Semiotics: What are the implications of the Saussurian sign (signifier/signified) for a theory of meaning?
In my theory of meaning, Saussurian concepts of signifier and signified are a good start, but I propose a fundamental change. In his answer, Keith Allpress offers:
here is where I think we stand:
Shannon removed content from meaning but using bits.
Saussure claimed that language creates meaning.
and points out the limitations of post-modern/relativistic/deconstructionist approaches. I would say that the computationalist approach is similarly limited, in that there is no compelling reason that ‘it from bit’ should apply to all aspects of meaning. I think that what is missing from these two approaches is the same thing, only seen from opposite sides. To understand more about that thing, we can begin by asking:
“What cares about the difference?”
I think where Saussure and modern semiotics in general went too far is in presuming representation without presentation. The error of the computationalist view is even more subtle, as it presumes presentation as an emergent property, thereby taking it outside of the realm of science, but without admitting it. To me, this is a very seductive but misguided approach which leads directly to the Emperor’s emergent clothes.
Taking the term ‘signifier’, we can crack the kernel of truth that semiotics-as-cosmology is based on. Just as it is not incorrect to call someone who is driving a car a ‘driver’, neither is driver a complete description of the role of human beings in the world. What is missing? What *cares* that something is missing? What fills the gap is what I call aesthetic participation, or sensory-motive presence. In my view, before ‘information’ (a difference that makes a difference per Bateson) or sign, there must be the raw sensitivity to detect and interpret such ‘differences’ or ‘signs’ and to *care* about those differences. What we have done, by reifing pattern as objectively real things which are recognized, or de-realizing things as subjectively constructed patterns is to void the existence of sense and sense-making itself.
Not to get too cheeky, but what I propose is that beneath Bateson’s adage is a deeper context from which information and signs emerge: an aesthetic phenomenon which likes its own likeness by making its own differences. I call this primordial pansensitivity, or ‘sense’ and the particular quality of appreciation that it cares about I call ‘significance’. Significance cannot be automated, it must be earned directly through intimate acquaintance. It may sound like I am talking about human intimacy here, but I mean nothing of the sort. By acquaintance (stealing that word from Chalmers), I mean sensory-motive encounters on a fundamental level: before humans, before biology, and before even matter. The universe has to make sense before anything can make sense of it.
The aesthetic agenda is purely hedonistic. It is to develop ever richer textures and modalities of appreciation. While the universe is replete with repeating patterns, it never seems to repeat its particular, proprietary holons. A whirlpool, hurricane, and galaxy all share the same unmistakable topology, but nobody would mistake one for the other. Not just the scale but everything that constitutes their appearance and role in the universe is different. In calling the universe signs or bits we are losing the appreciation and proprietary character. The unique and worthwhile becomes generic and inevitable. It ultimately is to make meaning meaningless.
Names (representations) can be related to each other in ways that nature (presentations) cannot be. The equal sign is itself a name for one of these relations. In nature nothing can be absolutely equal to anything else. All of nature is unrepeatably unique in a literal sense, but will seem to be made of repetition and variation from any particular perspective within it. In this way, the postmodernists are right. We have only the presence of our own ability to feel that can be known absolutely as it is. Everything else that exists for us, within our individually customized experience has some degree of approximation/representation.
What makes this even more complicated and confusing is that there are different levels of sense-making whcih can contradict each other. We would like to think of signs as simply a case of dictionary definitions were signs literally signifiy what we expect they should signify. Even the identity principle of A = A is subject to a deeper degree of expectation about what A and = mean in different contexts. We can look at a surreal painting and say ‘that is a painting of something impossible’, but it is only our expectation that the paint shapes refer to something other than themselves which is being misled. What surrealism signifies is not ‘real’, but neither is it nothing.
Where the computationalists are right is in seeing the uniformity of arithmetic principles across all phenomena which can be measured. Reducing all transactions to bits obviously has been tremendously transformative in this century. By banishing the aesthetic qualities (qualia) to an emergent never-never land, however, we have been seduced by the representation of measure (quanta). Simulation-type theories now abound, in which the entire history of human experience (including the development of science, but shh…) is marginalized as a confabulation/illusion/model and the only true reality one which can never been contacted in any way except through theoretical abstraction. We either live in an unreal world, or the world which we now think is real is not the one that we actually live in. We are being asked to believe that meaning is meaningless and that the only alternative to solipsism is a kind of ‘nilipsism’* in which even our ennui is yet another meaningless function of the program.
To turn the page on this era of de-presentation**, I suggest that we look at the roots of semiotics more deeply, and recognize that signs themselves depend upon a deeper context of sensation and sense-making which goes beyond even physics or human experience.
*a word I made up to describe the philosophy that the self (ipse) must be reduced to a non-entity.
**another neologism that I use to refer to what Raymond Tallis calls the ‘Disappearance of Appearance’…the overlooking of the phenomenon of aesthetic presence itself.
Here is an early sketch of the basic concepts of the sense-based physics in Multisense Realism (MSR). The aspects of MSR that deal with elemental conditions now fall under the heading “Nested Pansensitivity Interpretation (NPI)”. This is intended to pre-figure quantum theory, and is also referred to as quorum mechanics or post-particle physics. It is a general systems concept, so that it can apply to events on any scale, not just microphysical. The simple gifs are intended only as a metaphor – not as literal physical particles or functions. The rising bar of sense could refer to light, sound, emotion, a story unfolding, etc. It’s about the meta-ontology through which metaphysical expectations such as cycles and events arise.
In the top gif, the relation of sense, motive, effort, and effect is shown. Sense, being the primordial resource, is represented by this oscillation of light and dark, but it should be noted that this refers to the appreciation of feeling or sensing, not a literal mechanism which oscillates. Primordial pansensitivity must pre-figure time, cycles, identification of light and dark, etc. All of those tropes of sense (symmetry, opposites, etc) are types of significance (as shown in the second gif).
In the top gif, the center circle is nested within a concentric ellipse to denote one of what I suspect are the most primitive types of significance – the distinction between interiority and exteriority. As sense builds to a peak, it can become focused as a motive. We have countless motives within and at the fringes of our awareness as human beings, but what is being shown here is a conjecture about the nature of any part of the universe, even in the complete absence of human beings, biological life, and physical matter. I use the Omega symbol (Ω) for Motive because a) it’s cool, and b) it references exteriority and teleology obliquely, being that it is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Motive is the part of sense which is targeted for action. The symbol itself obliquely references exteriority as well, appearing as a breached circle or as a white bulb emerging. Using the minus Aleph symbol (-ℵ) has been my convention because of it’s connection to ‘before the first’, and ‘before the expectation of infinite cardinality’. Counting requires logic, which requires multiple nested cycles of sense, motive, effort, effect, and significance to be abstracted.
How would you define it?
I propose a new way of describing time, which I find clearer and more explanatory than others.
Time is an abstraction which refers to a general property of experiences which are remembered or recorded as having occurred in a either an irreversible linear sequence, or a repeating sequence (cycle). In my view, time is inherently phenomenal (private, experiential) rather than physical (public, structural), not just because of time dilation under Relativity, but for the more axiomatic reason that time requires memory. Without memory, there can logically be only one eternal moment. It could be repeating forever or be following a pattern or have no pattern and nothing could tell the difference. Time…is experience, or a quality of experience through which private memory can map to public structure. I suggest that time can be understood as taking on three different modal scopes:
I. Micro-phenomenal: This is clock time. Physics. Looking at the development of time keeping, we can see that early devices exploited natural processes which were either continuous and invariant, such as the flow of water or sand into a container, or which cycled reliably, such as a shadow on a sundial. Mechanical clocks offered a marriage of the two, whereby an underlying linear or oscillating effect such as an unwinding spring’s tension or a pendulum’s swing would advance the teeth of a system of gears, one by one.
Each tick/tock is an precisely measured event which is, as much as possible, uniform and generic. As technology has improved, we have refined the clock to a pinnacle of pure abstraction. Both the indivisible and divisible power of nature has been abstracted electronically. A perpetual electrical current drives generic switches to compute a digitally coded readout. Satellite networks deliver synchronized atomic time. Each microsecond like the last, and even though global adjustments to clock or calendar can be made arbitrarily by central authorities, we feel that this kind of time is the ‘real time’.
II. Phenomenal Time: This is natural time. Idioms like ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ or ‘it was the longest night of my life’ reflect that our ordinary sense of time also dilates and contracts through emotional states. Significant events and experiences seem to stand out in our autobiographical memory as not only more timely, but more timeless as well. We claim them, intentionally or unintentionally, as our own. This kind of time is narrative. “I woke up, I ate breakfast, I went to the store”, etc.. There is a story which has a shape – beginnings, middles and ends. It is not just generic oscillation or monotonous duration or arrow of increasing entropy, but a proprietary sequence of participation. This is the kind of time that we might say ‘seems like’ it is real.
If you think of how a story works, the more of the story is told, the more the information entropy decreases. By the middle of the story, we know the characters, the setting, the plot, etc. The number of possible ways the story can continue is relatively limited (even if it is still potentially unlimited in an absolute sense). The significance, however, of the remaining bit of the story is increasingly augmented. If the story is good, you want to hear the end of it, even if you are pretty sure that you know how it will turn out.
After the story ends, it would seem that there is no entropy left. The story has been told in its entirety. In reality, however, the meta-story has just begun. The memory of it survives, creating new opportunities to be applied figuratively in one’s life, as well as sharing it socially and seeing it retold, dramatized, and celebrated in culture as myth.
III. Metaphenomenal Time: Carl Jung famously wrote about the Collective Unconscious, and synchronicity. Experiences which some consider delusional or paranormal. Meaningful coincidences, prophetic dreams, a symbolic language of recurring characters and sagas called archetypes. This is eternal time. Time wound around itself in such a way that some essential, iconic reduction of all that has happened or might happen is in some sense ‘always still here’ and in another sense ‘never really anywhere’.
This is not mystical babbling to me, it is literally the physical reality of what the universe is and what (or who) it does. We have no trouble thinking of eternity in the Platonic sense, as ideal geometric forms or mathematical relations, but because we ourselves are immersed in human phenomena we do not see ourselves as being composed of similarly eternal recurrences.
Because there is no hard line between I, II, and III, all time is actually nested within all three contexts. This can help explain how intuition could work to allow people to sometimes pick up on feelings from a larger scope of time. Events that have great significance especially could theoretically cast a shadow from the III range to the II, so that from the II perspective, it is precognitive.
“The greater part of operating causes in nature are simultaneous with their effects, and the succession in time of the latter is produced only because the cause cannot achieve the total of its effect in one moment. But at the moment when the effect first arises, it is always simultaneous with the causality of its cause, because, if the cause had but a moment before ceased to be, the effect could not have arisen…. The time between the causality of the cause and its immediate effect may entirely vanish, and the cause and effect be thus simultaneous, but the relation of the one to the other remains always determinable according to time.” (Kant, 1787, The Critique of Pure Reason)
As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.– Gary Snyder
Animation doesn’t make sense as a property which emerges from a computation, it is inferred through an expectation which is aesthetic rather than functional. The information content is the same whether there are rapid updates of static frames or whether there is an animated flow, yet our sense of realism is hinges on the sense of continuous motion.
It makes sense to me that when sense is interrupted by another level of sense, the result is a representation which as an artificially static quality. The conversion from a waving over time to a shape of a wave in space is a destructive compression. The wave shape can be strung together with variations of itself, but that doesn’t automatically imply an narrative experience, only a collection of ordered shapes. If computation is the animation of logic, then logic is at once the dis-animation of sense and the automation of sense.
The genuine dynamism of sense is derived not from position and momentum, but from the transformation of effort into satisfaction. Each micro movement we make subconsciously satisfies countless agendas on every scale – neurological, physiological, psychological, intuitive….thousands of sub-personal negotiations being worked out in real time right under our noses. Scratch an itch, shift position. Paying attention to these things can make us nervous and self-conscious. By bringing our personal awareness into the sub-personal, we slip into recursion and undermine our self-confidence – our power to control our effort and satisfy our personal level agendas.
Curiously, when simple figures are animated into cartoons (the word cartoon comes from the canvas or cards that artists would use to draw them on), the aesthetic of realism is charged with what could be called ‘levity’. Watching a cat chase a mouse in real life might elicit anxiety or agitation, but as a cartoon, the figures of mice and cats are recontextualized as delightful or hilarious. The idea that this is an emergent property of computation alone is technically possible, but only if we have already given computation the benefit of the doubt of producing all of these functionally superfluous aesthetic qualities. It seems to work better the other way. In animation, we see that which is closer to what we are made of – we see imagination ‘brought to life’.
From Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics, he points out the cartoonists mastery of the palette of subjectivity and objectivity. The more realistic detail is added, the more information there is – the more that has been calculated and measured, and the more that it reflects the power of reality to arrest consciousness. The unrealistic face promotes an informal state of mind, where the vacuum of information does not stand empty as it would in RAM, but is instead filled in with self-identification.