Functions On Symbols

Data integration is a complex problem with many facets. From a semiotic point of view, quite a lot of human cognitive and communicative processing capabilities is involved in the resolution. This post is entering the discussion at a point where a number of necessary terms and concepts have not yet been described on this site. Stay tuned, as I will begin to flesh out these related ideas.

You may also find one of my permanent pages on functions to be helpful.

A Symbol Is Constructed

Recall that we are building tautologies showing equivalence of symbols. Recall that symbols are made up of both signs and concepts.

If we consider a symbol as an OBJECT, we can diagram it using a Unified Modeling Language (UML) notation. Here is a UML Class diagram of the “Symbol” class.

UML Diagram of the "Symbol" Object

UML Diagram of the "Symbol" Object

The figure above depicts how a symbol is constructed from both a set of “signs” and a set of “concepts“. The sign is the arrangement of physical properties and/or objects following an “encoding paradigm” defined by the members of a context. The “concept” is really the meaning which that same set of people (context) has projected onto the symbol. When meaning is projected onto a physical sign, then a symbol is constructed.

Functions Impact Both Structure and Meaning

Symbols within running software are constructed from physical arrangements of electronic components and the electrical and magnetic (and optical) properties of physical matter at various locations (this will be explained in more depth later). The particular arrangement and convention of construction of the sign portion of the symbol defines the syntactic media of the symbol.

Within a context, especially within the software used by that context, the same concept may be projected onto many different symbols of different physical media. To understand what happens, let’s follow an example. Let’s begin with a computer user who wants to create a symbol within a particular piece of software.

Using a mechanical device, the human user selects a button representing the desired symbol and presses it. This event is recognized by the device which generates the new instance of the symbol using its own syntactic medium, which is the pulse of current on a closed electrical circuit on a particular wire. When the symbol is placed in long term storage, it may appear as a particular arrangement of microscopic magnetic fields of various polarities in a particular location on a semi-metalic substrate. When the symbol is in the computer’s memory, it may appear as a set of voltages on various microscopic wires. Finally, when the symbol is projected onto the computer monitor for human presentation, it forms a pattern of phosphoresence against a contrasting background allowing the user to perceive it visually.

Note through all of the last paragraph, I did not mention anything about what the symbol means! The question arises, in this sequence of events, how does the meaning of the symbol get carried from the human, through all of the various physical representations within the computer, and then back out to the human again?

First of all, let’s be clear, that at any particular moment, the symbol that the human user wanted to create through his actions actually becomes several symbols – one symbol for each different syntactic representation (syntactic media) required for it to exist in each of the environments described. Some of these symbols have very short lives, while others have longer lives.

So the meaning projected onto the computer’s keyboard by the human:

  • becomes a symbol in the keyboard,
  • is then transformed into a different symbol in the running hardware and operating system,
  • is transformed into a symbol for storage on the computer’s hard drive, and
  • is also transformed into an image which the human perceives as the shape of the symbol he selected on the keyboard.

But the symbol is not actually “transforming” in the computer, at least in the conventional notion of a thing changing morphology. Instead, the primary operation of the computer is to create a series of new symbols in each of the required syntactic media described, and to discard each of the old symbols in turn.

It does this trick by applying various “functions” to the symbols. These functions may affect both the structure (syntactic media) of the symbol, but possibly also the meaning itself. Most of the time, as the symbol is copied and transferred from one form to another, the meaning does not change. Most of the functions built into the hardware making up the “human-computer interface” (HCI) are “identity” functions, transferring the originally projected concept from one syntactic media form to another. If this were not so, if the symbol printed on the key I press is not the symbol I see on the screen after the computer has “transformed” it from keyboard to wire to hard drive to wire to monitor screen, then I would expect that the computer was broken or faulty, and I would cease to use it.

Sometimes, it is necessary/desirable that the computer apply a function (or a set of functions called a “derivation“) which actually alters the meaning of one symbol (concept), creating a new symbol with a different meaning (and possibly a different structure, too).

The Nature and Experience of Semiosphere Boundaries

I have been having an interesting discussion with Sentence First blogger Stan Carey regarding semiosphere boundaries, and I posted the following comment on his site. I thought I’d repeat it here then elaborate on it.

I’m no expert on Lotman (author of many semiotics papers and coiner of the term “semiosphere”), having only begun to read his work, and I also recognize and agree that there is no such thing as a fixed and easily recognized boundary between semiospheres. Your comment about the boundary really being some sort of  “permeable membrane” is one I agree with. I don’t think from what I have read that Lotman would disagree with you on that point, as he describes the boundary in the following way:

Insofar as the space of the semiosphere has an abstract character, its boundary cannot be visualized by means of concrete imagination. Just as in mathematics the border represents a multiplicity of points, belonging simultaneously to both the internal and external space, the semiotic border is represented by the sum of bilingual translatable “filters”, passing through which the text is translated into another language … situated outside the given semiosphere. (“On the Semiosphere”, Juri Lotman)

I do like his biosphere analogy, and it brings to mind another possible analogy that might be useful, namely that of an “ecosystem”. I’ll be looking into that soon. My notion (and as always it is a laypersons notion) is that the problem of description of a particular ecosystem presents the same puzzle as the identification and description of a semiosphere.

What’s in the ecosystem and what’s outside of it? If we’re talking about a salt marsh ecosystem, for example, where does the geographic border lie? Which creatures are part of the system and which ones are strangers to it (just travelling through)?

If a predator in the woods abutting the salt marsh happens to occasionally eat a creature from the salt marsh when they stray too far from home, does that make the predator part of the salt marsh ecosystem or not? What if they primarily eat forest critters? What if they primarily eat salt marsh critters? What if they eat equal amounts of forest and salt marsh critters?

What we see in this example is that the predator is an edge creature relative to the defined forest and salt marsh ecosystems. When we make this story about a particular individual creature, then whether the predator is in one or another ecosystem is dependent on how that ecosystem has been defined generally.

To the creature, the distinction is meaningless. It lives in both places, walks ground that is sometimes wooded and solid and sometimes muddy and loose. It eats what it can catch from either place. From the predator’s individual point of view, the world consists of bits of both ecosystems. In fact, from their point of view they probably would not recognize that they lived on the margins of two very different environments.

Now add to this the two individual prespectives of a salt marsh prey creature and a forest prey creature. Their typical experience, understanding and adaptation is of the more frequently encountered predators in their milieu. In fact they may have evolved special protections or strategies for foiling these common dangers.

If our predator is mostly a forest feeder, then the forest prey may be well adapted to avoid it, while the salt marsh prey may not. The salt marsh prey in this case may not understand or recognize the danger at all. Or else, if the individual salt marsh creature had spent some time with his pals at the edge of the forest, he may ultimately recognize the predator, although it might take a few moments to react.

Look, an individual creature does not typically experience a disjointed reality. The transition from forest to salt marsh is gradual (but recognizable). Our predator may have a worldview that includes elements of both the forest and the salt marsh. By virtue of this combined perception, the predator may experience what would be considered neither salt marsh nor forest, but the combination and unification of this edge reality.

To turn this back into a discussion of semantics, then…

If we equate our edge creature to a person with knowledge of two different domains (yourself, for example), then we get the same questions: which domain is that person a member of? If he primarily communicates in American vernacular but occasionaly uses Irish idioms, is he more American? If the reverse is true, perhaps he is more Irish?

In my mind the distinction is not so important to the individual, but is certainly more important to the people who share more of the “core” and less of the “periphery” (as Lotman described it) of various spheres. But these distinctions are relative, and what is “core” to one person would be “periphery” to another.

Such an edge person can “digest” and understand many aspects of the “core” of each of the semiospheres they experience. But by virtue of their experiences at the edge between, they may not by fully aware of the all aspects of those cores. Their experience of the semiosphere (as we saw with our predator example) is also not disjointed, but forms a seamless continuum. also does not lack for complexity or meaning, even though it does not represent either core. In fact, the experience of the boundary will be exactly the same in form (but not in content) as the experience of someone else in the center of a semiosphere.

I also think that in the case of the semiosphere, as with our ecosystem example, the “boundary” or “permeable membrane” is generated only by the existence of individual creatures who bridge it and cross freely between the domains. In the case of human communication, however, I think we all are “bridging” these gaps all the time, so much so that we don’t usually experience the shift until we are reminded of them by an unfamiliar word. The mere fact of a term’s unfamiliarity proves the case of a boundary condition for the individual.

Indicators of Semiospheric Boundary

I was reading an entry at Sentence First on the surprise the author experienced when the word “razzed” was used in the body of a book on semantics, and drew a connection between the reported experience of the blog’s author upon finding the term and the notion of “semiospheres” described by Yuri Lotman.

Lotman describes the following thoughts in his paper “On the Semiosphere”, (Sign Systems Studies 33.1, 2005):

The division between the core and the periphery is a law of the internal organisation of the semiosphere. The dominant semiotic systems are located at the core.

This suggest to me that one would expect the most frequent usage of terms important to a semiosphere to occur in the dominant core.  Since a semiosphere is a continuum all the way to its edges (sharing an edge with another semiosphere), these symbols from the core should eventually and occasionally appear in the edges.

Lotman also said:

The border of semiotic space is the most important functional and structural position, giving substance to its semiotic mechanism. The border is a bilingual mechanism, translating external communications into the internal language of the semiosphere and vice versa.

When the semiosphere identifies itself with the assimilated “cultural” space, and the world which is external to itself .. then the spatial distribution of semiotic forms takes the following shape in a variety of cases: a person who, by virtue of particular talent … or type of employment … belongs to two worlds, operates as a kind of interpreter, settling in the territorial periphery …whilst the sanctuary of “culture” confines itself to the deified world situated at the centre.

The author of the post at Sentence First described himself as residing at the “elbow of Europe” and his blog has as a catch phrase “An Irishman’s blog about the Engish language. Mostly.” The book he was reading was written in the 1930’s by an American for an American lay audience, the subject being the esoteria of semiotics.

What I found ironic/interesting is how these two semiotic events (the book and the blog post) illustrate Lotman’s points so nicely.

The book on semiotics was purposefully written by one of these special people with connections to two different worlds of semiosis (one of semiotic academia, and the other of the larger American culture of his time) and is a purposeful attempt to relate the esoteric concepts of the one in the vernacular of the other. From this, to the point raised by the Sentence First author, I judge that the use of the term “razzed” to actually be a great example of the book’s attempt to reach that core audience.

The second semiotic act provides a narrative of the experience of someone sitting on the boundary between two semiospheres. While I hesitate to try to label and define this second pair of semiospheres, I think the fact that the author had to pause when he encountered the term in the context of the book shows this boundary clearly.

What I liked about the posting was that, while Lotman’s discussion is a good illustration of the semiotic landscape, and how semiotic boundaries tend to operate, Sentence First’s posting tells the story of the experience of someone actually sitting on and experiencing one of those boundaries.

Putting these two things together shows, I think, one more thing as well. As an individual person, through my life experience, I gather and collect “semiotic technique” – in other words, I learn how to communicate – in many different contexts. Being human, I tend to distill, fuse, combine, contrast, and ultimately integrate all of these semiotic capabilities into my own personal arsonal of communication. Thus armed, I am able to translate one semiotic act from one context into any of a thousand others. It is my human condition to do so.

Thus while Lotman seems to imply that a special sort of person is needed to act at the semiotic boundary, I think that it takes no special talent in particular to do so. Rather, I think it is merely dependent on having a person who is immersed in both contexts to find someone who will translate between them.

Living in My Own, Personal Semiosphere

I am sure I’m not getting this right when I read these seminal papers on the “semiosphere”, beginning with Juri Lotman’s “On The Semiosphere” (Sign Systems Studies 33.1. 2005).  I have to admit that the text has me confused a bit. On the one hand, Juri defines the semiosphere as an analog to the biosphere, a large, all pervading expanse of interconnected life on our planet. On the other hand, as he describes its features (what it is and what it is not), he describes examples of something which can be quite a bit smaller than the entirety of semantic discourse in the world. This includes the semiospheres of countries, language groups, and professional practitioners.

In other words, what I would call contexts.

Taking from this the idea that a semiosphere represents the sum total aggregate of the symbollic space around this context, I had a vision of myself, walking with a sphere of communication techniques and examples (language, art, gesture, expression) floating about me. This cloud represented not just anything that I had ever said or written (or otherwise communicated) but included the entirety of what I might ever say, or be able to say.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

The sum total of everything I will ever be able to communicate.

And then I thought of two of us coming together, each with our own spheres of semiotics, including personal and community symbols, and an ability to recognize and quickly adapt to contexts known to us. I imagine the interplay of our own personal semiospheres, one to the other, as we begin to try to communicate.

Having brought with ourselves the entirety of our communicative arsenol, we lob niceties and platitudes at each other, then observe which ones hook together in the shared semiotic space surrounding us. Not all of our personal spheres can be fit together – like oil and water, even if we give them both the name “liquid” cannot mix.

On first encounter, we may only recognize “the weather” and “the place” as subjects shared and in common. But as we meet over time, and we remember what connections we made before, we build the “bridge” of communication between us, and this bridge becomes our starting point for subsequent communication  (in other words, our context).

Umwelt and Semiosphere

Found this fascinating thread on Juri Lotman and his school of thought regarding the “semiosphere”, which he posited as being similar to a “biosphere”. Still reading, but wanted to capture this thread of discussion.

[Lotman] Umwelt and Semiosphere

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