Re: [xmca] process structure of semiotic mediation

From: Kellogg (
Date: Tue Nov 07 2006 - 17:42:03 PST


Suppose I am helping you with shopping; we are carrying groceries. We open the door to your flat and I notice that you have a number of different tables in the kitchen, some of them clearly intended for work rather than food preparation. Among these is a fiddle-shaped table. Your arms are full of groceries, so rather than point (which is probably what you would normally do) you say "Put them on the fiddle over there..."

Clearly it IS possible to call a table a fiddle and be understood. It is also possible for red to mean go (as in "Be the Reds!" which is the World Cup slogan meaning "Go, Korea!") and green to mean stop ("Stop polluting our world!"). But it is only possible for this to happen with linguistic signs, and not with stoplights.

In fact, it is above all "external" linguistic signs can be treated as a fixed code. Internal signs (e.g. the signs that Valsiner cites, which are concerned with the regulation of internal states) might be so construed. But external signs must be negotiated in context; and what we take away from these negotiations is not a fixed code but a set of procedures for negotiating a temporary code.

This means that unlike other signs (e.g. the Pythagorean theorem), language assumes contemporaneity; it assumes interaction in real time, an interaction whose outcome is inherently unpredictable (because other people are inherently unpredictable).

Even written discourse, as Volosinov points out, bears the marks of this: a paragraph is really a vitiated dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor, and this is why there is really no such thing as writing to an outline.

Now, it's very easy to counter this argument by saying that the idea of a fiddle-shaped table is artificial, whimsical and preposterous, but as soon as we begin to really examine real examples (e.g. Valsiner's 'fun') we notice that they are generally far closer to these whimsical and preposterous examples than they are to the dictionary definitions that we were always told formed the real kernal of semantic meaning.

Let me use a REAL example, and you will see what I mean. Here is some data that a graduate student brought in last week. She is playing a "pantomime game" with the children, where one of them mimes an action and the others have to guess what it is. Eungyeong mimes a baseball player.

So-eun: You are playing the baseball

Ss: Majasseo, Majasseo (That's right! That's right!)

(Eungyeong answers with a nod.)

T: Playing "the" baseball? No...

Ss: ...Majneundae...(But that's right!).

T: Everybody..!! Yedeura, undongkyeongi apeneun, 'the'reul anpuyeoyeo! (Kids, when we are talking about a sport, we don't use 'the').

 Ss: Bwa! Bwa! (See! See!)

Of course we do. We say, for example, "he hit the baseball out of the park". But the teacher is perfectly understood by the children; they know that what she means is that when we are talking about a sport and we are emphasizing the action rather than the artifact with which we play, we omit the article.

Now, it's tempting to generalize this, and indeed it is generalizeable to many examples such as "I ate breakfast" or even "I went to prison". But it's NOT possible to generalize to abstract structures and give a fixed code, structuralist explanation.

According to the structuralists, "the" is a member of a class of determiners, and its nearest relative is "a". But the kids tend to treat "the" as an INDEX, whose nearest relatives are words like "this", "that", "there", "then", "these" and "those" and which is often accompanied by pointing. "A" on the other hand is related to "any" or maybe numbers.

The way the kids understand it is right, not least because it solves this particular problem (we use "the" when we want to point to the ball). Of course, they will need to learn a rather different use of "the" when they begin to read. Part of Vygotsky's brilliance was that he recognized this: he was the one who pointed out that writing is a form of "second order symbolism".

I think it's easy to assume that LSV meant this is a crude Saussurean way, that is, that writing is simply a way of recording the fixed code of spoken language. It is easy to show that this is quite wrong for proficient readers--we read much faster than we could ever talk.

I don't think that's what LSV meant. He believed that the negotiable "sense" was what created the abstract "meaning", not the other way around. Thus "external" spoken language is not a fixed code, and this is particularly clear when we consider the semantic content of indexical expressions like "this", "that", and "over there" (which is what you would say if you had your hands free and you could just point to the fiddle-shaped table.

It's also true with reading. Even proficient readers need to treat deictics as second order symbols and rummage around to find a lexical referent in the text. This in itself may explain the ontogenetically delayed onset of what should be a rather easier (because less contingent and more predictable) form of language.When we grow, we grow too used to using codes that can be negotiated in real time with real people, and that function in tandem with pointing and seeing for ourselves.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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