World Report

The Semiotic Circle of California

By Scott Simpkins

In the mid-1980s, a handful of semioticians organized the Semiotic Circle of California at the University of California, Berkeley, a group that remains as eclectic as the city itself. Long used as a metonymy for liberal diversity in the culture of the United States, Berkeley is an appropriate site for this intimate gathering of typically 50 or more participants every January. The twenty-third meeting, accordingly, offered an array of radically diverse scholarly papers in keeping with an open-topic framework.

Scott Simpkins, in “Encoding Disaster,” discussed the risks of constructing a narrative message based upon personal trauma, a form of transmission that can be viewed as a mirror of the uncontrollability of semiosis. Drawing upon fictional data found in William Godwin’s late-eighteenth-century novel, Caleb Williams, Simpkins argued that the British Romantic writers repeatedly portrayed confessional scenarios in which the confessor ended up suffering far more as a consequence, rather than experiencing the frequently cathartic outcome touted by many psychotherapy theorists. Perhaps, then, he maintained, this situation reveals the irony behind trying to be in charge of encoding a narrative of one’s public self-image, insofar as that process itself can elicit a whole new wave of negative semiosis despite one’s initial goal.

Meredith Kolar, in “Gender in Translation: Woman as the Scapegoat of Christianity,” explored the Life of Saint Agatha from Ælfric’s first set of Lives and Saints in relation to central concepts of virgin martyrdom and the ways in which it reflects the female body, along with the role of women in western Christianity. In 10th-century England, women were valued as an economic token under the control of men and the vestiges of patriarchy in the church. In effect, women were demonized and sexualized in a manner that made them a scapegoat for Christianity. In his particular use of Old English, Ælfric portrays the role of women in late-Anglo-Saxon Christianity in a manner that both constructs and reflects this endeavor to devalue women. By focusing on the translation of Lives and Saints into modern English, Kolar demonstrated that the discourse that signifies femininity has changed very little over the centuries, even though the English form Ælfric used has changed a great deal.

In “‘Jews and Christians Fight Together’–Making Sense out of A Pennsylvania German Song Supporting the American Revolution,” William Pencak and Jan Logemann focused on the semiotics of a 1775 song by Heinrich Muller, a German-American printer who supported the American revolution. In part, the song encouraged Christians and Jews alike to oppose the British king together, a development that Pencak and Logemann found revealing insofar as there were approximately only 200 Jews among the quarter-of-a-million population in Pennsylvania at the time. Pencak and Logemann argued that Muller’s experiences with the Jews may have prompted him to included Jews as a reflection of their assimilation into support of the American rebellion.

Ellen McCracken, in “The Footnote in Latino Historiographic Metafiction: Rhetorical Strategies of Non-Paratextuality in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” considered the use of authorial, fictive, and pseudo-allographic footnotes in the fiction of writers such as Junot Díaz, Ricardo Piglia, and Sandra Cisneros as expansive narrational tools that, at least theoretically, would ambiguate the distinction between fiction and the documentary genres, and interfere with narrative flow. McCracken emphasized Díaz’s novel in particular by focusing on the fuzzy area between the “main” text and its supplemental texts (Genette’s “paratexts”) where the novel’s notes function in a manner central to the larger fictional narrative and are utilized to enact various discursive strategies. Díaz employs the novel’s notes as tactics involving insider ethnography, revisionist history, linguistic spectacularity, self-referentiality, narrative extension, and markers of implicit authorial voice, which collectively render problematic their status as paratexts, she observed. Indeed, McCracken considers the paratext that is also not a paratext as it subversively alters our conception of the “main” text and highlights that the text is, after all, a construct.

Max Sills, in “Semantic Density in Visual Signs,” endeavored to project semiotic investigation in a direction in keeping with Peirce’s semantic triad of signs in relation to the notion of “density” conceived as the visual distribution of criticality in a text. Sills proposed a close correlation between signs and the density of the “spaces” they inhabit. Peirce’s models are unable to accord with interaction of many sign dynamics in a given text, Sills contended, and offered instead a cognitive grid which analyzes signs in terms of the intersection of “dense” spaces. In particular, Sills considered the ways that null (empty) spaces (e.g., gestural spaces) and discreetly dense spaces function. This approach, Sills argued, leads to a new framework for comprehending visual texts, particularly diagrams (and their syntax), which involve a unique conglomeration of semantic densities. Illustrations can be independent of context, he argued, but nevertheless vary as a consequence of some form of discourse act. Ultimately, Sills maintained, Peirce’s semantic triad does not apply well to visual signs because it is semantic in orientation. For Sills, diagrams can become primary texts if they receive sufficient theoretical grounding, a point he illustrated through a chart of schematic operators similar to a hypertext construct.

The phenomenon of reverse anthropomorphism, in which humans are accorded animal attributes as a means of rendering personality characteristics intelligible through cognitive mapping, was the focus of Aida Sakalauskaite’s “Do We Really Fight Like Cats and Dogs?: A Contrastive Study of German, Lithuanian, Russian, and English Zoometaphors.” Viewing metaphor from the standpoint of substitution and analogy, Sakalauskaite contended that tropes involve using a word or phrase that literally denotes one kind of object or idea, to represent–figuratively–something else. Sakalauskaite’s interest was in the additional or complex meaning in the secondary order that occurs in metaphor beyond literality and into the realm of nuanced subtlety of what could be called the ineffable. For instance, Sakalauskaite explored expressions for an experienced, older person as an “old sparrow” or “old wolf” (Lithuanian), “old rabbit” (German), “old bird” (English), or “injured sparrow” (Russian). Parallel developments in these metaphors can be attributed, Sakalauskaite contended, to similar geographic environment and similar cultural approaches to animals in all four languages and lifestyles considered. Thus, the mappings involved from such metaphors appear to have related semiotic mechanisms. Ironically, this emphasis on the differential nature of metaphor produces a greater degree of accuracy than so-called literal comparisons.

In “Bakhtin’s Voices and Cooley’s Looking-glass Self,” Norbert Wiley proposed a semiotic perspective on Charles Horton Cooley’s notion of the looking-glass self (in Human Nature and the Social Order [1902]), the phenomenon of internalizing opinions that humans think others, particularly intimate others, have of them. Cooley’s concept takes on a different register when compared with Bakhtin’s interest in the semiotics of “voices” and their multiply reflexive nature, particularly in the case of inner speech as “voice” in relation to our social environment. To Bakhtin, any voicing contains numerous avenues of awareness in terms of previous utterances, present utterances, and future responses. The self, according to Cooley’s conception, would constantly reflect multiple venues of situation. Wiley suggested employing the concept of voicing as a means for leveling the consideration of social elements into a consistent field, or as he called it, to “orchestrate” them. Wiley argued that this exercise provided agency for disempowered subjects, and considered two human groups in particular: minorities and people classified as “disabled”. “Oppression is enacted largely via voices and it can be fought by attacking the sources of voices,” Wiley maintained. “Of course, as with labeling theory, minorities can effect resistance only if they organize and take political action. The mere identification of labels and voices is just a preliminary stage. Still it can be a powerful and indispensable preliminary stage.”

In “The Multilineal Poetry of Pablo Picasso,” Enrique Mallen outlined the multiply disciplinary and referential nature of Picasso’s poetry, as well as describing its defining features. Mallen proposed an analysis of Picasso’s poetry within a cognitive framework which allowed for multiple interrelations both in the grammar itself and between the verbal and visual domains. Picasso created an emancipated structure, Mallen contended, a pictorial/linguistic structure with no delegated (or referential) meaning, which thereby required a word-by-word construction by the reader as opposed to offering a whole, static text. This endeavor created a poetry in which “nothing is fixed” in order to spur the decoder’s creativity, Mallen argued.

Gabriel Trop, in “Kurtag Fragments and Holistic Semiotics,” explored the ways in which György Kurtag’s Kafka-Fragmente, a recasting of Franz Kafka’s letters and diaries into music, signifies an anticipatory view of a world cast into disarray. The register of fragmentation is enhanced in Kurtag’s work by alternations between semiotic modes. On the one hand, Kurtag draws upon the iconic nature of music in this work, the ways in which it “fits” with Kafka’s texts, but on the other, he dismantles this sense of fitting by creating within the relation between music and text a type of semiotic “opacity” that challenges the possibility of correspondence between these two signifying systems. Overall, however, Trop maintained that the transformations within semiotic boundaries of Kurtag’s music reveal not so much a cluster of heterogeneous components, as a system in which fragments cohere to form homogeneous interactivity. Kurtag creates a type of innovatively “redemptive” work as a consequence, Trop concluded.

In “Amen Break: Hip Hop, American Capitalism, and Semiotics of Black Culture,” Jeffrey Stewart discussed the sampling and re-sampling in contemporary commercial and artistic realms of a percussion line within a piece of African-American music from the 1960s that has made it increasingly familiar–yet increasingly distanced from the band that invented it, The Winstons. Essentially, then, the identity of the originator is absented in the process of appropriation, Stewart contended. By way of appropriation, in other words, The Winstons’ music was re-contextualized through detachment from the originating signifier. Their song “Amen, Brother” contained the drum solo so widely used in hip hop and other musical genres and referred to as the “Amen break.” Stewart drew upon Zora Neale Hurston’s opposition of “authenticity” versus “originality” in specifically expressive African-American culture to illustrate the ways in which it revitalizes itself by rearticulating and creating “riffs” as signifiers. In this manner, he argued, musicians who use sampling can avoid the pitfalls associated with the political distinction in high modernism regarding “originality.” Of particular importance to Stewart was the question of what these musical riffs signify, considering the array of possibilities including the music itself, the way it is used by an individual appropriator, or how it is ceaselessly re-appropriated in the discourse of capitalism. Like the use of “narrative” in a family quilt, the appropriation of the Amen break helps to create a powerful web of signifiers that articulates features of Black culture and commodification.

Thaddeus Martin’s “Independence Rock as Museum Monument Lexis Agonistike: A Translation from Library Document to Museum Monument” discussed a comparison between the American state of Wyoming’s Independence Rock and the American Vietnam Memorial to illuminate the phenomenological and semiotic components of a type of performative contestation, a lexis agonistike, versus a “written style,” or lexis graphike. In order to frame this dynamic, Martin drew upon Michel Foucault’s notions of Museum as nameless voice (Prosopopoeia) and Library as voiceless name (Asyndeton). Although the Memorial was designed as a museum, it is in actuality a library by way of human interaction which provides embodiment of sorts. Independence Rock, on the other hand, is just the opposite: a library which is actually a rock-as-museum, demonstrating the same type of corporeal aging that human bodies experience as well. As an example, Martin cited the human ability for self-nomination via inscribing one’s name on the Rock, which is prohibited, but nevertheless offers an inscription challenge between the state and its citizenry. Conversely, the Vietnam Memorial allows only for the production of rubbing copies of state-inscribed names of dead subjects.

Irmengard Rauch outlined a semiotic view of the “language event” in “Qualisign, Sinsign, Legisign and the Verbal:Non-Verbal Interface,” a phenomenon she approached as a multi-channel, multi-media activity consisting of conglomerations of silence, gesture, sound, and elements of visual textuality, including writing and illustrations. In effect, it is a mélange of language and paralanguages. Rauch described how she had utilized graduate students in Germanic linguistics from UC-Berkeley to engage in field work in the San Francisco Bay area to gather data to assess the degree of actual correspondence among verbal and non-verbal channels. Moreover, she employed Peirce’s elementary model of the phenomenological categories of the “sign in itself” as qualisign, sinsign, or legisign for this assessment.

Alain J.-J. Cohen concluded the conference with his discussion of the psychosemiotics of cinmea in “Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’: Road Movie and Psychoanalytic Odyssey.” Cohen focused on Bergman’s employment of a highly unstable narrator and the film’s sequence of “losses” (connected with love and sexual security status in particular). Essentially, he maintained, the narrator is positioned as the audience in the film, functioning in effect as a homodiegetic conveyor of information. Dreams, nightmares, flashbacks, and wishes figure prominently in this panorama as Bergman shifts from daydreams into dreams. Furthermore, Cohen developed additional depth in this comparison by juxtaposing the semiotic use of dreams in film with dreams in real life.

Clearly, the 2008 annual meeting of the Semiotic Circle of California continues to reflect a trend seen also in the recent Semiotic Society of America conferences in that perhaps American semioticians are embracing an approach (articulated by Thomas Sebeok and others) that situates semiotics as a field instead of a discipline. In other words, given the paucity of academic programs in semiotics in the USA (and, quite frankly, internationally, too), those interested in studying signs and semiosis must come to such endeavors from elsewhere, drawing upon semiotics to refine and improve their own disciplines of interest. And, of course, contributing to the continuing maturation of semiotics at the same time. The SSA conference in Houston, Texas later in October demonstrated this well, with the increasing prominence of work in biosemiotics, for instance, and the interdisciplinary spread in the SCC gathering only reinforced this development.