Earl Jackson, Jr.
To: Scott Davis
From: Earl Jackson, Jr.
Re: Sarah Canary.
If I were addressing this to the world in an essay instead
of writing this to you in a letter I think I would begin like this:
Davis’s quoted question:
a segment of text in Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, Sarah
But since I’m addressing you I’ll stick
with our shifters in this special instance of discourse. Others will have
to shuffle the pronouns after us. Or maybe not. In any event, I would like
to remind us both that last time I ended the message at the point where
I had introducced several types of „communication.“ I did this as
part of a long-range plan for showing how Peirce’s infinite semiosis is
not only possible but good news. But if I am going to opt for Peircean
interpretants and that career of meaning, I think I have to set out an
argument against the „common sense“ notions of meaning and communication
that haunt and hamper us. Basically I am facing two questions that just
won’t go away of their own accord. They are:
How relevant is the sender’s intention to the meaning/meaningfulness
of the message sent?
- To what degree is a communication dependent upon the
congruence of the sender’s meaning and the
recipient’s interpretation of the message?
The parameters of semiosis/communication/signification
For convenience’s sake, I list below the communication
types I first brought to your digital attention a couple emails ago:
(1) Unilateral semiosis – the observer or diagnotician
is recipient of a communication, although the source of the signal is not
a participant in the communication.
(2) Bilateral Interaction: in cybernetics or cell
biology exchange of information between dynamic systems capable of receiving,
storing, or transforming information“ (Klaus 1969).
(3) Endosemiotic Interaction. Biology is the first
model for communication. Cellular molecules are „informational individuals“
with memory and the capacity of recognition (Rosnay 1975: 135). The exchange
of information in this chemical process of communication takes place on
the basis of the genetic code. A „history of communication“ beginning on
the molecular level, to interactions between organisms – Thomas A. Sebeok
calls this „endosemiotics.“ [Sebeok 1976: 17]
(4) Communications Theorists. Insist on bilateral
communication as the basic ground of semiosis/communication. – Reject observation/diagnosis
as forms of communication, claiming that „Nature as a source of information
is uncooperative… Not all signs are communicative signs. For example,
black clouds are a sign of rain, but we do not communicate with Mother
Nature . . . The clouds in turn do not respond to us; we share nothing
with them [Cherry 1980: 252].
(5) Interactionism. Communication defined broadly
as mutual interaction between organisms. Communication comprehends „all
the procedures by which one mind may affect another. This, of course, involves
not only written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the
theatre, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior.“ [Shannon & Weaver
(6) „An action becomes a message when it is perceived, either
by the self or by other people. In other words, signals in transit become
messages when there is a receiver which, at the destination, can evaluate
the meaning of these signals.“ [ Ruesch 1972: 82-83].
Let us take a simple model for a „communicative event“
in which A=the source of the message, B=the recipient of the message.
in Unilateral Semiosis [Semiosis Type (1)
above] B receives the message a message from A through a conscious cognitive
and intellectual effort directed at A. A does not „send“ the message that
in Bilateral Interactionism [Semiosis Type
(2)] the transfer of messages between A and B occurs within a system whose
circulation does not require that either A or B expend conscious intellectual
In Endosemiotics [Semiosis Type (3)] A and B are
subsystems within a larger individual entity.
Communications Theory [Semiosis Types (4) and (5)]
rejects the possibility of Unilateral semiosis. Communication, in this
theory, requires active transmission and reception of messages.
In Interactionism [Semiosis Type (5)] any activity
of A that produces a message for B is communication.
According to the position represented in [Semiosis
Type (6)] the activity of A and B that produces a message may produce
messages for sender, receiver, as well as anyone else who intercepts the
transmission of messages or other potentially signifying activity.
Earl’s Cautionary Qualifications on the Above Models
I would like to head off the confusions that the interference
of the models with each other might either cause or support.
Caution One. In Semiosis Type (3), the inclusion
of cell biology and genetic codes as „communication“ should be taken
literally – on its own terms. If it is allowed to become a metaphor or
analogy to intersubjective communication among humans that false parallel
could support the notion that an ideal communication is the perfect reproduction
of a specific and determinant message.
Suggestion. In order to prevent this metaphorical slippage,
I suggest maintaining a rigorous conceptual distinction between „information“
as it is used in cellular biology and cybernetics, from „messages“ and
most of all „meaning“ as these terms are understood in terms of intersubjective
human communication and interspecies communication.
The information transferred in cellular biology usually
consists of instructions, and the communication is successful when the
instructions are correctly followed. We must keep this distinct from interhuman
communication. The reception of a message/sign is not simply a matter of
obedience. Interpretation must be allowed its creativity, and the study
of interhuman semiosis must also account for communication noise, and for
the effects of the transfer upon the message as well. To model interhuman
communication on anything resembling Semiosis Type (3) could result an
untenably restrictive conception of communication that requires the exact
and faithful reproduction of the sender’s sign in the speaker’s reception
of it. This would paralyse semiosis at the first sign event. Such a restrictive
model won’t get us very far with Sarah Canary (or anything else).
Variations on Semiosis Types in Sarah Canary.
There are several patterns for the transmission and reception
of messages in Sarah Canary which do not readily fall into the above categories.
Some of them seem to be variations on the basic categories. Let us consider,
for example, the variations on Semiosis Type One, Unilateral Semiosis.
B. J.’s delusional states structure his relation to the world, and allows
him to find messages in the world that cannot actually be there and are
certainly not transmitted from the world to B. J.. From this perspective,
therefore, B. J.’s semiotic relation to the world is parallel to the scientific
observer’s, „unilateral semiosis.“ But where the scientist finds his ground
for this semiosic activity in his technical knowledge and scientific method,
B. J.’s semiosic activity is essentially his delusional tendencies, a disorder
that Nabokov calls „referential mania,“ in his short story, „Signs
and Symbols.“ This hyperinterpretative relation to the world is similar
to the kind of schizophrenic paranoid delusions suffered by the young man
in Nabokov’s „Signs and Symbols.“ Yet it differs in providing access to
social life and moral conclusions, from which Nabokov’s character is totally
Chin. When Chin looks for
oracles he is also seeking a skill in a kind of unilateral semiosis.
But Chin’s unilateral semiosis is not automatic like B. J.’s since it does
not emerge spontaneously from his own consciousness. Instead he relies
on a Chinese cultural lexicon that organizes objects and events in the
natural world under specific meanings.
|[Chin] couldn’t find Sarah Canary’s figure anywhere,
just trees and trees and more trees. A sparrow dipped through the branches
of one, circled Chin’s head, and went north. It was an omen, but Chin wasn’t
sure if it boded good or ill. To see a sparrow walking was good luck. Chin
had only seen them hop. To have a wild goose land in your courtyard was
good luck. The year he left for Golden Mountain, their domesticated goose
had joined the wild ones overhead and never came back. The geese were flying
in formation that day: they wrote the character for man and took it east
across the sky. It had made his mother cry with fear for him and for her
own old age without him.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary. Chapter Five (72).
Notice however, this appeal to divination is not
actually a mechanical application of a code to a phenomenon. It is, rather,
Chin’s memory of leaving home for America and the associations that that
voyage had come to mean to him once he had lived in America. This memory
comes to him while he still in America, and at a moment that he is lost
in the woods, chasing after a crazy woman and not understanding why is
doing that or when he might be able to go home.
The examples of oracle-glosses on elements of nature give
way to the memory his mother’s grief at his parting. The unmarked citation
of the „wild goose landing in your courtyard“ triggers an actual, and personally
felt event. Instead of a imagined wild goose joining his home, an
actual domestic goose leaves it. The scientific precision of the
oracle-key is subverted by the unruliness of real life and real emotional
investment in that life. As the domestic goose defects from Chin’s domestic
reality, the goose enters the realm of oracles, by joining a flock
of geese which forms the Chinese character ren
, which means „person.“
The reversed symmetry in Chin’s reveries between the wild
goose arriving as sign and the domestic goose leaving to become a sign
is amplified by the final sentence in the passage quoted above: „It had
made his mother cry with fear for him and for her old age without him.“
For one moment the goose formation is allowed to take on the communicative
privilege of the omen. The homology in shape between the goose formation
and the Chinese character becomes a homology between Chin’s departure and
the goose’s departure, which is then made to authorize a meaningfulness
in the shape of the goose formation that begins with but then contains
the meaning of the Chinese it appears to emulate. In this process, the
visual homology between a natural phenomenon and an orthographic convention
then becomes a homology between Chin’s departure and the sorrow it will
But this sorrow is NOT a prediction of Chin’s future,
but an index of his mother’s present grief at that moment. And recalled
in this associative context in the woods of Washington State, Chin’s mother’s
grief now signifies his own as it confirms the „message“ of the „oracle“
it adopted. Reading the „unilateral semiosis“ of the incident itself, we
can state that the flight the geese was not in fact a communication
from anything to anyone; it had no real bearing on the situation at hand
or Chin’s impending fate. While those relations are not real, Chin’s mother’s
grief at her son’s departure was quite real. The omen – or rather the reading
of this omen out of the flight of the geese gives the mother’s grief and
anxieties a legible and nuanced articulation. Chin’s and his mother’s interpretation
of the geese’s flight does not mean that either of them had received message.
Rather these particular interpretations are themselves messages that Chin
and his mother sent to themselves and each other.
To classify B. J.’s and Chin’s readings of the world as
„unilateral“ is to read their reading from a position completely outside
of their semiotic self-understanding. Neither of them considers their interpretative
rapport with the world a unilateral achievement. Tom actually voices a
philosophy that both B. J. and Chin practice.
|„Do you believe in omens?“ Chin asked. . . . „Tonight
I stood on the shore of a lake and a sea appeared. In a lake. And
the ground shook. I thought it meant something.“
„Steilacoom Lake,“ said Tom „There’s an island in it that
|Karen Joy Fowler Sarah
Canary, Chapter Two (22).
B. J. clearly believes his interpretations of the world
are the results of direct communications from the world to him. Knives
and blankets talk to him. And, like Tom in the above passage, B. J. s conviction
about this leads him to prosletyze his semiotic theory to others. Consider
his conversation with Adelaide.
|„You have ink on your cheek. Did you know that? It’s
a word.“ he moved closer and bent over the gun as if he didn’t even see
it, to get closer to her face. „It’s a word, but it’s in code.“ . . .
He was still squinting at her face. „It’s the word someday.
You have the word someday written backward on your cheek.“
. . . She was telling the pale man to cross the
He was too busy reading her face to notice. „Someday
what?“ he asked. „What does it mean?“
. . . „It’s a message for you,“ the pale man told her
insistently. „It’s on your cheek. And it’s backwards. You’re supposed
to read it in a mirror.“ . . . „Don’t you wonder what it means?“ the pale
|Karen Joy Fowler Sarah
Canary, Chapter Nine (135-36).
I’m going to suspend this discussion for a while, but
I look forward to the response to this message from you that you have already
sent and I have read. We’ll see it again by clicking THIS.
More soon . . . Scott returns in Tracing