on reason and madness in various
fields of endeavor
by exploring
its antecedent in
society
and
politics, philosophy
and
religion,
and literature and aesthetics from around 1700 to about
1835,
a delimitation
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