Beyond the emotional response to the pandemic emergency. COVID-19 as a semiotic vaccine – Part II: Promoting semiotic capital as a strategic goal for phase 2 governance

In this emergency period linked to Covid-19, citizens were recognized, at best, as in need of support with respect to the psychological impact produced by the crisis, rather than a resource to face the crisis, and therefore a strategic target to be upgraded.

The text is a short and reworked version of the article: Venuleo, C., Gelo, O., Salvatore, S. (2020). Fear affective semiosis, and management of the pandemic crisis: covid-19 as semiotic vaccine. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 17 (2), 117-130.


Abstract: Semiotic capital can be seen as a sort of “semiotic antibiotic” of the emotional response to the crisis. Promoting it among citizens means promoting innovative cultural resources, which recognize in the common good a salient regulator of their own way of feeling, thinking, and acting.

In the first part of this contribution, we proposed an analysis of the scenario opened by the current health emergency situation and of the social conditions that have fueled the emotional responses to the pandemic crisis; we also suggested that, if on the one hand, the emotions of fear and anxiety favored – in the first lockdown phase – a certain degree of compliance with respect to the restrictive measures decided by the Government to contain the spread of the infection, they risk being insufficient and ineffective in the transition to the so-called “phase 2”; with the slowdown of restrictive measures with respect to individual mobility and at least partial recovery of productive activities, in fact, people will have to deal with the socio-cognitive task of integrating the reference to the common good as a salient regulator of their way of feeling, thinking, and acting into their mental structure; a complex, not obvious step, which requires the activation of institutional strategies capable of supporting it.

Institutions are making a major effort to procure and develop the structural and technical resources needed to manage the crisis from a medical and health point of view and address the social and economic impact of the lockdown (e.g., hiring new doctors and new nurses, creation of new beds in hospitals, availability of credit and financial support, platforms for smart working, administrative formats and regulatory frameworks, etc.); however, the promotion of psychosocial resources (worldviews, interpretative frames, beliefs, ways of feeling, thinking and acting) seem necessary to support and motivate social and individual behavior and therefore the ability to face the crisis: citizens are seen, at best,

Working on this goal means, from our point of view, working on the promotion of semiotic capital.

We can define in terms of semiotic capital the components of meaning (implicit clothes, world views, values, social representations, cognitive models, pockets of implicit and explicit knowledge) that feed individuals’ ability to internalize the collective dimension of life and, thus in doing so, to assume the common good as a subjectively significant regulatory component of one’s identity (Salvatore, Fini et al., 2018). Thanks to semiotic capital, people can feel the collective interest as something that matters, recognize the value of the “rules of the game” at the basis of coexistence and the interdependence between points of view – therefore the need for structures and institutions that allow the cooperation and coordination required for collective action; they can also use the common good as an over-ordered framework of meaning at the basis of contingent attitudes and actions in concrete situations. From this perspective, semiotic capital can be seen as a sort of “semiotic antibiotic” of the cultural and subjective framework that shapes the current emotional interpretation of facing the crisis. How to promote it?

Following Andriola and colleagues (2019), it is useful to distinguish between two complementary lines of action. First, the promotion of semiotic capital requires systemic structural policies aimed at reducing global uncertainty. The low level of semiotic capital, in fact, is closely connected to the state of radical existential uncertainty that constitutes participation in social life in a vast segment of the population – the so-called “losers” of globalization (Teney, Lacewell & De Wilde, 2014; Williamson , 2005) but not only. This is because the salience of highly emotional ways of interpreting reality – which in the current cultural milieu are expressed in terms of the friend-enemy scheme – is the way people give meaning to their world when it is too complex, uncertain, opaque, outside not only of its own government, but also of the possibility of representing it (Salvatore, Mannarini et al., 2019; Salvatore, Palmieri et al., 2019). The emotional representation of the Other as an enemy, danger, anointer restores meaning, albeit fictitious to experience; at the same time, the task of assuming the common good, and therefore the “We”, as regulator of one’s own assessments and behavior is obviously incompatible (Di Maria, 2005; Montesarchio & Venuleo, 2008).

The structural interventions required to reduce uncertainty imply new economic policies aimed, for example, at reducing economic inequality and insecurity, limiting the opacity and self-referencing of the financial system, and its separation from production systems , to strengthen a national and supra-national regulatory framework and, in this way, create a protective barrier from the aggression of globalization dynamics. Furthermore, the reduction of uncertainty passes through a new institutional pact that reverses the current trend that characterizes many societies, where institutions are perceived by citizens as part of the problems rather than as a resource. Efforts must be made to strengthen the institutions, and this not only in their technical and administrative effectiveness, but also and above all in the vision and mission: in their ability to tune in and to promote the way people feel and think. Furthermore, it is necessary to restore the vision of the welfare system practices, with a radical inversion of the neoliberal dismantling policies. The welfare system is in fact both the direct buffer of uncertainty and the setting within which individuals can have concrete experience – in key domains of life such as health and education – of the significant and promotional value of the link with society and institutions. with a radical reversal of the neoliberal dismantling policies. The welfare system is in fact both the direct buffer of uncertainty and the setting within which individuals can have concrete experience – in key domains of life such as health and education – of the significant and promotional value of the link with society and institutions. with a radical reversal of the neoliberal dismantling policies. The welfare system is in fact both the direct buffer of uncertainty and the setting within which individuals can have concrete experience – in key domains of life such as health and education – of the significant and promotional value of the link with society and institutions.

Second, the promotion of semiotic capital is a matter of promoting innovative cultural resources, as well as psychosocial processes through which these resources are internalized. This level of intervention requires investment in the social and community infrastructures that promote these civic and socio-cultural innovation processes. If we want to promote new meanings for relationships, and therefore new models of relationships, we need to promote social practices based on this meaning. In other words, to promote the value of cooperation (as well as non-violence, solidarity, etc.), it is not enough to invoke it; rather, it is necessary to implement social practices based on the representation of the other as a resource. First comes the action, then the meaning.

In this perspective, intermediate social bodies (eg NGOs, ad hoc groups, associations, organized forms of civic participation in local institutions) can play a strategic role. This is because intermediate bodies represent the place where people’s vital worlds and their subjectivity meet the abstract and universalistic dimension of the institutional framework and can merge with it. In this sense, the intermediate social bodies are the natural laboratory of semiotic capital. On the other hand, intermediate bodies have gradually lost their relevance, at least in western societies, and this can be interpreted as the major cause of the lack of semiotic capital and a clear indicator of the current socio-political crisis (Russo, Mannarini & Salvatore, 2020).

The mantra of “nothing will be as before” accompanies these pandemic days, both as a way of highlighting the destructive impact of the crisis, and as a way of expressing the hope that the crisis will prompt a radical rethinking of the principles and criteria that guided decisions policies and investments.

It is probably more realistic to think that something will change if institutions and society are able to learn something from the crisis. However, the eschatological mantra contains a truth: after decades dominated by the rhetoric of the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992) and to disregard the temporal dimension of social life – as if we lived in the eternal present regulated by invariant social and economic norms, immanent to reality of the facts – the profound upheaval of the pandemic has made it possible to open our routines to a semiotic reappropriation of our collective future. The future is still a thinkable object, which regulates our present and helps us make it meaningful.

The pandemic offers us the possibility of restoring the representability of time – the possibility of developing the vision of the social world – both locally and systemically – as a reality where people and institutions can learn and change, and therefore where it is significant to invest efforts and skills to make the place we live better.

Of course this step is complex and absolutely not obvious. However, this awareness must not prevent us from recognizing the potential innovation that the “pandemic” has compared to other phenomena that have been used and that are used to motivate social development (eg, the risks associated with climate change, inequality economic, the reference to ethical values ​​and frames). In fact, compared to others, albeit significant problems, the pandemic has four characteristics that make it a potentially very important semiotic resource to motivate psychosocial development:

Due to these characteristics, the pandemic will be able to work as the catalyst for social settings and practices through which people could act and thus internalize the mutual immanence of the individual and systemic dimension of experience. It is in this sense that we proposed to think of COVID-19 as a semiotic vaccine (Venuleo, Gelo & Salvatore, 2020): a destabilizer of the social world, powerful and sufficiently extensive and yet not fully destructive, which catalyzes the response of the cultural milieu , fueling the production of semiotic antibiotics required to enhance individual and institutional efforts to manage today’s crisis and learn from it how to build a better tomorrow.