Semiotic Anthropology


Semiotic Anthropology

For open discussion about anthropology and semiotic theory

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Semiotics of Race 1 Reply

Started by Veerendra Lele. Last reply by Joel M. Wright May 3, 2010.

Recent Semiotic Anthropology article on dead bodies

Started by Veerendra Lele Nov 20, 2009.

Peirce or Saussure: a useful starting point for semiotic anthropology? 10 Replies

Started by Josh Reno. Last reply by John McCreery Jul 12, 2009.

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Comment by Joel M. Wright on June 8, 2010 at 7:37pm

I think my hesitation is a matter of application in a dynamic, moving world. We can talk about Firsts and Seconds all we like, but really, people engage their sensorium in terms of thirds. I hesitate further to water down the issue by asserting that human cognition and (inter)action relies on symbols. That line of thinking seems limited to me. However, and following from the logical flow from Iconic Firstness, through indexical Secondness to symbolic Thirdness, it seems to me that commenting on Firstness (as a set of “phaneroscopic” possibilities) can only result in a (pre)cursory analysis.

Should we really be fronting a discussion of the semion, or should we be discussing semiosis as a primary object of inquiry?

Just a question, though I admit I don’t fully know the answer: why, if Peirce predates Barthes, does the latter draw from the more duality-driven Saussurean semiology? It can’t be merely a matter of French or European intellectual chauvinism, can it? Could it be that the relative simplicity of semiology allowed Barthes to move toward more nuanced commentary on human perceptions and actions? Maybe my incredulity is way off, and Barthes was working from a more Franco- or Eurocentric intellectual pedigree.

@ Veerendra

I share your interest in applying semiotic to understanding race, though it’s clear your understanding of semiotic theory far outstrips mine! Yet given these recent comments, I can’t help adding from personal (anecdotal?) experience.

As an undergrad, I found myself in a dorm room hanging out with a group of friends. There were two Brazilians among us: one was a blond, blue-eyed girl and the other was a dark-haired, dark-eyed man with a darker complexion. Someone mentioned that the Brazilian man was the only non-white person in the room, which elicited obvious confusion from the Brazilian girl. She insisted that he was White, though it was “obvious” to the rest of us (Americans) that he was not.

So, we have the iconic Firstness (overlaying the actual with the potential experienced in the mind?) of hair color, eye color and skin color. Then, we have the implication of something more systemic, in terms of the indexical Secondness of hair, eye and skin tone variation. Then, we have the symbolic Thirdness of race and racial categories.

Judging from John and Josh’s comments, though, there seems to be cultural variation in the classifications that come from our terms. Just as “red” may imply a core possibility with variations in classification toward the edges, can we not point to the same tendency for variation when it comes to talking about race? I would argue that my anecdote suggests so, which leads me back to my original question: at what point does the semiotic Thirdness of race-awareness invade and re-order the indexical Secondness of systemic race-difference?

I’ll admit that this last question is motivated out of a half emerged understanding of the mechanics of the three orders of perception.
Comment by John McCreery on June 8, 2010 at 5:55pm
Wanted to add some bits of scientific authority and personal anecdote to the line I am pursuing here. Pointers to the scientific authority can be found in the Wikipedia article on prototype theory. The personal anecdote comes from a grandparent's recent perspective on how children learn to distinguish colors. A visitor to the baby and toddler section of any large commercial bookstore will discover a host of children's picture books devoted to basic color, shape and other categories. Most have in common numerous examples invite the child, with the aid of the adult sharing the book, to contrast, for example, red, blue and yellow dogs red, blue and yellow flowers, or purple, green and orange fish. It is quite clear, if you spend some time with children and books of this type, that while there may be a Piercian First, a primary experience that is gradually codified in Seconds and Thirds, learning to regard a color as something distinct and primary is a process of abstraction. The more usual Firsts are the complex objects (color+form+motion) that are identified by what come to be, for the language in question, base-level terms from which learning can proceed either upward (to greater abstraction) or downward (to consideration in greater detail).

Let me add once again, moreover, that none of these observations are intended as denigrations of Pierce, whose thinking was, for its time, extraordinarily rigorous and sophisticated. My hobby horse/animus is what I see as a common intellectual failing, embracing and applying a theory like an all-purpose cookie cutter (see how it works!) as opposed to taking the theory in question as a starting point for further development, a framework that directs our attention to observations that require expansion, enrichment or replacement of that particular framework and, thus, lead to fresh thinking.
Comment by John McCreery on June 8, 2010 at 12:33am
How can we draw conclusions about cultural variation without something shared?

Didn't say there was nothing shared. The biology of vision is well-researched science; printers and display designers have solid explanations for why CYMK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Black) inks and RGB (Red, Green, Blue) pixels, mixed in different proportions reliably produce specific effects.

In addition (warning, this is conjecture), we have a pretty good idea of where the thinking that Pierce was rethinking came from, the empiricist notion that objects are constructed of primitive sense data, of which colors are one commonplace example. If you are a 19th century philosopher, thinking through for yourself how human beings think, that is the sort of notion with which you start. Add a touch of dialectic and First, Second, Third, does, indeed appear to make a useful kind of sense — if that is where you are starting from. But this is the 21st century. We know a bit more than Pierce did about how human senses work. Shouldn't we be thinking about how to update Pierce instead of proceeding along the lines of theologians everywhere: Assume the faith and see what you can make of it.
Comment by Josh Reno on June 7, 2010 at 8:46pm
Enter Thirdness! Your breakdown of visual experience from light to meaning is not untrue, but how do we get from one 'level' (that of rods, wavelengths and frequencies) to another (that of culturally relative categories)? Peirce's layered interpretation of the real offers a useful way to do that, one which does not rely on the Cartesian dualism implicit in either biophysical reduction, or cultural relativism.

Put another way, how do we account for cultural comparison of "color" variations in the first place? Clearly we agree on some kind of 'redness' (again, one of possibility) in order to say with any confidence that there is some common 'object' shared by English, Chinese or Japanese words - that object may be a range of frequencies, but the point isn't that we can grasp it, only logically presuppose its existence. How can we draw conclusions about cultural variation without something shared?
Comment by John McCreery on June 7, 2010 at 8:18pm
We agree that something like 'redness' is 'in' apples, crayons, and dyes

Do we? One might suggest, alternatively, that light of a certain wavelength interacts with the rods and cones in the eye to generate signals that the brain interprets in a way that minds trained to speak English call "red," while those trained to speak Japanese call it "akai" and those trained to speak Putonhua (the variety of Chinese commonly referred to as Mandarin) call it "hung." We might observe, further, that while some word whose meaning approximates "red" is one of the first to appear in lists of primary colors and that words translated "red" tend to refer to ranges of color that share a particular modal frequency, the range of frequencies to which "red" refers is culturally variable.
Comment by Josh Reno on June 7, 2010 at 7:16pm
John, it is actually much simpler and common sensical. We agree that something like 'redness' is 'in' apples, crayons, and dyes, but also all know you can't pick up 'red' without it being a red something. The category of Firstness is differentiated from that of Secondness as 'possibility' is from 'actuality'. Peirce argues that there must logically be 'firsts' but once we apprehend them they are no longer we lose them in actuality and representation. The value of this distinction is that it admits into our conception of 'the real' that which is phenomenologically (or as he would put it phaneroscopically) possible. What we presuppose is part of our lived reality.
Comment by John McCreery on June 7, 2010 at 6:58pm
The phenomenological category of Firstness, corresponding with iconic signs, is about that undifferentiated ‘quality’ – like “redness”, or the taste of something (chocolate, vanilla, coriander, whatever).

Ask yourself, have you ever experienced any such thing? Is not the "undifferentiated quality," the empiricists' sense datum an abstraction from primary experience instead of the thing itself?
Comment by Veerendra Lele on June 7, 2010 at 6:06pm
The phenomenological category of Firstness, corresponding with iconic signs, is about that undifferentiated ‘quality’ – like “redness”, or the taste of something (chocolate, vanilla, coriander, whatever). Secondness, corresponding with indexical signs, is about rupture, instantiation, but also contiguity and continuity – ie, contact; Thirdness, corresponding with symbolic signs, is about rule, habit, arbitration. Peirce, really early on in his writings (mid-19th c.) described the three as “quality, relation, representation”, and that captures to some extent the grounds of the three sign types as well. As for all the ‘3s’, a colleague of mine (a religion scholar of Jainism) remarked once that ‘Indo-Europeans were obsessed with things in three…’

Your last question is a really tough one – I have to think about it more, it’s something that is a recurrent conceptual issue. To relate it to something anthropological and empirical, I’d return again to racial profiling and the semiotic ideology of race (it’s one of the things I’ve been working on, so it’s on my mind): Troy Duster, a sociologist, describes the practice of racial profiling as a kind of ‘feedback loop’ practice (I’m paraphrasing him here), one that while not exactly a circular argument per se, reproduces the conditions that make the profiling practice seem necessary, or at the very least, logical and expedient (where expediency is the modern civil-bureaucratic handmaiden of racism).

As for purpose v. meaning – like any good genealogist (I was trained by historians as well as by anthropologists) I’m always wary of talk of ‘purpose’ other than in its discursive form, as an expression of power.

And lastly, (hoping this is not too off-topic) with regard to the ‘infinite regress’ arguments, these arguments seem to me strikingly similar to those made by late 19th and early 20th c. Western philosophers (Nietzsche among these – he couldn’t anticipate how his signs would grow…) about aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism being ‘nihilistic’.
Comment by Joel M. Wright on June 2, 2010 at 10:52pm
@ Veerendra:

"I also think it’s kind of cool that humans are part of this continuity; and even more, that within it, we can experience real doubt, real moments of interruption, and then with that great human habit, assess, interpret, arbitrate, and move on, from one sign to the next. I don’t know if this suggests that the universe is purposeful, but it does suggest that it is meaningful."

I'm especially attracted to this last point, where you distinguish between purposeful and meaningful. In a way, we are caught in a solution of causal chains of events that, at least to my mind, do not operate from intent. However, that same world that we experience is redolent with the potential for meanings not yet imagined.

I don't mean to sound despairing when I point to Sisyphus, but I'm wary of the tendency to look for Truth (whether or not we'd burn up in contact with it is another story).

I've got a question, but first I'll need to frame my understanding for clarification: semiotic firstness is about raw, un-separated experience; semiotic secondness is about rupture, a breaking in that continuous qualia that leads to distinct categories; semiotic thirdness is about the ordering of those elements, made separate, into a meaningful assemblage or system. Is that a fair assessment?

If so, at what point does thirdness drive the ruptures of secondness, creating a cognitive loop?
Comment by Veerendra Lele on June 2, 2010 at 9:36pm
Re: “turtles all the way down” as an infinite regress – I know that’s how some analytic and Continental philosophers have read this, and I think they are wrong – where they read infinite regress, I read continuity; not regress, but (cautiously) progress.

I don’t find the “turtles all the way down” as dispiriting as others do. There can be specific ends for specific signs (a ‘final interpretant’), but signs also grow, and semiosis (including star formation, crystal formation, etc.) within the universe is continuous. I would argue that Lévi-Strauss’ cosmic metaphor is perfectly compatible with semiotic, meaning as an effect of sign formation.

It’s also revealing that some would interpret this kind of continuity as a kind of epistemological wall or limit. How do we know or learn about things we don’t yet know? By extending what we do know towards them, into contact with them. That’s how signs grow. We use different forms of inferential reasoning to do this, and it occurs through mediation – semiosis. Peirce argues this in one of the essays Josh mentions (either ‘How to make our ideas clear’ or ‘The Fixation of Belief’, I can’t remember which one).

By “Behind signs, more signs” I simply meant that meaning (corresponding with Peirce’s category of Thirdness) is mediated – that there can be no ‘unmediated’ meaning; and that things (writ large) are meaningful, only to the extent that they stand for something other than themselves. I think that’s the basis of semiotic: the indexical, the referential, contact, contiguity, continuity.

I also think it’s kind of cool that humans are part of this continuity; and even more, that within it, we can experience real doubt, real moments of interruption, and then with that great human habit, assess, interpret, arbitrate, and move on, from one sign to the next. I don’t know if this suggests that the universe is purposeful, but it does suggest that it is meaningful.

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