Equal opportunity is not the same as equal access to mediocrity. Vive la difference!


Reassessing the Foundations of Semiotics: Preliminaries

International Journal of Signs and Semiotic Systems, 2(1), 1-31, January-June 2012

5.3.2. Old Wine in New Skins?
The modern rebirth of semiotics eventually legitimized what others were doing within their respective disciplines: philologists, structuralists, scholars in literary theory, morphology. Many fascinating ideas have been advanced, and it seemed that a promising new age began. But the effort had one major weakness: it remained focused on the sign. Once a new territory was defined, many moved into it, while actually continuing to do what they had always done. This is not unusual. The most recent example is the morphing of mathematicians and physicists into computer scientists. It took a while until the “new science” (if “new” can be justified in having Leibniz as the final reference) settled into its “language” and “methods.” But in the case of semiotics, those who have run over the border and sought “political asylum” in the “free country” of semiotics actually remain faithful (captive would be a more accurate descriptor) to their old questions and methods.
Therefore, semiotics became the stage for literary critics, art historians, confused structuralists, and even for some linguists, mathematicians, and sociologists—even some philosophers ventured on the stage. Before too late, we had the semiotics of feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, sexuality, food, and even the semiotics of wine; we had gay and lesbian semiotics, environmental semiotics, and even global warming or sustainability semiotics. But no semiotics! Semiotics in this form became a critical discourse of convenience for everything opportunistic. Philosophy, in its classical form, could have performed the same without the heavy terminology that alienated even those who were convinced that semiotics is a legitimate endeavor. While all the subjects—and there are way more than what is listed—are, of course, relevant within the broader context of culture and civilization, the qualifier semiotic at most justified the opportunistic take around the sign as identifier, but did not essentially contribute anything constructive.
5.3.3. Logocratic Ideology
Preoccupation with what is called natural language affected the focus on the sign. It informed the reading of past attempts in semiotics in such a manner that what actually lies behind the sign is cast aside, never really recognized. All this rendered the notion of sign captive to an ideology that dominated semiotics from its beginnings. Simply stated, this ideology is logocratic. That is, it ascertains that every sign can be reduced to a language sign; moreover, that any interaction is language dependent. Since language is the dominant medium of formalization and abstraction, one can understand why this ideology went unchallenged until Charles Sanders Peirce, and later, Cassirer. Roland Barthes thematized the totalitarian nature of this language. Totalitarian regimes rely upon the authority of language in order to consolidate their power. Even the sciences (physics, mathematics, chemistry, etc.) can at times consolidate their “power” through the “languages” they cultivate, to the detriment of alternative understandings in their object domain. Computer science and genetics fully illustrate this thought.
Attempts were made within semiotics to challenge the logocratic model. For instance, some scholars tried to advance semiotic notions connected to human activity; others (inspired by Jakob von Uexkü ll, 1884-1944, as author of theoretical biology; cf. 1934, 2010) reached beyond the human being into the larger domain of nature. But within semiotics itself, dominated by scholars who fled language studies, such attempts were at best tolerated, but never taken as a scientific challenge. If, finally, semiotics could in our days free itself from the obsession with sign-based language as object of its inquiry, it could help debunk quite a number of dogmatic positions. Or at least it could become a guide for maintaining meaningful dialog, among those who acknowledge images, sounds, smell, and tactility as relevant to interactions.
Even though I have made some historical references, I’m not trying to rewrite the history of semiotics (in which very convincing work was already done). I am not even trying to associate moments in history with the currency of a particular subject. We are not so short of histories as we are short of better semiotics. What I attempt here is to point to a development that explains the linguistic bent of even some of the best works produced at the end of the last century. The brilliant literary accomplishments of the French School, as well as the powerful arguments of the Russian-Prague formalists and the Soviet school, and even the German and American elaborations of the 1980s and 1990s are pretty much driven by the same implicit understanding that natural language is paradigmatic, and that a sign-focused semiotics could further consolidate this position. We will not be able to escape the deadly embrace of this limited understanding unless and until semioticians establish a fresh perspective.
They should at least acknowledge that language is not always language. This is important because even though languages are structurally different, we have generalized from the Indo-European languages to the new languages of programming. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to take advantage of the characteristics of other cultures. Moreover, we have generalized from Indo-European language to images, sounds, and other expressive means, although their semiotic conditions are different. If the logocratic model is problematic in the first place, it becomes even more so when it generalizes on account of a particular language experience instead of integrating as many as possible (corresponding to the richness of human activities unfolding in various contexts). However, at the periphery—i.e., exactly that part of the world that was ignored by Western semiotics—semiotic awareness “outside the box” developed quite convincingly and semiotics gained in significance. Of course, the periphery was “colonized;” English is the lingua franca, and semiotics was imported like so many West-based intellectual endeavors. But recently, awareness of language and logic characteristics of practical experiences not reducible to those of western civilization started to inform alternative understandings.
Let me explain: French (as an example of western language and logic) and Japanese (as an example of a very different language and logic) are difficult to reconcile (to elaborate extends beyond the scope of this text, see Nadin, 1997, pp. 168-169, 214, 325). And so is the phonetic writing of many western languages different from the synthetic Korean alphabet. Let’s face it: the most interesting semiotics today seems to evolve in China (which will host the next international congress on semiotics), Korea, Japan, and India. The latter is the recipient of most of Western outsourcing, which is often semiotic work by the way: translations, word processing, scanning, record keeping, programming, etc. While the sign is not discarded, the focus of such a work is rather on broader semiotic entities (text, narrative, game, etc.). This suggests, indirectly, an interest in issues of representation, which are not affected by differences in languages and the associated differences in logic (from the 2-valued Aristotelian logic to the Oriental multi-valued logical systems). If only Baumgarten’s sketchy semiotics, which is part of his attempt to provide a foundation for aesthetics (Aesthetica, 1750), were to be considered, semioticians would at least, instead of generalizing from the language-defined sign, seek a broader understanding of the sign as such, as Peirce attempted. Such an understanding will in the end have to translate into the most important dimension of the sciences: predictive power. We are pretty advanced in the predictive aspects of the physical world; we are still at a loss in regard to predictive aspects of living processes. Let it be noticed that the logographically driven semiotics focused on the sign could at best deliver explanations for semiotic processes concluded (characteristic of the physical reality). Analytical performance characterizes this attempt. But it could not serve, even in the best of cases, as knowledge on whose basis future semiotic processes could be envisaged or, for that matter, designed, tested, and validated as means to support human activity. A semiotics running after, instead of leading to desired semiotic processes cannot serve as a bridge among sciences, and even less as an innovative field of human activity.
These lines are only an indirect argument in favor of more semiotics of the visual or of multimedia, of learning from the differences in various languages, and of discovering the underlying shared elements of such languages. Whether we like it or not, language ceased being the dominant means of knowledge acquisition, just as it ceased being the exclusive means of knowledge dissemination. Representations in expressions other than in language are the rule, not the exception. Moreover, representation, in its broad sense, shapes human interaction to the extent that it renders the semiotics of natural language an exercise in speculative rhetoric.
The fact that means of representation are simultaneously constitutive of our own thinking and acting is not yet reflected in the semiotic elaborations of our time. Some researchers, unfortunately ignoring each other, rushed to establish a computational semiotics, and even cognitive semiotics, not realizing that the fashionable qualifiers “computational” and “cognitive” mean, after all, a semiotics of semiotics. What semiotics does not need is a new way of packaging the worn-out speculations resulting from the ceremonial of an old-fashioned dance around the sign—the elusive princess at a ball where everyone seems blessed with eternal oblivion.
Since computational semiotics was mentioned (cf. Stephan, 1996; Rieger,1997, 2003; Gudwin & Queiroz, 2005) it is appropriate to ask whether such a discipline is possible. The broad agreement that knowledge is expressed more and more in computational form could translate into a well-defined goal: express semiotic knowledge computationally. As such, the goal deserves attention because even though deterministic machines are inadequate for capturing nondeterministic processes, we can work towards conceiving new forms of processing that either mimic the living or even integrate the living (hybrid computation). Computational semiotics (making reference to Dmitri Pospelov and Eugene Pendergraft, to James Albus, to “language games” behind which Wittgenstein is suspected, to Luis Rocha and Cliff Joslyn, and even to Leonid Perlovsky and his intelligent target tracker) is more than looking for justification for AI research, or for some computer-based terminology associated with signs. It would be encouraging to engage those interested in foundational aspects of semiotics in a computational effort. One possible result could be a semiotic engine conceived as a procedure for generating representations and for supporting interpretation processes. But this is already a methodological direction, probably more significant within the broader context of human activity in our days.

5.4. A Methodological Perspective

The possibility of a semiotic engine brings up the third and last aspect I listed above: What defines the semiotic method? Our concepts, whether semiotic or not, are a projection of our own reality. Our environment embodies matter in an infinite variety of expression. Its dynamics results from energy-related processes, themselves of infinite variety. There is change, including our own; there is the rate of change, testifying to an acceleration related to improved performance, but not necessarily to better understanding of what and why we do what we do. There is also failure. The broader the scale of human endeavors, the bigger the scale at which we experience failure. For all practical purposes, a powerful earthquake and a massive tsunami are of a scale comparable to a nuclear power plant breakdown (and its many consequences). And there is the human being: We are what we do defines the living, including the human being. We are currently experiencing the computational condition of research and activity.
Among other things, humans observe nature (while being part of it) more through the deployment of computational means. And they attempt to change the world according to needs they have, desires they form, goals they express, capabilities they acquire. In this encompassing process of the human-being’s continuous selfmaking, humans are semiotic animals, able to operate not only on what is available (from stones, tree branches, edible vegetation, to swiftly running rivers and combustible matter), but also on representations of what the world actually is. Computation is representation driven. This ability is acquired, tested, and continuously changing. To operate on representations is to transcend the immediate, the present. Only the zoon semiotikon (and similarly the animal symbolicum) has an awareness of the future in the sense that they can affect the dynamics of existence. Only through the intermediary of semiotic processes of representation do human beings free themselves from the immediate.
5.4.1. Information and Meaning
Representations are a prerequisite for natural or artificial reproduction. The sperm and the egg to be fertilized are embodied representations of the particular male and female; so is the stem cell, unfolding under complex anticipatory dynamics. Computer programs “translate” algorithms—describing a course of action for reaching a well-defined goal—into operations on representations. Computer viruses, probably more than other successful programs, illustrate artificial reproduction as it results from a dynamics associated with pre-defined operations (the reverse engineered Stuxnet is a good introduction to the subject). Adaptive characteristics of the living and adaptive mechanisms in the world of machines, as different as they are, correspond to two different modalities for generating representations appropriate to changing contexts of existence or functioning. In adapting, the living experiences information processes (corresponding to energy- and matterrelated phenomena) and semiotic processes (corresponding to meaning, and embodied in the narrative of life and its many associated stories).
Space and time are constitutive representations. Furthermore, it is epistemologically suicidal not to realize that concepts, which are representations, help to both describe and constitute the world. We perceive the world empowered (when not blinded) by our thinking and supported (when not handicapped) by artificially extended perceptions. We “see” today much, much more than what we see; we “hear” today much more than what our ears bring to us. But in the end, we never escape the epistemological circularity of our perspectives. This applies to mathematics as it does to semiotics. For people focused on a sign-centered semiotics, a sign definition is as adequate as we can make it adequate. But it is a construct, always subject to questioning, as Sadowski (2010) recently questioned Peirce’s definition, or as I (Nadin, 1983) questioned Saussure’s definition (notwithstanding the relevance of his linguistic contributions, cf. Bouissac, 2010). Something else is at stake: not the adequacy of sign-based semiotic concepts, but the ability to support, to guide practical experiences. The first integrated VLSI (i.e., integrated circuits), celebrated as one of the major accomplishments in the technology of the last 50 years, was a project in applied physics. Today, we integrate millions of transistors in a chip, or achieve technological performance in myriad ways; physics and awareness of the characteristics of the living fuse into a new perspective. But after all is said and done, the entire effort is focused on representations—of arithmetic, calculus, geometry, physics, etc. No doubt, the chip remains a magnificent outcome of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technology, i.e., engineering. But what is “condensed” on the chip is knowledge—representations, not signs, expressed in digital form. Ultimately, this knowledge is representation of all we know about arithmetic, calculus, geometry, etc., of what we know about graphics, color, form, shape, etc. The most recent (and probably soon-to be improved upon) 3DS game player from Nintendo makes 3D representation on a 2D monitor (no goggles needed) possible. The victory of information processing (implementation of the binocular parallax) is associated with a semiotic accomplishment: the meaning of 3D in situations of search, hiding, exploring realistic representations of landscapes, etc. Playing hide-and-go-seek involves our individual characteristics, our ad hoc knowledge pertinent to hiding and seeking. Playing an MMOG (massively multi-player online game) involves embodied knowledge. If this knowledge reflects the reductionist-deterministic view of the world, the game will be a good simulation of this perspective—but not a new perspective of our own being, of our condition as semiotic animals. This is a world of action-reaction. Playing with others, located around the world, via the medium of the game recovers anticipation. This is a victory for semiotics, even if semioticians have to date missed the meaning of such innovative applications.
5.4.2. Monsieur Jourdain Did Not Know He Was Speaking Prose
The most fascinating semiotic applications of recent years came not from semioticians, but from the people who practice semiotics without knowing they do so. To talk about military applications would require an expertise I do not have. (Plus: I prefer not to endorse them.) The entire genome project is such an example. So is virtual reality, that is, computing representations that recreate aspects of the real world. In a virtual reality application for someone who wants to learn how to juggle more than three or four balls at a time, the action pertains to the representation, not to real balls. The glove senses “representation” of balls; speed can be adjusted, and gravity itself is re-presented, made subject to the individual’s control. Not only Nike and MacDonald’s, but also the whole branding craze is semiotic in nature. Politics—the practice of gaining access to power—involves itself in semiotics, and elections are won (or lost) on account of the appropriate (or inappropriate) semiotics. It is an example of gamification— make everything a game, stimulate new forms of interactions, use reward mechanisms to stimulate performance.
But what are semioticians doing? The old soup of psychoanalytic extraction is warmed up again and again; literary criticism is disguised as semiotic analysis; structuralist considerations are rewritten in semiotic jargon; linguistic terminology is made to appear semiotic. To forever analyze popular culture (after Barthes and Eco exhausted the theme), film, music, new media, and video games might lead to texts published by editors as clueless as the writers, but not to the knowledge that society has the legitimate right to expect from semiotics. Books on the semiotics of games will never replace the experience of the game itself, or of conceiving the game. Let us open a “Story Lab” where semiotics can be practiced in generating new stories, corresponding to the fast dynamics of the present, instead of continuing the impotent discourse on narrativity (without understanding the difference between narration and story). And let us provide semiotic methods for the human interactions of the future, not attempts to explain what these interactions were.
Have I given the impression that conditions were ideal in the “good old days” of the semiotic revival of the early 1970s (or earlier)? I hope not. Have I incited a conflict between succeeding generations of semioticians? Probably, in the sense that I still hold to the notion (Peircean, by the way) that without an ethics of terminology, each of us will be talking about something (the sign, let’s say) and understanding something else. The best example is the use of the word sign, and the tendency to substitute symbol for sign (or vice versa). For this ethics to emerge, we also need an encompassing semiotic culture: more people who read primary sources, not approximate derivations, and more people with original ideas who actually read what has already been written on the topic—and give credit where credit is due. Yes, there was more scholarship before, despite the absence of Google or Wikipedia—sources of generalized mediocrity—which some believe substitute for true research effort. Without the realization of the need for scholarship, well-intended newcomers will rediscover “continents” that were already explored, and consequently miss their chance to contribute fresh thoughts. A recent example: The 1st International Conference of Semiotics and Visual Communication was held on March 31, 2011. Where were these semioticians in 1983, when semiotics of visual communication was first introduced (cf. Nadin, 1985)?
Mediocrity corresponds to a new semiotic condition of the human being: Within shorter cycles of change, and under the inescapable pressure of faster dynamics, there is no room left for depth. Humankind is shaping itself as a species of shallow enterprise, a breadth-focused existence, contributing spectacularly to its own end (within a perspective of time that makes the end still far away).
In various attempts at making up “specialized” semiotics—of music, law, sex, and so on and so on—mostly left in some state of indeterminacy, well-intentioned authors decided to use the concept of the sign in order to deal with particular objects of their interest. Obviously, someone can take a ruler to measure how long a carrot is, or how short a mouse’s nose. Appropriateness of perspective, and thus of qualifiers for a certain action or tool, is a methodological prerequisite for any scientific endeavor. Philosophy is not measured in gallons; a work of art is not reducible to the number of knots in the canvas; music is not the map of sound frequencies. The sign, well- or ill-defined, can be the identifier of choice for pragmatic reasons: How well does the STOP sign perform its function? (But when the car is fully automated, the sign as such becomes obsolete.) How appropriate are the various components of a sign such as a logo in a corporate identity “language”? (But when the life of a corporation is no longer than the life of its only product, identity is consumed.) Why is a certain selection made (color, shape, rhythm) in the attempt to establish conventions for communication purposes, or within a culture (such choices will change as fast as anything does in our time)?
It is evident that semiotics integrates the concept of the representation through something called a sign (or, previously, a symbol). It is less evident that semiotics is not reducible to signs, or to the formal relation among signs (what is called syntax). Those who do not realize this irreducibility might at times generalize in a manner not beneficial to semiotics. The best example is that of semioticians forcing their contrived terminology on hot domains of knowledge. Biosemiotics (cf. Barbieri, 2007) is such a domain; and many self-delusional attempts have been made to find semiotics in biology, instead of first asking the question of how semiotics might be relevant to advancing biology. The grounding of semiotics in biology will not justify it more than its grounding in sign theory. What counts is that biological processes are defined by representation, consisting of both informational and semiotic processes. This could be important to semioticians, but only after they find out what this means. However, more important than the syntax of life is life itself, a narration that encompasses semiotics and pragmatics. Its deviations in stories (disease, accident, birth and death, etc.) are far more conducive to knowledge than inventories of signs.
The day when scholars and students of semiotics become the hottest commodity in the labor market and are traded like neurosurgeons, high-performance programmers, footballs players, movie stars, or animators, we will all know that semiotics finally made it. Currently, semiotics is of marginal interest, at most, in academia. Nobody hires semioticians. I am convinced that this can change. But for this change to come about, everyone involved in semiotics will have to think in a different way, to redefine their goals. Semioticians need the patience and dedication necessary for working on foundational aspects, starting with defining the specific domain knowledge and the appropriate methodology. And they need to define a research agenda for semiotics above and beyond the speculative.
I would like to express my gratitude to the antÉ—Institute for Research in Anticipatory Systems, The University of Texas at Dallas, and to the Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg (Hanse Institute for Advanced Studies), Delmenhorst, Germany, for supporting the research that made this article possible.
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Mihai Nadin has been preoccupied with semiotics, underlying interaction, since 1971. His interest
in the foundational aspects of semiotics goes back to 1978 (Sign and Value). In 1982, he taught
the first course in semiotics and user interface (RIT); in 1985 (Eugene, OR), he gave the first
tutorial on the topic of Interface Design—A semiotic paradigm, which was further developed as
part of the Computational Design Program (begun at the University of Wuppertal). He conceived
applications during his consulting work for Apple Computer (later for IBM, DEC, Wang, NeXT).
In tenuous dialog with Max Bense and his group (especially Frieder Nake), Nadin advanced the
semiotic machine metaphor (1983) suggesting that computations are a specific form of semiotic
activity. Nadin set the foundations for the semiotics of the visual (The Meaning of the Visual: On
Defining the Field, 1985). The study of semiotics triggered Nadin’s interest in anticipatory systems
(Mind—Anticipation and Chaos, Ohio State University, 1987). Since 2004, Nadin is Ashbel
Smith University Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Director of antÉ—Institute
for Research in Anticipatory Systems. He was awarded a Fellowship at the Hanse Institute for
Advanced Study. Most recently (prompted by Andres Kurismaa), Nadin has focused on works in
semiotics by Rothschild, Buytendijk, Palágyi—which have been ignored or misunderstood; and
on Nikolai Bernstein’s texts concerning anticipation expressed in human movement.

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Posted in Human-Computer Interaction, Semiotics

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