Reviewed by Margaret J. Blake, Aarhus University, Denmark
A theoretical and philosophical monograph, this volume presents a view of culture and human agency that is apparently novel to the field of cultural semiotics. Eduardo Neiva argues for a model of culture that rejects traditional theoretical and philosophical biases in favor of a nondeterministic view of humans as biological creatures whose culture is only different from animal societies by a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. The book is rooted not only in Charles S. Peirce’s semiotics and Charles Darwin’s sexual selection theory but also in game theory (in the tradition of John Nash), in which the definition of game is ‘a situation in which individual interests collide’ (12).
The book is organized into three parts, with a foreword and afterword. Part 1, ‘Canonical games’, contains the chapters ‘Conflict’, ‘Coordination’, and ‘Contract’, which trace the genesis of the currently prevailing models of culture in the humanities and social sciences. Part 2, ‘Ancestral games’, which contains the chapters ‘Origin’ and ‘Sex, signals’, ‘seek[s] to write off the prejudice that human societies are a radical break from the natural world’ (20). Part 3, ‘Individual games’, which contains the chapters ‘Strategies’ and ‘Players’, examines the role that individual interactions play in culture and rejects the idea that cultural systems act as powerful enforcers. Throughout the book, N uses the Peloponnesian War to illustrate his theoretical standpoint. He mentions Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata as an example of the competing sexual strategies of males and females.
In the afterword, N summarizes his argument, which (i) views humans and nature to be separate; (ii) considers cultures to be ‘barriers between groups, generated through learning, which is always necessary to the socialization of human beings’ (243); (iii) views culture, rather than human agency, to be the determiner of individual action; (iv) rejects collectivism (N refers to collectivism and conventionalism as the ‘infantile diseases of the humanities and social sciences’, 244); and (v) supports the idea that cultural force on the individual is directly proportional to group size.
This volume is dense and heavily philosophical in nature. N’s assertations and conclusions will not come as news to anyone well-read in evolutionary anthropology, but that may not include a large number of cultural semioticians, thus N’s motivation to write the book. Linguists who are interested in differing theoretical views of human culture may be interested in skimming this volume.