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 John McCreery on May 25, 2010 at 12:15am
Joel, a Google search for "Pierce sign index icon" brought me to what appears to be a nice, if possibly crude, summary of the issues at stake in formulating an answer to your question. For "icon" to be the right description here, the pomegranate seeds have to have some physical resemblance to the seasons. Does being countable in the same way as seasons, themselves an arbitrary division of time, sufficient?

Thinking about that leads me back to the question I asked earlier: What is the particular payoff from adopting Pierce's distinctions, as opposed to, for example, classical notions of metaphor and metonym, which are also based on resemblance and indexical reference respectively? There may be something here that is more than new terminology. If so, I am an eager learner who would like someone to explain it to me.
Comment by Joel M. Wright on May 24, 2010 at 6:16pm
At the conclusion of the fable of Persephone, Hades tricks Persephone into eating a number of pomegranate seeds. The deal that Hades made with Demeter was that, if Persephone ate the pomegranate, she would stay with him; otherwise she would leave to join the world of the living once more.

The seeds she eats determined her length of stay each year in the Underworld, during which time Demeter's distraction causes what we know as winter.

Can the eating of the pomegranate seeds be seen as a diagrammatic icon for the seasons (one seed for each month, perhaps)?
Comment by John McCreery on May 14, 2010 at 2:59pm
Philip Swift makes an important point here and sets the stage for some basic pragmatic questions that I bring to the table. Let us agree that Michael Silverstein provides an unusually detailed and carefully constructed analysis. It does, however, seem solidly rooted in the linguists' prime directive, the idea that all aspects of language use can be accounted for by a system of rules that determine both meaning and how it is conveyed. And one has to ask, at the end of the day, what adopting this conceptual apparatus adds up to in terms of results. If all we have is translated into a new and arcane jargon such familiar observations as ritual typically involves linguistic and material symbols that construct sacred spaces and point to conventional assumptions that are brought into relationship with the particulars of the situation in which a ritual is performed — is this enough to justify the labor of constructing and deploying the arcane apparatus in the first place?

I am reminded of Turner's remark that theoretical ideas are often most illuminating when extracted from the logical sludge in which we find them embedded. Can someone explain to me, in straightforward terms, what Silverstein's apparatus accomplishes, over and above the mundane observations sketched above?
Comment by Philip Swift on May 14, 2010 at 1:05pm
This is probably an ill-infomed intervention, but Adam's citations of Silverstein sound - to me at least - less like Victor Turner and more like Roy Rappaport. Specifically, Rappaport's notion of the 'canonical' messages that rituals transmit. Messages, that is, that do not broadcast the immediate, social or psychological dispositions of the performers, but, rather, are concerned with the transmission of 'general, enduring or even eternal aspects of universal orders' (Rappaport 1999: 53), thus plugging the performers into what Silverstein (below) calls the 'unbroken (indexical) chain'.

Rappaport is worth mentioning, not least for his obvious semiotic influences, but also because his book is probably the most ambitious anthropological treatment of religion since Durkheim's Elementary Forms, as Keith Hart (no less!) says in his forward to the book.

All the same - and to get back to the semiotic heart of the matter - I'm not convinced that rituals, always and everywhere, mainly work as transmitters of messages. In other words, I have my doubts about the applicability of the semiotic model across all cases. Rituals can often turn out to be rather more opaque and indeterminate. Semi-semiotic perhaps?

Rappaport, R. (1999). Ritual & Religion in the Making of Humanity
Comment by Joel M. Wright on May 13, 2010 at 10:53pm
So then it appears that I have it backwards from what Munn is saying.

The past event is transformed by the present social interaction, which relies on its iconic relation to that past event. If I understand this correctly, it's not about configuring actions in the present as informed by like phenomena from the past; rather it's about taking the associated phenomena from the past and re-ordering their meanings through forms that are part of the present interaction.

Is that reading correct?

So, a person could have acted in a certain way in the past. However, it's through the particulars of the cannibalism of a witch that those acts of the deceased are contextualized as greedy. It's through the particularities of the likeness between the two acts that the potential capacity of the cannibalism is realized in the actions of the victim.

Is that more accurate?
Comment by Adam Leeds on May 13, 2010 at 1:22am
The examples from Munn, I would tentatively offer, seem to be about specifically diagrammatic iconicity: a second order iconicity, one about the relations between qualia of the two objects to be compared.

There is a relationship here to Turnerian understandings of ritual events as operators on social structure. A classic attempt to put this understanding into semiotic terminology is S.J. Tambiah's /A Performative Approach to Ritual/. It is the same insight that Silverstein expresses as "dynamic figuration" ("Cultural concepts" and the language-culture nexus (2004)). Hoping its more help than harm, I'm going to append two long quotes from that last article here, first described in the abstract and then with the example of the Eucharist as a ritual act involving a strong iconic regimentation.

"The presumptively shared knowledge and beliefs of a group are accessed in a society’s rituals under dynamic gestural (indexical) figuration. Ritual works in a kind of pictorial or iconic (specifically, diagrammatic) mode. [8] Ritual as enacted traces a moving structure of indexical gestures toward the knowledge presupposed to be necessary to its own effectiveness in accomplishing something. In ritual, participants spatiotemporally manipulate signs of these beliefs and areas of knowledge in their uttered words and their actions with each other and with objects. And it is the overall “poetry” as well as the particular forms of such manipulation of signs that count toward performing a ritual correctly. What is performed in this way—though always at the risk of misfire or other failure—is the culturally specific “competence” or knowledge that renders the context of performance accessible to someone we might term the believer or group adherent—whose adherence to a particular belief may of course be a normative presumption only.
"[8] We have already been using the Peircean notion of “indexical” semiosis in the sense of a “pointing-to” relationship between a sign and some co-occurrent thing that it stands for. Here, we move more decisively into the Peircean scheme (see Peirce 1931–58:2, 134–73), in which, among the types of “iconic” signs (that is, signs in virtue of a “likeness” to what they stand for) are “diagrams,” analogies of structured relations of parts, as in the floor-plan of a house in relation to the actual spatial division experienceable in the dwelling in other modalities (e.g., by walking around). All analogies, insofar as they are representable by the formula A1 : A2 : . . . :: B1 : B2 : . . ., feature diagrammatic relations between the two sides of the equation. For this whole area of study, see the brilliant systematizations of Peirce in Parmentier (1994:1–44 and 1997).

"...a ritual text as a whole traced over space-time projects as its contextualization that which it dynamically figurates along a “cosmic axis,” an axis of knowledge or belief. Such dynamic, directional spatiotemporal movements in ritual entail in this fashion the causal (re)ordering of cosmic conceptualizations as figurally indexed, such as aspects of sacred or foundational knowledge, feeling, and belief, made figurally “real” in the here-and-now of experienceable semiosis.
"A person officiating at the service of the Eucharist, for example, bounds off a ritual space of objects at a table, an altar in the space-time of liturgical rite—wine poured from a cruet into a chalice, wafers or pieces of bread ona paten or ceremonial plate, both comestibles at a ritual table between him- or herself and a congregation of coparticipatory onlookers. He or she begins to tell the story of The Last Supper of Jesus and the Apostles, specifically quoting in the transposed here-and-now of first-person figural narration and, at the appropriate places for ostensive reference (pointing to the objects of the congregation’s perception and the officiant’s narration), gesturally holding up in turn the ritual objects: the congregants are informed that “This is my body,” and instructed “Partake ye thereof!” and likewise “This is my blood,” “Drink ye of it!” just as were the Apostles, according to the liturgical order of the fateful Passover Seder that constitutes, by belief, actually the first or authorizing occasion of the ritual in which the officiant and congregants are participating in unbroken (indexical) chain. The diagrammatic figuration thus is [In the here-and-now] Officiant : congregant :: [At the sacred initiating moment] Jesus : Apostles. The first is experienced, the second part of the cosmic order of sacred belief."
Comment by Joel M. Wright on May 12, 2010 at 10:47pm

If I understand what you say Munn is getting at, that's very exciting becuase it resonates with something I've been thinking for a long while.

Am I right on this assessment:

In order for any action to be meaningful, we have to have some type of concept of the action to begin with. We have to have a representation of the action, its concommitant meanings and the expected intended outcomes in order for it to be meaninful.

Is this what Munn means when she asserts that social action relies on iconicity in order to be transformative?

Are you familiar with the concept of the sociological act (out of symbolic interactionism)? If I'm right in my assessment, it seems to me that the two theories are getting at the same idea. If I'm right, Munn's idea also resembles Merleau-Ponty's concept of intentionality, at least to a point.
Comment by John McCreery on May 12, 2010 at 6:27am
Veerendra, thank you very much. Very informative, indeed.

What strikes me as I read the examples from Munn that you provide is how Peircean iconicity functions more as inspiration than concept. When you write that,

conicity is important here, because it has the capacity to represent real, empirical ambiguity, even the potential for ambiguity (perhaps the way ‘liminality’ does?

You remind me of a whole series of scholars who have, in one way or the other, reacted against the notion, borrowed from Saussure and the linguists, that symbols are arbitrarily related to the meanings ascribed to them. Besides Turner, I think immediately of Mary Douglas in Natural Symbols and George Lakoff in Philosophy in the Flesh.

I think, too, of innumerable discussions with art directors during my advertising career, where the issue was the appropriateness of images to the meanings that ads were intended to convey. It was during that career that I learned that Lever, for example, explicitly conceptualizes its brands in terms of a triangle whose points are image, concept, and emotion, the choice of image being important to ensure the particular fusion of concept and emotion that a brand is supposed to represent.

It strikes me that there is an opportunity here for someone to write an article reviewing the various ways in which which symbols have been taken to embody or suggest meaning via their material forms. I envision a title along the lines, "Materials and Meanings: From matter to meaning in anthropological analyses of symbols."

Why not you.
Comment by Veerendra Lele on May 12, 2010 at 5:45am
I guess it’s fair to have to account for oneself, as one cannot simply assert the importance of something (say, semiotic theory for anthropology) without concrete examples. One such example is Nancy Munn’s The Fame of Gawa (1986), subtitled ‘A symbolic study of value transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) society’. In it, among many other things, Munn discusses how ‘qualities’ (something like potential capacities) are manifest in social action. Iconicity is important here, because it has the capacity to represent real, empirical ambiguity, even the potential for ambiguity (perhaps the way ‘liminality’ does? I’ve been following the discussion on the symbolic anthro group) – which can lead to social transformation. Munn writes,

“In examining action as a medium of transformation, I have stressed not only potentialities and outcomes (involving causal-sequential ordering functions) but also the iconicity that may inhere in the relation between acts and particular outcomes through the reconstitution of relevant characteristics of the former by means of certain properties of the latter. Not simply a matter of likeness, iconicity may be defined more explicitly as a compounding of relations of likeness and difference. Whereas likeness conveys the connection between distinctive elements, the differentiation entailed in iconicity may mark a semantic shift in which one element serves to make explicit a more general [emphasis orig.] significance implicit in another; the actor may then come to experience this more general significance through its objectification of the icon. In this sense, iconicity can be seen as an ordering function within practices that makes it possible for actors to move between different orders of meaning.” [270-271]

Munn is theorizing that the use of iconicity – because it has not been winnowed into ‘difference’ (as indexicality is) – can make possible the appropriation and subsequent transformation of a practice. She uses this to analyze the cannibalistic act of witches:

“The witch’s act of cannibalistic greed can be seen as an icon of the greedy acts of the victim, since it reconstitutes the latter’s action in a form exhibiting its negative value. Whereas the likeness between the two acts exhibits the connection of the witch’s action to the victim’s, the difference between the witch’s act (for example, its cannibalistic focus that involves an extreme version of greed) and that of the victim’s is crucial to rendering the latter’s act in a “new” form. Rather than merely replicating the first act, the second abstracts and objectifies its general significance. Thus through the persona of the witch and the heavy illness with which she afflicts the victim, the negative intersubjectivity value of the victim’s action is given its specific currency and made experientially available to him or her and others.” [271]

Munn’s discussion is much more complex and involved, and this is only a short summary of a part of it. But I think it’s a good example of what Peirce’s sign-type distinctions can lend. Of all the ways that witches could afflict the greedy, they do so by representing greed to them. And of all the ways that witches could represent greed, they do so through an iconic act. The reasons for it being iconic are not inconsequential – iconicity, in Munn’s analysis, allows for the appropriation and transformation of greed, and the tacking back-and-forth between “different orders of meaning.” We probably see many other theories here: the Hegelian dialectic (Peirce was deeply influenced by Hegel), and maybe even a ‘family resemblance’ (a metaphor about iconicity!) with liminality, among other things. Some might see the concept of metaphor as short-hand for this theorizing, and metaphors are iconic signs (iconic Thirds). So semiotic can allow for a more general theorizing of things including metaphors.

Symbols – or symbolic signs – are the winnowing away of possibility. Icons contain possibility and ambiguity, and since possibility and ambiguity are real, how do we theorize them? I wouldn’t argue semiotic theory alone can explain human meaning, and maybe semiotic alone can’t tell us what something means (again, here I would argue for Peirce's phenomenology as well) – but it can help us understand how something means, and we know from a great deal of ethnographic analysis and research that how something means can be a part of its semantic content as well (and see Silverstein’s classic “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description” (1976)).

With regard to the dung beetle, I don’t have enough corollary information, and it’s way outside of my area of expertise – I was just remarking that there seemed to be an element of iconicity at work, which apparently may have been important, which is part of semiotic anthropology.
Comment by John McCreery on May 11, 2010 at 4:28pm
Allow me to expose my ignorance. Can someone please point me to some examples of serious ethnography illuminated by Piercian perspectives?

What I'm having trouble getting my head around is how squeezing the dung beetle example into a Piercian framework is useful in the sense of generating ethnographic hypotheses in the way that Turner's conceptualization of symbols as organized around sensory and conceptual poles, Lévi-Strauss' focus on what he called the logic in tangible qualities, prototypically the raw and the cooked, or Fernandez's analysis of metaphors as devices for pushing pronouns around in conceptual manifolds (n-dimensional spaces) do. How do you demonstrate that a dung beetle has a potential to represent the sun't movement without a circular argument that brings you back to a human being invoking the beetle as a metaphor? And once you've identified that dung beetle as a "relative first," where do you go from there?

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