Category Archives: Week 2

On readings: Pictionary


The discussion of meaning-making reminds me of a game called Pictionary. Pictionary is a guessing word game played with teams with players trying to identify specific words from their teammates’ drawings. The definition of Pictionary addresses several key texts discussed in the readings. First, the symbolic cognition process is accomplished or implemented via two different sign-systems: language and image. Second, there are several cognition processes happening simultaneously – expressing, representing, interpreting goes back and forth between “describer” (the drawing player) and “decoder” (the guessing player). To complete the communication circus between teammates, players usually experience the following steps:

  1. Describers get to know the object that they are going to describe, which is represented by written format;
  2. Describers draw pictures to describe or represent the object;
  3. Decoders watch the drawing process;
  4. Decoders tell what they think the object being described is;
  5. Repeat Step2 through Step4, until decoders get the correct answer.

These steps are observable. For describers, the word card that represents the object is an input, and what describers draw is an output. The process converting the written word into drawing can be roughly considered as a symbolic cognition process. For decoders, the drawn image is an input, and the spoken word that decoders use to represent what they think the object is is an output. The process converting the image they perceive into human speech is also considered as symbolic cognition.

However, the “converting” process is still a black box. As indicated in the reading: “how meaning happens – how we make, communicate, or “intend” meaning – when we use symbols, signs, and representations is unobservable.” True, what we can tell is the stage we are at, which is static; but we cannot tell is what’s going on, which is dynamic.

To clarify “what is in the black box”, researchers attempt to “build out models to account for what we can observe”. These models are testable, and open to revision and redefinition. Two models are discussed in the readings.

One model was developed by De Saussure. He pointed out that the meaning relation between signifier and signified is dyadic and static. In Saussure’s opinion, the relation between signified (the concept) and the signifier (sound-image) is arbitrary. Yes, the arbitrary principle indicates that there is no natural connection between signifier and signified. No natural connection indicates nowadays established rules of language is the result of social norm or collective habit. This inference leads to another conclusion that the establishment of the connection is a dynamic process (because the socialization is a dynamic process). The relationship doesn’t “born to be like this”. Saussure didn’t realize the dynamic relation between signifier and signified, therefore failed to explain the institutionalization process within a specific community.

Another model was developed by Peirce, who maintained that the meaning relation must be triadic and dynamic. The primary difference between two models is the newly introduced concept: Interpretant. It is this concept that explains the dynamic meaning relationship between signified and signifier. I am wondering is it possible to present the relationship between these two model as follow:

Signifier = Representatum (?)

Signified = Object + Interpretant (?)

It is Interpretant that enables “unlimited semiosis”. According to Peirce, Representatum is the material-perceptible forms of sign, which “equals” the “signifier” in Saussure’s model; Object is what the signs are “used to be” about, and Interpretant is the instant response to the signs – Object and Interpretant consist of the “Signified”. The behavior of Interpretant assumes the existence of recipient. It is recipient that differentiate the meaning of the object from the object itself. Representatum is only an “imitation” of the object, without the Interpretant, the dynamic process cannot continue. At the same time, the Interpretant can be perceived as a new Representatum, which triggers the infinite generation of Interpretants.

Take Pictionary game as example. There is a word “chocolate chip cookie” on the word card. The written word is a perceptible form of the concept “chocolate chip cookie”. For describers, they are the recipient and they are going to interpret the concept – at this moment, what in their mind is a Interpretant, something that is different from but infinitely close to the original concept (which is represented by the written word). Now, the first round of sign process ends up. The second round begins when describers start drawing. They are not recipient but “representer”. At the same time, the Interpretant in their mind becomes an original concept now, and the images drawn by the describers is the Representamen in the second round. The recipient of the Representamen is the decoder, and decoder is responsible for “interpreting” – again what decoders interpret is different from what they originally perceived. When decoders start to guess what the images represent for, the third round starts. It is the first effort of decoders to establish direct connection between the concept indicated by the word card and what they interpret. In the third round, what decoders inference from the image becomes the Representatum of the most original concept. It is a reconfirmation between the meaning and the concept. If the connection fails (in this context), then describers and decoders will repeat the second round and third round to “correct” their perception of the Representatum for them respectively. The process will not stop until the success of “confirmation”.

The Pictionary game is an “embodiment” of what we are experiencing in our daily interaction and communication. It enhance the feeling of that “We Are Symbolic Species”. In the game, we are seeking for the match between symbols and meanings, and we are continuously question the statement that “Are we on the same page?” The only difference between the game and real life is that we are not going to spare much time confirming whether we are on the same page. This feeling are attenuated, but it doesn’t indicate the absence of the sign process and the trouble brought by the sign process. We are fortunate to cultivate something called “Culture”. Culture has enabled us to share common ground to some extent, but it is culture, again, that creates gap between people. You never know the Representatum (a circle with triangle shapes on it) of the phrase “chocolate chip cookie” can be interpreted as something about quantum.


  2. Pictionary.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 3, 2016.
  3. “Semiotics-Cognition-Technology-Reader.pdf.” Google Docs. Accessed September 13, 2016.
  4. “Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiosis: Intro.” Google Docs. Accessed September 13, 2016.

Ehhhh…: A Story of Unreadable Annotations By: Carson Collier

During undergrad I took an ‘Anthropological Theories’ class. One of the PowerPoint slides was dedicated to semiotics, and my professor spent a solid five minutes trying to explain this concept to the class. Back then it was a very difficult concept to grasp. And…Muchmuchmuchlater

… nothing has changed.

With that, I present some of the notes I jotted down while reading for this week:

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

“We will not seek to follow or establish a doctrine, but develop the best and clearest tools for thought and models for meaning processes that we can assemble from an interrelated knowledge base across many disciplines” (p.1)

  • My biggest issue: We are trying to create the testable models to measure meaning processes, but wouldn’t the process of coming up with a testable model be a meaning process itself? How does this work?

“However close we can get to describing the neuro-bio-cognitive bases of the symbolic faculties, we will also need to recognize that “meanings aren’t in our heads.”” (p. 12)

  • This reminded me of agency, the idea humans act independently, but only within in the social constructs of the community. That being said, I ask: Do these meanings come from our surroundings and are then produced in our heads? Is there always an outside factor triggering our thoughts? If this is true, and we are not always aware of said ‘outside factors’ are hiding in the unobservable interfaces of the human mind?

Martin Irvine, “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Keys Texts” 

“Now spoken sounds are symbols of mental experiences, and written marks are symbols of spoken sounds.” (p. 2)

  • Honestly, I just think this is very nice, you go Aristotle!

“…something only becomes a sign when interpreted as such in a system of correlations understood by someone in a community sign-users acting intersubjectively as cognitive agents.” (p. 15)

  • So according to Peirce a sign has to be understood by a community. Are there limits to what a community can be? How many agents are needed for a community? For instance, if I come up with something arbitrary, like a nickname for my computer, would that count as a sign if I am the only one aware of the nickname? Or is it not the actual nickname itself that is the sign, but the concept of nicknames within a community?


Symbols and ideas

After finishing the readings of this week, I can learn the rudiments of semiotics and linguistics, by the summary of the major findings and the introduction of those abstract conceptions. Peirce illustrated three kinds of signs: icons, indicators and symbols, and he designated symbols as linguistic signs. At university, I learned English and French as my major, so I was introduced to linguistics and applied linguistics at the same time. That is the reason I want to demonstrate my understanding of semiotics by illustrating the comparison between different languages (English, French, and Chinese).

Color words are the signs to us, with the meaning of identifying the different colors. For example, when indicating black, a Mandarin-speaker will call it as “hei”, while a English-speaker will call it as “black”, and a French-speaker will call it as “ noir”. When they are addressing this color, they are not particularly indicating the blackboard’s black or the hair’s black, they are indicating the color extracted from the hair or the blackboard, which is an entirely abstract idea. This way of outputting can simplify the communication connected with color, by getting rid of the tangibility of the items with the specific color. SO that people can talk about this colorful world, without holding different carriers of different colors.

“After acquiring language and experiencing symbol structures in images, objects, and sounds in a culture, we also somehow know that things can mean something beyond their materiality as things or the mere perception of what strikes our eyes, ears, and other sense organs” ( The Grammar of Meaning Making: Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics, Irvine, P4-5). Since people with different background were experiencing the different symbol structures, their understanding of same thing can be different. So except for indicating the color conceptions, the color words can refer to other ideas.

On the one hand, this color-conception correspondence can show people’s generality. Black, as one of the basic color word, except for indicating the black color, can have the meaning of evil, unfortunate, and sad. For example: (1) There are still some black sheep in our society.  (2) Experts fear that at least a quarter of those rocks are now missing, presumably stolen or sold on the black market. (3) 他总是让我给他背黑锅。(He always let me to be his scapegoat.) Here I think people’s fear of black can be tracked back to the ancient times, where there was no light at night. There is always a horrible and unknown world hidden in the darkness of night. So, facing black, even people from different backgrounds can have the same feeling.

On the other hand, color, as a carrier of culture, can show its own particularity of different culture. Yellow, as the most respected color for Chinese people, suggests the royalty and other good things. Because it is the color of plowland, which peasants lived their life on. There are words like 黄道吉日( a lucky day), and 飞黄腾达 (be successful), has the color of yellow. While in English, blue is used to denote the good things. Such as blue blood and blue book. The reason of using blue is because this is the color of respected sea.

This example is just intended to be the beginning of my understanding of semiotics. I hope it can help me to get booted up. Overall, I think semiotics is really an interesting field, worth digging in.



Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Google Docs. Accessed September 6, 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Signs, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiosis: Intro.” Google Docs. Accessed September 6, 2015.

Memes XD lol haha

Peirce’s triadic model of semiosis as a generative process highlights the open-endedness of any instance of human meaning, and this pertains to all three parts of the model. This means that throughout time, any instance of human meaning is going to have a differently shaped representamen, object, or interpretant, even if one or all three of these are relatively the same. Drawing from the second reading, Peirce writes, “The object of representation can be nothing but a representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object at its limit. The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation… So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torth of truth is handed along; as as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series.” So from any interpretant, there is an open-endedness to how this refers back to object and representamen, as well as an open-endedness to how an interpretant behaves as an object or representamen itself.

As it pertains to cultural artifacts, this is an important concept to keep in mind because of the user manipulation or interpretation of any object. It’s of particular interest to me in video media and parody. Take for instance the following parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” song and music video:

(a link to the video in case the video doesn’t embed properly: Mom’s Spaghetti)

Other than editing the audio to add the line “mom’s spaghetti” and adding a few clips of spaghetti, the audio and video are the same as the original. The parody draws its humor from subverting the more serious messages of bold individualism and grasping opportunity (over a dramatic riff and beat) by repetition of the line “mom’s spaghetti” which is kind of goofy by comparison. Because the line that is repeated is a feature of the original song, the parody doesn’t so much create a new meaning but magnifies one already embedded in the old one. However it is the open endedness of meaning both to the original content (through user manipulation – like physically, like my mans used audio/video editing software) and interpretation that makes creating a parody, or even envisioning one, possible.

I guess my biggest question with what I’m talking about above pertains to the actual process of manipulating cultural artifacts digitally. I mean, first of all is an audio/video clip an artifact? If it’s edited like the parody above, is it part of the same artifact or is it a completely new artifact?

Mapping our universe with signs

“A sign is something by knowing which we know something more. The whole universe is perfused with signs.” – C.S. Peirce

I find that the best way to comprehend the particular details of semiotics is to simply pick one sign vehicle that I can dissemble into the many components and theories surrounding semiotics. This week, I received a package in the mail from my summer trip to Fiji. The package was a hand crafted and personalized map of the islands. While looking at the map, I began thinking of the long history behind this symbolic tool that was an early form of writing and distributed cognition. Being that the whole universe is perfused with signs, it is not unusual that humans have been dedicating themselves to depicting the surrounding universe into a symbol form for thousands upon thousands of years through mapping.

imageProfessor Irvine notes, “We are able to store and forward symbolic thought from one generation to many others. Enabling a cumulative cultural ‘ratchet effect’ also known as ‘progress.'” This storage through time allows for the cumulative process in which all symbol systems evolve including maps that are known to hold the knowledge of geographical landmarks, political boundaries, and pathways to resources. The knowledge within these maps are also made from societal needs and created from the knowledge of many members of communities. They are created to be referenced over and shared throughout time while still holding the knowledge of a time in which they were created.

Ferdinand De Saussure discusses the recognition of two dimensions of meaning – the context-free and the socio-cultural value. This distinction is crucial for understanding any system of symbols that we come across. In the context of the complex meaning systems of maps, I found that socio-cultural value is key. The map I have was hand crafted and the artist not only wrote in all of the names of cities and towns within the island, but he drew in small depictions (what we would call icons) of the experiences that I had in certain places. He would ask what things you did and where to his customers to give more meaning to the map. He drew things like a person scuba diving, small trees being planted, and a boat traveling down a river (all experiences I had in those places in Fiji). When I showed this to friends, many said, “This map must really hold more meaning for you than a regular map.”

image (1)I then asked myself if this map does offer more meaning and why. I suppose that the meaning of all the symbols on a standard political geography map do not offer strong signifiers. Simple names may not provide the context of the experience held within the mind.

Aristotle writes, “And just as letters are not the same for all men neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs of – experiences in the mind – are the same for all, and what these mental experiences are linknesses of – actual things are also the same. ”  I think that this is important to note because while each map acts the same in what Peirce would call its material-perceptible form, we as a collective then have the initial learned associations. For example, everyone could tell it was a map and that it potentially held more meaning than other maps. However, in the triadic form, the response formed by such a map was only held within my own personal experience.

Our cumulative experiences with maps have changed throughout time simply based on our ability to change between the three basic classes of signs from likenesses, indicators, and general signs because of our abilities to capture the surrounding universe in different symbolic forms. While hand drawn historical maps are known for their geographical inaccuracies, we now use satellite and photo imagery to gain precise details of the planet and surrounding universe. However, it is important to remember these new and highly accurate depictions of the universe are still symbols of instances in time.



Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Irvine, Martin (2016). Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings. Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Sign, Myths, and Story of Your Life – Jieshu Wang

As an international student with English as a second language, I found this week’s reading materials a little difficult to comprehend. The fancy GRE vocabulary I struggled to memorize last year is not helpful because the terminology of semiotics is actually not uncommon, but with different or more abstract meanings from daily usage. In other words, my problem with semiotics is exactly semiotical.

Take the simple term “sign” as an example. In the past, I interpreted a sign as a physical entity with a specific meaning, such as a neon light of a restaurant indicating what food it offers, or a plus sign in an algebra textbook telling students to add numbers at both sides of the sign. But when I was reading this week’s literature, I found that the meaning of sign and the meaning-making mechanism behind it is so abstract that it could shed light on the entire human culture and cognitive evolution. In The Grammar of Meaning Making, Professor Irvine says,

“in his (C.S. Peirce) model, the sign isn’t a thing, but a process that elicits a meaning-bearing unit in a cognitive event: a sign is the conceptual-relational process or activity, which is cognitive and interpersonal”.[i]

In Key Writings on Signs, Symbols Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology, it is said that, for Peirce, a sign is a three-part correlation of Representamen, Object, and Interpretant. [ii] The representamen can be seen as the signifier, which corresponds with my former definition of the physical sign, while the object as the signified, such as the food offered by the restaurant [iii]. The most interesting part of the triadic correlation is interpretant, which is “the conceptual response” “produced by the cognitive agents(s) making the correlation of the first two components”[ii]. I think this is where cognitive capacity comes in, which makes us human.

In Peirce’s opinion, there are three kinds of signs: likenesses or icons, indications or indices, and symbols or general signs [ii]. As he put it,

“A symbol, as we have seen, cannot indicate any particular thing; it denotes a kind of thing”; “The word lives in the minds of those who use it. Even if they are all asleep, it exists in their memory.”

This reminds me of a book I recently read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In this book, the author, Yuval Harari thinks that the reason homo sapiens defeated other species in the genus Homo such as the Neanderthals is that we can gather more than 150 people together to form a purpose-sharing group to implement large-scale cooperation, which “is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination”, such as religion beliefs, law, justice, nationalism, and human rights [iv]. I think those collective myths are also a kind of abstract symbols. Although the specific meaning of a particular symbol varies among people, as long as there’s consensus to some degree, the interpretant of the symbol can spread in the community, ultimately becoming a cultural component.

For Peirce, meaning-making is a generative process[ii]. I don’t know whether my understanding is correct. To me, “generative” means the capacity to create new things. In other words, the process of meaning-making will produce more new meanings. The collective cultural framework and personal experience serve as the context of meaning-making of signs, especially the interpretant of language, while the latter is also incessantly altering the former. This reminds me of a Nebula Award winner novel named Story of Your Life written by Ted Chiang, in which the heroine gradually obtained the ability to see through time in the course of deciphering a strangely arranged alien language, because the structure of the language reflected a totally different world view, which was planted into the human decipherers’ cognition unconsciously [v]. It is a vivid fictional depiction of the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis”[vi] which emphasized the significant influence of language on thought and perception.  The story is filmed as Arrival and will be released in November. I am eager to see how the film producers express the cognitive impact of language. After all, language is one of the most abstract things that have ever happened to us.

A Gif from the trailer of the Arrival movie, depicting the alien language. credit: Paramount Pictures

Some questions

  1. What are the neurobiological basis and evolutionary advantage of the function of signs and symbolic cognition, which Peirce considered as the underlying structure for all human social life and culture[ii]?
  2. I read some instances that some animals-mostly primates-are capable of making meaningful alarm calls. Vervet monkeys even have different alarm calls for different predators[vi]. What is the cognitive difference between human-level meaning-making of signs and animal behavior of understanding certain vocal and visual cues?
  3. There are great gaps among different languages. However, I think human languages must have something in common, even if they originated from separated areas. In other words, they must be comprehensible through learning. Is it possible to design a program capable of understanding and translating a new language in the first contact?
  4. Computer language is also a kind of sign system. Why is it so difficult for computers to understand natural language or use natural language to communicate with people?


[i]Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign System, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics,”

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

[iii] Atkin, Albert. “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2013., 2013.

[iv] Harari, Yuval N. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Toronto, Ontario: Signal ; McClelland & Stewart.

[v] Chiang, Ted. 2016. Stories of Your Life and Others. Reissue edition. New York: Vintage.

[vi] Manser, Marta B. 2013. “Semantic Communication in Vervet Monkeys and Other Animals.” Animal Behaviour 86 (3): 491–96. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.07.006.

Some thoughts from my OS Alpha to yours – Jameson Spivack, Week 2

I would like to echo the sentiment of some of my fellow classmates who professed unfamiliarity with the topic, and hope I can assign the proper signifiers to the signified that are currently swirling around my OS Alpha. After all, as Peirce would tell us, the “meaning” of signs is not merely locked in an individual’s mind, but are animated by their interpretation by members of relevant communities, who derive meaning from them. [1] So if these thoughts are confusing, that’s definitely on you guys. ;p

  • It makes sense that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary, as de Saussure points out, and anyone who has been exposed to languages other than their native language sees this in action. [2] It is interesting, though, from biological and neurological standpoints, that there are particular concepts that have similar (not exact, of course) signifiers across languages and communities. For example, the words we have developed for “mother,” possibly the very first concept we learn after birth, have corollaries across languages, even those that are unrelated. Most spoken human languages use words containing the “m”/”n” sound to denote mother, perhaps because the shape the mouth forms when breastfeeding lends itself to forming such a sound. I’m not sure if other such examples exist, and while the vast majority of signs are arbitrary, it is still interesting to note when they are not.
  • I also find it interesting to link the concept of meaning-making as a process through which we mediate the present to past and future thought to the accumulation of knowledge. [3] We are born into societies and communities that already have sets of rules for how to communicate in complex ways and on abstract levels. Without this ability to create intersubjective sign systems, we could never progress beyond simple instinctual existence because we’d have no way to communicate with others to build, solve problems, collaborate, or any of the numerous productive abilities we possess. There would be a Tower of Babel-esque chaos, with each person speaking a completely different language.


    At the same time, these sign systems cannot be too rigid, or there would be no way to incorporate new information (and concepts) into them. In fact, without the ability to grow and adapt, sign systems could not have developed in the first place. And it is this network of meanings, and our awareness of them, that allow us to create new ways of communicating, being, and thinking in ever-increasing levels of complexity.

  • One last point I found particularly fascinating was the idea, mentioned by Professor Irvine in the discussion on OS Alpha, that sign systems are at their core reflexive and self-reflexive, meaning we must talk about these systems of signs using “signs” from those very systems. [4] I currently don’t have anything in particular to add to this, as I’m still trying to process this idea and its implications.


[1] Irvine, Martin (2016). Key Writings on Signs, Symbols, Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology, Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University. Page 15.

[2] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 10.

[3] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 11.

[4] Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University. Page 3.

Peirce and WIPP

While reading this week, I found myself frequently searching for concrete examples to help me understand the principles. The primary real-world example that came to mind and can be thought through using these fundamental ideas is an undertaking by the U.S. Department of Energy for its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The site stores waste from nuclear research. (Blissymbols also provided food for thought, but I got the most out of WIPP.)

In the 1990s, the Department of Energy convened a group of experts from a range of disciplines (including linguists, artists, and more) to create a warning system for the WIPP site in the desert of New Mexico. Their aim was to develop “markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion,” according to the final report published by Sandia National Laboratories. The system had to be designed to stop visitors from stumbling into nuclear waste for the next 10,000 years—the period in which the location would be potentially unsafe.

Not only did the expert group have to engineer something that would last physically for that time, but the team also had to design something that would have meaning that far into the future. The executive summary of the full report puts this in clear terms:

The site must be marked in such a manner that its purpose cannot be mistaken.

A marking system must be utilized. By this we mean that components of the marking system relate to one another is such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The most developed design proposals are focused on so-called “earthen berms” of an extremely large scale that mark the dangerous area and, as the executive summary describes, set “the tone for the entire landscape — non-natural, ominous, and repulsive.” There are some terrific sketches of the site in the reports; here is one example:

The expert group also suggested that the area include linguistic messages such as this one:

The designers understood that symbols or general signs, to use Peirce’s terms, would change over time (although, apparently Edvard Munch has a 10,000-year-long reach). They included a message to future viewers about language to illustrate this point: “If the marker is difficult to read, add new markers in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak” (italics in original). And the designers recommended conveying the warnings in a way that would ensure they would be understood across cultures and time:

We obviously recommend that a very large investment be made . . . in a communication mode that is non-linguistic, not rooted in any particular culture, and thus not affected by the expected certain transformation of cultures. This mode uses species-wide archetypes…of meanings bound to form, such that the physical form of the site and its constructions are both message content and mode of communication.

To use Peirce’s terms, both the linguistic and non-linguistic messages recommended for WIPP are representamen, the material-perceptible forms of the unseen object (or the concept/signified thing, I believe de Saussure would say)—in the case of WIPP, the invisible object/concept is the idea of danger or harm. I believe the berms—the physical structures built into the site—would be indications or indices, using Peirce’s terminology, because they physically create a dangerous environment. (Or are they likenesses/icons?) The messages written in words are symbols/general signs that are understandable only in the context of English language conventions and usage. If we or the future inhabitants of New Mexico see these various representamen, we will in theory understand that the area we are entering is dangerous and make a connection to the unseen object we all understand—a response known as the interpretant. (Have I understood things properly?)

This example helped me think through those terms, but it also raised more questions.* A common thread throughout all of the readings this week seemed to be that the human community shares an understanding of what is known as the object in some cases. Different cultures may have different ways of expressing these concepts/objects and may create a variety of artifacts—as Cole, Engelbart, and others termed them—but some fundamental, invisible objects/concepts exist across cultural barriers (correct?). The designers of the WIPP site seem to believe that spiky earthen structures are the representamen most likely to convey the concept of harm across thousands of years and to a range of cultures, and that the concept of harm is a fundamental human characteristic. Is it the case generally that indicators/indices (or likenesses/icons, if my original thought is incorrect) are the most universal kinds of signs? Or is there something more fundamental than that?

To take the questioning further, the designs put forward seem to assume that those creatures coming to the site in the future will be of our shared human background. What if they aren’t? Will they still understand these concepts if there is not a shared legacy of communal memory-making upon which to draw? Or would the site, for instance, need to be capable of actually inflicting harm to convey that message? This may well stretch beyond the pale, but these and other thoughts came to mind as I grappled with the principles and examples this week.

*These aren’t my only questions. I have other, more specific questions about the texts that I’ll ask in class if the topics don’t come up.

Key Works Cited

99% Invisible. “Designing a Nuclear Waste Warning Symbol That Will Still Make Sense in 10,000 Years.” Slate, May 14, 2014.

“Blissymbolics Communication International.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Department of Energy. “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Accessed September 5, 2016.

Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Irvine, Martin, ed. “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: Key Writings.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 2, 2016. Google Docs file.

Trauth, Kathleen M.,  Stephen C. Hera, and Robert V. Guzowsti. “Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.” Sandia Report. Albuquerque, New Mexico and Livermore, California: Sandia National Laboratories, United States Department of Energy, November 1993.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. “WIPP Exhibit: Message to 12,000 A.D.” Accessed September 5, 2016.,000%20a_d.htm.

Katie Oberkircher, Week 2: Limited vs. Unlimited

As I read through this week’s material, I noticed a tension between two ideas involving signs and symbols. This tension arose among the themes of time, community, memory and culture. The first idea is laid out toward the beginning of “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics,” and focuses on the inherent social nature of signs and symbols.

Idea 1: The way that we automatically process and transmit thoughts in our communities is unlimited due to the fact that “we make mental relations between perceptions and thought and generate further relations among thoughts connected in vast networks of collectively understood signs spanning many states of time” (Irvine, 4). Our understanding of perception and thought is always generating further relations, creating a never-ending cycle. By transcending time, signs act as a connector between past, present and future generations, propelling society forward (what is defined in the reading as “progress”) (Key Writings, 13).

Idea 2: However, I felt there was a tension between the notion of unlimited thought and the fact that, “ideas cannot be communicated at all except through their physical effects” (Irvine, 3). This brought up a few questions: are the “physical effects” of an idea all that we need to understand it? Are there barriers keeping us from recognizing other non-physical effects that we cannot communicate? How important are those effects?

In his work, De Saussure explores some of these ideas. He explains that if we assume that language is a naming process only, we infer that, “ready-made ideas exist before words” (Key Writings, 9). In response to his theory, I want to focus on the quote, “We think only in signs” (Key Writings, 20). I believe this means that we think in a way to translate our ideas to others.

Further, Dr. Irvine touches on this idea when he writes, “human culture, social relations, and technologies are thus inseparable from our interrelated cluster of symbolic systems…” (Irvine, 2). The word “inseparable” suggests that without one, we could not have the other. So, I understood that to mean, human culture, social relations and technologies are only possible because of the way we communicate with one another through signs and symbols.

That idea was complicated by the quote, “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Key Writings, 10). If the bond is arbitrary, like the idea of the baseball and its lack of connection to the word “baseball,” then how is it possible that we can fully understand what the signified is? (Irvine, 11) Do we always identify objects/concepts through the context of our social community?

I believe these questions are answered by the way that the themes of community and time are woven into the readings. In “Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings,” it says, “symbols, or general signs, [have] become associated with their meanings by usage” (Key Writings, 18). In other words, communities use, and reuse, symbols and signs until they become familiar. In connection with that idea, a concept on page 5 of “The Grammar of Meaning Making,” stuck out to me: technologies are “stored value” memory systems (Irvine, 5). These systems are the foundation of the way we communicate and generate new thoughts—strengthened by the notion of collective memory.

As we move forward this semester, I hope to better understand the role of culture and community as they relate to semiotics. And further, how the role of technology has altered the “progress” we continue to make.


Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Irvine, Martin (2016). Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings. Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Artificial Moon of the Concrete Forest – Yasheng

Artificial Moon of the Concrete Forest

There is a contraction site near where I live in Rosslyn, Virginia. It is an ordinary construction site with one exception, an LED light embedded moon sculpture hanging over one of the cranes on the site. The moon displays various colors at different time, sometimes yellow, half red half yellow, and sometimes blue, which I assume is referencing the saying “once in a blue moon.” Despite its strange placement and unclear purpose, it is still an object attracts minimum attention due to the fact that it is in a construction site and Rosslyn is a place of business with busy commuters. I, on the other hand, do not work in Rosslyn and the moon is always the first thing catching my attention on my back from Georgetown.

So I started to wonder the meaning behind the moon and what it means to people in Rosslyn. I first talked to the construction workers. Three of those I asked all told me that they were not sure why the moon was there yet they made it very clear to me that they do not like it. When I asked why, they speculated that the moon has something to do with Islam and that really bothered them.

Needless to say, I was shocked by how these workers were able to generate Islamophobia from the moon. Became even more intrigued by the purpose of the moon, I quickly turned to Google for answers. Turns out, the moon is a temporary public art project – a brainchild of Brian Coulter, Managing Partner of Central Place developer JBG.[1]


Though I understood the origin and purpose of the artificial moon, it is still interesting to ponder what it means to different individuals.

One of this week’s readings maintains that we, human beings, have semiotic competence, which enables us to understand that, “things can mean something beyond their materiality as things or the mere perception of what strikes our eyes, ears, and other sense organs.”[2] Accordingly, based on our past experience, the artificial moon, a signifier, hanging over the construction site points to different signified to different individuals. To me, the artificial moon reminded me of an old song I heard when I was a child. The title of the song can be roughly translated as “Escape from the Concrete Forest”. The concept of an artificial moon hanging among many skyscrapers, AKA the concrete forest, is almost romantic to me. When I shared this with the construction workers, they laughed but one of them said, “that’s beautiful.” This week’s reading maintains that, “sign functions mediate our cognitive links to others and enable any social member to conceive an other’s meaning and point of view.”[3] Our distinctive interpretations of the moon open up a window into our inner psyches. The artificial moon made me nostalgic, yet is the manifestation of fear to some of these construction workers. The artificial moon, with accurate likeness to the real moon, through different layers of abstraction, created distinctive symbolic significances[4].

The moon was removed on July 24th for the construction of the north building was close to finish. Though the moon is gone, what it signified to people remain.

I took this photo on the day the moon was removed

I took this photo on the day the moon was removed

 Nevertheless, I wish in a perfect world, these constructions workers will remember the night they sat under the artificial moon enjoying the coolness of the evening instead of what they think the moon means to them.

Other Questions:

  1. Chinese charters (pictogram) are a likeness and a symbol at the same time, for instance, the character for sun is日. Though the form has changed throughout history, the original writing style has the affordance for people instantly understand its meaning. By this logic, can I argue that there is a lack, or at least less, of arbitrariness between Chinese characters and what they signify?
  2. I don’t want to be that person, but can the binary system really represent all thought processes?
  3. This is just a comment, but the quote “we make the meaning associations on the fly from the internalized codes and conventions of our language and culture, and we readily generate new signs (verbal expressions, images, diagrams, mathematical equations, etc.) to express understood meanings to others and they to us”[5] make me think about how we are all cyborgs because we are quite similar to our technology.

[1] “Giant ‘Moon’ Part of Continuing Central Place Construction in Rosslyn.” – Arlington, Va. – Breaking News, Opinions & Community Happenings, September 29, 2015.

[2] Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program Georgetown University. Page 2.

[3] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 12.

[4] Irvine, Martin (2016). Key Writings on Signs, Symbols, Symbolic Cognition, Cognitive Artefacts, and Technology Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program Georgetown University. Page 14.

[5] Irvine, Martin (2016). Page 12.