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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary


José Augusto Mourão

To use a sign or to use something as a sign is from the outset to report upon a given culture. A sign is, thus, something which, in the eyes of someone, takes the place of another thing. It is what underlies the expression: aliquid stat pro aliquo. In this definition are also the symptom, the indication, the signal, the marks, the gestures, the graphical expressions, the drawings, the symbols, the natural occurrences assumed as manifestations of a hidden desire, of fate or of magic.

Keywords: index; icon; interpretant; language; code

The sign can be found all around us: we encounter it in art, in secret codes, in meteorology and in hunting. Anything of any category imagined, dreamed of, felt, experienced, thought of, or desired can be a sign as long as this “thing” is interpreted with respect to a fundamental aspect that is unique to it to the extent that it can stand in the place of some other thing. Any thing, whatever type or category it may belong to, when it comes to mind, is immediately converted into a sign even though the nature of this sign is more rudimentary and fleeting. A message is a sign or a successive chain of signs which are transmitted by a producer of signs, a source, and sent to a receptor or destination. The progression of family organisation – from the ethnic group to the bonds of nationhood – the entire series of integrations is based on a variety of cultural, moral, social, political, economic, military and religious codes. The history of humanity is more or less the history of these integrations and the way they configure themselves and change.  Even in seeming emptiness, nature is full of signs which have worth even if the receptor is alone. Thus, moss on trees indicates north although this moss is not a message produced and sent by the tree to the receptor. The sign exists once the receptor decides that it projects a code (an immediate meaning) on certain exterior occurrences. It is thus that we have natural data which become cultural signs. It is not the nature but the culture which imbues the natural data with the status of emitter/sender (one which needs not be human or conscious). No object in and of itself is a sign. Stains or marks on a sheet of paper may not have any semiotic function, but they can comprise a photograph, letters or indices. It is the pragmatic context that lends a status of sign to an object. To use a sign or to use something as a sign is from the outset to report upon a given culture. The articulation of an arbitrary sign – visual or verbal – with a concept of a referent is the product, not of nature but of convention, and the convention of discourse requires the intervention of codes. The visual sign of “cow” in reality is more than the representation of the animal cow. A sign is, thus, something which, in the eyes of someone, takes the place of another thing. It is what underlies the expression: aliquid stat pro aliquo. It is clear that the word /forest/ is easier to manipulate than the object to which it refers. There are four elements which make up sign: the stimulus (the concrete aspect of sign), the signifier (the sound image), the signified (the mental image) and the referent (which may be an object, a quality or a process). It is also clear that none of these elements exists independently without the others; a pure signifier does not exist. A physical phenomenon (a bolt of lightning) only acquires the status of signifier if it enters into a relation with a signified. A television sign consists of the combination of two types of discourse, visual and auditory. It is an iconic sign because it possesses some of the properties of the thing represented. A dog in a film can bark, but it cannot bite. The reality exists outside of language; however, it is constantly mediated by and through language and in real relations and conditions.
The notion of sign is to such an extent generalised that we need not make reference to it within the human mind. This has been entirely defined for us since 1909 with the theory of C. S. Pierce in terms of the need for a general theory of all the possible types of sign, of their modes of meaning, denotation and information. Even in continental semiotics can we observe two branches of research: one which aims at the constitution of a semiotics of cultures (cf. the cognitive semiotics of L. Hjelmslev, the work of Y. Lotman or M. Foucault’s concept of epistemé) and the other which points toward the description of micro-universes of meaning. The currents which give birth to structuralism give origin, respectively, to a semiology of communication (E. Buyssens, G. Mounin and L. Prieto), a semiology of meaning (R. Barthes) and narrative and discursive semiotics (Greimas). It is Ferdinand de Saussure (1971) who is responsible for the first exhaustive and scientific development of linguistic sign. For Saussure, the sign results from the meeting of the signifier and the signified, which are inseparably bound together. This linguist presents language as a sheet of paper whose front side would be the signifier and whose reverse side would be the signified. C. S. Peirce’s work in the United States does not separate the pragmatic dimension from the semiotic process. Supported not by linguistics but by a phenomenological reflection and the logic of relationships generalising the concept of sign, and taking into account the context of the production and reception of signs, this author proposes a general, triadic and pragmatic semiotic. U. Eco (1990) presents an extensive list of the definition of signs. This definition takes in the following: symptom, indication, signal, marks, gestures, graphical expressions, drawings, symbols, and natural occurrences assumed as manifestations of a hidden desire, of fate or of magic. In the philosophy of Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) the sign, or better put, the semiose, is a triadic relation which is established between an object, its representamen and its interpretant . In Peirce’s category scheme, “a sign or representamen is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant” (CP, 2.274). The relationship between the sign’s ways of being is seen as dynamic, and it is from this point that we arrive at what Peirce understands as “semiosis”.

A feedback mechanism such as a thermostat, a mechanical loom or even a sunflower can be understood as examples of signs.   This is the definition that Peirce gives of sign: “a sign [in the form of representamen] is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen” (2.228). The sign is “something that to the eyes of someone represents something else to a certain extent or other capacity.” Or: “some thing which represents something for someone”. The “to some extent” means that the sign does not represent the totality of the object but through diverse abstraction represents it from “a certain point of view” or “with the end being a certain practical use”. Peirce went on to elaborate an extensive list of signs – with sixty-six varieties, including the intermediaries and the hybrids. Already in the non-verbal field, the most notable effort toward classification is that of Bally (1939) while Jakobson (1970) is centred on the classification of human signs in general. Currently, only a half-dozen signs, including some sub-species, are identified with regularity and commonly used, be they well or poorly defined.  

We can classify the signs: by source, by meaning and inference, by the degree of signic specificity, by the intention and the human receptor relative to its meaning and to the replicability of the signifier, by the type of relation presupposed with the referent and by the behaviour that they stimulate with the destination/receiver. As for meaning and inference, an old classification distinguished signs as artificial and natural. The former are those which are consciously sent out by humans or animals based on conventions necessary to communicate something to others (words, graphic symbols, drawings, musical notes, etc.). They always suppose an emitter/ sender. The latter, on the other hand, would be those signs without intentional emitter/sender, often coming from a natural source, and which are interpreted as symptoms and indications (marks on the skin, the sound of footsteps, clouds in the sky etc.). These signs are also called expressive when they are symptoms of the state of the soul, such as involuntary response to happiness. However, the very possibility of simulation tells us that expressive signs are elements of a socialised language and that as such they are analysable and can be studied and used. On the other hand there is the case of truly natural signs that split the opinion of academics: some classify them as signs whilst others deny that they can be considered as such. Greimas, for example speaks of a semiotics of the natural world, insisting on the fact that all physical occurrences, the meteorological sign, the way a person walks, etc. are phenomena of meaning through which we interpret the universe thanks to the preceding experiences of existence which have taught us to read these signs as being revelatory. Buyssens defines the sign as an artifice through which a human being communicates a state of his/her own consciousness to another, with there being others who might oppose this position given the fact that a phenomenon can only be understood as a sign through that which can be inferred by the existence of another phenomenon. Inference is a logic-deductive process and not necessarily a communicative phenomenon. The characterisation of sign will thus depend on the existence of a code. The signic nature spills out upon verbal language. The sign is, first and foremost, an operator of representation. Yet, the condition of the sign is not just that of substitution, but one of possible interpretation. The semiose or the production of meaning is a triadic process that implies three elements: a sign, an object and an interpretant. The universe of the semiose is the labyrinth of human culture, itself an infinitely virtual network of interpretants whose order is a shared way of using signs. We have a world of signs which form a semiotic of the natural world and a world of artificial systems of signs where conventionality rules. Set of signs which go from signs of the natural world or of expression to artificial ones or ones of communication. The sign is always such for someone, hence its communicational nature. But nature (the world, the cosmos, reality) reveals itself to itself through the processes of signs or semiose.
Peirce takes up different definitions of icon between 1895 and 1908, and they never coincide. An iconic sign, when considered from the point of view of similarity, can be called a hypoicon. Peirce recognises the existence of hypoicons in natural language (metaphors), in geometry (diagrams), and in algebra and music or in any other type of visual representation (images). But some images (photography) show a high level of indexicality. There are iconic signs, that is, signs motivated by similarity, which move toward pathways other than the visual. Examples of sound icons are imitations of bird calls or onomatopoeia. Tactile icons are inflatable dolls and other accessories on sale at sex shops, gloves used in digital technology; olfactory icons are artificial sensors for hotdogs, new leather smells, knock-off (imitation contraband) perfumes. Taste icons are artificial/synthetic fruit flavours (strawberry, etc.). There are visual signs that are indices  (smoke, when seen, indicates fire), and other which are symbols (the colours, as such), and other icons. There are four elements of the iconic sign: the stimulus, the iconic signifier, the type and the referent. The iconic signifier is analogous and refers mimetically to an object from reality. Here, the referent is the object which the visual sign is aware of and the object as the member of a class whilst it can be referred back to a model. The referent is singular (it is a token); the type is a class. The referent of an iconic sign cat is a singular object (black with white spots on the ears) whereas this object can be associated with a permanent category: the cat-being. The stimulus is the material support for the sign: dark stains on a sheet of white paper, tracings and curves. The signifier is the modellised set of visual stimuli which corresponds to a stable type. Type is a mental representation and produced by the encyclopaedia. I have seen cats and I know that they have whiskers and that they scratch and meow. Or I have read Les Chats by Baudelaire. The plastic sign mobilises codes that are set in lines, colours and textures, without any mimetic back-sending. We can describe it with three parameters: colour, form and texture. Texture is a property of the surface. J. M. Klinkenberg calls texturemes those which reveal the nature of elements and the laws of repartition.  The plastic form is a spatial form which articulates itself in non-manifested signifier units: they are position, dimension and orientation, each of which having potential meaning. Colour can articulate itself in smaller units, chromemes: luminance and saturation. To each variation of these chromemes, there can be corresponding variations of chromatic meanings: a /strong saturation/ refers to /energy/. It can be said that two types of signifier – iconic and plastic – are made of the same material but that they have different substances because their forms are different. Plastic signs are revealing of families of symbol or index. Examples such as: /colour/ which refer to a “concept” or an “affect” (the “sense of the tragic” in Rothko), and /form/ which also refers to the signified “safe” in Bernard Buffet. Examples of index plastic signs are: a certain /tracing/ as index to “quickness” in the gesture of marking in Bernard Buffet.
The icon is thus a sign which refers to the object by virtue of characters which are unique to it and that is possesses, whether the object exists or not: a diagram, for example. It resembles the thing without being it. It is not arbitrary but motivated by an identity of proportion or form. A saint is recognised from his/her portrait. The symbol is a sign that refers back to the object by virtue of a law (association of ideas) which has it such that the symbol is interpreted as referring to the object. According to Pierce (CP 2.293) “a symbol is a law, or regularity of the definite future. (…) but a law necessarily governs and is embodied in individuals, and prescribes some of their qualities. Consequently, a constituent of a symbol can be an index, and can be an icon.” In another description, Peirce (CP 2.307) affirms: “a symbol is constituted a sign merely or mainly by the fact that it is used and understood as such, whether it be a natural or conventional habit.” The symbol acts by means of a replica. In the statement, “António like cherries,” “like” is a symbol. It does not have an analogic relation with the thing – arbitrary in relation to it; it can be deciphered with the help of a code. Thus is the case for the world “blue” with respect to the colour blue. The same sign can be icon, index and symbol at the same time. “Take for instance ‘It rains.’ The icon is the mental composite photograph of all the rainy days the thinker has experienced. The index is whereby he distinguishes that day as it is placed in his experience. The symbol is the mental act whereby [he] stamps that day as rainy” (2.438). The icon constitutes a type of relation of similarity which can dispense with whatever physical relation there is with existing entities. For the relation between S and O, if S is the sign of O by virtue of a quality which S and O share, then S is the icon of S and O constitutes, out of similarity, an identity of some aspect. Statuary in modern sculpture attests to the desire to link up to pure, more abstract order, of the symbolic. When we have a plurality of signs, the analogy must be more abstract: we are thus standing before a diagrammatic iconicity which is based on the relation amongst signs which reflect a similar relation between objects and actions (a temporal sequence of actions reflected in the sequence of the three verbs of the quote from Caesar, “veni, vidi, vici”): in this instance, the sign is an “iconic diagram”. An essential question remains: where do icons come from? When do they emerge in the history of human evolution? Cave paintings, as iconic manifestations, do not precede the emergence of language in human evolution. Iconic signs are thus that which we can call signs that perform thought-writing, comparable with the signs of speech-writing. Iconicity, as a first form of symbolicity, becomes the accompaniment to the written text, the second form of symbolicity. 
To be a sign is to be a term in a specific triadic relation. A sign only exists in the interior of the process of meaning which it generates. And its elements do not have semiotic existence outside this process. “But we make take the sign in so broad a sense that the interpretant of it is not a thought but an action or experience of it, or we may so enlarge the meaning of sign that its interpretant is a mere quality of feeling” (Peirce, 8.322). No object is stimulus or signifier of itself: a set of sounds or a piece of paper covered in marks means nothing a priori. An object only constitutes a sign if we attribute a function to it: a sound can be a phoneme, a note of music or a siren, etc., light impulses can become Morse letters, etc. In the final analysis, a sign is an institution which serves to categorise the world and an instrument for structuring the universe.



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