Freud (1933:119) viewed anxiety in plainly semiotic terms when he defined it “as a signal indicating the presence of a danger-situation.” His concept of anxiety as a sign, or string of signs, focused on a mechanism of defense which triggers the only kind of escape from an internal danger available to the organism, a flight from awareness. (Two of the most “significant” characteristics of signal anxiety may thus well be silence and invisibility.) Grinker (1966:131-132) developed some consequences of this way of analyzing the properties of anxiety states in declaring his belief “that anxiety is a signal to the self and others which indicates that organismic adjustments to present or expected situations are being made in dynamically related somatic, psychological and behavioral processes,” and that, in mild form, “anxiety is of great significance as a signal of threat for it precedes or accompanies active preparation for adjustment.” Paradoxically, anxiety may, in intense form, also produce serious kinds of self-inflicted (mental) illness (the heightened response being due to positive feedback).
What both Freud and Grinker loosely designated as a “signal,” Peirce would have called an index—the kind which tends to be unwitting as opposed to the indices of fear and which, according to one of his approximations, “forces the attention to the particular object intended without describing it” (1.369); the relation between an index and the object signified may be a direct physical connection (1.372) or a correspondence in fact (1.558). Now, for Peirce, an emotion “is essentially the same thing as an hypothetic inference, and every hypothetic inference involves the formation of . . . an emotion” (2.643). He held, moreover, that “an emotion is always a simple predicate substituted by an operation of the mind for a highly complicated predicate” and gave this specific explanation for the arousal of anxiety: “The emotions . . . arise when our attention is strongly drawn to complex and inconceivable circumstances. Fear arises when we cannot predict our fate; joy, in the case of certain indescribable and peculiarly complex sensations. If there are some indications that something greatly for my interest, and which I have anticipated would happen, may not happen; and if, after weighing probabilities, and inventing safeguards, and straining for further information, I find myself unable to come to any fixed conclusion in reference to the future, in the place of that intellectual hypothetic inference which I seek, the feeling of anxiety arises” (5.293; italics in original).
The foregoing citations are intended to set the stage for a necessarily succinct consideration of some aspects of anxiety by the ancillary use of the tool kit of the sign science, and to serve as a convenient point of departure for the discussions to ensue. The model which immediately comes to mind is the one being developed to account for the vertebrate immunologic system in Darwinian terms (that is, based on random variation and selection), which may, moreover, be best posed in this context as a problem involving information flow.
The immune reaction has two fundamental components: recognition and response, or how an antigen—defined as any object that provides an antibody response—is recognized and how a structure exactly complementary to it is synthesized. Recognition is required for all positive responses and (very likely) for various refractory states, which is to say that tolerance is not simply tantamount to lack of recognition. The molecular basis of recognition is, of course, a set of immunoglobulins, or proteins in the blood that have antibody activity.
The immune system responds in two ways: there is a proliferation of recognition units; and there is a stimulation of reactions which can be broadly characterized as directed to antigen elimination. The diacritic trait of antibodies in general is their specificity, a matter of shape: “the business end of the antigen fits, in lock-and-key fashion, a receptor on the surface of the cell” (Schmeck 1974:44). The qualifying property of an antigen is its foreignness—its property of being non-Self. “The teleological rubric ‘foreign = bad’ has been pretty dependable, for immunological activity is now known to be essential for life” (Medawar and Medawar 1977:99). It is assumed that, in evolution, the earliest living entities “invented” the immunologic system in order to segregate themselves from the rest of the soup of surrounding organic material, in order to keep the Self distinct from the Other. The dilemma in assaying the native from the alien derives from the fact that all things are constituted of much the same chemistry. In solving this problem, the immunologic process became “our license to live in the sea of micro-organisms and as individuals everywhere” (Good, in Schmeck 1974:37). In brief, the immunologic system functions as a prime defense against infection and thus is pivotal in the maintenance of body integrity “by distinguishing between ‘self’ and ‘nonself’ ” (ibid.:36); the triple pillars of the “new immunology,” according to Medawar and Medawar (1977:98), are “a study of the biology of self-recognition, the molecular basis of specificity and the process of information transfer in biological systems.”
Miscarriages of this immunologic process, like the aberrations of signal anxiety alluded to, are the consequences of faulty communication; allergies, hypersensitivity, autoimmune phenomena are responses of cells and tissues to misinformation or misinterpretations of signs emanating from the environment; this is “the price we must pay for possessing a response system attuned with the exquisite sensitivity necessary to discern and react upon non-Self components” (ibid.:111).
My thesis here is that this superb, although not flawless, gift of discrimination is, in fact, doubly expressed in man, by two parallel recognition systems and associated defense mechanisms: the immunologic memory, which consists of an array of cells whose surface receptors allow them to respond to particular types of molecules, supplemented by another, commonly called anxiety, which protects the Self in the sense that this is a continuous activity, or way of life, in a word, behavior. What is maintained by anxiety, another sort of memory, is not biological substance but the pattern of behavior that it operates. Both repair mechanisms are homeostatic, both ensure the continuity of the individual for a finite time, but the former is essentially provided by inherited instructions whereas the latter also has a large learned component. I am, by the way, in complete agreement with Heini Hediger’s twin conclusions (1959:30) that the syndrome we label anxiety in humans has its roots (1) in our animal ancestry, “besonders der Säugetiere,” as well as (2) “in der Normalpsychologie.”
One consequence of Hediger’s first conclusion—which he amply documents in his remarkable paper just cited—is that it suggests locating the sign processes together named anxiety on the borderline of the realm of endosemiotics with the continuum of zoosemiotics, i.e., what Thure von Uexküll (1978) proposes to call, respectively, the “level of vegetative life” and the field of “averbal or preverbal communication” (the second of which, he, by the way, explicitly notes, involves the notion of body image).
It may be necessary, at this point, to step for a moment beyond ancient anatomical schematism to the modern field of transducer physiology and to recall “the human problem of the greatest moment,” as Shands (1976:303) quite correctly designated it, “of so relating the outer to the inner that the minimal information derivable from inner sources comes to be a reliable index of the external situation.” This bifurcation, which was so powerfully foreseen by Leibniz and fascinatingly discussed by Bentley (1941), must finally be dealt with in a semiotic frame, as I had occasion to argue elsewhere (Sebeok 1977, Ch. 38). If they are to specialize, cells must communicate with each other, but, as Jacob (1974:308) has underlined, “evolution depends on setting up new systems of communication, just as much within the organism as between the organism and its surroundings.” Immunity must have arisen early in evolution; as exchanges multiplied, anxiety eventually emerged, a supplementary form of semiosis—an early warning system, so to speak—selected to favor reproduction, especially in the higher vertebrates, notably the mammals (cf. Hediger 1959). As the capacity to integrate becomes more sophisticated, the rigidity of the program of heredity attenuates, the brain grows more complex, the ability to learn, ever more refined. Learning consists of selectively attaching, in the Innenwelt, semiotic values to objects in the Umwelt. In the felicitous phrasing of Young (1977:15f.), “Images on the retina are not eatable or dangerous.” What the senses can provide is “a tool by which, aided by a memory, the animal can learn the symbolic significance of events. The record of its past experiences then constitutes a program of behavior appropriate for the future.” Anxiety, in this framework, constitutes a kind of induction device the special purpose of which is to increase the probability of continuance of the Self; this formulation accords equally well, I think, with Freud’s as well as Peirce’s view of the state of anxiety.
Anxiety, then, is activated when the Self is menaced by an event (a catastrophe, in Thorn’s parlance—see, for example, 19743:239) deemed of sufficient importance by the endangered organism. The triggering index may take a quasi-biological shape, such as the olfactory trace of a leopard predator for a baboon prey, or be of a semantic character, such as some verbal assault whereby a stranger presses in upon the territories of the Self (for example, Goffman 1971:46). Note that the spatiotemporal nature of the tie between the sign and the interpretant (namely, anxiety) in animals tends to be superseded by a linkage perceived by humans as causal.
In other words, these are the outlines of a teleonomic conception of anxiety, in its beginnings as a regulatory mechanism based on indexical associations of a Pavlovian sort, gradually acquiring the symbolic attributes of causality of the kind intimated by Peirce. In animals (except, perhaps, in domestication) anxiety involves the great biological verities of alimentation, sexuality, and the like. In humans, however, this transitivity of the indexical relation is generalized to objects and concepts which may be biologically altogether indifferent.
In these brief notes, I could not dwell on the question where the “inner” Self begins and the “outer” Other begins, but the boundary is, clearly, beyond the skin. This basic problem was essentially solved, beginning in 1941, by Hediger’s invaluable insights and demonstrations, and thereafter applied with varying degrees of success to humans by a host of followers (cf. the field of proxemics). Hediger’s (1959:25) standpoint, with which I can but enthusiastically concur, is expressed in the following paragraph: “Fluchttendenz, Furcht vor Feinden, Angst vor allgemeiner Bedrohung oder wie immer wir dieses Phänomen nennen wollen, welches die gesamte körperliche Organisation und das gesamte Verhalten dominiert, ist also derjenige Affekt, dem im Tierreich die absolut überragende Bedeutung zukommt. Er bietet den wirksamsten Schutz, ist der stärkste Motor in der Ontogenese und Phylogenese. Sein Fehlen hat den Tod des Individuums und der Art zur Folge.”
In conclusion, permit me to summarize the main propositions advanced here:
(1) There are at least two apprehensions of the Self:
(a) immunologic, or biochemical, with semiotic overtones;
(b) semiotic, or social, with biological anchoring.
(2) The arena of the immune reaction is contained within the skin; the arena for signal anxiety is normally between the perimeter of the Hediger “bubble” and the skin of the organism, the former containing the latter.
(3) Invasion of (a) is initially signified by the immune response, of (b) by anxiety, with the latter serving as an early warning system for the former.
(4) In evolution, (a) is very old, whereas (b) is relatively recent. There is a corresponding advance from a purely metonymic nexus to one perceived as causal efficacy.
(5) Communicational errors occur in both processes, and may have devastating effects on the Self.
The first draft of this paper was prepared for presentation and discussion on December 8-17, 1977, at the Conference on the Semiotics of Anxiety, sponsored by the Werner-Reimers-Stiftung, in Bad Homburg, Germany. It was first published as Appendix I to my book, The Sign & Its Masters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; 2d corrected and expanded edition, Lanham: University Press of America, 1989), 263-267.