The Semiotic Function and the Genesis of Pictorial Meaning

The Semiotic Function and the Genesis of Pictorial Meaning
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  GÖRAN SONESSON: The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning 1 The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning Göran Sonesson In Tarasti, Eero, ed.,Center/Periphery in representations and institutions. Proceedings from the 3rd Annual Meeting andCongress of The International Semiotics Insitute, Imatra, Finland, July 16-21, 1990.: International Semiotics Institute,Imatra 1992; ss 211-256. One way of approaching the subject matter of semiotics may be to consider what is implied by the notionof semiotic function. There are two classical contexts for the use of this phrase. One is found in the workof the linguist and proto-semiotician Louis Hjelmslev writing in the forties. To him, the semiotic functionsimply means that any sign must involve an expression serving as vehicle for a content. But as soon as welook a little closer into his notion of sign, things start out to be very complicated, so it will be moreconvenient to begin at the other end. The second classical locus appears spread out all other the numerouswritings of the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget. Therefore, we will first attend to Piaget, his admirersand critics, to both of which I happen to belong. But before we can begin to deepen our insights intosemiotics by way of a discussion of the semiotic function, something must be said, in rough outline, andat a more abstract level, about semiotics in general and pictorial semiotics in particular. On semiotics in general and pictorial semiotics in particular According to Ferdinand de Saussure, one of its reputed initiators, semiotics (or semiology as he calledit) was to study “the life of signs in society”; and the second mythical founding-father, Charles SandersPeirce, as well as his forerunner John Locke, conceived of semiotics as being the “doctrine of signs”.Later in life, however, Peirce come to prefer the wider term “mediation” as a description of the subjectmatter of semiotics (cf. Parmentier 1985). And Saussure actually argued that in the semiotic sciences,there was no object to be studied except for the point of view which we adopt on other objects (seeSonesson 1989a,I.1.4.). More recently, Greimas has rejected the notion of sign, and his followersFloch (1984a) and Thürlemann (1982a: 1990) have argued the case in the domain of pictorial semiotics.In a similar fashion, Umberto Eco (1976), at the end of his tortuous critique of iconicity, substituted thenotion of sign process for the traditional sign concept.The sign, then (synonymous, it would appear so far, with the semiotic function), is not comprehensiveenough to delimit the field of semiotics: rather, the domain of semiotics is meaning (or “mediation”), insome wider, yet to be specified sense. But since everything, or almost everything, may be endowedwith meaning, we must insist that if any object whatsoever (or almost) may enter into the domain of semiotics, then this is so only to the extent that it is studied precisely as far as its capacity for conveyingmeaning is concerned.Nor should we adopt the popular preconception, according to which the semiotic field is inhabitedsimply by the followers of Peirce and Saussure. In the first place, there would be no reason (more than  The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning: GÖRAN SONESSON2 a superficial terminological coincidence) to amalgamate two such dissimilar doctrines as those repre-sented by the elaborate but fragmentary philosophy of Peirce, and the marginal, if suggestive, annota-tions of Saussure. But, more importantly, in adopting this point of view, we would be unable to ac-count, not only for the semiotical work accomplished well before the time of our two cultural heroes,be it that of the stoics, Augustin, the scholastics, Locke, Leibniz, or the ideologues, but also for muchof contemporary semiotics, some parts of which are not particularly indebted to any of the forefathers.Some of the complexities of semiotic history may be grasped from figure 1. Fig. 1. Fragments of semiotic history The point of view of semiotics may be applied to any phenomenon produced by the human race (orperhaps we should say, more broadly, which srcinates in the animal kingdom). This point of viewconsists, in Saussurean terms, in an investigation of the point of view itself, which is equivalent, inPeircean terms, to the study of mediation. In other words, semiotics is concerned with the differentforms and conformations given to the means through which humankind believe itself to have access to“the world”. It tries to emulate the point of view of humankind itself (and of its different fractions), butit must also go beyond it, to explain the workings of such operative, albeit tacit, knowledge whichunderlies the behaviour of all culture-bearing human groups. Moreover, semiotics takes an interest inthese phenomena in their qualitative aspects rather than the quantitative ones, and it is geared to rulesand regularities, instead of unique objects. It is not restricted to any single method, but is known tohave used analysis of concrete texts as well as classical experimental technique and imaginary varia-tion reminiscent of the one found in philosophy. Moreover, it is not dependant on a model taken overfrom linguistics, as is often believed, although it remains a peculiarity of the approach to construct  GÖRAN SONESSON: The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning 3 models which then guide its practitioners in their effort to bring about adequate analyses, instead of simply relying on the power of the “innocent eye”, as is usual in the human sciences. After havingborrowed its models from linguistics, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics, semiotics is now well onits way to the elaboration of its proper models.Semiotics has a long history, mainly as a part of other disciplines; and, of course, meaning continues to bediscussed, even today, inside most of the human and social sciences. The creation of a particular disci-pline, centred around the notion of meaning, and often, but not always, termed semiotics or semiology,has been announced many times in history, but its career has been episodic, until the recent period. It isonly during the last thirty years that semiotics has gained a large following and, more importantly, enteredthe domain of hard institutional facts. In recent years, research institutes, national and international asso-ciations, revues, congresses, and so on, seem to be springing up everywhere. Eco (1977) has rightlyobserved that the emergence, in our time, of semiotics as a particular discipline must be at least partiallydue to the present profusion of mass-media and other means of communication. It should be added,however, that as a result of these secondary or tertiary layers of mediation which have recently accrued toour everyday experience, we have been forced to realise how deeply mediated is also our ordinary,unreflected life in the unquestioned, sociocultural, Lifeworld (cf. Sonesson 1987c: 1990a).You will undoubtedly have noted the similarity of the preceding account to the one which could begiven of artificial intelligence and, more broadly, cognitive science. There is at the present time aremarkable convergence between the two disciplines, with an incipient interest for the other domainbeing noticeable on both sides, and some practitioners being ascribed to both camps. In his closingstatement, at the meeting of the International Semiotics Institute in Imatra in July 1990, ThomasSebeok suggested that cognitive science was simply semiotics with money. I would add, however, thatsemiotics is cognitive science with additional intellectual sophistication. Marcelo Dascal (1978; 1983)once suggested that artificial intelligence could have avoided many of its errors and confusions bystudying the history of semiotics, including the proto-history of the 17th and 18th centuries. Indeed, Iwill argue that the wide and vague use of such terms as “sign” and “symbol” current in present-daycognitive science (for instance, Johnson-Laird 1988) is precisely the same at that found in medievalsemiotics, before the semiotic function was isolated as particular instance.However, I do not want to claim that semiotics has nothing to learn from cognitive science. It may learnfrom computer science how to make its models more explicit. And it certainly has to absorb a lot of factual knowledge and some notions of theory from cognitive psychology and the psychology of per-ception. The latter is particularly true of pictorial semiotics. No doubt, pictorial semiotics may be saidto take its srcin from a small article by Roland Barthes, written in 1964, in which a analysis of apublicity picture boosting the delights of Panzani spaghetti is attempted, using a few ill-understoodlinguistic terms taken over from Saussure and Hjelmslev (cf. Sonesson 1989a,II.1). Since then, thefield has has been flourishing, with the most important contributions having been made so far, to mymind, by Floch and Thürlemann of the Greimas school, by the Belgian Groupe µ, and by FernandeSaint-Martin and her followers in Canada (cf. fig 2.) Last year, a review specialized in pictorial semioticsbegan to be published, and the International Association of Visual Semiotics (of which I happen to beone of the initiators) was founded in Blois, France.At is present stage, however, pictorial semiotics may well have less in common with Barthes’ Panzanianalysis than with .that “linguistics of the visual image” invoked by the art historian E.H. Gombrich,or that “science of depiction” called for by the psychologist James Gibson; as well as with the studiesof pictorial meaning initiated in philosophy by, for instance, Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein,Nelson Goodman, and Richard Wollheim. The most relevant reference, however, as will be seen shortly,  The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning: GÖRAN SONESSON4 may well be that to Gibson, who, together with such disciples and colleagues as Julian Hochberg, JohnKennedy, and Margaret Hagen, has started to elaborate a psychology of picture perception. – butpsycholinguistics cannot do without linguistics, and, by the same token, we need to establish a moregeneral, theoretical, framework for the study of the picture sign (cf. Sonesson 1989a).Yet another preliminary consideration has to be made at this point. Many exponents of contemporarysemiotics, like those assembled around A.J. Greimas in France, claims that semiotics must be a pure, orautonomous science, such as was once the ideal of structural linguistics. Other researchers, notably inthe United States, tend to look upon semiotics as merely a meeting-place of many different sciences, akind of interdisciplinary framework common to the humanities and the social sciences, including, onsome accounts, biology and neurology..The point of view taken here, and applied in my book, isdifferent from both these approaches: I will take the results of all disciplines involved with the samesubject matter (that is, in the present case, with pictures) to be relevant to semiotics, but only once theyhave been reviewed, redefined and complemented from a specifically semiotic viewpoint.Pictorial semiotics, we shall take it, is that part of the science of signification which is particularlyconcerned to understand the nature and specificity of such meanings (or vehicles of meaning) whichare colloquially identified by the term “picture”. Thus, the assignments of such a speciality must in-volve, at the very least, a demonstration of the semiotic character of pictures, as well as a study of thepeculiarities which differentiate pictorial meanings from other kinds of signification, and a assessmentof the ways (from some or other point of view) in which pictorial meanings are apt to differ from eachother while still remaining pictorial in kind. In differentiating pictorial meaning form other meanings,we should in fact be particularly interested in knowing how they are distinguished from other kinds of  Fig. 2. Context of pictorial semiotics  GÖRAN SONESSON: The semiotic function and the genesis of pictorial meaning 5 visual signification, such as sculpture, architecture, gesture, and even writing; or how they differ fromother iconic signs, that its, from other signs motivated by similarity or identity. And the further analysisof the picture category may lead on to the tasks of characterizing photography and drawing, the adver-tisement picture and the art picture, the picture post card and the poster.In order to elucidate some of these issues, we will now turn to the semiotic function as conceived byPiaget, and ask to what extent, and in what way, it is embodied in the picture. The semiotic function according to Piaget To Piaget, the semiotic function (which, in the early writings, was less adequately termed the symbolicfunction) is a capacity acquired by the child at around 18 to 24 months of age, which enables him toimitate something outside the direct presence of the model, to use language, make drawings, play “sym-bolically”, and have access to mental imagery and memory..The common factor underlying all thesephenomena, according to Piaget, is the ability to represent reality by means of a signifier which is distinctfrom the signified. Indeed, Piaget argues that the child’s experience of meaning antedates the semioticfunction, but that is does not then suppose a differentiation of signifier and signified in the sign.In the numerous passages in which he introduces this notion of semiotic function, Piaget goes on topoint out that “indices” and “signals” obviously are possible long before the age of 18 months, but thenthey do not really suppose any differentiation between expression and content. The signifier of theindex is, Piaget says, “an objective aspect of the signified”; thus, for instance, the visible butt of analmost entirely hidden object is the signifier of the object for the baby; and the tracks in the snow standfor the prey to the hunter, just as any effect stands for its cause. But when the child uses a pebble tosignify candy, he is well aware of the difference between them, which implies, as Piaget tells us, “adifferentiation, from the subject’s own point of view, between the signifier and the signified”.Piaget is, I believe, quite right in distinguishing the manifestation of the semiotic function from otherways of “connecting significations”, to employ his own terms. Nevertheless, it is important to note thatwhile the signifier of the index is said to be an objective aspect of the signifier, we are told that in thesign and the symbol (i.e. in Piaget’s terminology, the conventional and the motivated variant of thesemiotic function, respectively) expression and content are differentiated form the point of view of thesubject. We could actually imagine this same child that in Piaget’s example uses a pebble to stand fora piece of candy have recourse instead to a feather in order to represent a bird, without thereforeconfusing the feather and the bird: then the child would be using the feature, which is objectively a partof the bird, while differentiating the former form the latter from his point of view. Only then would hebe using an index, in the sense in which this term is employed (our should be employed) in semiotics.And obviously the hunter, who has recourse to the tracks to identify the animal, and to find out whichdirection is has followed, and who does this in order to catch the animal, does not, in his construal of thesign, confuse the tracks with the animal itself, in which case he would be satisfied with the former.Both the child in our example and the hunter are using indices, or indexical signs. On the other hand,the child and the adult will fail to differentiate the perceptual adumbration in which he has access to theobject from the object itself; indeed, they will identify them, as least until they decide to change theirperspective and approach the object from another vantage point. And at least the adult will consider abranch jutting out behind a wall as something which is non-differentiated from the tree, to use Piaget’sexample, in the rather different sense of being a proper part of it. Although we will return later toconsider the precise nature of the indexical sign, it will be convenient to note, at this point, that an index
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