One week prior to this meeting, I had firmly in mind the points I wanted to convey to this unprecedented assembly: I would speak, of course, from that side of the porous fence labeled “semiotics,” the perennial focus of which is the casual or guided circulation of messages—that is, of signs or strings of signs—among participants in any marketplace.
What I had intended to say was, however, to a degree sidetracked by dint of an accident that I suffered two days prior to coming to address this meeting. The particulars are personal and thus irrelevant. What is pertinent is that I showed up here walking with a cane, and that this gave me an opportunity to open with a reminder of a yarn—no doubt apocryphal but eminently plausible in the context—about a habit of Sigmund Freud’s, obsessive and ultimately fatal, of continual cigar smoking. When he entered the classroom one day to deliver one of his introductory lectures on psychoanalysis, flourishing a big cigar, the assembled medical students burst out laughing. Freud, not in the least perturbed, is reported to have said, “sometimes a cigar is nothing but a cigar.” If Freud had really said that, he was thoroughly mistaken, for a cigar, as any other object in the universe, is, for the interpreter, always and unavoidably a semiotic entity. My walking “stick” is, for you, first and foremost, a walking shtick, which is a show business expression for a particular method of doing something, as is, for instance, Henry Youngman’s fiddle or Michael Jackson’s glove.
The distinction is between what semioticians call an object (the cigar or the stick) and a sign (the phallic symbol or the “shtick”), although, on deeper analysis, the former turns out, as well, to be a kind of sign, in a universe which, in one of Peirce’s most memorable expressions, “is perfused with signs.” (I recently discussed this fundamental identity in Sebeok 1986a; see also Sebeok 1977.)
The walking stick moreover serves, in this frame of reference, a specific semiotic function, called by such rhetoricians as Cicero captatio benevolentiae—the man in the Hathaway shirt, Baron Wrangel, used his spurious eyepatch in this way, to enlist sympathetic attention. The great early rhetorical treatises, such as Quintilian’s elaborate Institutes of Oratory, can be profitably reread as “how to” manuals for such ancient but no less valid marketing techniques.
Such manuals embodied, as well, old-fashioned, indeed classical, political theory, armed with semiotic tactics. According to this theory, a marketplace was a forum where anyone who had anything on his mind could express and perhaps dispose of it. The objective was to give free play to ideas as marketable commodities and to disseminate them as effectively as the tutored application of adroit semiotic craftsmanship would allow.
2. IDOLS OF THE MARKETPLACE
The notion of a “marketplace” as that arena of a society in which signs are bought and sold, in a word, bartered, was already explicit in Francis Bacon’s theory of the Great Instauration. Bacon, early in the seventeenth century, discerned several profound kinds of fallacies in the mind of man that he thought needed to be rectified for the advancement of learning. He named these Idols (for example, 1973:XIV, §§9-11).
His third category of such bad habits of mind he called “Idols of the market-place” (or of the forum). Here he was alluding to errors that arise during the process of interaction among human beings, that is, in the course of their undergoing what Peirce was later to broaden and more exactly identify as “semiosis” (himself elaborating on Greek usage, of at least as early as Cicero’s time; cf. Peirce 1933-1966:5.484). Friedrich Nietzsche’s nice phrase, the “prison-house of language,” needs, however, to be generalized, in the light of Bacon’s critique, to some such expression as “the tyranny of semeiosy” (after Peirce 1935-66:5.473), a term by which the American philosopher meant any action of any sign, whether verbal or nonverbal. Bacon was alluding to the inherent ambiguity of signs: unwittingly, humans use the same signs differently yet do not realize what they are doing. When they are in seeming agreement, they are not agreed; and, contrariwise, they seemingly disagree when they really do not. Worst of all, signs that refer to fictions they tend to treat as if these stood for “real” entities. For Bacon, then, the improvement, or the freeing, of the human mind hinged upon a revision of the human attitude to the world. It is therefore a vital part of the reform of knowledge, particularly insofar as this bears on ethics, and that, especially, in its relation with rhetoric.
Bacon’s comments about the Idols of the marketplace are worth careful attention in the context of this international gathering. For Bacon did not commit the vulgar error of identifying language with communication; on the contrary, he viewed “language” (namely, semiosis) as rendered effable either by verbal or by nonverbal means—Bacon named signs of the latter variety “notes”—and as an instrument for transmission: “We are handling here the currency (so to speak) of things intellectual,” he insisted, “and it is not amiss to know that as moneys may be made of other material besides gold and silver, so other Notes of Things may be coined besides words and letters.” (Cf. Rossi 1968:167.)
Language is clearly a semiotic system, but only one, which is composed of signs in the generic sense: “This then may be laid down as a rule; that whatever can be divided into differences sufficiently numerous to explain the variety of notions (provided those differences be perceptible to the sense) may be made a vehicle to convey the thought of one man to another” (after ibid.:167).
Bacon was thus perhaps the first to recognize explicitly that, as Philip Kotler came to write in his perceptive foreword to Fine’s 1981 now classic The Marketing of Ideas and Social Issues, “there is a marketplace of ideas just as there is a marketplace of goods,” and that the purveyors of ideas “use modern channels of communication and distribution to reach their audiences” (in Fine 1981:v). Ideas, in brief, are marketable as is any other commodity. All commodities are fascicles of marketable messages, which are composed of strings of signs. (It is no accident that Fine concludes his book [ibid.:193-194] with a two-page excerpt from John Dewey, the pragma tist philosopher who most heavily elaborated Peirce’s maxim and applied it to the language of value!)
3. GAMES OF COMMUNICATION
The Idols of the marketplace, which are imposed by signs, are not, as Bacon had reminded us, to be trusted, for either they are “names of things which exist but yet confused and ill-defined, and hastily and irregularly derived from realities,” or—more injurious because more intricate and deeply rooted—they are “names of things which do not exist” (after Rossi 1968:171).
It was actually Claude Levi-Strauss (for example, 1963:296) who clearly and persuasively pointed to the reciprocal give-and-take between the communication of goods and services (economics, broadly speaking), on the one hand, and that of “pure” semiotic entities (the usual subject of general semiotics, including linguistics), on the other, both firmly situated within an integrated science of communication. He pictured culture as consisting of “rules stating how the ‘games of communication’ should be played both on the natural and on the cultural levels.” He added that the juxtaposition of these two modalities of exchange, namely, of economics and semiotics, “cannot hide the fact that they refer to forms of communication which are on a different scale.” Marketing and semiotics (conjointly with some other disciplines) are therefore revealed as approaches to the same kinds of problems according to different strategic operations. Subtly hierarchical and other proportional relationships, which are yet to be fully explored, prevail among them. Thus, in the marketing of goods, services, and ideas, auxiliary verbal and nonverbal messages are normally implied—in marketing, semiotics plays necessarily a relevant, if only auxiliary, role. Such, however, is not the case vice versa. The domain of semiotics is, accordingly, more general than the province of marketing, the symbolic aspects of which can fruitfully be thought through as applied semiotics; the groundwork for any such analyses has already been laid in the excellent but insufficiently known publications of Rossi-Landi (for example, 1974), which must serve as the starting point for continued collaboration between the two fields of endeavor.
While, in Bacon’s view, signs correspond to notions (that is, “objects”), and, thus, where a notion is impaired, so, necessarily, is the sign derived from that notion, such signs, whether faulty or not, do influence the mind and are at the root of self-deception: they “cast their rays or stamp their impressions on the mind itself, and they do not only make discourse tedious, but they impair judgment and understanding”; and, further, “that which is the remedy for this evil (namely definitions) is in most cases unable to cure it,” for definitions themselves consist of strings of signs, and signs beget signs (after Rossi 1968:171; cf. Peirce 1935-1966:2.302, Omne symbolum de symbolo).
4. THE CONCEPT INDUSTRY
In this early, or “cottage,” manifestation of what Fine calls the “concept industry” (1981:188), semiosis began at the source, which was, in the event, an individual person. The pluriform destination, the public in the forum, could find out about the “state of affairs” from this solitary source, looking out upon and then inwardly contemplating the world, reflecting on what he or she perceived to be the case.
Mulling over the “state of affairs,” one could, if one so chose, bring the fruits of one’s cogitations to the marketplace, there to display the end product in competition with the harvest of others’ labors. The public could thus pick and choose, with little constraint, what it liked, and reject what it did not.
This underlying dialectic principle of marketing is shifting from a quintessentially cottage industry to a high-tech, refluent concept industry. A crucial change now permeates it, infecting activities that go under headings “such as education, gossip, rumor, public relations, public opinion, propaganda, lobbying, [and] advocacy” (Fine 1981:188), in brief, the entire gamut of social and political marketing.
A good example of impending change centers on the troubles that beset the CBS Evening News Program, and the reverberations of its ratings successes or failures. As set forth by Boyer (1986), when a recent crisis arose as the program’s popularity began to drift and fall behind NBC’s, a high-level staff meeting was called, which included the vice president of advertising for CBS News and TV stations, a man with whom the evening news group had refused ever to meet before.
This man’s expertise, according to Boyer’s report, is similar to that of “news consultants,” whom Boyer portrays as “program doctors so prevalent in local television news who, to understate the case, have always been anathema to network journalists.” What such program doctors do, apparently, is to study the composition and profile of the actual target audience, and then make recommendations to the news anchor and his or her staff how to modify, or “reform,” in the light of such information, the presentation of the news in such a way as to increase their ratings. Still viscerally sticking by the old-fashioned principle, anchorman Dan Rather is quoted as having recalled telling himself on the flight home from this meeting, “Dan, you’d better do what you feel good about doing. If we go another millimeter down the road of trying to figure out what it is the audience wants and then try to deliver it to them, we’re lost souls on the ghost ship forever. At my age and stage, I ain’t gonna do it.” Indeed, this is an exceptional counterexample: for staff changes were then made, “leading the way,” in Boyer’s words, “to old values.” (Not by accident, the people at CBS who “turned backward” have been named the “Red Guard”!)
5. POLITICAL APPLICATIONS
According to the modern principle which clearly pervades the American political process today, if not yet all corporate management, the individual looks outward to the intended destination—to public opinion—rather than, specularly and speculatively, inward. What would the public like to hear? Whatever it wants to hear is what the observer then attempts to replicate. Then, having replicated what his measurements indicated that the public wants to hear, he or she wraps up that product to be peddled in the marketplace, which, however, is already teeming with competitors eager to do the same.
But how does the public decide what it wants to buy? In this cultural forum, there is no product available other than its own specular image, albeit perhaps in several, more or less distorted, versions. Public opinion polls investigate—what else?—public opinion. The news media then inform us what the polls have revealed. And what did they reveal? What the public already thinks, of course. And it is a further fact of political life that, once such a candidate gets elected in the light of this new verity, he or she has to continue to function in conformity with his or her own set of messages. There is, in other words, little or no room left for invigorating novelty.
6. MESSAGE SOURCE OR DESTINATION?
All this is a story not only familiar to us all, but, as I have described and illustrated nearly a decade ago (Sebeok 1978), it strikes at the roots of a particular kind of destructive self-deception, well known to semioticians who deal with commonplace, everyday aspects of nature and culture. It is becoming an omnipresent and, I think, dangerous Idol of the marketplace. Thus the assignment of predominance, in dyadic encounters, to the destination over the source is, as I have tried to show in that earlier essay, a baleful begetter of errors.
Let me conclude with just one example, which, however, can be taken as paradigmatic. It is especially interesting in this context because, although it is based on time-honored observations (and is, moreover, deeply anchored in mammalian physiology), its earliest formulations chance to have come, not from science, but from the marketplace. The formal domain of this case in point is derived from what is known as Pupillometry, or “the psychology of the pupillary response” (cf., for example, Janisse 1977). The most fascinating early “pupillometric report,” testifying that the pupils often unwittingly convey critical information to the “interactant,” is by Richard Gump (1962), a scion of, and jade buyer in, pre-Revolutionary China in this century for, Gump’s of San Francisco.
Mr. Gump tells how he learned, from an experienced fellow businessman named Allen Newell, the subtler aspects of the pursuit of jade objects when dealing with Oriental merchants: “It was harder,” he noted (Gump 1962:229), “to learn to disguise his natural joy upon examining a beautiful object. The Chinese were aware that the pupils of the eyes dilated when one’s interest was aroused and acted accordingly. Newell had earlier solved this problem by wearing dark glasses.” Middle Eastern rug merchants were likewise aware of the pupil responses of their would-be customers. So-called psychic readers routinely derive critical information from their clients’ nonverbal behavior, specifically including such alterations as “pupillary enlargement” (Hyman 1981:178). So do also professional card players (concealing, however, their own pupil responses, and preserving their “poker face,” by wearing eyeshades). Many close-up magicians are also privy to such stock techniques. Scientific research has amply borne out that pupil-size changes—dilations and constrictions—are short-range mood signals, affected by emotional fluctuations in the sender, and that they are, in general, emitted out of control of the source, as well as received unbeknown to the destination.
There is a host of revealing laboratory experiments with the pupil response, involving, for instance, sexual or racial attitudes, or in the area of food preferences, which have been shown to tell quite a different story from what the subjects verbally asseverated.
Middle-class Hungarian ladies of my mother’s generation—as also did Spanish women of the Middle Ages, for example—injected an atropine drug, aptly named belladonna (“fair lady,” actually a tincture derived from the “deadly nightshade”), into their eyes, solely for the cosmetic purpose of dilating their eyes, wanting thereby to seem more attractive. They knew very well that one of the reasons lovers spend so much time gazing closely into each other’s eyes is to monitor unwittingly one another’s pupil dilations: “The more her pupils expand with emotional excitement, the more it makes his expand, and vice versa” (Desmond Morris 1977:172). This was, of course, conscious steering on the part of the message source, though presumably beyond the cognizance of the destination.
One of Thomas Mann’s more memorable fictional characters went even further, calculatingly training himself as a youth for his hoped-for career in adult life as a confidence man:
I would stand in front of my mirror, concentrating all my powers in a command to my pupils to contract or expand, banishing every other thought from my mind. My persistent efforts . . . were, in fact, crowned with success. At first as I stood bathed in sweat, my colour coming and going, my pupils would flicker erratically; but later I succeeded in contracting them to the nearest points and then expanding them to great, round, mirror-like pools. [Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man].
Inverse cases, where the message source is innocent but the destination is obliged to keep careful track of the sources’ pupil responses, come from zoosemiotics. They are repeatedly confirmed by articulate circus trainers who work with large felines—whence the expression “cool cat,” in reference to a hip dude wearing shades—in the ring.
Again I join with Fine (1981:39) in his critique of marketers of ideas, new style, for being in violation of the pristine marketing concept by distributing views which are “not necessarily those most beneficial to society,” in other words, reselling public opinion ascertained by their ever more powerful instruments of measurement. Leo Tolstoy, in a famous passage in Anna Karenina, pictured vividly the degenerate “state of unthinking conformism” Fine (ibid.:38) writes of:
Stepan Arkadyevitch took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art, and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them—or, more strictly speaking, he did not change them, but they imperceptibly changed of themselves within him. Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views, these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves. . . . he liked his newspaper, as he did his cigar after dinner, for the slight fog it diffused in his brain.
This chapter was written for delivery at the First International Conference on Marketing and Semiotics, J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, July 10-12, 1986. It was first published in a book based on that meeting, Marketing and Semiotics: New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1987), 21-30, edited by Jean Umiker-Sebeok, who was also the principal organizer of the meeting. An Italian version was dedicated to the memory of Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and published in 1988.