In this insidiously sinuous sibilant celebration of Singer at seventy-six—punning can be infectious—the pivotal substantive is “self,” specifically that manifestation of it localized as the “semiotic self.” For this sentimental reader, the title, and some of the contents too, reverberate with the sound of another from a bygone age: Symbols and Society (1955), today an all too seldom revisited volume. Graced with a remarkable, lengthy paper, “Symbol, Reality and Society,” contributed by the “Continental Phenomenologist” Alfred Schutz, his oral presentation was directly followed by a concise comment on the part of the “American Pragmatist” Charles Morris (Schutz 1955:202), who enthusiastically welcomed this “addition to the literature of contemporary semiotic,” since, as he noted, “there are few basic discussions in this field written from the standpoint of phenomenology.”
Singer cites Schutz’s later, more developed phenomenological notion of “we-reality,” that is, the notion of the priority of the We to the I, or, in common parlance, the overriding importance of human sociality. Schutz argued along two lines: first, that “I” is born into the world of others, who raised “me” and bequeathed to “me” patterns of signification (“knowing”) and of communication (“behaving”); and second, that “I” is able to “stop and think”—the expression is John Dewey’s—that is, to become conscious of “my” concealed individual self (Schutz 1962:169-172). This, of course, echoes what Coleridge—whose philosophy of Ich-heit Peirce himself cited circa 1902—called, as far back as 1817, in his Biographia Literaria (Ch. 13), “the primary Imagination.” By this Coleridge meant “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” offering the means of escape from the prison house of the self by engagement with others, or the ability to distinguish subject (“I am”) from object (“you are,” “it is”). However, by 1908, as Peirce wrote (on December 14) to Victoria Lady Welby, he had come to realize that the putative contrast between Subject and Object—“in any of the varieties of German senses”—was misleading and “led to a lot of bad philosophy . . .” these terms requiring a subtler sort of semiotic analysis than had been accorded them theretofore. (Further, some passages in Lee and Urban 1989 independently attempt to grapple with this unresolved issue.)
One can be sure that Morris would have embraced Singer’s sympathetic, clarifying augmentation here of this perpetual, complicated dialectic, the synthesis of which was assigned in some circles to a hybrid field later dubbed “Social Phenomenology.” (Cf. Morris 1970:149. He appears, however, to have been unaware of Schutz’s ideas about sign systems, for The Phenomenology of the Social World, where Schutz faced such matters most candidly, came out in English only in 1967.)
Just how prodigious this dialectic interplay between self and other can become in its ramifications into countless categories and directions is beautifully exemplified, on a vast geopolitical canvas, by Todorov’s (1982) insightful meditations on the discovery and conquest of America, or the encounter between “us,” the European colonizers, and “them,” the colonized Native Americans.
The closest link of the self in nature as well as in culture is with memory, both as a feature of a physical repository and as a social construct. The reasons are quite straightforward: each organism requires information—I use “information” casually here to mean the representation of sets of prior events embodied in a code—about certain experiences in its past to enable that individual to steer with reasonable certitude of survival in its specific current Umwelt.
Memory in “man, proud man” makes up, as it were, a multisensory private documentary archive, severally composed of nonverbal signs with a verbal overlay. It is the articulatio secunda, or the syntactic aspect of language, which provides the machinery whereby memory organizes, continually remodels as a child playing with a tinkertoy, and finally imposes a coherent and personal narrative schema upon each of us. Since writing tends to conserve the semiotic self far beyond any oral tradition, literate peoples have invented the diary or intimate journal (and, later, the family photo album, home movies, and comparable technological accoutrements) to delineate for themselves, in the form of supplementary aides-mémoire, a kind of dramatic “I” to furnish, in Peirce’s memorable phrase (MS 318-355, 1907), their “theater of consciousness.”
This blueprint, too, is what Jacob envisioned when, in the concrete titular and key metaphor of his recent autobiography, he fantasized carrying within himself a kind of statue intérieure, “sculpted since childhood, that gives my life a continuity and is the most intimate part of me, the hardest kernel of my character. I have been shaping this statue all my life. I have been constantly retouching, polishing, refining it. . . . Not a gesture, not a word, but has been imposed by the statue within” (1988:19).
Along with Popper and Eccles (1977:129), we may say of the self that, “like any living organism, it extends through a stretch of time, from birth to death.” The semiotic self is by no means identical with “the consciousness that binds our life together” (Peirce 1935-1966:1.381). While even the consciousness of synthesis is interrupted by periods of sleep, continuity of our semiotic persona (presumably even by those claiming to have been Born Again) is normally taken for granted. Again, Jacob’s question (1988:14) is stirring: “Why doesn’t the system slip so that, after sleep has disassembled the mind, its memory and will, the mechanism is not reassembled somewhat differently, to form a different person, a different me?”
Memory agglutinates man’s glassy essence into a unitary configuration and—as Lecky insists in his theory of personality, Self-Consistency (1945)—an enduring, more or less singularly consolidated autobiographical identity (excepting, arguably, in that one percent or so of the population designated, for that very reason, as “schizophrenic”). Memory also creates the illusion—“most ignorant of what he’s most assured”—that all our acts are performed by the selfsame person, labeling the array of “fantastic tricks” that happened to us in our past as incidents which, notwithstanding that they may “make the angels weep,” do compose a coherent sequence of experiences. Memory itself is, of course, continually refigured to ensure the maintainance of positive self-esteem.
The twin functions of memory in our lives—the archival and the amalgamative—have two coupled sources: genetic and semiotic. There are, as well, as I have argued elsewhere, two intertwined notions of individuation: the immunologic, or biochemical, “with semiotic overtones,” and the semiotic, or social, “with biological anchoring” (Sebeok 1988:263-267; also above, p. 40). An apprehension of how the immune system creates the capacity for distinguishing between self and nonself by the immunoglobulin molecules expressed in B cells and antigen-specific receptors expressed in T cells is a fascinating problem at the very frontiers of research, with momentous implications for the diagnosis and treatment of critical human ailments.
So also the human self is passed on by a fusion of two means of inheritance, which may—though imprecisely—be termed the “Darwinian” and the superimposed “Lamarckian” avenue (Sebeok 1989a).
The notion “semiotic self” registers and emphasizes the fact that an animate is capable of absorbing information from its environment if, and only if, it possesses the corresponding key, or code. There must exist an internalized system of signposts to provide a map to the actual configuration of events. Therefore, “self” can be adequately grasped only with the concepts and terminology of the doctrine of signs. Another way of formulating this fact is that while living entities are, in one commonly recognized sense, open systems, their permeable boundaries permitting certain sorts of energy-matter flow or information transmissions to penetrate them, they are at the same time closed systems, in the sense that they make choices and evaluate inputs, that is to say, in their semantic aspect. For this reason, a Turing Machine necessarily lacks a “semiotic self”—its Umwelt forever being merely specular to its creators’ Innenwelt (cf. Uexküll and Wesiack 1988:188, 196).
It would be instructive to reflect at leisure (not afforded here) on three predominant styles of ethnographic discourse. It is the hallmark of great (or near-great) bourgeois ethnographies that they depict and interpret the semiotic self of their subjects by their possessions rather than, as was the custom in other works, by their actions. In the bygone era of “culture-and-personality” studies, dramas of imaginary inner conflicts were juxtaposed as sharply at odds with the outer milieu; in other words, the “unconscious” was enthroned as the “other” within “one-self.”
Ethnography melds with the fruits of bioanthropology when the focus of inquiry is narrowed from its looser accessories and belongings to the human body (L’Homme nu) in the strict sense. This body has—or rather consists of—a veritable armamentarium of more or less palpable indexical markers of unique selfhood (save perhaps for identical twins).
Fingerprints, and what Alphonse Bertillon in such protosemiotic works of his as Service de signalements (1888) and Identification anthropométrique: Instructions signalétiques (1893) called “the professional signs” (cf. Rhodes 1956:143), and later biometric refinements in Sir Francis (“When you can, count”) Galton’s anthropological contributions in the field of measurement, exhibit one such array. Ginzburg’s brilliant essay (1983) on the interpretation of a variety of phenotypic clues musters other striking manifestations—by art historians (Morelli), psychoanalysts (Freud), and detectives (Sherlock Holmes)—of this same epistemological model. On the genotypic plane, “DNA fingerprinting” can in fact now identify, with absolute certainty, on a level of discrimination far above anything available before, every person (again excepting an identical twin), even by a single hair root, on a small piece of film displaying his or her unique sequence of DNA molecules.
The odors—of which Peirce remarked (1935-1966:1.313) that they “are signs in more than one way,” especially by contiguous association—and the subjacent chemical composition of every human being differ from those of every other. Some consequences of these stark facts were horrifyingly depicted in Patrick Süskind’s gripping and (in John Updike’s words) “beautifully researched” 1985 novel, Das Parfum (Ch. 31): “the odor of human being did not exist, any more than the human countenance. Every human being smelled different, no one knew better than [the book’s antihero] Grenouille, who recognized thousands upon thousands of individual odors and could sniff out the difference of each human being from birth on.” Above the basic theme of human odor, “each individual’s aura [hovers] as a small cloud of more refined particularity,” the highly complex, unmistakable semiotic code of a personal odor.
The study of the distinctive pheromonal function, subsumed under the new scientific rubric “semiochemistry,” of human chemical signatures is in fact comparable to that of individual fingerprints (for example, Albone 1984; on the comparison to fingerprints, see p. 65). It is, by the way, well known that human infants can sort out their mother’s peculiar odor, and possibly even her idiosyncratic breast odor, from those of all other women.
The immune system utilizes approximately as large a number of cells dispersed throughout our bodies as the number of cells that composes our brains. The mammalian nervous system, consisting of an endosymbiotic (better: endosemiotic) aggregation of spirochetal remnants, provides the hardware for the functioning of the no less important but even less clearly understood self, the semiosic capacity of which is based on electrochemical signing function and kindred processes begun already to be utilized by bacteria some 3,400 million years ago. Half a century ago, Jakob von Uexküll introduced a musical metaphor of “Zell-Subjecten” being endowed each with a quasi-melodic specific “Ich-ton.” Concrete applications from brain research may be found in, for instance, Vernon B. Mountcastle’s and John C. Eccles’s important series of studies of neuronal impulses (Uexküll and Wesiack 1988:217f).
Some geneticists have argued (for example, Waddington 1961:121), that even self-awareness “evolved from simple forms which are experienced by non-human [comprehending inanimate] things.” Wherever this line of reasoning, which smacks of panpsychism but which was once very influential all the same, may lead, it is certain that sexually reproducing organisms, “since complex animals undergo a complex program of development from their conception in the form of a fused egg and sperm cell, . . . have special aptitudes for identity and death” (Margulis and Sagan 1986:162).
Are all speechless creatures capable of internal self-representation? This is an empirical question, though not an easy one to investigate. The “special aptitude for identity” in animals, their semiotic selfhood, has been most fruitfully examined so far by that nonpareil explorer of animal behavior, Heini Hediger (for example, 1980:38-62). Does an animal’s self-appraisal include an awareness of its detachable appendages (such as spontaneous tail amputation in the course of evasive maneuvers of many Sauria)? Of its exclusive body odor? Of its image reflected in water? Of its shadow upon the ground? Hediger affirms, for instance, that there is evidence to show that animals evolved relatively early an ability to recognize their own shadow, impermanent as this may be, as a spatial extension of, or image isomorphic to, their self (the model). The genesis of the image, the nature of the physical processes which come into play in such examples, was newly analyzed in a pathbreaking (though Peirce-inspired) study by René Thom (1973).
In the identification of the semiotic self, as in all domains of semiosis, context is determining: a live snail’s shell is a part of that mollusk’s integumentary self, whereas the hermit crab’s shell, its temporary dwelling, equally vital though it may be in securing that creature’s survival, remains but a foreign object.
What of body size? As long as sixty years ago, R. Oeser (cf. Hediger 1980:42) propounded this intriguing and empirically testable principle: that an animal tends to know the dimensions of its own body (although not, say, that it is white). Such knowledge, both logical and biological, must be unambiguous. (It incidentally concerns zoo planners directly, as, for example, in the design of enclosures for Bovids and Cervids of both sexes and different ages.)
Singular proper names (in whatever channel, inclusive of chemical pheromones) tend inherently to be found in those vertebrates which form personal societies. One’s name is therefore deeply conjoined with one’s self (Hediger 1980:63-84; Sebeok 1986a, Ch. 7). The self assumes its corporeality through the semiosic act of denomination; one’s name becomes thereby a quasi-iconic index which denotes it. It is the “within” that motivates the “without” in baptism.
Some people, such as Alice when she passed into the wood “where things have no names” (Through the Looking-Glass), feel that their name should embody the exceptional status of their semiotic self. So Todorov (1982), relying on contemporaries, such as the Dominican “Apostle of the Indians” Bartolomé de las Casas, showed that the obsessive preoccupation of Christopher Columbus with both his name (specifically, his signature) and his emblematic siglum indeed bordered on the fetishistic. Dante’s formula, Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, does appear to find application at least in this limited, privy domain of our vocabulary.
And what of social position? “The self,” it has been suggested (Chance and Larsen 1976:205), “is intimately tied to primate social dominance. . . .” The salience of this link in human affairs—the iconic spatial expression of social hierarchy—is generally clear (Sebeok 1988:118), but let me adduce one familial example.
In my father’s household, in interwar Hungary, he, the “head” of the family, was seated during meals, as you would expect, at the “head” of table. On Sundays and most other holidays, the midday (main, often extended) family meal of the day began almost invariably with chicken soup. Cooked in the broth, there floated the severed head of a rooster, cockscomb prominently displayed. The maid always served my father first, ladling out of the tureen the rooster’s head into his bowl, beak facing my father. After he had finished his soup, he would pick up the head, munch on the comb, then, with a special instrument, trephine the skull and suck out the brain. When my father was absent, protocol demanded that the elder son, myself, be served the head, with the same tasty rite ensuing.
Leaving aside the psychoanalytic innuendos (if any) of this recurrently observed ceremony of my youth, it will be observed that status in our domestic establishment was being reinforced by the manner in which we all behaved around the table. Iconic signs were used both to remind of and fortify status, in order to warrant the perpetuation of the prevailing system of distinctions (cf. Sommer 1969:17). When guests were present, as was often the case, they learned at a glance who was the alpha and who the beta male, and all the servants knew as well who had maximum access to amenities and information. The mechanisms at work here were incorporated, indeed, drummed into my self, which, as Peirce however wisely observed (1935-1966:5.462), “is only inferred,” for “your neighbors are, in a measure, yourself, and in far greater measure than . . . you would believe” (7.571), and because “the Self of the man is . . . included within a larger Self of the community” (8.123), as if these Selves formed a continuum.
Some of the topics touched on in Lee and Urban 1959, notably those that consider aspects of personal identity, were substantially refined by the late Erving Goffman, especially in Stigma (1963), the most semiotic among all of his writings. He was one of the first explicitly to recognize positive indexical marks of personal identity, which he named “identity pegs” (roughly corresponding to Morris’s family of signs called “identifiors”; cf. Sebeok 1985a:138-139). Goffman, moreover, duly credited (1963:57) the role of memory, in the idea of “the unique combination of life history items that comes to be attached to the individual with the help of these pegs for his identity.” The trope he used, in its way every bit as homely yet as original as Jacob’s statue, was that of candy floss, which he envisioned as a sticky substance to which the “facts” of one’s biography gradually adhere.
According to Buddhist precepts (as who among us knows them better than Milton Singer?), the “self” is an illusion, or, more accurately, an infinity of interlocking illusions—in fact, a set of dharmas and relations among dharmas. From this it follows that the “other” must likewise be an illusion. Neither exists. But this being so, the semiotic self cannot, in that tradition, ever be understood: what is understood is that there is nothing and that there is no one to understand it (cf. Holm 1982, Ch. 23). But in Western ontology, we prefer to heed the admonition inscribed upon the Delphic oracle: Gnothi seauton—Know thyself!
As the contributors to Lee and Urban 1959, inspired by Singer, grapple, each in his way, with the oracle’s injunction, they all do so within a social science frame. During the same decade, in the domain of the neurosciences, by connecting Darwinian selection, that most basic of biological principles, with events in the brain, Gerald M. Edelman (1987) has, perhaps even more provocatively and decisively, moved individuality back to center stage, convincingly showing that the semiotic self, far from being an epiphenomenon, plays the starring role. Such events, which eventually result in behavior, thought, and memory (Rosenfeld 1988) all argue for the supreme importance of individuality. The standard human-computer (or human-machine) analogies, by leaving novelty out of the equation that links the Innenwelt with the Umwelt, are incapable of coping with novelty. The beauty of Edelman’s theory of Neural Darwinism derives precisely from its inability to predict how the brain will evolve. Each human brain develops, in the course of a ceaseless progression of sign interpretation, its own distinct way of ordering reality; or, as we might say in semiotic parlance, every mind has an inherent capacity to launch ever more developed, enriched interpretants in its three Peircean varieties (corresponding respectively to sense, meaning, and signification) on their journey toward infinity.
This companion piece to Chapter 3 was first published as the foreword to Sign, Self, and Society, ed. Benjamin Lee and Greg Urban (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989), v-xiv. The book was dedicated to Milton Singer, of the University of Chicago, by a group of his students, colleagues, and friends. The contents of this chapter, together with those of Chapter 3, then formed the basis for further extensive discussions at two related colloquia held in Germany in 1990: Colloquium on Psycho-Neuro-Immunology (Tutzing, June 3-7); and Models and Methods of Biosemiotics (Glotterbad, June 7-9).