J.L.Lemke Online Office

So, What Should I Read?

New researchers and those entering a new field often need guidance as to Who and What to read in order to make sense of the field in the ways that insiders do. Here are some general suggestions for the fields which are emphasized on this website. You may also want to look at the Researchers, Theories, and Topics pages for names of key people. Here I will try to list the titles of their most important works. If you are definitely interested in a particular topic or theory, you should certainly read at least two major works by each person mentioned under that heading. The lists below are in very rough chronological order. Complete citations for a number of the works listed below appear in the Textual Politics bibliography.


The basic assumptions behind most contemporary theories trace their intellectual origins back to philosophical writings. European trained researchers are well aware of these connections, but they are often neglected in U.S. higher education. Without this critical background, you will often miss significant aspects of the meaning of major writers in other fields, and fail to perceive serious misunderstandings and identify plausible alternative viewpoints. Read the philosophers, however boring some of them seem at times. For the older ones especially, remember that translations are very imperfect and basic assumptions have changed a lot in 200 (much less 2000) years.

The Old Classics

The Precursors

The New Classics


The Major Theorists

Other than Marx and Freud, above, we include theorists relevant to social semiotics and dynamics primarily.

C.S. Peirce: the best formal semiotician; his Collected Works are mammoth, you need to read a guide to what to read first; key terms: Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness; Icon, Index, Symbol; Interpretant; Habit-taking (U.S.)

F. de Saussure: linguist-semiologist; A Course in General Linguistics (Swiss-French) [see also P. Thibault's Re-Reading Saussure]

M. Bakhtin: unsurpassed insights; Discourse in the Novel; Speech Genres; Dostoevky's Poetics. (Russian) [See also V.N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language]

L. Hjelmslev: semiotics of language; Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (Danish)

L. Vygotsky: social theory of mind; Thought and Language (Russian)

B.L. Whorf: language and culture; Language, Thought, and Reality (U.S.)

G. Bateson: communication theory and much more; Steps to an Ecology of Mind (U.S.)

M. Foucault: discourse, history and culture; Archeology of Knowledge; Order of Things (French)

M.A.K. Halliday: grammar and meaning; Language as Social Semiotic; Introduction to Functional Grammar (2nd edition) (English)

I. Prigogine: self-organization and dynamical systems; Order out of Chaos (Belgian-French)

P. Bourdieu: the best sociologist; Logic of Practice; Distinction; Language and Symbolic Power (French)

C. Geertz: the best modern anthropologist; Interpretation of Cultures; Local Knowledge (U.S.)

B. Latour: the newest social theory; Science in Action; We Have Never Been Modern (French)

N. Luhmann: social systems theory; Social Systems; Social Structure and Semantics (German)

B. Bernstein: unifying macro- and micro-social theory; "Codes, modalities, and the process of cultural reproduction" is a brilliant synthesis, read it twice. Also several volumes under title Class, Codes, and Control (English)

Other Useful Starting Points

J.L. Lemke: Textual Politics: Discourse and Social Dynamics (1995), with Bibliography

S. Salthe: Development and Evolution, Evolving Hierarchical Systems

S. Kauffman: The Origins of Order; evolution and development, self-organizing systems

J. Gleick: Chaos; popular introduction, with citations to the original sources

A. Wilden: System and Structure, semiotics ala Bateson and Lacanian psychoanalysis

R. Hasan: Ways of Saying, Ways of Meaning; one collection of many brilliant essays

J.R. Martin: English Text, neo-Hallidayan discourse linguistics

P. Thibault: Social Semiotics as Praxis, Re-Reading Saussure; sophisticated insights

J. Butler: Bodies that Matter, radical feminist theory

D. Haraway: Simians, Cyborgs, and Women; feminist perspectives

G. Deleuze and F. Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus, radical postmodern philosophy


A Note on World Cultural Traditions

My own work, and most of the work I cite, is based almost entirely in the European intellectual tradition and its colonial extensions. In a few places one can trace explicit influences from other cultural traditions, particularly Asian. Much of the pride of European culture is based on borrowings from other cultures, particularly Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian for the ancient sources, and Byzantine and Islamic thereafter. From the 18th century on there is also a considerable flow of ideas from China and India, and later from Japan. African influences are harder to trace until the peak of the slave trade era, and then mainly in music and visual arts. It is something of a scandal that scholarly traditions today, which claim to speak to a global audience, almost never cite classic works from non-European cultural traditions, and rarely cite scholarship done and/or published outside Europe and European-dominated countries. There is, at least, today a much greater voice for these traditions through immigrants from these countries who have become respected scholars elsewhere.

So, I wish to add to my list of useful readings a few non-European classics that have strongly influenced my own views, and a few contemporary authors who bring such viewpoints: