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March 1996, Week 1


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Louis Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 6 Mar 1996 07:46:04 -0500
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Mike Frank writes "if, in fact, "signifiers differ from culture to culture"
then obviously what these different things have in common is their
function, within the meaning system, AS SIGNIFIERS. . ."
What if to "function" as a "signifier" had not one meaning but a set of
meanings related by family resemblances?  We can use the word "game," for
example,  to talk about a board game, a game of baseball, what a child does
with dolls, throwing a ball in a field without rules, a psychological
stratagem, etc.  These meanings of game aren't the same.  They have no one
function in common.  They are connected by intermarriage as it were.
Mike Frank continues". . . if they do have this in common then we can
establish general principles examining what this commonality is and how it
works.  . . if they do NOT have at least this trait in common then it seems
to me to make absolutely no sense to say that they are all signifiers. "
In the example of "game" there are no general principals, just principles
shared by a couple of meanings of game but not others and so on so that use
A can have principle p in common with use B and principal p' in common with
C and where as b has p'' in common with C and E and so on.  Games and
signifiers are motley.
". . . semiotics as a field--like all other fields, i suspect--requires that
the categories of the field apply to uniformly to a range of things that
otherwise are heteronomous"
Wittgenstein denied that this is true of math.  He showed that math was not
based on uniform categories, but was an assortment of techniques.  This is
supported by Godel's proof that a formal system cannot be complete and
consistent (i.e.,.  that arithmetic or geometry cannot be generated from a
set of axioms), though the two thinkers attack from different sides.
Surely the motliness of semiotics is much more apparent.  There are good
reasons for calling both W. C. Fields in the film of *David Copperfield*
and Mr. Macawber in the novel signifiers, but we are using the word in two
different ways when we do so.  When we call the algebraic variable "x" a
signifier we add a third.  We might claim something like "all of these
signifiers stand in for something that they are not," but it would be hard
to say that of W. C. Fields in the same way that we say it of x or  Mr.
Macawber. If we say that Mr. Macawber stands in then we must mean that he
stands in for a mental image of a person or a mental image of awkward
goodheartedness, or some such interpretation.  Yet he stands in for those
things in an odd way: by being them.  (To say that the name " Macawber" is
a signifier while the character is not is absurd, they are both signifiers
though of different kinds, and that is the point.) W.  C. Fields's mode of
standing in is radically different.  He pretends to be someone he is not
and becomes fully formed as a signifier by a system of filmic processes
such as costume, editing, the other players etc.  "X" functions (in some
equations) as something like a pure opening, standing in not for what it is
not but for what is unknown.
So we have three different senses of standing in here.  Any other attempts
to give a common principal to all signifiers will only result in different
uses of the same term.  This is just a repetition of the "problem"
engendered by calling all of these things signifiers and soon leads to an
infinite regress.  The problem is, fortunately, a false one since our
linguistic and semiotic competancies allow us to make sense of terms whose
uses are related by family resemblances (all terms?).  In other words we
can play various language games separately or at the same time.  The only
real problem arises when we attempt to account for them all with the same
But that does not mean that we must give up on semiotics, merely recast it
as semio-pragmatics=8A
Now I really am off to SCS.
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