Introductory Editorial



Peter Marteinson

For the Editors





Welcome, dear reader, to Issue 9 of Applied Semiotics. It is my privilege, on behalf of both of us, The Editors, for the first time since our launch in March 1996, to introduce an issue personally. This gives me the opportunity to make comment — not only on the fine articles featured this season — but also on the direction and evolution of semiotics today, and where I believe it might best continue to grow in the future.

Indeed, among the reasons we decided, five years ago, to create a purely electronic refereed journal in applied semiotics — besides finding the notion ideally suited to the new medium — was, not to put too fine a point on it, that we felt semiotics theory was rather in a bad way. To us, although both young scholars, its practitioners appeared hazardously divided, in a way reminiscent of the myth of Babel, by differing standards. (Consider Peirce's modern followers, Greimas's mainly-francophone survivors, Sebeok's broad scientific view, Eco's school, philosophical approaches based on Apel, modern mathematical interpretations, etc.)

Semiotics seemed, we thought, to be refracted into a kaleidoscope of differing theoretical views on what its very foundations were, and consequently what form its purpose and methods ought to take. I sometimes felt, unfairly perhaps, that the field was much like alchemy during the Renaissance — a methodologically disparate, motley, almost mysterious lore, but one with great promise. We still share this view — there are obstacles that still hamper our progress — and yet, we feel a distinct sense of optimism that semiotics, aided perhaps in a small way by a highly democratic, fast, ubiquitious medium and an ever-more "wired" scholarly community, is nearing the age of its maturity.

A significant difficulty, in my opinion (if such things exist in our area!) is that so many schools of thought in the field adopt a cognitive interest (cf. Apel) too precisely resembling that of a purely natural science, and tend therefore to focus on the syntagmatic at the expense of the paradigmatic, on denotation rather than (much-denigrated) connotation, on signs' extensions rather than their (anthropomorphic) intensions. Is the study of communication not, in a human context, primarily a social science, a Geisteswissenschaft? Must we await some kind of interdisciplinary watershed from the Frankfurt School's Critical Theorists, or from Eugene Gendlin's philosopher-linguists, in order to arrive at a more complete sense of well-foundedness, in order to be able to apply our knowledge more successfully, and convincingly, to a wider variety of communicative forms?

With this hopeful quest in mind, we offer the present issue of our modest journal, an issue which we hope explores a balanced approach to communication in the context of both its concrete structures and in terms of that great enigma, the Ayer's rock of semioticians' enigmas, culture. We feel an investigation of methodologies dealing with cultural icons is another step in the right direction for our field. A semiotics of culture, certainly, must overcome what I see as the main theoretical problem of our time: why does language denote material states of affairs in a way completely distinct from the manner in which it signifies the contents of thought — the aims and values we invest, for our own anthropomorphic reasons, and according to a fuzzy cultural logic, in social states of affairs? Is this pair of mismatched, asymmetrical, utterly unlike functions the reason why it is so tricky to pin down a unified model of communication, without entering into anthropological, psychological and cultural questions? And yet the two processes, as the Stoics and, later, as Augustine explained, occur simultaneously, and inseparably. (It is a shame that this ternary model — sign, extension, intension — is so frequently attributed to American autodidact Charles S. Peirce. Have we lost our collective memory of the true origins of Western semiotics theory?) Thus we arrive at an issue of AS/SA devoted to methodologies for communication in terms of culture, an issue on Cultural Icons.


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The first article is an analysis of the way collective ethnic identity, and nationalism — pure anthropomorphic values, or intensions, if I ever saw one — are expressed in images inscribed upon bank notes and minted coins — currency — in Central America and its North American cultural cousin, Mexico. Its author, Joseph M. Galloy, an anthropologist at Harvard, shows that images on currencies can portray, like Greek Myths which once justified and explained conquests and unions between peoples, "powerful messages regarding national sovereignty and ethnic or class relations" (see Abstract). Like Itamar Even-Zohar (AS/SA, First Issue), Galloy establishes principles according to which Nation-Building ("cohesion" in Even-Zohar's system) is accomplished, at least in part, by the propagation of shared symbols, by the mythical promotion of selected values. His article is not only very timely on the scholarly front, but has a serendipitous sychronicity with the introduction, in the European Union, of the notes and coins of the Euro. So we will be able to see the principles he abstracts from history as they (perhaps) increase cohesion and mutual collective affection in the Euro-area.

The next article, "The Becoming of a Saint" ("Le devenir d'un saint", Abstract) is an exploration by Ekaterina Averianova (University of Tumen, Siberia) of the way a collectively-accepted status (again an intension, as the status applies in a purely immaterial sense to one having no living body) is conferred, through well-defined social rites, upon a person's identity in an Indo-European Christian societies. The reader might wish to consult her previous article on this subject, which appeared in Issue no 5, on the semiotic functions of priesthood. Her current article expands her clever use of Georges Dumézil's "trifunctional system" (Dumézil, Mythe et Épopée, 1995), arriving at a new synthesis with previously unseen implications.

Our third article passes from one sort of cultural icon (the holy) to another (the impure); specifically, to the nearly-universal cultural intension of the "physical and sexual ideal" of woman-as-object. Bahaa-Eddin Mazid (South Valley University, Egypt), in his pragmalinguistic and semiotic analysis of a cartoon from a well-known Egyptian newspaper, featured in March 2000, shows how values and associations are culturally-imbedded in the reader's interpretative processes. In this way, through connotative action in the pictoral and accompanying verbal text, the caricature propagates a comical "annihilation" of the intension "woman" which corresponds to an act of degradation of the social value of women in Western society. Thus semiotics bridges the structures of both culture and communication in an analysis of one of the most common icons seen today, that of the ideal female body. (Abstract).

The fourth article, on the hybridisation of communication media in the Internet age, at first appears unrelated to those that precede it; yet this is perhaps a function of the exteriority of approach in the first articles, which deal (rather from an Anthropologist's point of view) with a cultural process seen as separate from those who study it, and the third, in which there is a clear ideological differentiation. In his article, Denis Bachand explores processes we are perhaps unaware of within our own current culture, namely the way in which a communication medium (being the message of course, in McLuhan's sense) viz. multimedia, shapes the way in which we think of the communicative process. The various icons of current computer-culture, with its disparate meanings (text files, images, sounds, music, etc.) reflect a hybridisation of communicative processes never before possible. How does this affect social interaction, learning, and the way we regard the community around us? (Abstract).

Finally, we wrap up the iconographic, hybrid, ephemeral whole that is our electronic issue with a much-awaited book review of Translating by Factors by Guktnecht and Rölle, a clever work in which modals are analyzed as factors in translation, primarily using examples from German to English and vice-versa, which also ends up touching on cultural investitures of meaning.

We hope you enjoy this latest installment of our effort at a democratic, open-minded and useful forum for the sharing of new research in communication. If you have comments or feedback on any of the featured articles, you may of course e-mail its authors, but why not also send the message to AS/SA, where we can share it with the wider semiotics community?


Peter Marteinson, June 2000





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AS/SA Nº 9, Editorial


© 2000, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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2000.04.24