Signs and Culture

Bear with me, audience… I’m working out some ideas.

Velazques, Las Meninas [not coincidentally the cover image on Yuri Lotman’s Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture]

Humanity, among all animal species, possesses unique social relations.  That is, while seemingly all highly-developed animals interact socially, only humans interact socio-culturally.  What exactly does this mean, though?  We are all familiar, on some level or another, with the idea of culture, and even with many instances of objects or behaviors that we speak of as belonging to culture: specifically, arts, beliefs, religious practices, and attitudes towards life and its properties.  It is in this sense that we hear of “culture wars”, for instance; of people within the same society battling over what arts, beliefs, religious practices, and attitudes ought to be dominant or even present within that society.

But how does a piece of art, for instance, come to be a piece of culture?  Or a religious practice?  Can we really say what culture is, or can we only enumerate instances of things we call cultural?  There is a very big difference between the two; the latter comes through familiarity, but the former–being able to define culture in its essence–is the result of knowledge.  I’ve always told my students that if you “know what something is, but can’t really explain it,” then you don’t really know what that something is.

Culture is the totality of relations–cognition-dependent and cognition-independent alike–by which specifically-human meaning is communicated, preserved, and developed.  Cognition-dependent relations are those which would not exist without an awareness of them in some mind; for instance, the similarities (a relation) between Odin (a fundament) and Zeus (a terminus) could never exist except insofar as someone thinks of them–given that Odin and Zeus are themselves only ideas concocted in human minds to begin with (and latter given symbolic representative patterings in various media so as to produce anew those same ideas [more or less] in other minds).  Cognition-independent relations are those which exist whether or not anyone has ever or ever will notice them–such as the gravitational force holding my butt in its chair.  The relation between Odin and Zeus exists within the domain of culture; that of gravity and my butt does not.  But cognition-independent relations do enter into our cultural patterns: as the biological relation between parent and child serves as a ground for many specifically-cultural patterns, not only in rearing, but also in, say, death and memorialization.

(Incidentally, specifically-human meaning can be true or false, good or bad.  “Meaning” is itself a complex term which can be used to signify intelligibility, reference, or purpose–but I’ll not get into that here.)

What enables the communication, preservation, and development of specifically-human meaning is the kind of sign we call a symbol.  Signs are not themselves things, but rather relations; as evidenced by the fact that the essential function of a semiosic relation is for some sign-vehicle (a thing, real or imagined) to direct an interpretant to an object other than itself.  Thus, it cannot be something about the thing itself which necessitates this direction of the interpretant, but rather must consist somehow in the entire relation.  An interpretant ill-disposed to receiving the attentive specification will therefore not see the thing as a sign-vehicle.  For instance, someone from an isolated tribe would be very unlikely to recognize the determination rendered upon an American drive by a red octagon with the letters “STOP” printed on it.  The “stop sign” determines the American driver, but does nothing to the tribesman (except, perhaps, arouses his curiosity–though it’s a fair bet that he would be much more fascinated by any number of things, given that circumstance), despite the fact that one and the same physical reality is directly present to both.  But both the driver and the tribesman would probably interpret the appearance of smoke on the horizon to indicate a fire.

Thus, signs are of any number of kinds and classifications.  Symbols are, however, one kind of sign with which we are eminently familiar, for, among many other things, every word (excepting proper nouns) is a symbol.  Symbolic sign-vehicles have no innate connection to what they signifies.  Nothing about the structure of the word “God”, for instance, indicates the idea of a deity, except by a conventional association.  But this conventionality, though typical of signs, is not their defining attribute.  Rather, symbols are essentially signs of relational patterns, either between a variety of ideas or of individuals.   Thus, the word “human” signifies the pattern of actions and attributes which are essential to the kind of thing that we are–“semiotic” and “animal”: both of which are symbolic sign-vehicles themselves signifying further patterns.

I wrote quite a lot about this in my dissertation, in the fifth chapter.  If you’re interested, you should read it… (*wink* *wi… okay, maybe if and when it’s a bit cheaper).

I also wrote quite a lot about it in my just-finished MS for Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue, so keep an eye out for that publication… which will probably be more expensive…


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