October 7, 2007

A-signifying semiotic machines

This weekend I've been shifting my attention toward a panel I am participating in at NCA in Chicago next month. I have been re-re-reading FĂ©lix Guattari's later work - Three Ecologies (2000) and Chaosmosis (1995), as well as a collection of interviews and such titled Soft Subversions - which talks a good deal about "processes of subjectivity."

I have been puzzling over a term he uses in talking about subjectivity. He speaks about the role of semiotic machines - like language - in the production of subjectivity. But he insists that the structuralists (Sassure, Barthes, Lacan, Althusser) made a mistake. By reducing all semiotization to language, they overlook the "asignifying economies" of language. He explains that saying the unconscious, culture, or even language is structured according to the significational economy of language, the structuralists fail to grasp all sorts of semiotizations that occur which have nothing to do with signification in the linguistic sense as such.

This all sounds a bit obtuse, so let me unpack a little. He speaks, for instance, of the way poetry has a strictly linguistic content. It is composed of words that denote and connote. And poems have a form or structure - scansion (iambic pentameter), rhyme schemes(AABB), a certain number of lines (14 for the sonnet). And you could - some have - argue that these function like a language. You could even talk about the "mythology" or ideology of poems, psychoanalyze them, etc. But all of these, again, reduce them to a significational economy - the the metaphor of language (as system, not as used). Guattari insists there are other, arguably more important dimensions beyond the material significations or verbal connections of words: (1) "the sonority of the word, its musical aspect," (2) "its emotional, intonational, and volitional aspects," and (3) "the feeling of verbal activity in the active generation of signifying sound, including motor elements of articulation, gesture, mime; the feeling of a movement in which the whole organism together with the activity and soul of the word are swept along in their concrete unity" (1995: 15).

There are yet other a-signifyng semiotics at work in language. In A Thousand Plateaus (1987), Deleuze and Guattari claim language is based on order-words: statements that both organize (order) the territories subjectivities inhabit and command (order) subjects to inhabit them in particular ways. These have little or nothing to do with the strict denotative or connotative meanings (material significations) of words. A teacher's commands regarding grammar, they explain, are not primarily informational. The child receives "semiotic coordinates" ordering the world according to gender, subjects and verbs, etc. Language is not given to be believed, but obeyed. "The rule of grammar is a power marker before it is a syntactical one" (1987: 76).

And it finally begins to dawn on me that Peirce's semiotics is a theory of signs that does not presuppose, a priori, a particular sort of structure (language-system, or as we discussed last week langue [Fr.]) which it then imposes upon all kinds of signs. It is a theory of signs that seeks to grasp semioticization as such, without the detour through language, the signifier, etc. It is an a-signifying semiotics in this sense: language is but one system of signs among many, many others. It wants to categorize different types of signs before grouping them in system. And from this perspective it isn't even clear we fully understand the "system" of langauge. It is rather one conception of that system that we feel safe with, and thus feel comfortable using it to order (in both sense) the world, ourselves,our relations.

In fact, I think the essay we read doesn't ever get us to a system. But I think it suggests that is the work to be done. Consider: what kind of signs are photographs? Could we say that photographs can be thought of as a system? If so, what sort of system, what defines that system as such? What are the principles or laws or relations at work in it? What about other kinds of things like footprints? Or gestures? Or colors?

I wonder if there aren't far more interesting things we can learn when we don't subordinate seeing to the metaphor of language...