Signs in society

Richard Parmentier

Signs in Society- Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

IN REFLECTING BACK on the monuments of its intellectual heritage, modern sem- iotic anthropology gazes upon the twin peaks of Charles Sanders Peirce, the American scientist and mathematician, and Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss lin- guist. Among the many ironies of this dual heritage is a disjunction in the work of these theorists between the nature of the facts they proposed to explain and the potential of the analytical tools they developed. Peirce, in seeking to account for the homologous character of physical and mental realities, developed semiotic tools (especially his notions of indexical signs and chain-like semiosis) that have proved powerful for research into social, historical, and cultural phenomena, the study of which, for the most part, remained only an avocation for Peirce himself. Saussure, while attempting to justify historical linguistics by seeing language as part of the “life of signs in society” (1974:1.48), produced the framework for a linguistic theory that removes language from its social embeddedness. It is this disjunction that motivated me to title this collection of semiotic studies Signs in Society, for I follow Saussure in taking systems of signs as the data I am interested in explaining and yet I rely on Peirce for many specific analytical distinctions.

Anthropologists, at least in this country, have generally tended to see in Peirce’s semiotics rather than in Saussure’s semiology a suitable analog for the conditions and practice of fieldwork in other cultures. As in field research where the ethnographer tries to make sense of the sign systems of another culture through intense, often trying, interpretive abductions, so in Peirce’s theory the meaning of a sign consists of the unforeseen succession of interpreting signs that serve to represent a common object (Daniel 1 9 8 4 : 4 z ) . Peirce offers the possibil- ity that meaning is more than an operation of mental decoding, since semiosis is an open-ended process in which each moment of interpretation alters the field for subsequent interpretations. In contrast, Saussure’s theory focuses on the pre- established, fixed code shared equally by ideal speaker and ideal hearer (Ponzio 1984:274—75). And Saussure’s effort to establish linguistic value without taking into account positive semantic meaning, the context of utterance, or worldly ref- erence is countered by Peirce’s close attention to the indexical anchoring of prop- ositional reference and to the necessity of adequation between representation and reality (Steiner 1981:421).


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