The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

The Semiotic Fallacy, Twenty Years On

Laurence Coupe

Academia Letters, Article 89, December 2020


It is twenty years since my Green Studies Reader was published by Routledge. In the general introduction, I addressed some of the assumptions of cultural and literary theory, suggesting that it was time to challenge  them.  I wrote:

In various schools – formalist, psychoanalytic, new historicist, deconstructionist, even Marxist – the common assumption has been that what we call ‘nature’ exists primarily as a term within a cultural discourse, apart from which it has no being or meaning.  That is to say, it is a sign within a signifying system, and the question of reference must always be placed in emphatic parentheses.  To declare that  there is ‘no such thing as nature’ has become almost obligatory within literary and cultural studies.  The great fear has been to be discovered committing what might be called ‘the referential fallacy’.  On the one hand, the scepticism of theory has proved salutary: too often previous critics assumed that their preferred works of literature told the ‘truth’ about the world.  On the other hand, it has encouraged a heavy-handed culturalism, whereby suspicion of ‘truth’ has entailed the denial of non-textual existence. It is a mistake easily made, perhaps, once one has recognised the crucial role language plays in human sense-making.  But it should still be pointed out that, in failing to move beyond the linguistic turn … [and in] seeking to avoid naivete, [theory] has committed what might be called ‘the semiotic fallacy’. (1)


I returned to this theme later in the introduction:

So green studies does not challenge the notion that human beings make sense of the world through language, but rather the self-serving inference that nature is nothing more than a linguistic construct. Kate Soper … makes the point dramatically: ‘In short, it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier.’(2) [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 3]

I should also mention that, in subsequently addressing the question of vocabulary, I acknowledged the complexity of the concept of ‘Nature’, and I stressed the need to be careful in using the term. I summarised my position as succinctly as I could: ‘green studies debates “Nature” in order to defend nature.’ [‘Coupe, ‘Intro’, GSR, p. 7]


When I wrote that introduction, I anticipated a negative reaction from the more dogmatic ‘culturalists’, and even mockery of my own stance as sheer simplification. However, my formulation of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ seems to have passed into the critical lexicon without much fuss.  Oddly, as I now realise, I’ve never sought to expand on my initial formulation of that principle – despite the fact that nearly all my books address the theme of ecology. However, in the course of reviewing a remarkable work by Robert Macfarlane, namely Landmarks (2015), I instinctively felt that the principle was exactly apposite. I began by quoting a line from a song by The Smiths, a British band that dominated the pop culture of the 1980s:  ‘Nature is a language – can’t you read?’ I continued:

What their lyricist Morrissey offers here is a way out of what I call ‘the semiotic fallacy’: the bizarrely widespread assumption that, because human words give human shape and significance to the non-human world, the latter is otherwise inarticulate.

We could never accuse Robert Macfarlane of committing that error. Over the past decade or so he has produced a series of books that really does help us ‘read’ the natural world. Now, in Landmarks, he gives himself scope to be extensively explicit about the way that human language can complement an already vocal landscape. …

Looking back over Macfarlane’s writing career, it occurs to me that for him etymology and ecology have always been inseparable. Now, with Landmarks, the potential of the English language to counter what he calls the ‘desecration’ of nature and to promote its ‘re-enchantment’ is richly demonstrated. (3)

Let me say that I still stand by my judgement of that book, and I still think that the principle of ‘the semiotic fallacy’ helps us appreciate its importance. Moreover, I hope that it’s a phrase that expresses what a lot of ecological citizens have been thinking, without using that exact wording. Whether that is the case or not, I hope that readers will understand my desire to come to terms, as it were, with my own terminology. We all agree, I’m sure, that language merits our constant attention!


(1)Laurence Coupe, ‘General Introduction’, The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (2000), p. 2. [Further references given in parenthesis after the quotation.]

(2)Kate Soper, What is Nature?, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p. 151.

(3)Laurence Coupe, Review of Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks(Hamish Hamilton, 2015), Times Higher Education, 26 February 2015.

For full review see: