Logical Directionality of Sight (and lots of Flags)

We are still working out whether language is the model or the main modeling system for other forms of meaning making (Irvine). While we attempt to work this out, we can use theories of language and see how they apply in other symbolic genres. While looking at Jackendoff’s model of logical directionality of language perception I wanted to test out how it would work if applied to sight.

When we hear something we first analyze the sound (phonology), then the words in the sound (lexicon) and the structure of those words (syntax), enabling us to parse what they mean so we can think about them. When we see something, for instance a flag, what is the order in which we uncover it’s meaning? While flags often carry with them ideas of distinct nationality, most are not particularly visually idiosyncratic. Exhibit A, the French Flag:


The first thing we might process would be the flags spatial size. If we did not have this cognitive possess this cognitive ability, we would not be able to distinguish the flag from any of the other images in front of us, and would not make it to the next step of processing. Following Jackendoff’s rules, we simultaneously process the shape and color of the flag. If we could comprehend the French flags color, but not the shapes within it, we might be fooled into thinking we were looking at a Russian flag:


If we could comprehend the French flags shape, but not its proper color we might believe we are looking at the Belgian flag:


Flags exist dialogically like everything else, and the tri-color vertical design could pay homage to the country its second most popular language is derived from. The last step would be to put all of this information together and evaluate it based on context. If an image identical to the French flag was displayed in an art gallery and given the name Composition X it could be seen as a really lazy attempt at De Stijl, rather than a key component of French national identity.

Of course there are other processes that need to be in consideration. A flag can exist physically in ways that words cannot, while they are also unable to convey the depth of meaning that words can. A large French flag made out of cotton may inspire more reverence then a pixelated flag. Why do certain colors convey meaning? A feeling of “red” is a qualisign that means anger, feeling “blue” could indicate sadness. Tying it back to flags rather crudely, do French and Russian exclaim they feel the “red, white, and blue” when they feel patriotic?


Martin Irvine, Selections from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language, selections on the “Parallel Architecture” model of language as a combinatorial system. Chap. 5.5, pp. 123-128; Chap. 7, pp. 196-200.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs (Wikipedia)