Sunday, June 27, 2010

In(tro)ducing Symbolic Action

I have always found it more than a little difficult to introduce students to the concept of symbolic action in rhetoric. Specifically, marking the distinction between sign and symbol (a sign as "representation" of sorts and a symbol as a "projection"). The etymology of "symbol" suggests putting together or throwing, whereas "sign" is seen as a token or a representation. The difference here has always struck me as crucial with respect to rhetoric and language. Language from rhetoric's perspective is about doing something out in the world rather than merely representing something in the world. Or, put another way, language is not about communicating or packaging an idea but is part and parcel of how we generate ideas at all. Language's primary purpose is asignification, which is why Will continues to fascinate me. Muckelbauer describes the "'asignifying' dimension of language" as focused "forces, actions, and effects" and less on something like meaning, which I would align (for my present purposes at least) with the sign.

As part of my summer reading (for both pleasure and profession), I have been working through Ed Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild (as I work my way back from Andy Clark, my go to scholar for all things cognitive), which advances the argument that human cognition is often distributed across groups and artifacts. I had been reading it to mark the difference between the "distributed cognition" model Hutchins proposes and the "extended mind" model advanced by Clark (I want to post on this soon as it is, in part, the crux of an article I am finishing). To flesh out his model, Hutchins focuses exclusively on ship navigation or pilotage. And navigation, with its various discourses, and methods of "representation" turn out to be a great way to chart the particularities of symbolic action as distinct from the process of signification.

The charts of navigation are often assumed to be simple representations of territory, which are valuable only in their accuracy. Maps, then, are taken as signs. But Hutchins points out that, particularly in the case of navigating at sea, that a chart is likewise "an analogue computer" (61). A chart is certainly in part representational, but it is also computational. I don't mean to suggest that computation be made synonymous with asignification, but the notion of maps as computational moves us further in the direction of the projecting, throwing, and putting together that marks symbolic activity. It is also to argue (in a bit) that Hutchins can help to complicate the distinction between sign and symbol and signification and asignification.

Moving us even further in this direction is Hutchins' discussion of star charts and constellations. Star charts could certainly be seen as a sign system. We attach labels to stars or collections of stars in order to ascribe meaning consistently. They are signifying and interested in meaning.
In this superimposition of internal ["the ability to identify the linear constellations"] and external ["the arrangement of stars in the heavens"], elements of the external structure are given culturally meaningful relationships to one another.
Constellations are also very much about meaning. However, they are also very much about actions and effects. As Hutchins argues, it makes very little sense to judge a navigational representation based solely on their accuracy or ability to convey meaning. Hutchins makes this point by comparing Western navigation traditions with those of Micronesian ones (and they differ quite a bit in several key aspects). In addition to demonstrating the operational bias of previous ethnographic work on navigation and its misrepresenations (yes) of Micronesian navigation, this comparison draws out the asignifying thrust of navigational signs. Accuracy takes a back seat to what Lewis (quoted in Hutchins) calls "the stern test of landfall." Micronesian navigators, for instance, invent phantom islands is order to aid navigation. That is, they create signs that represent nothing. They are asignifying signs created solely to achieve a particular effect. Meaning makes sense not only in terms its ability to accurately translate geographical features into geometric lines. The meaning makes sense in terms of its ability to activate successful navigation.

And this seems to form a part of the problem, though. I am moving back and forth between describing the same thing as either a sign or a symbol. I am tempted into arguing that symbols are distinct from signs; but I am simultaneously aware that the same thing can be seen as either a sign or a symbol. And this, then, is the difficulty of introducing symbolic action: to make the familiar strange. To move from seeing what I am doing when I label something as a far less passive action than I might suppose. Hutchins argues that looking up at the night sky
in terms of linear constellations is a simple representational artifice that converts the moving field of stars into a fixed frame of reference.
And while Hutchins uses "representation" here, I would argue he has in mind something much more like symbolic action. Constellations are not simply or only labels, they are a conceptually framework that does something out in the world to enable a certain kind of action.
This seeing is not a passive perceptual process.
But constellations are also signs that ascribe meaning. They are, as Hutchins writes, representations.

Is the key (difficulty) recognizing the sign's asignification? To treat words or labels or charts as signs (which is accurate - hey) is to miss the action?


  1. I like the scope of the project, especially the line "And this, then, is the difficulty of introducing symbolic action: the make the familiar strange. To move from seeing what I am doing when I label something as a far less passive action than I might suppose." But I also wonder if this line of thought doesn't turn away from the ANT suppositions underlying your discussion here: who's running the show? The consciousness implicated in the act of labeling, or the *seemingly* passive "actant" getting labeled. (And, yeah, the complexity is its both).

    I'm also interested in a realm of discourse that doesn't primarily concern itself with meaning-making or consciousness. That's pretty much how I have been trying to articulate Levinas's ethics, and why I keep going back there.

    Levinas gets at this by separating discourse into two dimensions: said (content, being) and saying (action, rupture). Like Muckelbauer's force, Levinas's saying registers in the affective rather than the epistemic.

    The big difference here, between where I follow Levinas and where you are treading is that Levinas distinctively prioritizes the human. Not, as philosophy tends to do, in the service of Humanism (consciousness and intentionality at the center of all things), but towards what can probably be described as an Anti-humanism (an emergent self always-already reborn in debt to others etc etc etc). The more I familiarize myself with nonhuman rhetoric (here I would collect Latour, Harman, Clarke?, and I just started reading Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things), the more I see a similar desire: to break-up the anthropomorphic basis of Western thought. The means are quite different, but I think the ends are similar (and just!).