I wanted to get a conversation going on semiotics and wasn't sure the best way to do it. So I thought I would suggest the first thing I thought of. If it goes nowhere, so be it.

I am a big fan of Peirce, though semiotics the world over is still largely associated with the work of Saussure, no doubt because of his influence on Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Greimas. In my recent interactions with French and English sociologists and geographers, 'semiotics' tends to mean, primarily, that everything is relational. I gather this springs from the recent re-popularization of semiotics through Actor-Network-Theory.

Now, the consequence of this is that many of those anthropologists interested in Peirce, I am thinking in particular of Webb Keane or linguistic anthropologists like Michael Silverstein, tend to introduce the importance of his contribution in contradistinction to that of Saussure. It may have been Roman Jakobson who began this tradition.

I find this to be a rather unfortunate state of affairs. On the one hand, it limits the debate that ought to be had about what semiotics is all about. And it leaves out others, such as Vygotsky, Lotman, Uexkull, and Voloshinov, to name a few, who might broaden this debate.

I am wrong to see this as a problem? Or have I diagnosed the problem incorrectly from the start? How should a semiotic anthropology move forward?

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Josh, thanks for starting this discussion – let me first say I’m so happy that we finally have a semiotic anthro discussion group that is organized around anthropology, and not simply around semiotic theory/philosophy; there are other discussion fora (eg, the peirce-l list run by Joe Ransdell) which are great for delving into the minutiae of Peirce’s (and others’) theories, but often are not grounded in anything ‘empirical’, and when they are, only indirectly anthropological; so I’ve been craving this kind of community where anthros can think semiotically together.

And I’ve thought a lot about your comments above, I’ll try to respond to each of the issues you raise: French structuralism (via Saussure and then Levi-Strauss (via Jakobson? Was is Jakobson who introduced L-S to Saussure’s ideas?) and Saussurian semiology have been the regnant semiotic theory in many ways; and because of this tradition’s roots in language/linguistics (and the possibilities of generalizing language as a social structure to other social structures/systems), it makes sense that there would be distinctions made between Peirce and Saussure in relation to language. The Peirce/Saussure discussion has been fruitful for linguistic anthropologists, and the analytic utility of Peirce’s theories for linguistic anthro (that emerges from these debates/investigations) are manifest in the works of some of the anthros you mention (Keane, Silverstein).

But three things I think about from your comments:
The first is that I think you’re right, ‘semiotics’ is often just a term vaguely equivalent with ‘relational’ (and if it does come from actor-network theory, there are some great sociologists who are doing work in this – but this too has a complex genealogy, which I would actually trace back to Peirce (via the ‘Chicago school of sociology’)) – and Peirce’s theories are much more than this. But curiously, I see an interesting concordance here – Peirce’s semiotic triad is a relationship between three ‘terms’, ie, bringing a representamen to stand for an aspect of an object for/to an interpretant. So it is relational (but triadic, not dyadic), and all (human) meaning is thus relational in nature, just as it is mediated. And one of the core things anthropology studies is human relationships – ie, relationships as ‘things in themselves’ (with all the caveats associated with this pseudo-Kantian formulation), and not simply or merely epiphenomenal or derivative; ie things in relations (like Peirce says, 'the bike in motion, not motion in the bike') and not relationships between things. So I can see how a lot of folks would look to semiotic as an analytic framework to account for the mediated and relational nature of human life.

Not to stress Peirce too much, but one of the important things about Peirce’s semiotic is that it can – in theory – account for all kinds of sign activity, not just linguistic signs. And I think a growing number of anthropologists, including archaeologists (cf. Nold's articles) and perhaps bioanthropologists, are seeing the possibilities of Peirce’s theories for their own work. It’s opening up, I think, and I’d be very interested to hear how others are thinking about semiotic, including Peirce, in relation to Yuri Lotman, Voloshinov, Bakhtin, etc. And because anthro is grounded in the empirical (ie, Secondness, the world resisting/pushing back, interrupting) I think we’ll see semiotic open up even more. I hope. I think it will open up if we start with the empirical first and like all good bricoleurs, we’ll take from Peirce and others. I might be a bit too invested in Peirce, but I find his theories pretty useful for interpreting specific human sociocultural practices.

One final note on this: I also think Peirce’s semiotic is most fruitful when coupled with his phenomenology – Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness. I taught a semiotic anthro course this past semester, and this was the aspect of Peirce’s theories that the students gravitated to the most, when they did their own research papers. One student, for example, analysed modern state execution by lethal injection, in the US. She combined a semiotic analysis of how different kinds of technologies and agents (eg, the medical/legal agent who administers the drugs) mediate the oscillation of the condemned between prisoner and patient. And she included a really interesting discussion of Peirce’s phenomenology – eg, how with lethal injection the patient/prisoner goes from 100% living to 100% dead – and how our modern sensibilities make us uncomfortable with the Secondness of death itself, the ‘throwing up of effects’ of a dying body, so that these are obscured (by chemicals which first paralyze the body), in order to make possible that strange oxymoron – ‘modern execution’. This is just one example of social semiosis and its analysis.

Apologies for such a long response, I think it engages with some of your comments Josh, I hope – I’m really looking forward to hearing from others about different sites of social analysis.

Very interesting and a lot to think about. I don't want to say too much, because I am wary of shaping the direction of discussion more than I already have. But I just want to say a couple things by way of response.

1. In my understanding, actor-network-theory is usually associated with the semiotics of Greimas, whose intellectual genealogy stems more from Saussure through L-S. More recently, STS sociologists (such as Callon, Fabian Muniesa, and Horacio Ortiz) have been mentioning the American pragmatic tradition and even Peirce, though I am not sure to what extent Greimas and Peirce are compatible, precisely for the reasons you mention - potentially different senses of what 'relation' and 'mediation' mean and the role they play in analysis.

2. I want to mention Terrence Deacon's interesting work on emergence as one bioanthropological approach that takes Peirce very seriously and is well worth reading if you haven't come across him. His article the hole at the wheel's hub, in particular, is very "phaneroscopic" (i.e., phenomenological).

3. Couldn't agree more that semiotic anthropology needs to follow Webb Keane, Valentine Daniel and others in embracing Peirce's categories, since they can be incredibly helpful for analysis. Though I wonder about your student's analysis. It sounds like a really amazing topic and their interpretation is brilliant. Not to be obscene, but is anyone ever 100% living or dead? Wouldn't embracing Peirce's continuism involve the existence of an inbetween. I am thinking here of Lacan's symbolic death, Victor Turner's liminal states, and Goffman's descriptions of how prisoner's are divested of their social identity. Is there a productive sense in which people on death row are not quite alive? I only mention this because it is in such cases where other kinds of semiotic interpretation seem warranted and Peirce's ideas might be usefully combined with others. Just a thought.

I should probably have given a pithier response before, but maybe I can offer one now (and I too don’t want to shape the discussion to narrowly): in addition to semiotic being about ‘relational’ things, or signs as triadic correlates, it’s also about representation and mediation – that is, the representational nature of reality, and the mediated nature of all meaning. I think that’s something all semiotic systems might share, and does have direct bearing on interpreting human cultural practices. And I agree about Deacon’s work – I’ve read his Symbolic Species (great book) and recommend it to others – in fact, that really got me thinking about how humans are compositionally semiotic in special ways – ie, ‘the habit of habit-change’.

And your analysis of my student’s project makes sense – I think she was looking at what counts as ‘officially dead’ (ie, when the state’s medical agent declares it by looking at specific technologically mediated symptoms – the indexical signs that modern devices provide); in a particular sense the dead are habitual (at least in a contingent sense as far as the state is concerned) – certain of their habits are settled (which might be why obligations that the living have to the dead are non-negotiable) perhaps the dead have forfeited the habit of habit-change in some way? I’m still thinking this through, and some of this comes from a colleague of mine, Ruth Toulson, who has done fieldwork on the veneration of ancestors among ethnic-Chinese communities in Singapore. But I see your point, and also your point about whether death-row inmates are in a kind of liminal position. Maybe the state’s operating fiction is that the prisoner is 100% alive before the injection and the transition to death (the moment of Secondness) is brief very brief (and painless – no ancillary Secondness for the prisoner).
Just curious. Where does Umberto Eco fit into the Pierce versus Saussure paradigm?
I was looking through a chapter Eco wrote, “Unlimited Semeiosis and Drift: Pragmaticism vs. "Pragmatism"” that appeared in Ken Ketner’s book Peirce and contemporary thought: Eco’s discussion compares Peirce’s theory of semiotic with the concept of ‘hermetic drift’; my initial (and probably severely limited) understanding is that Eco’s own views would be closer to Peirce’s than to other semioticians’ (including Saussure's). Given Saussure’s (straightforward?) ‘structuralist’ framework/interest, I can see how Eco would gravitate more towards Peirce – particularly with regard to the generative aspects of semiosis. Part of Eco’s discussion in that chapter has to do with the teleological complexities of Peirce’s arguments, many of which I don’t fully understand, but maybe others can comment on? Eco’s writings seem to be primarily focused on mediaeval scholasticism and contemporary semiotics, in relation to things such as textual analysis – and I know Peirce was deeply influenced by the Scholastics. There’s probably a lot more to say about the Eco-Peirce-Saussure relationship, but maybe this helps?
I think Veerendra is correct, although from my limited encounters with Eco's work, I think sometimes his take on Peirce and semiotics has been somewhat structuralist. This might be worth exploring in this discussion thread, since I think it gets at some of what is at stake in the Saussure/Peirce distinction (debate? dialogue?) in contemporary anthropology.

I know there has been debate, for example, surrounding Eco's take on iconicity in particular. As I understand it, Eco suggests that if the ground of an iconic sign is similarity, absolutely anything could be a sign of anything else (others have made similar points). Therefore, there is not as much of a gap between icon and symbol as there would seem, since both require an arbitrary interpretative decision that relates some object to some interpretant.

To be fair, as early as '79, Eco was revising his theories on semiotics and calling his earlier ideas "naive" . I don't know to what extent his ideas changed, someone else in our group may be able to explain, but I think it's worth considering his earlier objections. The reason I think they could be considered 'structuralist' (assuming my reading of the debate is correct), is that it denies the 'naturalness' of certain signs (namely, icons and indices and derivatives thereof), in some ways suggesting that conventional (symbolic, linguistic, human...) interpretation is the starting point of semiosis. Whereas, another tradition of Peircian semiotics would suggest the reverse, that all symbols are made of indices and all indices icons, so that the arbitrarity of more complex sign systems relies ultimately on the non-arbitrary or motivated grounds of simpler signs. I know that Goran Sonnesson, for one, is a big critic of Eco's original take on the icon (particularly as it relates to images) and has written extensively on the literature surrounding this issue (which might provide a useful bibliography to turn to, John, since I am not doing that very well here).

What I think is interesting is that even critics of Saussure within semiotic anthropology, let's say, Webb Keane, often cite Peirce to suggest that icons and indices in themseles 'assert nothing'. This is an important component of how Keane supports his concept of 'semiotic ideology', that there needs to be some higher order (i.e., reflexive and conventional) intervention into natural sign relations that allows them to relate to the objects they mediate. The difference between this and a Saussurean position, obviously, is that it suggests that such 'objects' are in some sense 'really real' insofar as they partake of a world that exists irrespective of the signs propagated in (and of) it - thus it is triadic rather than Saussurean and dyadic. However, is it really so different from Eco's position (or at least the straw man I am calling "Eco")? I am just using Keane as an example, but to what extent does today's "semiotic anthropology" rely on a break between Saussure and Peirce and to what extent is such a break necessary or desirable?
i suppose what i am really interested in, just to clarify, is "tomorrow's" semiotic anthropology, not "today's"... the question that interests me in the Eco-Saussure-Peirce triad is what is to be done with semiotic anthropology.
Josh’s reading of Eco makes sense to me – I was looking at that one chapter by Eco (that I cite above), and in it Eco is critical of ‘hermetic drift’ (and critical of Derrida’s reading of Peirce), and Eco seemed more amenable to Peirce’s notion of semeiosis; perhaps I extrapolated too much in extending this to his lack of affinity with Saussure.

I should go back and take a look at Eco’s discussion of iconicity. My understanding of Peirce’s (hierarchical, or at least ordinal) system of signs is that symbols are the ‘most complete’ forms of signs (Peirce describes indexes as ‘degenerate’ signs – ie, incomplete) – yet, all signs are indexical in essence. There is semiosis independent of human interpretants, and this includes iconic and indexical levels. For example, a tree’s shadow is the interpretant effect of the Sun-tree relation (iconic of the tree, indexical of the Sun), whether or not any person is around to see it. But my current understanding is that all human meaning involves an arbitrated aspect, and that is part of what makes humans human. I know Peirce argued that his categories of phenomena (Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness) were ordinal; and I understand that iconic signs are ‘relative Firsts’, indexicals ‘relative Seconds’, etc., and that identity is the ground of (meaningful) difference, so I guess symbolic signs do in some way ‘contain’ indexical and iconic aspects – I’m still unsure how exactly.

I’m thinking of an example I used in my class this past semester: we were talking about passports (and other state-issued documents of ‘identity’). Passports have photos in them – iconic signs – but the photos give little to no info, they ‘assert nothing’, as you note; they are also the least arbitrary, but they also contain too much possibility (ie, too much from the state’s perspective) – so they need to be constrained and further interpreted by piling on the symbols (the signs of arbitration) – a proper name, a passport id#, the state’s imprimatur, etc. I think about what Peirce said (eg, in the pragmatic maxim) about looking at effects. What effect does the iconic sign in a passport produce? How must it be supplemented by symbolic signs? The passport photo then is meaningful on its iconic basis (ie, the iconic ground between the representamen (the photo) and the object (the ‘person’ who hands their passport over to the border guard, the person the photo represents)) because of these supplementary symbols; the photo doesn't constrain/interpret the proper name, but rather the other way around. But really, the semiotic ideology at work requires both (I think; is this correct?), because the non-arbitrary aspect of the iconic sign is quite important in fixing social identity (the passport, with photo, impersonates).

But your bigger question Josh – ie, Saussure or Peirce for the next step of semiotic anthropology – that’s a good, and challenging question. I don’t know if what I wrote above addresses it at all, but maybe it’s not an either/or situation. I think that while there might not be a ‘break’ between Saussure and Peirce, there are distinctions – at least contingent distinctions – that are important; I think Parmentier commented on how Saussure’s semiology seemed to diagram (kind of iconically) a host of other dichotomies (I hope I’m not getting Parmentier wrong here), including the old Cartesian dichotomy, and that Peirce’s semiotic can help us overcome these, or perhaps can help us understand the ways in which many human practices already overcome/ignore (or obviate) the Cartesian divide (among other dichotomies) – (but I still like Saussure, and there is something to be said for linguistic structures…)
Thanks for your reply Veerendra and for mentioning that Eco essay in detail, which I now plan to read. I am beginning to realize just how important he might be as a transitional figure between Continental and (for lack of a better term) Swedenborgian semiotics.

I guess my bigger question is "Saussure or Peirce" or ? for the next step in semiotic anthropology.
Josh Reno said:
I guess my bigger question is "Saussure or Peirce" or ? for the next step in semiotic anthropology.

Thanks, Josh, to both you and Vivendra for some interesting pointers in what are new directions for me. I am intrigued by that "?" I wonder if you or Vivendra has explored, for example, the work of Dan Sperber, e.g., On Anthropological Knowledge or, just brainstorming now, what goes on in cognitive science, video games and advertising. When I read Vivendra's meditations on the passport I am reminded of Jib Fowles (Advertising and Popular Culture, 1996) analysis of the Energizer Bunny, in which the creative team adds the color pink, beach sandals and dark glasses, and the toy drum on top of existing libidinous associations with rabbits (fecundity, female genitalia, Playboy bunnies, etc.) to create one of the most compelling advertising symbols of all time.



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