Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology

Synopsis

Signs in Society takes up Ferdinand de Saussure's challenge to study the "life of signs in society" by using semiotic tools proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce. Richard J. Parmentier explicates Peirce's fundamental semiotic concepts and evaluates their potential for cultural analysis. After considering the possibility of using complex semiotic processes, Parmentier examines the relationship between social action and theoretical discourse. Parmentier applies Peircean concepts in two ethnographic case studies based on fieldwork in Belau (Micronesia), one dealing with historical changes in the symbolism of mortuary exchange valuables and the other analyzing an instance of political oratory as a contextual performance. Then, using diverse data - from Melanesian mythology and Babylonian ritual to contemporary American "living history" museums and television advertising - Parmentier finds tropic innovation, formalized re-enactment, and controlling metalanguages in cultures across space and time. Finally, the author uncovers the pragmatic dimensions of the comparative work of philosophers of religion and locates strategies of naturalizing and conventionalizing discourse in both social reality and social theory. Throughout Signs in Society Parmentier focuses on links between text and context, linguistic and nonlinguistic signs, semiotic and metasemiotic levels, and elementary and complex semiotic phenomena. It demonstrates the effectiveness of semiotic theory in illuminating complex social and cultural practices.

Excerpt

In reflecting back on the monuments of its intellectual heritage, modern semiotic anthropology gazes upon the twin peaks of Charles Sanders Peirce, the American scientist and mathematician, and Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist. Among the many ironies of this dual heritage is a disjunction in the work of these theorists between the nature of the facts they proposed to explain and the potential of the analytical tools they developed. Peirce, in seeking to account for the homologous character of physical and mental realities, developed semiotic tools (especially his notions of indexical signs and chain-like semiosis) that have proved powerful for research into social, historical, and cultural phenomena, the study of which, for the most part, remained only an avocation for Peirce himself. Saussure, while attempting to justify historical linguistics by seeing language as part of the "life of signs in society" (1974:1.48), produced the framework for a linguistic theory that removes language from its social embeddedness. It is this disjunction that motivated me to title this collection of semiotic studies Signs in Society, for I follow Saussure in taking systems of signs as the data I am interested in explaining and yet I rely on Peirce for many specific analytical distinctions.

Anthropologists, at least in this country, have generally tended to see in Peirce's semiotics rather than in Saussure's semiology a suitable analog for the conditions and practice of fieldwork in other cultures. As in field research where the ethnographer tries to make sense of the sign systems of another culture through intense, often trying, interpretive abductions, so in Peirce's theory the meaning of a sign consists of the unforeseen succession of interpreting signs that serve to represent a common object (Daniel 1984:42). Peirce offers the possibility that meaning is more than an operation of mental decoding, since semiosis is an open-ended process in which each moment of interpretation alters the field for subsequent interpretations. in contrast, Saussure's theory focuses on the preestablished, fixed code shared equally by ideal speaker and ideal hearer (Ponzio I984:274-75). and Saussure's effort to establish linguistic value without taking into account positive semantic meaning, the context of utterance, or worldly reference is countered by Peirce's close attention to the indexical anchoring of propositional reference and to the necessity of adequation between representation and reality (Steiner 1981:421).

At the level of the rhetoric of theory, Saussure's reliance on dichotomous op-

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