Basic Tasks of Cultural Semiotics

Posner, Roland 2004. Basics Tasks of Cultural Semiotics. In: Withalm, Gloria and Josef Wallmannsberger (eds.), Signs of Power - Power of Signs. Essays in Honor of Jeff Bernard. Vienna: INST, 56-89.

A set of interpreters together with the signs and the messages interpreted by them, as well as the further circumstances relevant to the interpretation (see Prieto 1966: 47f) is called a "sign system". (Posner 2004: 1)
Huh, a definition of sign systems almost identical (or at least very much comparable) to communication systems (sensu Ruesch).
Each sign process includes at least a sign, an interpreter, and a message which is conveyed to the interpreter by the sign. The interpreter's response, which amounts to construing a message in perceiving the sign, is called an "interpretant". (Posner 2004: 3)
Here "sign" is as if the form and "message" the content. Also, I'm pretty sure that this is not the original definition of the interpretant.
A code consists of a set of signifiers, a set of signifieds, and a set of rules which determine the relation of these to each other (see Nöth 1990: 206-220). A code is either innate, such as the genetic code, is learned in interaction with the social environment, as is the case with many behavioral codes, or may be created through an explicit decision by one or more individual(s). Consequently, one distinguishes between natural, conventional, and artificial codes (see Keller and Lüdke 1997). (Posner 2004: 4)
Nõth's definition is closer to the strict one-to-one-transformation understanding of codes rather than the looser cultural semiotics one (which, to be sure, probably cannot be found in explicit definition). Keller and Lüdke's definition is basically the classic three-fold distinction between biological/species-specific, socio-cultural, and individual/idiosyncratic. I also propose that codes may be created without an explicit decision to do so. Sometimes new codes just "happen".
Generations of living beings belonging to the same species, but to different cultures, can gradually become so ddifferent from each other that one may speak of "pseudo-speciation" (Erikson 1966; see Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1979: 47f). (Posner 2004: 5)
I wonder if this is in any way related to Timo Maran's concept of semiotic selection.
The term "medium" is used to designate a constellation of factors which remain the same over a wide range of sign processes. One can therefore say that two sign processes belonging to the same medium when, in their reception, they either rely on the same sensory apparatus (for example, the ear), or utilize the same contact matter (physical channel; e.g., air), or operate with similarly functioning instruments (technical channel; e.g., the telephone), or occur in the same type of social institution (for example, in a fire department precinct), or serve the same purpose (such as calling for help), or use the same code (for instance the English language). In order to distinguish between these types of conditions, one speaks of a biological, physical, technological, sociological, functional, or code-related media concepts (see Posner 1985: 255ff). (Posner 2004: 5)
The concept of medium needed clarification. Ruesch's "medium" is Jakobson's "channel", yet the differences between these concepts are not very clear.
The biological media concept characterizes sign processes according to the bodily organs (sensory apparatus) which are involved in the production and reception of signs. Wit hrespect to humans, one differentiates between the visual medium, whose signs are received with the eyes; the auditory medium, whose signs are received with the ears; the olfactory medium, whose signs are received with the nose; the gustatory medium, whose signs are received with the taste buds in the mouth; and the tactile medium, whose signs are received through the skin's sense of touch.
The physical medium concept characterizes sign processes according to the chemical elements and their physical make-up (contact matter) which are used in establishing a connection between the signss and the receptor organs of the recipient, and, where available, the production organ of the sender. Visual sign processes are dependent on electro-magnetic fields which carry photons (optical medium); auditory sign processes are dependent on solid, liquid, or gaseous bodies capable of acoustic transfer to serve as a physical connection between the sign and the recipient (acoustic medium); olfactory sign processes utilize chemical substances in gaseous form (osmotic medium); gustatory sign processes use certain liquid or solid substances (culinary medium); tactile sign processes are dependent on the skin to transmit stimuli (haptic medium). The biological and physical aspects of human and animal sign processes are extensively treated in Posner et al. (1997-2004: Vol. 1, Articles 6-12). (Posner 2004: 6)
This is an important distinction. Jakobson is very reductive when it comes to these matters (he relates the visual and auditory with other oppositions, like spatial and temporal, similarity and contiguity, etc.).
The functional media concept characterizes sign processes according to the purpose of the messages which are transmitted by them. We are here dealing in a generalized form with what is known as "styles", "genres", or "discourse types" in literature, art, and musicology (see Morris 1946=1971: 203-232). The purpose of the communication gives the messages similar structures regardless of the biological, physical, technical, or social medium in which they occur. Not only in newspapers, but also on the radio and on television, one distinguishes between news, commentary, criticism, reportage, feature stories, and advertising. (Posner 2004: 7)
Finally some (at least theoretical) use for Morris's "discourse types" categorization.
Each medium determines the types of messages which can be transmitted in it. Therefore, it is often referred to as a "channel": It lets messages of a particular kind pass and excludes others (see Posner 1985: 257 and 264, note 32). However, the biological, physical, technical, social, functional, and code-related limitations usually function together. (Posner 2004: 8)
Yeap, channel and medium are indeed comparable and Posner has made a good case for comparing them.
The subject area of cultural anthropoloy is the mental culture of a society, insofar as it is manifested in its civilization, i.e., its mentality. The mentality of a society consists of mentifacts (that is, the ideas and values) and the conventions governing their use and expression (for a definition of "mentality" see Raulff 1987: 11 and Posner 1991: 68, note 2; the concept can be traced back to the tradition of the French journal Annales E.S.C., established in 1929 in Paris by L. Febvre and M. Bloch; see also Duby 1961, Le Goff 1974, Tellenbach 1974, Hutton 1981, Sellin 1985, Dinzelbacher 1993 and Werlen 1998). Examples of religious mentifacts are the Catholic sains and their emblems, the classification of sins with the corresponding terminology ("mortal sin", "venial sin", etc.), and the gestural codes of priests. (Posner 2004: 10)
A possible source for the concept of mentifact (or, at least, a road towards tracing its source) and an example of its application - some types of signs can apparently be called mentifacts.
Mentifacts which determine the behavior of the individuals in one society can be adopted by members of another society and can come to determine their behavior. One such case is the adoption of African-American music (at first referred to as "Negeredudel," 'nigger droning') in Germany after World War II and its independent development into local forms of music (e.g., krautrock) in the following decades: The mentality of jazz fans today connects individuals from otherwise very different societies and civilizations. (Posner 2004: 12)
It sounds like the concept of mentifact is quite intricately tied with behaviour.
Even in the still-utopian (or dystopian) conception of machines as carriers of culture it seems evident that machines will form societies and be accepted as members of the same society to the extent that they well develop collective conventional codes, produce signs interpretable with the aid of these codes, and address them to each other (see Posner 1993: 262-267 and 2000). (Posner 2004: 13)
#netisemiootika - this suggestion should be tried out on modern forms of computing.
Tools are normally produced to serve a particular function (their standard use), and the producer ensures recognition of the tools by encoding their intended function into them. This is why each tool conveys the function for which it was created. (Posner 2004: 15)
Compare this to the Prague Linguistic Circle type of functionalism that views language as a tool with particular functions (Jakobson lists six of them).
If a mentifact is to play a role in a society the latter must have at its disposal a substrate which makes it transmittable. This means there must be a symbolic form which expresses it (to use the approach of Cassirer 1923-29; see above section 1; see also Schwemmer 1997: 143ff), which is to say there must be a signifier whose signified is the mentifact. (Posner 2004: 16)
This is a point for concourse, which at this point can be described as a set of mentifacts related to nonverbal behaviour. E.g. "enesevalitsemine" and "ülalpidamine" are mentifacts of early 20th century Estonia.
The spheres fall into four different areas:
  1. The extra-cultural, which lies beyond the mental horizon of the relevant society because it is entirely unknown;
  2. The counter-cultural, which is known to the members of the society, but regarded as opposite to their own culture;
  3. The culturally peripheral, which the members of the society recognize as part of their own culture, but not as central;
  4. The culturally central, which the members of the society recognize as part of their culture and as essential for their own identity.
While non-semiosic spheres belong to the first area,t he semiosic spheres are divided among the remaning three. (Posner 2004: 21)
I was not aware that semiospheres can be distinguished on the basis of these distinctions.


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