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20 - Peirce, Eco, and unlimited semiosis

"[...] reading means stripping herself of every
purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to
catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least
expect it"1.

"A sign, or representamen, 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, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representation"2.
  In this way Peirce explains the relationships existing between the three poles in the triad of semiosis. Eco, in The Role of the Reader, has devoted a chapter to explaining how in this and in other phrases from Peirce one can find the foundation of unlimited semiosis and openness of the text, of which we have often spoken in the previous units.
  First of all we must try to understand what is meaning is for Peirce. From the quoted sentence we can infer that one object, depending on the point of view under which it is considered - according to the ground on which the consideration lies - has different interpretants. Eco's preoccupation seems to be getting away from individual perception to get to a wider context in which it is possible to explain why two speakers usually can understand each other, at least partially, while their communicative capacity is based on subjective instances. And he states:

[...] a ground is an idea in the sense in which an idea is caught during the communicative intercourse between two interpreters3.

The interpretant is subjective, but there exists a pragmatic use of words that, taking into account the actual communicative relation between two persons, relies on that part of the interpretants that presumably can be shared. The meaning of a sign is null in itself, it only becomes something in the relation with the pragmatics of communication, it becomes something only in translation. Meaning

[...] is, in its primary acception, the translation of a sign into another system of signs4. [...] the meaning of a sign is the sign it has to be translated into5.

The sign-interpretant-object triad thus does not contemplate the notion of "meaning" until the semiotic process is not actualized. Meaning is something empirical gatherable from the practical actuation of a process of signification, or, better, of many processes of signification: something similar to the result of a statistical sampling of the interpretants related to one sign. The meaning of a word, in Eco's opinion, is representable as a network of features regarding that term6.
  Following Peirce, unlimited semiosis is apparently a strict consequence of the semiotic theory, but it eventually takes on the form, in some of its representations, the anguished aspect of the interminability not only of the analysis of meanings, but also of the search for understanding, like in this passage:

The object of representation can be nothing but a representation of which the first representation is the interpretant. But an endless series of representations, each representing the one behind it, may be conceived to have an absolute object as its limit. The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation. In fact, it is nothing but the representation itself conceived as stripped of irrelevant clothing. But this clothing never can be completely stripped off; it is only changed for something more diaphanous. So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handled along; and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series7.

The metaphor of meaning as a naked body, that however is never possible to be seen as naked, in a striptease where the tease aspect is far more important than the strip, leaving the reader frustrated, and distraught. Every interpretation, every perception is just a link in the endless chain of an endless strip tease, however eventually transparent the clothes covering the striper become.
  Understandably anguished by such infernal perspective, Eco finds a solution, in the form of an energetic interpretant. In Eco's opinion essentially the interpretant produced by an object has a double nature. On one hand there is the emotional interpretant, the one we have always mentioned, the mental sign, the affect that, in the mind of each of us, constitutes the link between an object and a sign. Interpretations, within affective interpretants, have consequences remaining within the framework of interpretation and change of representations, without altering behavior in any way.
"Energetic interpretant" is, on the other hand, the one producing a change of habit8. When this apparently endless series of representations of representations leaves the mental context to enter the practical one, causing a different behavior, "our way of acting within the world is either transitorily or permanently changed"9. This new attitude, this pragmatic aspect, is the final interpretant that ends the perpetual strip tease of meaning proposing a concrete result to cling to.
  Unlimited semiosi has produced a practical result, at least. Translating this discourse toward the practice of communication, of reading, and translation, we can state that the semiotic process has an end when the translator chooses a concrete translatant, a text to substitute for the prototext. But it would be an illusion to pretend that this is the end:

[...] the repeated action responding to a given sign becomes in its turn a new sign, the representamen of a law interpreting the former sign and giving rise to new processes of interpretation10.

In other words, the translating text sets an end to the otherwise unlimited semiosis of the prototext, but sets in motion a new chain of unlimited semiosis based on new signs, new texts, new interpretations. We leave the conclusion to Eco's words:

Semiosis explains itself by itself: this continual circularity is the normal condition of signification and even allows communicational processes to use signs in order to mention things and states of the world11.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

ECO U. Lector in fabula. La cooperazione interpretativa nei testi narrativi, Milano, Bompiani, 1981, ISBN 88-452-1221-1. First edition 1979.

ECO U. The Role of the Reader. Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-253-20318-X.

PEIRCE C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss e Arthur W. Burks, 8 vol., Cambridge (Massachusetts), Belknap, 1931-1966.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 239.
2 Peirce, vol. 2, p. 228.
3 Eco 1995, p. 183.
4 Peirce, vol. 4, p. 127.
5 Peirce, vol. 4, p. 132.
6 Eco 1995, p. 187.
7 Peirce, vol. 1, p. 339.
8 Eco 1995, p. 194.
9 Eco 1995, p. 194.
10 Eco 1995, p. 195.
11 Eco 1995, p. 198.