Tracing Semiosis Two

and Psychoanalysis

Earl Jackson, Jr.


Tracing Semiosis

From: Earl Jackson, Jr.

To: Scott Davis

Re: Anguished Cry

Dear Scott, Your
to the student’s question is superb. I especially appreciate
not only the clarity of the overview with which you preface your response
but also the intensely concentrated particularity of the focus you chose
for the body of your text. What you write would make an excellent opening
for an interesting and very valuable dialogue for those brave enough to
engage in it. I hope I can do your response justice with mine.

Let’s begin with definitions, and then debates.

Definitions of Semiosis

Charles S. Peirce.

For Peirce, semiosis is the process that occurs
within (as it constitutes) „the triple connection of sign, thing signified,
[and] cognition produced in the mind.“ [Collected Papers 1.372]

To repeat the most famous definition:

A sign, or representament,
is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or
capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person
an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it
creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for
something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects,
but in reference to a sort of idea. [CP 2.228]

Semiotics, for Peirce, is
not the study of „signs“ but the study of semiosis, the cognitive effects
of signs on the minds of the recipients of those signs. The „interpretant“
is the effect of the sign generated by A on B. Peirce at times defines
the „interpretant“ as „significance,“ at times „signification“ and at times
„interpretation.“ [CP 8.178-184.]

Because every „interpretant“ (an effect of a sign) is
another sign which in turn stimulates other interpretants that are also
signs, semiosis is potentially
. This is true also within the individual psyche or intrasubjective
life. Peirce writes that „thinking always proceeds in the form of a dialogue
– a dialogue between different phases of the ego – so that, being dialogical,
it is essentially composed of signs.“ [CP 4.611] Later he writes
that „every thought must address itself to
some other
.“ [CP 5.253]. These two statements are very important
my conceptualization of the dynamic intersection between semiotics and
psychoanalysis as disciplines and signification and subjectivity as objects
of thoses disciplines but even more so my notion of the subject as an open-ended
signifying event.


(1901-1979) – A thinker more well known in his lifetime and
immediately thereafter in US than Peirce. Combined Peircean semiotics with
George H. Mead’s social behaviorism, Anglo-American logical positivism,
and biology. Important works: Foundations of the Theory of Signs
(1938) and Signs, Language, and Behavior (1946).

One of his fundamental differences from Peirce (and the
reason I don’t include him in the course) is Morris’s insistence on the
biological and biochemical components of semiosis. Peirce confined semiosis
as a human peculiarity; Morris’s semiotics included sign processing among
animals, and sought to develop a science of signs founded „on a biological
basis and specifically within the framework of the science of behavior.“

Even though I disagree with this approach and haven’t
included Morris in the course, much of his work is interesting and suggestive
and I do recommend a familiarity with him. I also introduce him here because
I am about to turn to questions in which his work is deeply implicated.

Semiosis, Signification, Communication

. What are the differences among these?

Unilateral semiosis

: Meyer-Eppler – any information processing by individual
organisms is a kind of communication. The cooperation of the signal-source
not required. Observation and Diagnosis two types of this kind of receiving
information without the source actively sending it.

Bilateral Interaction

(between cells or machines): cybernetics defines communication
as „the exchange of information between dynamic systems capable of receiving,
storing, or transforming information“ (Klaus 1969).

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]

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].


. 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 1949:

And consider this:

„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. Such a definition includes communication
between human beings and animals, as well as between animals.“ [ Ruesch
1972: 82-83].

Among the concepts still left out in the above,
and which are crucial if I can even begin to address this excellent question,
are the relevance of the „congruence/equivalence“ of the sender’s „meaning“
and the receiver’s „interpretation“ and the relevance of the „intentionality“
of the sender of the signal. These are the things that may perplex anyone
trying to „trace one line of semiosis“
across any segment of the novel
Sarah Canary.

So let’s get started! [in the very next



for the Next Part.

Guide One-A Guide Two Guide Three Guide Four Guide Five Guide Six

Online Resources
for Semiotics
Online Resources
for Writing Systems
The Midquarter The Syllabus Model
Student Work
To Tracing Semiosis

Imaginary Exercise

and Psychoanalysis

Earl Jackson, Jr.