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.

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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.

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