Monday, October 10, 2005

The Sign/Symbol pair


At this point, I don't want to make too much of this pairing, particularly because it's ground well-covered, in a wide variety of different contexts, meanings, histories, controversies, etc. The terms I'm using are an admitted mish-mash drawn from those different contexts, and pulled in here only for want of something better. Saussure, for example, uses the more technical-sounding, and certainly more coherent, "sign", "signifier", and "signified" to mean roughly what I refer to as "meme", "sign" and "symbol", but I didn't want to become entangled in all the structuralist, semiotic nets that such terms now drag with them. With "meme", on the other hand, while I recognize that the term has become an over-used pop-anthropology cliche, I did want to make use of its overt genetic and Darwinian analogies, and so I've included it as the general term for the sign/symbol (signifier/signified) pair. The term "symbol" is perhaps the sloppiest usage of the lot here, since it's often understood as something that already refers to, or stands for, something else. But I want to use it somewhat differently -- I mean by it a unit or chunk of conscious experience that is pre-defined and pre-structured ("pre-" meaning that it exists as a structure within an individual's mental apparatus and is available for use in communicative behavior, without having to be pulled together). And then "sign" is maybe the simplest and clearest of the three -- it simply means a perception (or a memory of a perception, as in internal speech or self-reflection) that evokes, or calls up, that chunk of experience that is the symbol.

Out of all that, there are just two points that I want to make for now, since I think they've sometimes gone unnoticed or underemphasized, but are crucial for the operation of a cultural system:


  • First, we cannot choose whether or not to "recognize" a sign. We can and do choose, obviously, where to focus our attention, but once a sign is experienced, then its associated symbolic "meaning" is activated in a strictly causal or determinate fashion. (There are interesting fringe cases where we're confused about which sign was experienced, or even whether it was a particular sign, or where we can reduce a sign to just its contingent sense experience through repetition -- saying a word over and over again, for example -- but these serve only to outline the determinate nature of the sign-symbol interaction.)

  • Second, the symbol, since it's constructed out of the stuff of each individual's actual experience, is unique for each individual in a cultural social formation. When two (or more) people use a particular sign in a communicative encounter, then the associated symbols are always to some extent (however slight) brought into what we might call semantic alignment, but they can never be identical because they'll always be affected to some extent (however slight) by the differences in each person's experience to that point. And this too is a strictly causal or determinate process.

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