Re-reading cultural semiotics


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In our recent meetings concerning our Functional Sounds-project we discussed basic texts from the field of cultural semiotics or Kultursemiotik. A basic text from Roland Posner (Posner, Roland (2003a): Kultursemiotik. In: Nünning, Ansgar / Nünning, Vera (eds.): Konzepte der Kulturwissenschaften: Theoretische Grundlagen – Ansätze – Perspektiven. Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, p. 39-71.) gave a good introduction into terminology and approaches of cultural semiotics (as discussed earlier by Carla Müller-Schulzke in this blog). This basic text by one of the most important protagonists of semiotics in German academia defines systematically all terms and operations, all disciplines and sub-disciplines in which the Kultursemiotik can be applied. Posner speaks therefore of the social, the material and the mental codes (Posner p.54) in which culture manifests itself and in which it operates:

»Den Kultursemiotiker interessiert nun die Frage: Welche Beziehung besteht zwischen Gesellschaft, Zivilistion und Mentalität auf der einen Seite und Zeichensystemen auf der anderen? Lassen sich solche Gegenstände wie Institutionen, Artefakte, Mentefakte und kulturelle Weitergabemechanismen mit Hilfe von Begriffen wie ›Zeichen‹, ›Botschaft‹, ›Interpret‹, ›Code‹ und ›Medium‹ explizieren? Mit anderen Worten: Lassen sich die von Anthropologen und Archäologen untersuchten Gegenstände als Elemente von symbolischen Formen im Sinne Cassirers verstehen?« (Posner p.48)

In brief, Posner asks in this paragraph if the scientific entities, researched on by (media)archeologists and (media)anthropologists, the sign systems and the histoire de la mentalité can be understood as Cassirer’s symbolic forms. And for us, in this project on functional sounds and an anthropology of sound, the question arises: Are there auditory symbolic forms? Kultursemiotik would then be an integrative cultural theory of all signs and how diverse and heterogenuous cultures do operate with and by signs. There is one tendency in this text as well as in not a few publications of semiotics that we regard as rather critical; and this is a tendency to ontologize the meaning and the appearance of signs and texts. This of course is the defining operation of any cultural semiotics, but, alas, it leads in some arguments to an almost metaphysical belief in the material signs, their static and definable nature and their analysis in a para-mathematical and logical-analytical way. All of is of course is one fundamental position of cultural semiotic as defined by Jurij Lotman in 1975:

»Kultur lässt sich auffassen als als eine Hierarchie von Zeichensystemen, als Gesamtheit der Texte und ihrer Funktionen oder als ein bestimmter Mechanismus, der diese Texte hervorbringt.« (Lotman Jurij M./Uspenskij B.A./Ivanov, V.V./Toporov, V.N./Pjatigorskij, A.M. (1975): “Theses on the Semiotic Study of Cultures (as Applied to Slavic Texts)”, in: Sebeok Thomas A. (ed.), The Tell-Tale Sign: A Survey of Semiotics. Lisse (Netherlands): Peter de Ridder, p. 73; transl. by Roland Posner)

In this text (and more so in many other volumes of semiotics) a certain positivist and desillusioning materialism becomes very clear: deriving from the individual dissident-marxist biography of not a few semiotic researchers, to exit any blinding and blurring ideology, be it fascist, consumist or stalinist, seems to be one common impulse of semiotic research on culture and its signs. A mathematization of sign theory seemed then, in the 3rd fourth of the 20th century, as a very rationalist and as such reasonable and promising way of leaving ideologies behind, and of overcoming their influence. But could this not also be seen as a very prominent and highly successful as well as highly influental example of a kind of tragic physics envy, as recently argumented for other fields of research in the humanities? This term, physics envy, refers to Freud’s penis envy as an effort of researchers in the humanities to display their research findings in similar ways as the quantifiable results in natural sciences like physics. With the obvious goal of scholars in the humanities to be more respected and more acknowledged in academia.

But this truly understandable desire, this joy and even this ecstasy of the researcher(s) to name and to define elements and processes of culture as positive elements and similar pocesses of biology or physics can lead of course to false analogies and in some cases even to oversimplification for the sake of concise modelling. I am in deep concern if this is not what happened with sign theory in many fields of applied communication design.