Author Archives: Ryan Leach

Topic 1: Peirce and Computer Interfaces

Although Peirce developed his theory of semiotics long before the “digital age,” the emergence of computational devices illustrates the adaptability of his model. Take, for instance, the icons on a computer’s desktop. How might they function semiotically according to Peirce’s schema of representamen, interpretant, and object, and how might a digital example prove more useful in clarifying the theory than one focused on “natural” signs?

According to Chandler, the representamen, or sign vehicle, is often misunderstood to exist materially in all cases (29). If we take, for example, a cloudy sky suggesting rain, these dark clouds would function as the representamen. However, the materiality of the clouds might lead to misunderstanding the representamen as always taking a material form. This is not the case, as we see with desktop icons. When I see a folder icon on my desktop, the representamen is far from material. Although it might rely on the material hardware of the computer in order to appear, I am not able to determine the physical existence of the folder, mainly because it does not exist physically but only as a metaphor for storage. As a result, this digital example precludes misunderstanding the representamen to always exist as a material object.

There appears to be a similar amount of confusion regarding the Peircean object. For Chandler, the object is “something beyond the sign to which it refers (a referent).” However, there are at least two things which exist beyond the sign and to which it refers: the mental concept and the thing itself. For instance, if we take the word “tiger,” both the tiger itself and the concept of tiger exist beyond the sign and, potentially, are referred to by the sign. However, as Prof. Irvine notes,” An object in his terminology is a position in a cognitive relation — a concept, idea, code, or mental rule,” not a “real-world referent” (“Semiosis and Cognitive Semiotics” (21). This, admittedly, confused me for quite some time because structural linguists, notably Benveniste, use the term “referent” to mean the thing itself. However, what Peirce labels the “object” more closely resembles Saussure’s “signified,” or mental concept. Therefore, the object of the word “tiger” is the mental concept of tiger, not the, or a, physically existing tiger. This confusion can be avoided through the use of digital examples. If I am trying to determine the object of a folder icon, I know that the icon does not refer to the real-world referent (i.e. a physical folder), but to the concept of a folder.

In addition, digital examples prove Peirce’s observation that signs point to other signs. The sign of the folder icon points to other signs (such as a conventional folder) which point to yet other signs in an infinite chain. However, I’m still left wondering how this might relate to poststructuralist notions of the chain of infinite signifiers by which the signified is never reached. In this model, meaning is always unstable because there is no transcendental signified by which to ground it. Is this also the case in Peirce’s semiotics?


Thought, Language, Semiotics and Semantics

For this blog post, I would like to focus on two aspects of the introduction to linguistics that come into confrontation with other theories that I am more familiar with: (1) the concept of thought existing outside of language, and (2) Chomsky’s division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. Both of these have implications on using linguistics to understand other sign systems.

First, I would like to focus on Pinker’s claim that thought can exist outside of language. The evidence he uses to back up this claim is that (1) tacit knowledge is needed to understand language, and (2) thought must exist prior to language in order to exist—otherwise, where would it come from? Personally, I have neither a strong background in linguistics nor neuroscience, so I am by no means capable of disproving these claims. Instead, I have only questions. For structural linguistics, and those influenced by it, nothing exists outside of language, or rather, something may exist outside of language, but, whatever it is, it’s too murky and indistinct to be of use. “In Problems of General Linguistics,” Benveniste quotes Saussure, thusly:

Psychologically, our thought—apart from its expression in words—is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. […] Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language. (45)

Granted, Saussure developed his theory of semiotics about 100 years ago, but such conceptions of language prevailed for a long time afterward (Benveniste published this in the 1970’s). Pinker’s claims rest on the assumption that language is derived from thought, Saussure’s that thought can only exist as such when derived from language. Neither appear to cite scientific evidence to support their claims, but Pinker presents his as if it were not possible for one to disagree. So my question is: has this debate been settled? If so, who won?

Secondly, Pinker identifies three criticisms of Chomsky: (1) no one has proven UG is specific to language itself, (2) he uses a small sample size, and (3) other learning models might be capable of showing how grammar works. However, he overlooks (or omits) what I am finding to be the most interesting criticism of Chomsky, particularly the complication of his division between the lexical/semantic and the grammatical/syntactic. For Chomsky, and many semioticians, there is a clean divide between words (historical, semantic) and syntactic structures (which are perceived as ahistorical patterns, and not semantic). In my Digital Approaches to Literature class, we’ve been discussing how Fillmore challenges this division, and how syntactic structures are also historically and culturally determined. While words have retained a privileged position in the field of semiotics, we can also think of semantic structures as signs. While Saussaurian semiotics have traditionally focused on the semantic function of words, might Peirce’s triadic theory of the sign prove more useful in understanding the semantic function of syntactic structures?

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Coral Gables, Fla: Univ of Miami Pr, 1973. Print.


Barrett, Semiotics, Descartes

Having encountered theories of the extended mind in a class on Rhetorical Ecologies last semester, I found Barrett’s “The Archaeology of Mind: It’s Not What You Think” to be one of the most provocative of the readings for this week. Not only does Barrett’s article provide a brief overview of several evolutionary theories of cognitive development, as well as semiotics, Actor Network Theory, and what I believe to be a (dismissive) nod to Baudrilliard (in 15 pages, no less!), he also attempts to subvert almost all theories of mind that came before him, and I suppose I’m a sucker for subversive theory. Despite the admiration he might deserve for taking on such a huge project in the course of a short article, I found some of his dismissals a bit too hasty and it seems to me that his own theory of “mind” might also fall back into the Cartesian hole in which he perceives most of the current theories to reside.

Early in the article, Barrett writes, “The rejection of a Cartesian dualism is basic to materialist philosophies but, in archaeology at least, this has not resulted in the widespread questioning of the assumption that the mechanism basic to human cognition involves the mind’s ability to interpret experiences that are manifestations of an external reality, even if we have no idea as to what mechanism provides for that interpretation” (2), thus setting up his main criticism of the wide variety of theories that follow, namely that they rely on a split between mind and body, and inner self and external environment. However, the application of this criticism seems more apt with regard to some theories than others. For instance, his criticism of mind-as-brain theories seems spot on—in order to locate the mind solely in the brain, one would have to reinforce the distinctions between mind/body and self/environment. But when Barrett takes a detour through semiotics, things get weird. First, he appears to mis-define Saussure’s signifier and signified as conceptual category and public expression, respectively. But isn’t it the other way around—that is, signified as concept and signifier as public expression (7)? (Public expression might also not exactly match up with “sound image,” as it retains many additional connotations, e.g. public-ness.) He then connects this dyadic theory of semiotics to the Cartesian split between mind and body based on this potential mis-interpretation. Although I think this accusation is not entirely off, Barrett’s claim that it sets up “a relationship between external things and an ‘inner’ mind in which the body appears to play no part” (7) doesn’t seem like the best criticism. Indeed, from what I’ve read, Saussure’s theory seems almost unconcerned with how the sign relates to external reality, therefore I’m not sure where Barrett is finding this “relationship between exterior things and an ‘inner’ mind.” He might be onto something with regard to the lack of references to the body in Saussure, but it seems like a criticism that could be leveled against every philosophy that does not explicitly and regularly reference the body. Similarly, his claim that Peircean semiotics accounts for the body through the interpretant (“it follows that we must treat the interpretant as an agent requiring the motivation, physical faculties, and energy required to do the work […]” (7)) appears very generous to Peircean semiotics, and I suspect that he might be imposing the body into this theory. However, I am not familiar enough with Peirce to dispute this claim. But, from my standpoint, it appears that he prefers Peirce to Saussure, and so Peirce gets the body and Saussure gets the mind.

Which brings me to my final question: does Barrett’s theory of cognitive development fully displace the Cartesian split? As a good materialist, his theory certainly appears to rid the division between inner self and external environment through his emphasis on the body and it’s being in/of the world. However, I’m not so sure if Barrett’s theory succeeds in displacing Descartes’ mind/body binary; is it a displacement or merely an inversion through which Barrett exalts the body above the conventionally valorized mind? In the latter third of his article, Barrett sets up a distinction between the conceptual and sensual recognitions of things with common or contrasting qualities, and he overwhelming affirms the latter (i.e. the sensual) as “primary” (11). “The response of one body to a material quality was recognized empathetically by another,” “full bipedalism, the hand with opposable thumb articulation and a forefinger capable of pointing, complex facial musculature, and eye colouration,” “bodily decoration […] is more likely to have enhanced those enactments before others than to have the representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status,” “the world of qualities sensually encountered” (11), etc.: all of these passages privilege the body over the mind in the development of the symbolic. Does Barrett focus too heavily on the body? Does his cognitive development theory entirely displace the mind/body binary by making everything fully body, or is there still room left for the mind in the “representation of some abstractly conceived concept of status” or the slightly earlier mention of (without fully discrediting) metaphorical associations? More broadly, is Barrett’s theory merely an inversion of the Cartesian dichotomy, or does it succeed in avoidance of the lapse into the division between mind and body?

Historical Case Studies, The Dialectic, and Mediology

Since I am struggling to condense all of the different methodologies into a cohesive blog post, I would like to focus specifically on Czitrom’s “Media and the American Mind,” while emphasizing how the adherence to a single approach–historical, in this instance–might prove problematic in media studies. Interestingly enough, Czitrom’s historical case studies on developed and developing technologies become yet another historical study for future readers seeking to understand the early 1980’s reactions to developing technologies, such as cable broadcasting, public access, and what I presume to be predictions of the laser disc (?). In so doing, Czitrom not only shows us the utopic and dystopic reactions to the development of every major technology since the telegraph, but also (perhaps intentionally?) offers a view into these reactions occurring within himself before (for him) the emergence new technological prospects.

I am not very well acquainted with the historical case study approach, and I hope I am not extrapolating too much from Czitrom’s text in understanding the dialectic to form a central focus of this approach’s methodology; however, Czitrom’s emphasis on the “historical sketch” of “dialectical tensions” appears to bear significant impact on his study. One such example is the dialectic between “the progressive or utopian possibilities offered by new communications technologies” and “their disposition as instruments of domination and exploitation” (184)–in other words, between utopian and dystopian constructions of emerging technologies. The dialectical tensions between, on the one hand, a corporatist and profit-determined potential for new technologies of communication, and, on the other, one that might create a more democratized and populist form of cultural production through the accessibility and affordability of culture-producing technologies, might not be dialectical in nature at all. The dialectic presumes that the latter provides an antithesis of the former, and thus leads to a synthesis, perhaps a sort of resolution between the two. However, instead of dialectical movement, we have only the co-option or appropriation of the latter by the former, a movement by which the corporate, profit-determined side of cultural production (i.e. the “culture industry”) appropriates elements of more democratically produced culture into its broader ideology of consumption as “lifestyle”. Therefore, perhaps the dialectic is not the best model for understanding these tensions.

This is by no means to disparage the dialectic in general, but to question the way Czitrom employs it to seemingly resolve the (perhaps, irresolvable) tensions between each side of the constructed binary. Mediology appears to provide the antidote to such an approach by “abandoning the ancestral oppositions” (Debray)–in this case, between the dystopic and the utopic–in favor of an ecological understanding where the plethora of perceptions are not forced into a single opposition but allowed to form a field of conflicting, diverging, and converging forces. However, I am not entirely clear on the relationship between dialectical and ecological thinking, and this is something that I would like to learn more about.