Obituary for Antonino Buttita

Obituary for Antonino Buttita

Following the death of Antonino Buttita, we would like to offer you the opportunity to pay your tributes to this leading Italian semiotician.

Please add your personal comments below this obituary by Gianfranco Marrone.

After D’arco Silvio Avalle, Maria Corti, Pino Paioni, Cesare Segre, Umberto Eco, Tullio De Mauro, Gianfranco Bettetini, Antonino Buttitta passed away on February 2nd, 2017. The generation of scholars who had founded the science of signs and signification in Italy and elsewhere, and had constituted the Associazione Italiana di Studi Semiotici, has come to an end. Despite their diversities, they shared some basic prerogatives, and a common project of research and life. They rejected Croce’s idealism, historicism and dialectical thinking and were open to the European paradigm of the social sciences and humanities. They were constantly looking for consistency and invariance to explain local and individual differences without deleting them. They paid critical attention to mass culture and were constructively engaged with the main literary and artistic experimentations of the 20th century. Since they were involved in different disciplines such as philology, linguistics, philosophical aesthetics, film theory and anthropology, they looked at semiotics as a need for order, as well as a cross-disciplinary methodology. They needed some clarity that did not amount to scientistic reductionism and was not obviously a positivistic objectification. The question of meaning was emerging below and beyond the ‘pure’ and ‘hard’ facts, and the allegedly objective phenomena; it was also separated from subjectivist humanism and from the existentialist palpitations.

In other words, for Antonino Buttitta and the other Italian scholars of his generation, semiotics was a kind of a “third way”, which managed to elude the antithesis between the so-called sciences of nature, which looked for objectifying explanations, and the so-called human sciences, which were interested in the hermeneutic understanding of human and social experiences. Scholars followed the warnings of de Saussure that Cassirer masterfully clarified later. The entire semiotic hypothesis, which was very strong in this respect, was based on a constructive overcoming of any dualism between empiricism and intellectualism, positivism and historicism, materialism and idealism, World and Self, reason and passion, science and literature, epistemology and aesthetics. The sign was considered as the medium term between subject and object, intelligible and sensible, culture and nature, the place of their meeting and the instrument of their mediation. From the semiotic point of view, there is not the concept on the one hand and the image on the other, but – as Lévi-Strauss demonstrated with the notion of bricolage – there is a sign that allows the existence both of the former and of the latter, acting as a liaison between the two.

All becomes clear in the theoretical works of Antonino Buttitta, such as Ideologie e folklore (1971), Semiotica e antropologia (1979), Percorsi simbolici (1989), L’effimero sfavillio (1995), Dei segni e dei miti (1996), Mito fiaba rito (2016). A series of inveterate philosophical dualisms has no raison d’être from the point of view of an anthropologist interested in the problems of signification. Let us read from the Introduction of Dei segni e dei miti: “Things, produced or not produced by men, stand for what they mean for men”. This is the reason why

signs and symbols are not just a characteristic feature of individuals per se: their essence, their destiny. The human condition also exists in the production and in the consumption of signs and symbols. For a human being nothing is real outside of them and he himself loses his identity, because, as a man, he forgets his existence», for which «nature and culture are two aspects of the continuum of human reality. They may be distinguished only by a knowledge requirement . . .

Hence, “culture is the time when the relationship between man and nature is expressed and realized by systems of signs, and determines the conditions of existence of man as a social being”. So, if culture is the founding place of signification, it will put its natural “Beyond” in different ways: in this way the natural world becomes the place where the sense is given and is transformed by welcoming formal expressions of language, behaviour and social cognitions.

These observations are sufficient to cancel any representative assumptions and to found the logical and ontological primacy of cultural models, which are inevitably semiotic models. If anthropology can only end in semiotics, semiotics, in its turn, must act as a theory of culture. Then, for Buttitta, anthropological analysis and semiotic analysis eventually coincide through the mediation of the great structural linguistics. From Saussure to Hjelmslev, Coseriu and Lyons, the lesson of structural linguistics – rethought and translated semiotically – remains fundamental to the anthropologist. From this point of view every analysis of cultural events has to consider the character of the biplanar systems of meaning (expression / content), but has also to refer to the stratification of languages in Schema, Norm, Usage and Parole. Every linguistic and cultural stratum, Buttitta reminds us, has a specific temporality, and therefore requires a different methodological consideration. If, for instance, “the Parole level […] sets itself on a plan of irreversibility, whose subjects, which are subjected to the rapid flow of time, must necessarily be studied with historical method, the other levels, which are subjected to slower time frames , and belong to the domain of reversibility, are open to systematic observation”. From this point of view, structure and history lose every antithetical connotation and turn out to be complementary phenomena in a far-reaching semiotic-anthropological hypothesis.

In this perspective, Buttitta revises the famous Frege difference between meaning and sense: “To exit the deadly formalism – we read – anthropology should consider the problems of the meaning of the studied phenomena together with their sense” – where

by ‘sense’ of a cultural phenomenon we mean the particular meaning that it gets in relation to the context of fruition, to the concrete function that it performs, beyond the inner meaning which can sometimes be opposite, in  the cultural and social universe of individuals who are producers and consumers of it.

If, then, with ‘meaning’ we can imply the micro-context within which a given cultural phenomenon occurs, with ‘sense’ we can imply the macro-context within which this same phenomenon becomes relevant.

Buttitta describes all we have mentioned not only with theoretical considerations, but also with a long series of works on several cultural phenomena, most of which come from Sicily. His famous analysis of big cultural symbols (the Comet, the Mediterranean Mother, the Mask, the Island, the Sea), his redefinition of folklore genres (fairy tale, myth, song, popular song etc.), his interpretations of rituals and folk phenomena (the feast of the dead, the carnival, the puppet theatre etc.) start from these grounds.

We should mention, for example, his volumes Cultura figurativa popolare in Sicilia (1961), Ideologie e folklore (1971), La pittura su vetro in Sicilia (1972, 19912), Pasqua in Sicilia (1978), Gli ex-voto di Altavilla Milicia (1983), Il Natale (1985), Il mosaico delle feste (2003), which are real models of semiotic analysis culture.

Beside this deep scientific work, recalled in his book-interview Orizzonti della memoria (2015), given to Antonino Cusumano, we should highlight his relentless activity to promote and disseminate culture, science and literature both on a local and on a global scale:

  • as a University professor (full professor of Cultural anthropology, Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, University of Palermo; Dean of the same Faculty; Professor at IULM Milan and at Università Cattolica Milan);
  • as an editor of scientific journals (“Uomo e cultura”, “Nuove Effemeridi”, “Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo”) and book series (“Uomo e cultura, Testi” for Flaccovio, “Prisma”, “Nuovo Prisma”, “Tutto e subito” for Sellerio);
  • as an organizer of conferences, meetings and international anthropological congresses on “The material culture”, “Fiendship”, “Crafts”, “Love and cultures”, “Woman and society”, “Pain”, “Lies”, “Proof “; the proceedings are now available on the site www.circolosemiologicosiciliano.it;
  • as a member of boards of semiotic associations (President of the Associazione italiana di studi semiotici, General Secretary of the International association for semiotic studies),
  • as a founder of scientific companies and institutions (Associazione per la conservazione delle tradizioni popolari, Folkstudio, Circolo semiologico siciliano, Museo delle marionette, Scuola internazionale di scienze umane, Premio Semiosis);
  • last but not least, as a politician (Secretary of Sicilian Socialist Party, member of the Chamber of Deputies). During the last period of his life he used to laugh about this experience.

As a true Sicilian and a creative storyteller, his frenetic activity was constantly characterized by his main and nicest feature: his trenchant irony towards the world, himself included. We should keep it in mind.


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