Sign systems mediate the interactions between agents and their worlds. In Peirce’s (1992, 1998) terms, an agent is a first. The principle of “firstness” refers to the property of existing in the world independently of other entities. Firstness entails relative autonomy: a first always encounters and interacts with something else that enables its autonomy to be achieved. This is what Peirce defined as “secondness.” A first is, in reality, always defined in terms of its interactions with a second. Finally, the interaction between a first and a second is always mediated by a system of relations that makes possible the encounter between a first and a second. This is “thirdness.” Thirdness refers to some principle of systematicity and organization in terms of which encounters between first and seconds are seen as not random but able to be interpreted. Thirdness provides the resources and the principles of organization whereby the interaction between a first and a second can be successfully coordinated and appropriately interpreted.
A sign system has typically been conceptualized as a system of correlations of forms with meanings that exist in ordered hierarchies of relations. A sign system in this view makes possible the signs that people create in particular circumstances. Sign systems thus conceived have been conceptualized as networks of terms defined relationally. The terms are defined negatively by their position within the overall system of relations, rather than by something positive that is intrinsic to them. In other words, a sign system is a network of semiotically salient differences that potentially make a difference for the members of a given culture. The early twentieth-century prototype for this way of conceptualizing sign systems was Saussure’s (1993) semiological theory of the language system (la langue) as a system of potential signs.
For Saussure, linguistic value is founded on two essential principles. First, the starting point is the totality of the language system and the relations of coexistence between the terms that constitute the system at a given moment in time. Second, the link between the two orders of linguistic facts – phonic and conceptual terms – is relational and arbitrary. It is therefore relative rather than absolute; value is not based on extra-linguistic physical things (Saussure 1993, 329). Value is based purely on the relations between the terms in the language system. Linguistic values are therefore arbitrary in this sense (Saussure 1993, 330).
La langue is a normative semiological institution in the sense that its values constrain and regiment the linguistic behavior of individuals. Sign systems therefore entail the typification of the means – the resources – and the situations – the conditions – for creating meanings. Sign systems are based on general categories that can be applied to many different individual cases. If we had to invent a new category for each new case we encountered, our finite brains would not be able to handle it and we would in all likelihood go crazy. The intensional definition of a given class of objects is the least general predication that applies to them all, according to Ryle’s (1963) notion of categories.
Sign Systems Are Conventionalized Resources
Take the noun governor in the nominal group the late former Republican governor of Minnesota. The noun governor specifies (symbolizes) a general category – a semantic class of Thing – that can be applied to many different individual cases. In Ryle’s terms, the noun governor is the general predication that applies to a large number of individual cases as their intensional definition. However, the individual, Elmer Andersen, referred to by Al Gore in his book The Assault on Reason (2007, 113) by the nominal group in question does not necessitate the making of an entirely new category of Thing to refer to him. Instead, the systemic resources of the nominal group (i.e., deixis: the; qualification: late, former; classification: Republican; post-qualification: of Minnesota) combine and interact with the noun in this nominal group to produce a specific referent without Al Gore having to invent an entirely new nominal category. Thus, the noun governor is a type category of Thing that can be multiplied and instantiated in different times and places by different persons.
Similarly, the expressions Can I help you? and Are you being served? are conventionalized resources – typifications – that can be abstracted from many different occasions and seen as typical strategies notwithstanding their different wordings for initiating a sales transaction between customer and client. Now, sales transactions are themselves conventionalized forms of social interaction. In this case, we also see that the conventionalized mode of interaction (discourse genre, activity-type) qua institutionalized convention gives rise to typified forms of interaction, as exemplified in the initiating moves and their functions mentioned above, together with conventionalized speaking and action roles for participants (Halliday 1978, 63).
Furthermore, the presentation of the self as the bearer of a particular institutionalized role (e.g., salesperson) also puts into play a whole range of skills and competences and bodily and sartorial displays and performances that have the potential to elicit normative judgments as to the appropriateness or the capacity of the individual as a skilful or otherwise bearer of the designated role (Goffman 1971). Similarly, only certain kinds of physical settings will typically be recognized as being of the appropriate or right kind for invoking the conventional institution of sales transaction. Sign systems therefore have the power to evoke context-sensitive social and cultural conventions and norms in ways that are also sensitive to the history of prior such evocations. Sign systems are intertextually sensitive to the possible equivalence classes of these prior evocations and how they might contribute to the construction and understanding of the current situation and its anticipated future development.
The values of a sign system stabilize and regiment the range of possible meanings – the meaning potential – by digitalizing the topological-continuous variation of the underlying biophysical substrate (e.g., the articulatory space of the vocal tract) as discrete digital categories in the phonology and lexico-grammar of natural spoken languages. This process enables persons in interaction to direct the attention of others to specific objects and to coordinate this attention with others even when the object in question is not available to online perception. In other words, linguistic and other signs are not merely physical entities or processes to which structure or meaning is then added by psychological processes of inference and so on (Reed 1996, 17). Instead, signs bring about changes in the organism’s relation to its internal and external environment in ways that enable it to organize and to anticipate possible future responses to the environment.
Sign Systems, Bio-Cultural Dynamics, And The Emergence Of Complexity
Sign systems do not have an autonomous social-cultural-semiotic dynamics that is separate from the physical-material-biological processes that embody them (see also Lemke 2000; Thibault 2004). Sign systems are totally dependent on and are always tied to the physical-chemical-biological systems of material processes in which the former are embedded as part of a larger-scale ecosocial semiotic system (Salthe 1993, 45–46; Lemke 2000; Thibault 2004). Therefore, semiotic practices and the sign systems embedded in them are always both semiotic and material processes: on the one hand, they constrain and enable acts of meaning and their associated evaluative stances; on the other, they participate in and entrain physical-material couplings, both somatic and extra-somatic.
Sign systems are often talked about in reductionist terms as being composed of bottom-up assemblages of small-scale elements that are seen as basic, rather like the bricks that are assembled to build a house. In much of twentieth-century linguistics, for example, small elements such as phonemes and morphemes were thus seen as the compositional building blocks of larger structures such as sentences. Consequently, all levels in the hierarchy were viewed in essentially the same way – building blocks all the way up (and down). Sentences were no more than compositions of lower-level elements. In this view, there were no true higher-order levels and attractors (Salthe 1993, 36). In this conception there is no way of explaining how novel properties and processes emerge from the interactions between components on different levels because all levels are treated in the same way.
A further tool for rethinking sign systems, then, is the three-level scalar hierarchy view developed by Salthe (1993, 36–52). The three-level scalar hierarchy provides a way of breaking a complex phenomenon down into a triad of constituent levels of organization that enable us to contextualize the relations between levels. Thus, lower levels can be understood in terms of the way they are contextually integrated to higher levels in the hierarchy. Higher levels have emergent properties and processes that are not reducible to lower ones. Thus, meanings qua attractors in a possibility space – a sign system – manipulate and entrain lower-scalar physical-biological processes to their own ends so that new configurations and arrangements of lower-scalar processes and entities arise. These new arrangements are more highly structured and more highly specified with respect to the lower-scalar processes such that the higher-scalar system is able to interpret lower-scalar processes. The reverse is not, generally speaking, the case because lower scalar entities are not sufficiently structured to do so. Sign systems are therefore global meta-semiotic phenomena that range over and constrain local phenomena.
In terms of three-level hierarchy thinking, newly emergent levels of organization do not come from nowhere. Instead, they emerge between previously existing levels. Semiosis is distributed in a number of different, yet closely related, ways across a hierarchy of interconnected levels, as follows: (1) semiotic-informational (systemic) constraints distributed over higher-scalar levels of an ecosocial semiotic system in historical-cultural time (L+1); (2) semiosis/sign-making distributed between brain, body, and world in the real-time inter-individual activity of social agents (L); (3) micro-temporal neuroanatomical processes and capacities of human brain and body (L−1).
The interaction between an interpreting agent and a sign is an encounter between a first and a second. This is the intermediate (focal) level (L) in the proposed hierarchy. The higher level (L+1) is where the sign system qua thirdness is located. The level constitutes the higher-scalar environment where sign systems persist on longer time scales than individuals. Sign systems are not housed in individual brains, but are distributed across an entire cultural system. Level L−1 refers to the affordances – the biological and other enabling conditions – that make semiosis possible. Level L, on the other hand, is the level of the intentional social agents-in-activity-in-their-world. Agents are not simply constrained by top-down causation emanating from level L+1; they also have the capacity to modulate and therefore affect the flow of the activities they participate in across diverse space-time scales through their sign-making activity. Level L+1 consists of semiotic constraints that mediate and make possible the semiotic–material couplings and interpretations that are created in the activity of agents on level L. Level L+1 provides the system of interpretation and therefore the categories and forms of action in and through which agents make sense of and orient to their worlds.
Our interactions with others often involve a great deal of uncertainty that cannot be explained in terms of systemic regularities alone, seen as rule-bound behavioral templates to which participants conform. Sign systems qua conventional resources are not, then, reducible to rule-following templates founded on predictable behavioral regularities and/ or inventories of form–meaning correlations. Instead, they are meta-semiotic and cognitive resources that enable participants to find solutions in real time to problems of understanding, interpretation, and social coordination that may be completely unique, one-off occurrences. Sign systems are resources for both participating in and monitoring the complex meaning-making trajectories that we co-construct with others across diverse time and place scales in the process of operating on and transforming the social situations and events we create along these trajectories.
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