Thursday, August 9, 2012

Holy Semiosis, Batman!

Iconic Interpretation
Obvious, isn't it?
This morning, my four year old son was deep into a shadow puppet performance of some kind of robot-on-Joker conflict, when he noticed an unexpected shadow of a small, toy dalmatian dog. He exclaimed, “hey, it’s Batman.” I took a look and for a few seconds couldn’t tell what he was talking about, but then my eyes found the shape and I saw a vague resemblance between the shadow and some version of the Batmobile (I know, it’s a bit like a Rorschach test). Then, a few seconds later, I was struck, “hey, that’s a Peircian icon and index!” I was then struck by what a complex cognitive process this kind of semiosis, or meaning making, is and how amazing that my superhero-obsessed son could do it so easily, and in doing so, demonstrate an essential part of being human.

Making Meaning
This mundane little episode hammered home aspects of Charles Sanders Peirce’s--and those he influenced (particularly Terrence Deacon)--approach to semiotics that I’ve often had a difficult time explaining. I’m using the post partly as an exercise to work my way through some of those ideas. I possess little formal training in linguistics beyond some basic introductory courses as my primary background is in archaeology, though I do like to linger on language when I get to that section in class (I delved a bit into language early in the life of this blog in the post, Sucks Stinks).

Since language and symbols are so central to human life, anthropologists, and lots of other folks, have spent considerable effort trying to understand exactly how humans build and understand meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure was a major historical bigwig in developing still influential ideas about meaning. For this post, I’ll belittle his tremendous contributions by simply noting that he was responsible for illustrating the arbitrary nature of symbols--the idea that there is no physical, essential, necessary connection between a symbol and its meaning. For instance, the word “big” is phonetically and textually actually a small word (made up of only three letters), yet its meaning describes all things large. In retrospect, his approach, however, seems to have emphasized what meanings a potential sender (speaker, writer, etc.) intended rather than the message received--the meaning understood should be the same as the meaning sent.

Charles Sanders Peirce was another 19th and 20th century renaissance kind of thinker, that among many things, came up with a highly influential approach to semoitics (and coined the term semiosis). My initial formal exposure to Peirce came as I delved deeper into linguistic anthropology when I first prepped a class completely focused on socio-cultural anthropology (before that time, I’d done a lot of four-field intros with a much smaller segment dedicated to linguistics). As I was teaching myself, I initially “kind of got” the importance of his approach. Particularly, I saw that his approach diverged from Saussure’s in that he examined a receiver’s interpretation rather than a sender’s intention. Such a focus on interpretation depends on understanding the specific historical sequences of meaning making to construct new meaning.

I’ll spend most of this post on my son’s interpretation and the specifics of Peircian semiotics. However, I’ve come to increasingly appreciate the fundamental importance of these ideas to anthropology. How symbols are created and interpreted are at the heart of human experience and the anthropological endeavour; it is the creation of “models of” and “models for” (sensu Geertz 1993) and the “formulae that are constantly invoked in the course of day-to-day activities, that enter into the structuring of much of the texture of everyday life” (Giddens 1984:22). In other words, symbols are the lens through which humans see the world and how they see the world shapes how they act in it. Further, those new actions shape the lens through which other people see the world, and so on, and so on....

My son already sees the world shaped by symbols and his interpretation of the particular shadow described in the first paragraph was generated by those meanings. His reaction contributes to his own, my and his little brother’s future understanding of meaning. This kind of meaning making penetrates all aspects of human life and might possibly be the primary thing that makes our species unique.

Mechanics of Meaning
But, before we should get to anthropological issues of such importance, we should consider the concrete (how we see and think) ways that meaning is made. I was first introduced to one of Peirce’s many three-way typologies in Terrence Deacon’s, The Symbolic Species (1997). This impressive book is dedicated to exploring the linguistic, biological and evolutionary contexts of human language. In the book’s first section, Deacon builds his argument of what symbols actually are by using Peirce’s concept of signs. For the purposes of this post, I’ll simplify by noting that signs are all basically about connecting things that aren’t the same thing and can be divided into icons, indices and symbols.

I don’t have Deacon’s book with me at the moment, and don’t remember if he uses the terms signifier and signified, but I think he does, and I will (I’m trying to keep this post somewhat accessible, but I can’t dump these terms, they’re specific and critical to my understanding). Using spoken language as an example, the signifier is the word, or potentially the representamen in Peirce’s work, while the signified is the concept/thing or Peirce’s object. Finally, the interpretant is the moment of meaning making, which is primarily shaped in the three following ways.

Icons are things that represent an idea or concept because of formal resemblance (think McDonald’s Mayor, on second thought, don’t think of him, that guy is really quite terrifying). The relationship between the signifier (the esteemed Mayor’s head) and signified (a hamburger) is based on resemblance.

Indices are representations based on temporal and/or spatial contiguity, such as in cause-effect and part-to-whole relationships. The cliche, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” is a classic example of an index. Smoke is caused by fire, so is an index of points to it (I’ve found that phrase key in my own gut understanding of indices). When two things are consistently in each others’ “here and now,” one can become the signifier of the other. Though, the development of indices depends on the interpreter’s own past experiences of interpretation, so there is no essential temporal or spatial scale of contiguity that forms one.

Additionally, indices can be created through repeated associations of objects to contrived signifiers. Classical conditioning is a prime example of this. Pavlov’s dogs began to interpret an index between a bell and food...the bell pointed to food.

I should know better, but I’ll continue with the Mayor McCheese example. He can index a specific restaurant made of brick, wood and metal. However, he quickly takes on a symbolic flavor as well, that I’ll describe more below.

Symbols mix things up as they are indices between signifiers. Symbol can be translated as “a thing thrown together,” and those things are thrown together through social convention. Continuing in the context of meaning making through interpretation, social convention can be thought of as many people consistently coming to the same interpretation.

These signifiers now form an interrelated system that is at some level removed from the signifieds of indices. Signifiers (i.e. words) begin to primarily point to one another (i.e. grammar and syntax) and not just their signifieds. Words do not have consistently be in one another’s “here and now” to index one another. To use a super-simple example, in two word sentences (i.e. “girl jumps”), typically one needs a noun and verb and the meaning interpreted from such sentences is through each word pointing to the other--even if they don’t point to anything in the “real world.” There may be no girl, yet the sentence makes sense.

Deacon offers some useful clarifications that symbols form self-contained systems where symbols reference (i.e. point to, or index) other symbols, but still become “grounded” in objects outside the system through indices. In his (almost) words:

Symbol tokens (in my usage on this blog, “signifieds”) also retain a trace of their antecedent indexical links with features of the world; but whereas an index is characterized by a one-to-one association with its reference, each symbol token simultaneously marks the intersection of two plans of indexicality, one involving indexical relationships to other symbol tokens and the other involving indexical mapping to objects [Deacon 2003]

Because symbolic reference is based on networks between signifiers, these networks can mapped onto multiple grounded signifieds. Back to our simple sentence, “girl jumps,” we can apply that to billions of actual girls enacting trillions of hops. Such flexibility opens up a vast landscape of interpretive possibilities and combinations.

Hierarchy of Indexical-Symbolic Reference

Now back to the Mayor. For most Americans, Mayor McCheese doesn’t just index a particular building with food and workers inside. He indexes a great number of things and ideas. He’s not just a man with a hamburger for a head. He’s a character, a mascot, a marketing tool, a tempter onto the path of gluttony, a culprit the obesity epidemic in wealthy nations. Mayor McCheese is one small town on a symbolic landscape with many twisting and intersecting roads in between. Only by connecting signifieds to signifieds (rather than one-to-one relationships to signifieds) are such interpretations possible.

This is tough stuff to teach oneself (at least I found it so), so it’s nice to have others help out every once in awhile. This morning, my son helped, but I’ll get back to him in a moment. I’ve also found Rosemary Joyce’s anthropological theory lectures available on iTunesU to be very helpful. In fact, listening to her lectures played a part in my losing 20 pounds in the last six months...her lectures really were that good that they made what could have been mindless cardiovascular exercise fairly easy.

Back to Our Heroes....
So what was going on with the Batmobile my son saw this morning? The shadow’s outline triggered an image of the outline of the Batmobile, which he indexically (and iconically, after all much of the car’s design references his costume) connects to Batman. An iconic relation between a perceived and imagined shadow was forged--dalmatian-batmobile--due to what he saw as a formal resemblance. Like figures seen in clouds, this connection wasn’t obvious to me, but my son’s immediate interpretation underscores the importance of history and culture in shaping iconic representations. My son’s own perception was primed for seeing Batmobiles rather than chaise lounges. Finally, the indexical relationship between the physical object and shadow completes the sub-symbolic component of his interpretation.

The more I thought about this instance of interpretation, the more I began to focus on my son’s developing internalization of the symbolic system that predisposed him to see the Batmobile rather than other alternatives. Ultimately, the anthropologist in me isn’t interested in this particular shadow, but instead in the cultural goggles through which he’s increasingly seeing the world, or in Deacon’s semiotic terms, “the structured set of indexical relationships among symbol tokens” (2003). Such symbolic systems provide the semantic map through which humans, and in this very specific case, my son move through and understand their world. To continue with the map metaphor, based on the directions he’s using, he was likely to end up in Gotham City.

As his identity is developing/being built, he’s currently fascinated by a world of individuals engaging in heroic and violent actions to pursue some good. While this world is grounded in indices to specific characters, the ease with which he diverts his interest to different sets (DC comics vs. Marvel comics vs. Transformers, etc.) points to the more abstract frame (i.e. “relationships among symbol tokens”) in which he’s enamoured. That frame funneled my son’s interpretations to index this specific referent to a narrow range of objects, in this case Batman’s car. The shadow initiated a domino-like sequence of icons, indices and symbols, referencing and reproducing itself.

Furthermore, the tremendous effort expended toward profit-making and marketing toward children has contributed to an imaginative context for my son that I haven’t been a conscientious enough parent to avoid.

In doesn’t end in the world of abstract heroes battling nameless super villains. In contemporary American mass culture, this symbolic system or frame is characterized by numerous indices to other “symbol tokens” or signifieds outside the preschool, comic-fanboy world. Competition, gender, violence, law, morality, individualism, among many others, imbue his mental map with further power and resonance as frames of super heroic narratives are reinforced, or indexed, throughout the larger social context.

While my son’s iconic and indexical interpretation of the shadow wasn’t technically symbolic in the sense that particular meaning was not based on convention, or links between signifiers, or even language. However, the large symbolic web in which that interpretation was made demonstrates how much symbols constitute the very stuff of human thought.

References Cited
Deacon, Terrence W.
1997 The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

2003 Universal Grammar and Semiotic Constraints. In Language Evolution, edited by M. Chistiansen and S. Kirby, pp. 111-139. Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford
1993 Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, pp.87-125. Fontana Press.

Giddens, Anthony
1984 The Constitution of Society. University of California Press.


  1. You know him best, of course, but I suspect your son may have been seeing in that configuration of light and shape the bat *signal* rather than the batmobile. I'm a little rusty in my Peirce, but if that's the case, he's foregrounded the indexical quality of the sign--literally marking the co-presence of the man and the summoning projection-- where you've reached for the iconic interpretation. Now I'm going to blow a big chunk of my weekend on the collected works.

  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for you comment. This was my clunky attempt to work through some of these ideas before the semester began, so opinions based on greater expertise are welcome.

    If I'm following you correctly, I see your point. A Batman inspired shadow complicates the iconic-indexical links a bit since the is such a tight connection between it and the figure.