Biosemiosis, Technocognition, and Sociogenesis

Kockelman, Paul 2011. Biosemiosis, Technocognition, and Sociogenesis: Selection and Significance in a Multiverse of Sieving and Serendipity. Current Anthropology 52(5): 711-739.

This essay theorizes significance in conjunction with selection and thereby provides a general theory of meaning. It treats processes of significance and selection in conjunction with processes of sieving and serendipity and thereby systematically interrelates the key factors underlying emergent forms of organized complexity. It theorizes codes in conjunction with channels and thereby links shared cultural representations and networked social relations. (Kockelman 2011: 711)
In other words, it links cultural capital (codes) with social capital (channels).
Joint attention is perhaps the exemplary semiotic process: a child turning to observe what her father is observing involves an interpretant (the child's change in attention), an object (what the parent, and later the child, is attending to), and a sign (the parent's direction of attention or gesture that directs attention). Here the relation between relations, what Peirce called "correspondence," is the relation between the parent's direction of attention and the object and the child's direction of attention and the object. (Kockelman 2011: 712)
I have wondered for a while now whether in this example (which is also the one used by Karl Bühler as well as countless others, reaching back to the Stoics, probably) the sign is the referent/object or the pointing behaviour towards the referent/object.
The economist Veblen (1971[1899]), himself a student of Peirce, merged both of these visions, theorizing the relation between seemingly nonpecuniary values (such as social status) and seemingly nonlinguistic signs (such as indexes of effort). Inspired by Darwin's account of sexual selection (1981[1871]) and the expression of emotions in man and animals (1965[1872]) and providing the basic template for many influential theories (such as Bourdieu's account of distinction and Labov's account of hypercorrection), his vision of pecuniary emulation was an attempt to explain the selection of social processes over historical time by relatively unintentional pathways. For example, he argued that any nonintentional or "natural" sign of one's ability to produce some original value (e.g., a large store of yams that by happenstance indicates that one is a good farmer) may become a derivative value insofar as it is a sign of one's distinction from other farmers. And this sign may therefore be intentionally sought in addition to or even at the expense of the object for which it originally stood (e.g., people strive to have large yam houses even if this no longer correlates with having lots of yams). In short, the same entity can be a sign of two different objects: both a natural or happenstance sign of sustenance and a nonnatural or covertly communicative sign of status. And the relation between these two simultaneously active semiotic processes was a condition of possibility for complex forms of sociogenesis. (Kockelman 2011: 712)
I have my own (curiously autoreferential) example. This blog suggests to some of my teachers and outside observers that I am a capable thinker merely because I have accumulated an extensive collection of quotes and associations between ideas. This blog thus leaves the impression that I am able to churn out academic papers if I so wished. Actually it turns out that I have very little to contribute on my own terms and thus I have been trying to write a single paper for almost a year now. That is, I may appear distinct from other BA students, but this does not correlate with the facts of the matter.
And it theorizes codes in conjunction with channels and thereby links shared cultural representations and networked social relations. (Kockelman 2011: 713)
I hope this is different from how codes and channels are viewed in conjunction by theorists of nonverbal communication who take the route of absurd simplicity and conflate the two, so that haptics and tacticics becomes "contact code", chronemics and environment become "time and space codes", etc.
And while most of the ideas it brings together have thus been around for more than 100 years, it offers a condensation, synthesis, extension, and - perhaps most importantly - perturbation of such ideas. (Kockelman 2011: 713)
This is what I currently need to do with ideas that have been around for approximately 50 to 75 years.
In short, there are no isolated envirnoments and organisms, there are only envorganisms. This last point is, to be sure, well rehearsed by scholars such as Darwin, von Uexküll, Gibson, Heidegger, and Lewontin. The point here is to frame it in an explicit theory of meaning and to thereby show its natural emergence from more basic and more well-defined processes. (Kockelman 2011: 715)
This indeed seems to be the point of Uexküll's Umwelt and Heidegger's Dasein, although I cannot verify neither these nor the others. Also, Peirce wrote there no so such thing as an absolute individual, meaning that an individual person is always syncretic with his circle of society. Thus, we may very well discuss something like a persocion. What use that would be, I cannot say.
Indeed, if you are wary of cognitive or enminded processes (in the context of human speech acts, themselves framed in intentionalist terms), you may focus on affective or embodied ones. For example, the facial expressions described by Darwin (1965[1872]) or the affect programs studied by Ekman (2006) are frameable in similar terms - from their roots, involving an appraisal of a situation (qua "sensation"), through autonomic nervous system arousal, to their fruits, involving a set of behaviors (qua "instigation"). Moreover, whether the agent is framed in enminded intentionalist terms (e.g., as a believing and intending "subject," via Descartes) or in an embodied habitus-like idiom (e.g., as a circumspecting and associating "Dasein," via Heidegger) is of no concern here. (Kockelman 2011: 717)
Cf. Brentano's proto-phenomenological approach to intention and how emotions contain judgments (here: appraisals) of some object (here: a situation).
In particular, reframing Grice's insights (1989d; and see Strawson 1971[1954]) in a semiotic idiom, there are at least four (significant) objects of interest in nonnatural meaning: (1) my intention to direct your attention to an object (or to bring an object to your attention); (2) the object that I direct your attention to (or bring to your attention); (3) my intention that you use 2, usually in conjunction with 1, to attend to another object; and (4) the object that you come to attend to. (Kockelman 2011: 718)
I find it cool that you can replace all these Peircean idioms with Jakobsonian idioms: (1) conative; (2) referential; (3) conative; (4) referential. There is obvious phenomenological doubling at play here.
The subset of relations marked f is different from the subset marked e even though they seem similar. These relations may be understood as relations between relations of type d as constituted by an ensemble of interconnected envorganisms - be they neurons or logic gates, speech acts or mental states, instruments or actions, intentional individuals or sieving gradients. These relations, then, are mediated by actual and possible configurations of channels such that the sensations and instigations, or signs and interpretants, of one such envorganism make sense only in the context of the sensations and instigations, or signs and interpretants, of other such envorganisms. In some sense, this is a way of generalizing Saussure's insight from codes or "languages" (qua relations between signs and objects) to channels or "infrastructure" (qua relations between signers and interpreters), a point that requires some unpacking. (Kockelman 2011: 725)
Here it is again: this weird combination of "signers and interpreters". In a Peircean paradigm both the sender and the receiver should be "signers".
To understand this last kind of relation between relations, one needs to notice the fundamental similarity between codes and channels. A code in the Jakobson-Saussure framework is a set of type-type relations: signifiers (or signs) of one type are paired with signifieds (or objects) of another type. [...] In contrast, a channel in the Jakobson-Saussure framework is a connection between the speaker and the addressee (or between the signer and the interpreter) such that signs expressed by the former (via processes that include instigation) may be interpreted by the latter (via processes that include sensation). (Kockelman 2011: 725)
But there is a more fundamental similarity between channels and contexts! In the original organon model it is the object that acts as a medium between one and another. There can be contact without code but there cannot be contact without context. Also, Saussurean signified is not Peircean object - a point that has been argued over time and again.
Note, then, the fundamental symmetry: just as codes connect signs and objects, channels connect signers and interpreters. Rather than focusing on what signs to send, we now focus on where to send them. (Kockelman 2011: 726)
These are perfectly correct statements but what is missing is that messages connect interpreters with objects. It must also be pointed out that in this third "relation between relations" the receiver can interpret most anything as a message referring to some code. This is the case of a paranoid or religious person who interprets insignificant occurrences as highly significant, as messages from god or some unseen stalker.
As for the second caveat, our focus is not on a channel per se but on a network of channels linking an ensemble of envorganisms. The problem with a word such as "network" is that its referent is often envisioned as a twe-dimensional surface occupying a three-dimensional space (both like a "net" and somewhat like the Internet), where instead one should rather try to imagine an N-dimensional substance (itself chock full of brains and fangs) crammed into a four-dimensional space-time. With these caveats in mind, we may begin the generalization. (Kockelman 2011: 726)
This is good. When I finally get around to reading Ruesch and Bateson (1951) in total, I should keep this in mind and see how many dimensions they attribute to their communication networks. Actually, I don't think it's particularly important, but it would be somewhat interesting, as the exact nature of their intertwined intrapersonal, cultural, etc. networks eludes me.
First, rather than think about selection (of paragidmatic alternatives within a code, e.g., whether one says he, she, or it or whether one says was, is, or will be or whether one says happy, sad, or angry), think about which channels (to which interpreters) are simultaneously accessible to a single signer (within a given network). And rather than think about combination (of such selections in linearly ordered syntagms, e.g., she is angry, he was sad, it will be happy, etc.), think about which channels may be sequentially accessed from a single signer. That is, operations such as selection and combination are at work in the domain of channels as much as in the domain of codes. (Kockelman 2011: 726)
But all this is about conation and the radius of communication rather than the phatic function! Also, happy, sad and angry are not what Jakobson means my a paradigmatic set because these are not equivalent in the sense that he talks about selection. A set like cheerful, merry, joyful, contended, etc. would be such a set, because these words are synonymous (that is, equivalent to some degree). I quibble over such inanity because Kockelman seems to miss the point of selection in Jakobson's theory. If you wish to describe a happy person you're not choosing between happy, sad and angry, but between different verbal signs that signify happyness. I realize that both types of selection are involved, but they are of a different order.
And just as the "value" of a sign (qua signifier-signified relation) for Saussure is dependent on its role in a grammar's code, the value of an envorganism is dependent on its role in a network of channels - where by "value" we mean how exactly, given this larger context, the features of its object or the interests of its agent should be understood (itself dependent on the frame at issue). (Kockelman 2011: 726)
Are we really going to apply the principle of abstractive relevance on organisms or people?
I highly qualify this simple symmetry between material translation (channel) and meaningful translation (code) and develop its repercussions (Kockelman 2011). (Kockelman 2011: 726; footnote 23)
"Material translation" makes just about as much sense as placing one brick on top of another does as "reo-real interpretation" sensu Ducasse (1939).
Indeed, in more human terms, and given present concerns, a fundamental interpretant nowadays is connecting or disconnecting a channel (think Twitter and Facebook); that is, the fundamental mode of real-time instigation by human actors is selecting what (and whose) instigations one will sense and what (or who) will sense one's instigations. (Kockelman 2011: 727)
But how appropriate are terms like "connecting" and "disconnecting" with Twitter and Facebook? Unlike the internet cable or telephone wire, which can be physically connected and disconnected (because they are technical channels), social media sites can be logged into and logged out of, but neither will "shut off" because of it. This is a point that calls for a more modern paradigm. I'm going to skip the comments section because this article managed to disappoint me.


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