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Semiotics: What are the implications of the Saussurian sign (signifier/signified) for a theory of meaning?

Quora on Saussure.

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.

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  1. March 9, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    love this! thanks

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