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Norbert Wiley “The Semiotic Self”

Wiley, Norbert 1994. The Semiotic Self. Oxford: Polity Press


The Politics of Identity in American History

It [identity] usually  refers  to  some  long-term,  abiding  qualities which,  despite  their  importance,  are  not features  of human  nature  as  such. Identities  individuate  and  allow  us  to  recognize  individuals,  categories, groups  and  types  of  individuals.  They  can  be  imposed  from  without,  by social  processes,  or  from  within,  in  which  case  they  are  often  called  self-concepts.  They  may  also  imply  habit  in  various  senses,  including Pierre Bourdieu’s  “habitus”  (Bourdieu,  197211977,  p.  72).  Identities,  then,  are nested within and express the qualities of selves  and collections of selves. (1)

The line  between  (particular)  identities  and  (generic)  selves  is  not easy to draw.  History  is  notorious  with  peoples  who  thought  their  historically specific  identities  were  universal,  and who  therefore  used  the  name  of their tribe  as  the  name  of their  species.  Despite  the  difficulty  of  applying  this distinction,  I  will  use  the  terms  “self’  and  “identity”  in  the  way  indicated, as  distinguished by degree  of generality. (1)

[…] the  politics  of  identity  is  the  struggle  over the  qualities  attributed,  socially  and  institutionally,  to  individuals  and groupings  of  individuals. (2)

It  is  a  mistake  to  say  that  identities  are  trans-historical  and universal,  but it is  also  a  mistake  to  say that personhood  and  selves  are  not. The  selves  are  generic  human  structures,  and  the  identities,  anyone  of which  mayor  may  not  be  present,  are  distinct  from  and  inhere  in  these structures. (2)

Behaviorism  as  such  never  became  influential  as  a  model  for  the democratic  actor,  i.e.  for  the  politics  of  identity.  Pragmatism  and  the disciplinary  triad  took  that  role.  But  behaviorism  did  become  quite influential as  a  model for  the  economic actor.  In other words  the  “economic man”  of  classical  economics  was  transformed  from  utilitarianism to behaviorism.  Behaviorism’s  victory  in  the  economy  limited  the  institu-tional  impact of  pragmatism,  although  the  latter  did  gain  hegemony  in political life. (9)

(1)  Dialogical. The  self  of  pragmatism  was  dialogical,  both  inter-personally  and internally  (Taylor,  1991,  pp.  31–41).  The  self was  initially formed  in  dialogue  with  caretakers  and  this  dialogue  was  constitutive  of whatever  identities  the  self would  take  on.  Moreover  the  inner  life  of the self,  both  in  content  and  form,  was  a  continuation  of  interpersonal dialogue.  In  contrast  the  self  of  faculty  psychology  was  unitary  and

monological.  When  it  entered  into  dialogue  with  others,  it  did  so  from  a fully  formed psychological base. Later I  will  show  that the  dialogical  self is  also  trialogical  (and semiotic). This  is  because  all  dialogue,  both  inter- and  intra-personal,  entails  a  self- other-self  reflexive  loop.  I  will  refer  to  this  three-place  loop  as  the “structure,” in contrast to the  “content,” of the semiotic self. (9-10)

(2)  Social. From  dialogicality  comes  sociality.  The  pragmatists’  self was inherently  social  and  therefore  public  and  political.  For  faculty  psychology the  individual  and  society  were  at  distance,  requiring  social  contracts  in politics  and  markets  in  economics  to  unite  them.  For  the  pragmatists  the individual  and  the  social  were  interpenetrating.  This  is  because  all conscious processes were based on an outside  or social perspective.  Markets and social contracts merely refined an already existing social solidarity. (10)

(3)  Horizontal. For  faculty  psychology  human  nature  was  a  vertical structure,  consisting  in  a  hierarchy  of  faculties.  For  pragmatism  it  was  a horizontal  structure,  consisting  of temporal  phases  of the  self.  For  Peirce these phases were  called the  “I” and the  “you.” For Mead they were  the  “I” and  the  “me.”  I  will  look at these  temporal  phases  in more  detail  later,  but for  now  I  want  to  point  out  that  pragmatism’s  horizontality suggested  a

generic  uniformity  in  everyone’s  rational  processes.  To  describe  this uniformity pragmatism  demoted  the  passions  of faculty  psychology into  the less  influential  category  of  impulses.  In  turn,  interests  and  reason  were merged in the horizontal semiotic process. (10)

(4)  Egalitarian. The  pragmatist  theory  of  the  self  was  distinctly egalitarian.  All  humans  had  the  same  psychological  equipment in  the  same way.  Human  variation  into  identity  groupings  and  unique  individualities was  a  matter  of  differing  symbols  and  their  interpretations. […]The  pragmatists’  self was  extremely  plastic;  communication  could  produce  all  manner  of variations,  and  the  perplexing  variations  in  the  new  immigrants  could  be fully  explained semiotically, interactionally, and culturally. (10)

(5)  Voluntarist. Concerning  the  psychological  freedom  of the  person  or citizen,  the  founding  fathers  were  somewhere between  Calvinist determinism and  Locke-Hume  compatibilism,  i.e.  between  hard  and  soft  determinism. The  pragmatists,  instead,  attributed  a  capacity  for  self-determination  or psychological  freedom  to  the  individual,  i.e.  they  believed  people  could have  chosen otherwise.  In contrast to  the  semi-determinism  of the  founding fathers,  this  freedom  had  more  deeply  libertarian  implications  for  law,  civil liberties,  and democratic self-government. (10)

(6)  Cultural. Finally  the  pragmatists’  self  was  part  of the  great  cultural turn  of  the  late  19th  century  and  the  early  20th.  The  anthropologists, particularly Franz Boas  and his  students,  discovered  culture  macroscopically and  from  above.  The  pragmatists  discovered  it  microscopically  and  from below.  The  human  semiotic/symbolic  capacity  is  the  motor  of  culture. Once humans were  theorized  as  semiotic  the  psychological  preconditions  of culture had been found  and the cultural level itself could be identified. (11)

The  major  difference  between  Peirce  and  Mead,  for  present  purposes, is  in  the  temporal  direction  of  the  internal  dialogue.  Mead  has  this conversation  going  temporally  backwards,  from  present  to  past,  or  from  I to  me.  Peirce has it going forward,  from present to  future  or from I  to  “you” (i.e.  one’s  own  self  in  the  immediate  future). (13)

Although  identities  are  more  general  than  individual  signs,  they  are  less general  than  the  semiotic  structure.  They  are  historically  specific  and “housed”  in  these  structures.  Thus  I  am  distinguishing  three  semiotic levels  within  the  self:  individual  signs,  e.g. thoughts;  systematic  complexes of  signs,  e.g.  the  ethnic,  class,  gender  and  sexual  identities  and  self-concepts  of this  chapter;  and  the  generic  capacity for  semiosis, anchored  in the I-you-me structure. (14-15)

Mead’s  I-me  reflexivity  and  Peirce’s  I-you  interpretive  process  each becomes  part  of  a  more  inclusive  semiotic  process,  the  I-me-you  triadic conversation.  This  triad  is  the  structure  of  the  self,  the  universal  generic human nature with which I  began this  chapter and which the  reductions  are unable to explain. (15)



Humans  are  a  triad  of triads,  and,  in  addition,  the  three triads  merge  into  one.  As  merged  I  usually  refer  to  them,  in  dialogical short-hand,  as  the  I,  you,  and  me,  though  the  more  precise  names  are I-present-sign,  you-future-interpretant,  and  me-past-object.  Human beings  are  not  anyone  of the  three  (or  nine).  They  are  the  three  together, including  both  the  elements  and  the  relations  among  these  elements. Humans  consist  of present,  future,  and  past;  sign,  interpretant,  and  object;  I, you,  and  me;  and  all  the  overlap,  and  connectedness,  and  solidarity  among these elements. (215-216)

The idea that the  self is  semiotically triadic in its  structure  as  well  as  in its activities  explains  how  the  self can be  both  semiotic  and  autonomous.  For Eco  the  self is  a  sign  in  the  same  way  that  ordinary  words  are  signs.  But obviously we  are  not signs  in  the  same  way  that the  words  in  this  sentence are  signs.  Otherwise  these  words,  or  others  like  them,  would  also  be humans.  All  signs  are  semiotic  triads,  consisting  of  “sign,”  interpretant, and  object,  but  humans  are  triads  in  a  unique  way.  They  are  the  signs behind the signs,  or to put it another way, they are bi-Ieveled signs. (217)

To say  that  the  I  is  actually  the  1-present-sign;  the  you,  the  you-future-interpretant; and  the  me,  the  me-past-object  is  more  than  just  stringing words  together.  These  expressions  designate  the  functional  interplay  of time,  semiotic,  and  the  internal  conversation. (218)

But the humans that are being shaped by culture  have  natures  of their  own,  independently  of culture.  This  nature  or structure  is  the  semiotic  self,  viewed,  not  as  a  process,  but as  the  structure that engages in the process. (219)

The  Reality  of Democratic  Selves  Apart  from  any  specific  features  of the self,  such  as  equality and freedom,  democracy assumes  the  simple  existence or  reality  of  selves.  If  there  were  only  the  forms  and  rules  of  society, without  human  beings,  the  notion  of democracy  (rule  of the  “demos”  or “people”)  would  make  no  sense.  It would  be  langue  without  parole  or,  in Durkheim’s terms, a collective consciousness without anything to collect. (224)

Democracy assumes  that the  citizens  are free  and  equal.  Its  whole  point  is  that  humans  all  have  the  same  moral worth,  that they should direct their government in a  bottom-up fashion  and that  they  have  the  capacities,  cognitive  and  volitional,  to  do  this.  If  the theory  of the  self is  declared  “outside”  democracy,  then  the  freedom  and equality of institutions will  not be  anchored in human beings.  Instead  these qualities  will  have  to  be  justified  in  some  self-legitimizing  manner,  which would make them both logically circular and unconnected to the citizens. (226)

I  think  that  at  the  very  least  one  can  say  there  is  a  tendency  for  the reductions  to drive  out notions  of moral,  legal,  and political  equality.  At the present time in the United States, however,  I  do not think one  could say the people  who  represent  the  reductionist  positions,  upward  or  downward, personally  oppose  equality  or  any  other  aspect  of  democracy.  On  the contrary  the  partisans  of  these  positions  present  themselves  as  politically progressive,  opposed  to  the  alleged  rigidities  of  foundationalism  and committed  to  the  liberalizing  effects  of  science.  The  natural  sciences  are supposed  to  liberate  with  downward  reduction,  and  (some  of)  the  cultural sciences  are  also  supposed  to  liberate  with  upward.  Unlike  the  reductions that  the  pragmatists  and  the  classical  template  opposed,  the  current reductions  present  themselves  as  benign  and  more  pro-humanity  than  the humanistic positions. (227-228)

In the  Peirce-Mead  model  equality  is  based  on the  semiotic  structure  of humans  as  such.  Right  from  the  very  first  primate-cum-human they  are  all triads  of  triads.  This  implies  that  moral  equality  is  not  just  something peculiar  to  certain  times  and  places  but universal,  regardless  of whether  or not it is  recognized by social  institutions.  All  people  are  equal  because  they all  consist of an I, a you, and a me, i.e.  they are  all  semiotic signs. (228)

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