Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Question about signs

AKMA remarks on a seemingly hasty and confused NPR piece about "symbols" and evolution:
I’m persuaded that we do better to theorise about meaning on the broader, more prevalent evidence of non-verbal expression and inference.
As AKMA notes, NPR's Alix Spiegel enjoys making huge radio leaps in causality and time without acknowledging that we are leaping. I would merely note that this seems in line with numerous other signs of flimsy, careless, and negligent editorial oversight inside the All Things Considered production effort. Not the first time to wonder if the program should be named Certain Things Adverted To Via Single Source Marketeers, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Punishingly Cute RadioTricks (CTATVSSMADDAPCRT.)

All Things Considered

One problem with the piece is, it mushes various signifying modes into one catchall word, "symbol." An entire field deriving from Pierce and de Saussure in the last century tried to make some headway in sorting out different modes of signification, even as grammar theory and rhetorical analysis looked more closely at the conditions of making meaning, the tricks of arranging signifiers and the tropes that mould, bend, and transfer signification. But hey, this is NPR radio, we're doing science here, not egghead, or even eggcorn,stuff not on the radar of our sponsors.

My question for AKMA is, to what extent he views "non-verbal expression and inference" to be distinct from linguistic entanglement. That is, are we to view verbal language as a subset of a larger realm of signifying powers that may use different sensory and expressive means, but share, at some more basic level, the same structures that produce meaning? Or is it more a matter of other modes of representing meaning that fall completely outside the material, means, and ends of verbal forms and communicative structures?

I ask because while it certainly seems worth saying that the study of meaningful articulations all too frequently remains narrowly concerned with verbal forms of language, it seems equally fair to suggest that in our haste to comprehend all kinds of signs, artifacts, and modes of expression within terms like "symbol," we tend to minimize the role of words, of linguistic structures. We tend to see the verbal element as non-problematic, which might be the same as saying we tend to not see them at all. We overlook our linguistic medium with all its peculiar properties and peculiarities and still not very well understood manners of development in time, we take its apparent transparency for an open window, and leap to conclusions about evidence, truth, objectivity, and so forth with NPR-like ease.

So that's my question to AKMA, who has a longstanding fascination with non-verbal expression, but not just to him -- to you as well, allthingsconsidering reader: If human nature involves making signs, do our modes of expression in all their multifarious glory relate to the verbal order, and if so, how, or do they seem to you to exist free from it?

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Blogger AKMA said...

Thanks for the question, Tom! I don’t regard non-verbal expression as somehow insulated from linguistic influence, not at all. My primary concern involves the reflex by which hermeneuticians begin with a model of linguistic communication that requires some form of subsistent meaning — and then interpret other modes of expression and inference as though they were more-or-less adequate approximations of the linguistic real thing. I take language as an outlying data point, very atypical of other modes, but neither sui generis nor the definitive example.

My secondary concern is the vague and distorted role of notions such as “symbol” when the economy of signification is defined by language. I’m not sure exactly where my imagination wants to go with this, but it involves escaping from the reflex to operate with “literal” as a default interpretive category, and “symbol” or “metaphor” as the catch-all for non-literal interpretation. I don’t think we understand “literal” carefully enough, and certainly don’t understand “symbol” aright if it’s the obscure step-sibling of “literal.” Again, every

My proposed therapy for these hermeneutical snares and delusions entails beginning afresh by attending to the ways we infer significance from non-verbal phenomena. When I glance at the window and observe light, does the light literally mean morning has come and it’s time for me to go to work? Or is it symbolic of the beginning of day? I’d argue that theses are malformed questions — but that some elements of that malformation persist when we apply them to verbal communication as well.

So I take language to play a part in the signifying economy, but that we misunderstand signifying if we rely on the characteristics we’ve gotten used to ascribing to language. Does that help?

8/11/2010 12:06 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Well AKMA, you Glaswegians are fast.

I want to think about your entire response a bit more, and go back to some of the posts linked to in my post for more context. But on the question of literal/metaphoric, you're unquestionably on target. My root sense is that what we can distinguish as literal versus figurative will depend in part on the sort of text we have, its genre and rhetorical mode, etc. E.g. a crow in Aesop will probably not stand in the same relation to crowness as a crow in Shakespeare, or the creature found in Audubon.

I tend to fall back upon the distinction formulated by de Man and others between symbol and allegory. If something is symbolic, it points to a fusion of sign and signification that allegory openly denies. Looked at that way, it is precisely in Allegory that we find the sharpest, vivid presence of the literal.

One also should recall that for the Greeks, the notion of the symbolon apparently rose from the idea of chance encounters between strangers on the road.

I'm not quite sure I get all that's implied in your critique of certain modes of hermeneutics. My thought would be that if there is a simple, all-purpose model of subsistent meaning in some brand of hermeneutics, that the outcome of that brand's interpretive endeavors would tend to have a certain sameness about it - sort of like the brands in Repo Man...

8/11/2010 12:32 PM  
Anonymous a careless reader said...

"When I glance at the window and observe light, does the light literally mean morning has come and it’s time for me to go to work? Or is it symbolic of the beginning of day?"

It's not possible to observe light.

8/12/2010 10:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Would a careless reader care to say more? Would he/she say that one can only observe effects of something we call light, or perceive the effects of certain detectable alterations in the density of the circumambient opacity? It would be helpful to hear a bit more.

The image of light at a window lends itself to all sorts of scenarios. "Clearly," the statement "morning has come" is an inference, capable of correction if it turns out the full moon just rose, or a giant outdoor TV screen turns on, an alien ship lands, etc. "Time for me to go to work" is a consequence of the inference carrying some import to a certain hypothetical viewer. Another might say "time to get to bed," or "time to walk the dog," "time to put on my spacesuit," etc.

The introduction of light into a discussion of interpretive effort probably raises more complications than first "appear." Given how difficult it can be to talk about the basics of intelligibility without falling into the metaphorics of light and mind. Sort of Luciferian of you to bring light in, AKMA ;)

8/14/2010 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little before noon today, a hot and humid day, hazy but bright, with a stiff breeze from the south, I walked the dogs north toward the public hunting grounds. From the top of a hill I saw two turkey vultures on the ground feeding about half a mile to the north. The dogs were unaware of the birds and the carrion. I called the dogs and we turned south. The walk home was made pleasant by the wind in our faces.

"The signifying economy..." what bullshit. Hermeneuticize that.

8/20/2010 3:24 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Isn't that more or less a Sam Johnson? Offering lived experience to counter any hermeneutic is sort of like attacking the possibility of consciousness by producing an orange, isn't it? Well, no, because your reader doesn't have the irrefutable experience, just another text, incapable of closing off its own series of interpretations.

8/23/2010 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Boswell was a card! Johnson was stumbling out of a bar, not leaving church, when he stubbed his toe on a previously unseen stone. His Growled "Thus I refute Berkeley!" was all the more poignant for his having been until that moment unconscious of the existence of the stone. Of course we all knew that, as we knew that Boswell was an unreliable narrator in his sycophantic biography of Johnson.

Perhaps more important is the inference that the dog and buzzard tale is "lived experience." Isn't it as likely that the narrative is a contrivance, built perhaps on the mediated experience of too many hours in front of a television bawling about the fate of Old Yeller, or suffering cranial compression from the Mickey Mouse Club beanie?

Would Johnson's refutation have been more powerful if related by a reliable source? I think so, if only to the extent that the irony in the observation must be offset by the pain of the experience, yet at the moment when toe strikes rock the interface between real world and metaphysical construct dissolves leaving only the true believers interested while the rest of us wander away into the forest to be about the important business of substantiating the trees.

8/26/2010 4:28 PM  

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