Semiotic Anthropology

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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 John McCreery on May 28, 2010 at 12:18am
"Turtles all the way down" is a terribly depressing image, infinite regress portrayed as sinking into a slough of despond. I prefer the image suggested by Lévi-Strauss in the "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked, where he likens the creation of knowledge to the emergence of stars, clusters and galaxies in a chaos of cosmic dust. The infinite dust is never exhausted, but here and there, light appears, structures emerge. They may even, I note, be far more durable than the human lives we lead.

Works for me. How about you?
Comment by Joel M. Wright on May 28, 2010 at 12:05am
"Behind signs, more signs; it’s turtles all the way down, as the man said. This, maybe is our Promethean burden (to stick with the Greek myth-theme)."

Veerendra, if I could be so bold, it seems less like a Promethean burden, and more like a Sisyphean. Maybe, like the Dadaists, however, the thing’s in the investigation and ensuing dialogue, rather than in conclusion itself?

I wonder if that Indonesian villager knew what he was doing to us poor, poor anthropologists.
Comment by John McCreery on May 27, 2010 at 2:05am
I wanted to make sure that we didn't confuse our interest in Peirce in anthropology with the man himself.

Indeed. If, in retrospect, I have a complaint about the courses in anthropological theory I took a good many years ago, it is that they were, undeniably, a form of Whig history. Thus, for example, we learned very little about Malinowski, except where people now think he was wrong. And since we only read a bit of the Argonauts and his popular potboilers like Magic, Science and Religion, we never got around to appreciating the keen observer and thinker who wrote Coral Gardens.

I know full well that here I am conversing with neither Pierce nor Silverstein themselves, but instead with colleagues inspired by them. The focus of my interest is less in making judgments about bodies of work about which I know too little to offer informed judgments than in answers to the perennial question, "And then?"

I have noticed over the years that the ideas which interest me most are those that answer that question by pointing to something that I can see or do that I couldn't see or do before. An example from another world: I can still remember reading Wölfflin's Principles of Art History and learning to see the contrast between linear and painterly styles. My eyes were opened, my world enriched.

So, I read your comment,

I know some people think Silverstein is unreadable at times, but 'Talking Politics' is a very readable book that, among other things, identifiers how policy makers (specifically presidents) affect change through their linguistic levers.

Thus, I am perfectly willing to believe you and will happily add Talking Politics to my stack of things to read. It would move the suggestion higher up the stack if you would write an additional sentence or two along the lines of "For example, he discusses X saying Y and notes that Z," where Z is something genuinely subtle and surprising."
Comment by Josh Reno on May 27, 2010 at 12:23am
I should, of course, have written identifies, not "identifiers."

:)

Josh
Comment by Josh Reno on May 27, 2010 at 12:20am
John,

To be fair, Peirce's contributions to science are far greater than most philosophers. His ideas profoundly influenced modern linguistics (through Jakobson), modern psychology (through James, who was something like his Engels), cognitive science, mathematics and logic.

That said, I think you make an important observation, which is very applicable in the case of Peirce. The Metaphysical Club is a very readable, Pulitzer Prize winning book by historian Louis Menand that explores (among other things) how Perice's emphasis on triads, the evolving laws of the universe, and scientifically derived enlightenment were shaped by the Swedenborgianism of he and his father. If he is taken more seriously than Aquinas, I'd say this isn't just because his ideas are systematic, but that they developed under conditions and in conversation with concerns that are closer to our own.

I know some people think Silverstein is unreadable at times, but 'Talking Politics' is a very readable book that, among other things, identifiers how policy makers (specifically presidents) affect change through their linguistic levers.

As far as Peirce goes, if you read some of his philosophy, specifically 'The Fixation of Belief' and How to Make our Ideas Clear which many claim as the founding documents of American pragmatism, he works very hard to render the complex and arcane ideas of modern philosophy and science in a clear way. I also think most of his publications were with Harper's and other popular journals.

I think naturally our discussion from here on will focus on 3., rightly so, but I wanted to make sure that we didn't confuse our interest in Peirce in anthropology with the man himself.

Best,

Josh
Comment by John McCreery on May 26, 2010 at 11:09pm
I should, of course, have written Aquinas, not "Acquinas."
Comment by John McCreery on May 26, 2010 at 5:11am
First, hearty and genuine thanks to Josh, Adam and Veerendra for stimulating comments of a kind that makes participating in this online discussion a joy. That said, I am not yet persuaded. Adam writes,

Silverstein is unparalelled: you can recast into his systematic terminology most of the insights of Pierce, Saussure, Goffman, Garfinkel, Jakobson, Austin, Grice, symbolic anthropology ... among others. Pierce's vocabulary is intended for a similarly broad though different scope: he looks to create a unified philosophy of scientific methodology, epistemology, logic, causality, and language. Pierce was simply a polymathic systematic philosopher of the kind that don't come along every year. Metaphor-metonymy-synchedoche won't do for all that. This is, again, bracketing all of their substantive advances.

I do not dispute what he says. I note, however, that much the same thing can be said of St. Thomas Acquinas and the Summa Theologica, which is also a powerful synthesis and articulation of the thinking that preceded it. How much of it to we now take seriously as a contribution to science, to scholarly interpretation, or, more broadly, to our understanding of the world as we currently conceive it? If, that is, we are neither Catholic theologians nor students of medieval history?

Adam mentions "substantive advances" and here, to me, is the rub. Andrew Abbott suggests that social scientists generally aim to achieve one or three goals: (1) to identify levers with which policy makers can effect change; (2) to translate the unfamiliar into more familiar language; or (3) to develop a surprising and subtle explanation of something either newly observed or taken for granted. I am ready to be persuaded otherwise, but it seems to me that neither Silverstein or Pierce is aiming at (1) or (2). If (3) is the goal in question, it is precisely the substantive results that I want to learn more about.
Comment by Veerendra Lele on May 25, 2010 at 5:31pm
There are quite a few really engaging and complicated posts to respond to, I’ll start with Adam’s post and cite from Silverstein:

Adam’s commentary is really good – I think he’s right that Munn’s analysis involves a second order iconicity – and his inclusion of Silverstein’s analysis of the Eucharist (and by extension, other kinds of ritual performances) is apposite: diagrams, analogies, etc, are iconic – and part of their human meaning is to be found in this capacity. That is to say, there is something about iconicity that is concordant with certain human practices, including religious ritual (including prayer, ‘the repeated word’; or the recitation of mantras, which are tone, token, and type – at once). There is a larger semiotic ideology at work here, I think, one suggested by Michael Herzfeld (2005), who in another argument describes the ‘natural’ as iconic; I don’t have the text with me right now, but the sense I get is that iconic similarities suggest ‘natural kinds’. One should easily see the important ramifications of such meanings, and of the theories that can account for them.

While the terminology of semiotic is new for many, it’s actually quite ‘old’, the roots of it going back (in the Western philosophical tradition, at least) to the mediaeval Scholastics as Josh mentioned. Peirce was writing primarily at the end of the 19th c. The terms (many of which were neologisms prepared by Peirce) are a bit awkward – but like any conceptual language, once they get used in a variety of contexts, they seem much more amenable. In fact, the concept of indexicality (of which Peirce is not the sole author) has become pretty commonplace in anthropological analyses, with good effect: symbolic order rest upon and logically presuppose indexical signs, and sometimes the indexical aspects (tears welling up in someone’s eyes, a spontaneous laugh of embarrassment) comes to the fore and predominates. A reliance solely on the symbolic order is not up to the task of accounting for these meanings. That’s where semiotic comes in.

The other really important thing about semiotic is that it is describes (triadic) relations. And anthropology is all about relationships – so semiotic seems naturally concordant with anthropology’s prime directive: that relationships are not just epiphenomena, but are ‘things in themselves’, compositional for (and yes, diagrammatic of) human being. Here are a few examples which have helped me think through this and which demonstrate, to my mind, the utility of semiotic for cultural analysis:

In an area of western Ireland where I have done some fieldwork, people’s kinship reckoning often relies upon assessments of other people’s bodily gait, their comportment. People will say they can recognize a member of a particular family from hundreds of meters away by the way that someone walks up a lane. The representation of one’s position within a certain genealogical line occurs through the iconic practice of bodily comportment of ones ancestors. This might occur also on the dance floor, when doing sean-nós (‘old-style’) dancing – others might take up that form, and it can become a symbol of a particular family’s way of dancing (but also iconic and indexical). But to be sure, one can’t simply say “Hey, I’m dancing like my kin!” (all pure symbols, with the possible exception of the “hey” and maybe the “I”) – you’ve got to do it, and it has to produce the pragmatic effect that would recognize the iconic similarity (similar to what Silverstein wrote) – that is, the dance as representative of ones genealogy is meaningful on this iconic basis.

Or consider in the classical Indian music tradition, where the wood of the old sitar of one’s beloved music master has been warped to his body through years of his playing it. When you, as a student, sit with the sitar, your body takes that shape – it has to, in order to play it correctly and produce those sounds. In this way, a complex semiotic performance occurs: the material object, shaped by human habit, throws itself forward into the next generation of musicians, and they iconically reproduce not just the sounds, but the bodily characteristics of their music family (and there are strong kinship components in the instruction of Indian classical music). The concept of ‘symbol’ alone cannot account for this.

And one final anecdote: A friend of mine was working at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC a number of years ago, and they were staging a production of Schiller’s play Mary Stuart (about the tumultuous 16th c. in England). Queen Elizabeth I plays a large role in this, and the actress playing QEI was an African-American woman. A long-time patron called up the theater to talk with my friend about the play, and she remarked (I’m paraphrasing a bit here) “not that I want to sound racist, but isn’t it strange that Queen Elizabeth is being played by that actress?” My friend replied, helpfully, “You know, Queen Elizabeth the First is actually dead. The woman playing her is just an actress.” (I’m not paraphrasing here) Such is the power of a semiotic ideology of iconicity in racial reckoning – there is definitely more than just a symbolic order going on here.

These are all explicitly ‘performative’ examples, but I think they might suffice for now.
In response to John’s two critiques – that of linguistic theories overarching all of linguistic (and of all cultural?) practices, and of the utility of semiotic that goes beyond other concepts such as metaphor/metonymy, similarity/difference, even mimesis/alterity, I think Adam hits the nail on the head: semiotic does provide a more comprehensive framework for discussing all meaning (and once again, I would refer back to the triadic nature of the sign), not just linguistic. That linguistic anthropologists have been at the forefront of this is no surprise, but I don’t think I would describe Silverstein’s work as arrogating or subsuming all practices under linguistic practices. Rather, his work, like that of other linguistic anthropologists whose work I’m familiar with, see linguistic practices – communicative acts – as complex, and tied to many other things, but not necessarily logically prior or hierarchically superior to these other things. It’s not the fault of linguistic anthropologists that so much human (cultural – read political, social, economic) work gets done through these communicative acts. And semiotic actually allows these linguistic practices to be analyzed and understood within a more common field. Semiotic is not reducible to language, but language can be understood as a semiotic practice, which itself points to and operates through others – for a really good example of this, check out Webb Keane’s Signs of Recognition. And I definitely acknowledge that there’s always the reductive risk of seeing everything through one theoretical lens alone, it’s a good caution to keep in mind (maybe we saw this in an earlier anthropology’s interest in structuralism, given Lévi-Strauss’ (the original bricoleur! What happened?) debt to Jakobson).

Semiotic, I would argue, allows for a much more in-depth understanding of how something like ‘similarity’ works: from my above examples, one of the things that always frustrated me was the simple reliance upon notions of similarity and difference – as though they were meaningfully self-evident. As such, ‘similar’ and ‘different’ were never concepts, they were just adjectives (and certainly not triadic relations), applied after-the-fact. But because semiotic is a part of a larger system of logic (including forms of inferential logic), and because it is tied to a phenomenological system (of quality, relation, and representation), it can help account for predispositions, for anticipatory circumstances, for possibility. And I think it’s much better at achieving what Bruno Latour describes (favorably, to my mind at least) as anthropology – ‘empirical metaphysics’. I know I’m stressing Peircean semiotic here, and hope that others (as Josh has done) will contribute other semiotic theories to these discussions.

Behind signs, more signs; it’s turtles all the way down, as the man said. This, maybe is our Promethean burden (to stick with the Greek myth-theme). And it is not just overcoming Saussurian dyadic semiology that Peirce allows, it is also (even more significantly?) overcoming the Cartesian division as well. (And thanks John for your earlier words of encouragement about meaning and materiality – I’ve been considering the very same thing for some time)

Finally, Persephone’s pomegranate seeds: Though I’m not totally familiar with the Greek myth, the eating of a seed per season (per month?) does diagram the somewhat discrete qualities of seasons – that is, the changes (the ‘edge of seasons’ as Derek Walcott called it) are moments of Secondness, and might be represented by indexical signs (a leaf falling from a tree); and the capacity that individual, discrete seeds have for segmenting time is what serves as the iconic ground – but as Adam and Josh note, it is ultimately one of arbitrated convention (as all human units of measurement are), so each seed is an iconic symbol (because the relative Thirdness of symbols presupposes the relative Firstness of icons). And the cruel irony of having her daughter eat seeds was probably not lost on Demeter, the goddess of the harvest; well played, Hades…
Comment by Adam Leeds on May 25, 2010 at 4:58am
I would say in answer to John's query as to the use of adopting new terminologies is that, in both the case of Silverstein and that of Pierce, entirely bracketing the very major substantive advances each have made, is that you get a *coherent* theoretical language to talk about phenomena that have, of course, already been described, but only in part and each part in perhaps incompatible theories. A synthesist, Silverstein is unparalelled: you can recast into his systematic terminology most of the insights of Pierce, Saussure, Goffman, Garfinkel, Jakobson, Austin, Grice, symbolic anthropology ... among others. Pierce's vocabulary is intended for a similarly broad though different scope: he looks to create a unified philosophy of scientific methodology, epistemology, logic, causality, and language. Pierce was simply a polymathic systematic philosopher of the kind that don't come along every year. Metaphor-metonymy-synchedoche won't do for all that. This is, again, bracketing all of their substantive advances.

Also, I'll add my agreement with Josh's answer to Joel's question about the pomegranate seeds: I'd say yes, for sure, diagrammatic icon. Quantity of seeds is an icon for quantity of months. A relation among the seeds, thus, bears a relation of similarity to a relation among the months. The eating of the seeds is an enacted icon (or, in Silversteinese "a dynamic figuration").
Comment by Josh Reno on May 25, 2010 at 3:27am
John, your question is an important one. In fact, the thought that our ideas have practical consequences and must be judged accordingly is basically the essence of pragmatism, or pragmaticism as Peirce called it. So your request to be shown the purpose of learning and deploying a complicated analysis to say things that resemble other theories/approaches is one that Peirce himself would demand that we ask! I have a few observations:

1. There are many overlaps between Peirce's ideas and those of other theorists of the sign and language. This is not so surprising, since many of these writers are steeped in the same 18th and 19th century philosophical traditions/debates. Peirce, some argue, didn't bring philosophy forward, but backward to the Middle Age scholastics (particular Scotus).

2. To the extent that people find the available fragments of Peirce's (unfinished) work original and inspiring, it is in large part because he thinks in threes and there is a tendency in "western" philosophy, culture, society (whatever) to think in twos. This may sound silly, and I suppose it is in a way, but by simply looking for the excluded third, you end up seeing things in a different way. For me, and I think for others, seeing things differently is the ultimate pay off, illuminating what was previously obscure, opening up new lines of inquiry.

3. From what I understand, I think that Umberto Eco would agree with you that iconicity is essentially metaphorical thinking, establishing likenesses between things. But things get more interesting when you ask what is missing from the metaphor/metonym dyad. Well, probably synecdoche. The next question would be, how do they relate? Well, some say that the latter two are really derivative of metaphor, which would remind your typical Peircian that symbols are not only different from indices and icons, but composed of them (just as indices are composed of icons, completing the hierarchy). The handy thing about Peirce's categories is that you can reveal different aspects of sign relations by exploring these different triads and how they overlap. People rarely talk about metaphorical metonyms, because there isn't a way of thinking that makes that meaningful, but indexical icons are a key part of Silverstein's use of Peirce.

4. The reason that Joel described the pomegranate seeds as diagrammatic icons, is that these are icons with a degree of arbitrariness in how they relate to their objects. For example, a photograph would seem to be indexically related to the scene is depicts, though it is essentially an icon, but the color red on my shirt and on an apple is far more inherent a similarity. The other extreme is a symbolic (or diagrammatic) icon whose relationship to its object is motivated by convention. There is a sense in which number/seasons are always diagrammatic icons, I suppose.

5. Finally, I would say most semiotic anthropologists are not satisfied with merely re-labeling signs and phenomena in this way, but attempt to use the nested categories of sign types to derive a more intricate understanding of social life. I could go on, but don't want to dominate this discussion. Happy to elaborate if so requested by the collective.

Best,
Josh
 

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