Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology

Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology

Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology

Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology

Excerpt

In 1962 at a conference on kinesics, proxemics, and paralinguistics at Indiana University, Margaret Mead suggested that the term "semiotics" be adopted to designate the study of "patterned communication in all modalities" (Sebeok et al. 1964). Judging from the number of books and articles that have since been published on the "semiotics of"-- architecture, the circus, literature, music, painting--her suggestion met a widely felt need for naming a new field of research. "Semiotics," however, had to compete with another term, "semiology," which had been proposed by Saussure as a new science to study "the life of signs at the heart of social life," and suggested by Lévi-Strauss in 1960 as a proper field of study for anthropology, at least that part of it not already preempted by linguistics.

Until quite recently "semiotics" and "semiology" have been used almost interchangeably to designate the study of signs (see Random House Dictionary, 1979). Since the two terms, however, derive from different intellectual and practical traditions, and in their modern form are associated with different theories of signs--for example, Peirce's semiotic and Saussure's semiologie--it is useful to compare and contrast the two theories from the perspective of problems of meaning and communication within social and cultural anthropology, (Jakobson 1975; Sebeok 1976; Singer 1978; Boon 1979). The subtitle of this book reflects a decision to apply Peirce's theory of signs, semiotic, to anthropology. The anthropological value of that decision will need to be judged by its fruits in the chapters that follow. The story of how I came to opt for Peirce over Saussure may illuminate the nature of the options and the consequences for a semiotic anthropology. This preface sketches the biographical events that led to the "semiotics" commitment and to the writing of each chapter. The introduction describes the decision as a dialogical response to some of the controversies generated by Lévi-Strauss's structural and semiological anthropology, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1968, when the nouvelle vague in anthropology from France was still running strong, I described in a departmental memorandum on research and teaching plans my intention to devote time to the new field of "Philosophical Anthropology":

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