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James Damascus's picture

The Crisis of Representation

If we assume that all modes of representation are indexical to ideal forms (in short, the things represented), then there will always be an intellectual crisis of representation. While this issue is taken up most clearly in Western semiotics’ obsession with perception, signs, and objects-themselves, I think the Mary Jane example does well to apply this issue to neurobiology. In short, there is a gap between some theoretically-abject reality (a series of wave frequencies) and a sign or perception (magenta) experienced by an observer. The dilemma of light waves vs. perceived colour is map-able to the disjunct between collections of sound frequencies and the singular sounds we perceive in their place. In yet another physics experiment, we used computer software to break our voices up into their unique frequencies and then reproduced the sounds of our voices by combining those same frequencies. We also were able to reproduce the sounds of instruments (clarinet, violin, cello) by combining their characteristic sound frequencies. If we consider the objects-themselves, we did not actually hear voices or instruments, even though the sounds we perceived were indistinguishable from the sounds produced by actual instruments and people. More generally, the unique singular sounds we attribute to point sources actually are made up of a number of different sound frequencies. That said, one might ask whether perceiving eleven distinct sound waves is in some way more authentic than converting these signals into the distinct sound we hear when a clarinet is played?

To some extent, the indexicality of signs is an issue best taken up by philosophers, linguists and anthropologists. I was reading through a couple articles written by anthropologist Stephen Tyler (not from Aerosmith) and linguists Peirce, Saussure and Whorf. If you are interested in these, please let me know- I do not have access to a scanner at the moment. While Tyler uses the issue to criticize anthropology (not directly relevant), I think his conclusion may be useful to us (‘there are always gaps in our knowledge so don’t worry about it’).

Commenting on sign systems and ideal forms, identifies the indexicality of science (and, by extension, ethnographic description). Tyler recognizes the limitations of epistemology (Peirce’s notion of the sign is deceptive since the third element-the represented object- never fits inside) and suggests that the represented objects have to be considered with descriptions of the things to which they are connected. In one sense, this move indicates that objects (or ‘percepts’, sticking with linguistic terminology) have thickness or thinness, as described by Geertz. If one is representing ‘Lisa’, for instance, they are representing a person whose life connects in complex ways with the lives of others. What this means is that it’s impossible to know the ‘true’ Lisa. In other words, there are limits to what we can know (gaps in our knowledge that cannot be avoided).
In recognizing that representation has shortcomings, Tyler does not seem to share the anxiety of other scholars. In a way, he’s responding to anthropology’s suggestion that we can know other people objectively (in the manner claimed by science). His cure to the gaps in knowledge mentioned above is hermeneutics; He proposes abandoning epistemology and embracing hermeneutics since the gaps in our knowledge are an unavoidable part of life. So what Tyler wants to do is make something concrete. An ideal postmodern discourse, he thinks, will reject the western obsession with the separation of perception, signs, and objects. Philosophy will thus close the gap between words and action: in short, there will emerge a discourse that has done away with what Peirce establishes as the secondness and thirdness of representation itself. Sticking with Peirce's terms, one can say that the world would thus become an icon where it and language would stand in a relation of pleonasm with each other. In the language of Peirce, it would only focus on the sensory-perception, or the firstness of language. The chief advantage to eliminating the idea of representation is that it would "show there is no problematic relationship between word and world, for both are mutually present.” The desired object of “evocation”, as described by Tyler, is the recognition of the commonplace or commonsense of a particular community. As a consequence, it would constitute a discourse without universals, and without the damaging pretension to "general knowledge."

Linguists (substitute in ‘sensory imaging’ or ‘sensory perception’ for ‘language’, and their arguments become relevant):

The theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce and Benjamin Lee Whorf all focus on the relationship between language and culture. Functionally, the systems share a single thematic focus on language and sign systems as mediators of experience, communication and thought. They differ to the extent that they offer dissimilar explanations for just how sign systems mediate thoughts, experiences and communication.
Perhaps the most well known of the three theorists is Ferdinand de Saussure, who examined the basic elements of language in relation to their functions rather than in relation to their causes, as had been the commonly accepted approach to language study up until that point. For Saussure, the scientific study of language ideally focuses on the linguistic “system” rather than the history of linguistic phenomena. In analyzing how language mediates people’s experiences, Saussure employed the concepts of sign (the combination of concept and sound image), signifier (sound or word), signified (the implied concept or thought), arbitrariness (the idea that the meaning of a gesture or word is not intrinsic, and must be agreed upon by the linguistic community) and structure (a system of language). For our purposes, Saussure’s theory of language and culture is significant in that it suggests a connection between ideas and language, and identified the link between thought and sound. Language, then, is a system of signs that express ideas much like a system of writing. A linguistic sign is a two-part item made up of a concept and a sound-image that recall one another. This combined item is also referred to in terms of a signified and signifier.

Peirce takes Saussure’s intepretation of language as a sign system and complicates it both by identifying multiple types of sign systems (of which language is one specific example- visual symbols are another) and analyzing how sign systems function. For Peirce, there are three fundamental components of signs- iconicity, indexicality, and symbolicness, all of which characterize the link between the object and the sign (or “ground”- the way in which you determine what a sign represents). Indexicality refers to the extent to which a sign points to something. Cursing, for example, may index, or point to my frustration (“shit” indexes frustration). It also represents a degree of conventionality; that is, cursing is seen, through convention, as a way to express frustration. Further, cursing out of frustration may be iconic in the sense that the way one pronounces the curse word expresses the feeling that person is experiencing.
Signs, meanwhile, include both those occurring naturally and those that are manmade. Peirce expanded his analysis to look at the degrees of reality a sign can have. He characterizes this in terms of firstness, secondness and thirdness. Firstness is a quality (like a color) immediately perceived (something that strikes you right away). Secondness is described best as a relation or relations between reactive objects. When you observe an event, for instance, you are witnessing two things reacting to one another (ex. grass reacting to wind) or, in other words, a relation between two things. Thirdness is a general rule or convention. In a general sense, Peirce’s theory relates to the other two theorists we’ve encountered (Saussure & Whorf) in that it suggests that all of our experiences are mediated in some way by signs (and, by extension, language).
Like Peirce and Saussure, Whorf suggests that language is a mediating force in people’s thoughts and experiences. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the relationship of thought to language is one of channeling. In other words, language influences how people think about the world. This coincides with the theories of signs proposed by Saussure and Peirce, both of whom support the notion that language mediates how people experience the world. In some sense, all our experiences are mediated.


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