The Semiotics of Cultural Texts

Winner, Irene Portis and Thomas G. Winner 1976. The Semiotics of Cultural Texts. Semiotica 18(2): 101-156.

[...] one of the most important of which is entitled Structures of Texts and Semiotics of Culture, edited by Jan van der Eng and Mojmir Grygar (1973). This work, composed of various articles assembled at the occasion of the Seventh International Congress of Slavists, opens with the "Theses on the Semiotic Study of Culture" drawn up by five Russian scholars who have led semiotic studies in that nation dedicating themselves to its pursuit from the most concrete level of specific applications, from verbal and nonverbal behavior (including mythology, folk art, high arts, the cinema, and the most various cultural systems) to the most abstract considerations of theory, methodology and metasystems encompassing theories of signs, texts, and communication in general. (Winner & Winner 1976: 101)
My own work seems to follow, at least at the moment, a little bit different scheme: signs, languages, and communication. Texts are merely a type of com-signs.
The semiotic view of culture assumes the multiplicity, diversity, stratification and interconnection of sign systems which are investigated on various levels from that of technology to social, economic, and expressive behavior to ideologies. Indeed it encompasses all communicative behavior that is cultural (meaningful, shared, organized, and dynamic). Following this approach, the synchronic and diachronic aspects of semiotic systems are viewed to be inseparably related and to be appropriate subjects for investigation. (Winner & Winner 1976: 101-102)
This is also why I think that modelling communication in this day of age should not only pay homage but actively incorporate the multiplicity, diversity, stratification and interconnection of sign systems and even go beyond communicative behaviour that is cultural and include biological/species-specific as well as idiosyncratic/personal. Is that broad enough?
As the collection of primary consideration here illustrates, extremely significant work in semiotics is being carried out in Eastern Europe, principally in the Soviet Union, where the group of scholars concentrated in the University of Tartu and the Institute of Slavic Studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow are collaborating in their studies of the theory and methods of a semiotics of culture. (Winner & Winner 1976: 102)
It feels very exact to say that the Tartu-Moscow School studied the theory and methods of a semiotics of culture, rather than studying culture with the theories and methods of semiotics. This subtle (mis?)interpretation again hints towards semiotics dealing more with meta-issues (metalanguage, metatheory, metaobjects, metatexts, metaanything).
The approach to semiotics of culture by this group leads toward a conjunction of the linguistic and aesthetic theories of the Prague school and the Russian structuralists, the traditional anthropological view of culture as patterned, communicated, learned behavior composing an inherited tradition, and the more recent view of culture as information. (Winner & Winner 1976: 103)
I wish there was more of the first in cultural semiotics, especially when it comes to patterning and learning.
In 1970, Lotman described culture as a "semiotic mechanism for the output (vyrabotka) and storage of information" (1970b:2) and "a historically evolved bundle (pučok) of semiotic systems (languages) which can be composed into a single hierarchy (supralanguage) which can also be a symbiosis of independent systems" (1970b:8). The analogy is to the memory of mankind or of some narrower collective (nation, class, etc.), memory implying the capacity of systems for storage and accumulation of information. Furthermore, the attempt is te prescribe culture 'types' as specific 'languages' (1970b:12). (Winner & Winner 1976: 103)
Now I know what is bundle (or set "kimp") in Russian. A symbiosis of independent systems sounds like syncretism. Prescribing culture types as specific languages is probably a reference to the typological attempts in Kultuuritüpoloogiast (2010[1970]).
In an early statement by Pjatigorskij (1962), a text is defined as a variety of signals composing a delimited and autonomous whole. Such a communication is characterized in three spheres:
(a) In the syntactic sphere it must be spatially (optically acoustically, or in some other fashion) fixed so that it is intuitively felt as distinct from a nontext.
(b) In the pragmatic sphere, its spatial fixation is not accidental, but the necessary means of conscious transmission of communication by its author or other individuals. Thus the text has an inner structure.
(c) In the sphere of semantics a text must be understandable, i.e., it must not contain unsurmountable difficulties hindering its comprehension (Pjatigorskij, 1962:79). (Winner & Winner 1976: 103)
By these merits a nonverbal behaviour becomes a sort of "cultural behaviour", or simply "significant" when: (a) it is distinguishable from insignificant behaviour; (b) it demonstrates intention and some sort of inner structure; and (c) its signification is understandable. This should of course be compared to Morris's original treatment of these dimensions in sign-activity. The reference: Pjatigorskij, A. M. 1962. "Nekotorye obšcie zamecanija otnositel'no rassmotrenija teksta kak raznovidnosti signala" (Some General Remarks Regarding the Concept of the Text as Multiform Signal) Strukturno-tipologiceskie issledovanija. Sbornik statej pod red. T. N. Mološinoj. See Eimermacher, ed. 1971a: 78-88.
Since Lotman held that all cultural semiotic systems were to be seen as secondary modelling systems shaped 'along the lines' ('po tipu') of language (Lotman, 1970a:16) the linguistic concept of texts began to be applied by analogy to all cultural behavior. However, since many nonlinguistic communications seem to depart radically from the structure of language, the unqualified concept of secondary modelling systems has been questioned, modified and altered by the members of the Lotman group [...] (Winner & Winner 1976: 103-104)
I am still not completely sure how exactly I should use the secondary modelling systems theory in relation with nonverbal communication.
Those of a diachronic order include: genetic criteria (2.1.0); types of texts which may represent stages of development (3.2.1); and evolutionary criteria where, for example, more advanced systems are those in which group behavior is regulated by the memory of a real history, as opposed to concepts of cyclical change (6.0.2). (Winner & Winner 1976: 107)
I am still not completely sure how exactly I should use the secondary modelling systems theory in relation with nonverbal communication.
[...] the notion of texts may be interpreted as serving to free semiotics from the dominance of the linguistic model over all others. In this sense the term "text" must cover various subtypes with radically differing structures in spite of certain very general invariants. (Winner & Winner 1976: 108)
For example, can the term cover bodily behaviour?
Texts in general are understood to be particular kinds of messages or groups of messages. But it is not always clear whether, in specific instances in the "Theses", the terms "text" and "message" refer only to verbal communications or whether they also refer to nonverbal communications, and whether they imply only "cultural" texts and messages or also other texts and messages. It would have been preferable if these distinctions had been more clearly made [...] (Winner & Winner 1976: 108)
Texts (Lotman) and messages (Ruesch, Jakobson) in turn have to be reconciled with signs (Morris, Peirce).
We feel that in most cases the terms 'message' and 'text', when used without qualifications, denote both verbal and nonverbal communications that meet certain cultural criteria, thus claiming cultural status. (Winner & Winner 1976: 108)
"Criteria" and "status" sound like theoretical back-formations. What, for example, would these criteria be? I'd rather prefer going back to Mukařovský and viewing the cultural text in terms such as cultural value, cultural norm and, especially, cultural function (because this is the only one of this triplet that has actually been mentioned by Lotman elsewhere).
The various criteria required for a text to be a cultural one appear to include the following: the carrying of integral meaning, the fulfilment of a common function (3.1.0); the ascription of value and the preservation of text (4.0.0); the organization of the texts into some kind of genre or type (3.1.0); and the construction of texts according to definite generative rules (4.0.1). (Winner & Winner 1976: 109)
This would do. Cultural value here concerns preservation (it's a text and not a nontext or an antitext). Cultural function here seems to concern some meaningful activity - functioning culturally as a meaning-carrier, for example. Cultural norm would in turn here concern genre or type and conforming to the norms of a genre or type.
Following the argument of the "Theses", it is held that in television the basic unit is the elementary life situation which, before televising, is irresolvable into smaller elements. Furthermore, it is held that segmentation of continuous texts, such as painting or the cinema, into discrete distinctive features such as upper/lower, left/right, dark/light, black/white may in fact represent archaizing tendencies which "impose" on the continuous texts binary symbolic classifications of the mythological or ritual type (although the reservation is made that such features may be archetypal even during the creation and perception of continuous texts) (3.2.1). (Winner & Winner 1976: 110)
Upper/lower etc. seems way too general to be of any use. And on the other hand we have the work of Albert Mehrabian, largely based on Osgood's three-dimensional binary classification called the semantic space... And that line of research has brought almost nothing of value to the table.
Indeed, Florenskij, in his Analiz prostranstvennosti, has shown that in twentieth-century culture the role of the discrete means that the organization of time is always achieved by dismemberment or discontinuity (Florenskij, n.d., paragraph 72, in Ivanov, 1973a:136). An artistically organized book is "the simplest example of the unity achieved during the visual perception of discontinuous images" (Florenskij: n.d., paragraph 73, cited in Ivanov, 1973a:138). Other examples are the Chinese scroll, frescoes and avantgarde arts. "The presence of the temporal and discrete structure not only in the sequence of images, but also in each individual image", underlies modern art styles such as Cubism and the cinema, where the discrete principle of construction is brought into the foreground. All of these tendencies in twentieth-century art lead toward "revelations of discontinuous elements in temporal structures" (1973a:141). As Ivanov poses the contemporary argument, the questions are: is the cinema, where the impression of continuity arises from a succession of discrete forms, a model of our perception of the world, thus making inner psychological time discrete? Or is inner psychological time continuous? (1973a:143-144). Ivanov gives greatest importance to the underlying discontinuity of time which he traces not only to research on biological factors marking time intervals, but also to the limitations of time imposed on all living organisms which face death, the latter also accounting for the belief in eternity or mythological time (1973a:146). (Winner & Winner 1976: 113-114)
Dismemberment is a pretty good synonym for discontinuity or discreteness. One could probably add more dis- words. // The wording in "the discrete principle of construction" implies that there may also exist the continuous principle of construction. Frankly, I was simply not aware that these can be viewed as principles of construction. // The cinema-perception analogy reaches a conclusion in 1973 that Pjatigorski and Mamardašvili reach in their metatheorising a few years later (inner psychological time cannot be continuous, it must be discrete).
Thus texts and cultures as a whole may be oriented towards the sender or towards the receiver (3.2.2). In cultures oriented towards the receiver, the most highly valued texts are held to be widely intelligible ones (prose, documentary film), and truth value is important. On the other hand in cultures oriented towards the sender, the most highly valued texts are closed and unintelligible ones. In such esoteric cultures, prophetic and priestly texts, glossolalia, and poetry are valued. Whether such a dichotomy distinguishes culture types in general, or simply opposing trends within the same culture, needs to be clarified. (Winner & Winner 1976: 114)
Orientation towards the sender of course refers to autocommunication. One may even claim that in such culture orientation towards autocommunication prevails over heterocommunication. It also suggests that prophetic and priestly texts, glossolalia and poetry are inherently somewhat autocommunicative.
It is concluded that a broad typological approach to texts removes the absoluteness of the opposition of synchrony and diachrony (5.1.0). (The resolution of this dichotomy follows from the early "Theses" of Jakobson and Tynjanov in 1928.) Furthermore, as Ivanov notes, Bakhtin's early concept of genre memory, acted to eliminate the opposition between historical and synchronic poetics (Ivanov, 1975:191; Bakhtin, 1963:142). (Winner & Winner 1976: 115)
Thus far this seems to be the first notable instance in which someone has actually learned something from Jakobson and Tynyanov's 1928 theses. Ivanov's note about genre memory is also worthwhile to keep in mind, though it will be some time before I read Bakhtin again.
Reconstruction involves the sender's intention, the text itself, and the receiver's interpretation. It may be assumed that the statement, "To a certain extent, every reading of a poetic manuscript is a reconstruction of the creative process and a successive removal of superimposed levels" (5.2.1) may be at least partially applied to all cultural texts pointing to the broad area of pragmatics that is being increasingly investigated and reevaluated today. (Winner & Winner 1976: 115)
Thus far this seems to be the first notable instance in which someone has actually learned something from Jakobson and Tynyanov's 1928 theses. Ivanov's note about genre memory is also worthwhile to keep in mind, though it will be some time before I read Bakhtin again.
The general diagram of recoding of texts by levels reproduced in the "Theses" (5.2.2) applies to linguistic texts, but appears to refer by analogy to nonlinguistic texts as well. (Winner & Winner 1976: 115)
It really doesn't appear as such to me. // Also, this statement can be applied to expanding Jakobson's scheme of language functions - these should "be analogy" be applicable to nonverbal sign-behaviour as well. It is a matter of investigating how far can the analogy go.
There is the broadest linguistic interpretation of the 'symbol' by Cassirer (See Ricoeur, 1970:11, footnote 5 referring to Hamburg, 1956:59, citing Cassirer, 1975:3, 93), the somewhat more restricted use by Ricoeur (for Ricoeur symbols denote linguistic signs that encompass double or multiple meanings that require interpretation, 1970:9); the extension of the concept to nonverbal systems by semioticians and many anthropologists in West and East (for example the whole area called 'symbolic anthropology'); and finally there is the more specific use of the term symbol (understood to include more limited aspects of verbal and nonverbal behavior) by Jakobson and other semioticians, as well as Lévi-Strauss, who have followed, extended and modified the Peirceian trichotomy of index, icon and symbol. (Winner & Winner 1976: 122)
"Nonverbal symbol" does sound serviceable but I have yet to see anyone use it to any great length.
For Geertz the problem is that interpretation of culture or penetration of a text to discover its social semantics, which he calls "thick description", is in itself opposed to deciphering a code or ordering a system (1972:26). The latter is held to be reductionist and meaningless. (Winner & Winner 1976: 122)
I concur - looking for and deciphering a code is indeed reductionist and meaningless. At least in studying nonverbal communication it is pointless to talk about codes. There would be codes if it were people, a machine or even God that created humans and programmed their behaviour. But as it turns out, there's a complicated mixture of influences that can't exactly be reduced to a one-to-one correspondence between some elements.
Holenstein questions the traditional notion that structuralism and phenomenology are two distinct, and mutually exclusive, intellectual currents, pointing out that Husserl lectured at the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1936, and that the two movements proceeded in parallel fashion in three directions: in considering the role of the subject in the constitution of language; in cosidering the role of language in the constitution of the world, and in considering the conception of the phenomenology of the theory of relations (1975a:30). (Winner & Winner 1976: 128)
Holenstein's efforts seem like nit-picking. The role of the subject in the constitution of language? There is no private property in language! People are word-users not word-coiners!
These several areas of parallel development between phenomenology and structural semiotics are reflected in the writings of various members of the Tartu-Moscow group and of other semioticians, particularly in respect to the emphasis on the role of the subject, as the following remarks demonstrate. Thus Pjatigorskij has underlined, that the concept or sign is inseparable from the subject who uses things as signs by virtue of his ability to imagine, choose and project. In Pjatigorskij's words: "Things usable by living beings as signs, objectively present the possibilities of such usages as a result of the fact that they possess the qualities of duality, position and projection" (1974:186-187). These qualities are the "'pure possibilities'" of sign-ness that are converted by subjects "into sign reality in acts of communication and auto-communication" (1974:187). (Winner & Winner 1976: 130-131)
One should probably consider duality, position and projection - whatever these may mean - as aspects of textualization, for example. Imagining, choosing and projecting are definitely related to textualization.
Lotman has also held that structural research should not describe the language or code of a system to the detriment of parole, including the phenomena that are "random" from the point of view of language (Lotman, 1974a:304). These phenomena are created by non-identical individuals or subjects who purposely multiply the mechanisms that impede message transmission. Thus those exchanging information use not one common code, but rather two different ones that to some extent intersect, and the problem of the communicative act is one of translation. "Non-understanding, incomplete understanding, are not side products of the exchange of information, but belong to its very essence". At the cultural level, there is a constant and purposeful multiplying of the mechanisms that impede message transmission (1974a:302). (Winner & Winner 1976: 131)
This is something that Jakobson barely touches. He gets to this aspect only when he discusses how we imitate stranger's speech habits to facilitate communication. It takes Jakobson some time before he faces the fact that individuals have their own idiolectic language-codes. // Cf. "We have perfect communication, hypothetically, when the phenomenal worlds of speaker and hearer are identical, including identical representations of the medium. This, of course, never happens. We can have adequate communication when the message has to do with relatively sequestered concerns." (MacLeod 1974: 69)
Then "movement is not in the direction of increasing the amount of information but in the direction of increasing the amount of entropy" (6.0.2). This remark is strengthened in the opening of the "Theses" where it is stated that "in culture itself entropy increases at the expense of maximum organization" (1.2.0). Such a negative trend in advanced societies is emphasized by Lévi-Strauss: "This it is that civilization ... can be described as an extraordinarily complex mechanism, which we might be tempted to see as offering an opportunity for survival to the human world, if its function were not to produce what physicists call entropy, that is inertia" (Lévi-Strauss, 1974:413). Lévi-Strauss's "cold societies" (the archaic rigid societies of the "Theses") create minimum disorder, while "hot societies" (the historical societies of the "Theses") use up and destroy energy (Charbonnier, 1969:32-33). (Winner & Winner 1976: 135)
In his 1955. Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss viewed civilization as an extraordinarily complex mechanism.
Similarly, Ivanov states (1973a:112-113) that the application to human history of the principle of increase in complexity of structures assumes the still largely hypothetical idea of the replacement of the biosphere (the sphere of living matter) by the noosphere (the sphere of the activity of reason). As Ivanov remarks, not only has the store of information about the past not been effectively used for the extrapolation of the future, but the difficulties increase with the growing volume of information which cannot be physically processed (1973a:113). (Winner & Winner 1976: 135)
That Ivanov hinted towards the noosphere replacing the biosphere in terns of information is not as impressive as Walter Moser's 1979. Semiotica paper "Entering the Semiosphere".
Various examples are offered of transmissions of texts through different channels, which may involve related languages or different ones, and related cultural traditions or different ones. Transmissions across cultures and languages require broad understanding of the entire culture including "'sublinguistic systems' of custom, life style, and technology ... which are not constructed on the basis of signs and texts of a natural language and cannot be transposed in them" (7.0.1). Only in subsequent stages can sublinguistic systems" (7.0.1). Here the problems of what is meant by "sublinguistic systems", and how they are distinguished from "secondary supralinguistic systems", need to be clarified. One may ask why, for example, is life style "sublinguistic", while art is a "secondary modelling system". (Winner & Winner 1976: 138)
I'm guessing it may be because "secondary supralinguistic systems" are based on language - art is here primarily verbal art (e.g. poetry).
The striving towards organization is constrasted to the "need of relatively amorphous formations which only resemble structure" (9.0.0). For example highly regular artificial sign systems which act as a model of the organization of culture, such as ranks and badges in Russian society under Peter the Great, are contrasted to the "motley irregularity of the real life of those times" (9.0.0). Extending this concept, it is held that the idea of regularity, which grammars of natural languages may embody, as well as other regulating texts such as instructions and directions, may represent a systematized myth created by the culture about itself (9.0.0). The implications of this statement for the real, as opposed to the possibly mythological, role of the regulating forces needs to be investigated. (Winner & Winner 1976: 140)
Hopefully I will get to investigate it in due time.
As Ivanov has commented, the notion of subjectivity and variability of real life was stressed by Bakhtin who wrote "'the constitutive factor' for a linguistic form as a sign is not at all its signal of self-identity but its specific variability, and for the understanding of the linguistic form the constitutive factor is not recognition 'of the same thing' but understanding in the strict sense i.e., orientation in the given context and the given situation, orientation in formation and not 'orientation' in some immobile existence" (Ivanov, 1975:196, quoting Vološinov, 1972:83). Bakhtin's approach emphasized not only the point of view of the listener but most importantly the point of view of the speaker, and their interrelations, a view which was further developed by Jakobson and forms the basis of his communication model applicable to linguistic communications, poetic texts, and in fact communication in general (Ivanov, 1975:196-197). (Winner & Winner 1976: 140)
Here Ivanov is in error. Jakobson's model isn't applicable on communication in general. It is a scheme of language functions that don't apply on nonverbal communication.
Literary texts, as all cultural texts, are not context-free, but are related, in complex ways, to other texts belonging to the same system (e.g. other literary texts), or belonging to other systems (other culture texts) which raises many questions including that of inter-systemic and inter-level translation or conversion discussed in the "Theses". (Winner & Winner 1976: 142)
System is here equivalent with "series" and "order" in other translations. What we have in our hands is the autofunction and synfunction (although Jakobson and Tynyanov seemingly spoke of elements, not texts).
Van Der Eng's "functional device" expresses the growing trend to expand such concepts as that of the device beyond their early connotation. Thus the functional device becomes the central factor of the semantic unification and dynamic structuration, of the narrative work since it establishes semantic ties between the various elements of the fabula, thus providing a focus for the structuration and unification of the work of art (Mukařovský's "semantic gesture") realized through the psychological intention of the decoder. (Winner & Winner 1976: 143)
Could Mukařovský's "semantic gesture" be (comparable to) Jakobson's "dominant"?
As Jakobson has already pointed out (1970a), the novelty of the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s lies in a fundamental shift of semiosis to an "introversive" semiosis, a dimension implied in Peirce's triad, where non-figurative art is a kind of self icon. When no object exists in reality, or when the grasping of the relation between the sign and an objective denotatum is extremely difficult, the inner form of the art work becomes its own object. According to Jakobson, signs based on "introversive" semiosis (such as music [except for program music] and glossolalic poetry) possess a minimal referential component. Such an orientation describes those autotelic artistic schools of the early twentieth century, such as the Symbolists and post-Symbolists in the verbal arts and the post-Impressionists in the visual arts. (Winner & Winner 1976: 144)
I did not realise "introversive" semiosis could be such a fruitful concept. On the basis of this definition one could very well talk of nonverbal communication as introversive semiosis. (I have previously used other terms, such as intrinsic coding or instrumentality.)
In Ivanov's archaic cultures the past is mythologized, and present time is cyclical, while in modern cultures (where behavior is regulated by memory), the past is "real" and historical time and present time is linear. (Winner & Winner 1976: 145)
This statement has been repeated so many times already that I'm beginning to doubt in its validity. Is memory regulating behaviour? Or... Is behaviour regulating memory? Boom.


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