Author Archives: Joseph Potischman

Symbolism and Functionalism

I come from a background in cultural anthropology and it was interesting how Wong’s article connects to one of the disciplines most important ethnographies, Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific. His work advanced functional anthropology, which focuses on the practical side of cultural customs. Through his research on the Kula Ring of the Trobriand Island he worked towards an explanation of universal gift giving (prestacion) as a way of cementing social bonds. Mwali (white shell arm bands) were traded for soulava (red ring necklaces) in kula ceremonies between different Trobriand groups, establishing power dynamics between them. The aesthetic quality of the gift they were giving directly correlated to the amount of authority they could exert over their group. This is a distinctly human skill, an animal would not be able to understand the difference between a poorly made mwali and an expertly made one, they would only recognize that it is a hard physical object.

We now see that the giving of different colored perforated shells stretches back to 75,000 years ago, and if we reframe Malinowski’s work in the context of symbolic behavior it greater illustrates the competitive nature of creating meaning (Wong, 3). This trade was occurring between a few small islands and so the gifts would cycle through communities, but if the population had been larger, it’s possible that more advanced techniques would have been used in the creation of these tokens (Wong, 9). The use of these shells inhibited Trobriand islanders to think hierarchically towards one another; a way of thinking previously inaccessible. The concept of the kula ring could also be applied to justify Renfrew’s hypotheses, which adds external symbolic culture to Donald’s system of cognitive phases. That being said, Renfrew might not appreciate being compared with a cultural anthropologist as he extols cognitive processual archaeology as more scientific and objective (Renfrew, 2-4).

One of my questions from last week was also answered in greater detail in the Barrett reading. I wrote about a metaphor I had learned in a previous class about the brain as software, and the body as hardware, and how it reflects Cartesian duality. Barrett systematically dismantles this argument and also made me think about the brains cognitive function in ways I had not before. We think of the brain and our mind as linked, but we don’t think of the body as linked to the mind. Yet our brain only functions as a part of our body, so to accept the mind as only a function of the brain then becomes unacceptable (unless you’re in Death Cab for Cutie) (Barrett, 5). However, I started to lose the grasp of his summary when he started using “homunculus” as a substitute for the mind, as well as his idea that our mind has to decide what is represented, but this interpretation itself is a representation.


Barrett, J. (2013). Archaeology of the Mind. Retrieved from

Donald, M. (2007). Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. Retrieved September 14, 2016, from           &usp=embed_facebook

Malinowski, B.(1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Retrieved from

Wong, K. (2005). Retrieved September 14, 2016, from         


Joe Potischman: Signs of Understanding (I Hope) (Week 2)

I may sometimes take advantage of the informality of this setting to link pop culture references that I believe connect to the topics (do I need to cite them, or are we only citing scholarly references?) While it might appear on the surface as a diversion, it actually helps me to work through these big ideas. For instance we are studying Semiotics, a word derived from a long history of other words threaded through many cultures. However, due to the arbitrary nature of signs, is it possible we could be studying Wumbology, if only our collective meaning network had evolved differently?

In both the beginning of The Grammar of Meaning Systems, and the Section 13 readings, the mind as a computer metaphor is referenced. This is a popular metaphor, and one I’ve encountered before in a past class on Communication Technology. In that class we were taught to think of the mind as software, and the body as hardware. This is more in line with Cartesian mind-body dualism. However, if the mind is a computer, and the communities we make meaning in is the cloud, what is the proper metaphor for the body?

I’m very interested in the “ratchet effect”, or progression of ideas through ongoing creation of symbols. Digitization appears to be the next step in this progression, and it is erasing the boundaries of the mediums we use to create meaning. Everything from the most basic conversation to the highest level of political discourse are now stored in bits. Similarly, Cole writes that mediated activity actually changes its own reality, and I am interested in how internet trends shape our physical world. The record store, the art gallery, even the restaurant, exist online to comment on one another, but they also exist physically.  As our culture becomes increasingly dialogic, does it make our goal of linking genres and disciplines easier? Or, does the sheer amount of commentary, reproduced at an increasingly high rate, make this goal more difficult?

DeSaussure writes that the nature of signs are arbitrary, but symbols are not. His example is that scales are symbols for justice, but chariots are not. If the sound images our collective consciousness associated the word scales for, were horses pulling a cart, then scales would not be a symbol for justice. Am I misinterpreting this concept? Peirce’s view that the meaning of a sign is what it can be translated makes me think I am not, but I am still wondering if there is a threshold Semioticians use to codify signs?