Semiotics versus Semiology: or, How Can We Get a Handle on Semiosis?
The two terms, "semiotics" and "semiology," have often unfortunately been confused. Semiology is of the Saussurean, structuralist, poststructuralist, continental study of the sign. Semiotics follows the Peircean concept of the sign. While "representation" and "reference" are customarily used in Peirce scholarship, they are herein avoided, in keeping with contemporary postanalytic philosophy. The two terms are replaced by "interdependency," "interrelatedness," and "interaction," commensurate with current holistic views, and at the same time in the spirit of Peirce's philosophy. The Argand plane is called upon as a model of the signs. The plane is preceded by "0" or what Peirce called the "nothingness" that gives rise to all signs, and by Ø
or the empty set. The plane is then engendered, by way of ±
-1 and its synthesis into . This combination affords an image of Peirce's categories under a new light, as process, which is lacking in the "linguicentrically" laden Saussurean sign. This move focuses on the iconic and indexical facets, the Firstness and Secondness, of the semiosic process. The Peircean sign emphasizes meaning that is felt before it is explicitly acknowledged, sensed before it is articulated, tacitly experienced before it is conceptualized.
If semiosis is the process of signs becoming other signs, and if we as sign makers and takers are within this process, then we must try to understand how it is that we interact with signs and how they interact with us. The how of signifying activity bears on signs of the past (what they actually did and what was done to them), of the present (the possibility of semiosic activity in the here-now, which is always moving on to a there-then), and of the future (the potential for semiosic becoming). Past, present, and future: there can be no semiosis without time, for time is the very river within which semiosis flows, yet semiosis encompasses time as it flows along, slowly unfolding itself in the process. Since we are in time in the manner in which we are in semiosis, we cannot know semiosis by means of objective study and thought. We must feel and sense it. Once again we are caught up in the same problem. To feel and sense semiosis is like telling a fish it must feel and sense the water surrounding it. Our waterworld philosopher-friend responds: "Feel and sense it with respect to what? What do I have other than my water medium against which to gauge that medium?" We, like our baffled denizen of the deep, have nothing against which to measure our understanding of semiosis. We are inextricably included within semiosis. Nevertheless, to say something about semiosis from within it is at least a beginning. Upon saying a few words about semiosis, however, we are semioticians. We are saying something about signs. We are using signs to categorize and label the process of semiosis. Our saying, consequently, is false to itself. It is false to itself, since semiosis, as process, knows of no categories: it is just onstreaming, flowing, perpetually moving, process. To say what it is is to mutilate it, fracture it, cut it up, and as such it is no longer process. No. Semiosis is definitely not a "prison house of language."
"But if I can't say precisely what semiosis is, then at least I can find some comfort in a discussion of semiotics", someone wishes to respond.
Well and good. Let us consider semiotics as a perspective. If we can't say what semiosis--the sign process--is, then perhaps we can at least say what semiotics--the study of signs--is. It is the result of our stepping back from the that of our communicative acts and asking about the whys, the whats, and the hows of those acts. Semiotics stems from a natural curiosity regarding our world, our culture, our modes of communication. It is the study of the very acts of communication we bring about on the stage of life. It is the study of the life of all our signs. These signs include our written and spoken language, mathematics, logic, literature, painting, music, architecture, theater, film, television, dress, gesture, and cuisine, as well as interaction with computers, and all forms of communication in the plant and animal world as well as all natural processes insofar as they are interpreted in some form or fashion by some living organism. We are incessantly immersed in a rich and often bewildering plethora of signs of all sorts, and semiotics entails an attempt to know what it is they have in common, how they are used, and why they are used in the way they are used. The study of signs is quite obviously challenging. It may even appear ominous. But although it has its severe limitations, it is not an impossible task, I would suggest. For after everything is said and done, making and taking the signs surrounding us in our world is what we do best, and more often that not what we do naturally.
Before I proceed, I really must distinguish between: (1) "semiology," based primarily on the linguistics of Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure, that during the 1950s and 1960s found popularity chiefly in the continental European tradition and in language and literature departments in the United States, and (2) "semiotics," more recently emerging from the work of North American philosopher, scientist, logician, and mathematician, Charles Sanders Peirce. Unfortunately, a distinction between the two terms has often been blurred. Students of the late A. J. Greimas prefer to call themselves "semioticians," though they fall within the continental tradition. Numerous other investigators working within the "semiological" framework do the same. Occasionally, the continental concept of the sign occasionally involves a somewhat forced wedding between Saussure and Peirce--Umberto Eco (1976) is a case in point--with the best man appearing in the guise of French linguist Emile Benveniste, Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, or Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev. Be that as it may, not an insignificant number of scholars continue to use "semiotics" interchangeably with "semiology," "structuralism," and sometimes even "poststructuralism," which brings on more confusion than illumination.
For example, Terence Hawkes (1977:24) proclaims in Structuralism and Semiotics: "The terms semiology and semiotics are both used to refer to [the 'science of signs'], the only difference between them being that semiology is preferred by Europeans, out of deference to Saussure's coinage of the term, and semiotics tends to be preferred by English speakers, out of deference to the American Peirce." Shortly thereafter, Hawkes contends that the boundaries of the "field of semiotics," if indeed there be any, "are coterminous with those of structuralism: the interests of the two spheres are not fundamentally separate and, in the long run, both ought properly to be included within the province of a third, embracing discipline called, simply, communication. In such a context, structuralism itself would probably emerge as a method of analysis linking the fields of linguistics, anthropology and semiotics" (Hawkes 1977:24). Regarding Hawkes's sweeping assertions, Thomas Sebeok (1986:80) judiciously warns: "Nothing could be a more deluded misconstrual of the facts of the matter, but the speciousness of this and associated historical deformations are due to our own inertia in having hitherto neglected the serious exploration of our true lineage."
I harbor no pretentions of being able to lay this "semiology/semiotics" conundrum to rest for all time. Rather, I intend to elucidate the problem, and let the chips fall where they may.
My translating Peirce into our own culture-world is a necessary step, I believe, for our culture-world is what we made it by means of the signs we have fashioned. Each morning we awaken to William James's "blooming, buzzing confusion," and, as Marcel Proust so aptly describes it throughout his Remembrance of Things Past, we gradually become aware of the signs of our culture-world as our consciousness unfolds, opening ourselves to its environment. And we reinitiate our navigation along the stream of semiosis, following the current as it meanders along, twisting slightly when entering its gentle eddies, bucking with the whitewater during its less benign periods, steering between bounders and fallen trees, and all the while producing and processing an untold profusion of signs. But it is not simply a matter of us and our signs. No sign is a full-blown sign without all signs, for they are all interdependent, and they incessantly engage in interrelated interaction with one another. Moreover, what we take to be "our" signs is virtually nothing outside the entire community of signs producers and processors to which we belong. All signs and all sign makers and takers compose a virtually seamless fabric: it is not a matter of signs and things but of thought-signs in the mind and sign-events "out there." It is a matter of signs perpetually becoming something other than what they are.
First and foremost, the idea Saussure discarded but some investigators continue to hold dear is that of signs stand for something else, as surrogates of some sort of secondary status replacing genuine articles. Admittedly, Peirce used the term stand for--as well as represent and refer to--with regards to the relation between signs and their respective objects. Quite simply, they were the terms of his day. But he used them as he saw fit, a use that diverged, at times quite sharply, from their customary nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century usage.
I choose entirely to eschew the use of stand for (and correspond and represent and refer to) in this essay for two reasons. First, the stand for idea breeds a tendency to conceive a sign as a sort of static proxy standing in for an equally static thing, the sign. The sign as proxy cannot properly carry out its role of incessantly becoming other signs, along the flow of semiosis. With each new instantiation a sign has invariably become a difference; it has become a new sign, not merely the same sign standing for the same object or event. At the same time, with each new instantiation, although the sign is now something other than what it was, it nevertheless contains itself (as a trace) within itself. So the sign is, but from another vantage it is not, what it was. Second, the stand for idea tends to generate an implication of the sign function as immediate, rather than mediate. During his lifetime Peirce worked at developing the idea of the sign's mediary role, for he believed there is no immediacy of the sign process of which we can be conscious here and now--in this respect Peirce was in line with Jacques Derrida's (1973) argument against the "myth of presence." The concept of mediation denies our making and taking signs and their respective objects as they are in the here and now. We do not perceive and conceive our culture-world exactly as it is, but as it was in a moment now past in the river of time, and by way of mediating signs.
For example, the word "bachelor" does not stand for, refer to, or represent the collection of all unmarried men, past, present and future. The French flag does not stand for, refer to, or represent a political entity that happens to go by the name of France. And smoke does not stand for, refer to, or represent fire. Rather, "bachelor," the French flag, and a cloud of smoke are signs that, upon their being interpreted by semiotic agents--human in this particular case, but any living organism will do--interact and interrelate with other signs "out there" (as sign-events) and in the minds (as thought-signs) of those agents. In fact, those agents, upon interacting and interrelating with signs and other agents, become, themselves, nothing more than signs among signs.
Consequently, in contrast to signs standing for, referring to, or representing things, more properly speaking they interdependently interrelate and interact with them. Signs interdependently interrelate and interact with other signs in the same way they interdependently interrelate and interact with their meanings and with their makers and takers. There are no intransigent priorities here, no hierarchy of values, but rather, a rather democratic process of signs becoming other signs, of signs taking their place among signs, of signs--ourselves included--lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Although I admittedly depart from the "letter" of Peirce's terminology, I do not abandon the "spirit" of his sign theory. Granted, Peirce endowed the sign with its most general definition as something that stands for, refers to, and represents something to someone (a human or other semiotic agent) in some respect or capacity. However, in order to avoid conjuring up images and thoughts reminiscent of bygone glories and vanished dreams of language as a "picture" of the world, the mind as a "mirror of nature," and of a faithful one-to-one "correspondence" between signs and things, I do away with stand for, refer, and represent entirely. The watchwords are interdependency, interrelatedness, and interaction between signs.
Let's get on with the Peirce/Saussure problem.
Binarism Versus Triadism
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), whose life spans that of Saussure, is a latecomer to the humanities and human sciences in this century. Peirce was truly a polymath. Trained in chemistry, he also studied, logic, mathematics, and philosophy, and to a lesser degree he became versed in the entire range of disciplines that existed during his day. He is the father of "pragmatic philosophy," considered by many to be the only legitimate American philosophical movement . As a scientist and mathematician who acquired an international reputation during his day, he also produced many of the advances in logic (which he equated with semiotics) and scientific methodology, that have made possible a number of further developments ranging from computer science to the history and philosophy of science. Over sixty years ago philosopher Hans Reichenbach (1939) wrote that Peirce anticipated his own groundbreaking work on inductive logic. More recently, Hilary Putnam (1982a:295) was surprised to discover how much that is now quite familiar in modern logic "actually became known to the logical world through the efforts of Peirce." And W. v. O. Quine (1985:767) places the beginning of modern logic in the work of Gottlob Frege and Peirce. Now these are heady credentials also!
Unfortunately, most introductions to "semiology" or "semiotics" pay homage to their respective founder. Then they reverently follow in the footsteps of the master, be he Saussure, Peirce, or whomever. Quite frequently, the authors of such introductions offer a recapitulation of some sign theory or other--many times reductionistic and equivocal--the exposition and rhetoric of which is often alien to current practices in anthropology, linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, and sociology. Yet the ideas are usually presented in rather programmatic fashion, as if handed down from the gods.
In an attempt to improve on this formula of exposition, I must point out that one of the chief distinction between Peirce and Saussure lies in the scope of their theories. Peirce's semiotics encompasses the range of all possible signs and their human and nonhuman makers and takers alike, regarding both inorganic and organic, and living and nonliving domains--in addition to what is construed by dualists to be the realm of mind. This all-inclusive semiotic sphere exists in stark contrast to Saussure's call for a "science of signs," which according to the proper conception was destined to become basically a "linguistic science," thus limited to distinctively human communication. But actually, Saussure was not quite as limited as many of his disciples have made him out to be. His idea had it that since linguistics "would be only part of the general science of semiology," the laws discovered by semiology, circumscribing "a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts," would be "specifically applicable to language" (Saussure 1966:16). Semiology according to this broader definition would incorporate all modes of communication found in human societies, including both linguistic expressions and nonverbal devices such as gestures and signals along nonlinguistic channels.
Visionary pronouncements and the train of future events, however, are often incompatible bedfellows. Not only did Saussure's dream in the wider sense go largely unfulfilled, but, despite his initial subordination of linguistics to the more general "science" of semiology, throughout the Course he repeatedly contradicted his initial premise. It gradually became apparent that for Saussure, language--that is, what he set up as a language-speech (langue-parole) dichotomy--to the exclusion of writing, occupies a suffocatingly privileged and unique position among all semiological systems. This dubious move, which was to be effectively deconstructed by Derrida (1974:1-93), prompted certain semiologists of the 1960s to thrust language to ever greater prominence. The giant step was taken when Roland Barthes (1968:11) declared that "linguistics is not part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part, it is semiology which is a part of linguistics."
In contrast to this "linguicentric" concept of the study of signs, Sebeok (1986:80-81) effectively encapsulates the breadth of the semiotic perspective thus:
Molecular biochemistry, immunology, ethology are only some of the branches of biology which pose approachable puzzles that are ultimately solvable only in semiotic terms. The essence of neurobiology lies in the ineluctable fact that in mind is a system of signs (i.e. tokens), that is, a representative (i.e. typical model of what is commonly called "the world" (Umwelt)). This model (an icon of certain pertinent space/time relations assembled, ever shifted, and reassembled in the organism's Innenwelt) is then mapped onto the physical fabric of the brain by a hitherto unknown recoding process. In all likelihood, brain will turn out to be yet another system of signs.
Compare this Peircean ecumenism with Saussure's call for a "science of signs," semiology, since linguistics "would be only a part of the general science of semiology," the laws discovered by semiology, circumscribing "a well-defined area within the mass of anthropological facts," would be specifically applicable to language (Saussure 1966:16).
Actually, in its most basic form, Saussure's Course consists of hardly more than tentative notes on a method for studying phonetics, and at most morphology, with very little in the way of syntax or semantics, to say nothing of pragmatics. Yet Saussure's suggestions were propagated by his follows as a veritable doctrine intended to encompass the entire universe of signification. As a consequence, the Course has become lost in a plethora of glosses, commentaries, explanations, offshoots, and outgrowths such that one can hardly separate the wheat from the chaff or see what is touted to be a forest for all the scrubs trying to pass themselves off as legitimate trees. This is quite baffling. Saussure's original strategy was relatively unambiguous: to project a monolithic, undifferentiated, field, language, gradually divide it into sharp distinctions, and then virtually eliminate one of each set of those distinctions. The result was a set of boundaries and a successive narrowing of the corpus to be analyzed. Obviously, Saussure's less disciplined followers did not heed the suggestions of their leader: they took the narrowest of parameters and expended them inordinately.
Language, in Saussure's view, floats in an ethereal zone above the physical world. It is arbitrarily contrived and chiefly autonomous. It creates its own "world," despite the individual language user's whims or wishes to the contrary. Individual words are not, as they were for philosopher John Locke and many philosophers and linguists since his time, mere markers, linguistic window dressing conveying notions about a "world" whose structure is available to the mind through perception of that "world." The Saussurean "world" is what language says it is, which implies that insofar as language is structured in a particular manner, so also its "world." Thus language consists of a repertoire of signs and the possibility for their use by the speakers of a given community, while thought is a structureless haze lying in wait for language's cutting it up and organizing it into some sort of order. And both thought and language collaborate and contrive to create a "world," the "world" common to the members of the speech community. But this is merely the first, and quite vague, step toward a grasp of what Saussure is all about. His interest rested almost exclusively on language.
Let us take a quick look, then, at Peirce's more encompassing concept of the sign.
Only One, Two, And Three ...?
What one can find of Peirce's work, in century-old journals on dusty shelves, in sporadic collections, in scattered comments on his work in journals and books here and there, and in microfilm containing most of his unpublished papers, is breathtaking in scope and depth. It sparkles with insight, amazes one with occasional pyrotechnical displays of genius, and piques one into thinking what one had never before thought. But it remains fragmented and incomplete. There is no master plan which one can take in hand and foray out into the universe of signs, chopping it up into a myriad array of signifying entities and analyzing them in order to subject the world to one's cognizing faculties. Simply put, it is open-ended in terms of the theory it entails and the methods it implies. Partly for this reason, in spite of various attempts to systematize Peirce, he remains elusive.
One problem is that the ideas Peirce offers are rich, but, with no all-encompassing blueprint, the parts are not separable from the whole in order that one can by studying the parts assimilate the whole, bit by bit. One set of concepts may seem independent, but on further scrutiny, it is discovered to be interrelated with everything else. All too often, as a consequence, scholars attempting to mine patches of promising terrain within Peirce's work become lost in the whole topography, and they resort to digging up a few uncut stones and trying to pass them off as polished gems. Perhaps I can hardly presume to do much better here. At the very least, I will chart a somewhat sinuous course with the hope that, by retracing my steps, the reader may be able to construct a broad--albeit vague--panoramic view of the whole. To that task I now turn.
The first step entails an outline of Peirce's categories that qualify, in his way of thinking, our act of semiotizing semiosis. Since Peircean semiotics implies sign mediation, it is deeper and more comprehensive than the ordinary expressions "derivation of meaning" or "interpretation." Engendering and processing signs and making them meaningful is more than merely getting information out of them or making sense of them. It is a matter of an intricate interplay between what Peirce called Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. These categories make up Peirce's fundamental triad of relations as follows:
"One, Two, Three ...." At the outset it might seem as simple as that. But from simplicity, complexity quickly emerges. If we include "Zero" and "Infinity" at the front end and back end of "One, Two, Three ...," then we can see why. Nevertheless, in schematic form, to all appearances the categories are quite straightforward. Firstness is quality, Secondness is effect, and Thirdness is product in the process of its becoming. Firstness is possibility (a might be), Secondness is actuality (what happens to be at the moment), and Thirdness is potentiality, probability or necessity (what would be, could be, or should be, given a certain set of conditions) .
In art, Firstness might be a two-dimensional rectangular patch of color on a Picasso canvas. Secondness in such case would be that patch's interactive interrelations to other rectangular, triangular and irregular patches in the painting. Thirdness would be the viewer's putting them all together into an imaginary three-dimensional image as if seen from the front, from the back, from the right side, from the left side, from above, and from below, all in simultaneity. In literature, Firstness is a few lines of avant garde poetry as marks on paper in terms of their "possibility" for some reading somewhere and somewhen by some poetry lover. Secondness is their actual reading and their interrelation with the reader's present mindset and memories of the past and readings of many other lines of poetry. Thirdness is the reader's interaction with the lines of poetry in such a manner that meaning emerges for her at that particular moment. In everyday life, Firstness is a double arch of bright yellowness in the distance. Secondness is the interrelation established by some hungry observer between the parabolically curved, elongated yellowness and a colorful building underneath it. Thirdness is recognition of that familiar establishment as "McDonald's"--since language enters into the picture. Then, according to one's culinary habits, one decides to enter the temple of cholesterol and stuff oneself or to continue searching for more aesthetically prepared nutrients.
However, like all schematic formulations, this one is somewhat deceptive. In reality, Firstness, in and of itself, is not an actual concrete quality (like, for example, a mere sensation of the color and form of an apple that we might be looking at at this moment). It is nothing more than a possibility, a pure abstraction--abstracted, separated from everything else--as something enjoying its own self-presence and nothing more: it cannot (yet) be present to some conscious semiotic animal as such-and-such. It is an entity without defined or definable parts, without antecedents or subsequents. It simply is what it is as pure possibility. This "pure possibility," it bears mentioning, is almost entirely absent in the body/mind distinction, since Western science's obsession rests exclusively with what there purportedly is, and what there is is what is actualized and can be properly measured, mathematized, and cognized. "Pure possibilities" elude such manipulation, and are therefore categorically ignored.
What is perceived belongs to the category of Secondness. It is a matter of something actualized in the manner of this happening here, now, for some contemplator of the sign (and now, we enter into the domain of Cartesian mind eternally divorced from body). As such it is a particularity, a singularity. It is what we had before us as Firstness, such as for example, a vague "red" patch without there (yet) being any consciousness of it or its being identified as such-and-such. Now, a manifestation of Secondness, it has been set apart from the self-conscious contemplator, willing and ready to be seen as, say, an apple. However, at this point it is not (yet) an "apple," that is, not a word-sign identifying the thing in question and bringing with it a ponderous mass of cultural baggage regarding "apples" (the particular class of apples of which the one before us is an example, what in general apples are for, their role in the development of North American culture, in folklore, in fairy tales, health lore, and so on). At the first stage of Secondness, the apple is hardly more than the possibility of a physical entity, a "brute fact," as Peirce was wont to put it. It is one more thing of the furniture of the self's physical world. It is otherness in the most primitive sense. If Firstness is what is as it is in the purest sense of possibility, Secondness is pure negation insofar as it is other, something other than that Firstness.
Thirdness can be tentatively qualified as that which brings about mediation between two other happenings in such a manner that they interrelate with each other in the same way they interrelate with the third happening as a result of its mediary role. This mediation creates a set of interrelations the combination of which is like Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness twisted into a variation of the "Borromean knot" (Figure 1) The knot clasps the categories together by means of a central "node" in such a way that they become "democratically" interlinked. Each of the categories can intermittently play the role of any of the other categories; yet at a given space-time juncture, one of the three will be a First, one a Second, and one a Third. Peirce's conception of Thirdness, I might add, now diverges radically from the traditional mind/body dichotomy, which is indelibly binary in nature, with no mediating function bringing them together in a liquid interdependent, interrelated, interactive embrace.
To summarize, Firstness is possibility (a might be), Secondness is actuality (what is), and Thirdness is potentiality, probability, or necessity (what could be, would be, or should be, given a certain set of conditions). Firstness, in and of itself, is not an identified concrete quality of something (like, for example, the raw feeling of some body of water we might happen to glance at). It is nothing more than a possibility, a pure abstraction--abstracted, separated from everything else--as something enjoying its own self-presence and nothing more: it cannot (yet) be present to some conscious semiotic observer as such-and-such. It is an entity without defined or definable parts, without antecedents or subsequents. As such it is the bare beginning of something from "emptiness," of something from the possibility of everything; it is at once everything and nothing, it simply is, as possibility.
The whatness or the happens-to-be of that which is perceived belongs to the category of Secondness. It is a matter of something actualized in the manner of this entity here, presented for some interpreter. As such it is hardly more than a particularity, a singularity. If Firstness is pure affirmation of what might be, Secondness is negation insofar as it is other. Thirdness can be further qualified as that which brings about interrelations between two of Peirce's three sign components, representamen, semiotic object and interpretant, in such a manner that they are interrelated with each other in the same way they are interrelated with the third sign component as a result of its mediary act. The mediary act is like Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, or representamen, semiotic object and interpretant, twisted into the intertwined Borromean knot that clasps them together by way of a central "node." Each of the three sign components can trade places with any of the other two, as depicted by the bulbs in Figure 1; yet at any time and any place one of them will be a representamen, one a semiotic object, and one an interpretant. In order for this "democratic" process to continue, there must be correlations between the three peripheral bulbs by way of the central "node" or, so to speak, the "fourth point."
On What There Is Not
"Have what?," someone says. It. "It?" Yes, It. The process, the semiosic process of signs becoming signs by virtue of the universal engenderer, the "node," or "Zero." "Too vague," comes the response. Well, you might visualize the "node" or "Zero" as the center of an "axle" that holds the spokes of a wheel together. The wheel is in constant motion, but the central point of the "axle" just sits there: it is the point about which the continuity of movement regarding the whole emerges. The "node" is, then, of the nature of "nothingness," "emptiness." At the same time, it is "Infinity" implied. It is the Alpha and Omega of semiosis. It is as if we began with either "Zero" or "Infinity" and then went on to "One, Two, Three," and then ended with "Infinity" or "Zero" again. So actually, both the center and periphery are "emptiness" or "nothing," and at the same time they are "everything."
"You're becoming so vague as to border on chaos." Yes, you've put your finger on the right spot. Chaos, and order from chaos, which can become communication, within the semiosic stream. You can't have communication without chaos.
"No! I need something more specific, more tangible, something I can distinctly put to the analytical test." O.K. I see your point. We need some degree of security along with the uncertainty. Otherwise we are in a sea of chaos without any ephemeral islands of order upon which we can get some kind of foothold.
But precise analysis? Clarity and distinction? Know-it-all ideological postures and methodological procedures? I'm afraid I can offer few promises in that respect. Yet in order to get on with this essay I must strike out in some direction or other--from chaos, no doubt--that will be able to afford a satisfactory degree of communication. So I'll try to try again, with an extension of one of my examples .
How The Concept Of The Sign Comes Into The Picture
In terms of our above conversation on holes and space and time and motion and change, space and time outside any and all considerations of anything else, are Firstness, or better, they are not really anything at all, for they are not something of which we can be consciously aware outside motion and change and the becoming of consciousness. Motion from here to there of something as a consequence of its interdependent, interrelated, interaction with something else--that something else possibly acted out by ourselves--is Secondness. Change of the interdependent interrelationship between the motion of something with respect to something else is a matter of Thirdness--that Thirdness implying our becoming of awareness and our own interdependent, interrelated interaction with the process unfolding itself. Space and time by themselves, spacetime by itself, knows of no objects, acts, or events. Objects are nothing more that warps in space, and acts and events unfold in time as perceived by some consciousness or some other, but there is no consciousness and no other, so acts and events are absent. Motion, in the order of velocity, requires something and something else emerging into the attention of some consciousness or some other, hence thingness enters the semiotic scene. Change of motion, like acceleration, marks entry of an interpreters entering into the process. Space and time are just that, and no more. They are stasis from whatever perspective. Motion, in contrast, is relative. What is motion from one frame of reference could well be considered stasis from another frame of reference, and ultrarapid motion from yet another frame of reference. Change of motion might be radical change from one view, moderate change from another view, and sluggish change of the consistency of cold honey from yet another view. Thus we have the makings of a non-Euclidean, non-Newtonian concept of relative time and space and of the universe.
Faithful to this notion of signs becoming other signs, the bulbs of Figure 1 whirl about their axis not on the two-dimensional plane but in a nonlinear, wobbly, virtually "strange attractor" manner, such that at any moment the three legs can change partners, and the dance, now something other than what it was, goes on. In order for this "democratic" process to be played out, correlations between the three peripheral "bulbs" exist only by virtue of the "node." This "node" can be properly qualified only at a later stage of this disquisition. For the moment you might visualize it as a "zero point," the "axle" (or "hole" if you will) that holds the spokes of a wheel together. As described above, the wheels are in constant motion, but the "axle" remains fixed: it contains the grease providing for the continuity of movement regarding the whole. Thus it is that the interaction of representamen, semiotic object, and interpretant, is not a "standing for" act but an act of relating to and at the same time an interacting with. I repeat, signs are not mere surrogates for something else. No sign component of the representamen, semiotic object, interpretant triad is an island unto itself. Each component is dependent upon and collaborates and corroborates with all other sign components.
Upon embarking on a discussion of Peirce's concept of the sign, I should make mention of the notion with which we are now familiar: there can be neither first sign--unblemished, and of paradisiacal perfection--nor final sign--pregnant with meaning, the Sign to end all signs. We are in the flow of things, in the manner in which we found ourselves in Figure 1. This is because thought itself is inextricably bound up with, indeed its very nature is that of, signs. As Peirce himself puts it, the "woof and warp of all thought" is of the nature of signs, and most particularly, of language (CP:5.421). As we can note in Figure 2, Peirce's conception of the sign consists of a representamen (itself often called a sign), that relates to an object. But in order to be a genuine sign it must also relate to a third term, its interpretant (very roughly, that which gives the sign its meaning).
The most fundamental of Peirce's sign types consists of the trichotomy of icons, indices, and symbols. Icons resemble the objects to which they relate (a circle and the sun), indices relate to their objects by some natural connection (smoke and fire), and the relation between symbols and their objects is by habitual sign use and according to cultural convention (a national flag, evincing hardly any similarity with and no natural connection to its object). Symbols of the best and most common sort are found in language. An iron-clad rule, according to Peirce, is that the meaning of signs, and especially linguistic signs, is found in other signs. An interpretant gives purpose, direction, meaning to a sign. But this interpretant, upon becoming an interpretant, also becomes in the process another sign, which comes into relation with the first sign in its relation to its object. It can then take on its own object--which can be the same object, now slightly modified--and it engenders its own interpretant. The interpretant then becomes yet another sign, and so on. This ongoing sign process has been dubbed by Umberto Eco (1976:69) "unlimited semiosis."
The succession of signs along the semiosic stream thus becomes a network of glosses, or commentaries, of signs on the signs preceding them. Or perhaps better put, signs are alterations or translations of their immediately antecedent signs . This process of signs translated into other signs is endless. Everything is incessantly becoming something other than what it is. Consequently, for Peirce there is no ultimate meaning (interpretant), for the meaning of a given sign is itself a sign of that sign, which must be endowed with its own meaning, which is in turn another sign. Neither is there any final translation, for a given translation of a sign calls up another sign upon its being endowed with meaning, that meaning being different from that of the sign being translated, and that second meaning becoming yet another sign to be translated and given meaning. (Peirce does in fact write of a final interpretant, but it is inaccessible for us, it is realizable solely in the theoretical long run, which is at the infinite stretch of the semiosic process.)
"This is all too much too quickly; I have no time to digest it," I overhear from somewhere.
Yes, I'm afraid so. There is, however, a method to my apparent madness for abstractions. In the first place, I bring Peirce's triadic concept of the sign up rather abruptly not for the purpose of engendering confusion but hopefully to set the proper mood for what is to follow. Just as we are indelibly inside semiosis, so also we are both, at this "moment," suspended "inside" this essay, and must try to get some sort of meaning out of it. On so doing, we must cope with a nonlinear, back and forth, spiraling, self-enclosing, text in the making, which gives us pieces from a jig-saw puzzle rather than an A-B-C sequential development. Since this essay about semiosis, and both you and me besides, are inside semiosis, why should I, how could I, expect to render it of a nature any different from semiosis? The very idea would be presumptuous. Furthermore, since according to Peirce the universe is perfused through and through with signs, if it does not consist exclusively of signs (CP:5.448, n.1), how could this essay hope to give a linear account of a nonlinear domain, whether it be either semiosis or the universe?
Like this modest essay, the universe or the universe of semiosis is not that deterministic linear, cause-and-effect parade of events envisioned by classical science. It is complex, not simple. It is more chaotic than orderly. It by and large favors asymmetry over symmetry. Interpreting the universe or the universe of semiosis is not simply like reading a linearly unfolding Agatha Christie thriller. It is, in addition to the element of linearity we may be able to find in it, a recursive, undulating, back and forth reading of the fantasmagoric world of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. We cannot simply have either linearity or nonlinearity and ignore the other. We need both our well-reasoned linearity and our "chaos" principle in order effectively to survive. By the same token, if we construed semiosis as a map we could study with the presumed detachment of a classical scientist studying bacteria under the microscope, we would be destined to deluded hopes and unfulfilled dreams. For, unlike the traditional concept of knowledge as a map or mirror of nature, we are squarely within the map, and we must find our way about by groping in the dark, by intuition, premonition, inclination, educated guesses, and even sheer chance, as well as by using our faculties of reason.
Consequently, there is little use trying by linear methods to "get the picture"--the map--of what I am trying to write. For there is no "picture," no "picture" that we can "see" from some imperious outside vantage point at least. To make Peirce's long story short, we are, ourselves, signs among signs. Like physicist Niels Bohr once remarked with respect to the world of quantum theory, we are both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence. The traditional Western idea of a neutral spectator surveying her world and cramming it into her cognitive map, which mirrors the world in all its brilliance, is rapidly becoming defunct: may it rest in peace. So if the Peircean terms, representamen, object, and interpretant remain foreign, at least they have etched some trace or other on your mind. Let them grow on you, and you on them, as both of us attempt to proceed through the remainder of this journey.
In the second place, I would suggest that an initial and tentative understanding of Peirce, like our trying to understand a radically distinct language, culture, religion, philosophy, artistic mode, or scientific theory, requires a certain "shock." I believe a "shock" of sorts of necessary. Of recent, in academic circles and out, we have been deluged with a mind-numbing array of presumed oppositions: relativism versus absolute truth, idealism versus realism, subjectivity versus objectivity, chance versus necessity, indeterminacy versus predictability, and so on. We are usually enticed, coerced, or indoctrinated into thinking it is a matter of embracing either one term or the other. For if not, we will certainly be left with conceptual mush (anarchy, nihilism, an "everything goes" malaise). In other words, the push is more often than not to engage in binary thinking. For the reasons given in the previous pair of chapters, Saussure can quite conveniently be interpreted along the lines of such either-or imperatives. This can also engender a smug, condescending view of other peoples and other cultures when the analyst sees the other in terms of her/his own culture, social class, or lifestyle, and analyzes it accordingly.
As a consequence, there are some scholars who pass themselves off as structuralists or semiologists or poststructuralists--and even "semioticians"--and proceed, at times pompously, to analyze and reveal what was supposedly hitherto concealed from the average (i.e. unaware, uneducated) folks. They pass judgment on political institutions, theological or ideological dogmas, the advertising media, and so on, as if with some special divinatory power they could see what is invisible to the general populace. On the other side of the ledger, some well-intentioned but rather lax disciples of Derrida gleefully and irresponsibly romp in the sporadic field of floating Saussurean signifiers, quite confident that they belong to that privileged club of intellectuals capable of interpreting all texts as misinterpretations upon demonstrating that there are no legitimate interpretations.
Admittedly, many scholars have usually been responsible citizens: Derrida himself, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. My sweeping judgment regarding today's academic milieu was to make a point, which is this. On the one hand, between the Scylla of one pole of the above set of oppositions and the Charybdis of the other, there is more often than not little communication and few concessions. On the other hand, Peirce's triadology, and most particular, his notion of the interpretant, seem to suggest that it is possible to steer a mediary course, in the process opening new doors of perception and conception. This is not to say that opposites can be united into a harmonious, conjugal embrace. It is to say that although the tension, the struggles, the imbalance and asymmetry of the oppositions remain, they potentially afford a glimpse into the forces that motivate both sides of the equation. The fact of the matter is that when bouncing signs back and forth during our daily affairs, more often than not we understand much of what we hear, we sort of slither and slide through the rest, and we usually get along swimmingly, as if we knew what we were doing all along. It is as if we were tacitly capable of overcoming the double-bind character of the oppositions while hardly giving them any mind.
In this light, perhaps you have now been at least mildly shaken from your slumber regarding what signs are all about and what you expected to encounter in this essay. If you have, then I accomplished my initial goal of setting the "proper mood."
So much for the preliminary salad on Peirce on the sign. Now for a plate of meat and potatoes.
Not A Matter Of Three, But Threes
Peirce in this manner lifted the study of signs to a new level. Anything may function as a sign. However, signs are not special kinds of things, but rather, anything is a sign insofar as it manifests sign functions, which I have defined in terms of interdependency, interrelatedness, and interaction. I have already expressed my displeasure with the notion of standing for (as well as referring and corresponding to and representing). More properly, a sign is interrelated with something (its object), but it is also interrelated with the someone processing it, and to whatever it is processed into (its interpretant), which in turn becomes another sign by way of its triadic relations with the sign, the object, and the interpreter. In 1902 Peirce defined a sign as "anything that determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum" (CP:2.303; brackets mine).
Let me offer an example. A sign, or representamen as it were, say, the word "cross," relates to (signifies) a general interpretant (toughly concept, meaning) of the sign within a particular religious community regarding conventional ceremonies and everyday life. The function of the sign and interpretant remains incomplete unless there is interrelatedness with an object. Suppose the object is a particular cross in some chapel with which you are familiar. Upon the sign and interpretant being interrelated with their object, the interpretant (which mediates between the sign and its object) becomes in its own turn another sign (representamen) within this particular context in this chapel. The sign then engenders its own interpretant regarding this activity within this context. And as the formal religious ceremony proceeds, at each and every juncture the sign (representamen), its interpretant, and its object take in a successive string of different (translated) countenances as they become something other than what they were during the moment of their antecedent signness. In other words, with each verbal evocation, "cross," with each furtive glance at the cross "out there," and with each feeling or thought of the cross as a sign of religious activity and religious signification, whether engendered from the object (cross), from a previous instantiation of the word "cross," or from the interpretant (feeling or thought--meaning), becomes another sign.
In this sense, and given the thrust of this essay, I would slightly rephrase Peirce's definition of the sign as: ANYTHING THAT IS INTERDEPENDENT UPON, AND INTERRELATED AND INTERACTIVE WITH, ITS INTERPRETANT IN SUCH A MANNER THAT THAT INTERPRETANT IS INTERDEPENDENT UPON AND INTERRELATED AND INTERACTIVE WITH THE OBJECT OF THE SIGN IN THE SAME WAY THE SIGN IS INTERDEPENDENT UPON AND INTERRELATED AND INTERACTIVE WITH IT, SUCH INTERDEPENDENCY, INTERRELATION, AND INTERACTION SERVING TO ENGENDER ANOTHER SIGN FROM THE INTERPRETANT, AND THE PROCESS CONTINUES, WITHOUT END.
In this re-definition, I have still taken my cue once again from Peirce, who writes: "The essential function of a sign is to render inefficient relations efficient.... Knowledge in some way renders them efficient; and a sign is something by knowing which we know something more" (CP:8.332). Ideas and thoughts themselves are signs, thus as sign-events in the world and feeling-signs and thought-signs in the mind multiply and grow, so also knowledge. The concept of semiosis, process rather than product, interrelations rather than things, is wider and more encompassing than representation. And, since semiosis implies mediation, it is deeper and more comprehensive than the derivation of meaning or interpretation. At the risk of repeating myself inordinately, I might add that engendering and processing signs and making them meaningful is much more than merely getting information out of them or making sense of them. It is a matter of an interplay between what Peirce's categories, as summarily defined above.
Now for a crucial question.
What Is There Other Than What Is Perceived And Conceived As A Sign?
Assume we have apple image in mind, which appears in the guise of an image or icon. If we put the image in the form of an utterance we have "This is an apple." We have the "This" as an index that draws our attention to the icon. And we have "apple" as a solitary symbol in search of a sentence and a text in order that its function as symbol may be brought to fruition. This symbol, "apple," interacts with the index and the icon through the "This is a" to compose a sentence, a composite symbol.
With this in mind, we might say that (1) the icon is in the image of, a schematic diagram that depicts, or is similar to, something (a positivity, or a sign), (2) the index relates to something in terms of what the icon is not (negativity, or a semiotic object), and (3) the potential interpretant of the sign brings the is and the is not together and mediates between them in such a way that there is both the is and the is not and at the same time there is neither the is nor the is not. We see the apple image as an apple while deep down we know full well that the image itself is not an apple but the interdependent, interrelated, interaction (in the traditional term, "representation") of our apple image with an apple. We can talk interminably about this apple image and any number of absent apple images and actual apples and the word "apple" and other words having to do with "apples" and so on. Or an actual "Jonathan apple" can become a sign of something else entirely. It can become a symbol for pedagogical purposes in elementary school classroom, it can be a candidate for a cook book, it can relate to folklore, and as such it is doubly not merely an apple or an "apple" but enters into an entirely different field of discourse. We can do all this and more, and then more, virtually without end. And we may become increasingly confused in the process. We no longer know we know but know many ways in which we perhaps know not but we are not really sure because the not is now many steps removed from that most fundamental initial not. So, finally, let us return to that fundamental not--as if we could, but we can't, yet let's suppose we can.
If the icon is like something or other, a positivity, and the index is not what the icon is, a negativity, then let us provisionally call the is and the is not "+" and "-" for the purpose of illustration. If the sign emerges out of "emptiness," out of "nothingness," or "no-thingness," then it enters into the range of anticipations and expectations and hopes and desires and fears. It is initially experienced as "some-thing" that is like "some-thing" else that might bring on pleasantness or unpleasantness, depending upon the experiencer and the context. But now we are a far cry from mere "emptiness." It is like going from zero, 0, to the empty set, Ø. Zero is just zero. It is emptied of everything, including even the mere memory of numbers. The empty set, in contrast, is just that: something that happens to be empty. It is the "noticed absence" of something that was or could have been or might possibly be there partially or wholly to fill the unoccupied container. So we have "pure emptiness" and the "noticed absence" of somethingness and the plus (a icon sign) and the minus (the sign's object). What has been left out of the picture is the sign's interpretant. The icon (or sign or representamen) as Firstness and the index (or semiotic object) as Secondness needs a symbol (or interpretant) to perform the role of Thirdness, of mediation.
Consider, in this light, and with respect to Figure 3, -1, which is given the label, i, by mathematicians. The sign, "-1," embodies what is and what is not, without any possibility of deciding which should be foregrounded and which backgrounded. There can be only oscillation between two contradictory values. The sign, i, on the other hand, just is what it is, neither positive nor negative and also in the same breath both positive and negative. By the same token the role of the interpretant, as mediator and moderator and media minimizing agent, is, in and of its own accord, neither positive nor negative and at the same time both positive and negative.
"Now how can there be such illogic if interpretants, meaning, interpretation, always entail slapping some sort of prioritized, privileged, hierarchized, prejudicial, discriminatory value on any and all signs by way of logical justification and rational legitimation?"
I would suggest that in spite of our wish for logical cogency and rational aplomb, we invariably fall into inconsistencies at one step or another in the long walk of our everyday affairs. That is what makes us human, perhaps all too human. And occasionally quite unfortunately so. But let's try to leave our humanity behind for a moment and let ourselves simply be; ... no, that's not right, let ourselves become in the process of becoming, let ourselves go, just let go. Upon our so doing, nothing has any real, existent, necessary, biased self-seeking, self-indulgent, ego-centered value. There is nothing, no-thing at all, for everything, every-thing is mere possibility; that is, every-thing just is or is possibly in the process of becoming, without any-thing having actually become. It is all like i. Better still, let us conjure up an alternate sign for i, say, this: " ". Now let us take another look at Figure 3. What is in the positive sense is related to what is not in the negative sense, though under other circumstances the is not could have been the is and the is the is not. The positivity and the negativity are given an undecidable oscillatory "+/-/+/-/+/-... n" value at the core of the sign map where " " lies, which just is. It is neither positive nor negative and at the same time it is both positive and negative. The "" is comparable, if I might suggest, to T. S. Eliot's "still point" about which the dance unfolds:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered....
... Except for the point, the still point.
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. (Eliot 1943:143)
In the timeless "still point," "," about which gyrate "+," "-," and "", we have, then, the counterparts to "Emptiness" (0), the "Empty set" (Ø), and Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, Peirce's three categories.
"Quaint, but inordinately abstract," I overhear someone quip.
Yes. I'm afraid it might look that way. But please bear with me, for I believe this apparently vacuous map of the sign is actually quite germane to the topic at hand.
In the first place, the map is necessary, for the sign cannot emerge from mere "emptiness." The semiotic agent must already have some notion or other of what has been in the past and what might be in the present and what the future possibly or probably holds in store. This involves anticipations and expectations and hopes and desires and fears regarding the "noticed absence," the "empty set" to be filled with one or more of the virtually unlimited range of superposed possibilities. In other words, in our above example, the apple is an apple, because "An apple (icon or image) is an 'apple' (a symbol) is an apple (as indexed) is an apple (the actual article)." But at the same time it is not an apple, since "An 'apple' (symbol) is not an apple (icon or image) is not an apple (as indexed)." So we have the plus side and the minus side. But there is no solution to the quandary regarding what is and what is not, at least within this most primitive of domains, unless we consult , which, like i, is neither the one nor the other and both the one and the other. In any event, we see that the not cannot be absent in the sign processing. Given the not, we must concede that nothing is fixed and everything is impermanent. All is flux, including identity and self-identity, even including the "I" or self .
Actually the Buddhist sage tells us so much, if I might say so. He tells us that the notion of impermanence implies that there is no fixed self or self-identity, no persistent subject that knows or object that is known. The hopeful idea of a fixed, rugged, hell-bent-for-leather individual self is a pipe dream, illusion, another way of saying maya--in Buddhism the intellection of reality that is far removed from the "real" and has no "reality." Obsession with the idea of a separate self, captain of its own ship, clawing and punching and scratching for "what's in it for me" with little regard for anyone else or the world, is a dead-end alley. What's in the present meditation on signs for all of us is the suggestion that the self is in an incessant process of emerging as is the world plus the self, the world minus the self, the world and the self as . The self, the ego, the "I", has no real independent existence. Rather, it is perpetually in the process of emerging codependently with the emergence of everything else. In essence there is no essence, matter is of no matter, and never mind mind, for there are no grounds for any of all that, there is only 0 and and + and -, all of which makes up -1, which we have incorporated into . Our groping for permanent grounds or for anything else of durable countenance can only end in frustration.
Hence, "'Is not an apple' is not an apple." A distinction is made between a sign and what it is not. It is not an apple. O.K. The distinction comes to the fore. Since it is not an apple, the meaning isn't in the apple. Since the "This" is not an apple, meaning isn't in the index. Since "pipe" is not an apple, meaning isn't in the sign. We can even extrapolate from the self-reflecting predicate to surmise that since the apple image is not an apple, meaning isn't in the image or icon. If there is quite obviously no apple in the head or in the world except that the head of some semiotic agent and some event in the world codependently arise as a apple-event, then meaning isn't in the head either. Meaning is neither seen nor read nor is it in the head. It just is, it is . It is in the mediated interrelations, the pattern, the patterning.
Wrapping It Up