Rastier, François: "On Signs and Texts"


If the question was never asked within the framework of cognitive research, it is undoubtedly because the unification under the "formal" paradigm of the sign and interpretation permitted the persistent homology of naturalness and artificiality __ see the agenda that guides the technical branch of Artificial Intelligence. But this program supposes an unprecedented technical misprision by recognizing to artifacts the same type of objectivity as that of "natural objects".1 The failures of cognitivism are undoubtedly due to the fact that they failed to ponder long enough on the instrumental role techniques play (in particular in writings and natural languages) in the process of knowledge. As such, it seems that the scientific, not to say philosophical, ambitions of Artificial Intelligence made it less of a priority for it to define itself well as a semiotic technology.

3. The Critical Strategy

Rather, it sets out to treat sign systems and interpretive regimes severally, by relating them back to the various practices in which they are put to use. With a grounding in anthropology, but deliberately relativistic, it leads to a semiotics of cultures, whose epistemological core is historical and comparative linguistics. It refuses to accept that a single model of the sign and, further, a single model of interpretation are satisfactory tools to work with. Indeed, if we are to take the interpretation of texts into consideration the following questions have to be asked:

3.1. The identification of the sign depends on the interpretation which is brought to bear on the text. Admittedly, under the formal standard, the suspension of interpretation presupposes that it is possible to work from the signifiers up (while regarding their signifieds as non-descript). On the other hand, as far as linguistic signs are concerned, signifiers are not always taken for granted, and unknown words lend themselves to being interpreted. Even known signifiers are reconstituted __ a convincing example can be found in the linguistic concept of null signifiers. Its identification may depend on unforeseeable syntactic and semantic conditions. Even eyeball movements, although widely held to be automatic and unconscious, vary with interpretive regimes: when the meaning is obvious, the eye focuses in the middle of the word, but focuses at the beginning of words when their meaning seems dubious (Lavigne-Tomps 1996). As far as signifieds are concerned, moreover, even though signification may well be known, it is not always the case for meaning (folly is euphoric in Chamfort's writings, for instance). In short, the sign as a unit made up of a signifier and of one or several co-actualized signifieds results from interpretive processing.

3.2. It follows that in a given text the same sign can or must be dealt according to:
__ various degrees of systematicity: natural language, standards (genre, for example), style;
__ various connections with other points within the same text (metaphors spanning long distances), or with other texts (allusions);
__ various interpretive codes (multilingual puns, interpretation of first-level units, letters or phonemes, according to interpretive techniques, like gematria or notarikon, which bestow symbolic value on them). To this extent, any text can be said to be polysemiotic.

Remark : This leads us to amend the concept of linguistic sign inherited from Saussure's standard theory, and in particular on the point of semiosis, as the fundamental relationship which links the two sides of the sign. On the one hand, semiosis must be related to the two planes of content and expression evidenced by the text, and other semiotic performances. Semiosis can no longer be defined as a relationship between the signifier and the signified of the sign. In addition, it cannot be defined by a logical rapport that can be formulated in simple terms, such as inference in the intentionalist tradition, or reciprocal presupposition in the structuralist tradition. Lastly, the signifier is not the starting point of interpretation, because it has to be recognized for what it is. In other words, the constitutive relationships of meaning hop from one signified to the next, as well as from the signified to the signifier. We therefore define semiosis on the basis of the network of relationships among signifieds within the text __ while considering signifiers as interpretants which make some of those relationships possible to build. We see relationships such as those as directed pathways. One could undoubtedly distinguish among as many kinds of semiosis as there are kinds of elementary pathways.
Lastly, semiosis can be pinned down only as the result of interpretation, not as its departure. The identification of signifiers seems to be one of the points where the interpretive path can be taken, but some expectations and assumptions come first. Those are stipulated by the textual-generic corresponding contract relative to the practice in progress: therefore one could also define semiosis as a point of return.


1. What is there to gain for example in calling vocal commands a man-machine dialogue, except that the understanding of dialogues can be put on the back burner? One eminent specialist in the field noted recently, with all due seriousness, that the turn-taking from keyboard to screen does not raise any particular problem. [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº5, Article 4 : Page 16 / 27

© 1998, AS/SA

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