Semiotics as the Science of Memory
(University of Toronto, Victoria College)
Abstract: The notion of a culture implies the relative stability of sets of algorithms that become entrenched in human brains as children become socialized, and, to a lesser extend, when immigrants become assimilated into a new society. The semiotics of culture has used the notion of signs and systems of signs to conceptualize this process which takes for granted memory as a natural affordance of the brain without raising the question of how and why cultural signs impact behavior in a durable manner. Indeed, under the influence of structuralism, the semiotics of culture has mostly achieved synchronic descriptions. Dynamic models have been proposed to account for the action of signs (e.g., semiosis, dialogism, dialectic) and their resulting cultural changes and cultural diversity. However, these models have remained remarkably abstract, and somewhat disconnected from the actual brain processes which must be assumed to be involved in the emergence, maintenance, and transformations of cultures. Semiotic terminology has contributed to a systematic representation of cultural objects and processes but the philosophical origin of its basic concepts has made it difficult to construct a productive interface with the cognitive neurosciences as they have developed and achieved notable advances in the understanding of memory over the last few decades. In the 1970s, the emergence of memetics provided a different set of concepts aimed at addressing the issue of cultural changes in a way that parallels semiotics preoccupations but from a markedly different epistemological point of view and with a definite focus on memory (hence the term meme). The purpose of this paper is to explore the possible interface between semiotics and memetics, and to suggest that further advances in semiotics will require a shift from philosophical and linguistic notions toward biological and evolutionary models, and that memetics may provide the means for such a transition.
- A prominent feature of human intelligence is the quest to identify the agencies that can explain observed phenomena. These agencies are variously construed as actors, causes, or laws. Another cognitive bias is the search for ultimate elements or building blocks that combine to produce more complex assemblages. The history of the notion of atom (that cannot be further divided), and its successive breaking up into smaller units, bear witness to this epistemological drive. Similarly the notion of sign attempts to conceptualize an ultimate component of communication and signification processes. Charles Morris, in the context of the Vienna Circle project of an Encyclopedia of Unified Science, claimed that the sign could be considered as an epistemological equivalent of the atom in the physical sciences. Modern semiotics started when the sign itself was further divided into two or three components with various relational modalities. The history of semiotics shows an unresolved tension between the abstract representation of relations among elements, and the intuitive understanding of these elements as agencies that cause changes.
- The explanatory value of these semiotic models has however encountered scientific skepticism because there is an obvious cognitive gap between the generality, or abstractness, of the notion of sign and the actual processes it purports to explain. Unless we remain in an idealized, self-contained domain of speculative knowledge, a simple notion that pretends to explain everything actually does not explain anything. Like conspiracy theories, excessive generality is useless if it does not generate specific representations, for instance in the form of algorithms, that link principles to observed phenomena and behaviors, and whose explicit knowledge makes it possible to predict and control them. For its most part, semiotics has produced an interpretive intellectual culture that describes the observable world in its own terms but skips the most interesting (and difficult) enterprise of investigating the neuro-chemical reactions and transformations that must be assumed to take place in all communication and signification processes. Semiotics, of course, may deliberately limit its ambition to the elaboration of purely philosophical exercises supported by ad-hoc examples and traditional thought-experiments. But if it is to be a sustainable epistemological project, in line with the blueprints adumbrated by its initiators, it is bound to bring the brain into focus. Admittedly, this is a daunting task. (“If the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it” Ken Hill quoted by György Buzsáki in Rhythms of the Brain, OUP, 2006). Advances in human knowledge have always consisted of questioning beliefs that previously were taken for granted. It seems obvious that notions such as signs, systems of signs, and communication carry a heavy load of tacit assumptions which have not yet been fully addressed in the current semiotic paradigms.
- Enters memory. It is indeed impossible to relate to brain architecture and processes any of the concepts that have been developed to date by semiotics without encountering a form or another of memory. It may be expedient to take this for granted and to ignore the extraordinary advances that are being made in this domain of contemporary scientific knowledge. But this would be at the cost of becoming increasingly irrelevant, and it would preclude any form of dialogue and interfacing with a most active and diversified domain of contemporary scientific knowledge. A brief investigation of this domain shows that it truly does not make sense to refer to memory as a straightforward “faculty” of the human mind as it is suggested in philosophical, literary and political discourse. Researchers have demonstrated that there exist at least five kinds of distinct processes supported by distinct neuronal architectures, each having evolved under distinct selection constraints. The impairment of any of these circuits and their neuro-chemistry leads to the selective impairment of some aspects of human semiotic competence. A semiotic meta-analysis of the data accumulated by cognitive neuro-scientists is long overdue. [see for instance the fMRI database].This would contribute to a healthy reassessment of the folk psychology that permeates current semiotics with its blend of phenomenology, behaviorism and Freudism.
- Two arguments could be presented against such an approach: first, the reproach of reductionism; secondly, the claim that the brain sciences would be too difficult to master for being of any use to Semioticians whose training was in the Humanities and Social Sciences. If, in the first argument, reductionism is understood as any attempt to explain the complex by the simple, it should be obvious that the body of scientific knowledge concerning the brain is far more complex that even the most elaborate models that have been produced by semiotics to date, and whose formalism is quite elementary. These latter models are indeed comparatively much simpler, if not simplistic. If, on the other hand, reductionism is understood as any attempt at explaining cognitive processes by evolved neuro-physiological structures and processes, we enter the realm of the metaphysical debate between dualism and monism. Regarding the second argument, it is true that a humanistic education that is focused on language, discourse, and history, does not facilitate the direct assimilation of the results achieved by the empirical sciences. However, there has been, notably during the last two decades, a plethora of reliable scientific publications which popularize important advances in many domains relevant to semiotics. A distinction should be made however between books written by science journalists, who may be distinguished writers but rely on second hand knowledge, and those written by researchers themselves who provide first hand information (even if they have been helped by professional editors in making their prose more accessible to a wider audience that the narrow circles of their specialties). The latter books usually steer clear of sensationalism and cast an invaluable light on the personal and social embodiment of the scientific process itself, in addition to providing crucial information on the state of the art in domains of inquiry eminently relevant to the questions which semiotic thinking has traditionally attempted to anwer.
- A case in point is a recent book by Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize laureate, entitled In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006). An Austrian Jew who fled persecution in his country at an early age, Kandel recounts his early fascination with history and Freud’s ideas, and his own determination to provide neuro-physiological evidence for the tenets of psychoanalysis. He soon abandoned this goal when it became obvious that the simplicity of the model could not be matched in any realistic way with the complexity of the brain. He engaged instead in a scientific search for the neuro-chemical processes that explain how experience become inscribed in the brain to the point of modifying behavior in a permanent manner. For the sake of convenience he started his experiment with an organism endowed with comparatively large neurons, a giant sea marine snail called Aplysia californica. This organism has a relatively simple brain with comparison with the primate brain, but evolution is very conservative and some basic processes in the treatment of information show remarkable continuity. The brain of Aplysia has only 20,000 neurons grouped into nine separate clusters, or ganglia. Since each ganglion has a small number of cells, researchers can isolate simple behaviors that are controlled by it. They can then study changes in particular cells as a behavior is altered by learning. (Kandel, 2006, page 147). Kandel retraces in this extraordinary book the painstaking efforts by successive teams of researchers in various disciplines towards an understanding of the way in which memories are formed in the brain, achieving on the way medical advances that have improved the treatment of memory impairments in humans. The book leads us to the last frontier, the explanation of memory as the richly textured vicarious experience of the past that can be at times actualized in consciousness and prompt us to act in specific ways. This understanding cannot be disconnected from the processes that have been identified through the research that Kandel and others have reported, and which continue to be intensively investigated, notably in the context of research on Alzheimer disease.
- Current semiotic models have been influenced by communication technologies and tend to instill a sort of ballistic metaphor into the semiotic discourse according to which signs are determined entities that circulate from points to points in a network. Even in the context of endo-semiotics, there is a fallacious quality of exteriority attached to the notion of the sign, similar to the illusory projection of percepts as icons of reality. But signs, or whatever processes can be designated by such a macro-category, can only be located in the brain where they are constituted and sustained by memory processes. They are the ways in which any organism deals with information, either through the brain templates it has evolved over its long history of adaptations to particular environments through natural selection, or through the memories it has formed during its ontogenic development, a process which can be extended well beyond the early years of life in humans. The brain cannot be construed as a sign processing machine but rather as an information processing one. From this point of view, signs do not permeate (nor perfuse) the universe, as many Semioticians have it, but rather permeate the brain probably in the form of processes that can be metaphorically conceived as algorithms.
- The fact that we experience memories as the insistence or persistence of multimodal images, experiences and emotions has lead to the implicit but pervasive idea of the brain as a relatively passive organ. A different picture emerges from contemporary research. Memories have been demonstratively shown to be active reconstructions liable to errors, and subject to neuro-chemical impairments. What we call “semiosis” can only be anticipatory processes primed by exogenic and endogenic information, more or less educated guesses that lead to decisions which are adaptive, but not necessarily so. If this is indeed the case, the primate brain can conceivably host parasitic algorithms that exploit its mostly adaptive flexibility. Deception and manipulation have been the object of semiotic attention, and one of the recurring themes voiced by poets is the apparent independent force of ideas that at times take over the mind (brain) of a writer (inspiration, muse, ideas, “Le marteau sans maître” ). These intruders, such as language or gesture algorithms which more or less permanently nest themselves in our brains and control our behavior, have never been easy to conceptualize. The conundrum of the origins of languages and cultures, for instance, bears witness to this. The early epistemological dynamic of semiotics can be seen as an attempt to understand this phenomenon. (Saussure’s langue: duck being hatched by a hen, Peirce’s perfusion, semiosis)
- Enters the meme. This is why the notion that was proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1976 was embraced by so many. Like the sign, it is a notion by default: we have to assume it in the absence of a better explanation. Like the sign, its function is unthinkable without the brain capacity for memory (hence meme, also French même). But it shifts the metaphor from communication to imitation, from transmission to reproduction, circulation to contagion. The strength (or weakness) of this idea is that it was framed in the context of genetics and evolution theory which gave it epistemological teeth, so to speak. Archaeologists, cultural theorists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, and linguists have, in sizeable numbers, endorsed memetics as a credible, albeit counter-intuitive, hypothesis. Semioticians, however, seem to have by and large remained insensitive to this new way of conceptualizing semiosis. Both memes and signs are conceived as dynamic; they transfer information and determine behavior; they both operate in brains. However, the quasi-life status of memes (often compared to viral, or parasitic algorithms that may invade primate or other brains –e.g., birds – in ways that may be either maladaptive or symbiotic, or neutral) squarely bring them under the constraints of the laws of evolution by natural selection and open them to a host of methods of scientific investigation, rather than the pure philosophical speculations that have become characteristic of contemporary semiotics in spite of the blueprints adumbrated by Peirce and Saussure. Recasting in evolutionary biological terms the questions that gave rise in the first place to early semiotic theories would allow Semioticians to significantly better interface with the most advanced frontiers of knowledge (such as research on memory), and avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism and intellectual isolation.
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