Nöth on pictures and stuff

Nöth, Winfried 2003. Semiotic foundations of the study of pictures. Sign Systems Studies 31(2): 377-391.

Some semioticians have declared that such [non-representational] pictures cannot be signs because they have no referent [...] How and why pictures without a referent can novertheless be defined as signs... (Nöth 2003: 377)
From the standpoint of Morris's behavioristic semiotic this is very easy to answer: signs must have signification (relationship between representamen and interpretant) but they can have denotation (relationship between representamen and object). Though he doesn't exactly use these terms and now that I think about it, in Peirce's semeiotic these relationships cannot be viewed separately. This is something that still baffles me - does every sign really need to have an object? Or am I just not getting the immediate/dynamic object thing? The word "unicorn" signifies but it does not denote, because such objects as a horse with a horn does not (to my knowledge) exist. Blah.
Abstract pictures do not represent anything, but rather 'show' or 'exhibit' only themselves (Böhme 1993: 28, in Nöth 2003: 378)
In this "intrinsic" sense every picture shows or exhibits itself. If it wouldn't then it would not be a picture. But don't abstract pictures represent abstract ideas or feelings? I thought abstract art was about representing something that does not have "a physical or concrete existence". I'm reminded of P.O.S. lyrics "She loved to paint, nothin' in particular / Just blues and greys, that's how she felt throughout her days." I think these blues and greys represent her feelings, whatever they may be.
In contrast to such arguments, I would like to develop the thesis that all pictures, including the abstract ones, are signs. My aim is to show that the arguments against a general semiotics of pictures suffer from the lack of an adequte model of the sign and have been developed without due consideration of the results and tendencies of current research in the semiotics of puctures... (Nöth 2003: 388)
This seems like a correct approach, because if signs are restricted to representation only, then it excludes many sign-phenomena that are definitely sign-phenomena, but don't succumb under the definition of representation. Rather, every picture and every text signify something, whether that something is concrete or abstract. Oh yeah, unicorns are a case of abstract reference, because it "is an object which does not exist at any particular time and space, but rather exists as a type of thing, i.e. an idea, or abstraction."
The assumption that only those pictures are signs which depict, like a photograph, an object or a living being suffers from the reductionistic view that every sign munt have a material object as its referent. Consider the logical consequence of such a theory for the semiotics of language. Words could only count as language signs, if they depict objects such as "apple", "house", or "fish". Words such as "love", "unicorn", or "good" that depict no "real" objects could not count as language signs since they depict no real objects. (Nöth 2003: 379)
I love the fact that he uses the example of unicorn too. In this light it makes perfect sense why Morris spent so many pages on distinctions that try to convey the difference between signification and denotation in terms of discourse (e.g. the distinction between lexicators and formators which at this time still remain a mystery to me). That is, some people don't seem to "get" this important distinction.
According to Boehm (1994: 372), the mistake of reducing pictures to depictions ("Abbilder") has been characteristic of the "conventional" approach to pictures in general: "The conventional concept of picture [...] is based on the idea of depiction. It is the idea that pictures mirror a presupposed reality (in whatever stylistic distortion). What we know and what we are acquainted with meets us once more under exonerating visual circumstances. At any rate, the nature of depiction consists in a doubling." (Nöth 2003: 379; footnote 7)
I think (Thomas Mithell 1986: 12) made a similar error when he discussed mental imagery only in terms of what he calls "copy theory". I don't think there's any significant reason why "stuff in my head" should be exactly the same as "things in the world". I like the term "stylistic distortion" because it indicates towards what I mean by "recoding" in my half-baked visual concourse approach, but I don't think it's merely "stylistic" and it is not "distorting". That is, the changes are more than merely stylistic - there is a whole gamut of possible transformations; and "distortion" has a negative connotation while in actuality artistic depictions can resemble their objects more clearly than photographs (e.g. drawings are better for illustrations than photographs because the "recoding" of visual data brings out the most significant aspects for human perception).
It is true that the sign model reduced to the dyad of "sign and object" - with which some uninformed theoreticians of the picture operate still today - can be found early in the history of semiotics. Nomen significat rem, "the word signifies the thing" was definition to be found with Roman grammarians, and until Albert the Great, we find the view that the scholastic definitien of the sign, aliquid stat pro aliquo 'something stands for something [else]' was interpreted as a relationship between a sign and an object. However, as early as in the writings of the scholastic semiotician William of Ockham the sign no longer stands for a "thing". There, the new and more modern definition states that the sign "evokes something in a cognition": Signum est ille, quod aliquid facit in cognitionem venire (Nöth 2000: 137, in 2003: 380)
Yup, I jumped ahead of the text with my own speculations. What I like about Peirce's semeiotic, though, is that thi sign does not have to evoke something cognitive, but there are three varieties of interpretants: emotional (work of the glands), energetic (work of the muscles) and then cognitive (work of the mind). Morris's behavioristic semiotic seems to acknowledge this and hints that anything can be a sign as long as it evokes some response. From this standpoint the picture is a sign because it evokes a response (though this makes me wonder about non-signs, e.g. those marks that are meant as signs but don't evoke a response or don't have a signification for me - e.g. these latin words, the "meanings" of which I don't know; could it be that a picture that doesn't capture my attention is not a sign for me?).
Both views of the sign, the one that focuses on the referential aspect of the sign referring to an object and the one that focuses on the mental aspect the sign evoking a cognition have later in the history of semiotics become integrated in models of the sign that distinguish three components of the sign, the sign itself or sign vehicle, the object of reference relating the sign to the world of things, and the meaning which relates the sign to the mental or cognitive world of ideas.
Accordinc to this triadic model, a picture, for example a photo of Sir Winston Churchill, is a sign vehicle, its object of reference is the politician who died on January 24, 1965 in London, and its meaning is the sum total of our cultural and historical knowledge about the life of this politician. (Nöth 2003: 380-381)
I'll try out Morris's concepts on this very same example (because there are some similarities, but Morris's concepts are a bit more exact). The photo of Churchill is a sign-vehicle and if we recognize that it belongs to the sign-family "photograph" (presume that the person depicted on it has actually existed and this is not a photoshop creation). Then the signification of this photo would probably be "the sum total of our cultural and historical knowledge about" Churchill which will let us conclude that the person depicted is indeed that selfsame Churchill whose images we have seen before in history textbooks. Here it is relevant that we know that it is an actual photo and we recognize the person in order for it to denote. (There have been cases when, for example, a video clip from a computer game has been presented as actual historical footage). I'm a bit doubtful if we should view the interpretant as "the sum total of our ... knowledge". Rather, interpretant is our "disposition to response" at that moment, in that particular sign-process. To put it in general terms: the "meaning" of a photograph of Churchill for me and at the moment is something else that the sum total of all meaning related to Chirchill. In this particular instance the picture of Churchill is not even present in the article but is being referred to verbally, but it is still a sign (in this case a mental image) and its "function" here is to illustrate discussions of sign-models (here I made the convenient lotmanian identification of "meaning" as "function" which does not work in every case).
Such reductions of the semiotic triad to two independent dyads are not possible in the framework of Peirce's semiotics, as will be seen below. Every sign, and hence every picture, both has meaning and refers to an object. However, this theory of the genuinely triadic noture of the sign does not mean that the object of a unicorn, according to Peirce, is a really existent being with some similarity to the picture that depicts it. Rather, the object of the picture of the unicorn and the object of the sign in general is defined in a way that differs greatly from the realist tradition, which claims that only things can be objects. (Nöth 2003: 381)
It feels as if I've been a few steps ahead of this article. So the "object" does not have to be a material object it but can be another sign, for example. That is, a representamen calls forth an interpretant which calls forth an object which is another represetamen which calls forth an interpretant which calls forth an object which is another represetamen and so on and so forth (the case of infinite semiosis).
In our context, the sign, that which "stands to somebody for something in some respect", is the picture. To be a sign, it is not necessary that the picture be on paper or canvas. A sign, according to Peirce, can also be a mere though, an idea. Hence, a mental image can also be a sign. What is important is that the sign as a picture on paper or a sa mental image be "a first", something that comes first to a mind that then relates it to an object as its "second" and an interpretant as its "third". (Nöth 2003: 382)
Hmm, so my order was different. I thought the interpretant mediates the representamen and the object. For example: you see a chair and interpret it as something that is meant for sitting; or you hear the word "chair" and you interpret it as chair, e.g. something you sit on. That is, in my mind it "mediates" both ways.
The object for which the picture stands "not in all respects" can be a concrete object, such as an apple or a fish. However, it can also be a mere idea or something purely imaginary to which the sign refers, since the object, according te Peirce, is not neccessarily some "real" object. Peirce says nothing about the 'reality' of this object at all and describes it as something "perceptible, or only imaginable or even unimaginable in one sense" (CP 2.230). He even goes so far as to speculate that "perhaps the Object is altogether fictive" (CP 8.314). Hence, not enly really existent, but also merely imaginary beings, such an unicorns, can be objects of the sign. (Nöth 2003: 382)
Okay, so the object in Peirce's triad is more like an objective - "a thing aimed at or sought; a goal". It is what the sign-process calls forth or refers to. It this point I feel myself losing attention. I'm a bit ill and should go to sleep.
Nobody can deny that maps which represent accurately existent territories are complex signs. However, the idea that maps of non-existent, imaginary, or merely speculative territories are signs must seem unacceptable to those who maintain that imaginary pictures are no signs. Nevertheless, in contrast to the naive realist view of the referent of a picture, the object of the sign, according to Peirce, does not exclude imaginary or even false territories. Imaginary territories of maps have their object in both the world of geographical facts and in human minds. (Nöth 2003: 384)
Places like Narnia and Hogwarts cannot be denoted (e.g. there can be no proper road-sign saying that indicates at a physical place) but they do have signification (we can speak about them, imagine ourselves being there or represent them visually). As a sidenote: Ptolemy defined geography as the study of the entire world and chorography as the study of its smaller parts, and topography was added later as the study of small areas.
A genuine icon is not a sign characterized by similarity to its object but by its undistinguishability from it. (Similarity between sign and object is the characteristic of what Peirce defines as a hypoicon.) The genuinely iconic sign constitutes a kind of degree zero of semioticity since it is reduced to the category of firstness, "the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything else" (CP 8.328). Such an icon is a sign merely by virtue of qualities of its own, and since it is not yet distinguished from its object, it does not refer to or "stand for" it at all (CP 2.92, 2.276). Peirce says that the genuine icon "does not draw any distinction between itself and its object" since it is a sign by virtue of its own particular qualities (CP 5.74, 4.447). He calls such an icon, which is a sign merely of its own qualities, a rhematic qualisign. As a sign undistinguishable from its object in this way it is a self-referential sign. (Nöth 2003: 385)
I had no idea that a genuine icon might be related to what Ekman and Friesen (1969b: 60) designate with a somewhat clumsy term "intrinsic coding": "An intrinsic code is in a sense no code in that the act does not stand for but IS its significant; the meaning of the act is intrinsic to the action itself." I'm not very well versed in peirceanese, but notions such as "degree zero of semioticity" and "a self-referential sign" seem to indicate towards Lotman's understanding of repetition as a kind of metaphor. This is of course different from intrinsic coding, but I think this could also be related to Bakhtin's (1984: 221) treatment of word "echo": "The devil shouts into Ivan Karamazov's ear Ivan's very own words, commenting mockingly on his decision to confess in court and repeating in an alien tone his most intimate thoughts." But here the repetition is distinguishable due to its "tone" - it is not a genuine icon. Because I don't have any other mentions of genuine iconicity in this blog I'll briefly look elsewhere. For example, there is a whole book dedicated to iconicity in language, titled The Motivated Sign. It contains an article by Winfred Nöth titled "Semiotic foundations of iconicity" and the paragraph about genuine iconicity goes as follows:
A genuine icon is more than merely similar to its object. It fulfils its semiotic function "by virtue of a character which it possesses in itself", so that the genuine icon "does not draw any distinction between itself and its object" says Peirce (CP 5.73-74) and concludes: the genuine icon "is an affair of suchness only". Sign and object merge in one (Santaella 1995: 143), and the genuine icon turns out to be its own object, referring to nothing but itself (cf. CP 2.230). We are thus confronted with an autoreferential or self-representing sign (Ransell 1979: 57). Peirce summarizes these characteristics of genuine iconicity when he states that the pure icon is a sign "by virtue of its being an immediate image, that is to say by virtue of characters which belong to it in itself as a sensible object, and which it would possess just the same were there no object in nature that it resembled" (CP 4.447). (Nöth 2001: 19)
I'm not sure if this improves the situation, because there seems to be no example. This is a common case with Peircean semiotics, I think, because so much of his writings are about phenomena that are arrived at through logic and some of these phenomena cannot even occur outside of abstract models. In the following paragraph, he says: "No actually produced icon can be a genuine icon." (ibid., 19) and that the articles in The Motivated Sign are all actually about Hypoiconicity. So, yeah, it seems that we're talking about something that doesn't actually occur. Right-o. The reference goes as follows: Nöth, Winfried 2001. Semiotic Foundations of Iconicity. In: Fischer, Olga and Max Nänni (eds.), The Motivated Sign: Iconicity in Language and Literature 2. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 17-28. I'll return to the SSS article now.
Genuine icons are not a class of objects, they are phenomena that create a particular way of seeing without relating the object of attention to something else. Peirce describes how in the contemplation of a representational painting the picture may lose its referential nature and become transformed from a sign with reference to a genuine icon without:
Icons are so completely substituted for their objects as hardly to be distinguished from them. [...] So in contemplating a pairting, there is a moment when we lose the consciousness that it is not the thing, the distinction of the real and the copy disappears, and it is for the moment a pure dream - not any particular existence, and yet not general. (Peirce, CP 3.362)
Once a picture is thus contemplated in total disregard of its referent, it is no longer a hypoicon, but a genuine or pure icon. The process comes close to what the tradition of aesthetics has defined as the autonomous or self-referential function of art. (Nöth 2003: 385)
Aha! I jumped the gun on proclaiming this a non-occurring phenomenon. This is actually a quite interesting phenomenon and curiously I have experienced it in terms of music. It is that dreamlike state when you listen to music so intently that you get "swallowed up by it" or in T.S. Eliot's terms you become the music while the music lasts. This is very difficult to describe - much more so than in the case of visual signs. The nonverbal implication is theatrical. You experience genuine iconicity when you get so invested in the play on the stage that you forget that it is a stage and the people are actors and it becomes something that is as such. In this sense the remark about "suchness" makes perfect sense - you forget the "extrinsic" code and view it as if it were intrinsically coded - you let go of the fact that people are performing a script and view it as it is, as if it were occurring as such (and you just happened to observe it). Oh wow, there's an interesting implication for paranoid-schizophrenic discourse (if we turn the relationship here between sign and object around): the "crazy person" may let go of the fact that stuff happens "as such" and may consider that everything everyone else does may be scripted (as in The Truman Show). So, I digress, genuine iconicity and phenomena that one may arrive at through it can be quite interesting. I'll look at one more external source:
The criteria of "similarity" and "signifying by one's own quality" are not coextensive. Instead, they account for a difference in the degree of the iconicity of the sign to which they apply. A sign by likeness in the degree of the iconicity of the sign to which they apply. A sign by likeness does not only signify by its own qualities but also by other features. It is therefore less iconic. Onomatopoetic words testify to this rule since they differ from language to language and, in this respect, they are symbols, despite their iconicity. A sign that signifies only by its own qualities would be the most iconic sign, a "pure icon" (CP 2.92, 1902), whereas the sign by likeness is not a "pure icon" but a "hypoicon" (CP 2.276, 1902). For example, in as far as a painting follows the conventions of its genre, it is not a genuine icon, but a hypoicon. Pure iconicity is an idealized degree of iconicity which can never be reached completely but only by approximation. Under the influence of its object, the sign cannot signify exclusively by its own quality, since signifying an object already means being under the influence of otherness. Peirce gives the example of a portrait: no portrait signifies on its own because it is painted or photographed under the direct influence of the person which it represents. Such a portrait is a (hypo)icon because of its similarity to the portrayed person, "but, in fact, it is not a pure Icon, because I am greatly influenced by knowing that it is an effect, through the artist, caused by the original's appearance, and is thus in a genuine Obsistence [i.e., 'indexical'] relation to that original" (CP 2.92, 1902), and this kind of influence by otherness makes the same portrait an indexical sign. (Nöth 2008: 83-84)
Here the influence of "knowing that it is an effect" seems to be heavily related to what was also nated by Mitchell (1986: 17; emphasis in the original), namely that "an image cannot be seen as such without a paradoxical trick of consciousness, an ability to see something as "there" and "not there" at the same time." Lotman's "formula of art" is equally related to this trick or effect. The implication for nonverbal behavior here, I think, is related to dissemling or "faking facial expressions". There's a whole theory of iconicity in facial expressions that could be built on this, but the easyest example would one that relates somewhat to the topic at hand: when we see a large billboard on the side of the Kaubamaja that depicts a smiling female model then we let it convince us that the woman is actually happy (and, so should we be, and go buy whatever she is wearing and stuff). But when approached critically, we see a model whose job it is to convince you of her joy and when you know what to look for you may notice the painful awkwardness in her demeanor, the masked dissemblance, or whatever (I don't like this kind of use of language). In any case when you "overcome" the effect then it becomes plainly obvious that the facial expression of joy is feigned. Then again this is not the aspect we are supposed to study and it feels weird arriving at "I know that the female model is not actually happy, but I clearly see that her expression is joyful." If this line of inquiry be traced we would end up in a very uncomfortable area of nonverbal behavior. Let's just let it be (for now, at least). The reference: Nöth, Winfried 2008. Semiotic foundations of natural linguistics and diagrammatic iconicity. In: Willems, Klaas and Ludovic De Cuypere (eds.), Naturalness and Iconicity in Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 73-100. And the reference to Lotman's formula of art, "I know that it is not what it depicts, but I clearly see that it is what it depicts." is: Lotman, Juri 2011. The place of art among other modelling systems. Sign Systems Studies 39(2): 249-270. (link to PDF). Back to Nöth's SSS article now.
The shift from a hypoiconic seeing of pictures to seeing pictures as pure icons is evidently what has happened in the historical revolution of modern art, where abstract and otherwise non-representational pictures have become liberated from the bonds of their referential objects to function as autonomous compositions of colour and form in which the difference between sign and object has been obliterated and meanings have become mere possibilities. (Nöth 2003: 386)
This is brilliant. The girl who paints only blues and greys because that's how she feels throughout the days is not representing something that is a concrete object, but a whole range of possibilities of objects. As Firstness implies in terms of interpretants: she is signifying emotions (not actions, e.g. facial expression, or ideas). If she were to represent emotions through facial expressions and just painted a sad face, this would already be Secondness - otherness with an existential quality (there is a face), while the colours blue and grey combined in seemingly random ways (she might have her own style or technique for painting blues and greys) don't represent anything concrete or existing. This example also works because Peirce talks about qualisigns with an example of "redness". Her paintings signify "blueness" and "greyness", which have connotations of sadness in our culture - so, alas, there is a component of symbolism and we know that this, too, is not a case of genuine iconicity but of Hypoiconicity. This is beginning to make a lot of good sense.
Prototypes of pictures that have become iconic qualisigns are monochrome paintings and minimal art. These are probably the works of art which have negated most radically thereferential object of the pictorial sign. Any reference to the world of material things, living beings, and symbols is programmatically eliminated. The pictures are reduced to pure forms and colors that refer to nothing but to themselves. (Nöth 2003: 386)
Besides monochrome paintings, a very different kind of picture belongs to the iconig qualisigns, pictures that evince complete chaos without any recognizable principle of composition. Such pictures with lines, forms, and colours never seen before are free from any stylistic principle of visual coding and exhibit nothing but their own qualities. What such pictures have in common with monochrome pictures is that nothing is similar to them, and precisely because of this, they can be similar to everything. (Nöth 2003: 386)
OMG. I was just about to discuss this at length. Good thing I decided not to step one step forward and explain something in my own terms before reading what Nöth had to say - this happened with such exactitude with the last quote that "Exactly." pretty much captures it.
Here I have to put forward something personal. I like the lyrics "She loved to paint, nothin' in particular / Just blues and greys, that's how she felt throughout her days." because I've done that and felt that. There was a time in my life when I was on work exprience (ettevõttepraktikal) at TÜ Multimeediakeskus and I guess I was depressed, because I purposely made life-choices that I now regret (with the aim that I would some day regret them) and I spent most of my days with Inkscape, drawing lines, forms, and, instead of colours, shades of grey. I was inspired by one of my favourite albums, The Grey Space by Horrorshow (specifically with the track that is named after an anti-depressant that resembles my username: Celapram). ... After a long and fruitless search after a too-well-disguised-for-even-myself-to-find deviantart account I finally found an example of that incredibly large picture in one of my old blogs. This is but a small piece of the whole picture which was finely detailed even when printed out on A0 paper (poster size).
I enjoyed doing this because it somehow captured what I was feeling: complicated and unintelligible, in a "there's something there you may never come to understand" kind of way. When people saw what I was doing they guessed or proposed that I was drawing a map for a non-existent city metropolis or something. I wasn't. I was drawing lines, forms and shading them in grey because it was just something to do. I was just a kid trying to make something beautiful.
Once more the question arises whether and how such pictures can be signs or whether it is a semiotic contradiction to consider pictures without referents in the traditional sense as signs. In the framework of Peirce's semiotics, such a contradiction does not arise, since it takes into account the possibility of self-reference in signs. As we have seen, a sign can be its own object (CP 2.274). According to these premises, non-representational paintings are self-referential signs whose objects is in their own structure, colours, light reflections, and shadings, which constitute a system of chromatic and formal reference existing between the pictorial elements only. (Nöth 2003: 376-377)
Yet again, spot-on! The "reference" in my grey chaotic space was between the lines and forms themselves. I was mostly considering the distance between parallel lines and the visibility of intersections.
However, non-representational pictures are not only signs insofar as they are self-referential. There are other respects in which they are signs. First of all, they are signs insofar as they belong to the genre of painting. In this respect, they want to convey, so to speak, the message: "I am a work of art (and not some other rectangular surface that happens to be yellow)." Furthermore, such paintings inevitably refer to previous and current styles or trends in art, even if they are opposed to all of them. Finally, if nothing else seems to be meaningful, at least the title of an abstract picture certainly conveys meaning to the painting. (Nöth 2003: 388)
I was just thinking that non-referential pictures convey their signification in conjunction with a text that explains or otherwise indicates at a concept, feeling or action. I don't know how to call it, but what I have in mind are the texts that go alongside artwork in museums, with the artist's name, the title of the work and some other information about it (a co-text that gives con-text; a verbal excerpt that reveals a concept).
The prototype of pictures which are predominantly iconic sinsigns is probably Action painting. Jackson Pollock's Action paintings evince singularity and individuality insofar as they show indexical traces of the painter's presence in the picture. His expressive pictorial gestures visualize the movements of his hand, his paint brush, and they show the traces of his paint pots in the process of painting. (Nöth 2003: 288-289)
Sounds similar to Acconci's Run-Off (Dworkin 2001: 100) in that both use the body, without the extension of a paint-brush or any other artifact, to make marks on the canvas.
The subdivision of genuine pictorial icons into qualisigns, sinsigns, and legisigns, which focuses on the natureof the pictorial sign as such, made it possible to distinguish three major trends in non-representational painting. (Nöth 2003: 390)
Hmm, I missed these. Let's re-read. The iconic qualisign applies to non-representational art (whether monochromatic or chaotic); the iconic sinsign would be something Pollock's Action painting - something that shows "indexical traces of the painter's presence in the picture" - or Duchamp's "found object" which would be rubbish without the artist's signature; and iconic legisigns apply to art that follows "a chromatic and geometrical morphology and syntax" and "whose validity is not only restricted to this particular picture". Although Nöth notes in the conclusion that he had to exclude the study of pictorial interpretants from this article, he nevertheless followed the phenomenological categories of interpretants. That is: iconic qualisigns are related to emotions (in my example with blueness has emotional connotation of sadness); iconic sinsigns are related to actions ("Action" painting); and iconic legisigns are related to cognition (one must know and be aware of and think about "visual laws to the colours and forms" in order to apply them).

Nöth, Winfried 2006. Yuri Lotman on metaphors and culture as self-referential semiospheres. Semiotica 161(1): 249-263.

Yuri Lotman describes metaphors and culture as semiospheres or 'semiotic spaces.' This account of metaphors is self-referential insofar as it is itself expressed in the form of a metaphor. Moreover, according to Lotman, cultures in general are self-referential systems insofar as they tend to define themselves and evince isomorphic semiotic spaces at mutually inclusive levels and metalevels. Lotman describes semiospheres on the basis of dualisms, levels, stratifications, and spatial opposites that exemplify the Tartu semiotician's theory of the duality of the discreteness of semiotic spaces and their verbal representations versus the continuity of physical space and of pictorial representation. (Nöth 2006: 249)
This abstract is so boring that I actually went ahead and made a video of it in the style of Boring Books by the youtube user bookofjokes with background music by Alvin Lucier. Mine is crappier:
And doesn't really capture teh eeriness of boredom well. At least I got to try out video software on Ubuntu.
Yuri Lotman develops his semiotics of culture in a language full of spatial metaphors. (Nöth 2006: 249)
I thought that was because in the 1960s he tried to create literary typologies inspired by topology.
His images are not without poetic qualities; some of them imply inconsistencies, lead to catharseses, or result in enigmatic logical paradoxees, as in the aforementioned epigraph and in other similar passages, such as: 'Thought is within us, but we are within thought,' or 'the world is both within us and without us' (1990). Such enigmatic paradoxes in Lotman's semiotic rhetoric reflect a view of culture as a self-referential system in which semiotic spaces are embedded in more encompassing isomorphic spaces of cultural semiosis. (Nöth 2006: 250)
The reason I found the abstract to be so overwhelmingly boring is that what we have here is something similar to the "bad writing" of French philosophers.
Oscar Wilde wrote: "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography." My criticism here consists merely of me expressing that I have no clue what to think of "isomorphic spaces of cultural semiosis". The implications of this statement seem unfathomable to my limited mind. I used to think I knew what isomorphism between texts, codes and cultures meant. And now I'm not sure how to differentiate isomorphism and isologism (I really should contact Grzybek), not to mention isotopy and homotopy, which would seemingly appliy better for "semiotic spaces". All of this is murky for me.
A first self-referential loop in Lotman's theory of the semiosphere arises from the fact that the Tartu semiotician himself has a theory of metaphor, a theory which not only serves to describe the metaphors of poets and novelists, but also the ones of Lotman's own semiotic prose. (Nöth 2006: 250)
Here it seems that Nöth went the way of Ctrl+F, that is, searched every instance of self-referentiality related to Lotman and the semiosphere model and wrote on that. I can't blame him, because I have done the same, repeatedly... But it does say something about the style of writing. I am unable to spell out the implications at this point, again (I'll write it off as an effect of my fever).
Even animals may communicate metaphorically. For example, a sexual gesture which one animal produces to indicate submission instead of sexual stimulation is a gestural metaphor (cf. 1990).
It is no mere coincidence that the semiotician who creates so many spatial images proposes a theory of metaphor in which the opposition between discreteness of the signs in verbal discourse and the continuity of nonverbal visual space plays an essential role. (Nöth 2006: 250)
What bothers me about this - what makes this "boring" so to say - is that I should already know all of this. I know about the few places where Lotman speaks explicitly of animal behavior (Lotman 2009: 27-38) and where he discusses the discrete/continuous distinction thoroughly (Lotman & Pfotenhauer 1975 [1973]). And yet I do not recall "sexual gestures" as metaphors in animals and can't imagine what is metaphorical about them; nor am I able, at this moment, to fathom the exact signification of "nonverbal visual space" - isn't everything visual and spatial, at it's core, nonverbal? Even written text is nonverbal until a language-interpreter such as a literate human being comes along. Today of course we can probably also speak of some computer systems as language-interpreters, thanks to OCR. Robots can read, can't they?
Lotman emphasizes the essential difference between discrete and nondiscrete texts and porstulates the impossibility of their mutual translatability, since 'the equivalent to the discrete and precisely demarcated semantic unit of one text is, in the other, a kind of semantic blur with indistinct boundaries and gradual shadings into other meanings' (1990: 36-37). (Nöth 2006: 251)
Here I would argue against the impossibility of mutual translatability. It is not impossible, merely improbably. It may be impossible to translate complete works and texts from verbal to nonverbal or vice versa and back again and receive the same output. But this untranslatability is not absolute and on the lower levels there are elements which can be so translated. Ekman and Friesen called these emblems and - as I learned at the summer school of semiotics this year - Sebeok developed this notion further as "highly formalized symbols in the visual mode". The key word here is "formalized", because what enables us to translate certain elements perfectly is that they are conventional. That is, besides a semantic blur there exist pockets of semantic clarity, however limited it may be.
However, the dilemma of untranslatability between incompatible semantic spheres, according to Lotman, can be overcome by means of metaphors. Metaphors can serve as mediators between the two spheres of the human mind. (Nöth 2006: 251)
Wow, yeah, I can agree with that. In this light it makes sense why there are so many bodily metaphors. Danesi's discussion in his 2013. paper "On the Metaphorical Connectivity of Cultural Sign Systems" (Signs and Society 1(1): 33-49) seems to be on point here. Conceptual metaphors are, according to him, "a connective system of meaning" - they connect these different semantic spheres, verbal and nonverbal. I'm most interested in what he calls bodily representations, but I should read what else he has to say about it, because the examples I gathered from him are somewhat limited.
Although the results of such mediations between the spheres of discreteness and continuity are never 'precise translation' but always only 'approximate equivalences determined by the cultural-psychological and semiotic context common to both systems' (1990: 36-37), the resulting loss in precision does not merely mean a loss in the course of translation, since '"illegitimate" associations' which they create 'provoke new semantic associations' (1990: 36-37). This is why a metaphor is more than a mere rhetorical ornament. (Nöth 2006: 251)
Danesi writes about this "approximation" that the metaphor is connected interpretively/semiotically "as a consequence of the metaphor being distributed thoughout the cultural network of meaning. The latter can be called a "distributed sign" (DS), for lack of a better term..." (Danesi 2013: 35).
Since semiosis not only takes place in real space, but certainly also in mental space as well as in time, Lotman may have recognized the weakness of his strong argiment for the nonmetaphorical and material nature of the semiosphere when, in his book of 1990, he omitted any reference to the noosphere and also of the material nature of semiosphere. In retrospective, both Vernadsky's and Lotman's strong arguments for the noosphere and the semiosphere as nonmetaphorical spaces seem to have been a concession to the ideology of orthodox Marxist philosophy which required the sphere of ideas to be based in matter and not in a sphere of mere ideas. (Nöth 2006: 252)
In still questioning whether this is also the reason why Jüri Saarma's article on the biosphere, technosphere and psychosphere (1979) discussed psychological well-being in very material terms of nutrition intake (tarvilike ainete pidev juurdevool) and waste management (jääkproduktide äravool) in the brain.
If metaphors can be found in science and poetry and even in the gestures of animals, the question arises as to why Lotman did not go one step further to postulate an ubiquity of metaphors which extends to everyday verbal and nonverbal behavior, too.. (Nöth 2006: 252-253)
Maybe he foresaw the fruitlessness of this approch in, for example, one of his self-proclaimed students who today rant about the semioticity of everyday behaviour (e.g. whatever this is).
Lotman's semiotic universe is one of levels, strata, and hierarchies based on the foundation of dualisms which begin with the axiom that 'against the background of nonculture, culture appears as a system of signs' (Lotman and Usponskij 1974: 211). (Nöth 2006: 256)
I thought about something like this when I came across a tumblr gif image series which depict a Japanese "embassador of kawaii". What is clearly visible from these images is that the universal expression of joy on the face of the girl is wiped away as it gives way to a neutral and controlled "kawaii" face. That is, the "noncultural" universal expressions of emotion are substituted with a display rule, a cultural expression of sentiment (in this case a mixture of uniqueness, cuteness and edgyness). Behold:

...because a natural expression of joy is not unique, cute or edgy; no Sir! A lifeless doll-like expression is soooo much better (it is "cultural").
At the root of Lotman's universe, there is a fundamental dualism between the semiotic and the nonsemiotic. Human semiosis, marked by this dualism, begins with the distinction between the two spheres:
Any act of semiotic recognition must involve the separation of significant and insignificant ones in surrounding reality. Elements that, from the point of view of that modeling system, are not bearers of meaning, as it were do not exist. The fact of their actual existence recedes to thebackground in face of their irrelevance in the given modeling system. Though existing, they as it were cease to exist in the system of culture. (Lotman 1990: 58)
lotman not only sets up his dualistic distinction between the semiotic and nonsemiotic world but goes on to distinguish between levels and metalevels within the sphere of semiosis, again the binary principles. (Nöth 2006: 256)
What we have here is yet again implicitly the connection between signification and significance. A whole approach to nonverbal behavior could be built upon this basic idea, because it may very well reveal the differences in nonverbal behavior throughout different historical periods. For example, the christian medieval times denied the body (because it was the playground of the devil) and thus denied any possibility for studying the human body and it's expressive functions (the history of knowledge of nonverbal behavior skips the middle ages, so to say, jumps from Cicero in the ancient times to Bulwer in the renaissance). But today with our ever-pervasive embrace of everything visual, there is a lot of attention being paid to the body. The moving images above prove this point well - with youtube and moving GIF images, a japanese girl can teach the whole world how to make a facial expression that used to be known only in her own culture. She's teaching us not only to make the expressio but to recognize it and label it (as "kawaii"). That is to say, she brings the "kawaii" expression to our reality - it becomes significant. Girls have always made beautiful faces, and big eyes and high tonus in the facial muscles has been a part of that. But now you have a word and an association for it.
semiospheres create their own metasemiosphere in a self-generative and self-referential way. They do so within their very center with the purpose of the self-stabilization of the cultural system (1990: 128): 'Whether we have in mind language, politics or culture, the mechanism is the same: one part of the semiosphere (as a rule one which in part of its nuclear structure) in the process of self-description creates its own grammar... Then it strives to extend these norms over the whole semiosphere.' Modes of social behavior, for example, are self-descriptively stabilized by means of books or etiquette or legal codes; languages are controlled by means of normative grammars; the architectural space of a capital depicts the relationships of political and cultural power in the whole country, and in this sense, it is not only a product of culture, but also its self-description. (Nöth 2006: 261)
And because very few young people actively read books and still fewer read books on etiquette, the main stabilizer of social behavior in modern times have become the internet memes, like the moving GIF images above. According to tumblr, over 50 000 people have shared or liked this image series (one may only speculate how many more have actually seen it). P.S. The signature of this image series is "Kyary Pamyu Pamyu promotes Cool Japan in US" which may hint at a "nuclear structure" in itself.


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