"Small" Society and Networks: On the Meaning Lost in Semiotic Translation

By Oleinik, Anton | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

"Small" Society and Networks: On the Meaning Lost in Semiotic Translation


Oleinik, Anton, Journal of Economic Issues


The continuous proliferation of publications makes scientific communication extremely difficult: "The contemporaries read each other much less than we usually suppose; most of what they learn about each other is gathered ex auditu from what they have heard from colleagues, students and reviews" (Bourdieu 1996, 17). In his autobiographical novel The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov gave an accurate account of the feelings of an author who progressively loses hope of being read: "500 copies of the book were published at his own expense, 429 of them are still stocked gathering dust in a flat pile at the distributor's depot. He gave away 19 copies and kept one for himself. Sometimes he was puzzled by the question as to who are these mysterious 50 and 1 persons who bought his book" (1990, 139). The counterargument written by Vincent Barnett indicates that, fortunately, this pessimistic picture is exaggerated. Ongoing intellectual exchange helps bring to light new ideas and clear up misunderstandings that are unavoidable in the initial stages of communication.

Communication is always a difficult undertaking, especially in the social sciences, where paradigms as commonly accepted analytical frameworks play only a minor role (Kuhn 1963, 86). Alternative approaches to the same subject coexist, and the progress of knowledge results from a complex and difficult process of mutual criticism and the interplay of arguments and counterarguments. Hence, the mere willingness to communicate requires efforts focused on the translation of messages from one language into another. As some adjectives and expressive forms used by Barnett suggest, he prefers a rhetorical manner of communication as opposed to a stylistic one. In a rhetorical text, the value and skill of an author "is manifest in the 'expressiveness' of the text, i.e. in the switch from one system of norms to another" (Lotman 1990, 51). Soviet/Russian studies as a separate discipline have developed a particular code adapted to the task of describing the phenomena specific to this country. Institutional theory has its own code, which allows for the introduction of more universal--less country--specific--categories. Barnett's attempt to reformulate the initial arguments in institutional terms seems promising. In what follows, I will try to take further steps toward translating the message of Soviet/Russian studies into that of institutional theory and vice versa.

The search for the most fundamental building block of economic activity gives us an excellent opportunity for doing so. Several analytical strategies are available for accomplishing this task. Semiotics offers one of them. The program of "deconstruction" can be interpreted as an attempt to reach the "ground zero" of the cultural edifice composed of different symbols. Not all signs and symbols are equally important; they repose on different layers of the edifice. The lower the location of a sign, the more autonomous and encompassing its role. The signs at the "ground zero" transform into "signs of signs" (Derrida 1967), or "plot-genes" (Lotman 1990), and they initiate the path on which all other signs relevant to a culture lie. If we perceive economic activity in a similar manner--as a stratified set of symbols--then the task consists in analyzing economic "plot-genes" (as in the case of money for George Simmel [1990]).

So far, we have not made any significant progress in the analysis of networks, which form the centerpiece of our discussion. However, this semiotic exercise in finding relevant metaphors will be helpful while revisiting Marxism and reconsidering the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete applied to the case of networks in my reply to Barnett's first note. Karl Marx's version of the economic edifice consists of several layers. According to Marx, property rights are too remote from "ground zero" to be considered as the most abstract element of economic activity, namely, its "plot-gene." The original wording of one of the core Marxian "theorems" highlights the marginal position of property rights: "[T]he material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or-this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms-with property relations" (Marx 1970, preface). …

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