Value and the Meaning System – Yasheng

Value and the Meaning System


This paper aims to demonstrate the indexical nature of interface through a case study on the dual-function of Library of Congress (LOC), it is simultaneously an museum and a library. The paper illustrates the differences between an artifact and an interface and their relation to value. The main goal of this paper is to understand the significance of reproduction, especially digitalization, in preserving an artifact’s interface to its meaning system, and, therefore, protecting the integrity of the collective human experience, or in other words, universal cultural memory.


One of the biggest complaints people often bring up these days is that people do not read anymore because technological advancement has taken away people’s motivation for reading. This statement is, however, not factual. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2014, their findings suggest that Millennials are reading more books than the over-30 crowd.[1] Why? It turns out that the Internet has helped to cultivate a reading habit among Millennials through the widening access to information.

But can digital books replace physical books? Personally, I enjoy the textual of a physical book and somehow find a digital book less valuable and less personal. There are many reasons for it, such as I can doodle on a physical book, not have to worry about charging my tablet, and, most importantly, the tangible quality of a physical book makes my copy unique and valuable.

This train of logic leads to the thesis of my paper. What makes something valuable? The most obvious answer is scarcity. This is why rare metals are expensive. But what about culture? How do you determine the value of a cultural product? Is it determined by how well it is made or how many copies of it still exist in the world?

To answer this, we must contemplate the significance of reproduction of artifacts. Morris Eaves, who has studied William Blake extensively, states that an interdisciplinary approach from fine art and technology engenders a new perspective on the relationship between Blake’s term “machine” and art. He maintains that,

The perfect system of reproduction would reproduce anything perfectly. Because there is no perfect system, the reproductions will always be imperfect. The technological gap between the original and the reproduction is what interests us, because we can safely guess that the difference that occurs in the gap is significant and affects the artists’ originals not only now but also in the future and affects as well the audience, its understanding of the work, judgment of the work, artistic expectations, and so on.[2]

The gap Eaves mentioned here is also what Walter Benjamin laments in his response to the rise of photography. Benjamin goes a step further warning the ramification of digital reproduction,

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.[3]

Walter Benjamin maintains that the loss in authenticity in art caused by reproduction will eventually jeopardize the original artifact’s value. A valid argument indeed, yet it lacks certain productivity. Lack of productivity in terms of Benjamin never offers a feasible solution to the issue he sees. Artifacts are mediums of universal cultural memory. They help us understand the collective human experience. If an artifact’s interface is forever lost, the meaning system that it associates with will be lost as well. André Malraux offers different take on this issue, he claims that reproduction, though the quality of such is not as favored as the original, can grant access to those who would not have such access otherwise. Putting together a collection of art works is like building a “museum without wall[4]. Reproduction takes arts out from their esoteric environment and do so ensures their presence in universal cultural memory. Malraux maintains that,

Nowadays an art student can examine color reproductions of most of the world’s great paintings, can make acquaintance with a host of second-rank pictures, archaic arts, Indian, Chinese and Pre-Columbian sculpture of the best periods, Romanesque frescoes, Negro and ‘folk’ art, a fair quantity of Byzantine art… Hitherto the connoisseur duly visited the Louvre and some subsidiary galleries, and memorized what he saw, as best he could. We, however, have far more great works available to refresh our memories than those which even the greatest of museums could bring together. For a “Museum Without walls” (musée imaginaire) is coming into being, and (now that the plastic arts have produced their printing press) it will carry infinitely farther that revelation of the world of art, limited perforce, which the “real” museums offer us within our walls. [5]

This is a video about how Library of Congress (LOC) preserve and extrapolate infarction from old and damaged artifacts using technology.

The speaker in video, Sarah Werner, maintains that digitization ensures the integrity of cultural memory.[6] The work Werner presents validates Malraux’s claims, digital reproduction, though will always be getting better, preserves artifact and its interface to its meaning system.

So back to my thesis. We are facing a dilemma between damage to the value of original artworks due to reproduction and the benefit of valuable access gifted by reproduction. So how do we determine value in any meaning system?

In order to answer this, my paper will divide into three sections;

  1. Index’s relationship to value
    • Why index cannot retain value
  2. Artifact and Interface
    • Artifact retains value
    • Interface as index
    • Interface’s relationship to value
  3. The necessity for digital reproduction for it is a means to protect the value of universal cultural memory

Index and Value

Listed below are two indices of books. Index A is an opinion piece on “what are the most influential books ever?” This list is compiled by “an expert panel of academic book-sellers, librarians, and publishers, and members of the public were asked to vote online for their top 20.”[7] Index B is where you can locate the most influential book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, using Library of Congress Classification (LCC), which is adopted by the majority of research and academic libraries in the U.S.

Index A

Index A

Index B

Index B

Index A ranks these books according to their assigned value whereas index B maps out the location of the number one book in the LCC system. At first glance, two indices appear quite different. The main difference is in purpose. Yet from a semiotic perspective, these two serve the exact same function according to Charles Sanders Peirce’s definition of an index, “a guidepost, which points down the road to be taken, or a relative pronoun, which is placed just after the name of the thing intended to be denoted, or a vocative exclamation, as ‘Hi! there,’ which acts upon the nerves of the person addressed and forces his attention.”[8] The two indices have no physical property of their own, only serve as pointers to unveil the underlying meaning systems. In other words, these two indices are signifiers that signify different connotations, and the difference between the two only lies within what they signify, the signified.

Pierce’s semiotic theory is undoubtedly more productive when considering the relationship between the signifier and the signified, yet Ferdinand de Saussure’s idea on the arbitrary relationship between the two is helpful when we consider the index and the underlying meaning system it indicates. It is true that index A seems more subjective comparing to index B and, therefore, it is more arbitrary. In some way, that is true. Yet I will cite Martin Irvine’s definition of arbitrary so to proceed my argument,

The term (arbitrary) should not imply that the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the speaker (… individual does not have the power to change a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community); I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified.[9]

This argument remains valid outside linguistic as well. Now going back to the two indices, it is clear that relationship between index A and its meaning system is just as arbitrary as that of index B. Though Index A aims for objectivity since it is compiled through a variety of measures conducted by both professionals and the general public to ensure the accuracy of the ranking, subjectivity is still the fundamental constituent. Nevertheless, the indexical ranking is still unmotivated in the linguistic sense mentioned above, simply a reflection of the outcome.

Index B is also arbitrary even though it is more “objective.” This image shows how LCC classifies different books,



Yes, index B is arguably more objective in the way that it treats any given book equally, categorically assigning a random value to one type of book, but the process itself is arbitrary as there is no natural relation between letter and the category.

Value, in these instances, is either a qualitative or quantitative manifestation of a “subjective” or “objective” evaluation. In short, subjectivity and objectivity have nothing to do with the arbitrary nature of signs.

Furthermore, as stated earlier that since indices do not have the physical property to contain value, therefore they do not have value yet retain the ability to signify such.

Artifact and Interface

Then again, what is the difference between LLC and my personal way of categorizing book? The answer is standardization via institution. Institution justifies an arbitrary instance of signifier/signified correlation into an established standard. Bruno Latour’s idea will be very helpful for examining the case here. We delegate the task of categorizing books to LOC, and through standardization, LOC conditions us to understand its classification while freeing us from the labor of using different systems in different places, hence forming a complete circle of meaning system[10].

This, however, is not the only job LOC has. On their official website, one can easily spot the two major functions (ignore the ask a librarian function here):



Beside setting standards for book cataloging, LOC is the institution to organize and protect books and doing so, ensuring the integrity of the collective human experience we call the cultural memory[11]. The duality of its function here presents an interesting dialectical dichotomy, LOC as an artifact and LOC as an interface. But before I delve into why it is significant for me to dissociate artifact from interface, I shall first define these two terms in the context of my writing and second admittedly state that these two concepts can be considered as a single instance.

So what is an artifact? Irvine eloquently explains that, an artifact is “something humanly constructed by design.”[12]

Artifacts are the fundamental makeup of the collective human experience, or universal cultural memory. Books, arts, and music are all instances of human artifacts and more importantly vehicles for cultural memory. Furthermore, institutions, like museum, are also instances of artifact, or physical symbol systems[13]. Regardless what the specific type of instance it is, any of these examples shows to possess a physical quality, or in other words, tangible. But artifacts are not just physical manifestation, according to Michael Cole summarized by Irvine, “Artifacts are simultaneously ideal and material. They coordinate human beings with the world and one another in a way that combines the properties of tools and symbols.”[14] [15] The physical quality of an artifact constitutes the “material” description, whereas the concept of interface provides structure for it.

Herbert A. Simon maintains that,

An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point–an “interface” in today’s terms–between an “inner” environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an ”outer” environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its intended purpose[16].

Accordingly, there is no a definite division between an interface and an artifact as the former is the ideal manifestation of the latter. However, I argue it is productive to separate the two when considering where value is distributed. For instance, this is a blog documented by a teacher about her students’ field trip. When they visited the LOC, she posted a picture of the Gutenberg Bible and wrote,


A simple analysis here reveals that there are several layers of meaning here.

  1. She values it for its technological significance in the printing history as students were taught in school.
  2. She took the photo because she wanted to document the filed trip.
  3. She understands the historical, spiritual, and religious significance of The Gutenberg Bible as it is being featured in the LOC.

So here is the question, she did not take photo of the Gutenberg Bible because she wants to read it. Gutenberg Bible as the interface is missing in her photo. But to the teacher, there are still enough reasons for her to document her and her students’ close proximity to this artifact. It is the same reason that people want to take selfies with famous paintings in museums, they attribute value to the artifact for its material property not for its interface.

Researcher who are interested in the artifact’s interface might find value in what artifact’s interface mediates. But even in this case, value does not come from the interface, but what the interface indicates.

Case Study

This comparison reveals dual functions of LOC, it is simultaneously a museum and a library.

In order to further explore this idea, I decide to evaluate the distribution of value using LOC as an example and its dual functions as a museum and library will explains this perfectly. Instead of using words, I shall employ annotated system diagrams below to illustrates my thought processes.


If how we perceive value derives from various meaning systems, then the indexical nature of interface would indicate its ability to call upon value and it inability to retain such value. Interfaces are, after all, instances of extended cognition, which takes away physical constraints and maximize our cognitive process.

I will cite Irvine here again to illustrate this point,

So, “meanings” are never “in” any artefact as a physical or material thing; meanings and values emerge in the correspondences in a cultural meaning system that uses clusters of signs in recognizable patterns.[18]

Meaning and value are closely associated with each other. If the interface is jeopardized, the artifact’s meaning system will be lost forever. Through preservation and digital reproduction, the interface of such is protected, hence ensuring the access to the artifact’s meaning system. Benjamin, Malraux, and others’ concerns about technology are valid for the original is eternal better yet Malraux’s notion of musée imaginaire ensures the value of the cultural memory. This video here shows not only books but other instances of artworks can be preserved through digital reproduction. It is true that the value of the original will be decreased once they have been reproduced, yet technology ensures the integrity of its intended purpose, which is invaluable.

[1] Zickuhr, Kathryn, and Lee Rainie. “Younger Americans and Public Libraries.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, September 10, 2014.

[2] Eaves, Morris. “Blake and the Artistic Machine: An Essay in Decorum and Technology.” PMLA 92, no. 5 (1977): 903–27. doi:10.2307/461845.

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings and et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

[4] Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. French, Les Voix du Silence, 1951. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, NY; repr. Princeton: Doubleday; Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

[5] Malraux. The Voices of Silence.

[6] CBS Sunday Morning. America’s Film Heritage Preserved at the Library of Congress. Accessed December 10, 2016.

[7] Thomson, Stéphanie. “The 20 Most Influential Books in History.” World Economic Forum, November 15, 2015.

[8] Martin Irvine, “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.”

[9] Martin Irvine, “Key Writings on Signs, Symbols, Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology.”

[10] Latour, B. [as Jim Johnson] (1988). “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology. (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-310.

[11] Dietz, S., Besser, H., Borda, A. and Lévy, P. (2004) Virtual Museums (of Canada): The Next Genera on, Canadian Heritage Information Network. Available from: <h p://> [Accessed 9 March 2015].

[12] Martin Irvine, “Working with Semiotic Concepts and Methods: From Peirce to Computer Interfaces.”

[13] Herbert A. Simon, “The Sciences of the Artificial.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

[14] Irvine, “Key Writings.”

[15] Michael Cole, “Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline.” 1996.

[16] Irvine, “Key Writings.”

[17] Finnerty, Valerie. “2016 LMS Washington, DC Trip: Day 4!” 2016 LMS Washington, DC Trip, May 26, 2016.

[18] Irvine, “Key Writings.”