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Signata 13 / Moods, modalities and modalizations

Deadline: 15th November 2020
Pierluigi Basso Fossali, Marion Colas-Blaise et Julien Thiburce


Mood, modality and modalization are the subject of lively debates both in linguistics and semiotics, in philosophy (one thinks in particular of research related to Souriau’s radical empiricism) and in sociology (especially with the work of Latour or Goffman as far as interactionist sociology is concerned). If mood determines the conditions of assertability of a linguistic proposition, modality, alongside temporality and aspectuality (TAM), influences the processes (doing) and states (being) of the different actors that make up an enunciative scene, particularly in terms of knowledge, will, and belief. Modalization, on the other hand, involves a rhetoric and a negotiation of acting that (re)structure and (re)distribute the modal charges among the actors of a narrative, among the participants in a practical scene (i.e. distribution of implication and commitment). This is the general theoretical basis of the reflection to which Pierluigi Basso Fossali, Marion Colas-Blaise and Julien Thiburce, who are co-directors of issue 13 of the journal Signata/Annals of Semiotics, Signata/Annals of Semiotics (2022 issue), invite you. In dialogue with other disciplines, the question of mood, modality and modalization is brought back to the forefront, with the desire to take stock after years of intense research on the subject in the field of semiotics and linguistics.

There are many avenues to explore. Thus, in what way is it relevant, on the one hand, to consider modality as a syntactic operator and to study its semantic scope, and, on the other hand, to evaluate its contribution to the (de)stabilization of an actantial scene? It will be interesting to follow the complex inter-modal arrangements, but also to ask how the modality can break away from dependence on the verb it serves, in favor of an “absolute” use. Going back to the valences, that is to say, to the values of the value and to the interpretative game, is it to give oneself the means to account for the sensitive and critical dimension of the modality, inasmuch as it is capable of reevaluating the very conditions of predication? Moreover, modalities open up not only to the rhetorical dimension of discourses, but also, more broadly, they can be conceived in relation to institutional environments and spaces, representations and norms, practices and praxis, media and supports. Finally, modalities can be thought in concert with modes (of existence or presence: real, actual, virtual, potential).

This issue of the journal aims to extend the field of analysis, often verbocentric, to other forms of semiosic manifestation, especially of the visual type. For example, in addition to the comparison between texts in different languages, it will examine the link between modalization and spatialization of images.

These avenues are developed in the extended argument. The contributions may be integrated into one or more of the following axes, or be of a transversal nature:

  1. Modality and actantial scene: the role of modality in the management of relations between actors in a story and the negotiation of interacting roles.

    • 1 “Enunciation” is used here for “utterance”.

    From the point of view of enunciation1, the articulation of linguistic modalities with sensory modalities (differences between the senses).

  2. Modality and possible worlds.

  3. Forms of modal experience.

  4. From enunciative modalities to socio-anthropological modes of existence (Souriau, Latour…).

Practical information

  • Proposals for papers (1 page) are due by September 10, 2020.

  • Papers will be due in the last week of April 2021.

  • Return to authors: June 2021.

  • Return of final articles: last week of September 2021.

  • Dossier published in Signata issue 13: February 2022.

Proposals for articles should be sent to: pierluigi.basso[at]; marion.colas[at]; julien.thiburce[at]

Instructions to authors:



Modality is a classic theme in the language sciences and, in one way or another, each linguistic and semiotic theory has had to assign a place to its role, which is so obvious, in terms of manifestation, and so mysterious, given its deep semantic “nature”. It is often preferred to treat modality as a syntactic operator and leave it to philosophy to investigate its semantic depth. Indeed, its syntactic rection is frequently treated as a key to access its semantic scope, introducing, for instance, the idea that it functions as a “validation of representations”, a bit like the illocutionary force would concern the descriptive content of the proposition. This perspective helps to detect cases where the modal content is also conceived as a descriptive content—de re—, compared to the classical modality that implies an appreciation of the subject of the enunciation — de dicto modalities.

  • 2 In discourse semiotics, the question of representation is treated as a figurative declination that (...)

An alternative view is to consider that separations of this type are less heuristic than the participation of the modality in the construction of the representation itself, i.e. in the actantial scene.2 In short, the enunciative activity would not apply the modality a posteriori to an already stable actantial scene, but would participate in putting it into perspective and stabilizing it, through an actantial economy, an aspectual dominance, etc.

Yet another perspective would refuse to start the investigation from the function of the modality, in order to focus attention on the semantic differences between modalities, on their plurality and their polysemy. In this sense, the absolute use of a modal verb means the rejection of a servile role of the modality—it no longer depends on the discursive value of another verb—in order to assert an almost inextricable semantic density that seems affect all other uses: “I want”, “I can”, “I must”, etc., becomes an existential condition without immediate interpretant, without external explanation, such as “I perceive”. Modalities of being, one would say, but in reality we know that this “being” is immediately evaluated for its potential and the modality is precisely there not to validate a dissociation between being and doing.

  • 3 "Modal space cannot, in our view, be anything other than a through and through inter-modal space" ( (...)
  • 4 "The actant is therefore a place of modal combinatorics" (Coquet 1984, p. 11) (our translation).
  • 5 See Fontanille & Zilberberg (1998, p. 178).

Another perspective means not following the linearity of the verbal signifier to ensure a discretization of modalities, even if they manifest themselves in one and the same discursive segment. This is a well-documented perspective in the semiotic tradition: for Claude Zilberberg, there are only inter-modal3 semiotic spaces; for Jean-Claude Coquet, the actor can only be conceived as the receptacle and motor of several modalities.4 The modal framework is not only made up of complexifying arrangements, but also of “lacerations” and “patches”, i.e. unlikely co-presences (inconsistent modal syntaxes) and internal paradoxes (contradictory modal profiles). Tension and heterogeneity would then be metamodalizations that would force the subject of the current semiotic practice to organize internal (autonomous) and external (heteronomous) modal fronts, stabilizing (certainties) or dynamizing (possibilities) fronts, fronts that must be managed dialectically.5

With regard to the “nature” of modalities, there are several positions attested to in language sciences that have decided epistemologically to:

  1. assume them as linguistic operators who do not need an interpretant from outside language itself, to the extent that their versatility or possible polysemy are merely a reflection of proven uses;

  2. qualify them as logical operators that follow the propositional framework of discourse;

  3. to link them to a thymic depth that becomes clearer thanks to them, thus structuring pathemic meaning effects in discourse.

  • 6 « Destinality » is the maximum extension of each issue of meaning according to an event-driven infl (...)

In relation to these different theoretical interpretations, there are two main strategies: to choose the heuristic pre-eminence of one epistemological option to the detriment of the others, or to assume the modalities globally as an interface, both praxeological—between intralinguistics and the scene of reception of the enunciative practice—and semantic—, between the different dimensions of meaning (cognitive, affective, pragmatic and sensitive). According to this last strategy, which is favoured here, the modality does not qualify values, but valences, i.e. the value of the value, which opens up a founding background—autonomous (e.g. character) or heteronomous (e.g. institutional role)—and a realization horizon—teleological (e.g. aspiration) or “destinal”6 (e.g. vanity). These intervals of meaning require further interpretation according to modal issues. This is why modalities always express a critical condition of predication. For the language sciences, this reflection could turn out to be extremely useful because the interpretant of modalities is not an external propositional attitude, but a problematic enunciative intentionality that seeks to fit into a framework of other attested or imaginary intentionalities. In fact, this intentional framework records the valences as already “semiotized” and thus endowed with a critical aspect that concerns their interpretative conditions. Then, the question becomes whether they are pragmatic, cognitive and passionate or, when they are composite, whether they display an internal syntax.

  • 7 See Basso Fossali (2013). Modalization parts itself in two ways from the figurative anchorage (imag (...)

It is with this idea of inserting a modal grid that crosses an entire semiosphere that the notion of modalization can reveal its full heuristic potential. The scope of a modality cannot fail to have repercussions on the modal balances of the other instances of the same actantial scene or on the scenes that are spatially or temporally arranged.7 The first demonstration of this general rule concerns the enunciative scene itself: a modality attributed to the enunciator cannot fail to have an impact both on the intended enunciatee and on the interlocutor who will accept a reading contract or who will ratify an invitation to interact. In any case, the continuous redistribution of modalities can be felt as a paradigm of co-present actantial profiles in the same discursive space.

We could speak of a kind of modal envelope that motivates intra-discursive modal strategies. This envelope may be the result of praxis, of internal norms within a given institutional space, of the media and supports that are used, of environmental factors, or even of a body that is resistant to linguistic and semiotic programming. Modalization is finally an influential model that “inhabits” the social space in the form of a network (integration of interests) and dissociative tension (cultural emancipation). Potentially, contiguity can already mean connivance (e.g., between an institutional representative and his/her spouse who is an entrepreneur), hence a rhetoric of distancing that functions as a propaedeutic to agreements and disagreements.

Therefore, modalization constitutes a critical archaeology of implicative links (e.g. informal commitments of the interacting parties) because, in its bare framework, it interrupts the immediate superimposition of institutionalized axiological readings. Basically, the mysterious character of modalities could be linked to their protosymbolic character, their influential modeling being almost an iconic suggestion, a primitive implication, but capable of imposing an interpretation of symbolic stakes on a scale that is enlarged and amplified by possible prefigurations (modal imaginary). Moreover, it should be remembered that, in semiotics, modalities have been linked to the description of the competence of the actants, and that the presence of a modal existence that cannot be inferred by presupposition from the performances produced has also been recognized. There is a modal reservoir that feeds: (i) alternative programming of action (even if they remain hypothetical); (ii) imaginary screenplays (dreams, etc.), (iii) hypotheses about other people’s states of mind (analogizations, empathy, etc.).

Modalizations open up the rhetorical dimension of discourses by activating a regime of reciprocal influence, or even potential polemology. Thus, they introduce contingency where their legitimate operations should follow devices and codes. As the typologization of modalities has been carried out, a similar operation should be done for modalizations. For example, with regard to transitive modalities, one could distinguish:

  1. Activating vs. inhibiting modalities (on the conative level)

  2. Unilateral vs. plurilateral modalities (on the agentive level)

  3. Exclusive vs. participative modalities (on the distributive level)

  4. Deliberate vs. unintended modalities (on the intentional level).

  • 8 We can take advantage here of the major contributions of Erving Goffman's microsociology on “keying (...)

In itself, this typology shows the usefulness of getting away from the idea that modalization is only the qualification of an enunciative posture or an intentional attitude. Indeed, it problematizes the intersubjective framework of their distribution, according to structures of address and regimes of interaction, mediated by discursive genres and by textual statuses.8


This issue of Signata aims to identify the advances in linguistics and semiotics on the notions of modality and modalization. The former seems to be at the heart of actantial determination by imposing a reciprocal structuring of being by doing and of doing by being, which gives the semiotic domain its specific capacity to hold together what exists and what is possible, determination and variation, appropriation and emancipation. Modality is the subtraction of semiotic from ontological—ontology would require that there should always be a “being” at the beginning of everything. As a kind of active clinamen on valences, the modality catalyzes a possible world, supports the linguistic operation that establishes the fictitious modeling of a reference plane to which to transplant issues, our projects of meaning: it is the vitalization of a cartography of signs, the index of the semiotic “respect” of the fact that in the beginning was action (Goethe), that the fundamental ecology of values is the implication of the transformative potential, activated or undergone.

Thus, we need modalization to provide this actantial landscape with a regime of reciprocal influences and constant perturbations, which are semiotically registered in terms of interacting tension and multiplication of points of view. Modalization gives actantial frameworks an inflection to the flow of information about the internal state of the actors involved, i.e. a dose of indeterminacy; the inheritance and the transfer of modal charges opening up to a diffraction of spaces of acquisition or accomplishment (possible worlds).

  • 9 The notion of re-entry corresponds, in systems theory, to the reintroduction of foundational distin (...)

Modalities and modalizations may be the ideal candidates to represent the first level of complexification of semiotic relations, to which figurativity would be added. Indeed, figurativity is, on the one hand, the local embodiment of a situation—it presents itself as a substantial determination of actantial roles “in act”. On the other hand, it functions as an incubator of other modal determinations and interactions—it displays in a condensed and latent manner a series of subsequent formal developments. Through figurativity, the modalized actantial scene becomes the unstable convergence of a series of competing scripts, each human or non-human actor being able to play on his/her constituent features to divert a narrative transformation that one would like to be linear and coherent. Figurativity leads us to consider that in the beginning was the event. However, this semiotic figurativity is only the reappearance of a sensitive background from which the cartography of signs has been discerned by constituting its plane of distinctive expression. What was initially a “logical” maneuver of inter-defining being and doing, in order to establish a linguistically operable landscape, inevitably undergoes a re-entry9 of its sensitive ecology. Then, modalities find again assessments according to the “senses”, polysensoriality. Thus, the multimodality of discourse—a notion apparently based on a theoretically misleading homonymy—may reappear as the very modalization of enunciative conditions, where linguistic existence and performance find their reciprocal determination. Figurativity reaffirms the conditions for the exercise of signs, which cannot claim to be part of a purely logical terrain of formal operations. Logical modalities seem to have to pay semantic debts, sooner or later, at their condition of enunciation, which is basically a fundamental lesson of the Husserlian phenomenology.

But there is another consequence that can be drawn: modalities cannot fail to turn into modality, sooner or later. At one time or another, a procedural text must guide the reader (and, in fact, every text has more or less obviously this ambition); one day or another, a theatrical staging will capture the conscience of a king. Between modality and modalization, there is the constitutive oscillation between semantics and pragmatics, of an illocution that cannot be meaningful without a hold, and of a perlocution that cannot recognize itself as “meaningful” without a structuring to which it remains coupled in order to escape the chaotic drift of its side effects.

On the one hand, modalization must also be studied at the textual level, as it is in charge of a dynamic (from a dynamicist perspective). On the other hand, a modality that manifests itself on the textual surface must be interpreted from a genre that indicates its relevance for an experiential or fictional setting.

Turning point

Being not excluded, the tracks of a historico-cultural reconstruction of modality as a notion or of a typological comparison between languages, however, cannot fully satisfy semiotics; the modal phenomenon manifests itself in non-verbal semiotic configurations and questions the relations between meaning and senses, the enunciative condition and the assertive claims of the utterance, the constant translations between the experiential and the linguistic, between semiotic configurations and institutional domains. Epistemology itself is a re-entry of the modal into the conditions of observation, modeling and understanding.

The problem of mood concerns the conditions and intentions of assertability; modality internalises these conditions within the utterance, with the idea of controlling their determination (hence lexicalization through modal verbs); modalization offers an explicit rhetorical competition to the inevitable distribution of modal charges between the actants of the utterance. These are the first solutions to quickly frame the modal question thanks to immediately detectable linguistic marks, but we must consider an aggravating factor: this lexicalization is also used on the metalinguistic level. As they are identifiable and already lexicalized entities, moods and modalities could be assumed as basic syntactic and semantic bricks, at risk. In this scenario, it would no longer be possible to question the configuration in which their semiotic potential emerges and becomes more precise. The extension of the modal to the totality of languages does not succeed in erasing “verbocentrism”; thus, the analysis of what is at the basis of the semantic content of the modality remains evasive, and the expressive forms of its non-lexical manifestations remains an analogical suggestion.

Thus, a series of questions come to the attention of researchers, where “semiotic” manifestations also questions the certainties of “linguistic” realizations. To organize these questions, we can try to distinguish instrumentally between different axes and approaches, in order to face an exploration that could find its own integration through the different contributions of the issue.


(I) The first axis corresponds to an approach that treats enunciation as a configuring activity (scriptwriting): modality is then captured as a qualification of the actors’ commitment in the transformation of values taken up by the enunciative framework. Qualifying passages can be distinguished: from clinamen (modalizing contingency) to intentional modalization (modal imaginary), to effectual modalization (by intervention, with mediations; by simple unthought physical opposition of our body), to end with figural modalization (in a fictional world).

(II) The second axis fosters an approach that observes the modality as emerging in the very scene of enunciation. In this perspective, the description of modalities must do without the use of modal verbs and other coded forms of manifestation, in order to apprehend modalities as instances that participate in the configurating activity and that manage to structure scenes and scenarios endowed with semantic consistency and transformative tension. This approach must necessarily be positioned where sensory modalities (differences between the senses) and linguistic modalities are articulated.

  • 10 See Nølke (2013, p. 246).

(III) The third axis calls for an approach that seeks to address the competition between several modalities and their distribution among interacting and enunciating bodies, each of which has a specific perspective and appreciation of the attributed and self-assigned modalities. In this sense, we can recognize modal fronts (and even patterns) where the projected and assumed implications are assessed according to their “autonomous” (subjectivation), “heteronomous” (contrastivization10), “diastemic” (mode) character. To the dialectic between doing modalizing being and being modalizing doing hat underpins the modal subject and to the interacting tensions that underpin modalisations, we must add the intervals of appreciation (diastemic side) that are at the basis of epistemic deviations and their anchoring on different possible worlds (in this case, according to Bally’s tradition, the modal subject must be dissociated from the instance of action and enunciation).

(IV) According to a fourth axis, the approach can focus on the modal experience in chained and embedded pragmatic scenarios. The particularity of this approach lies in an intransitive appreciation of the modal, which no longer participates in the determination of the scenarios, and therefore in a coagulation of meaning, to the benefit of a fluidification of tensions (attractions, repulsions, interferences, etc.). We can then recognize an existential prosody (modulation), an event rhythm (modal scansion) and phrasing in the productive initiatives (modal partition).

  • 11 See Fontanille & Couégnas (2018).
  • 12 See Colas-Blaise (2020).

(V) A fifth approach can draw all the consequences of a rapprochement of the modalities (of alteration and imperfection) with the synaptic mode (relationality) that, according to Souriau ([1943] 2009), testify prepositions, conjunctions and adverbs.11 It is a question of showing how modalities/modalizations, rather than being subordinated to doing or being, make man, the world and/or the process hold together (make do and make be).12


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1 “Enunciation” is used here for “utterance”.

2 In discourse semiotics, the question of representation is treated as a figurative declination that is interposed between preaching and the assumption (or rejection) of values in order to guarantee modalizing effects in the enunciative device itself.

3 "Modal space cannot, in our view, be anything other than a through and through inter-modal space" (Zilberberg 1981, p. 36) (our translation).

4 "The actant is therefore a place of modal combinatorics" (Coquet 1984, p. 11) (our translation).

5 See Fontanille & Zilberberg (1998, p. 178).

6 « Destinality » is the maximum extension of each issue of meaning according to an event-driven inflection, or in any case according to the indeterminacy created by the confluence of initiatives taken by autonomous actors. Thus, the “destinal” horizon offers an alternative scenario in relation to the polemical or contractual narrative stakes that characterize the present and its teleological tensions. The distinction between teleology and “destinal” horizon is useful for approaching modalities because what motivates an initiative (e.g. applying a theory for technological exploitation) enters into tension with the opening to new conditions of motivation (e.g. the possible refutation of the theory through manifestations initially considered highly improbable). See Basso Fossali (2017).

7 See Basso Fossali (2013). Modalization parts itself in two ways from the figurative anchorage (imaginative side): (i) the concessive homogenization of psychological and social space (endogenous and exogenous modalities); (ii) the temporalization of relations (retrospective or prospective modalities).

8 We can take advantage here of the major contributions of Erving Goffman's microsociology on “keying” (translated by “modalisation” in French), which constitutes one of the two types of “transformations” of expected norms and conventions, alongside “fabrication”. Keying is a personal interpretation of social roles, according to a key (translated by “mode” in French) defined as “the set of conventions by which a given activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is transformed by the participants to be something quite else” (Goffman 1974, p. 43). Also, while modalization is a transformation that is recognized by all interacting parties, the same cannot be said of fabrication, which is “the intentional effort of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what it is that is actually going on” (Goffman 1974, p. 83). In linguistics and semiotics, it is thus valuable to pay attention to the pragmatic dynamics according to which micro-interactional level—specific conditions of a practice—and macro-interactional level—(de)stabilization of effectively or supposedly shared norms and values—are adjusted and embedded.

9 The notion of re-entry corresponds, in systems theory, to the reintroduction of foundational distinctions within the system that has already benefited from them, with the paradoxical qualitative result of a progressive distancing from what was at the foundation (e.g. a decision-making paralysis created by the progressive objectification of decisional limits and side effects). Instead of blocking the rule, the reapplication of a rule (e.g. a categorical distinction) to what one might think has already been settled causes a kind of insolvency of a meaningful input that was apparently already guaranteed. The hypothesis is that every enunciative ostension of a modality lends itself to re-entry phenomena (e.g., the peremptory assertion of an absolute and unilateral power to do is potentially a skeptical abyss that catch the conscience of the king, or at least of Shakespearean figures).

10 See Nølke (2013, p. 246).

11 See Fontanille & Couégnas (2018).

12 See Colas-Blaise (2020).

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