The Many Cups of Coffee

E. John Winner

1.

Semiotic interpretation is important, and yet it is somewhat variable and changeable, depending on the context in which it occurs. Consider the crucifix: if found in a Catholic church we interpret it one way; in a vampire movie another; and hanging around the neck of a Hell’s Angel motorcyclist something else altogether, depending on what we know of the particular motorcyclist.

There seems to be little doubt that there is a residual sensibility of the innocence of our formative infancy, to be found in a nostalgia that the material universe should be somehow available to us directly, without mediation; that god or some principle of biology defining the “rational animal” should equip us with some epistemological mechanism so we can perceive things-as-they-are. Unfortunately, this cannot be the case. Biology itself indicates one major reason why: No living being appears to perceive any phenomenon (event or other being) except insofar as the phenomenon interests the perceiving being as concerning its own survival. We know many plants bend towards sunlight. This doesn’t suggest any aesthetic appreciation of sunlight per se. Sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, which keeps keeping a plant alive. The plant can be said (figuratively) to be “perceiving,” sunlight only insofar as it is of use to it.

Now, it is the case that a thing cannot be perceived except that insofar as it is also perceived as a sign. As a sign, it can only signify something other than itself. The plant isn’t bending towards the sunlight for the sake of sunlight, but because chemical reactions in the plant interact with the sunlight as a trigger for the process of photosynthesis. That the mechanism involved is “an energy wave of a given frequency” – the sunlight itself – is accidental to the plant’s response.

But before we get into some weird discussion of a possible “vegetable consciousness,” let me remark again that much of what can be said of life forms engaging in sign-response remains figurative and always tentative. All living beings do seem to respond to their environment as though responding to signs in the environment, but only in a gross way. We can’t know what “consciousness” might mean for a chimp, let alone for a rose bush.

The point then is that signification and sign-response, for humans, remains behavior extrapolative from tendencies of response developed in the process of evolution. We are born to sign and to respond to signs. However, the matter gets a little complicated after birth and quite quickly.  So, let’s begin again, this time within the realm of the human.

2.

The principle point of the above discussion has been that the reading of signs, derived through biological development, closes off the possibility of direct knowledge of any entity, since the entity is always read as a sign, and a sign cannot signify itself (except perhaps in the most trivial manner). But let us consider an example of this.

Here in America, there is a standing tradition involving the use of a certain object made from ceramic or plastic or other heat-resistant material. Of a given height, width, depth, with a certain cylindrical design often wider at one end than the other, and having a loop to the side of it, the object is said to be a “coffee cup.” It is generally considered the most appropriate instrument for this purpose, although I doubt few could immediately explain why if asked. After all, coffee could be served in a glass jar. Having been boiled, it would lose heat more rapidly served in a wide-brimmed bowl, thus becoming less painful to the mucosal membranes of the mouth when consumed. It is certainly possible to sip the coffee directly out of the pot, perhaps with a straw. The use of foam cups, available in several sizes for coffee-containers, is more frequent now in the US than the traditional ceramic cup. Yet most Americans, of otherwise very different backgrounds, would find it easy to differentiate between a coffee cup and a beer mug, if they were asked to fetch one. And if they found someone drinking beer from a coffee cup, they may very well ask, “why drink beer from a coffee cup?” and no one would think the question problematic.

From the time I could first discern these distinctions, I have always been amused by the effort of the socially well-educated to differentiate between a coffee cup and a tea cup. Tea cups are slightly narrower than coffee cups, though by not nearly as much as depicted in the manuals devoted to teaching “proper table manners” that I remember from my youth. Yet the difference was important enough to make the matter worthy of comment in such texts, and in some families the tradition continues to this day. (There may be a historical basis for this importance. In the 18th century, the British believed coffee to be as strong an intoxicant as alcohol. By the end of that century, drinking tea had become an identifier of British propriety and sociability.)

At any rate, the coffee cup we are discussing now is an American cultural signifier. Restaurants, especially those specializing in providing breakfast, lunch, or pastry items, will frequently be found to have an illustration of a coffee cup in their advertisements. There have been instances in the past of restaurants built in the shape of a coffee cup, as a moment of what architecture critics would call “kitsch.” To see this sign, however displayed, leads one rightfully to believe that coffee is either present or will be or can be made so, and can be acquired in exchange for the appropriate sum of money.

Of course, the coffee cup is not an absolutely certain sign. The restaurant owner may have gone on a health kick recently and now only serves herbal tea. Or the coffee supply has been exhausted, meaning that you will have to “come back tomorrow.” Or another customer may be surreptitiously pouring something from a pint bottle into his cup (with or without coffee in it), so we won’t know exactly what he’s drinking until we exam the bottle. No law, human or scientific, prohibits any of this.

And, as noted, over the past few decades, the phenomenon of the coffee mug has enjoyed increasing popularity, so there are fewer people now, especially among the young, who relate expectations that coffee will be presented to the sign of the coffee cup, rather than the coffee mug – or even some cardboard cup with a restaurant’s particular brand imprinted on it. Cultural signs do linger, but they also change value over time.

So what? you might think. After all, what we want is the coffee, isn’t it?  The container is a mere vehicle for the substance we want.  Perhaps. But do we know, exactly, what substance we want?  Let’s consider the coffee itself.

It is a brown fluid. It may be so strongly brewed as to appear black, but if the light strikes it properly, we will see that it is brown. It may have some cream, milk, or other lightener in it, turning it a light muddy brown, slightly reddish in tone. If presented hot, the warmth will radiate from it, and we may see steam rising from its surface. The odor will be slightly bitter. If sugar or another sweetener has been added in quantity, the odor may be bittersweet. There may also be overtones of flavoring, such as vanilla extract.  This, apparently, is coffee, consumed for our enjoyment. But what are we enjoying?

According to Charles Sanders Peirce, who first attempted to codify modern semiotics, response to a sign requires the sign itself, the thing signified, and what he calls the interpretant, which is basically the conceptual whole of the experience that guides our response to it. And unfortunately, the interpretant actually alters the reading of the sign to the extent that the signified itself becomes signifier to another signified.

This is one way it works out:  First, it is not possible to simply want a cup of coffee, for its own sake, because without further signification, it is nothing of significance. It only becomes significant if it also signifies something of value. And this can only be found in its interpretant. This may sound circular, but this is a dynamic process, not a set relationship. The reading of a sign, the recognition of further significance, the readjustment of the interpretant to include new information, and new readings of new values in the available signs, is contingent and changeable. And such changes can happen very quickly.

So, what of the thing in the coffee cup. Well, we will never know the “thing in itself,” and I’m not sure we want to. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to drink “hot, brown, bitter fluid,” as such. And nobody would drink it on the basis of mere quantities of energy, light, or its chemical composition. People drink coffee because they read it as “coffee.” But what this means depends on the signification it has for them.

Again, that is to be found in its interpretant. Possible interpretants of coffee will vary from person to person, and, even with a given person, change over time.  Let’s consider some of these possible interpretants in this culture at this time of writing, to see how tricky this can get.

The interpretant of coffee can include (not exhaustively):

– fluid to quench thirst
– hot fluid on a cold day
– fluid on a hot day (iced coffee)
– beverage in hand at social gathering
– beverage appropriate to drink with or after meal
– beverage to drink while relaxing
– beverage to drink among other people while relaxing
– beverage to purchase for another’s consumption, as show of 1)affection, ii) disposable wealth, iii) one’s own good taste, iv) one’s adherence to social decorum (& etc.)
good taste in culinary habits (coffee appropriately brewed, sweetened, etc, – and don’t forget that coffee cup!)
– warm taste
– bitter taste, bittersweet taste
– potential stain on clothing fabrics
– caffeine
– sense of renewed energy
– wisdom in not over-indulging in stimulants (decaffeinated coffee)
– daring (allowing one’s self to be over-indulging in stimulants, despite warnings from health care professionals)
– exploring new psychological experiences (over-use with consequent “coffee-rush”)
– ritual consumption upon awakening
– something that will boil over (or boil down) if left cooking too long
– what the waitress brings more of, in hopes of a larger tip
– what the waiter withholds if he doesn’t like you and doesn’t care about the tip
– what the restaurant limits in quantity of distribution because its management pays the waiting staff too much – or too little – to be concerned about the tip

For now, let us admit: whatever it is in that cup, will always first be a sign in a system of signs, which is what we actually respond to.  Is there coffee in that cup?

3.

So, I’m driving down a road, and it’s been a long day, I’m feeling kind of drowsy.  There’s a diner by the side of the road, so I pull in and enter the diner and order a cup of coffee.   I do this, because I know that a cup of coffee or two perk me up; give me a sense of renewed energy.  I’m perfectly aware that coffee’s active ingredient, caffeine, doesn’t really contribute energy to my system, but only stimulates certain nerve endings in the brain, but so what? It will give me at least the illusion of wakefulness needed to complete my journey.  When I make my own coffee, I drink it black, but in the diner, I treat myself to sugar and cream, to make the experience a little more special.

Sitting at the same counter a few seats down is a somewhat disheveled man.  There seems to be a faint trace of alcohol wafting up from him.  He chugs his cup of black coffee and orders another one.  It is possible that he may be inebriated and might be trying to sober up with the coffee.  I could remind him that such a practice is based on folklore: coffee may wake up the drunk but will certainly not sober him.  But he’s a stranger, so for now I’ll let him go.  Still, the possibility nags at me, because intervention may be necessary if this assessment is right and he tries to drive a car.

At a table behind me, three women sit, in energetic communication – apparently something to do with politics.  Each has a cup of coffee in front of her, but they only sip from these; they are much more interested in their discussion.  It occurs to me that they may have simply come to the diner to gather for this discussion, and the coffee purchase is simply a means of legitimizing their presence there.

At another table, a man puts a last bit of roll in his mouth and calls to the server: “I’ll have that coffee now!” with a wave of his hand.  It’s hard to tell whether he really is someone of importance, or someone who wants to be important, or someone who, sadly, isn’t important at all, except in this one moment when the context of a commercial eatery he is spending money at permits him to command the attentions of a server.  Or I could be reading the gesture of the waved hand all wrong, and he’s just getting the blood back into fingertips that felt like they were going asleep.

Behind the counter, the server offers to refill my coffee.  I suppose she’s doing this in hopes of a larger tip, but it is still a generous act, or at least a gamble, as she doesn’t know whether her customers tip at all.  Anyway, the server does this cheerfully, so I feel comfortable admitting that a second cup appeals to me.

At the cashier’s desk, behind the till, a man sits, taking everything in with what a novelist might call a “jaundiced eye.”  That is, he takes in everything with his gaze, but shows no indication of interest or of being impressed.  I doubt that he gives a damn whether any of us is drinking coffee or what, just whether we pay for it.

And over in the corner, there’ a young woman in a white lab coat and an array of test tubes and spectroscopic analyzers, and I just have to ask:  “What the heck are you doing here?”

“I’m a chemist, she says, “I want to know what the cup of coffee really is.”

“You mean you want to know what coffee is chemically.”

“Yes, the real coffee in and of itself.”

“But that’s not what we’re drinking here.”  Responding to her look of bewilderment, I call for the attention of the other coffee imbibers in the restaurant and ask them to share their experiences with the coffee.  It turns out the guy down the counter is a drunk, trying to sober up.  When I tell him, it won’t really sober him up, he admits that he just needs the sense of energy to walk home or call a taxi.  The guy who just finished dinner, apparently, says that that a cup of coffee after every meal seems to settle his stomach.  I ask if he’s heard any medical explanation about that, he says, nah, it’s just been his experience over the past forty years.  The three women at the table admit that they were just meeting there after a political rally to discuss events of the day.  “I actually prefer tea,” one admits, “but Joan was ordering for everyone.”  Joan stares at her.  “I thought you liked coffee!  I wanted a cola!”  And the third says, “Didn’t I suggest Bob’s Bar and Grill for this get together?”  So that’s why they were only sipping at their coffees.

The server first asks us if we all enjoyed the coffee, and we all agree that it was decent.  She beams and states that she’s in charge of brewing the coffee, and she’s very proud of her skill – that’s apparently one reason she so cheerfully offers fill-ups.  I ask if this doesn’t get her increased tips.  She says, yeah, but she’d probably offer fill-ups anyway, because she likes making coffee.

The guy behind the counter pauses, almost truculently; then:  “I’m from Brazil.  My father died on a coffee bean plantation.  I don’t drink coffee.  Yours costs a dollar twenty-five.”

After this embarrassing moment is allowed to pass (with murmured remarks from the political activists who would have been happier at Bob’s Bar and Grill anyway), the chemist remarks, “See, you all have a different opinion.”

A wind seems to blow the door open, and there stands an apparition – perhaps the ghost of Charles Sanders Peirce, or of John Dewey. Perhaps it’s William James.  It could even be Umberto Eco.  (Although only recently departed, I understand his early interest in Thomism put him in good with those on the “Other Side.”)  A voice not unlike Morgan Freeman’s reverberates throughout the diner:

No, you all have a part of the knowledge that is designated ‘coffee.’ Not only each individual’s reading of the signs, but the context in which such readings occur, inform what can be shared in the given context.  The server knows the skill in brewing it, the political activists who don’t care for it, know the taste as well as those who choose it as drink of choice.  I don’t know whether coffee physiologically contributes to digestion, the one who just ate says it works for him, why say him nay?  You know that coffee won’t sober up a drunk, and you have explained that to this fellow, so now he won’t be driving home.  The chemist probably has formulas to share with you, should you ever feel a need to consult her. [1] And the man behind the cashier’s till remembers the coffee beans of his youth, the sorrow that brought – and the price he expects you to pay for drinking coffee here. The ‘reality’ of the coffee is not found in the coffee just sitting around in cups.  It is our shared experience, our shared knowledge, and whatever reasons we may have for making coffee a part of our lives.”

The guy from Brazil looks at him with jaundiced eyes.  “No discount for ghosts – a dollar seventy-five.”

“I’ll take mine black,” says the ethereal figure.  “To go.”

Notes

[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-behind-brewing-great-cup-coffee-180965049/

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26 Comments »

  1. Good piece.

    Brings to mind one of Putnam’s preferred examples of context sensitivity (a Google search suggests that coffee is a popular example here, maybe just because coffee is popular). “There’s a lot of coffee on the table.” It could mean there’s a big pot of coffee on the table and you’re welcome to some. Could mean there are couple bags of coffee beans that need to taken elsewhere. Could mean someone spilled coffee all over the table and someone needs to clean it up. Forms of life ultimately fix its content and give it significance.

    *Dale Cooper cup-salute*

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the spirit in which the essay is offered, I might riff on a couple of things that strike me. First is the the segue via biosemiotics, which is interesting to me precisely in that it sidesteps a number of issues regarding uniqueness of human language use and reference. We can easily imagine that animals experience the same kinds of context sensitivity in their umwelt, which I will stipulate as far less complex than that which we experience. So their list for water might be
    “fluid to quench thirst”, “stuff you drown in”, “stuff you meet conspecifics at”, “stuff where predators lurk”, and these associational chains will expand to give rise to particular behaviours (“drink”, “don’t fall in”, “socialise”, “be vigilant”). This is not anthropomorphism, but a recognition of shared biology and environments, and fits in the teleosemantic program. Do animals contemplate these as concepts? Probably not*, but those concepts describe what is going on.
    The other is regarding the opacity of the manifest image. Why are there all these accreted social facts around coffee drinking? In some ways they are the same as for anything we do together. Why do we drink coffee at all? For tea at least, we have Buddhism: “Tea [compared to alcohol] was important for maintaining long periods of meditation, but like alcohol it also provided inspiration for poets..[bringing] a certain sobriety and clearheadedness and also profoundly affect[ing] networks of knowledge and the very ways in which ideas were exchanged.” This parallels the intellectualism-European coffee house link in my mind (hey, Voltaire drank 60 cups a day, didn’t he?). There is the phenomenological, but there is also the impersonal historical (I don’t think the attack on eliminative materialists that they make history impossible and automatically false is correct), the sociological, the pharmacological, and the pharmacogenetic (8 known loci).

    * There is evidence of meta-cognition in nonhuman animals, which is some kind of recursivity, most notably for perception – how sure are you that you actually saw an X?

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  3. Thanks for writing this EJ.

    Duncan Richter recently shared a passage from Elizabeth Anscombe that I have been struggling to make sense of, since it seems neither true of Wittgenstein nor true in general (as far as I can tell). Perhaps you can help me wrap my head around what she means:

    “So far as I know, the only places where Wittgenstein considers the expression itself to be what it expresses are aesthetic. A musical phrase, a bed of violets: such things may strongly give one the impression that they tell one something. What is it that they tell one? They tell one themselves, not something else.” (from “Frege, Wittgenstein, and Platonism”, p. 163 in the electronic version of From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe).

    I just don’t buy it. I am much more convinced by what you just described as the role of signs and fail to see why aesthetic matters are different in kind. At most Wittgenstein mentions that some things are ‘not replaceable’ by anything else. Some of what he talks about in this context are aesthetic matters, but he doesn’t make the case specifically that it is only aesthetics that function this way. Perhaps there is a sense in which this characteristic of being ‘irreplaceable’ can be construed as “telling one themselves, and not something else”, but it always also seems that any such thing is necessarily embedded in relations with whatever else it connects to in our daily lives and sense making. That is, however irreplaceable it might be in its own right it also necessarily expresses its significance through its wider role in the fullness of our lives. Just as you have suggested above.

    Are we right to take Anscombe’s suggestion that aesthetics might be an exception to this? Any thoughts?

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    • Carter,
      I’d have to review Wittgenstein and Anscombe to give you a more direct answer here. But in general, neither semiotics nor the Pragmatist tradition from which it springs can accept an aesthetic object as somehow a ‘thing in and for itself,’ which is a central hope of much aesthetic valuations of music, art, poetry, as well of certain experiences with nature. And semiotics has developed quite a lot of analysis and explanation how and why the aesthetic experience fits into or social experience as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think every perception has a minimalist interpretation: coffee as a flavor, music as a sequence of tones, etc. But I don’t think you could consider something to signify itself unless you can finitely describe your own perception. This may apply to music for those lucky enough to be able to hear and identify individual pitches within a chord.

      The only thing I can think of that this would apply to completely is reading a typewritten text. In this case, the minimal perception, a sequence of letters from an alphabet, paradoxically seems to be visible with complete certainty but impossible to see.

      What do you make of that?

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  4. ejwinner

    “There seems to be little doubt that there is a residual sensibility of the innocence of our formative infancy, to be found in a nostalgia that the material universe should be somehow available to us directly, without mediation; that god or some principle of biology defining the “rational animal” should equip us with some epistemological mechanism so we can perceive things-as-they-are. Unfortunately, this cannot be the case.”

    It is a big jump from the infant’s gradually-sharpening awareness of its own body and the world around it to naive *philosophical* theories of perception. Both are naive, but in very different senses of the word.

    “No living being appears to perceive any phenomenon (event or other being) except insofar as the phenomenon interests the perceiving being as concerning its own survival.

    You can state evolutionary principles in many ways, but this attempt to tie all perception directly to survival seems very implausible.

    Now, it is the case that a thing cannot be perceived except that insofar as it is also perceived as a sign.

    I question this also. Sure, you can broaden the meaning of “sign” to make the claim true, but in so doing you jeopardize the very concept (its distinctive meaning, its usefulness).

    A few further thoughts…

    Coffee is not like a crucifix. Nor is a coffee cup.

    “Crucifix” is a word which denotes a very precise concept which is not defined in terms of what it is made of or what it is for (though facilitating devotional meditation or something like that could be seen as the object’s primary function). It is defined mainly in terms of what it represents.

    A coffee cup is a functional object like a piece of furniture. This sort of thing has been much analysed in the context of philosophy and psychology (e.g. prototype theory).

    Coffee is a word which denotes a kind of plant or bean from which a beverage is made, or the beverage itself. It could be seen as a proto-scientific word, and, as such, it gives a (false) sense of there being one thing which is “coffee”. In fact there are many different types of coffee, all with their own chemical properties, etc.. And even within a particular class of coffee, each bean, each cup, is unique.

    These distinctions are important. But I have the sense that you are trying to apply a set of a priori principles of semiotic interpretation willy-nilly to different kinds of things.

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    • Mark,
      Well, I don’t see any a priori here, this is pretty much drawing significance from empirically discernible uses of the signs in play, according to principles laid down by Peirce, without actually deploying Peirce’s technical terminology.

      “You can state evolutionary principles in many ways, but this attempt to tie all perception directly to survival seems very implausible.” I was discussing there the origin of perception in living organisms. Of course with our overdeveloped brains humans found a great many uses for it than, say, the common house fly. Interest becomes a matter of paying attention for us, rather than mere physiologically determined response; and we of course can turn it on and off. Nonetheless, the fitness and survival value of this perhaps remains at work behind our consciousness. My perception is certainly livelier when crossing a busy street than when I’m sitting at home drifting off to sleep.

      “A coffee cup is a functional object like a piece of furniture.” And a piece of furniture signifies nothing? Well anybody buying, say, a coffee table to display his or her social status at parties will be surprised to learn that. ‘No sign of a social status here, folks, move along!’

      “Coffee is a word which denotes a kind of plant or bean ” The denotation of the word can be part of its significance in a given context. Go to a diner and ask for “a kind of plant or bean, please,’ and see what response you get. Semiotics of verbal signs is largely about connotations within contexts.

      ““Crucifix” is a word which denotes a very precise concept ” Again, within a given context; but if I’m facing a biker with a crucifix around his neck, I won’t know what this signifies to him unless I know whether he’s catholic or just thinks religious iconography is cool, etc. Whereas watching a vampire movie, I know how the vampire will respond to it. (And then of course we can get the great joke in Ronan Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, with the Jewish vampire responding “Oy Vey, have you got the wrong vampire!”)

      You’re demanding a dictionary; I’m trying to contribute to an encyclopedia. “These distinctions are important.” – No, in the context, they’re not. The essay is intended as a rather light introduction to the practice of semiotic analysis that is hopefully edifying and entertaining. I’m not writing a professional paper here, nor have I any interest in having an academic debate

      “There seems to be little doubt that there is a residual sensibility of the innocence of our formative infancy,” Partly I was remarking the formative infancy of our species, although I suspect it true of our process of maturation as well, so I wasn’t too concerned – it’s really a rhetorical turn, to raise questions concerning certain philosophical positions. Is it the same kind of naiveté? I suspect so; but that would be an epistemological argument I had no interest in making here. My concern was merely to let the reader have some sense of my own position in such matters. Those deeply concerned in the matter can certainly take a course in epistemology.

      However I’m sure that if I simply mark all my rhetorical turns as rhetoric, you would simply dismiss the whole as rhetoric – which of course you are, anyway.

      “Sure, you can broaden the meaning of “sign” to make the claim true, but in so doing you jeopardize the very concept (its distinctive meaning, its usefulness).” That one you can take up with Peirce. (It doesn’t seem reasonable in a general readership article to begin clarifying what a digisign is as opposed to a legisign, or why the crucifix and an algebraic expression might both be iconic.)

      You seem not to be interested in connotation or context, or the actual social practices of signification that semiotics studies. I can’t help you with that. The semiotics that interests me concerns social reality. The kind of hair-splitting your response engages belongs in an academic debate. For someone careful to remark your professional studies in linguistic only in passing, you seem to me to be demanding that I produce a technical paper here. That’s not what I’m interested in doing. You haven’t read my essay.

      (Indeed, from your response it’s clear you literally did not read it at all beyond the first section. Why bother then? What response do you wish from me? Or from other readers? That they should ignore the essay? But if they’ve gotten as far as your comment, it’s too late for that. That they should study linguistics? I don’t get this response at all, Mark. There’s a difference between serious disagreements and misunderstandings, and a hit-job. Nothing requires you comment on essays you don’t read or don’t want to read. I comment much less frequently than I did in the past. I engaged such long comments on your recent articles, despite evident disagreements, not because I didn’t like it, but because I did. I don’t remember writing uncharitably, but if I did, I certainly apologize. But this comment of yours is the very definition of uncharitable – it denotes it as a very precise concept.)

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      • ejwinner

        I acknowledge the lighthearted tone of your piece, but assumed that you saw yourself also to be making serious points/claims which were open for discussion.

        “Well, I don’t see any a priori here, this is pretty much drawing significance from empirically discernible uses of the signs in play, according to principles laid down by Peirce, without actually deploying Peirce’s technical terminology.”

        The question then becomes: are the principles Peirce “laid down” a priori? But I was just expressing a sort of hunch or feeling really. And — given the tenor of your response — I certainly do not wish to pursue it.

        ” “A coffee cup is a functional object like a piece of furniture.” And a piece of furniture signifies nothing? Well anybody buying, say, a coffee table to display his or her social status at parties will be surprised to learn that. ‘No sign of a social status here, folks, move along!’ “

        Of course functional objects often have social significance. No one would deny this.

        ” “Coffee is a word which denotes a kind of plant or bean… ” The denotation of the word can be part of its significance in a given context. Go to a diner and ask for “a kind of plant or bean, please,’ and see what response you get. Semiotics of verbal signs is largely about connotations within contexts.”

        My point is that I would want to look at the kind of word we are dealing with, the way it denotes, etc., and take this into account in any analysis.

        ” ““Crucifix” is a word which denotes a very precise concept.” Again, within a given context; but if I’m facing a biker with a crucifix around his neck, I won’t know what this signifies to him unless I know whether he’s catholic or just thinks religious iconography is cool, etc. Whereas watching a vampire movie, I know how the vampire will respond to it.”

        Yes but my point is that crucifix is not the same kind of word/concept as coffee. It is an entirely self-contained social construct in a way that terms like “coffee” or “coal” (where there is scope for scientific clarification) are not, and so the semantics operates differently. I am not denying that context plays a role in interpretation.

        “You’re demanding a dictionary; I’m trying to contribute to an encyclopedia.”

        I’m demanding nothing. I am just giving an honest response to some of your claims. You seem to be saying: “If you disagree with how I am framing things, don’t comment.”

        ” “These distinctions are important.” – No, in the context, they’re not. The essay is intended as a rather light introduction to the practice of semiotic analysis that is hopefully edifying and entertaining. I’m not writing a professional paper here, nor have I any interest in having an academic debate.”

        Okay, fine.

        “… Partly I was remarking the formative infancy of our species, although I suspect it true of our process of maturation as well, so I wasn’t too concerned – it’s really a rhetorical turn, to raise questions concerning certain philosophical positions. Is it the same kind of naiveté? I suspect so; but that would be an epistemological argument I had no interest in making here. My concern was merely to let the reader have some sense of my own position in such matters. Those deeply concerned in the matter can certainly take a course in epistemology… However I’m sure that if I simply mark all my rhetorical turns as rhetoric, you would simply dismiss the whole as rhetoric – which of course you are, anyway.”

        I was not talking about epistemology. I was not dismissing everything as rhetoric. I was highlighting here one rhetorical turn which I considered to be potentially confusing and misleading.

        ” “Sure, you can broaden the meaning of “sign” to make the claim true, but in so doing you jeopardize the very concept (its distinctive meaning, its usefulness).” That one you can take up with Peirce. (It doesn’t seem reasonable in a general readership article to begin clarifying what a digisign is as opposed to a legisign, or why the crucifix and an algebraic expression might both be iconic.)”

        The issue is not whether or not to specify different types of sign, but your claim that “a thing cannot be perceived except … insofar as it is also perceived as a sign.” I was merely questioning your claim (and explaining why I questioned it).

        “You seem not to be interested in connotation or context, or the actual social practices of signification that semiotics studies.”

        You have no basis for saying this.

        “I can’t help you with that. The semiotics that interests me concerns social reality. The kind of hair-splitting your response engages belongs in an academic debate. For someone careful to remark your professional studies in linguistics only in passing, you seem to me to be demanding that I produce a technical paper here. That’s not what I’m interested in doing. You haven’t read my essay… (Indeed, from your response it’s clear you literally did not read it at all beyond the first section.)”

        I did read it. But my concerns (as I have said) were with the way you framed the issues.

        “Why bother then? What response do you wish from me? Or from other readers? That they should ignore the essay? But if they’ve gotten as far as your comment, it’s too late for that. That they should study linguistics? I don’t get this response at all, Mark… There’s a difference between serious disagreements and misunderstandings, and a hit-job. Nothing requires you comment on essays you don’t read or don’t want to read. I comment much less frequently than I did in the past. I engaged such long comments on your recent articles, despite evident disagreements, not because I didn’t like it, but because I did. I don’t remember writing uncharitably, but if I did, I certainly apologize. But this comment of yours is the very definition of uncharitable – it denotes it as a very precise concept.”

        So my comment was a hit-job?

        I don’t deny that it was intended to be a criticism of or challenge to the perspective on signs presented in the essay. But what’s wrong with that? As I see it, there are serious issues at stake.

        I don’t claim to have all the answers or to see all the issues clearly but if I have doubts about a view being presented, why not express them? How else do we come to understand than by open and honest discussion?

        Liked by 1 person

        • EJ: If I had commented on your enjoyable and stimulating piece, I would have said things very similar to Mark’s comments, and (like Mark) with absolutely no hostile intent.

          For what it’s worth, your scenario led me to look up Nighthawks Over Manhattan, to recall whether it was cups or mugs in the late night diner. Answer: mugs. Which somehow seems more fitting for the time of day.

          Alan

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        • Mark,
          sorry if I misread your reply; but you did seem to be misreading my article. “But I have the sense that you are trying to apply a set of a priori principles of semiotic interpretation willy-nilly to different kinds of things” – seemed to me more aggressive than necessary; and frankly a little bizarre. The debate over whether certain logical functions can be posited apriori has been going on for centuries. But I know of no one who thinks there can be apriori principles of rhetoric, which is and can only be a social practice. Yet there have been theories of rhetoric with classifications for the sake of analysis and criticism since Aristotle. Classical rhetoric manuals are filled with technical terminology only useful in technical rhetorical criticism. I had a course in rhetoric back as an undergraduate; but I only just looked up “metonymy” for the sake of example here, a word I’ve probably used only once or twice my entire life.

          Raising the question of the place of perception in philosophy led me to think you were remarking epistemological issues – which interpretation seemed supported by your insistence on the necessity to discuss the denotation of the words used. “Denotation” comes loaded with implication to logic; in semiotics, it is a term only meaningful in discussing the relation between semiotic and logic. Semiotics has no necessary epistemological foundation, hence requires no apriori principles, but rather implies two or three possible epistemological positions, only ruling out altogether naïve Realism and Pyrrhonian skepticism. While it works well with certain moderate cultural relativisms, it is a sure cure for the kind of wild epistemic relativisms we find among some post-Modernists. At some point culturally bound intentions will limit possible interpretations; other limitations will be ruled as too extreme. (One has to have developed a certain kind of literacy to read Shakespeare appreciatively; on the other hand, the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ that some identity politics enthusiasts clamor about is unnecessarily limiting of our possible enjoyment of cultural goods.)

          “You seem not to be interested in connotation or context, or the actual social practices of signification that semiotics studies.’
          You have no basis for saying this.”

          The basis was that my essay was entirely about connotation and context, and the actual social practices of signification. Frankly, when you started discussing denotation, I was confused.

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  5. Nice piece, but it illustrates – in a lighthearted way – why I’ve always had difficulties to appreciate semiotic analyses. The theory is interesting, but the applications are often rather disappointing.

    You give a list of interpretants of the word “coffee”, but I don’t need the theory to know these. Neither do I need a theory to know that what we respond to, is context-dependent. About 20 yrs. ago, I read a bit about semiotics, but all too often I found the insights given by semiotic analyses fairly banal – the exceptions being analyses that told me things I didn’t know, like the meaning certain symbols in paintings had for the contemporaries of the painter. But even then I rarely had the feeling semiotics added much – people could just have told me about the symbols without the semiotic baggage, it would have been just as useful. I already know the symbol on the painting is a “sign”.

    In certain circumstances, semiotic analyses seemed to give deeper insights, but this was usually when the semiotics were coupled to other theories (Foucault, Marx, psychoanalysis …). The problem is that some of these theories – psychoanalysis comes to mind – are somewhat disputed nowadays. Then the question becomes: what’s the added value of semiotics? How interesting is a theory that can “enrich” theories like psychoanalysis, theories that fewer and fewer people take seriously(°°)?

    I apologize if you find my reaction harsh. But my – admittedly limited – reading left me with the impression semiotics is the handmaiden of every theory that’s en vogue; or to put it less politely: a tool that leaves the analyst in the impossibility of saying nothing.

    (°°) An amusing example of a heavily psychoanalytical analysis of an artwork, is my old edition of “Les égarements du coeur et de l’esprit”. In the earnestly written preface, the conclusion is that the main character – a young male – hasn’t digested his “Oedipus” very well. The novel is from the 18th century, the preface was written in the 1970s, but somehow the preface is more – much more – dated than the novel.

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    • couvent2104,
      “You give a list of interpretants of the word ‘coffee'” – No, the interpretant (per Peirce) is not an interpretation. What I provided was a list of possible responses and conceptualizations to the sign. These form the data-base (to use contemporary terminology) from which more or less probable interpretations may be selected. That is why I reject the suggestion that denotation resolves connotation – semiotics doesn’t get one a dictionary, it get us encyclopedias.

      For Peirce, what it ultimately gets us is the relationship between signs, logic, communication, and knowledge. It is a tool by which we can bridge experience to what can be said of experience, and ultimately what can be known through experience. It is not intended to be an over-arching theory or a final theoretical set point – that is why it is indeed useful to diverse theoretical explanation. It’s cognate relative in Analytic-traditional language and logic studies is “semantics” (greek: sēmeíon: sign), but since it involves much more than words, and has a richer, broader understanding of context, it is useful in more ways than semantic theory (or at least I have found). However, as a tool used in studies in other fields, it often fades in the background, as the various fields develop their own terminology, and often doesn’t appear at all. For instance, forensic criminology uses a practice of semiotic interpretation quite a bit; but you won’t find the word “semiotic” in their text-book. Nonetheless, the study or semiotics can help one understand the study of forensic criminology in a new light (and make “CSI” a more enjoyable viewing experience).

      The mistake is in thinking there is a “theory of semiotics” the way there is an epistemology. There isn’t. It is more the case to say that there is logic, whether there is any theory of logic or not. However, studies in logic can help clarify our logical practices, and also our reasoning in thinking and speaking; so too does semiotic theory clarify and improve our interpretative skills. The technical terminology and structures of semiotic theory itself are intended merely as aids to the learning and teaching of interpretation. So the psychologist and art critic can learn something from it; so too the professors of literature (hence its popularity among them). Forensic criminologists don’t need the ‘big theory’ but it could be useful to them. Its widest application as a propaedeutic in recent years has been in the teaching of advertising and commercial promotions design.

      “Neither do I need a theory to know that what we respond to, is context-dependent.” Well, apparently the Logical Positivists did, since it took them decades to learn it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice read. You really have a way with words, and I would to read more. Is there anything published?

    A couple of thoughts. And something else, that likely isn’t thought.

    It is possible to drink coffee just for the sake of doing it. I like the damn thing. And that second phrase is not a further reason, but a restatement of the first: it is what ‘like’ means; that as far as I understand it, I will do it simply in order to do it.
    Likewise it is possible to want to have sex, just for the sake of it. And to play chess or hockey or whatever. Doing it just for the sheer joy of doing it.

    Jesper Hoffmeyer (professor of biosemiotics at Aarhus University in Denmark) makes it quite clear, as I understand it, that an animal – a tick in his example – does not have anything like a conceptual understanding. Rather, what a deer, a cat, or a human signifies, to the tick, is for it to engage in a behavioral program: jump, hang on, and tuck in. That the signified therefore, is not a thing, still less a concept, but a behavioral mode; do this when that –

    This, then, is a form of embodied cognition that predates conceptual understanding and even central nervous systems by some considerable length of time. In point of fact, it becomes part of the environment where those could evolve.

    When I say I drink coffee just for the sake of it, this is an animal understanding, or an animal sense of what it is like to be me drinking coffee, or waking up in anticipation of my morning Joe. The wafting smell that says, like the oracle of the bottle in Pantagruel, “drink”.

    But when I look at my hand, what I see is my hand. It is not a sign, still less a model or a representation: it is my hand. Likewise the smell of coffee is not a sign in the sense intended here; that is, it is not experienced as a sign. It is experienced as the smell of coffee.

    The sign itself, then, is transparent, nearly invisible, and without scent, as if not there at all. Or put another way: not there at all, until imputed from without, like physicists imputing math on to material reality: it is not the case that physical bodies solve differential equations, and electrons know nothing of the Schrödinger equation. Nor do we need any knowledge of semiotics in order to get laid, or go out for coffee.

    And because I like coffee, I know that I like coffee. It is a state of being in the world that has nothing to say but itself. In conceptual terms, as simple, and indeed as banal, as the equation f(x) = x. Yet in terms of the experience of being alive, of being in this world, it is to me a rarefied state; an elevated, indeed spiritual state of being just this animal embodied just in this experience of being itself in this world.

    And if this seems like nonsense to you, so be it then. As this is not a matter to be explained like one would go at laying out the Einstein Tensor, or the concept of ‘nothing’ in Heidegger. It is that of which one cannot speak. But we must try all the same, drunk poets hollering in the night, or weary travelers met at a roadside diner. Life on a knife’s edge. Or snug and warm in the embrace of the duvet, alone, or with that someone who knows your body like her own. Or at a meal that’s nothing fancy, but simple, honest food prepared by a good cook…

    If you think Vosnezhensky made no sense at all when he exclaimed; Darkmotherscream is a Siberian dance… well, then, you’re probably right. But if something strange, elusive, dark, and right within you stirs and strives to imbibe these crazy chants. Or if you wake up in the morning to the scent of coffee brewing, and you know just one thing, then two; “Coffee. But first I gotta piss” – then you may know also what Wittgenstein was on about. It is first of all not a scholarly thing.

    It is to be experienced, or it is not at all. And sometimes poets speak not sense at all, but what evokes in you, in me a state of being in this world. And you may know that grace itself is nothing more. Indeed that you yourself might be like a flower bed that has nothing to say but itself.

    I am in this world as much as any tick, or cat, or deer; and it is not an image, the world, as if my understanding consisted solely of looking at it. That would be a distorted view, quite popular, it seems, and justified whenever there is a significant gap between us and our subject, whether by scale or distance or time or simply by topic.
    But whenever we ourselves become the subject of ourselves, and when we attempt to grasp ourselves within the topics of our inquiries, it is indeed a fallacy. Yet some persist, oblivious to their becoming then as if minds out of their people, producing absurdities without end. I must begin, then, and end this rant, by stating the obvious: I am an animal, and I am in this world as much as any tick…

    Oh, and by the way; a café solo is always served in a glass. An espresso often is, but not always; and black is not a color but –
    Speaking as an ex-lighting designer (a glorified title, electrician would do); black is the absence of reflected light. And as a philosopher of the mixing of pigments; black is not a hue, nor is it strictly a gray. But a resemblance class of very dark hues and grays, assigned the color value black. And speaking lastly as a former fashionista – black is the new black. Black is what you make of it, darling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I won’t pretend to respond on behalf of E. John Winner, but I’d like to offer a friendly comment on your idea (if my paraphrase is faithful) that signs, when they are working, are transparent — that, to use your nice example, we do not experience the scent of coffee as a sign but as, simply, the scent of coffee. I’m pulled in the direction of something like your idea, too.

      But then, inspired by (or maybe riffing on, or maybe just ripping off) early Heidegger, I want to say:

      Yes, the scent of coffee is the-scent-of-coffee, not a certain isolated sensation that we cover with an interpretation. But that doesn’t mean that the-scent in the-scent-of-coffee isn’t a sign. Evidence of its status as sign is that it is, precisely, the-smell-OF-coffee. The of-ness is signification, and is part of what we experience.

      But I fear this is a bit off topic — only a bit — since Winner seems to be arguing that it’s the coffee that’s the sign, insofar as we experience it, variously, as that-to-be-drunk-with-others-while-relaxing, or as that-to-be-made-in-a-morning-ritual, and so on. It’s that the coffee is always referring us beyond itself — that its unique but ever-shifting patterns of referring-beyond itself is what the thing, the coffee, amounts to — that I think Winner is asking us to consider.

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      • But coffee is not a sign, nor is it a pattern; just as gravity is not the Einstein tensor. The map is not the landscape.
        If one wishes to understand coffee as a nexus of social, cultural and practical possibilities and norms for agency and interagency – and I am sympathetic to the idea – then a semiotic map of this nexus may be indeed a sensible approach, and in this map, of course, ‘coffee’ is a sign. But it is not in the map, but in the practices themselves that a certain class of emulsion is assigned the value: coffee.
        Also, it seems to me there is a clear sense in which coffee-as-sign cannot be a primitive in quite the same way that a scent might, since the latter derives from our being animals in this world, whereas the former is itself derived from, and in, our social, cultural practices of being this kind of animal doing those kinds of things (fermenting, roasting, grinding…) to certain parts of plants, and doing it socially.

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        • I think I take your first point, as far as it goes.

          But the way I see it, Winner is arguing for the aptness of describing coffee as a sign. At the very least, he’s asking us to imaginatively consider what it would be for the concept /sign/ to apply to what we might otherwise unreflectively conceptualize as anything but a sign: namely, coffee, the stuff. He’s asking us to extend that concept a bit and see if anything becomes illuminated; he’s asking us to exercise our figurative skill.

          Sure, coffee (the stuff) might not happily be conceptualized as (sharing some characteristics of) a map or of a mathematical formula. But he’s asking us to focus on other potential similarities — e.g. that, like a map or mathematical formula, coffee (the stuff) refers us beyond itself.

          So I think it misses part of Winner’s point if we insist, on the grounds that coffee (the stuff) JUST ISN’T like a map or mathematical formula, that the concept /sign/ can’t fruitfully apply to coffee. It’s akin to the sort of misunderstanding that manifests in one’s insisting, on the grounds that one’s beloved JUST ISN’T like a giant plasmic spheroid radiating the product of thermonuclear fusion, that the concept /sun/ can’t fruitfully apply to her.

          All that said, let me say that I really like your style, your way of putting things, your way of describing certain phenomena. It’s good to see you here on EA. (I don’t recognize your name, but, of course, I might have missed it in some of the other conversations.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Why, thank you. No, I’ve been following the Agora for some time now, and occasionally put in my five cents’ worth, but never till now commented in extenso.
            A good metaphor works by the lightness of its touch, and ‘sign’ is not a metaphor for coffee; but coffee-as-sign is a model, or a conception made in a model building exercise; in casu modeling the social and cultural behaviors that revolve around coffee.
            There is a song by Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground; “All Tomorrows Parties”:
            “And what costume shall/The poor girl wear/To all tomorrow’s parties? / A hand-me-down dress/From who knows where/To all tomorrow’s parties”.
            You’ll never see the girl without her dress. She’ll be hiding, she’ll “Cry behind the door”. But that doesn’t mean we need to conflate the two.
            Part of what is at stake here, is that we are trying to talk about that of which one cannot speak, and trying to catch ourselves doing it; that, in talking about coffee-as-sign, or other cultural signifiers, we are inevitably also talking about ourselves talking about it; and this is how a semiotic account, or model, differs from a mathematical model of something that is very definitely not us; so perhaps that analogy was misleading. But sometimes physicists, neurologists, or scientistically inclined philosophers do speak up about us, and they tend to be completely oblivious to how this is qualitatively, and fundamentally different from talking about neurons or neutrinos or a slew of other things that are trivially not us. So it falls to us to maintain, and keep alive, these subtle, but important distinctions.
            I know who the poor girl is. She is me, or she is us. And these raggedy words are a dress from who-knows-where. I also know that I like coffee, and Winner’s piece. And with that I’ll be signing out, I think, for now.

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        • Hi Jesper. The functionality of the page doesn’t allow me to reply to your most recent comment (Nov. 29, 9:11am), so I’ll have to record my thoughts here.

          I just wanted to say that I agree with everything you most recently said, and see it as entirely compatible with what I was saying, so if there’s any remaining disagreement between us, it’s not showing up here. It only looks like we disagree, perhaps, because I wasn’t fully explicit. Of course, we shouldn’t conflate the girl and the dress, the sign and the non-sign. Who would think otherwise? What makes the concept /sun/ so fruitfully applicable to my beloved is precisely that she’s ALSO not a giant plasmic spheroid: her difference from the sun is just as important as any of her similarities to it. What makes the concept /sign/ so fruitfully applicable to coffee is precisely that coffee is ALSO not a sign. We can think of the coffee in all of its non-sign-ness, and we can think of it in all of its sign-ness.

          And I think we can do this — to agree with another of your points — precisely because we can think of it either in abstraction from human agency and subjectivity or not. Those are different ways of thinking of the coffee, for sure, and to think of coffee in the one way requires that we suppressing or ignoring the other way for the time being, and vice versa. But this doesn’t foreclose the possibility of thinking of coffee now as sign and now as non-sign, or of our recognizing that we can do so.

          I found this exchange interesting, and your replies motivated me to reflect more deeply on what I thought about these things. Thanks.

          Liked by 2 people

    • “Jesper Hoffmeyer” – I enjoyed Andreas Weber’s Biopoetics:Towards an Existential Ecology [it is in the series edited by Hoffmeyer et al].

      Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps I should clean up a few misunderstandings.

      > “You give a list of interpretants of the word ‘coffee’” – No, the interpretant (per Peirce) is not an interpretation.

      I used that word (although I found it strange) because you write in your piece:

      “The interpretant of coffee can include (not exhaustively):

      – fluid to quench thirst
      – hot fluid on a cold day
      – fluid on a hot day (iced coffee)
      – beverage in hand at social gathering …”

      > The mistake is in thinking there is a “theory of semiotics” the way there is an epistemology. There isn’t.

      I don’t think there is a theory of semiotics, certainly not in the sense I would use that word. I used the expression in a rather loose sense. Just like you do: “The technical terminology and structures of semiotic theory itself are intended merely as aids to …”

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      • couvent2104,
        “I used that word (although I found it strange)”

        Just to be clear: ‘“You give a list of interpretants of the word ‘coffee’” – No, the interpretant (per Peirce) is not an interpretation. What I provided was a list of possible responses and conceptualizations to the sign. ‘

        The possible conceptualizations and possible responses to the sign and its object, selected (probabilistically) through reading of interrelationships with other signs, form the interpretant. The interpretation is the express determination of the immediate signification of a sign within the given context. (The significance of the crucifix in a vampire movie.) The interpretant, however, interlocks significantly with other interpretants of differing signs within the broader context wherein the interpretation takes place, thus allowing for further interpretation and revision, differing responses and course corrections. (The crucifix has additional religious significance beyond the vampire movie, particularly Roman Catholic. So: The vampire appears in the victim’s bedroom; the victim produces a crucifix. “Oh Vey!” – an expression signifying Yiddish, hence Jewish, origins of the present vampire – “have you got the wrong vampire!” – indicating self-awareness and irony, eliciting a laugh or chuckle or other response appropriate from the audience to this humorous moment, due to the interpreted clash between the Catholic significance of the crucifix, the audience expectation that it would ‘ward off’ the vampire, and the unexpected Jewish significance of the given vampire’s expression.) This is why I say that semiotics doesn’t produce a dictionary definition of the sign, but an encyclopedia article – preferably in hypertext. .

        Now obviously the audience is going to respond interpretively without any need to know semiotics. Semiotics is a tool to help us understand such processes. Peirce himself thought its primary use would be clarification of logical judgments. (Towards the end of his career he identified logic as a kind of semiotics, which maybe going too far.)

        There are a number of theories of semiotics (Hobbes developed a crude but effective semiotic); but they usually make no claim to arrive at the level of certitude claimed by some epistemologists or ontologists or metaphysicians (etc.) That’s because semiotics is about the actual interpretive processes we practice in everyday life. (It is worthy of debate whether semiotics is merely explanatory or ever normative. I tend to think the former.)

        From my perspective, all the best theories about, and analysis of, language or signification are those similarly derived and similarly useful.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Perhaps unwittingly you illustrate again why I’m not impressed by semiotics.

          “Oh Vey!” – an expression signifying Yiddish, hence Jewish, origins of the present vampire (…) this humorous moment, due to the interpreted clash between the Catholic significance of the crucifix, the audience expectation that it would ‘ward off’ the vampire, and the unexpected Jewish significance of the given vampire’s expression.”

          “Oh vey” signifies Yiddish origins? Perhaps, perhaps not. It could signify just as well Dutch, Limburgisch or, in general, Germanic origins. So let’s insert Limburgisch in your quote:

          “due to the interpreted clash between the Catholic significance of the crucifix, the audience expectation that it would ‘ward off’ the vampire, and the unexpected Limburgish significance of the given vampire’s expression.”

          I must admit I find the idea of a Limburgish significance of a vampire’s expression funny. But I must also admit that in the end, semiotics seems little more than a way to say: “different people interpret things differently in different contexts”; with a as corollary: “sometimes people read too much into something.”

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          • ““Oh vey” signifies Yiddish origins? Perhaps, perhaps not.”

            Well, now you’re just being contrarian, since you’ve stripped the remark of the larger context – a horror comedy-film directed by a Polish refugee for commercial release in the UK and US n the late 1960s. Polanski’s .audience would recognize the significance you choose to deny.

            You also trenchantly refuse to engage either the historical importance of Peirce and semiotics I’ve remarked, or the theoretical implications of it I’ve offered. Well, there’s nothing I can do for that. I simply suggest you read Peirce, read at least an introduction to Semiotics. If you choose not to read, or you read and remain unconvinced, that’s not my problem.

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