The City and the Sign (1)

Gottdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos 1986. Introduction. In: Gotdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos (eds.), The Ciy and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Colubia University Press, 1-22.

Our reader helps remedy this deficiency by presenting in translation some of the key European works published in the growing field of urban semioics, that is, in inquiry into the social signification of urban forms, or, more generally, forms of settlement space, such as villages, tribal camps, and the like. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 1)
Is this compatible with the psychological ecology advanced in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior?
Quite clearly, the study of signification in the built environent is not an object of analysis unique to urban semiotics. Other approaches more failiar to the Anglo-American scientific public, such as cognitive geography, cognitive psychology, and the now dated socia-cultural trend of human ecology have long addressed the topic of environenal perception and even symbolic life within the city. As we shall demonstrate below, however, urban semiotics represents a unique ad perhaps iproved way of studying the social role of signification in settlement space. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 1-2)
So maybe it is, if it is improved with semiotics.
For Saussure the sign is composed of a signifier, or its cultural manifestation - physically, verbally, and so on, i.e., through some social act - and the signified - the underlying concept which the signifier is asked to convey. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 2)
Hmm. So if the signifier can be viewed as a cultural manifestation through some social act, do we have to restrict our study to concepts? That is, do we have to be cognitivistic about it and pursue concepts as such, rather than something else, whatever else: power, emotions, territoriality, social acts themselves, etc.
Systes of signification can be understood and elaborated upon thorough etalinguistic operations, that is, through access to a secondary level of discourse possessing the ability to coment on the object language on the primary level. These metalanguages range from purely or mainly subjective modes of discourse to objective, formal, or scientific languages. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 2)
The contention is that a second language is necessary for metalinguistic operations. Intralingual metalingual operations are as if excluded.
In short, the universe of signs includes: the non-physiological part of perception; conception; scientific modes of discourse; and the value systems, or the socially constituted world views of social subjects, which are a function of social interaction. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 3)
Doesn't Uexküll's theory allow for a semiotic approach to the physiological part of perception as well?
For urban semiotics in particular, material objects are the vehicles of signification, so that the symbolic act always involves some physical object as well as social discourse on it. In the case of urban semiotics these objects are the elements of urban space, for example, streets, squares, buildings, and facades. Semiotic analysis can also be extended to include codes of property ownership, written texts of planning, the plans of designers, urban discourse by the users of the city, and real-estate advertising. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 3)
And what exactly hinders us from viewing human behavior that relates to streets, squares, buildings and facades as social objects? And the approach here seems markedly textualist: urban discourse is accepted, but urban behavior is not mentioned.
At issue is the possibility of unifying in one and the same doain the wohle range of inquiry into the phenomenon of signification, ranging from the study of linguistics throguh that of cultural systems, suc has body gestures and art, to the study of the formal metalanguages of all sciences, that is, to logic and epistemology. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 4)
I think cultural semiotics allows for such a unification.
There is little argument that the work of Lynch has led to a more human approach to urban design; one that explicitly recognizes the role of users in fathoming urban space. Yet the underlying premises of this tradition require re-examination. In particular, cognitive mapping research relies on a methodological individualism which accepts unquestioningly intra-subjective pictures of the environment as the basis of urban behavior. Thus, cognitive approcahes arrive at the signification of the city through the perception of its inhabitants rather than their conception. The socio-semiotic appreach just introduced is in some respect fundamentally opposed to cognitive imaging methods precisely because the crucial object of analysis is conception rather than perception. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 7)
Are conception and perception that far removed from each other?
In contrast Ledrut searches for the symbolic, connotative level of the image and asserts that it is from this level of signification that denotation derives (a position which we have also adopted). In this manner the relation of people to the city goes beyond perceptual recognition and inroduces the role of ideology. In short, the inhabitant of the city does not adapt to an environment, rather, residents play a role in the production and use of the urban milieu through urban practices. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 7)
This is what happens when you don't learn from the scholastics that both signification and denotation are involved in the meaning of the sign. To reduce the connotative sphere to ideology alone is simply repugnant.
Despite such weaknesses research in the Lynchian tradition has uncovered some important means by which inhabitants of the city organize their behavior. Chief among these is the realization that conceptial stimuli in the environment play a more fundamental role than mere formal perception, so that physical forms are assigned certain significations which then aid in directing behavior. Urban structures act as stimuli because they have become symbols and not because they support behavior by facilitating movement. Thus we can say that the image of the city is a conceptual rather than perceptual one. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 8)
Bringing into discussion another weakly defined concept.
In contrast, the semiotic approach to the study of signification in objects beggins with what Barthes refers to as the sign-function, i.e., the understanding that the signification of an object is closely related to its function or use, so that the object use is itself converted into the signified of the object (cf. Eco paper 2 in this volume). (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 9)
This is the pragmatic aspect, or in Mukarovsky, the practical function.
Because people understand the urban environment largely on the basis of what they do there, i.e. in functionalist terms, and on the basis of their own symbolic worlds, rather than imageable perception per se, cognitive geography asks the wrong questions and researches the wrong data. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 9)
And yet I cannot shake the feeling that this approach is also misguided. (For example, how about understanding the urban environment on the basis of what can't be done there?)
Thus, the socio-semiotic approach to culture, in contrast to cognitive geography, explicitly assumes that signification is a social product dependent for its sustenance on the interaction among individuals in society and between social groups and cultural codes. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 12)
An cheerfully excludes the personal signs of individual inhabitants as insignificant.
For semiotics every architectural or urban object is transformed, at the level of denotation, into a signified of its own function. But beyond its conceptualized functional use, the object has another function as well, which is symbolic. Thus, it signifies on a second level also, that of connotation. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 12)
A signified of its own function? Every architectural or urban object is divided as such and gives us the information in comparison to something other that gives us the conception of what the conception that wants to be transformed wants to be.
Historically, the first approach to the semiotics of space was that of architectural semiotics. The latter has proven over the years to contain several serious limitations, which prevent it from becoming a model for the semiotics of urban space. Among these limitations we can enumerate the misunderstanding of semiotic theory and the unwarranted extension of semiotic operations onto non-semiotic social processes; the slavish attachment to the linguistic model; an identification of the architectural language with its poetic function alone; the opposite reduction of signification merely to the denotative level; and the neglect of the articulation between semiotic and non-semiotic processes in the social life of the city. This lost point is indicative of a detachment from sociology which is quite typical in semiotics. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 13)
What are non-semiotic social processes?
From our perspective, and following the distinction of Ledrut (see Ledrut, paper 5 in this volume), urban space is not a text but a "pseudo-text," because it is produced by non-semiotic processes as well as semiotic ones and because there is not always a sender in the historically conditioned built environment. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 17)
Isn't this the exact "slavish attachment to the linguistic model" renounced above? Moreover, they seem to be confusing semiotics with the study of communication. Not only is there not always a sender, the case of there being a sender as such (as it is understood from the standpoint of communication) is a very marginal case. In a "broad semiotic definition" you can view the sun as a sender of wave/particle-messages but what would be the point?

Greimas, Algirdas Julien 1986[1972]. For a Topological Semiotics. In: Gotdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos (eds.), The Ciy and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Colubia University Press, 25-54.

Greimas' theory is a comprehensive approach to social action from a semiotic perspective. It is therefore, a major contribution to social theory in general. For Greimas every social situation can be considered as a narrative. (Gottdiener & Lagolopous 1986: 25)
If only this were so. Considering every social situation as a narrative is just plain weird. It is about as comprehensive as an approach to sleeping from a semiotic perspective that considers every toss and turn as a line of sleep poetry.
Spatial language appears thus, at a first stage, as a language by which a society is signified to itself. In order to do this, it operates first by exclusion, by opposing itself spatially to all that is not it. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 29)
How is this not a slavish attachment to the linguistic model?
Everything happens as if the object of topological semiotics were double, as if its project could be defined at the same time as the inscription of society in space and as the reading of this society through space. Two dimensions that we have provisionally named spatial signifier and cultural signified appear thus to be constitutive of this semiotics; dimensions which are susceptible to being treated autonomously, but whose correlation alone permits the construction of topological objects. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 30)
The city is a pseudo-text, a society incscribed in space and read through space.
All human behavior, be it only the "digging of a hole," for example, is doubly significant: firstly for the "subject of doing" and then for the "spectator of this doing." All social practices organized in programs of doing carry signification in them as project and result, and inversely: every transformation of space can be read as significant. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 31)
This is "phenomenological doubling". In this case, digging a whole is a primary action and spectating the digging of the hole is secondary action, just like in thinking about a unicorn the unicorn is the primary object and the thinking about the unicorn is the secondary object.
(a) Formally, the first definition of the topological object is negative: in order to consider a given space, we have to oppose it to an anti-space, the city as opposed to its surrounding country. On the other hand, spatial focalization, that is, the identification of the subject of the enunciation with the uttered space, is necessary in order to ensure the positive determination of this space: urban semiotics is as possible as rural semiotics.
(b) Culturally, the appropriation and exploitation of space by man are characterized by a sociological relativism of such a nature that a general model that would account for the whole set of possible topological objects and at the same time comprise rules of restriction justifying their cultural typology seems at present both necessary and impossible. In order to constitute topological semiotics, a reflection on the status and structure of topological objects in general isneeded: however, the only hope of constituting it seems to be to fragment it into a great number of particular class of topological objects, while subordinating their explorations to a unitary semiotic project as the only guarantee of an ulterior comparative approach. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 32)
(a) oppose culture to non-culture or other-culture; (b) unify the various manifestations of culture within a semiosphere.
This is no longer the case in our modern cities where the opposition society vs. individual ceases to be isomorphic with the ancient morpho-semiotic category of public vs. private, even if we consider it as enriched with new significant sub-articulations and manifested either by the opposition of places as public and private according to the criterion of their occupation (walls, stairwells vs. buildings, apartments), or by a typology of spaces corresponding to that of behavior (places of work, of leisure, of habitation). (Greimas 1986[1972]: 35)
I have no idea what Greimas is trying to say here. But a typology of spaces corresponding to the criteria of behavior is a nice wording.
Of the different approaches allowing the analysis of a topological object as complex as a city, application of the model of communication seems to be among the most productive. Within the framework of this elementary structure, consisting of a sender-producer and a receiver-reader, we can inscribe the city as an object-message to be decoded either by imagining the procedures preceding this message and leading to the production of the city-object, or by paraphrasing the procedure of the reader trying to decode the message with all its allusions and all its presuppositions. In both cases, the city can be considered as a text whose grammar we will have, at least partiaclly, to construct. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 38)
How? How is this productive? We don't build cities to communicate. We build cities to live in them. ... Hey, Steve, I heard you were building a house for your family to live in? - Oh no, I'm building a spatial message within the city to communicate to other inhabitants that I've built a house to live in. - How does that make sense? - It's a productive perspective, Greimas said so.
It is thus that the utterances of state allowing the formalization of the relation of the subject to the world presupposes the existence of utterances of doing susceptible of accounting for the production and/or the transformation of these states. Thus, in order to create a state of thermic euphoria, the subject is presumed to obtain wood, light the fire, etc., in other words, to execute a whole program of behavior aiming at the production of a thermic state. His final bodily behavior is thus a program of signification. It may be characterized by the fact that it is a stereotyped program, at the same time recurrent and executable by any subject considered as a syntactic role (and not as an individual of flesh and bloog); and also by the fact that these are programs in which human subjects can be replaced, partially or entirely, by automata. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 39)
This is a good illustration of Greimas's state and process (his continuous and discrete), but also probably one of the most unproductive approaches I've seen. God forbid if anyone actually tried to approach human goal-oriented action this way.
We see thus that the semiotic manifestation of urban space, which can be roughly illustrated as the relationship of:
(thermic signifier) to (euphoric signified)
presupposes a certain doing of the subject (which may be no more than pushing a button) effected on a support-object (central heating apparatus), a localized substitute for a somatic program, but that this individual instance of doing presupposes in its turn a new collective instance with a new support-object (urban network for the distribution of gas or electricity), manipulated by a collective subject (gas company or public service company). (Greimas 1986[1972]: 40)
Is that really how you want to apply Saussure's sign model?
The advantage of such an approach (inspired by the provocative paper by Renier 1974) is that it gives a clear definition of the object of urban semiotics: rejecting the traditional points of view accordinc to which the city is a thing, a complex of objects experienced and perceived by men, it seeks in their place a connection of the city-text, made up of people and things, of their relations and interactions The human subjects whose presence in the test is the only element that can account for its significant character, are thus distinguished from the subject of the enunciation, the producer of the city [...] (Greimas 1986[1972]: 43)
At least this view doesn't seem to suppose that the city is a message built as if for the purpose of communication. Viewing the relations and interactions within the city as a kind of text is more acceptable, though it, too, has its faults (mainly in it not actually being a text, but something else viewed as a text).
For we too fen forget that the model of communication which facilitates the semiotic conception of the city is first of all a formal model which only institutes the instances of production and of reading as empty places, that, on the other hand, urban semiotics has the task of describing neither real cities nor their producers in flesh and blood but canonical objects and syntactic "actants." (Greimas 1986[1972]: 48-49)
And for this exact reason I come away from this text empty-handed. I learned nothing of value.
We must add to this that even the semiotic conception of the city as object-message is not without ambiguities. We are too much in the habit of interpreting communication in linguistic terms not to have some difficulty in imagining that meaning might be communicated without the intermediary of natural languages. In effect (and we have already insisted on the point), to receive spatial messages is not - or not only - to perceive them, it is what we vaguely call "experiencing" the city by reacting in a significative way to all spatial stimuli. Such an interpretation of the signification of non-linguistic messages, if it seems clear at the moment of its formulation, nonetheless requires delicate use in practice: it requires that the "primary" meaning of the city should be confused neither with conscious thought nor with the discourses held on the city. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 50)
The city is indeed a non-linguistic entity, but it is not a message. At least no more than an e-mail is a blanket that keeps you warm at night.
Being of grammatical nature, the typology of discourses is then a problem of general semiotics and the discourses on space pertain to it, without thereby constituting a class apart. (Greimas 1986[1972]: 53)
This is probably the first useful quote from this text. In the form of concourse I do constitute discourse pertaining to bodily behaviour as a class apart.

Eco, Umberto 1986[1968]. Function and Sign: Semiotics of Architecture. In: Gotdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos (eds.), The Ciy and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Colubia University Press, 55-86.

If semiotics, beyond being the science of recognized systems of signs, is really to be a science studying all cultural phenomena, as if they were systems of signs - on the hypothesis that all cultural phenomena are, in reality, systems of signs, or that culture can be understood as communication - then one of the fields in which it will undoubtedly find itself most challencged is that of architecture. (Eco 1986[1968]: 56-57)
This is, of course, the position of the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics.
Why is architecture a particular challenge to semiotics? First of all because apparently most architectural objects do not communicate (and are not designed to communicate), but function. (Eco 1986[1968]: 57)
This is exactly why I protested so much against the communication perspective in Greimas's paper.
Thus what our semiotic framework would recognize in the architectural sign is the presence of a sign vehicle whose denoted meaning is the function it makes possible. ... (Eco 1986[1968]: 60)
Achitectural objects denote their own functionality.
A seat tells me first of all that I can sit down on it. But if the seat is a throne, it must do more than seat one: it serves to seat one with a certain degnity, to corroborate its user's "sitting in dignity" - perhaps through various accessory signs connoting "regalness" (eagles on the arms, a high, crowned back, etc.). Indeed the connotation of dignity and regalness can become so functionally important that the basic function, to seat one, may even be slighted, or distorted: a throne, to connote regalness, often demands that the person sitting on it sit rigidly and uncomfortably (along with a scepter in his right hand, a globe in the left, and a crown on his head), and therefore seats one "poorly" with respect to the primary utilitas. (Eco 1986[1968]: 64)
In modern times the seating of the most important person is very likely the most comfortable seating in the room.
Catchwords like "semantics of architecture" have led some to look for the equivalent of the "word" of verbal language in architectural signs, for units endowed with definite meaning, indeed for symbols referring to referents. But since we know there can be conventions concerning only the syntactic articulation of signs, it would be appropriate to look also for purely syntactic codifications in architecture (finding such codifications and defining them with precision, we might be in a better position to understand and classify, at least from the point of view of semiotics, objects whose once denoted functions can no longer be ascertained, such as the menhir, the dolmen, the Stonehenge construction. (Eco 1986[1968]: 70)
Compare this to the "purely syntactic organization" in Lotman's paper on autocommunication.
Semantic codes. These concern the significant units of architecture, or the relations established between individual architectural sign-vehicles (even some architectural syntagms) and their denotative and connotative meanings. They might be subdivided as to whether, through them, the units (a) denote primacy functions (roof, stairway, window0; (b) have connotative secondary functions (tympanum, triumphal arch, neo-Gothic arch); (c) connote ideologies of inhabitation (common room, dining room, parlor); or (d) at a large scale have typological meaning under certain functional and sociological types (hospital, villa, school, palace, railroad station). (Eco 1986[1968]: 74)
The last one is most interesting. I can imagine walking through the city and pointing out this kind of "typological meaning" for every building.
Thus architecture fluctuates between being rather coercive, implying that you will live in such and such a way with it, and rather indifferent, letting you use it as you see fit. (Eco 1986[1968]: 77)
This sounds somewhat analogous to sociofugal and sociopedal in Hall's proxemics.
We have argued that semiotics must confine itself to the left side of the Ogden-Richards triangle - because in semiotics one studies codes as phenomena of culture - and, leaving aside verifiable realities to which the signs may refer, examine only the communicative rules established within a social body: rules of the equivalence between sign vehicles and meanings (the definition of the latter being possible only through interpretants or other sign vehicles by means of which the meanings may be signified), and rules regarding the syntagmatic combination of the elements of the paradigmatic repertories. This means not that the referent is nonexistent, but that it is the object of other sciences (physics, biology, etc.): semiotics can, and must, confine itself to the universe of the cultural conventions governing communicative intercourse. (Eco 1986[1968]: 81-81)
This would make semiotics kind of impotent. I would not engage in a study of bodily behaviour that leaves bodily behaviour itself untouched.
In this case it is the aesthetic function that is predominant in the architectural message, what Roman Jakobson, speaking of acts of verbal communication, has termed the poetic function (1966: 350-77). But architectural messages display also the five other communicative functions listed by Jakobson: architecture involves communication that is connative (or imperative, making one inhabit it in a certain way), emative (think of the calm of a Greek temple, the turbulence of a baroque church), phatic (obviously in the many attention-getting devices of architecture - the phatic function might be found to be predominant, then, in such messages as obelisks, arches, and tympana - but also at the level of urban fabric, where "channels" are opened and established for architectural messages, as in a piazza's ensuring continued attention to the facades of the buildings that surround it), metalingual (where, for example, to relieve any confusion about the code for interpreting the message architecture assumes a self-explaining, or "glossing," function - think of the benches built into certain otherwise inhospitable American plazas), and of course referential (what we will be concerned with here for the most part - that is, the denotations and connotations of architectural objects). (Eco 1986[1968]: 83)

Barthes, Roland 1986[1970-71]. Semiology and the Urban. In: Gotdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos (eds.), The Ciy and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Colubia University Press, 87-98.

By expressing himself in such a way, [Victor] Hugo gives proof of a rather modern way of conceiving the monument and the city, as a true text, as an inscription of man in space. This chapter by Victor Hugo is consecrated to the rivalry between two modes of writing, writing in stone and writing on paper. Indeed, this theme is very much current today in the remarks on writing of a philosopher like Jacques Derrida. (Barthes 1986[1970-71]: 90)
This rivalry is continuing in semiotics of the city.
And here we rediscover Victor Hugo's old intuition: the city is writing. He who moves about the city, e.g., the user of the city (what we all are), is a kind of reader who, following his obligations and his movements, appropriates fragments of the utterance in order to actualize them in secret. When we move about a city, we all are in the situation of the reader of the 100,000 million poems of Queneau, where one can find a different poem by changing a single line; unawares, we are somewhat like this avant-garde reader when we are in a city. (Barthes 1986[1970-71]: 95)
I'm not sure how this moves away from the metaphorical nature of this view, but for some reason I find this more acceptable than Greimas's account. Maybe it's because Barthes mentions "obligations" (goal-directed actions) and movements.
My third remark, finally, is that today semiology never supposes the existence of a definitive signified. This means that the signifieds are always signifiers for other signifieds and vice versa. In reality, in any cultural or even psychological complex, we are faced with infinite chains of metaphors whose signified is always retreating or becomes itself a signifier. (Barthes 1986[1970-71]: 95)
I'm not very aware of Saussurean semiology, but this sounds a lot like Peirce's infinite semiosis.
For example, numerous surveys have emphasized the imaginary function of the Concourse, which in every city is experinced as a river, a channel, a body of water. There is a relation between road and water and we are well aware that the cities which are most resistent to signification and which incidentally often present difficulties of adaptation for the inhabitants are precisely the cities without water, the cities without seashore, without a surface of water, without a lake, without a river, without a stream: all these cities present difficulties of life, of legibility. (Barthes 1986[1970-71]: 97)
I really should invent another term for my thing, verbal representation of nonverbal behaviour.

Boudon, Pierre 1986a[1977]. Introduction to the Semiotics of Space. In: Gotdiener, M. and Alexander Ph. Lagopoulos (eds.), The Ciy and the Sign: An Introduction to Urban Semiotics. New York: Colubia University Press, 99-113.

On the other hand, a "semiotics" of space, of places, is based only on the analysis of these forms of the urban (or of human installation in general: villages, camps, hunting or fishing areas) without taking into consideration the relevant discourses, whether they are simple commentaries, or discourses initiating these forms. (Boudon 1986a[1977]: 101-102)
Here semiotics of space has more to do with space itself, rather than discourse about space or spatial configurations.
If we say that a set of discourses is the metalanguage of urban forms, then the metalinguistic relation becomes problematic because it cannot be universalized (there are cultures where this relation has not been established, where space is not invested to this extent by a discourse); if we say that it is in these laws that the explanation of a spatial phenomenon resides, then we have the same relation as with the socius. (Boudon 1986a[1977]: 104)
Khm. Strictly speaking, for there to be a "metalanguage" of urban forms, the urban forms must constitute a language. Otherwise it would not be meta-linguistic but meta-urban and I'm not sure if that makes any sense.
In terms of grammar, we could differentiate the following procedures:
graphematic grammar(linear, segmented, concatenated)
figural grammar(planar, segmented - non segmented, combinatory)
topical grammar(house, village, camp, city, cosmogony)
With reference to this scheme, consider that each one of these grammars can be differentiated on the basis of its formal procedures (cf. the form of rules, their assemblage, which properties like linearity, planearity would elicit). (Boudon 1986a[1977]: 105)
How again is this not a slavish attachment to the linguistic model?


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