The world, so far from being a solid matter of fact, is rather a fabric of conventions, which for obscure reasons it has suited us in the past to manufacture and support.
Richards (1936: 41-42)
T he purpose of this book has been to illustrate what a semiotic study of culture would entail, what things it would focus on, and how it would envision what culture is. As part of our expository style, we coined the term Homo culturalis, explaining h/er appearance on the human evolutionary scene as a successor of several ancestors—Homo signans, the maker of signs; Homo loquens, the speaker; Homo metaphoricus, the maker of concepts; Homo faber, the maker of objects, artifacts, and buildings; Homo mythologicus, the creator of myths and narratives; and Homo aestheticus, the artist, dancer, musician, poet. We then intimated that Homo culturalis had given birth to a descendant of h/er own: Homo technologicus, the maker of machines and of consumerist culture.
The main idea in using such nomenclature has been to underscore that the human species is a complex one—one that is hardly explainable by facile philosophical or scientific theories. Each human being is a sign-maker, a speaker, a maker of concepts, a maker of objects, a creator of stories, and an artist. These are the creative capacities that define humankind. Access to the nature of humanity is through a study of these capacities, which, as Ernst Cassirer (1944: 25) once remarked, have paradoxically cut off human beings permanently from making any direct contact with reality:
No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are varied threads which weave tne symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience... No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium.
In this final chapter we will tie a few loose analytic strings together. We will start by reviewing what a semiotic approach to culture entails in a succinct way. Then, we will illustrate how to carry out cultural semiotic analysis in specific terms—i.e. in terms of what can be called macrosemiotic and microsemiotic analysis. Finally, we offer our concluding reflections on the nature of culture, revisiting in a general way several of the more interesting aspects of the question “What is culture?” with which we started off this semiotic trek through the cultural landscape.
The basis for culture, as a system of shared meanings, is what we have called the signifying order in this book—the system of signs, the codes into which they cohere, and the texts these codes allow human beings to construct. Although signifying orders now serve the function of making purposeful behavior, knowing, social interaction, and communication fluid and habitual, they came about in the human species, arguably, as reflexes of the ingrained need to find meaning to life. This is perhaps why in all cultures, from tribal to complex technological ones, signifying orders are built from the same blueprint of signifying properties and allow for the same patterns of representation and expression. These are manifest in the bodily schemas, language forms, myths, art works, rituals, performances, artifacts, and other signifying forms and expressions that constitute social life. The primary goal of cultural semiotic analysis is to catalogue and analyze these manifestations in specific social situations.
In so doing, the cultural semiotician is guided by three basic questions: (1) What does a certain sign, code, or text mean? (2) How does it represent what it means? (3) Why does it mean what it means? The semiotician seeks answers to these questions essentially by observing people being themselves in their social ambiances. But, as we have argued throughout this book, the observations of the semiotician are hardly random. They are guided by five specific principles. These can now be summarized as follows:
- Interdisciplinary: This principle entails that the semiotician should utilize the findings or techniques of any cognate discipline (anthropology, psychology, etc.) that are applicable to the situation at hand (chapter 2, §2.5).
- Relativity: In line with relativistic anthropology (chapter 1, §1.2), this principle asserts that in documenting and explaining signifying orders, the semiotician should keep in mind that signs, codes, and texts have structural effects on individuals (chapter 3, §3.10).
- Signification: This principle asserts that signifying orders are built on the same signifying properties (iconicity, indexicality, etc.) and that these manifest themselves in different ways according to culture where they cohere into a specific system of signification (chapter 3, §3.6).
- Dimensionality: This principle entails that the semiotician should relate the signifying properties identified in a specific situation to the signifying order and to general psychological processes of representation (chapter 3, §3.9).
- Interconnectedness: This principle entails that the semiotician should investigate how meanings are interconnected throughout the signifying order.
The semiotic probe into culture, moreover, does not discriminate between what are known more traditionally as “higher” and “lower” forms of culture, between, say, the fine arts and fast food symbolism. To the semiotician all aspects of social behavior originating in signifying orders are relevant. But h/er focus is not purely that of the social scientist, because, as we have seen in previous chapters, the study of meaning-making is not only a study of communal sense-making. Ultimately it is a study of human consciousness—the awareness of one’s environment and of one’s own existence, sensations, and thoughts.
Throughout history there have been many attempts to study and understand this truly mysterious phenomenon. But, in our opinion, it is the research on semiosis in the last 50 years that has come forward to provide a vital clue to understanding consciousness. In terms of what we have called in this book the dimensionality principle, it can be said that human knowing starts out as a firstness bodily phenomenon, i.e. as a rudimentary state of consciousness, or cognizing that is sensorial, perceptual, and affective in its overall response to the world (chapter 3, §3.1). But this form of knowing is eventually mediated and structured by semiosis, which produces a secondness form of knowing in the individual, i.e. a reflective state of consciousness that is based on what signs call attention to and on the uses they are put to ( representation). Finally, the build-up of the signs, codes, and texts learned in a cultural context in the individual’s memory system generates a culture-specific way of knowing, i.e. a highly abstract form of consciousness that is shaped by a signifying order. This is, of course, a thirdness form of knowing. In sum, human consciousness can be said to be a concomitant of sensory firstness (= the body), semiosic and representational secondness (= the mind), and communal signifying thirdness based on a signifying order (= culture):
The essence of semiotic method is to show how these three dimensions are immanent in all acts of meaning-making—i.e. in all the forms and expressions that humans continually produce in their discourse, in their arts, in their scientific theories, and in all the other texts that make up the fabric of daily life in a culture.
As in the social sciences, it is convenient within the field of cultural semiotics to differentiate between a global analysis of the phenomenon of culture and a specific, case-in-point analysis of the manifestations of signification within a cultural setting. The former can be called macrosemiotic analysis. This can be defined as the study of the ways in which a signifying order is both implanted in certain meaning structures and produces meanings within them. This implies the study of how specific signifiers are shaped by the interconnectedness that inheres among the diverse codes and texts that make up the signifying order. Macrosemiotic analysis is, in essence, intercodal and intertextual analysis.
In most of the preceding chapters, we have emphasized the fact that semiotic analysis is really informed people-watching. This implies, in turn, a three-stage methodology. The first stage is observational. This is the stage during which the semiotician compiles data on culture specific behaviors and texts. As mentioned several times in this book and reiterated above, the analyst is guided by three basic questions in h/er search to understand a specific sign, code, or text, seeking to answer these questions essentially by observing people being themselves in their social ambiances. This allows h/er to observe the particular uses of signifying structures and systems (signs, codes, texts) in specific social situations. The nature of the observation depends on the type of structure or system that is involved: collecting data on bodily schemas, for instance, entails simple ocular observation; compiling information on fictional texts, on the other hand, requires assembling appropriate oral or written materials.
Clearly, this first stage is consistent with general ethnographic methodology, as practiced, for instance, by cultural anthropologists. The emphasis is on the in loco observation and description of cultural behaviors, expressions, etc. Only in this way can the semiotician make any intelligent hypotheses as to what an expression or a behavior might mean. In terms of the five principles listed above (§12.1), the observational stage satisfies two at once—namely (1) that the findings or techniques of any cognate discipline (anthropology, linguistics, etc.) that are applicable to the situation at hand should be enlisted (the interdisciplinarity principle), and (2) that the structural effects that signs, codes, etc. have on individuals should be documented appropriately (the relativity principle).
The second stage of macrosemiotic is simply analysis. After identifying which signifying structures and systems underlie and regulate the observed behaviors and textual practices, the semiotician should then analyze how these reflect tendencies in the signifying order—in line with the third of the five principles of semiotic analysis (the signification principle). This will then allow h/er to investigate the dimensionality features of the structures and systems (the dimensionality principle). This implies that one of the primary goals of macrosemiotic analysis is determining which minimal meaning elements lie at the constitutive basis of signifying orders. Once these have been identified, then a sign, a code, or a text can be analyzed in dimensionality terms. For the purposes of macrosemiotic analysis, we shall call such minimal meaning elements macrosignifieds, since they are signifieds that underlie the specific forms that various signifying structures assume across the signifying order; i.e. a macrosignified is a signified that links together signs, codes, and texts throughout the culture.
The third stage in macrosemiotic analysis is synthesis. In line with the interconnectedness principle, this entails describing how a macrosignified shapes the signifiers of the verbal and nonverbal codes of the signifying order in a synthetic fashion. The interconnectedness of meanings in a culture is the reason why, from tribes to advanced technological societies, signifying orders impart a sense of wholeness and, thus, of purpose to the activities that people carry out. Macrosignifieds are distributed throughout the network of meaning pathways that define a culture. Michel Foucault (1972) characterized this network as an endless “interrelated fabric” in which the boundaries of meanings are never clear-cut. Every signifier is caught up in a system of references to other signifiers, to codes, and to texts; it is a node within a network of distributed macrosignifieds. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself. To extract meaning from a sign, code, or text, therefore, one must have knowledge of this network and of the macrosignifieds that constitute it.
The three-stage method of macrosemiotic analysis can be summarized graphically as follows:
This methodology has, to the best of our knowledge, never been formulated as explicitly as this before in the semiotic literature. However, it is nothing new. It has been implicit in the writings and research orientations of cultural semioticians throughout the last century. It is presented here as a succinct summary of cultural semiotic analytical practices, with the intention of providing future analysts with an explicit methodological framework for conducting research on cultural phenomena.
The “Up-Down” Macrosignified as a Case-in-Point
As a concrete example of what macrosemiotic analysis entails, consider how a single image schema, [verticality], discussed in chapter 6 (§6.2), is diffused throughout the meaning network of one signifying order—the Anglo-American one. Collecting data on this macrosignified (stage 1) consists both in observing people as they talk, posture, gesture, etc. and in collecting samples of appropriate verbal and nonverbal texts. Once the various signifiers (i.e. words, gesticulants, bodily schemas, etc.) that encode this macrosignified have been identified, then it can be analyzed in dimensionality terms (stage 2). On a firstness axis, the up-down schema is probably the result of the bipedal human animal’s sensation of looking up and down. As mentioned above, and in other parts of this book, it is at this juncture that semiotics must look to other disciplinary domains—in this case anthropology, biology, historical linguistics, and possibly even sociobiology—to seek probable answers to the question of the origins of this specific macrosignified. At a secondness level, the up-down macrosignified structures how individuals experience various abstract concepts, as we saw in chapter 6. The analyst can easily document these concepts by interviewing subjects and watching them in socially significant situations. It can then be said that, in thirdness terms, the accumulation of these concepts as socially meaningful and useful ones is what renders the up-down macrosignified a minimal meaning element in the constitution of codes across the signifying order:
The final task of the cultural semiotician is to document how this macrosignified actually manifests itself across the signifying order (stage 3). Here are just a few of the ways in which it influences the form that various signifiers assume across codes.
In verbal discourse, for instance, it manifests itself in expressions such as: “I’m feeling up”; “They’re feeling down”; “I’m working my way up the ladder of success”; “His status has gone down considerably”; etc. These reveal the metaphorical concept up is better/down is worse. This same macrosignified is also manifest in religious narratives, where goodness, spirituality, and heaven are portrayed as up, and evil, damnation, and hell as down in sermons, theological narratives, religious visual representations, the design of churches, etc. In public building design, too, it can be discerned in the fact that the taller office buildings in a modern city are the ones that indicate which institutions (and individuals) hold social and economic power. In musical composition, higher tones are typically employed to convey a sensation of happiness, lower ones of sadness. During speech, the raising of a hand designates notions of amelioration, betterment, growth, etc., whereas the lowering of the hand designates the opposite notions. In bodily representation and perception, this macrosignified shows up in the common viewpoint that taller is more attractive/shorter is less attractive. In mathematical and scientific representational practices its influence can be seen, for instance, in the ways in which graphs are designed—lines that are oriented in an upward direction indicate a growth or an increase of some kind, while those that are slanted in a downward direction indicate a decline or decrease.
These are just some of the signifiers that encode the up-down macrosignified which, as can be seen, is distributed throughout the pathways that constitute the meaning network of the signifying order. In effect, the extraction of meanings from specific signifiers is dependent upon knowledge of how such a macrosignified is encoded. Such knowledge is normally unconscious in individuals raised and/or living in a culture. The goal of cultural semiotics is to make such knowledge explicit.
This kind of analysis can be extended to the study of the structural or grammatical systems that constitute different codes. But the more specialized, detailed analysis of code structure falls more within the domain of theoretical semiotics (chapter 2, §2.1). For the cultural semiotician, all that is necessary is to determine how macrosignifieds inform the signifying order:
THE UP-DOWN MACROSIGNIFIED
The “Love Is a Sweetness” Macrosignified as Another Case-in-Point
Another example of an image schematic macrosignified is the love is a sweetness schema (chapter 6, §6.5). Compiling information on this macrosignified (stage 1) would consist, again, in observing people—in this case as they interact in courtship situations—and in collecting appropriate textual materials (love poetry, romance fiction, etc.). Once the various signifiers that encode this macrosignified have been identified, then it can be analyzed in dimensionality terms (stage 2). On a firstness axis, this schema is probably the result of biologally-based sexual experiences resulting from the pleasant sensation that tends to be associated with sexual urges. This is the level of biological sex that we described in chapter 4 (§4.2). At a secondness level, the love is a sweetness macrosignified influences how individuals experience their own sexuality (chapter 4, §4.2), and this can easily be documented by interviewing subjects and/or watching them in courtship and love-making situations. In thirdness terms, the accumulation of these experiences as communally meaningful in gender terms is what leads to the encoding of the love is a sweetness macrosignified across the signifying order (chapter 4, §4.2):
The final task of the analyst is, again, to document how this macrosignified actually manifests itself across the signifying order. Language, for example, reflects the love is a sweetness schema in metaphorical expressions such as “She’s my sweetheart”; “They’re on a permanent honeymoon”; etc. In courtship rituals, it shows up in practices such as the giving of sweets to a loved one at St. Valentine’s Day and the eating of a cake at weddings. In the domain of objectification (chapter 9, §9.1), it manifests itself in various symbolized forms—e.g. in the form of logo signifiers (the most well-known one perhaps being the Baci line of chocolates by Perugina), in the sweet-smelling scents perfume products are perceived to emit, etc.
THE LOVE IS A SWEETNESS MACROSIGNIFIED
This macrosignified also shows up constantly in love stories (e.g. descriptions of lovers as sweethearts), and in advertising (e.g. scenes of breath being sweetened with candy before kissing). In music, love songs are often composed in a slow tempo and in a major vs. minor contrasting style in order to evoke the contrast between feelings of “sweetness” (associated with the major mode) and those of “bitterness” (associated with the minor mode). In the visual arts, the smile has been similarly used as a signifier to convey the sweetness sentiment associated with the love experience—the Mona Lisa (1503–1506) of Leonardo da Vinci being perhaps the most famous use of this signifier.
Other Types of Macrosignifieds
Image schemas are not the only kinds of macrosignifieds that inform the signifying orders of cultures. For analytic purposes, these can be called image schematic macrosignifieds. Now, recall from chapter 3 (§3.5) that the word cat does not refer to a specific cat, but to the category of animals that we recognize as having the quality “catness,” namely a prototypical mental picture marked by distinctive features such as [mammal], [retractile claws], [long tail], etc. This image is extended, by connotation, to encompass other kinds of referents that appear, by association or analogy, to have something in common with it. The relation between denotation and connotation is, thus, really one of interconnectedness, whereby the connotations that are established in social context are due to the use of the prototype (e.g. [mammal], [retractile claws], [long tail], etc.) in verbal and nonverbal ways. Those specific connotations that are then embedded into the signifying order constitute macrosignifeds in the sense described above. This is why, for instance, a devotee of jazz music is referred to as a “cool cat,” and why pop culture images emphasize the “catness qualities” of jazz musicians. For analytic purposes such connotations can be called connotative macrosignifeds.
Name-giving (chapter 5, §5.4) too is shaped by another type of macrosignified that can be called, for analytic purposes, onomastic. In all cultures, onomastic macrosignifieds derive from traditions and conventions associated with the kinship and religious spheres. Even in Western culture, where name-giving is a fairly open and untraditional process, it is still shaped by such macrosignifieds. So, a name like Alexander, for instance, is hardly given at random; it is assigned to individuals in cultures where it is interconnected historically with the meanings evoked by the name of Alexander the Great. In a similar fashion, this is why Biblical names like Jacob, Sara, Luke, Rebecca, Rachel, to mention but a few, are still being assigned today.
Finally, mythic macrosignifieds can be defined as those that derive from mythic themes, characters, and settings. Thus the mythic theme of good vs. evil is a macrosignified that influences, for instance, the perception of sports events, whereby the home team = the good and the visiting team = the bad, as we saw in chapter 10 (§10.3). As Frye (1981) argued (chapter 1, §1.6), early religious and mythic themes have left their residues in the literary practices and in the everyday discourse of Western society, which defines itself as largely secular. This is because the Bible has provided many of the mythic macrosignifieds that make up the Western signifying order: e.g. the macrosignified of disgrace is a falling comes from the story of Adam and Eve, the macrosignified of life is a journey through the waters comes from the Noah’s Ark story. Political and legal systems, too, are founded on the basis of mythic macrosignifieds—the basis of legal codes and concepts in modern Western cultures, for instance, can be traced to the Biblical Ten Commandments.
The main implication for the study of culture that crystallizes from macrosemiotic analysis is that the meaning of a sign or text is determinable in terms of its interconnectedness to the signifying order. The work in cultural semiotics, therefore, provides a truly fascinating framework for relating what would appear to be disparate and heterogeneous acts of meaning to each other. Indeed, the meaning of a specific sign or text (verbal, visual, gestural, etc.) is determinable in terms of the macrosignified or macrosignifieds that it embodies. Macrosemiotic analysis thus reveals how certain minimal meaning elements provide the “conceptual glue” that keeps the whole system of culture together. This is why signifying orders are powerful shapers of worldview. Because they are understandable in a holistic fashion, they bestow upon everyday actions and expressions an implicit teleological meaning and value—i.e. a certain necessary logic for being as they are.
Whereas the goal of macrosemiotic analysis is to describe how basic meaning structures—which we have called macrosignifieds—interlink the signs, codes, and texts of the signifying order, the goal of microsemiotic analysis is the reverse—i.e. to describe how these very same structures influence the specific construction of texts. The kinds of data collected in microsemiotic observation (stage 1), therefore, are the same as those compiled in macrosemiotic observation. The microsemiotic analysis of the data (stage 2) consists in determining how the image schematic, connotative, onomastic, and mythic meanings distributed throughout the signifying order have been projected onto a specific act of text-making. These projections can be called microsignifieds. A microsignified can be defined as the specific use of an image schematic, connotative, onomastic, or mythic meaning structure in a text. A macrosignifed is a distributed meaning (throughout the signifying order), and a microsignified a projected meaning (in the construction of texts). For example, the use of the up-down schema in a musical composition can be fleshed out by examining the emotional effects that certain tones have—e.g. Do the higher ones produce feelings of happiness, the lower ones of sadness? It can also be fleshed out by determining the emotional effects of changing mode from major to minor—e.g. Does the raising or lowering of the middle note of the tonic chord by a semitone produce relatively happier or sadder responses respectively? Finally, microsemiotic analysis inheres in determining how these microsignifieds coalesce to produce an interpretation of the text. This constitutes, in fact, the synthesis stage of microsemiotic analysis (stage 3), which focuses on what texts mean in specific cultural situations (text analysis):
Microsemiotic analysis is concerned with the message taken from a text. This means identifying the microsignifieds in its make-up in terms of the signifying order from which they were drawn. Consider, for instance, an ad for an Airoldi watch that was seen frequently in Italian lifestyle magazines published a number of years ago. This ad cannot be reproduced here for reasons of copyright. It can only be described verbally.
A microsemiotic analysis (stage 2) of this ad is guided by a series of leading questions. The first question—What are the observable microsignifieds of the ad that stand out?—involves establishing the minimal units of meaning that have been projected onto the text by cataloguing its main features. Some of these are as follows:
- An Airoldi watch has apparently been stabbed by a woman’s hand holding a dagger.
- The woman’s fingernails are painted with nail polish.
- She is wearing a man’s ring on her thumb.
- A fingerless leather glove covers the woman’s palm.
- A diamond-studded handcuff is discernible on her wrist.
The next question is, What does each one suggest? Answering this question involves showing how certain macrosignifieds have been projected onto the text in terms of the signifiers that make up the text. In the Airoldi ad, these are as follows:
- The stabbing suggests some form of violence, perhaps the brutal hunting of human prey.
- The woman’s painted fingernails suggest sensuality.
- The man’s ring is probably that of her lover or male prey; wearing it on the thumb suggests that it is one of the spoils of the hunt.
- The fingerless leather glove is suggestive of sadomasochistic sensuality.
- The diamond-studded handcuff reinforces the sadomasochistic imagery of the ad and also implies capture and captivity.
The final question is, How do these microsignifieds (= specific projections of macrosignifieds) coalesce to produce an overall meaning? According to scholars of mythology, the “huntress” image has a sexualerotic meaning in Western culture. The image of a fierce, powerful, and sexually dangerous female surfaces in all kinds of popular narratives—from ancient myths such as that of Diana to contemporary female movie characters. The mythic macrosignified of the female-as-huntress seems to form a kind of paradigmatic counterpart to the macrosignified of the female-as-mother.
The action implied by the ad suggests that the female is stabbing the center, or heart, of the watch. The watch is thus, by analogy, her male prey, who cannot escape from the stabbing, as guaranteed by the handcuff on the woman’s wrist, which will not allow the watch to slide beyond it. The woman has, in effect, caught her man. The hunting act is final and decisive. The female-as-huntress macrosignified, with its sadomasochistic connotations, is reinforced verbally by the single word sfidare “to dare.” The ad “dares” female consumers to hunt down and capture their lovers with sado-masochistic sensuality. In this way they will neutralize their lovers’ potential sexual interests in other women. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell (1969: 59-60) has observed, the fear of women has been “for the male no less an impressive imprinting force than the fears and mysteries of the world of nature itself.”
In order to establish the above interpretation of the text as plausible, clearly, the context in which it has been fashioned is a key factor. Recall from chapter 3 (§3.8), that context refers to the real-world conditions—physical, psychological, social, etc.—that ultimately determine how a text is made or what it means. The interpretation that we fleshed out of the Airoldi ad was made possible by knowledge of the fact that it was directed towards a female audience, and by knowledge of the macrosignifieds that were available to the text-maker. In a phrase, contextual information provides the semiotician with a frame of reference that allows h/er to determine which projections of meaning have been utilized in the construction of a specific text. Umberto Eco (1979, 1990) referred to texts as either closed or open. A closed text is one that entails a singular, or a very limited, interpretive range. A map, for instance, entails a fairly straightforward interpretation of what it means. It is an example of a closed text. A poem by an enigmatic modern Western poet, on the other hand, usually evokes different responses and different opinions on the part of readers. It is an example of an open text. The more interpretations a text evokes, the greater seems to be its aesthetic effectiveness. However, as Eco also argues, even open texts are constrained by the signifying order. When asked what an open text means, people will typically provide a pattern of responses that suggests that they are influenced by the macrosignifieds that have been projected onto the text.
The semiotician is well aware that in any culture the primary purpose of open texts is to ask basic questions about the human condition. The more open the text, the more universal the interpretations it seems to evoke; the less open it is, the more constrained the interpretations are by the signifying order from which it was crafted. This raises, of course, fundamental questions that we have addressed in previous chapters. Are there psychic universals that cultural signifying orders translate into specific kinds of signs, codes, texts? Are all signifying orders really communal “Geiger counters” searching for the same pattern of meaning in life? Why does the sapient animal need to search for meaning? Is consciousness a consequence of this search?
In chapter 3 (§3.10) we introduced the notion of structural effects—i.e. the notion that signifying orders condition or structure experience, perception, worldview. In colloquial language this is known commonly as “groupthink,” a term that nicely captures the idea that in a society individuals tend to think alike. Most of our thoughts and responses are, essentially, culturally conditioned ones. That has been one of the themes woven into this book. Consider pain as an example. The findings of medical practitioners and psychologists (Brand and Yancey 1993) suggest that pain is not experienced in the same way the world over. Pain thresholds are very much set and modified by culture. In North American society, for instance, childbirth is widely regarded as a painful experience. But in other cultures women show virtually no distress during childbirth. As the psychologist Melzack (1972: 223) perceptively remarks:
Can this mean that all women in our culture are making up their pain? Not at all. It happens to be part of our culture to recognize childbirth as possibly endangering the life of the mother, and young girls learn to fear it in the course of growing up. Books on “natural childbirth” (“childbirth without fear”) stress the extent to which fear increases the amount of pain felt during labor and birth and point out how difficult it is to dispel it.
It is instructive to note that the ways in which we talk about pain reveal that one of our strategies for coping with it is to think of the body as if it were a machine:
- My pain is slowing my body down.
- My pain is destroying my body.
- My pain is affecting how my body works, etc.
These verbal expressions reflect a deeply embedded image schematic macrosignified in Western culture, the body is a machine, which in turn predisposes us to experience pain as a malfunction in the machine that can be controlled and thus eliminated. In contrast, speakers of Tagalog, the indigenous language of the Philippines, have no equivalents of the expressions listed above. Their expressions reveal instead that body health is influenced by both spiritual and natural forces. These two different patterns of groupthink produce different responses to pain and disease. People reared in English-speaking cultures are inclined to experience pain as a localized phenomenon, i.e. as a malfunction that can be adjusted or corrected apart from the overall state of well-being of the individual. Tagalog people, on the other hand, are inclined to experience it as intertwined holistically with mental states and ecological forces and, therefore, as treatable in tandem with the overall state of well-being of the person.
But this does not mean that human beings cannot learn from each other, nor that they are incapable of experiencing the world independently of culture. The conundrum of culture, in a phrase, is that it entails groupthink at the same time that it provides the individual with the necessary resources for innovation and creativity. So, on the one side, culture is restrictive in that it imposes upon individuals an already-fixed system of signification that will largely determine how they will come to understand the world around them. On the other side, culture is also liberating because the very same system provides the means by which individuals can seek new meanings on their own. The great artistic, religious, scientific, and philosophical works to which individuals are exposed in cultural contexts open up the mind, stimulate creativity, and engender freedom of thought. As a result, human beings tend to become restless for new meanings, new forms of expression, no matter in what society they live.
The interconnectedness principle, for instance, does not imply that people are prisoners of their signifying order, entangled cognitively in its meaning pathways. On the contrary, the very nature of human signifying orders is such that they allow individuals to think independently and autonomously if they so desire. Moreover, the utilization of a signifying order—of its language, its art forms, its narratives, etc.—is constantly subject to the vagaries of the human user. Thus, any act of representation or communication, from a simple greeting to an elaborate artistic performance, is a highly variable subjective act. Human beings are not automaton-like relayers of cultural meanings; they are creative users of these meanings, always searching for new meanings to the very signs they use, no matter how conventionalized these may have become. Signifying orders give historical continuity and stability to the meanings that the genus Homo has always been able to make. But these orders are not static; they are dynamic systems responding to the new signs, new art forms, new metaphors that Homo culturalis continues to invent. This is why cultures are always in flux, always reacting to new ideas, new needs.
The Life Cycle of Cultures
Because they are dynamic entities, cultures are very much like physical organisms—they are born and they eventually die. The cultures of ancient Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, and Greece, and the Incas and the Maya, to mention but a few, have long since ceased to be, even though the achievements of these cultures have lived on, in different forms and ways, in subsequent cultures. But the signifying orders that gave them life have long since disappeared. This brings us back to emphasizing the distinction between culture and society (chapter 1, §1.5). Cultures are, essentially, figments of mind; societies are collectivities of people who have come together for specific historical reasons. Indeed, the society that creates a culture does not necessarily disappear when its culture does. Although the ancient Greek culture long ago disappeared, the society that produced it has not and, moreover, the lasting elements of that culture have been absorbed by, or incorporated into, modern-day Greek culture and, indeed, the cultures of every modern-day society.
One of the first to make this very point was the Italian philosopher whose ideas have been enlisted at various points in this book, Giambattista Vico. Vico (in Bergin and Fisch 1984) saw the cultural life cycle as unfolding according to three broad stages. The first stage was one in which natural events in the world were thought to be under the dominion of awesome and frightful gods—hence the emergence of religion, burial rites, the family, and other basic institutions to lay the foundations of a society. He called this primordial phase, appropriately, the “age of the gods.” Every culture is born in this “divine age.” The primary spheres—kinship and religion—are naturally dominant during this early stage, providing each person with an identity and a vital sense of belonging. The primary form of encoding the culture’s signifying order and its history is myth.
In the succeeding “age of heroes,” as Vico called it, a dominant class of humans—the “heroes” of the evolving culture—emerges typically to subjugate the common people. These are people with great physical prowess who inspire fear and awe in the common people. The latter typically ascribe divine powers to these “nobles.” Again, Vico’s theory is remarkably accurate, given that across time, the historical record shows that all cultures have had their legendary heroes, who are purported to have wrested control of the world from the hands of the gods, setting the world on a more “human” course of historical development. During the second stage the primary spheres and the emerging secondary spheres (political, legal, etc.) develop overlapping moral and ethical jurisdictions. The primary form of encoding the culture’s changing signifying order and its history is legend—a blend of myth and narrative.
After a period of domination by the heroes, a third stage—the “age of equals,” as Vico called it—invariably takes shape in which the common people rise up and win equality; but in the process the culture begins to disintegrate. This is because the third age is one of subtle irony and wit. Language is shallow and does not reflect the passions; it is a language of concepts, method, and logical reasoning devoid of its poetic, mythical functions. The ironic intellect is a destructive one, challenging all forms of moral authority associated with the primary spheres. The secondary spheres assume the reins of social control. But as a consequence, people lose their sense of unity and start retribalizing into small groups. This leads to a demise of the culture as a whole and either to a reversion to one of its earlier stages or to its dissipation. Nevertheless, its main accomplishments are incorporated into emerging signifying orders. The primary form of encoding the culture’s changing signifying order and its history is prose narrative history.
The three ages of culture, according to their modes of historical narration, define the dimensionality of a culture:
This three-stage life-cycle, according to Vico, is the natural course that human cultures run—a course that is not linear and endlessly progressive, but cyclical. Cultures do not go on forever. But in their “death” they are “reborn” with a more ethical form of human interaction.
The Vichian theory of culture strongly suggests that the evolution of Homo culturalis has been shaped by forces that we will never understand. Indeed, for no manifest genetic reason, humanity is constantly reinventing itself in cultural terms as it searches, across time and geography, for a purpose to its existence. This search has led it to invent signifying orders that have set it apart from all other species. It is unlikely that we will ever know what these forces are, for the simple reason that we will have to investigate them with the resources of the very signifying orders that they have made possible. As quantum physicists found out at the start of the twentieth century (chapter 2, §2.6), since theories are formulated with language, it is unlikely that the truth about the universe will ever be known. In quantum theory, the verbal description simply does not seem to fit what the mathematical equations say is going on. The substrate of physical reality appears to obey a logic utterly foreign to verbal concepts. People think of a particle, like a photon or an electron, as occupying space at a certain point in time, and traveling along a specific path. As it turns out, however, a particle does not really exist until it interacts with something, and it travels down not one path but all possible paths at once. Language came about to help people to get around on the earth, not in the mysterious world of subatomic physics.
So, too, with theories of humankind. At best, we can gain some insight into how the mind produces signs. But no theory formulated in language can ever really penetrate the world of mind itself. This is why semiotics wisely limits itself to studying what the mind produces—signs, codes, and texts.
Who is Homo Culturalis?
It is our view that we will, in fact, never really know an answer to the question of why culture exists. A more realistic goal is to study how it provides the means for making meaning. That has been the modest goal of this book. There is no way to explain the human spirit that is responsible for stimulating in the human species its quest for meaning to life. We can only systematically study language, myths, poetry, and all the other products that Homo culturalis has invented throughout the ages and throughout the world to make sense in life. These reveal the structure of h/er mind and the forms of h/er soul. But we will never know who Homo culturalis really is. We can, of course, develop religious philosophies, mythical narratives, or scientific theories to explain h/er nature. But these are of our own making. This is because, as Charles Sanders Peirce often pointed out, as a species we are inclined to “think only in signs.”
Western people have tended to assume that language is a clear and direct way to know and to communicate knowledge, and thus that a theory of cultural origins couched in language is one that can be tested and either confirmed or rejected empirically. But this assumption is fraught with danger because, as Michel Foucault (1972) argued, the basic ideas that people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society change in the course of time, as does the language that frames them. Throughout history, Foucault claimed, people have tried to explain themselves through language in terms of religious ideas (= the religious resolution), physical or genetic forces (= the physicalist resolution), or mysterious human qualities (= the humanist resolution).
The following thought experiment can be used to illustrate Foucault’s explication. Picture two married couples who belong to the most highly advanced culture imaginable. Each of the four people has achieved the highest degree of intelligence possible—all are, in fact, Nobel-prize-winning scientists or artists. The four are in a boat in the middle of an ocean. Both of the females are pregnant, and it so happens that they give birth at exactly the same instant to two healthy babies. As soon as the babies see the light of day, the four adults fall overboard and drown. The neonates have thus not had any contact whatsoever with other human beings. Fortuitously, the boat reaches the shore of a nearby island on which no other human being has set foot. The babies are mistaken for cubs by a pack of wolves. The wolves take the human neonates into their care and nurture them as their own kind.
Untouched by human beings and culture, what will these human neonates become and be able to do when they grow up? Will the two grow up to be quadrupeds like their adoptive parents or bipeds like their biological parents? Will they perceive themselves as being qualitatively different from the wolves? Will they start “speaking” to each other?
Typically, the answers people will give to such questions will fall into the three areas described by Foucault:
- Some will argue that the children will be “given” or “infused with,” the language faculty and the ability to develop culture by some divine entity who is over them (the religious resolution).
- Others will maintain that the children’s biological nature will eventually incline them, or their own progeny, to speak and develop culture as a result of evolutionary tendencies in the species (the physicalist resolution).
- Others still will argue that the children will eventually invent speech and culture on their own for no foreseeable reason other than that it is the human condition (the humanist resolution).
As the reader will have figured out after working through this book, we favor the third type of resolution, even though, as mentioned in the opening chapter (§1.2), the physicalist perspective has come to the forefront today in academic circles and in the mindset of many people. But, then, as we have argued in various parts of this book, why do humans continue to crave for biologically useless things as music, paintings, and stories? In our view, theories of human nature drafted from comparisons with animal mechanisms and evolution are specious at best, spurious at worst. How could a purely physicalist definition of culture explain the expressions of spirit that are found in art works and in scientific thinking? Indeed, what kind of evidence would need to be collected to show a causal link between these and genes? Culture is itself a sign, standing for something more fundamental in the human species, a “cosmic signified,” so to speak, of which we know virtually nothing.
As a final word, we mention that the human imagination, more than any other human skill or capacity, will continue to be the faculty that will constantly remind us of our enigmatic existential condition. Homo culturalis is an ingenious maker of ideas and things because s/he is endowed with fantasia, as Vico so aptly put it. This has, in fact, been the thematic thread running through this book. The outer worlds of Nature and Culture have no independent, objective meaning on their own, in the sense that they want to “say something” about themselves. Only reflective humans feel the need to make meaning of Nature, Culture, and themselves. The goal of this book has been to shed some light on why and how we do it, and why we will continue to do so in the future.