Göran Sonesson

An essay concerning images. From rhetoric to semiotics by * way of ecological physics
Contrary to received opinion, a great book is often a great good. The Traité du signe visuel, at least, may be expected to do a lot of good to the particular domain of semiotics concerned with visual meaning, both internally, in raising the scholarly level of that speciality, and, in relation to other parts of semiotics and to other disciplines, in presenting, for the first time, a complete body of theory involving the visual mode of semiosis. First announced some seventeen years ago (Groupe µ 1976), the Traité has been preceded by a long series of articles and conferences consecrated to the problems of pictorial rhetoric, the more recent of which now reappear, slightly modified, as chapters of the book. Yet the Traité is far from being a compilation: it seems more likely that, in their earlier guises, these chapters had been undauntedly cut out of the body of the manuscript. Indeed, many pieces of theory that, at least in the opinion of the present reviewer, seemed unclear in their earlier presentation, or were difficult to interpret, show to advantage within the framework of the book. On the other hand, the book would seem to retain some traces of having had an earlier incarnation in the shape of articles: the location of some chapters does not seem to be the most convenient for the reader (for instance all the critical observations of the first chapter, which might have been more accessible at a later stage of the reading), the habit of returning, over and over again, mostly in brief passages, to the same themes, and, most of all, the use, from the beginning of the book, of terms and concepts explained only much later, sometimes complete with a promise of later elucidation, sometimes passed-over in silence. In some cases, of course, every reader with a slight knowledge of semiotics may be supposed to have at least a superficial understanding of the terms beforehand (for instance, in the case of ‘iconicity’ and, perhaps, ‘isotopy’), but in other cases, the terms employed (‘plastic sign’ as against ‘iconic sign’), can only be understood by those who have previously acquired some part of the ‘repertory’ (to put it in their own language) of Groupe µ semiotics. This practise is unfortunate: it tends to shut out those readers who are not familiar with the theory already (but, then again, nobody is likely to start his/her exploration of the theory with such an imposing volume as this). Rhetoric is concerned with the way meaning is brought about by means of breaking the norms for how meaning would normally be produced. Setting out to explain the 1

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images workings of a rhetoric of visual meaning, Groupe µ soon found out that almost nothing is known about the way in which such meaning is created in ordinary, non-rhetorical circumstances. Their first task thus became to establish the rules which rhetoric is concerned to overrule (It might also be argued, as ethnomethodologists have said about social rules, that the study of norm-breaking may serve as a discovery procedure permitting to establish the rules; but, although this may be part of the context of discovery of the present theory, it is not part of its context of presentation). After a chapter discussing the confusions and delusions of a few selected philosophies of art, as well as of some exponents of aesthetics and semiotics, and some remarks on the relation of semiotics to linguistics, the authors embark on a cursory study of visual perception, based on physiology and perceptual psychology (notably of the constructionist brand), from which they derive a set of elementary concepts of visual semiotics, such as field, limit, line, contour, form, figure and (back)ground. They also isolate textures, based on average luminance and granularity, and colours, each one of which is characterized by a chromatic dominant, a degree of saturation, and an amount of luminance. Together with forms, further specified as to position, dimension, orientation, and forms as such, textures and colours are the three principle elements of visual meaning, which, when occurrences are associated with types, add up to objects. There is then much discussion of types, related to repertories of recognisable objects, and of the process of perception, conceived along the lines of constructivism and artificial intelligence. At the end of the third chapter, a distinction between the plastic sign and the iconic sign is introduced, as a subdivision of the visual sign. There follows two, very substantial chapters, consecrated to the iconic and the plastic sign, respectively. Interestingly, the chapter on iconicity starts out as a critique of the traditional critique of iconicity inside semiotics, associated with such names as Eco and Goodman. This metacritique turns out to be largely parallel to the one we have ourselves conducted (notably in Sonesson 1989a; 1992a,f), but it is undoubtedly entirely independent and also much less argued (Indeed, although Sonesson 1989a is quoted in other parts of the text, these remarks were clearly added at a late stage in the preparation of the manuscript, to late to integrate the results of our study in iconicity. which is unfortunate, because it would have much fortified their argument). On the other hand, Groupe µ goes much further in showing that, once the existence of iconic signs is demonstrated, the real work begins in elucidating the intricate mechanism which accounts for them. The authors thus propose a theory of the iconic sign, comprising three separate elements, the signifier, the referent and the type, not to be confused with more familiar triads, as the representamen, the object, and the interpretant, or the expression, the content and the referent: indeed, all three elements are internal to the sign system. After some brief considerations of articulation what remains of the iconicity chapter is consecrated to a study of the various transformations by means of which the referent is 2

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images made into a signifier. The chapter on the plastic sign breaks new ground in trying to isolate the elements characterising texture, colour, and form, and then daringly proposes some very general meanings for these elements. Well into the body of the book (page 255 onwards), we are at last treated to the principle dish: visual rhetoric. After a general discussion of the rhetoric effects pertaining to iconicity and plasticity, iconic and plastic figures are introduced in separate chapters, and there is also a chapter about mixed figures. Finally, the authors ponder some consequences for general rhetoric, analyse the frame as a particular rhetoric object, and then dedicate a few pages to the rhetoric of visual objects having three dimensions, such as sculpture and architecture. The range of the theory, and the extent of its coverage, is impressing. The systemic character of the presentation (in spite of some apparent contradictions mentioned below) will set a new standard for the discipline. Fortunately, there should still be a possibility for the adepts of visual semiotics to pursue their studies, for some tasks remain undone, and a few puzzles unresolved. In the following, we would like to point to some remaining problems for the theory, some of which appear to be very deeply embedded into its basic framework. As we proceed, our remarks will turn into a reflection on the fundamental concepts of semiotic theory, as applied to the visual world.

On the definition of semiotics
It is a curious fact that, all through their study, the authors nowhere deem it necessary to determine, in any more explicit fashion, what kind of study semiotics is supposed to be. In the introduction, they do not even seem quite sure that they are really doing semiotics (‘Si l’on veut absolument situer ce travail dans un courant quelconque, on pourra le qualifier de sémiotique’; p.11), but that is probably only an instance of the subject matter, rhetoric, having invaded the metalanguage, for the body of the text, including the subject headings, is replete with references to that very discipline, which they even set out to defend against some dubious claimants. It could be argued, of course, that neither does every contribution to sociology or psychology contain a definition of the respective disciplines: but the institutional situation of semiotics is unfortunately not comparable to that of the above-mentioned disciplines. Although there is thus no explicit concern with the definition of semiotics in the book, a certain conception of semiotics is not only hinted at in several places, but it is also often presupposed in the arguments. It is precisely because we are very much in agreement with (part of) what may be gathered from these suggestions, that we regret that the conception in nowhere spelled out.

The semiotician’s piece of the cake
It still seems to be impossible to establish a consensus among all semioticians on what semiotics is all about; and many semioticians (including the Groupe µ) will not even care to define their discipline. However, if we attend less to definitions than to real research practice, and if we leave out those would-be semioticians who simply do not seem to be 3

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images doing anything very new (those who merely go on doing art history, literary history, philosophy, logic, or whatever; and who are euphemistically called ‘macrosemioticians’, in one interpretation of the term, by Groupe µ 1992:47ff), it seems possible to isolate the smallest common denominators of the discipline. In what follows, we will make use of our own definition of semiotics, which we have presented elsewhere, not because we believe it to be absolutely correct, or even complete, but as a kind of check-list permitting us to investigate which issues are, and are not, addressed by the Traité. According to this conception, the subject matter of semiotics, like those of psychology and sociology, does not exist separately somewhere ‘out there’: just like society and the mind, meaning is entangled into everything else, and is abstracted out from it, applying some particular standpoint, or, more precisely, a principle of relevance. The particular point of view of semiotics is to study the point of view itself, as Saussure once put it1, or, in the words of the late Peirce, it is mediation, i.e. the fact of other things being presented to us in an indirect way (cf. Parmentier 1985). Perhaps this ‘science of mediation’ should really be rebaptized mediology, as Debray (1991) proposes.2 In this sense, there may be more to semiotics than signs. In a way, Groupe µ would seem to think so too: although they start out defining semiotics as the science of signs (p.45), they later would seem to take a broader approach, suggesting that even the ordinary object is a sign in this sense (p.81f). As is well-known, both Umberto Eco and the followers of Greimas would like to clear semiotics of signs altogether, whereas the Peirceans continue to see signs everywhere — but this is because they have different definitions of the sign, which are either vague or not very explicit. As we will see, the real problem with the Traité, is that it seems to take several different stands on the nature of the sign. Semiotics, it was suggested above, is a science, the point of view of which may be applied to any phenomenon produced by the human race. As such, it is concerned with the different forms and conformations given to the means through which humankind believe itself to have access to ’the world‘. In studying these phenomena, semiotics should occupy the standpoint of humankind itself (and of its different fractions). Indeed, as Saussure argues, semiotic objects exist merely as those points of view which are adopted on other, ’material’ objects, which is why these points of view cannot be altered without the result being the disappearance of the semiotic objects as such. If anything, the Saussurean position is an example of what Groupe µ (1992:88f) calls an ‘interactionist’ account of the relations between meaning and matter. In fact, however, the issues opposing ‘idealists’ and ‘materialists’ cannot be relevant to semiotics. The task of semiotics is not to develop any philosophical position whatsoever, but to make a model of the model built by the users of meanings as they are produced in the on-going practice of the Lifeworld. Taking the point of view of the users, and trying to explain their particular use, we cannot, like the philosopher Nelson Goodman (1968), reject the folk notion of picture 4

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images because of its incoherence, but must discover its peculiar systematicity. From a semiotical point of view, it does not matter whether the researcher favours a ‘nominalist’ view of reality, or some other conception. It is the Lifeworld notion of life that we must reconstruct, and the Lifeworld notion is certainly not (purely) nominalist. Even a nominalist must somehow accept that concepts and ideas exist, in order to live and act as a member of human society, and a semiotic description of the thinking of a nominalist could not be phrased in nominalist terminology. There are cases in which Groupe µ would seem to argue like nominalist philosophers: thus, the very term ‘image’ is rejected, in favour of the term ‘visual sign’ (1992:15ff), which is then, in its turn, supplemented by a tandem of terms, ‘plastic sign’ and ‘iconic sign’ (1992:113f). It is true that the reason for the first rejection is said to be the ambiguity of the term ‘image’ (which is in fact even greater than noted by Groupe µ, as Gibson 1980 has demonstrated, even more so, of course, in French, where no distinction between ‘image’ and ‘picture’ is possible). But, whatever the reason, such a substitution must lead us astray. The term ‘visual sign’ does not appear as such in ordinary language, but that does not mean that it cannot be given a content for the user (see Sonesson 1991; 1992d on concepts embodied in other semiotic systems than verbal language). Whatever the meaning of the term ‘visual sign’, however, it must certainly be much wider than what is covered by the term ‘image’ or ‘picture’; thus, the specificity of picturehood for the users gets lost. This is not to say that the concept of visual sign cannot be used (indeed, it should be used), as well as the concepts of plastic and iconic sign, in the reconstruction of the notion of picture; but it cannot simply be substituted for the latter. Prieto (1975a), who would claim, on the analogy of linguistics, as we do, that semiotics is concerned to account for the knowledge involved in the use of the semiotic system, takes it to follow that it must be restricted to the knowledge shared by all users of the system. Pursuing the same analogy, however, we are bound to realise that it is necessary to descend at least one level of analysis below the ultimate level of which the user is aware, in order to take account of the presuppositions underlying the use of the system. Semiotics must go beyond the standpoint of the user, to explain the workings of such operative, albeit tacit, knowledge which underlies the behaviour constitutive of any system of signification (cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.1.4). In fact, the approach favoured by our authors is concerned to ‘rendre sa démarche opératoire en définissant explicitement ses objects, et interroger la perception et le consensus dont il était question plus haut’ (p.49). In that sense, Groupe µ (1992: 109f) is quite justified in voicing doubts about distinctions made by common sense thinking; and they rightly take Floch to task for basing his analyses on intuitions which are never accounted for (1992:50f). Indeed, they point out that, in establishing a homology between two expression and two contents, Floch simply takes for granted that one of the 5

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images expressions in correlated with one of the contents, rather than the reverse. Similarly, we have noted (in Sonesson 1989a:II.3.2.) that, although Floch always claims to start out from intuition, in order later to reconstruct it semiotically, he actually never returns to demonstrate that the interpretation of his choice is the only one which can be semiotically reconstructed. At least in one case, Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Arènes de Valence’, we have actually tried to show that an analysis starting out from other intuitions than those favoured by Floch could be based on many more, and more coherent features, of the picture (cf. Sonesson 1989b; 1992a). On another issue, Groupe µ takes a much clearer stand, which, moreover, appears to agree with our conception. According to the latter, semiotics attends to all phenomena considered in their qualitative aspects rather than the quantitative ones, and it is geared to rules and regularities, instead of unique objects. This is to say that, pictorial semiotics, like all semiotic sciences, including linguistics, is a nomothetic science, a science which is concerned with generalities, not an idiographic science, comparable to art history and most other human sciences, which take as their object an array of singular phenomena, the common nature and connectedness of which they take for granted. Just like linguistics, but contrary to the natural sciences and the social sciences (according to most conceptions), pictorial semiotics is concerned with qualities, rather than quantities — that is, it is concerned with categories more than numbers. Thus, semiotics shares with the social and natural sciences the character of being a law-seeking, or nomothetic, rather than an idiographic, science, while retaining the emphasis on categories, to the detriment of amounts, which is peculiar to the human sciences. Being nomothetic and qualitative, pictorial semiotics has as its principal theme a category that may be termed pictorality, or picturehood . The nomothetic interest of semiotics is affirmed from the beginning of the Traité: it is inscribed inside a project of ‘general rhetoric’ because it is based on the presupposition that there are general laws of signification to be discovered (p.9); the tools permitting the analysis of a particular picture should not be forged for the occasion, for it will then be impossible to generalise the findings or transpose the model (p.28); only the ‘microsemiotic approach’, which is based on general models, embodying concepts defined beforehand, can give a ‘scientific status’ to visual semiotics (p.47ff). More than any of these pronouncements, however, it is the entire approach of the Traité, being as it is concerned to derive an array of concepts responsible for the production of meaning, which guarantees not only the nomothetic but also the qualitative character of the Groupe µ conception. Unfortunately, the opposition between the ‘microsemiotic’ and the ‘macrosemiotic approach’ seems to involve much more than generality as distinct from idiography: it attributes a particular method to each one of the research interests, text analysis to description, and some kind of text classification to the derivation of laws, and it supposes the first to be based on a synthetic model, and the second on an analytic one. 6

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Elsewhere, we have argued that semiotics cannot be restricted to any single method, but is known to have used analysis of concrete texts (‘text analysis’) as well as classical experimental technique and imaginary variation reminiscent of the one found in philosophy (‘system analysis’), in addition to a particular method adding elements of text analysis to system analysis (‘text classification’). Moreover, we have claimed that the construction of models is a peculiar feature of the semiotic standpoint, if it is compared to most of the human sciences (which is not to say that these models must be taken over from linguistics, as is often believed and which was to some extent the case in the sixties and seventies). Indeed, semiotics differs from traditional approaches to humanitas in employing a model which guides its practitioners in their effort to bring about adequate analyses, instead of simply relying on the power of the ‘innocent eye’. Two very general categories of models could be taken to be the analytical and the synthetic ones, but it might be more to the point to observe that most real models have analytical and synthetic aspects: as in perception, as described by the constructionists (in other respects favoured by the Groupe µ), science normally makes its analysis by means of synthesis, i.e. a tentative synthesis which may then have to be modified in the confrontation with the object analysed. According to the Traité, the macrosemiotic approach does not care for generalising, studies the picture as a particular statement, dividing it into large partition blocks by means of concepts introduced ad hoc, which are thus not transferable, and does not discuss its own operations and their presuppositions. The microsemiotic approach, on the other hand, is geared to the discovery of general rules, does not analyse unique statements as such, starts out from small elements, and is concerned to make explicit its own operations. In our terms, this means macrosemiotics is idiographic, text analytical, based on analytic models, and unscientific; whereas microsemiotics is nomothetic, system analytical, based on synthetic models, and scientifically responsible. Clearly, other combinations must be possible, and the authors are aware of it, although they have failed to integrate this knowledge into their system: paradoxically, they claim that macrosemiotics is indispensable (p.48), and then immediately proceed to argue that only microsemiotics can render visual semiotics a serious enterprise (p.49). And, after quoting Barthes’ Panzani analysis as an instance of macrosemiotics, they go on to cite Floch, who is however considered commendable, because his approach leads to general hypotheses, validations of the analyses, and the constitution of models — which is to say that, in some respects, it leads to microsemiotics. Although numerous semioticians have had a try at it, the Panzani analysis does not afford the possibility of being generalised (cf. Sonesson 1989a,II.1.). Floch, on the other hand, claims to be using a pre-constituted model, that of the Greimas school (although he simply uses it to pick out elements which happen to fit on the occasion; cf. Sonesson 1989a,II.3.), and he also pretends to validate his original intuitions by means of the models 7

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images (although these promises are often not fulfilled, as noted both by us and by the Groupe µ). He certainly uses a text analytical approach, but he at least claims to be using it identically in numerous text analyses, for instance in the analyses of Kandinsky’s ‘Composition IV’, and in the publicity for the cigarette brand ‘News’. Conceivably, a long series of such analyses could be used to set up a model of the picture sign (although there will always be some amount of synthesis in such an approach, at least as far as the general concepts of sign and picture are concerned), but, given the complexity of the analysis involving each single picture, this is hardly feasible at the present time, if ever. This should not detain us from noting the strategic value of text analysis: though it may not serve to prove any model, it could turn out to be fundamental to its discovery. All the methods of semiotics do not necessarily have the same epistemological import, and are not likely to be useful for the same things. The real trouble with invoking Floch here, however, is that he clearly denies to be doing nomothetical research: his research interest, he claims, is geared, not to such general categories as ’picture’, ’art’, and ’photography’, but to the minute particularities of a given photograph (1986a:11; 1986b:11ff). This is a legitimate claim if it is construed as an argument tending to favour a text analytic approach over other conceivable methods. But if it implies that a particular picture must constitute, not only the object studied, but the object of study, of a semiotic investigation, it would seem to deprive the semiotic approach of its peculiarity, making it just another method which may be used within art history, communication studies, and so on. Curiously, however, Floch at the same time proclaims a nomothetic interest in such categories as cross-cut those listed above, such as signification, and the terms introduced by the Greimas school to account for its organisation. It is not easy to see how such an epistemological paradox as this, spanning the unique pictorial occurrence, and the general laws of meaning, without intermediaries, could ever be resolved. It remains certain, however, that, malgré lui, Floch has greatly furthered the nomothetic approach, as Groupe µ clearly recognises (cf. Sonesson 1988; 1992f; 1993b). According to many exponents of contemporary semiotics, as, for instance, those assembled around A.J. Greimas in France, semiotics is a pure, or autonomous, science, such as was once the ideal of structural linguistics. Other researchers, notably in the United States, tend to look upon semiotics as being merely a meeting-place of many different sciences, a kind of interdisciplinary framework common to the humanities and the social sciences, including, on some accounts, biology and neurology. Our point of view is different from both these approaches: we will take the results of all disciplines involved with the same subject matter (that is, in the present case, with pictures) to be relevant to semiotics, but only once they have been reviewed, redefined and complemented from a specifically semiotic viewpoint. This, in fact, would seem to be the stand taken also in the Traité, although the 8

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images interpretation of its authors is different. They subscribe (p.87f) to a version of the rejection of the semiotic autonomy postulate which they quote from Saint-Martin (1987), according to which the semiotician is condemned to take over the knowledge assembled by other disciplines just as it is, without accomplishing any operations of verification himself, nor intervening in the debates opposing the representatives of the source-sciences. We have taken issue with this conception in our review (Sonesson 1993b) of Saint-Martin’s later Gestalt theory book (1990), and it will be sufficient to summarise that argument here. The problem of such a position in twofold, depending both on the state of the source-sciences, and on the target-science, semiotics, itself. As to the first point, there are numerous schools and warring factions, not only inside semiotics, but also in such established disciplines as psychology. In perceptual psychology, for instance, there are at least three contradictory theories: Gestalt psychology, constructionism, and direct registration theory. It is thus not possible to pretend, like Saint-Martin and Groupe µ, that psychology (in fact, Gestalt psychology and constructionism, respectively) tells us a particular fact about perception (cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.3. and 1993b).3 As to the second point, semiotics, if it is a science, must be in possession of its own operations of verification, and thus it should be possible to apply semiotic methods to the results of psychology and the other sciences, and so to verify them, from the point of view of semiotics. Interestingly, this is exactly what Groupe µ does all through their book. Hardly have they subscribed to Saint-Martin’s postulate, when they go on to find all sorts of faults with Palmer’s model for the organisation of perception into levels (104ff). As far as it goes, their criticism is certainly valid — from a semiotic point of view, or perhaps even from that of the psychology of perception, After all, perceptual psychologists do not have any more direct access to reality than we have; they, too, must build models from their observations, and do not necessarily manage to do it adequately; and sometimes we may be in possession of further observations which we may relevantly bring to bear on their models.

From the science of signs to the science of meaning
The definition of semiotics, as it appears in the Traité, echoes both Peirce and Saussure, as well as numerous latter-day handbooks: semiotics, it proclaims not surprisingly, is the science of signs (p.45). But to the extent that it refers to Saussure’s ‘life of signs in society’, the definition does not mean the same thing as in case it invokes Peirce’s, and beyond him, Locke’s ’doctrine of signs’ — and different chapters of the Traité seem divided on the issue. It is true, of course, that Peirce would later want to resorb the sign into the wider notion of ’mediation’ (cf. Parmentier 1985), and that Saussure early on claimed the sign to be ’a relatively superficial phenomenon’ resulting from the interplay of values. More recently, Greimas has rejected the notion of sign, and his followers Floch (1986a) and Thürlemann (1982: 1990) have argued the case in the domain of pictorial


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images semiotics. In a similar fashion, Umberto Eco (1976), at the end of his tortuous critique of iconicity, substituted the notion of sign process for the traditional sign concept. Yet, even if our business is only to reject the sign, we must know which concept of sign to reject. And that continues to be true if we intend to make the sign into some peculiar subdivision of the wider domain of meaning. It could be argued that the sign supposes, minimally, a division of something into two separate domains, which are somehow correlated, and to which the Peirceans add a third level. Indeed, Groupe µ (p.45) not only quotes the formula ‘aliquid stat pro aliquo’ which Jakobson was so fond of using: the authors also take over from Bierwisch the idea that a code is something which serves to correlate two units situated in different spaces. They immediately go on to argue that Hjelmslev’s conception, according to which the semiotic function is something which relates a unit on the plane of expression to another unit of the plane of content. is somehow more advanced. Thus, in order for something to be semiotic, they argue, it is necessary and sufficient that it should involve two planes which are correlated. This conception is indeed made use of later (p186ff), in order to investigate whether there is such a thing as a plastic sign. However, is should be noted that the provision which we introduced above, according to which there should be minimally two planes, is needed in order to account, not only for the Peircean notion of sign, which is of no avail to Groupe µ, but for their own view of the iconic signs, which, on quite a different basis, is supposed to have three levels (p135ff). At this point, it becomes natural to ask, whether the reasons impelling us to distinguish two levels, would really justify the introduction of a third one, whether it be Peirce’s way, or that of Groupe µ, so that the three levels are really on a par: but then we realise that we do not have any explicit criteria for distinguishing two levels either.4 It is no mere accident that there are much more signs around on Peirce’s account, than on that of the Saussurean tradition: although the criteria are not made explicit, the Saussurean idea of the sign is derived from familiarity with the linguistic variety, in which there is an obvious division of planes having different nature. To Peirce, however, even perception per se is a sign, being based on inferences from various stimuli. Also in cognitive science, the contents of consciousness are said to be ’symbols’, and so on, of things in the ’real’ world (see Johnson-Laird 1988). Interestingly, that is an employment of the term found also in John Locke, one of the first explicit semioticians, at the beginning of the 18th century. Even before that, however, Pedro Fonseca, in his treatise on signs from 1564, distinguished two types of signs: formal signs, by means of which we know the outside world, and instrumental signs, which lead to the cognition of something else, like the track of an animal, smoke, a statue, and the like (cf. Deely 1982). However, as recognised in philosophical phenomenology, and more recently in the ecological psychology of James Gibson, we do not ordinarily perceive signs of the world, but the world itself; and thus, if indeed meaning is involved, it is not the meaning of signs. 10

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images There is at least one point at which Groupe µ (p.79ff) seems to side with Peirce, adopting a similarly wide notion of sign: the object, conceived as a permanent and functional totality integrating not only visual features (as the ‘form’) but also those stemming from other sense modalities, is said not to be separable from the sign. Such a conception is readily understandable from the constructionist stance in psychology, which is the main influence on Groupe µ elsewhere: according to this theory, the object is a hypothesis imposed on an array of stimuli by the perceived in order to make sense of reality, not unlike they way in which substance is organised by form in Hjelmslev’s conception, which is in fact quoted in the same passage in which the equivalence is suggested (p.81). Such a conception is, however, as James Gibson has argued, incapable of accounting for perceptual experience (cf. also Sonesson 1989a,III.3.). Perception is undoubtedly endowed with meaning, but it does perhaps not, as we will suggest, take on the character of a sign. Interestingly, Groupe µ (p.81) goes on to suggest that the object is similar to the sign, in that it is a stable unit permitting antecipations, retentions, and substitutions. They do not pause to consider, however, that this may be so because the sign is a kind of object — indeed, a double object, as common wisdom suggests, at least within semiotics. In fact, however, large parts of the following chapters are really semiotical in this sense: concerned with the constitution of visual reality, even as it appears on a single level of perception. It will be remembered that, according to Groupe µ (p.45f), Hjelmslev’s definition of the sign function is in some way in advance of the other definitions referred to, and this is apparently taken to be so, because the former relates units of the expression plane with units of the content plane. If so, we might expect some help from Hjelmslev in characterising the peculiarity of that object which is a sign. In fact, however, as we have argued elsewhere (notably Sonesson 1989a, I.4.2. and II.4.4.), this is not the case, because Hjelmslev, rather than defining the basic units contracting the sign relation, takes them for granted. Indeed, Hjelmslev (1943:44, 52f) does not claim to explicate the notions of ‘expression’ and ‘content’: these terms are used only for convenience, and should not be taken to stand for more than their mutual relation. This is in keeping with Hjelmslev’s ambition to make a purely ‘formal’ theory (but the question is of course, as Groupe µ recognises when discussing visuality, how much we put into formality before closing it off). Yet, there is something very strange about this definition: while the use of two distinct terms clearly points to a distinction, the relation connecting them is taken to be symmetrical, thus making the terms interchangeable. Why, then, could the sign function not be said to join two expressions or two contents, instead of one expression and one content? Interestingly, the distinction between expression and content, which is not formally taken account of, is then used in the later analysis, to distinguish two kinds of secondary sign systems, metalanguage, whose plane of content is another language, and 11

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images connotational language, whose plane of expression is another language (Hjelmslev 1943:105). here the distinction between expression and content must be taken for granted, without being formally introduced, for otherwise the difference between metalanguage and connotation will collapse! An understanding of the basic components of the sign function, which are simply presupposed by Saussure and Peirce alike, may be gained from an interpretation of Piaget's important attempt to define the semiotic function (which, in the early writings, was less adequately termed the symbolic function), and from Husserl’s definition of the notion of appresentation. The semiotic function is a capacity acquired by the child at an age of around 18 to 24 months, which enables him to imitate something or somebody outside the direct presence of the model, to use language, make drawings, play ’symbolically’, and have access to mental imagery and memory. The common factor underlying all these phenomena, according to Piaget, is the ability to represent reality by means of a signifier which is distinct from the signified. Indeed, Piaget argues that the child’s experience of meaning antedates the semiotic function, but that is does not then suppose a differentiation of signifier and signified in the sign (see Piaget 1945; 1967; 1970).5 In several of the passages in which he makes use of this notion of semiotic function, Piaget goes on to point out that ’indices’ and ’signals’ are possible long before the age of 18 months, but only because they do not suppose any differentiation between expression and content. The signifier of the index is, Piaget says, ’an objective aspect of the signified’; thus, for instance, the visible extremity of an object which is almost entirely hidden from view is the signifier of the entire object for the baby, just as the tracks in the snow stand for the prey to the hunter. But when the child uses a pebble to signify candy, he is well aware of the difference between them, which implies, as Piaget tells us, ’a differentiation, from the subject’s own point of view, between the signifier and the signified’. Piaget is quite right in distinguishing the manifestation of the semiotic function from other ways of ’connecting significations’, to employ his own terms. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, while the signifier of the index is said to be an objective aspect of the signified, we are told that in the sign and the symbol (i.e. in Piaget’s terminology, the conventional and the motivated variant of the semiotic function, respectively) expression and content are differentiated from the point of view of the subject. We can, however, imagine this same child that in Piaget’s example uses a pebble to stand for a piece of candy having recourse instead to a feather in order to represent a bird, or employ a pebble to stand for a rock, without therefore confusing the part and the whole: then the child would be employing a feature, which is objectively a part of the bird, or the rock, while differentiating the former form the latter from his point of view. Only then would he be using an index, in the sense in which this term is employed (our should be employed) in semiotics (that is, in Peirce's sense). In fact, the child may even try to objectify his 12

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images subjective point of view in the sign, by reworking the pebble to resemble a rock, or by transforming (perhaps less plausibly) the feather into the likeness of a bird. If so, he would have initiated the fundamental act of transforming referents into signifiers, as Groupe µ (p 156ff) would put it, making, by the same token, indices into icons. The hunter, on the other hand, who identifies the animal by means of the tracks, and then employs them to find out which direction the animal has taken, and who does this in order to catch the animal, does not, in his construal of the sign, confuse the tracks with the animal itself, in which case he would be satisfied with the former. Both the child in our example and the hunter are using indices, or indexical signs. On the other hand, the child and the adult will fail to differentiate the perceptual adumbration in which he has access to the object from the object itself; indeed, they will identify them, at least until they change their perspective by approaching the object from another vantage point. And at least the adult will consider a branch jutting out behind a wall as something which is nondifferentiated from the tree, to use Piaget’s example, in the rather different sense of being a proper part of it.6 In the Peircean sense an index is a sign, the relata of which are connected, independently of the sign function, by contiguity or by that kind of relation which obtains between a part and the whole (henceforth termed factorality). But of course contiguity and factorality are present everywhere in the perceptual world without as yet forming signs: we will say, in that case, that they are mere indexicalities. Perception is profused with indexicality. This is really what is at stake when Groupe µ (p.81f) talks about the object being like a sign in permitting anticipations and memories. Each time two objects are perceived together in space, there is contiguity; and each time something is seen to be a part of something else, or to be a whole made up of many parts, there is factorality. According to Edmund Husserl, two or more items may enter into different kinds of ’pairings’, from the ’paired association’ of two co-present items (which we will call perceptual context), over the ’appresentative pairing’ in which one item is present and the other indirectly given through the first, to the real sign relation, where again one item is directly present and the other only indirectly so, but where the indirectly presented member of the pair is the theme, i.e. the centre of attention for consciousness. This property serves to distinguish the sign from the abductive context, which is the way in which the unseen side of the dice at which we are looking at this moment is present to consciousness, because in the latter attention is focused on the directly presented part or spans the whole context. However, there seems to be many intermediate cases between a perfect sign and an abductive context (the poetic function, ostensive definitions, protoindices, etc.; cf. Figure 1 and Sonesson 1989a,I.2.). Whereas the items forming the sign are conceived to be clearly differentiated entities, and indeed as pertaining to different ’realms’ of reality, the ’mental’ and the ’physical’ in terms of naive consciousness, the items of the perceptual context continuously flow into each other, and are not felt to be different in nature. In fact, both content and expression of 13

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images the sign are actually ’mental’ or, perhaps better, ’intersubjective’, as most linguists would insist; but we are interested in the respect in which the sign user conceive s them to be different. Piaget’s notion of differentiation is vague, and in fact multiply ambiguous, but, on the basis of his examples, two interpretations can be introduced: first, the sign user's idea of the items pertaining to different basic categories of the common sense Lifeworld; and, in the second place, the impossibility of one of them going over into the other, following the flow of time or an extension in space.

directly present paired association (perceptual context) appresented pairing prototypical sign protoindex both items

thematic both items

differentiated continuous same nature yes yes

one item one item one item

pictured protoindex

one item

aesthetic function/ connotation ostensive definition

one item

both items, one also indirectly

directly presented item or both indirectly presented item mostly directly presented item mostly directly presented item (of index, not picture) mostly directly presented item (of first sign) one of the relata

yes no provisionally discontinuous in the referent, yes; in sign, no

yes no yes

in index relata, yes



yes, as context

according to circumstances

Fig.1. The prototypical sign and other meanings (from Sonesson 1992a)


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Suppose that, turning around a corner of the forest path, we suddenly catch a glimpse of the wood-cutter lifting his axe over his shoulder and head. This experience perfectly illustrates the flow of indexicalities which do not stop to become signs: it is sufficient to observe the wood-cutter in one phase of his action to know what has gone before and what is to come: that he has just raised his tool from some base level, and that at the next moment, he is going to hit the trunk of the tree. If we take a snap-shot of one of the phases of the wood-cutter's work, we could use it, like the well-known traffic sign meaning ’roadworks ahead’, as a part for the whole or, more oddly perhaps, as a phase signifying contiguous phases. There has been a radical change from the flow of indexicalities occurring in reality, for not only is there now a separation of expression and content ’from the point of view of the subject’, but this separation has been objectified in the picture. The picture is a sign, in the sense of it having a signifier which is doubly differentiated from its signified, and which is non-thematic and directly given, while the signified is thematic and only indirectly present. The perceptual continuum may be reconstituted in a film, but not in a series of pictures. However, when we ask the wood-cutter to stand still for a moment (like in a ’tableau vivant’), his position as such, before it is transformed into the motif of a picture, is already a sign for the whole of the action, although the directly presented position does not seem to be non-thematic, continuity is only provisionally interrupted, and expression and content are felt to be of the same nature. If, at this very moment, Vesuvius erupts, and our wood-cutter is buried in many meters of volcanic ash, he will have been transformed, when he is rediscovered many centuries later, into a sign of the person he was, and of the particular phase of his earlier action, as well as of many other things, and as such he will be doubly differentiated, non-thematic and directly given, while the person he was and the act he accomplished is now thematic and indirectly given. His packed lunch, however, bread become carbonised, is less clearly differentiated. There is certainly a wider sense of meaning, which may be related, as Lévi-Strauss once put it, to order, that is, organisation, relatedness, indexicality. What is involved is the idea of connecting things together, and of selecting elements to connect from a wider field of possibilities. It is interesting to observe that it is not the sign function but the paradigm, the feature, and the phoneme, as metaphors for selection, and the syntagm and the index, as metaphors for connection, which have had an important role to play in the adoption of the linguistic model in semiotics, notably in the work of Barthes, Greimas, Lévi-Strauss, and many Peirceans. When Lévi-Strauss presents the myth as a sign function, this interpretation is contradicted by his own detailed description, which really manifests a second-order texture. And when Greimas claims that even the phoneme carries meaning, this can only be understood in the sense of its forming a whole, a category having its own limits. Indeed, it is an object, in Groupe µ:s sense, because of what it makes us anticipate and remember (the syntagms), and what it may substitute for (the paradigm); it is also a 15

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images type standing for occurrences (as stipulated on p.82); and while it is not a multimodal phenomenon, this is not always required (on p.81 and 83, but not on page 82!). The same, of course, goes for the meal studied by Barthes, Halliday, and Douglas, and for the clothing studied by Barthes. And if semiotics is taken to be the science of signification, and not mere signs, then apparel, as well as pictures, will be an object studied by visual semiotics.

The possibility of visual semiotics
The title of the Traité, and many of the headings and subheadings, suggests that it is concerned, not with pictures, but with something more general called visual semiosis, or visual meaning. There are precedents for such a division of the field of semiotics: Roman Jakobson has treated of the differences between visual and auditory signs, and Thomas Sebeok has divided up semiotics according to the sense modalities. More recently, Preziosi (1983) has conceived of architecture as being a kind of visual semiosis, which he then opposes to linguistic meanings, identified with auditory semiosis, and Saint-Martin (1987), exactly as Groupe µ, chooses visuality as her domain. On the other hand, from the point of view of Hjelmslevean semiotics, we would normally not expect visuality, being a mere ’substance’ or even ’matter’, to determine any relevant categorisations of semiotic means. In their dictionary, Greimas & Courtès actually claim that sense modalities, identified with the expression substance, are not pertinent for semiotics, and this is no doubt the reason for visuality being one of the many layers between the unique picture and signification per se being left out of consideration in Floch’s analyses. We have already argued (in Sonesson 1993b) that this type of argument is based on a confusion of the terms ’substance’ and ’matière’, as employed by Hjelmslev, and in their ordinary usage. Thus, the term ’matière’, to Hjelmslev, is simply that which is unknowable, and, as a consequence, not susceptible of being analysed; that is, it is the residue of the analysis; and ’substance’, which, in the earlier texts, is the term used for ’matière’ in the above-mentioned sense, stands, in the later works, for the combination of ’matière’ and ’form’. Thus, ’substance’, in the early works, and ’matter’ later, simply means ’that which is not pertinent relative to the other plane of the sign’ (see discussion in Sonesson 1989a,II.4. and 1988); it does not necessarily stand for matter in the sense of ordinary language, that is, the material of which something is made, or the sense modality. If the material or the sense modality turns out to be relevant in relation to the other plane of signification, it becomes form (from Hjelmslev’s standpoint, this is what happens in connotational language). In an earlier article, Groupe µ (1979) appeared to make precisely this error, when making ’allomateriality’ into one of the possible characterising traits of the collage; but this analysis is now (p.331ff) partly rephrased as heterogeneity of textures, and although the term ‘allomateriality’ reappears (p.334), and even such residue terms as ‘substance de l’expression’ and ‘matière’ are present (p.333f), this is not as


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images troublesome as it once was, since the Hjelmslevean framework is now largely dispensed with, apart from a few passages, mostly in the notes.7 More importantly, the psychology of perception certainly seems to suggest the existence of some common organisation which puts all or most visually conveyed meanings on the same level. If, as we have argued, all signs must also be objects of perception, there is every reason to believe that the modality according to which they are perceived determines at least part of their nature. This is indeed the position taken by Groupe µ (p58f), who goes on to compare this conception to the one favoured by such linguists as Saussure, Martinet, and Bloomfield, according to which the vocal character of language is one of its defining characteristics. More to the point, they observe that the linearity of verbal language is a constraint imposed on linguistic form by the characteristics of the vocal channel by which it was once exclusively conveyed. That is, the qualities of the visual sense modality are of interest to semiotics, to the extent that they specify formal properties embodied in each system addressed to that particular sense. Hjelmslev does not reason differently when he posits different ‘forms’ for written and spoken language. In the end, then, Groupe µ remains true to their original master! If, however, properties imposed by their mode of communication are only some among several traits defining these signs, as is the case of the linearity of verbal language, one may well wonder whether we are really justified in making visuality into a subdivision of semiotics. There may, moreover, be other, perhaps more fundamental division blocks of semiosis, of which pictures and some other visual signs form a part, such as, for instance, that of iconicity. On the other hand, it is conceivable that some more decisive argument could be advanced for privileging the domain of visuality over other possible divisions. But to the extent that there is a legitimate domain of visual semiotics, it should comprehend much more than pictures, buildings, and sculptures, which are the only visual signs discussed by Groupe µ (and in fact, with the exception of a few remarks at the end of the book, and one or two other passages, only pictures, or more exactly twodimensional visual signs, including pictures, are the only signs discussed in the book; and while it may indeed be true that all that has been said about two-dimensional signs are true of the others, this really remains to be demonstrated). Curiously, in spite of he promise made in the introduction (p.12ff) to ignore received categories such as art, Groupe µ, just like Saint-Martin (1987), would seem be the victims of the sacred trinity of art history, painting (to which drawing, photography, and so on, have been assimilated), sculpture, and architecture. As soon as we leave the traditional divisions of art history behind, this division has a very limited value. Thus, sculpture should be compared tosemiotically similar objects like the tailor’s dummy, and the like. At one point (p.405f), the authors are suddenly reminded of marionettes, considered as a kind of sculpture to which movement has been added. But why not also add the ballet dancer, whose art is certainly visual? There are also significations which are only partly 17

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images visual, such as those of theatre communication. Others might be considered not to have an intrinsically visual organisation, such as writing, the conformation of which depends in part on spoken language. But all kinds of gestures and bodily postures, objects, dummies, logotypes, clothing, and many other phenomena must be counted as visual signs and significations. In fact, even visual perception per se supposes a pick-up of meaning of sorts. Not only should we therefore have to face the arduous task of determining the ways in which the various kinds of visual semiosis, beyond those of pictures, architecture, and sculpture (as suggested by Groupe µ 1992:400ff), differ, but it also remains to be shown that they all have sufficient properties in common to be considered ‘visual signs’ (or at least ‘visual significations´), in the sense of being apt to undergo the modifications listed in the Traité. It may be safer, then, to chose as our domain the semiotics of pictures. According to our definition, pictorial semiotics is that part of the science of signification which is particularly concerned to understand the nature and specificity of such meanings (or vehicles of meaning) which are colloquially identified by the term ‘picture’. In other words, pictorial semiotics is the science of depiction, as a peculiar mode of information and communication. Thus, the purview of such a speciality must involve, at the very least, a demonstration of the semiotic character of pictures, as well as a study of the peculiarities which differentiate pictorial meanings from other kinds of signification, and an assessment of the ways (from some or other point of view) in which pictorial meanings are apt to differ from each other while still remaining pictorial in kind. In differentiating pictorial meaning from other meanings, we should in fact be particularly interested in knowing how they are distinguished from other kinds of visual signification, such as sculpture, architecture, gesture, and even writing; or how they differ from other iconic signs, that its, from other signs motivated by similarity or identity. Iconicity is often wrongly taken to be that which is peculiar to pictures. Indeed, Eco’s plaidoyer against the existence of iconical signs, on which Groupe µ (1992:124ff) relies, most of the time reads like an argument against the specificity of pictures, and in spite of rejecting that argument, the authors continue to deny that specificity. To Peirce, an icon is a sign which is based on similarity; or, more strictly, a sign consisting of an expression which stands for a content because of properties which each of them possess intrinsically.8 This means that, not only do iconic signs abound in sense modalities other than vision, as Groupe µ does not fail to note, but there may also be visual, iconic signs which are not pictures, nor sculpture or some deviant form of architecture (as discussed on p. 418f). Peirce only distinguished three subtypes: the image, the diagram, and the metaphor. Without any claim to exhaustivity, we have opposed the picture to a set of other iconically motivated signs, including the droodle, the metaphor, the dummy, other self-identifications and examplifications; and the symbol, in the traditional European sense, that is, as preserved in the name for the artistic movement ’symbolism’ (see 18

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Sonesson 1989a,II.2.2. and III.6.). A primary requirement which should be imposed on pictorial semiotics is to determine the categories of which pictorial signs are subcategories, and to show that the latter are in fact so related to the former. In the second place, we need to specify the differences between pictorial signs and other members of the same superior categories. Thus, although it may be evident that pictures are indeed visual signs, we need to show that they are intrinsically visual, that is, that visuality is part and parcel of their Hjelmslevean form, that which could not be exchanged without the sign becoming another sign having a different meaning. And we have to determine in which way pictures differ from other, intrinsically visual signs, not only (if that is really another, intrinsically visual, sign) from sculpture. Also, we have to show (against Eco, Goodman, and others), that pictures are, in one or another sense, iconical signs, and that pictorality is a peculiar modification of iconicity (see, in particular, Sonesson 1989a,III.3.). Interestingly, Groupe µ (s401ff) does consider semiotically relevant an account of the specificity of architecture and sculpture as visual signs; so that it is not easy to understand why they should not take the same stand as far as the specificity of pictures is concerned, when compared to other two-dimensional, visual signs, and even in case of the category of two-dimensional, visual signs, which masquerade as pictures in the Traité, and which is really only explicated negatively, by contrast with the specifications concerning sculpture and architecture. Already at the beginning of the book, it will be remembered, the authors rejected the term ‘picture’ as being too ambiguous (p.15ff), but even before that, they denied the pertinence of any subdivisions, both those which they took to be based on institutional and other social factors (‘en fonction de leur institutionnalisation’, ‘spécificité sociologique’), such a photography, cinema, theatre, and sculpture (!), and those which have a historical origin, such as futurism and impressionism (p.12f). One is immediately reminded of Jean-Marie Floch’s parallel rejection of such labels as ’picture’, ’photography’, ’painting’, ’publicity’, ’art’, etc., thought to be categorisations of semiotic resources which are ’merely’ sociocultural, that is, historical and relative (’le découpage socio-culturel donc relatif et historique des moyens d'expression’; Floch 1986b:13). There is a double reason for rejecting this proposition: first of all, certain of the categories involved are not at all ‘social’ or ‘historical’ in any interesting sense of these terms (certainly not ‘picture’, and ‘photography’ only derivatively so), and those which are may still retain their semiotic relevance. There are, in our opinion, at least three different vantage points from which subcategories of pictures may be differentiated, that is, three ways in which signs may differ while still being pictorial signs (cf. Sonesson 1989b; 1992a). First of all, we may differentiate pictorial kinds from the point of view of their rules of construction, that is, the rules specifying which traits of the expression plane are relevant for conveying the content, and vice-versa. From this point of view, a photograph 19

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images differs from a painting and a cut-out; and a linear drawing, to use traditional art historical terms, is different from a painterly one. There is nothing particularly ‘social’ about this kind of division, although social values may secondarily be associated with certain categories (thus, for instance, the ‘testimonial’ value of photography, only seriously called in question by the emergence of computer-produced pictures which resemble photographs); and in fact, Groupe µ (1992:156) would seem to recognise this at a later stage, when discussing ‘transformations’, for although they do generalise those terms normally characterising photographs which they employ (p.174f), it seems clear that a particular variety of these transformations will continue to be characteristic to photography; and, in particular, when attending to the difference between drawing and painting (p.250f). Then we may also distinguish categories of pictures according to the effects which they are intended to produce (not the actual effects, which may vary, and which cannot really be known). Thus, in our society, publicity pictures are expected (among other things) to sell commodities, pornographic pictures are thought to stimulate sexual imagination, and caricature supposedly hold the depicted person up to ridicule (cf. Sonesson 1988; 1990a). Very much less well-defined is the intended effect of fine art. This is of course a purely social kind of categorisation. Thirdly, pictorial categories may be differentiated on the basis of the channels through which pictures circulate. The picture post card, for instance, follows another trajectory in order to reach the receiver than a publicity poster, a wall painting, a television picture, or the illustration of a weekly review. There is something social about this division, too, but it also has a geographical aspect (indeed, in the sense of ‘time geography’). These divisions, although based on empirically recognised categories, are not themselves ‘empirical’, but must be considered theoretical constructs, or ‘models’, as Groupe µ (i.e. p. 377f) would say. The different categories coexist. The picture which Barthes analysed in his famous Panzani article is, from the point of view of construction, a photograph; according to intended effects, a publicity picture; and as far as its channel of circulation is concerned, an illustration appearing in a weekly review. This extraordinary cumulation of functions means that, to the extent that any generalisation is possible on the basis of Barthes’ analysis, we are unable to determine whether it should be applied to photographs, publicity pictures, or review illustrations. It is certainly true, however, that certain combinations of categories ascribed on the basis of construction, intended effects, channels, and configurations, tend to co-occur frequently in a given society. Thus, for instance, ‘fine art’, as it was conceived traditionally before the advent of Modernism, involves a particular intended effect (‘aesthetic experience’), certain channels of circulation (‘art galleries’, ‘museums’, ‘art books’, etc.), and even a small number of accepted modes of construction (‘painting’, ‘drawing’, ‘wood-cut’, etc.). In fact, modernism (including 20

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images postmodernism) may be seen as a set of operations breaking this syncretism of functions apart. However, social categories are not necessarily not also semiotic, contrary to what the Groupe µ position would seem to imply.

The social character of semiotic objects
Saussure, it will be remembered, assigned to semiotics (or, as he said, semiology) the task of studying ’the life of signs in society’, claiming that it should rightly constitute a part of social psychology. If so, pictorial semiotics could not only be expected to attend to all kinds of pictorial meaning, but should also to be concerned to determine which are, so to speak, the pictorial kinds existing in a particular society. Actually, a much more fundamental argument can be adduced in favour of the social character of semiotic terms. As we pointed out (in Sonesson 1989a,I.4. and above) following Prieto, who himself quoted Saussure, semiotic objects only exist for their users, that is, they have only the kind of existence that they are accorded by their use in a given social group; and thus, once we pretend to go beyond sociality, there is nothing left to study. It might be argued, however, that only those social features should be considered relevant to semiotics which, in some way or other, impose constraints on the very formal nature of the sign systems studied. This kind of reasoning is obviously parallel to the one employed by Groupe µ when pleading for the relevance, however limited, of perceptual psychology to visual semiotics (p.58f); and it could perhaps be maintained that this is exactly the way in which Saussure retained the lessons of sociology when creating, not semiotics, which he never developed, but general linguistics. The relevance of sociological concepts to semiotics must, in a way, be limited: otherwise, semiotics will be resorbed into sociology, or sociology into semiotics. We have already submitted above that the point of view of semiotics is different, among other things, from that of sociology and psychology, and thus probably also from that of social psychology. The real issue therefore becomes to determine to what extent social parameters are relevant to semiotics. It seems to us that the concept norm, which plays an important part in the theory developed by Groupe µ, must be a social concept (although it is not treated as such by Groupe µ, with the exception of those passages in which they are concerned to explain why they do not want to explore it further).9 Perhaps, then, we may take the norm to be precisely that part of sociology which has to be retained by semiotics. The problem will then be to decide to what extent its social nature will have to be spelled out, in order for it to function in a semiotically adequate way. If, like Groupe µ, we take a rhetorical view of semiotics, then norms are relevant to the extent that they specify the rules which might be broken by means of rhetorical transgressions. But such rules are clearly different for different picture types, let alone


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images different kinds of ‘visual signs’: thus, although there may not be any rhetorical effect in leaving out the frame of a contemporary work of art (as suggested by Groupe µ 1992:389f), there certainly would be one if the work is question is a kitsch painting; and if the picture is not a piece of fine art, the presence of the picture frame would instead be that which breaks the norm (Again, it is a pity that Groupe µ 1992:377 dissolves the frame into the more abstract concept of edging, refusing to distinguish the frame and the plinth: for indeed, a plinth under a picture, or a frame around a statue, would certainly carry rhetorical import). After having introduced the different species of transformations, which transmute referents into iconic signifiers, Groupe µ (1992:183f) asks whether the transformations as such, being all different kinds of deviation from reality, are in themselves rhetorical: later on, when considering the rhetoric of the iconic sign (p.295ff), they decide that only the heterogeneity of transformations is rhetorical (‘On ne parlera donc de rhétorique transformative que dans le cas d’une violation de l’homogénéité des transformations’; ‘La rhétorique réside dans la multiplicité des transformations à l’intérieur d’un même énoncé’). Thus, the fact of transforming a real personage into a stick man is not in itself rhetorical, whether the drawing is in black and white or in several colours; but to introduce a figure in black-and-white inside a drawing which is otherwise coloured is to produce a rhetorical figure. In the same way, the red flag appearing in Eisenstein’s otherwise black-and-white Potemkin-film is rhetorical (p.295). If this is the case, it seems to us that the ‘rhetoric of transformation’ is a misnomer: what is rhetorical is then the combinations, not the transformations. As more extreme case, we offer the example of Picassos’s ‘paraphrase’ of Las Meninas, or, even better, Hamilton’s ‘paraphrase’ of Picasso’s Las Meninas, which contains a still more complete sample-card of different iconical transformations. Curiously, Groupe µ (p.307f) seems to go on hesitating on how to decide this issue, for when really embarking on the task of explaining the rhetoric of transformations, they decide to treat heterogeneous and homogeneous transformations together. Elsewhere, Groupe µ (p.262ff) introduces a distinction between general and local norms. A general norm is established in a code, pre-existing to the occurrences which conform to it, as well as to those which transgress it. Thus, according to a norm of the perceptual world, a head is normally attached to a body below it, and if there is no body present, or the body is above the head, norms have been transgressed. Local norms are established by the very complex of signs which then goes on to break it. Thus, many of Vasarely’s works feature endless horizontal and vertical repetitions of circles of a particular size and colour, but the expectations that this will go on for ever is suddenly deceived with the appearance of a square, or a smaller, or differently-coloured, circle. This distinction is useful, but it is probably not sufficient.10 In the Potemkin example quoted above, two norms, one local, and the other general, are really broken at one stroke: the general norm resulting from the technical possibilities of the time, which prohibits colour 22

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images films (the red colour was painted onto the film strip), and the local norm making us expect a film which is otherwise black-and-white to be entirely black and white. As seen today, however, the film as a totality breaks another, more general norm, which requires films, at least of this kind, to be made in colour. A similar case could be made for the rhetoricalness, to us and to the public of the time, of the first sound movies. Now consider the kind of transformation by means of which an ordinary landscape is made into an impressionistic painting. This transformation, we submit, is doubly rhetorical, though both times the norms broken are, in Groupe µ:s sense, general: first, it breaks the general norm, in vigour at the time, for how the perceptual appearances of the world are to be rendered in fine art; and, in the second place, it breaks the norm, still in place, for how a normal picture would render those appearances. This could equally be formulated in terms familiar from the Russian Formalists (from Sklovskij and, more in particular, Jakubinskij): the impressionistic painting disrupts the habits of perception, which are acquired (thus becoming ‘automatized’) in our ongoing everyday experience, not of standard language, but of another standardised medium, ‘non-artistic’ pictures, thereby making them ‘strange’, or ‘actualised’, for us; and at the same time it breaks down the expectancies created by earlier artistic movements, which where once revolutionary, but has since then hardened into standardised artistic forms. In the later reformulation of the Prague school, it transgresses the norms for the standard medium in which it is couched, but also the norms set up by immediately preceding artistic movements. A concept of norm which is social in nature figures prominently in the model suggested by the Prague school, notably by Mukar&ovsky! and Vodic&ka. According to this conception, norms, which in part are purely aesthetic, and in part have an extra-aesthetic origin, determine the production of the artefact by its creator, both directly, as a canon, or set of rules, and in the form of a repertory of exemplary works of art which are offered for imitation. In order to become an aesthetical object, the artifact must be perceived by the art public, and this process of perception, termed concretisation, itself depends on the existence of norms, which are ideally more or less identical to those employed by the creator. More commonly, and more interestingly, the norms may have been modified and even exchanged for others since the artifact was created, in which case a new interpretation of the artifact will result. Concretisation involves the determination of the dominants appearing in the structure of the work of art, that is, the elements which are to receive emphasis and to organise the remaining elements of the structure; it also allows the perceiver to fill in lacking details from his own experience. The constraints resulting from the norms may in some cases acquire the force of law, but at the other end of the scale they can just as well appear as simple recommendations (cf. Figure 2.). This model is clearly an adaptation of the conception of perception propounded by Husserlean phenomenology, with an added social dimension (cf. Sonesson 1992a). We may thus restore to the model its general import, applying it to all objects of perception, 23

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images while retaining its social character. In this sense, the production of any artifact given to perception involves norms of different levels of generality, as so does its concretisation into the perceptual experience of a given subject of perception. On the other hand, the idea of there being a perpetual movement in which de-automatized norms are exchanged for automatized ones, an ever-repeated dialectics of ‘struggle and reformation’ (in the terms of the Prague theses) applied to established artistic forms, really reproduces the conception of art presupposed, and even explicitly formulated, by the exponents of Modernism, as we have argued elsewhere (Sonesson 1993d).

NORMS aesthetical norms and aesthetically deformed norms Canon

CONCRETISATION filling in of empty places, determination of dominant structures
Sc : perceptual agent–critic

Repertory of exemplary works Work Artifact SIGN

S 1 : creator

Aesthetical object
material vs intentionality

S 2 : perceptual agent

Fig. 2. Schematic rendering of the Prague school model (as reconstructed in Sonesson 1992a. Filled arrows indicate direct influence; outline arrows stand for more complex interactions)

For, although re-formations of norms must have taken place before the advent of Modernism, they were not the order of the day: the breaking of the norms did not constitute the meta-norm of all artistic work. In the case of painting, for instance, there may have been a guiding idea, a common endeavour, since the Italian renaissance, aspiring to render ever more perfectly the appearance of the visual world; ‘Progress in art’, in Suzi Gablik’s terms, was thus conceivable. But it is wrong to think that there could be a similar progress in abstraction: rather, following the dialectics formulated by the Formalists, each new generation of modernists found themselves, in Michael Fried’s terms, under the obligation to work through the problems ‘thrown up by the art of the recent past’, 24

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images thereby creating new problems for the future generation to work on. The Modernist norm in time came to require the abandonment of pictorial representation mimicking the appearances of the visual world, and thus, by implication, the central role of the human figure, thus denying another norm in vigour (in the Occidental world, but not, for instance, in the Islamic one) since the prehistoric cave paintings and petroglyphs. As Frank Stella has testified, at the time of his art studies, it was simply unimaginable to make a painting which was not abstract. Indeed, when de Kooning started painting female figures, however caricatured, Georges Mathieu demanded his expulsion from the Artist’s Club in New York, for having betrayed the abstract cause, that is, broken the norm of American Modernism. The fact that he was apparently not excluded illustrates M ukar&ovsky!’s claim that not all norms acquire the force of law. Yet too much should not be made of the abandonment of depiction: inside Modernism, other norms have been set up and overridden. Thus, Abstract expressionism created a norm, not only of abstraction, but also of a peculiar kind of expressiveness, the exemplary works of which are perhaps Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and, to a lesser extent, those of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Complying with this norm as far as a certain abstraction is concerned, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns already deviate from it in showing less ‘expressiveness’ and more discipline, and Johns even allows some amount of depiction, but only of things which are themselves flat, like the canvas. As M ukar&ovsky! notes, every work of art contains an affirmation of some (aspects of) earlier works of art, together with a negation of others. The use of ordinary, functional objects, and the inclusion of photographs and written texts, found in Conceptual Art, Pop art, and other transitory movements, may be said to hark back to Dadaism, Futurism and Cubism: yet the strictly regulated manner of their appearance in the former art forms would seem to owe something to Minimalism, and contrasts with the apparently chaotic and random character of their appearance in collages and as ready-mades. Similarly, ‘pattern painting’ reacts to, but complies with some of the norms set up by, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism: as against the asceticism of all these movements, they reclaim the right to create more complex and more prolific ornaments, inspired in textile decoration, calligraphy, and Islamic art; yet often they remain abstract. To the extent that they retrieve the possibilities of depiction, they do not follow the lead of the Western tradition, but prefer a more awkward, to our eyes rather caricatured rendering, deriving from the styles of Persian miniature and Chinese Vase painting (Brad Davis) or Mayan sculpture (like Joyce Kozloff). Once the machine of Modernism has got going, according to our argument (cf. Sonesson 1993d), there is no escape from it, and there can be no Postmodernism, if not as a (misnamed) phase of Modernism. This is not only because a lot of properties usually ascribed to Postmodernism are already present in Modernism. There is another, purely semiotic reason, because of which there can be no end to Modernism, which is that its 25

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images mechanism, as described by the Formalists, can never cease functioning, once it has started to work: trying to break out of the ‘tradition of the new’, the art work conforms to the very mechanism of that tradition, which consists precisely in transgressing the norms set up by the art-forms preceding it. Even if Postmodernity consisted in returning to the ways in which art was created before Modernism was invented (which is only true, and only to some extent, of postmodernist architecture), even this could only be interpreted, after Modernism, as a break with the earlier, temporary, modernist norm, and thus as a new phase of Modernism — that is, it could only be so interpreted, as long as Modernism was remembered, and not lost too far back in the past. Replaced in the present context, this seems to mean that Modernism is a formidable perpetuum mobile of rhetoric. Indeed, if anything, is continually produces norms and deviations from these norms, which then are transformed into news norms, requiring further deviations, and so on, in a progression which, until further notice, seems to go on for ever. According to Groupe µ (p.256), a rhetorical operation supposes two stages, one in which a statement is judged to be non-acceptable, and another in which the deviant term, which is perceived, is exchanged for another term, which is merely conceived. Perhaps it could be argued that the Modernist project is not rhetorical, because the second operation never takes place. In fact, however, there can be no doubt that the different phases of Modernism each time offer new contents for plastic language, in the sense in which Groupe µ (cf. p.186ff) understand it, involving different combinations of textures, forms, and colours. Thus, Modernism certainly seems to be pure rhetoric.

Culture (Textuality) vs Mechanism of Mechanism of exclusion text generation Accumulation of information
Mechanism of translation

Nature (Non-textuality)

Chaos Non-Text Disorder Barbarism


Exchange of information Repertory of texts Inside

Mechanism of inclusion



Fig. 3. Culture as seen by the Moscow/Tartu school (as reconstructed in Sonesson 1992a)

There is even a spatial aspect to the rhetoric of Modernism, complementary to the temporal one, which may be described by means of the Tartu school model of cultural 26

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images semiotics if the opposition between art and non-art is substituted for that between culture and non-culture (cf. Figure 3 and Sonesson 1992a; 1993d). Although the Tartu model has never, as far as we know, been used in this way by the members of the school, the only modification which is necessary is to conceive the art world as a sub-domain, a ‘subculture’, inside the totality of Occidental culture, which, under the regime of Modernist, tends to absorb other ‘sub-cultures’ in its domain. The same rules of inclusion/exclusion, translation, impossibility of translation, and translation as deformation, will then be found to obtain. Thus, for instance, when Duchamp introduces the urinal into the art gallery, a rhetorical effect is obtained, at least as far as the concept of art itself and its associated values (‘beauty’, ‘sublimity’) are concerned, and also with respect to the convention of exhibition as such (something ‘private’, linked to the discharge of urine, being made ‘public’, transformed into a spectacle). Later, of course, this rhetoricalness wears off: as Duchamp himself wrote: ‘I threw the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they come and admire it as an art object for its aesthetic beauty’.11 The point of this long digression was to show that norms, in the sense in which they are involved in rhetoric, are fundamentally social and historical. However, the Prague school model will permit us to make yet two other observations about the nature of norms and their transgressions. Instead of referring to rules, an artifact may refer to the second division of the norm, the repertory of exemplary works of art (or whatever), and instead of trying to imitate them, it may set out to transgress them. This is what is known as ‘visual paraphrases’, exemplified by Picasso’s ‘paraphrase’ of Las Meninas, and by Hamilton’s ‘paraphrase’ of Picasso’s Las Meninas, mentioned above. In a case like this, the percept contains some features (normally very abstract ones), which makes us expect to see Vélasquez’ Las Meninas, but these are then contradicted by other traits which tends to ascribe another identity to the same percept. Although it is a particular, in the philosophical sense of the term, Las Meninas, to the extent that is has been socially established as an exemplary work of art, functions in this social context as a general term, which explains that the above-mentioned conflict between identity criteria is resolved in favour of Las Meninas, though not to the point of treating this object of perception as a copy of that work, but, more prominently, as a free variation, or paraphrase of it. Contrary to what happens in the case of the copy, the work which is perceived remains the centre of attention, yet it is perceived on the background of the work which, ostentatiously, it is not (cf. Sonesson 1993e). In this sense, the paraphrase is a rhetorical effect, and it is indeed a rhetorical effect of our time, characterising Postmodernism, as well as many individual modernist works beforehand; yet there is no place for it in the Traité. Another rhetorical effect, for which the Traité has no consideration, is the possible modulation of the distance spanned by the artifact and its concretisation. When such a concretisation takes the form of the reading of a literary work or the perceiving of an art object, it is the sake of the individual subject, and cannot be seized by analysis. However, 27

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images in some cases, concretisation, in its primary phase, involves a collective subject, which creates a new artifact, offered to the perception of further perceivers: this occurs with the execution of music, the dramatisation of a theatrical work, and the representation of a ballet. In these instances, the concretisation may undoubtedly, instead of following the norm of an ideal rendering, opt for its transgression. Let us consider the case of ballet, which is certainly made up of purely visual signs, indeed, of visual signs, in which the plastic layer largely exceeds the iconical one. In the version of the ‘Swan Lake’, staged by Mats Ek for the Cullberg ballet, transgressions of norms occur on several different levels: transgressions of the code of ‘classical ballet’ which ‘Swan Lake’ shares with many other spectacles of dancing (movements which are not allowed by the code, contiguous with other movements which serve to establish ‘classical ballet’ as the local norm); transgressions of the exemplary work of art which ‘Swan Lake’ constitutes in our culture (most obviously, modifications of the ‘romantic’ narrative structure in the direction of more trivial reality, in which, after the peripatetic moment, in which the White Swan is saved from the sorcerer, the prince retains the Black Swan as his mistress); transgressions of the norms of concretisation (which are harder to exemplify, because they really have to be shown: it is the particular way in which the grande chassée is executed).12 In conclusion, then, in establishing the distinction between general and local norms, Groupe µ certainly recognises that there are more meanings between heaven and earth than are known to structuralism, but they do not appear to take this insight far enough. Not only is not all meaning a result of the units contained in the system, but there are numerous ways in which other meanings may be produced.

On the metacritique of iconicity and a few other grounds
In semiotics, the study of pictorial signs has been associated with a curious brand of theoretical iconoclasm: Bierman affirmed, against Peirce, that there are no iconical signs, and Lindekens and Eco later maintained that pictures are as conventional as linguistic signs. According to Saussure, arbitrary or conventional signs best realise the ideal of the perfect sign, and thus form the principal subject matter of semiotics. No doubt this conception spurred at least Eco and Lindekens, when, during the sixties and seventies, they tried so hard to demonstrate the conventional character even of those signs which, on the face of it, appear to be most completely grounded in nature. For a long time, one version or other of this critique was unanimously adopted in semiotics. Interestingly, the Traité (p.125ff) reverses this trend, as did our own book (Sonesson 1989a,201ff) beforehand. All the while, of course, the Peirceans have been maintaining the existence of iconic signs, but this has been of little avail to non-Peirceans, and even to less unconditional followers of Peirce, since this postulate is never demonstrated, and the counter-arguments never met. In fact, there are serious counter-arguments to the possibility of iconical signs, in particular in the case of pictures, and these have to be 28

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images shown to be false, if the theory is to be upheld. It is easy to refute Eco, and Groupe µ (p.126f) does so, but Goodman’s arguments, the most important of which were advanced before by Bierman, require a more complex discussion, which never takes place in the Traité. We will try to spell out these arguments in the following, before we go on to suggest a second-generation critique of iconicity, as this notion is understood, by Groupe µ, as well as by the Greimas school.

The icon and the holy trichotomy
We have to take care to avoid, at the start, two, fairly trivial, but commonly made, errors pertaining to the import of iconicity. To begin with, iconic signs are often falsely taken to be the same thing as visual signs (for instance in cognitive psychology, when discussing ‘iconic codes’; but this may perhaps be more properly seen as another, conflicting, usage of the same term; e.g. Kolers 1977). And, in the second place, iconicity mostly tends to be identified with picturehood (which may happen, in a more surreptitious way, as we shall see, even inside semiotics), when in actual fact, if we rely on Peirce’s definition, pictures only constitute one variety of iconicity. As the term is used in semiotics, however, iconicity is unavoidably connected, in some way or other, to Peirce’s conception of the icon, even when, as in the Greimas school approach, is has been redefined to mean something like ‘the illusion of reality’, a kind of ‘verisimilitude’, also present in literature. In order to understand the notion of iconicity, we must therefore attend to Peirce’s threefold division of the sign into icons, indices, and symbols. 13 We shall not, in the following, make use of Peirce’s intricate terminology; the essential points may no doubt be stated without it. Peirce insists that the sign has three parts; however, if we are not mistaken, the third element, the interpretant, is simply that which determines the relation between the other two. More precisely, it is the function which picks out the relevant elements (‘grounds’) of expression and content. As for the difference between content and referent, it is actually taken care of by a subdivision of the second unit, Peirce’s object, which shall be termed content in the following. The term ground stands for those properties of the two things entering into the sign function by means of which they get connected (something similar to Hjelmslev’s ‘form’.). In case of the weathercock, for instance, which serves to indicate the direction of the wind, the content ground merely consists in this direction, to the exclusion of all other properties of the wind, and its expression ground is only those properties which makes it turn in the direction of the wind, not, for instance, the fact of its being made of iron and resembling a cock (the latter is a property by means of which it enters an iconic ground, different from the indexical ground making it signify the wind). The ground is the potential of things for serving in a particular type of sign relation (cf. Figure 4). 14 It is important to note that there is a ‘structural’ element to Peirce’s conception: given a particular domain of this world containing objects which may be termed signs (and,


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images of course, Peirce’s criteria for what may be included in this domain are much looser than ours, as discussed above), Peirce’s claim is that, when considered from a particular point of view, this domain must be partitioned into exactly three sub-domains. The point of view in question is the kind of relationship obtaining between the expression and the content and/or referent involved in the sign function (and Peirce thus proposed two other points of view, giving rise to different partitions). In actual fact, not just any such relationship is considered relevant: we are concerned with different kinds of motivation (including the zero-type). Two important consequences ensue. If we want to show that there are more kinds of signs than those recognized by Peirce, we must make sure that we are really considering signs from the same point of view as he does (this appears to be the trouble with the extensions proposed by, among others, Sebeok and Helbo). On the other hand, in fairness to Peirce, we must, as far as it is possible, interpret the three sign types in such a way that the definition, when put together, exhausts the domain of signs. This latter requirement becomes necessary because of the numerous conflicting definitions of the three sign types which appear in Peirce’s work.

Icon Index


w 9

I ↔l

w Z 9

⇔I ⇔l ⇔

Conventional sign (‘symbol’)

Fig. 4. Signs and their grounds, according to Peirce (adapted from Sonesson 1992a) An icon, then, is a sign in which the ‘thing’ which serves as its expression in one or other respect is similar to, or shares properties with, another ‘thing’, which serves as its content. Yet two objets being iconic with respect to the same properties are transformed into a sign only by participating, in addition, in a sign relation. However, according to Peirce, the similarity between two ‘things’ entering into such a sign relation must exist independently of the latter. Two items sharing an iconic ground are apt to enter, in the capacity of being its expression and content, into a semiotic relation forming an iconic sign, to the extent that there is some or other set of properties which they possess independently of each other, which are identical or similar when considered from a particular point of view, or which may be perceived or, more broadly, experienced as being identical or similar, where similarity is taken to be an identity perceived on the 30

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images background of fundamental difference. Since both Franklin and Rumford are Americans, Peirce claims, one of them may serve as a sign of the other; but the fact that Franklin is an American is quite unrelated to Rumford’s being one. An index, on the other hand, is a sign in which the ‘thing’ which serves as its expression is, in one or other way, connected with another ‘thing’, which serves as its content. Again, the two objects partaking of a relation of indexicality are transformed into a sign only by participating, in addition, in a sign relation. Even in this case, according to Peirce, the connection between the two ‘things’ entering into the sign relation must exist independently of the latter (but not necessarily precede it, as is shown in Sonesson 1989a,I.2.5.). An indexical ground is involved if two ‘things’ are apt to enter, in the capacity of being its expression and content, into a semiotic relation forming an indexical sign, due to a set of properties which are intrinsic to the relationship between them, such as it is independently of the sign relation. Indexicality may conceivably be reduced to either contiguity or factorality.15 In a conventional sign, on the other hand, there is no relationship joining the two ‘things’ which serve as expression and content of the sign relation, apart from the sign relation itself. It is thus a kind of residue category. There can be no conventional ground: for the conventional sign is literally ungrounded, and may be constructed on the basis of any two ‘things’, without any particular requirement being imposed on their properties. It is possible to distinguish different varieties of iconic grounds. Peirce only mentions the diagram, the image, and the metaphor, but, as soon as we give up Peirce’s propensity for seeing everything in terms of threes, there really seems to be no reason for stopping at that number, or even for including that series. According to Peirce, the iconic ground of images is made up of simple qualities; diagrams render relations of the parts of the content by analogous relations of the parts of the expression (which would include, but not be restricted to, diagrams in the ordinary language sense); whereas metaphors ‘represent the representative character of a representation by representing a parallelism in something else’. Surprisingly, when discussing evidence from perceptual psychology, we shall see that pictures, in the ordinary language sense of the term, cannot be images in this sense, but should rather be counted as diagrams. If a particular iconic sign produces the illusion of literally seeing in the twodimensional surface of the expression plane the projection of a scene extracted from real world three-dimensional existence (with or without a suggestion of linear perspective), then it is more particularly a pictorial sign, or a picture, as this term is ordinarily used. Thus a photograph, Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’, a lot of modernist art, including the creations of ‘pop art’ and ‘postmodernism’, and many rock carvings, are pictures in this sense. The symbol, in the sense in which this term is ordinarily used, not by Peirce, but in the European tradition (including Saussure), is also a kind of iconic sign, having certain indexical traits: it reposes on the isolation of an abstract, not necessarily perceivable, 31

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images property, connected with a generalisation from the object serving as an expression, and a particularisation from the object serving as a content: thus we have the scales signifying justice, in which the common property is the abstract, transmodal one of equilibrium; or a dove standing for peace, in which the peacefulness of the animal is certainly not a property of real doves, but a very real property of the dove as conceived in the sign (cf. further discussion in Sonesson 1989a,III.6.;1990e;1992f; 1993c).16

In defence of iconicity
During the renewal of semiotic theory in the sixties and seventies, most semioticians were eager to abolish the notion of iconicity, taking pictures as their favoured example, while claiming that pictures were, in some curious way, as conventional as linguistic signs. Bierman, Goodman, Lindekens, and Eco, have all argued against using similarity as a criterion in the definition of iconical signs and/or pictures; and even Burks and Greenlee have introduced some qualifications on Peirce’s view which serve to emphasise conventionality. Some of these thinkers, such as Bierman and Goodman, were mainly inspired by logical considerations, together with a set of proto-ethnological anecdotes, according to which so-called primitive tribes were incapable of interpreting pictures; Eco and Lindekens, in addition, wanted to show that pictures, conforming to the ideal of the perfect sign, as announced by Saussure, were as arbitrary or conventional as the sign studied by the most advanced of the semiotic sciences, general linguistics. Saussure himself never went to such extremes: in his unpublished notes he recognises the motivated character of both pictures and miming, but at least in the latter case, he argues that the rudiment of convention found in it is sufficient to make it an issue for semiotics. The most interesting arguments against iconicity were adduced by Arthur Bierman (1963), and were later repeated in another form, by, notably, Nelson Goodman (1970). According to one of these arguments, which may be called the argument of regression (cf. Sebeok 1976: 128), all things in the world can be classified into a number of very general categories, such as ‘thing’, ‘animal’, ‘human being’, etc., and therefore everything in the universe can refer to, and be referred to, everything else. Thus, if iconicity is at the origin of signs, everything in the world will be signs. This may not be so far from what Peirce thought: at least Franklin and Rumford are, as we know, potential signs of each other. It is certainly a conception of the world common in the Renaissance, and among Romantics and Symbolists. In the case of more common iconical signs, however, like pictures and models, a conventional sign function must either be superimposed on the iconic ground, or the iconic ground must itself be characterised by further properties. Even in the former case, however, iconicity is still needed, not to define the sign, but to characterise iconic signs (cf. Sonesson 1989a: 220ff). Differently put, if Peirce meant to suggest that there are three properties, iconicity,


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images indexicality, and symbolicity, which, by themselves and without any further requirement, triggers of the recognition of something as a sign, then, the argument of regression will create trouble for his conception. On the other hand, if he merely wanted to suggest that something that was already recognized as being a sign, could be discovered to be an iconical sign, rather than an indexical or symbolic one, by means of tracing it back to the iconic ground, then the argument of regression will have no bearing on it. According to another argument, which has been termed the symmetry argument (Sebeok 1976:128), iconicity cannot motivate a sign, for while similarity is symmetrical and reflexive, the sign is not. Pigments on paper, or carvings in a rock, could stand for a man, but not the reverse; nor will they, in their picture function, stand for themselves. This argument is quoted and accepted by Groupe µ (1992: 125f, 130); yet, if it is not refuted, only nonsense will remain of iconicity. The error consists in identifying the common sense notion of similarity with the equivalence relation of logic. No doubt, the equivalence relation, as defined in logic, is symmetric and reflexive, and thus cannot define any type of sign, since the sign, by definition, must be asymmetric and irreflexive. But to identify similarity with the equivalence relation it to suppose man to live in the world of the natural sciences, when in fact he inhabits a particular sociocultural Lifeworld. Similarity, as experienced in this Lifeworld, is actually asymmetric and irreflexive. Indeed, this fact is not only intuitively obvious, but has now been experimentally demonstrated (notably by Rosch 1975; and Tversky 1977; cf. also Sonesson 1989,220ff, 327ff). Thus, for instance, subjects would consider Korea to be similar to China, rather than the reverse, because China, being more well-known, is endowed with more properties, and thus serves as the standard of comparison. Contrary to the argument of regression, the symmetry argument may thus be warded off, without introducing a supplementary sign function, and without amending the definition of the iconic ground. Goodman also argues that a painting is actually more similar to another painting than to that which it depicts. However, similarity should not be confused with identity: indeed, between two pictures (two canvases, etc.) there is identity, according to a principle of pertinence, and on the basis of this property a picture, just as any other object, may be used as an identity sign or an exemplification (as, for instance, in an art exhibition, or in front of the artist’s workshop; cf. Goodman 1968). There is similarity, on the other hand, only on the basis of a fundamental dissimilarity. It is certainly not in their ’important’ properties, if that means the attributes defining them as ’selves’, that the picture and its referent (or content) are similar. In fact, the hierarchically dominant categories of the picture and its referent must be different; for a picture which is just a picture of the picture-of-X, is indistinguishable from a picture of X (cf. Sonesson 1989a:226ff).

Primary and secondary iconicity
Although the sign relation is thus not needed in order to render similarity asymmetric and


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images irreflexive, it is required in order to distinguish similarities which are signs from those which are not. At this stage, then, it would seem that the picture could be defined by the sign relation, together with similarity; but Eco rightly observes that, on closer inspection, there is really no similarity between the painted nose, and the nose of a real person. The same observation is even more obviously valid in the case of the stick-man, whether it is drawn on paper, or carved in the rock. However, it has no bearing whatsoever on iconic signs which are not picture signs, and the argument really shows the confusion between pictures and iconic signs in general: indeed, the American-ness of Franklin and Rumford is identical, as far as it goes, as is the roundness of circles and other round things, and the pattern and colour of a tailor’s swatch and the cloth it exemplifies. In the case of the picture sign, it may really be necessary to construe similarity as a result, rather than a condition, upon the emergence of iconicity, but that is an issue which will concern the analysis of a specific variety of iconic signs, the picture, not iconicity generally. The alternative analysis in terms of convention suggested by Goodman, Eco, and others, is conceived to take care of the case of pictures, but paradoxically, it seems that it would really be needed, not for pictures, but for some other iconical signs, which rely on identity. Goodman’s and Greenlee’s contention that the referent of each picture is appointed individually (if that is indeed what they want to suggest), and Eco’s proposal that the relations of the picture are so correlated with those of the referent, are incompatible with what psychology tells us about the child’s capacity for interpreting pictures when first confronted with them at 19 months of age (as demonstrated in a famous experiment by Hochberg). On the other hand, we do have to learn that, in certain situations, and according to particular conventions, objects which are normally used for what they are, become signs of themselves, of some of their properties, or of the class of which they form part: a car at a car exhibition, the stone axe in the museum show-case or the tin cane in the shop window, the emperor’s impersonator when the emperor is away, and a urinal (if it happens to be Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’) at an art exhibition. When used in this way, to stand for themselves, objects are clearly iconical: they are signs consisting of an expression which stands for a content because of properties which each of them possess intrinsically. It could be said, and has often been claimed, that each object it is own best icon. Paradoxically, however, no object can ever become an iconical sign of itself, in the absence of a convention for defining its use as a sign. Without having access to a set of conventions and/or an array of stock situations, we have no possibility of knowing, neither that something is a sign, nor of what it as sign: of itself as an individual object, of a particular category (among several possible ones) of which it is a member, or of one or other of its properties. We have to know the show-case convention to understand that the tin can in the shop-window stands for many other objects of the same category; we need to be familiar with the art exhibition convention to realise that each object stands for itself; and only if we have learnt the convention associated with the 34

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images tailor’s swatch can we know that the swatch is a sign of its pattern and colour, but not of its shape. A particularly apt illustration of the conventionality of such iconic meanings is given by the leather-covered Citroën exposed as an art object in the park ‘Hic et nunc’ in Gaiman, Patagonia, which the artist will then take out to use as an ordinary car when driving his visitor back to the airport (Juan Carlos Peirone, personal communication). We shall use the term secondary iconicity to designate a relation between an expression and a content of the kind described by Peirce, which can however be perceived only once the sign function, and a particular variety of it, is known to obtain (cf. Sonesson 1989a,II.2.2. and 1992a). This is of course to suppose that there is such a thing as a primary iconicity: a relation of similarity which is seen to obtain before taking cognisance of the sign relation, and which helps to establish it. Indeed, there is an archaeological and/or ethnological correlate of this distinction: a secondary iconicity is an iconic relation which can only be perceived to obtain, to the extent that the archaeologist or ethnologist has been able to reconstruct the contexts of use and the conventions pertaining to the objects involved; a primary iconicity, on the other hand, is there for everyone to see, once all layers of earth and other deposits have been cleared away, or the entrance to the cave has been unsealed. The picture, it would appear, is such a primary iconicity.

From droodles to pictures
To account for the iconicity of pictures, it is not sufficient to point to the existence of transformations by means of which a referent may end up as a signifier; it is also necessary, as Groupe µ (p.133f) recognises, to account for the alterity of the pictorial signifier and its content, i.e. to show how one comes to be taken as a sign of the other. In spite of their claim to the contrary, the authors never explain how a tumbler differs from a picture of a tumbler in other ways than it differs from another, slightly different tumbler, perhaps of another size. Later in their book (on p. 143f), they admit that the sign character has not been explained, and then resort to the rather desperate suggestion that it must be conveyed by the presence of other signs, for instance a frame. As we have seen, something of the kind is really true of secondary iconicity signs, such as exemplifications. Pictures, however, are different: for although frames certainly make us anticipate pictures, some frames are only seen as such because they enclose pictures, and many pictures without frames are yet perceived to be pictures. So far, however, we have not offered much more of an explanation than Groupe µ. We have shown that the similarity relation in itself may be asymmetric and irreflexive, but we have not explained why the referent of the picture, rather than the pictorial signifier, comes to be seen as the standard of comparison, thus playing the part of China, with the signifier being its Korea. According to our suggestion, this is so because of regularities obtaining in every possible human Lifeworld. Among all the apocryphal stories of tribes


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images failing to recognise pictures as such, there is in fact one verified case in which the group had never seen paper, and was therefore led to focus on the material per se. When pictures where instead printed on cloth, the members of the tribe immediately recognised the sign function and perceived the pictures. This relativistic story really serves to show that, as Husserl would have said, the form of relativity is not itself relative: to this tribe paper, being an unknown material, acquired such a prominence that it was impossible for these people to see it as a vehicle for something else; on the other hand, it is precisely because paper is so trivial a material to us, that we have no trouble construing instances of it as pictorial signifiers. The same story could probably by recounted in terms of the experience of every single child: Boris Uspenskij has told us (personal communication) that the first time he saw an oil painting, he was unable to discover the picture because of the oil texture, although he was already capable to interpret outline drawings.17 It thus becomes necessary to posit a kind of taken-for-granted hierarchy of prominence between the things of the Lifeworld: some ’things’ are more apt to serve as expressions of a sign relation than others, i.e. those which are relatively less prominent. For something to be a sign of something else, it must be relatively low-ranked on the scale of prototypicality applying to the ’things’ of the Lifeworld. No doubt signs can also be made out of high-ranked Lifeworld ’things’ (as in the case of secondary iconicity, discussed above), but then the sign function must be introduced explicitly as a convention or be expected in the situation (se Sonesson 1989a,III.3.1.). In their study of the basic metaphors which underlie both poetry and ordinary language, Lakoff & Turner (1989:160ff) describe a ’cultural model’ which they call ’The great chain of being’. This model, which ’places beings and their properties on a vertical scale with 'higher' beings and properties above 'lower' beings and properties’ (p.167), has been studied by historians of ideas since the time of Lovejoy, but Lakoff & Turner show it to be still current and active in a lot of everyday thinking, as for instance in ordinary adages. This ’commonplace theory about the nature of things’ (p.170) would only stand in need of being slightly amended in order to account for the naturalness with which surfaces stand for scenes, rather than the reverse. Such regularities of the Lifeworld, together with the laws of environmental physics, to which we will turn below, and other commonplace theories of the world, stand at the origin of an even broader domain of study, which we could call the ecology of semiosis. This discipline should, among other things, lay the groundwork for all future conceptions of cultural semiotics. But it will also be needed to explain the varieties of iconicity. The nature of pictorial iconicity is not entirely elucidated by such a Lifeworldhierarchy. There is, however, a kind of limiting-case of a picture, which is mostly used in making jokes, the droodle, which, like the picture, consists in an organised set or marking displayed on a two-dimensional surface, but which is still in need of a key to be interpreted (Cf. Figure 5). Although it is not identical to what it stands for, the droodle is 36

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images thus a kind of secondary iconicity. Here, similarity is only discovered once we have been informed about the precise sign function, or when we have guessed at it, whereas, in an ordinary picture the impression of similarity precedes the sign function. Garrick Mallery, who may have been the first to conduct what he already termed a semiotic study of iconical signs, notably of American Indian rock paintings and manual gestures, observed, in the case of the latter that many of the manual gestures were ‘reasonable’, because the similarity between the sign relata could be observed by a person acquainted with the culture, or once the sign had been explained to him (Cf. Mallery 1881:94f and Kroeber’s introduction, p xxiv). This is exactly what might be said of droodles.



Fig.5. Droodles: a) Olive dropping into Martini glass or Close-up of girl in scanty bathing suit (inspired from Arnheim 1969:92f as adapted in Sonesson 1992a). b) Carraci’s key (Mason behind wall) It has been noted by philosophers, from Husserl to Wittgenstein and Wollheim, that we seem to ‘see’ the content of the pictorial sign directly ‘into’ its expression. This is true in a quite concrete sense. For instance, although no real faces are quadrangular, we have no trouble identifying Figure 6a as a face; and, more to the point, we can even indicate the precise place of the expression plane where the ears are lacking. This certainly has something to do with that peculiar property of iconic signs, observed by Peirce, and called exhibitive import by Greenlee, which makes it possible for icons to convey more information than goes into their construction (cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.3.6. and III.5.1.) A further property of pictures can be illustrated by Magritte’s familiar drawing, ‘Le viol’ (Figure 7.) which may be seen either as a face or as a woman’s trunk; it is precisely because of this double, contradictory appresentation that it is instructive. Beginning with the smallest elements, no particular meaning is suggested. But at least when putting the two half-circles containing two smaller circles side-by-side, we seem to be seeing two breasts. This interpretation is at its most determinate at the penultimate configurational level; but, at the highest one, when the hair is added, another interpretation, that of a face, gains the upper hand. Once we reach this level, some details which were present beforehand lend their support to it: the holes in the small circles, and their relative 37

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images dimension, makes them look much more like pupils of eyes than nipples; indeed, the proportional location of the inner details are more nearly those of a face than of a trunk.

Fig.6. Pictures and droodles: a) Quadrangular face (fnspired in Scruton 1974: 204); b) chair (inspired in Stern 1914:159); c) face or jar (inspired in Hermerén 1983:101); d) wrist-watch or something else (suggested by von Däniken 1973); all items adapted from Sonesson 1989a) Now this points to the second property which is peculiar to pictorial meaning: the parts which are meaningless in isolation become carrier of particular portions of the overall meaning, once they are integrated into the whole. Like the phonemes /m/, /æ/, and /n/, forming the word /mæn/, the strokes and dots making up the picture of a man are in themselves meaningless even when considered in their particular spatial location; however after having been put together, the phonemes continue to be deprived of meaning as such, whereas the strokes and the dots begin to take on the aspects of different proper parts and attributes of the man they contribute to form. Put simply, the different parts and properties of the man are not distributed among the phonemes /m/, /æ/, and /n/, as they are among the strokes and dots forming the corresponding picture. This process, by which meanings accrues to pictorial features, may be termed resemanticisation. It will be noted, then, that pictures do not have double articulation, as was once argued by Eco and Lindekens, nor do they lack elements without their own signification, as has been widely argued since; their case is different again.18 In the case of a proper picture, we are immediately able to ‘see into’ the expression plane, and project as its content, some part of the perceptual world, without receiving any further indication on how it should be taken. However, that which is ‘seen into’ the picture, and thus the content projected, will be different, in an ambiguous picture as ‘Le viol’, to the extent that the percept becomes integrated at higher or lower levels of configuration. That which defines a droodle, on the other hand, is not the presence of multiple interpretations, but the fact that the appresentation in sparked off, and meanings


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images distributed to the parts, only once a verbal label has been attributed to the figure. To the extent that it is seen to represent a palace, or a temple, a Mandala is thus not a picture (as claimed by one of the members of Groupe µ, Edeline 1984.:93, 97), but simply a droodle.

Fig. 7. Magritte: ‘Le viol’

Consider the different limiting-cases of pictures and droodles reproduced here as Figure 6. As we have suggested (relying on Scruton 1974:204), although its expression plane is quadrangular, and no actual faces are, Fig. 6a is naturally seen as a face; yet Fig. 6c should be even more inevitably identified as representing a face, although Hermerén (1983:101) claims that this is so, only because of ‘the limitations of human imagination’, since the same pattern may equally well be perceived as ‘a jar from above, with some pebbles and broken matches on the bottom, and a stick placed across the opening’. Even such an elementary stick figure as Fig. 6b, was immediately declared to be a chair by a child one year and eleven months of age (Stern 1914:159); and we could easily agree with von Däniken (1973) that Fig. 6d represents a wrist-watch, until we learn that it is found on prehistoric rock paintings. There is nothing accidental, we submit, to those ‘limitations of human imagination’ invoked by Hermerén: they are imposed by the Lifeworld hierarchy of prototypical things. Indeed, there must be an infinity of objets whose light pattern, in a static view, fit much better to the square pattern on Fig.6a. than a face, and yet we cannot help seeing it. And although it is possible to impose the jar reading suggested by Hermerén on Fig. 6c, it is only there in the droodle fashion, once a key has been given, and it is all the time being disturbed, and in fact overridden, by the more ‘natural’ face interpretation. It seems, then, that we come to the task of picture interpretation equipped with certain expectancies to encounter those objects which are normally close at hand in our everyday Lifeworld, such as faces and human bodies and, in our culture, chairs and wrist-watches. No doubt most or all objects and scenes may be depicted, but if they rank below the apex of the hierarchy built of our Lifeworld expectancies, many more details are necessary, for the object or


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images scene to be recognisable. At some point in human history, chairs became such familiar objects in the ordinary Lifeworld, that just three lines were required to make them recognisable; very much later, the same destiny befell wrist-watches, astronaut’s helmets, space-crafts, etc. — which is why von Däniken’s observations are off the mark. Our claim is not only that pictures and droodles are different, as far as the general semiotics of visual messages is concerned; they are also different when it comes to their rhetorical potentialities. Thus, Arnheim’s droodle, which may be seen as an olive dropping into a Martini glass, or a Close-up of a girl in scanty bathing suit (Fig. 5a), does not at all contain the same rhetorical possibilities as Escher’s ‘Sun and moon’ (with the night birds forming the background of the day-light birds, and vice-versa), or even as Rubin’s famous figure which may be seen as a vase, or as two profiles of human beings turned toward each other. Certain intricate rhetorical effects only become possible on the basis of pictures: thus, in Klee’s ‘Mother and child’, in which a continuous contour line enclose both part of the mother’s face and that of the child, the process of resemanticization, which is characteristic of pictures, concurrently starts out from two centres of attention, corresponding to the sub-whole of the woman’s face, and the sub-whole of the child, and then spread their associated features outwards until these enter into conflict with each other, giving rise to a zone of indecision, which may only be resolved in the droodle mode, alternatively according to one or the other interpretation. This is similar to what happens with ‘the devil’s turning fork’ and other ‘impossible figures’, although in this case the feature invariants which enter into conflict do not concern the spatial lay-out of the objects involved (see Sonesson 1989a,II.3.4.). It is no doubt in part because they ignore the fundamental distinction between pictures and droodles, that the authors of the Traité fail to account for the supple differences between these examples (cf. Groupe µ 1992: 274, 288, 357, 454, etc.).

Preparations for a second critique of iconicity
According to a conception shared by the Groupe µ and the Greimas school, and prefigured in the work of Lindekens, a picture, or more generally, a visual sign, is made up of two layers, the iconic and the plastic one. In this sense, roughly, the picture stands, on the iconic level, for some object recognisable from the ordinary perceptual Lifeworld; whereas, on the plastic level, the expression is conveyed by simple qualities of the picture thing itself, which tend to correspond to increasingly abstract concepts (Cf. Figure 8 and Groupe µ 1978; 1979; 1985; 1992: 113ff; Floch 1985: 15; 1986a, passim; 1986b. 126ff, and passim; and critique in Sonesson 1988; 1989a; 1992a,f). As used in semiotics, on the other hand, iconicity is unavoidably connected, as we have seen, with Peirce’s concept of icon, and in this sense, iconicity is something considerably broader. Indeed, as we shall see, the iconicity of the iconic layer is not the same at that of the general sign theory formulated by Peirce: most notably, plastic features, in the sense of Groupe µ and the


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Greimasians, may well be iconic in Peirce’s sense! According to Peirce, as we have seen, two items share an iconic ground, and are thus apt to enter, in the capacity of being its expression and content, into a semiotic function forming an iconic sign, to the extent that there are some or other set of properties which they possess independently of each other, which are identical or similar when considered from a particular point of view, or which may be perceived or, more broadly, experienced as being identical or similar, where similarity is taken to be an identity perceived on the background of fundamental difference (cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.1-3. and above). Contrary to what is suggested by Groupe µ:s quotation from Dubois’ dictionary, iconicity, in this Peircean sense, is not limited to a resemblance with the external world (‘avec la réalité extérieure’). When conceiving iconicity as engendering a ‘referential illusion’ and as forming a stage in the generation of ‘figurative’ meaning out of the abstract base structure, Greimas & Courtés (1979: 148, 177) similarly identify iconicity with perceptual appearance. In fact, however, not only is iconicity not particularly concerned with ‘optical illusion’ or ‘realistic rendering’, but it does not necessarily involve perceptual predicates: many of Peirce’s examples, have to do with mathematical formulae, and even the fact of being American, as in the Franklin and Rumford example, is not really perceptual, even though some of its manifestations may be (cf. Sonesson 1989: 204ff).

Fig.8. Plastic and iconic (that is, pictorial) layers of the picture sign. In this sense, therefore, the plastic layer may well function iconically. Indeed, it has often been demonstrated (in experiments by Köhler, Arnheim, Sander & Volkelt, and others), that circles, and rounded shapes generally, are associated with softness, the elementary, the natural, the dynamic, and the feminine, while the rectangle, and angular forms in general, are taken to signify properties such as rudeness, coarseness, elaborateness, the static and the masculine. Thus, for instance, if the circle is seen to 41

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images convey softness, and the rectangle signifies hardness, to pick up some of the results obtained by Lindekens (1971) in one of his experiments, then there must be some properties mediating synaesthetically between the visual and tactile sense modalities, that is, an iconic ground based on invariants obtaining across the different senses. When the circle is declared to be feminine, on the other hand, and when the triangle is said to be calculating, and the rectangle mathematical, increasingly more conventional elements would seem to enter the semiotic function. Therefore, it would be more convenient to distinguish, not the plastic and the iconic layers, but perhaps the plastic and pictorial ones, both of which may have an iconic function (for the full argument, cf. Sonesson 1990e). If, however, a circle, as in one of Groupe µ:s (1979) examples, is taken to stand on the iconic level for the sun, and on the plastic level for roundness, which, in turn, as we know from psychological tests, may signify softness, etc., then, what is called here the plastic language is as least as iconic, in Peirce’s sense, as the iconic layer: for roundness is certainly a property possessed both by the circle representing the sun in this hypothetical drawing and by the circle prototype; and, beyond that, there must be some abstract, synaesthetically experienced property which is common to the visual mode of roundness and the tactile mode of softness (Cf. Sonesson 1990e).19 Thus, it will be necessary to introduce a terminological modification. A pictorial sign, we will say, is a sign the primary allofunctional relation of which is pictorial. The pictorial function is realised, and the iconic ground is more particularly a pictorial one, when, in addition, there in something in the ‘thing’ serving as the expression of the sign which is instrumental in producing an illusion of literally seeing in the two-dimensional surface of the expression plane the projection of a scene extracted from real world of threedimensional existence (with, or without, a suggestion of lineal perspective), giving rise to the phenomenon of resemanticisation. Pictures also tend to manifest a secondary function, which, following Floch and Groupe µ, we will call plastic, in the case of which meanings are derived from the properties which the expression plane of the picture really possesses, when considered as made up of mere two-dimensional shapes on a surface. Clearly, all pictorial functions are iconical: the pictorial ground may be considered a sub-type of the iconical one. But the plastic function does not, as far as we has discovered so far, describe any particular type of ground: it simple says what kind of expression carries the meaning. But this does not go very far to explain how plastic signs come into being. Groupe µ (1992: 51) approvingly quotes our critique of Floch’s Kandinsky analysis, in which the plastic content of ‘Composition IV’ is derived by a process of abstraction applied to the conjunction of pictorial contents (or as we, just as Floch and Groupe µ, said, at that time: iconic contents) corresponding to plastic expressions similar to those which appear in the non-figurative painting (Cf. Figure 9). As we argued (in Sonesson 1987; 1989a,II.3.2.), this supposes the content of plastic language to be entirely redundant in relation to the pictorial ones, thus not adding any new information to that which is 42

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images already conveyed pictorially — in which case the study of plastic language does not appear to be very profitable. In spite of their support for our critique, Groupe µ sometimes seem to reason in a way which resembles that of Floch. Thus, in the case of Cezanne’s ‘Trois baigneuses’, we are told (p.349f) that the texture of the area corresponding pictorially to the grass, which is adequate to the pictorial content of the sign, is the same as the one appearing on the body of the women, where this plastic sign is no longer pictorially adequate, the effect being to absorb the woman into nature, rendering her somewhat more ‘vegetal’. Here again, a content which is pictorially motivated in one sign is ascribed to another sign in which it is not justified from a pictorial point of view, but where the same plastic sign occurs. The difference is only that, in the case considered by Groupe µ, only two signs are involved, not a whole series of signs from which a common abstract meaning is extracted, as in the Kandinsky analysis, and both signs are, as Groupe µ would have said, in praesentia, present together inside the limit of one pictorial statement. Another case, in which the reasoning is more obviously parallel to that of Floch is found in Edeline’s (1984:105ff) analysis of the Mandala: here, we are told, the plastic meaning (here called ‘symbolic’) of the circle is said to be the intersection of the meaning present in all familiar circular objets, such as the open mouth, the breast, the navel, the sun, the egg, the wheel, and so on. Clearly this amounts to a claim that plastic meaning must simply be considered the common denominator of a series of pictorial signs (or, equivalently, prototypical real objects) having identical plastic expression planes. Such an analysis may be valid in certain cases: but if it is apt to be generalised, there would simply be no point in analysing plastic language separately.

Comp. IV Ep = Ei: Ci: Ø

George+Blaue Reiter

Comp. II

Araber III

d o u b l e , e x t e n d e d s h a p e captive princess person in a fight woman holding her chin Abstraction

Cp: Conjunction of two sub jects with a positive value Fig. 9. How Floch analyses Kandinsky’s ‘Composition IV’ (Adapted from Sonesson 1989a) The Traité does suggest a set of autonomous plastic meanings, pertaining to texture, form and colour, respectively, (p.197ff), but these are hesitatingly introduced, remain very


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images abstract, and are not very convincing. On a more principled plane, Groupe µ (p.194ff) admits three kinds of sources for plastic meanings: they may originate iconico-plastically (probably the kind of example considered above), extra-visually, or purely plastically. But even the last category is explicated as resulting from the repeated experience of seeing grass to be green, water blue, the sun yellow, and so on. In contrast, we think there is good reasons for taking at least some plastic meanings to be iconic, in the sense, this time, of Peirce’s favoured example, i.e. involving very general properties.20 Indeed, these signs could be said to be symbolic, not in Peirce’s sense, to which Groupe µ pretends to adhere (p. 115, 195, etc.), but in the sense of the European tradition dating back to the Romantics and the Symbolists. The symbolic function, in this sense, is also a kind of iconic sign function, having in addition certain indexical traits: it reposes on the isolation of an abstract, not necessarily perceivable, property, connected with a generalisation from the object serving as an expression, and a particularisation from the object serving as a content (a dove standing for peace, scales signifying justice, etc.; cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.6.). A symbolic ground must put into correspondence an expression plane, the substance of which is concrete and material, but which contains one or a set of fairly abstract properties, and a content plane consisting in an identical abstract property, or of a property generalised from those intrinsic to the expression plane.21

Fig.10. Different limits between prototype categories in children’s drawings. Adapted from Sonesson 1989a)

One way of approaching the intrinsic meanings of visual elements could be to establish a feature hierarchy, similar to the one found by Jakobson (1942), according to which there is a parallelism between the stages of phonetic development in child language, the stages of phonetic reduction in the aphasic, and the relative complexity of the world’s


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images languages, as far as the phoneme repertory is concerned. Indeed, Lotte Hoffmann (1943) asked children between 2,2 and 9,7 years of age to imitate a set of simple geometrical configurations using ready-made material, like sticks, plates, and rings. All the configurations lacked a straightforward pictorial content. By combining the ready-made implements, it was possible to reproduce all the geometrical configurations faithfully. Instead, however, children between 3-4 years would use any object whatsoever to stand for all of the different configurations; but more often than not, a perfectly round, compact object would be preferred. Older children would pick up only one, global, property present in the configuration and imitate it with a single implement, for instance, such properties as being closed, angular, pointed, having holes, and so on. Later several pieces would be used, rendering more often the number of parts of the imitated object than its shape (more details in Sonesson 1989a,II.3.6.).

Fig.11. A hierarchy of shapes, derived form children’s drawings. Adapted from Sonesson 1989a) It becomes clear from these examples that a prototypical shape is used by the child to represent a whole class of geometrical configurations. A round, compact object seems to function like a prototype, a ‘best form’, to which more deviant cases are assimilated. This is seen most clearly is cases in which different children impose differently placed limits between the classes subsumed by the prototypes (Fig.10). The term prototype should here be understood in the sense in which it was introduced by Eleanor Rosch (1975; 1978), which could be described as the use, for the determination of category membership, of approximations to the best instances, taking the place of sufficient and necessary criteria (cf. also Sonesson 1989a,I.3.1.). Of particular interest, in the present context, is Rosch’s (1973) demonstration that ’good forms’ are kinds of prototypes, and thus may function as reference points, epitomised in the tendency to render good forms better, as well as in the deviations from the good form . Given these facts, we are able to set up the


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images rudiments of a tentative hierarchy: it will start out from the circle; and it will continue with an elementary division into circles and straight lines, only later to be followed by a distinction between compact and contoured shapes (Fig.11). In a particularly illuminating experiment, Jessen (1983) found that children, aged 717, in both Germany and East Africa, took the circle and the triangle pointing upwards to signify femininity, but considered the square, as well as the triangle pointing downwards, to stand for the male. Since, in East Africa, the traditional garments of men and women are not trousers and skirts, respectively, figures like those in 9c-d, and other versions of toilet indicators, like a triangle pointing downwards for men’s washing room, and a triangle pointing upwards, for that of women, are not primarily pictorial, but symbolic, for what the signify. Jessen’s results were obtained with children no younger than 7 years, which might be taken to suggest that the association is learned, though universally so. This is perhaps not as surprising as it may seem at first. The prototypical bodies of male and female, considered as divergences from a common body scheme, are characterised by the global properties of angularity and roundness, respectively. From these prototypes, culture tends to make idealtypes, exaggerating, not least by means of clothes, the original roundness of women and the angularity of men (cf. Lurie 1981:215f; Laurent 1980). In other cases, the idealtype of femininity may also be found to combine aspects of roundness which are hardly found together in nature, producing such strange figures as Venus von Willensdorf. The feel of angularity is rough, and that of rounded forms is smooth, and this is redundantly translated in the use of soft material for women, rough ones for men. If there are pan-human tendencies to correlate the physical and the mental, as is perhaps suggested by the use of metaphor (cf. Winner 1982), soft feelings will also be seen as redundantly characterising the female.22 This at least accounts for part of the notional complex opposing the male and the female, not only in our culture. It should not be surprising that the global traits of man and woman tend to express themselves as ‘best forms’, i.e. as configurations of maximal prototypicality, which is, in the case of femininity, the circle, and for males, any angular shape.

Plastic language and indexicality
According to Groupe µ, plastic language is, as we have seen, symbolic and indexical (p.123, 195); and so far, we have agreed that it may indeed by symbolic, but mainly when the latter term is taken in a non-Peircean sense, following Saussure and the whole anterior tradition in Europe, which considers the symbol to be a particular kind of iconic sign involved with abstract properties. Now the time has come to assess also the second, and more surprising claim, according to which plastic language may also be indexical. The only definition of indexicality referred to by Groupe µ concerns its causal nature (p.195); in most other contexts, however, the index is invoked in its putative capacity for being an indicator (p.113, 119,144f, 376, etc.). Numerous definitions of the index, which


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images seem difficult to reconcile, are to be found in Peirce’s work; and yet other interpretations are suggested by the examples given by Peirce himself, as well as by those offered by latter-day semioticians. According to the paraphrase formulated above, which seems sufficiently broad to account for most of the examples and a fair amount of the definitions, an index, is a sign in which the ‘thing’ which serves as the expression is, in one or other way, connected with another ‘thing’, which serves as its content. All indexical relations may involve either contiguity or factorality, where the latter term stands for a relation between a part and a whole. This conception relies on the most general formulations given by Peirce, according to which indexicality depends on there being a ‘real connection’, an ‘existential relation’, a ‘dynamical (including spatial) connection’ and even, in one of its many conceivable senses, a ‘physical connection’ between the items involved. (Peirce 1.558; 1.196; 2:305; 3.361; 8.335). Although the definition by causality (for instance that the index ‘denotes by virtue of being really affected by that object’; 2.248) is probably the most commonly quoted of all the definitions Peirce offers of indexicality, it probably fails to apply to many of the examples given by Peirce himself. According to Goudge (1965:55), the Pole Star, for instance, may be an index of the north celestial pole, but it is in no way caused by that astronomical location. Nor is a personal pronoun, or even a pointing finger, actually caused by the person or thing for which it stands; and if they may be said to motivate it, then this is also true of all other signs. Moreover, many cases which are often taken to confirm the causal explanation are actually doubtful: the causal agent may not be that which is signified, or may not signify in the same respect in which it is the cause. Of all the innumerable causes that have to concur in order for a rap on the door to occur at a particular moment, the door and the material of which it is made, and a particular person and his moving hand may seem to be the most important. However, if, at this moment, no person in particular is expected, the sign will only carry some very general meaning such as ‘there is somebody (probably a human being) outside the door who wants me to open it and let him in’. Nor the particular person, nor his hand or the door, which are the causal agencies, are here part of the meaning of the sign (Sonesson 1989a:39). The term chosen by Peirce certainly suggests that all indices, like the pointing index finger, or an arrow, serve to pinpoint a particular object, to isolate it and bring it out of the, typically spatial, context in which it is ordinarily enmeshed; and this is indeed what Peirce affirms (3.361; 4.56). However, if we introduce the term indicator to describe signs which are employed to single out an object or a portion of space for attention, it may be argued that they are not necessarily indices in Peirce’s sense, and that they are not, in any event, sufficiently characterised by being so classified (cf. Sonesson 1989b:50ff, 60f, Goudge 1965: 65ff). Thus, certain indicators, such as pointing fingers and arrows, do suppose a relation of contiguity with that which they point to; but this is not necessary, or even possible, in the case of many verbal indicators, most maps, and the options for 47

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images making a photograph depending on film, lighting, and frame described as indexical in the semiotics of photography; for, in these cases, the indicative gesture is merely recreated at the level of content. Indeed, these signs merely ‘indicate’ their content in the transposed sense in which this may be said equally well of all other signs. On the other hand, real indicators, such as fingers and arrows, are not only contiguous to the object they indicate, but also to a number of objects which they do not indicate; thus, for instance, the arrow is contiguous to the objects behind and beside the arrow-head, as well as to that in front of it, and the frame is just as contiguous to objects outside it as to those which are on the inside. Something more than indexicality is therefore required to define them, which, in the case of the arrow, could be the forward thrust of the arrow-head as imagined in water, or the sentiment of its slipping from our hands, as Thom (1973) has suggested; and, in the case of the frame, some of its intrinsically plastic properties making it converge in the middle (as hinted at by Edeline 1985, in his analysis of the Mandala). To term certain signs ‘indicators’ is to make a categorisation of signs on the basis of their functions, as seen in relationship to the over-all scenes in which signs are produced, and there is no reason to expect this categorisation to coincide with the one stemming from Peirce’s classification, which depends on the kind of motivation joining the expression and the referent or content of the sign. From this point of view, of course, the term ‘index’ is a misnomer, for although the finger so termed may function as an index, its specific function goes beyond that. Clearly, plastic language is not indexical in any of these senses. But there may be another one. According to Peirce, is should be remembered, all indices refer to unique, singular objects (2.283). However, consider Peirce’s own example pertaining to the rolling gait of a man which is an index of his being a sailor: in fact, being a sailor is a social role, not a singularity. More importantly, however, the gait is part of a social habitus defining this role, which makes it into a part of a whole (a factorality). But if the relationship of a property to that of which it is a part is indexical, then it is reasonable to think that indexicality will also account for the relation between an item and the class of which it is a member. Such examples are apparently not among those mentioned by Peirce, but they are often cited by later semioticians: thus, for instance, if a pretzel is an index of a bakery, then that must be in virtue of its being a member of the class of products sold in the bakery. A class is of course not a singular object, but it may be considered a collection of objects. Often, however, such a class is itself determined by abstract properties. A tailor’s swatch, for instance, is a sign of a class of cloth having the same quality and pattern, but not the same shape or size. Some samples, for instance colour samples, may even be indices of abstract properties themselves (Sonesson 1989a:43ff, 137ff; 1989b: 60f). As we describe it above, plastic language is often of this latter kind: rather than standing for classes of which the plastic expression plane is a member, or for classes of other objects defined by the properties contained in the plastic expression plane, it tends to designate 48

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images the abstract properties themselves. In this sense, as we suggested above, the symbolic ground is as indexical as it is iconical. Groupe µ:s (p.195) idea of the indexicality of plastic signs is, however, that they are similar to traces, notably psychological contents ascribed to the producer of the signs.23 In the literal sense, a trace is a sign resulting, not from mere contiguity, but from a (more or less) direct contact, at some earlier moment, of the object which is now the signifier with the object that is the signified. In such as case as this, we may indeed be certain that the signified is causally singular: only one horse can have made the hoof-print. It is not, however, singular in its capacity of being a sign, as long a no further information is available: if, as is Prieto’s (1966) story, one horse has run away, and there are several farmers possessing horses in the neighbourhood, there is no way in which the sign, by itself, may signify the particular horse which is lost. This situation changes, if we happen to know that no other horse could have had the opportunity to pass by the particular place where the hoof-print is found. The same observation applies, mutatis mutandis, to the case considered by Groupe µ: there must be some very general properties which are perceived to be present in the plastic sign itself, and which are then ascribed to a particular person, which we happen to know have ‘passed by’ the canvas. The difference is that these properties often do not have names in verbal language otherwise as ascribed to persons, as is, for instance, the case with ‘haste’. Actually, the haste which we once ascribed to Vermeer may really be due to Elmer de Hory. It might even have been simulated haste, which is a possibility of man, but not of the horse, as Prieto would have pointed out. Apart form being a sign, an index must contain an indexical ground (cf. indexicality). The fact that such a ground should exist independently of the sign relation, must not be taken to mean that the indexical relation must necessarily precede the sign relation in real time. Indeed, some indexical relations must come into being at the same time as the sign is produced, as is the case, for instance, with verbal shifters: the person indexically related to the sign ‘I’ is the one which at a particular moment pronounces the sound /ai/, that is to say that the indexical ground is produced at the very same moment that the sign is put to use. In a similar way, there are not ‘pointed-out objects’ known to form such a class, but a member of such a class is created each time an act of pointing takes place (see Sonesson 1989a,I.2.5.). This is also true of the arrow and the frame considered as indices, as well as of Christo’s envelop of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, if it is taken to be an index of the museum, as suggested by Groupe µ (p.390). Many of Peirce’s own examples of indexical signs are, however, of the kind which acquire their meaning thanks to a regularity which is known to obtain between different facts. Since a kind of reasoning which connects two facts by means of supposed regularity is called an abduction by Peirce, we might perhaps call this group of signs abductive indices. They can involve contiguity, as in the case of footprints, fingerprints, the cross as 49

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images a sign of the crucified, the weather-cock (contiguity to the direction of the wind); or factorality, when an anchor is used to stand for navigation, the clock to designate the watch-maker's (as part of the sum total of clocks), or a painting to indicate the painter’s workshop. Some of Peirce’s examples, and many of those suggested later, are however of another kind, for, instead of presupposing a regularity known to obtain between the ‘thing’ which serves as expression of the sign, and another ‘thing’ which is taken to be its content, they transform something which is contiguous, or in a relation of factorality, to the expression, into its content. These signs may therefore be termed performative indices. With contiguity, they give rise to such phenomena as the pronoun ‘you’, the finger pointing to an object, the weathercock (as marking the here-and-now of the wind), the clock of the watch-maker's (as marking the emplacement of the shop) and the arrow; and with factorality, they may produce the pronouns ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘now’, the finger pointing out a direction, the frame, etc.

Beyond the rhetoric of structuralism
It is a sad fact of the human condition, and of the scientific endeavour in particular, that our knowledge is not perfect; thus all theories are bound to be, in some degree, arbitrary. But there seems to be no reason to parade this necessity as a false virtue, claiming paradoxically, as Hjelmslev did, that a scientific theory must be arbitrary but adequate. In our capacity of being users of the very sign systems which we are studying, we are in possession of a certain amount of knowledge, which can certainly not be taken at face value. However, it cannot simply be ignored: rather, in explicating the sign systems, we also have to account for the putative knowledge about the system held by the sign users. Part of the heritage of French structuralism of the sixties and seventies, which lingers on in the work of Groupe µ, as in that of the Greimas school, is a tendency to show off the arbitrariness of the theory. Thus, for instance, Groupe µ (1992:135ff) claims that the iconic sign (that is, roughly, the pictorial sign function), contrary to the plastic signs, is constituted out of three elements: the signifier, the referent, and the type. We have seen above that it is possible to discover criteria permitting to decide in which case a signification is a sign, consisting of two planes; but the same criteria can certainly not be used to introduce a third level. It will be noted that Groupe µ, quite correctly in our view, argues that the referent cannot be the ‘real’ object, but must be constructed within the sign; it follows that we cannot claim for it some ‘higher’ degree of reality. There may be other criteria, of course, but even so, it is not clear that they should result in the introduction of a third sign level.24 Perhaps the referent and the type of the µ model should really be related as Peirce’s ‘immediate’ and ‘dynamical object’, that is, as a part to the corresponding whole, or as Husserl’s ‘noema’ and ‘object’, where the first is the standpoint taken on the second. 50

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images This may well be a case in which we would be well-advised to start searching our tool-box for Ockham’s razor. In other cases, however, the razor is certainly allowed to cut too deep. The notion of isotopy, taken over from Greimas, appears to be too simplistic to be able to do the job required of it in the µ model. In the Traité, the notion of isotopy is, on the whole, presupposed rather than explicated, and although, in an earlier work, Groupe µ (1977) offered a critical discussion of the idea, they did not take their critique far enough, and in some respects, their present position seems to constitute a regression in relation to the earlier text. We will suggest that the notion of isotopy must be more clearly differentiated form the norm, and that some more powerful notion, such as the scheme, is really needed as a basis for semiotics and rhetoric alike. The structuralist inspiration still looms large in the Traité, in spite of the recent proclamation, on the part of the µ-tologists, of a ‘cognitivist turn’. Indeed, we will argue that there is an illusory symmetry to the rhetorical kinds mustered in the Traité, which is an artefact of the case-filler method followed by the Groupe µ in most of their work, and which serve to cover up the real issues of semiotic analysis.

The notion of isotopy: Retelling Greimas’ joke
Greimas’ notion of isotopy at first may seem intuitively satisfactory and highly suggestive, yet each tentative to make it operative turns out to be excessively simplistic. Greimas (1966:96) refers to the permanence of contextual features, so-called classemes, whose variations, instead of destroying the unity of the ‘text’, serve to confirm it (our italics, also in the following). We are concerned with ‘un faisceau de catégories redondantes, sous-jacente au discours considéré’, that is, ‘un ensemble redondant de catégories sémantiques qui rend possible la lecture uniforme du récit, telle qu’elle résulte des lectures partielles des énoncés et de la résolution de leurs ambiguité qui est guidée par la recheche de la lecture unique’ (Greimas 1970:10, 188; our italics). Elsewhere, the isotopy is characterised by its ‘cohérence syntagmatique’ (Greimas (1972:8); and it is claimed that is should be defined in relation to the ‘reader’ (1966:69) — it is true that the latter requirement is formulated in contrast to a speaker-related definition, not to an immanent approach, which is in fact the one followed by Greimas in the sequel. For the result of a Greimasean isotopy analysis simply is a list of lexemes having some contextual features in common — which seems a far cry from all the suggestions contained in the intuitive characterisations. In an earlier work on the rhetoric of poetry, Groupe µ (1977:30ff) essentially subscribes to the kind of characterisations mentioned above. To them, the isotopy is an ‘itération de sèmes, c’est-à-dire des classemes /…/, permettant de constituter une classe homogène de sous-ensembles’, redundancy being its primary condition; (1977;39); thus, isotopy supposes ‘une récurrence identifiable de sèmes identiques’ (1977:41). In the


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Traité (p.262), the only rudiment of a definition which is offered specifies that the isotopy is concerned with ‘l’homogénéité d’un niveau donné des signifiés’, which amounts to a ‘redondance de sémes /…/ dans le domaine linguistique’ and a ‘redondance de déterminations ou homogénéité des transformations dans le domaine visuel’. Redundancy is indeed the key-word of the Traité, where it is often made to do the job of isotopy itself. When the notion of isotopy is first introduced by Greimas (1966:50ff) , it is geared to resolve the same problem, which were taken care of by Katz, inside generative grammar, with the help of ‘selectional restrictions’.25 In the sentence ‘le chien aboie’ [i.e. ‘the dog barks’], subject and verb are semantically coherent, which they are not in the variant sentence ‘le chien caquette’ [i.e. ‘the dog cackles’]; here, the difference may be accounted for by a ‘selectional restriction’, or by a ‘minimal isotopy’. Greimas (ibid.) discusses these examples in terms of the opposition between the contextual features ‘human’ and ‘animate’; but obviously a much more specific isotopy would have to be defined, in order to account for the deviancy of the phrase ‘le chien caquette’; that is, we need the feature ‘caninity’. The point of analysing complete units of meaning into features is, as Hjelmslev stated, to reduce infinite classes to finite and preferentially to small ones. But since we clearly need more specific features than ‘animalhood’, and at least as particular as ‘caninity’ (and probably, in other cases, ‘poodleness’), it is not obvious that there are a limited number of isotopies. In any case, ‘caninity’ can hardly be said to ‘be in’ the dog in the same way in which it is present in the barking; that is to say, that a particular sound has the property ‘caninity’ , and that a specific animal has this property, cannot signify the same thing; or else, all that the classeme ‘caninity’ implies is something vague, like ‘we-are-in-theprocess-of-talking-about-dogs’. Thus, all that the isotopy amounts to is a characterisation of the subject of discourse. Rastier’s (1972:82) suggestion that the isotopy should be taken to be an unordered set, with no inner structure, is unacceptable, since it deprives this notion of all explanatory value. The classemic features must be placed inside a syntactic frame, for otherwise we could never account for the fact that, on the literal reading, the isotopy of the phrase ‘le chien du commissaire aboie’, does not comprise the commissary. The necessity of taking account of syntactic position is also noted by Groupe µ (1977:41f), and motivates their introduction of a second condition on the isotopy, that is, ‘une absence de sèmes exclusifs en position syntactique de détermination’, making the sentence ‘le jour est autre chose que la nuit’ , but not ‘le jour est la nuit´, acceptable on a single isotopy. 26 However, there is yet another kind of organisation of the isotopy, which is more important in the present context, already because it is more clearly apt to be generalised beyond verbal language. Many of the terms employed in Greimas’ intuitive characterisations of the isotopy concept, and repeated by Groupe µ, imply the existence of a temporal structure. Redundance, for instance, deriving as it does from the 52

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images mathematical theory of communication, stands for total predictability, which obviously refers us to the relative certainty of (at least the idealised case of) the expectancies of the message receiver. When Greimas talks about the isotopy being confirmed, this is clearly reminiscent of the Bruner & Postman model of hypothesis-testing as applied to perception (later developed by Gregory, Neisser, and Hochberg, cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.3.3.). We find similar slips of the tongue, which are not formally accounted for, in the Traité (for instance, rhythm ‘crée une attente, qui peut être comblée ou déçue’; Groupe µ 1992:225). Also the presence of iteration, the search for a unique reading, and the resolution of ambiguities, requires there to be at least one moment in time, from the point of view of which they can be measured. We are thus reminded of the Husserlean time consciousness, projecting its protentions and retentions from a single point in time. It could be argued, then, that the central concept here should not be redundancy, but rather expectancy, considered in relation to its possible fulfilment in time. In terms of the Prague school models, referred to above, isotopy would mean that concretisation not only totally coincides with production, but this coincidence is effortlessly obtained. According to an idea, suggested both by Moles and Lotman, the sender and receiver of any situation of communication start out with codes which only partially overlap, struggling to homogenise the codes as the communication proceeds: isotopy would be the kind of condition in which this homogenisations is obtained as a matter of course. In both cases time consciousness, including a difference between real and projected time, would have to be integrated into the models. Let us consider what happens when expectancies are not fulfilled. Greimas (1966:70) recounts a funny story to illustrate the case of a ‘rupture of an isotopy’: ‘C’ést une brillante soirée mondaine, trés chic, avec des invités triés sur le volet. À un moment, deux convives vont prendre un peu l’air sur la terrasse: — Ah! fait l’un d’un ton satisfait, belle soirée, hein? Repas magnifique...et puis jolies toilettes, hein? — Ça, dit l’autre, je n’en sais rien. —Comment ça? — Non, je n’y suis pas allé! ‘ [from Point de vue, 23 févr.1962] The joke clearly depends on the ambiguity of the term ‘toilette’ in French (which is also found in English): lavatory, or, alternatively, a particularly elegant dress. According to Greimas’ cursory analysis, the first isotopy is established by the introductory paragraph, whereupon the dialogue rapidly permits a second isotopy to irrupt. This is a curious example, for in fact, the two meanings of the signifier ‘toilette’ do not appear to possess any semantic features in common: rather, two contents are successively attributed to a single signifier.27 Concretely, the shift to the second interpretation of the signifier ‘toilet’ occurs, because its of fifth anaphoric occurrence, when the signifier enters into a syntactico-semantic frame, which only admits of the latter reading: it is possible to go to the lavatory, but not to an elegant dress. Thus, the puzzle is resolved by a feat which curiously resembles a Katzean selectional restriction. The case does not appear to be similar at all to Rastier’s elegant analysis of 53

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Mallarmé’s poem ‘Salut’, where a number of isotopies are distinguished, two of which, ‘banquet’ and ‘sailing’, have a few unique signifiers while sharing many others. In Mallarmé’s poem, a whole series of lexemes form part (and may form part) of the same semantic fields, or at least, in a vaguer sense, belong to the same sphere of signification, as for instance ‘sailing’, ‘toasting’, etc. Also, there are some lexemes pertaining to one isotopy, which, with the aid of a metaphorical suppression of some traits, may be read on other isotopies. Thus, on the toast isotopy, the term ‘poupe’ (that is, literally, ‘stern’) from the sailing isotopy, retains its abstract features [+extremity] and [+posteriority], becoming a metaphor for the end of the table.28 However, in Greimas’ funny story, we may perhaps be able to find some common features of the nuclear figures of the lexemes present on the first isotopy (though even these traits must be rather idiosyncratic); but nothing of the sort is possible, for the second isotopy, which has no lexemes of its own. And between the nuclear figures of the central lexemes of the two isotopies, no single traits could, by any feat of imagination, be taken to be identical. The strange fact, however, is that, while no real isotopies are to be discovered in Greimas’ joke, there is no doubt that it is organised around a rupture! We are reminded, at this point, of another analysis of jokes, due to Arthur Koestler, which takes them to involve ‘the perceiving of a situation in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’ (Koestler 1978:113ff; cf. also Koestler 1964:27ff).29 Criticising Koestler’s conception of jokes in particular, and creativity in general, the psychologist David Perkins (1981:91ff) points out that there is no way of falsifying the theory, since two ‘frames of references’ can always plausibly be set up, whenever their supposed product is considered creative, while counter-examples may simply be declared uncreative. And yet Perkins states, a few lines further down, that Koestler has managed to present a few clear cases, in which incompatible frames have really been combined. Thus, Perkins admits intuitively the existence of frames which are not set up ad hoc, although he theoretically denies it. And when he argues that the creative act may well transcend one frame without attaining another, he clearly takes for granted that the first frame can be demarcated from the others. Of course, Perkins has a point: though the feeling of contradiction may be intuitively obvious, we do have to find ways of characterising the frames, independently of the presumed contradiction between them; that is, the respective identities of the frames have to be defined preceding their clash at the moment of creation. The same observations obviously apply to isotopies. In his above-mentioned analysis of Mallarmé’s poem, Rastier (1972:86) refers somewhat obliquely to ‘le rituel du banquet’, by means of which the toast isotopy acquires its import. However, he never gives this ‘ritual’ any theoretical status. Yet there seems to be independent evidence for the existence of such a ‘rituel du banquet’, which could perhaps be ascribed to a more general frame or, as we shall prefer to call it, scheme for festive occasions, some other aspects of which are manifested in Greimas’ joke (cf. 54

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Sonesson 1978a; Eco 1979; 1984).30 There may even be a scheme for going to the toilet, which is widely attested, not only because it corresponds to a frequent practice of social life, but because it figures prominently precisely in jokes. However, it could be argued that what is needed here is something much more general than these schemes, two superschemes, or perhaps better, two categories organising classes of schemes. Indeed, in Greimas’ story, there is not only a shift of isotopies, or rather, schemes, but an opposition between them: if the world ‘toilet’ were exchanged for another polysemeous term, no joke would ensue. This exchange of schemes could perhaps be construed as an opposition between that which is public, in the sense of being given as a spectacle for everybody to see, instead of being private; social, in the sense of supposing a set of interactions, rather than being the act of a single individual; cultural, in the sense of not being natural, where the latter pertains to man as member of the animal kingdom; and ceremonial, in the sense of being above the level of ordinary life, as opposed to that which is not only part of everyday life, but is considered to be below it, to be ‘indecent’, or ‘dirty’. All these categories would need to be further analysed; it is not clear that they are quite independent of each other. However, we can now see that the opposition around which Greimas’ story turns is largely the same as the one organising Duchamp’s act when he placed the urinal in the art gallery. In fact, Duchamp’s works, like those of the other dadaists, were often structured as jokes, though their humorous character has since then worn off. The problem with Koestler’s frames, as well as Greimas’ isotopies, is not only that they are set up ad hoc, lacking independent justification, but they also lack internal organisation. Our knowledge of otherwise attested schemes may actually permit us to make rather concrete prediction, which are then sometimes deceived. After the first scheme is explicitly introduced in the first phrase of the story, the expectancies which are thereby built up are confirmed and amplified by the mention of the terrace, as well as by the content of the first speaker’s discourse. Then the second, implicit occurrence of the signifier ‘toilette’, in the second speaker’s first rejoinder, begins, without really succeeding, to call in question the first, already well-established scheme. At the same time, however, other, more general expectancies are beginning to crystallise: as we have seen, the festive scheme is one among a number of public schemes, and what happens at the party, or at least all the symptoms of its refinement and distinction, are supposed to be there for everybody to see. When the second speaker discovers to us his ignorance of all these publicly apparent symptoms of elegance, a new scheme is already prepared for. At this point, we know that a new element is going to be introduced, and the oppositional organisation described above already suggests what it might be: It could either be a scheme whose theme is this very ignorance on the part of the second speaker; or it might be a scheme highlighting some secret, hidden element taking the place of that which is apparently given for everyone to see. So far, no schemes have been disconfirmed; we are 55

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images just in doubt. It takes a syntactical frame, not an isotopy, to destroy completely the first scheme, and to establish an alternative one: that concerned with the semi-secret practice of using the lavatories. Although this syntactical frame implies a change of semantic domain, it also releases the tension built up beforehand. Since it is a joke, Greimas’ story also has another level of organisation. Indeed, as soon as we realise that the story in question is a joke (and jokes are normally presented in contexts in which they are known to be jokes beforehand, or may even contain clues to their genre character), we expect the non-expected to occur — in a particular case, we may, in Greimasean terms, expect a rupture of isotopy, that is, a non-recurrence of the same units, an allotopy. The real surprise would therefore be if nothing surprising happens in the story, that is, for instance, in Greimas’ story, if the second speaker goes on to assent to the first speaker’s description of the toilets, without taking the term in another sense, or at least without letting us know. This may be generalised: there are cases in which we expect things to change, that is, we do not expect the same units to re-occur. On the outright socio-cultural level, this is true of the mechanism of Modernism, which goes on for ever producing new differences, as we have argued above. It may therefore be suggested that an isotopy, in the more restricted sense of a set of redundant semic categories, is only one of several means of which a scheme disposes when it goes about its business of producing meaning. It is of course possible to retort that, as Modernism proceeds on its way of creating ever new movements, Modernism itself recurs redundantly; and that, as the joke reaches its point of rupture, it continues conveying the meaning ‘joke’. In some respects, this way of putting it may actually be informative; yet, in other cases, it is not informative enough. As we shall see, it is not particularly informative in the case of visual semiosis, whose temporal organisation is different.

The schemes of the visual world
The fairly orthodox use of the Greimasean notion of isotopy in the Traité poses a number of problems, to which we must now attend more closely. They are all connected with the fact that the norm and the isotopy seems to be more or less identified (for instance when discussing local and general zero levels, p. 262ff), which gives the impression that recurrence and redundance are always expected, when in many cases it is change and modification which is really the normal course of events. In the second place, even if recurrence is expected on a certain level of abstraction (‘human being’), the interesting thing may be precisely which part of it is expected (‘head’ rather than ‘feet’), etc. And finally, the temporal organisation suggested by such terms as ‘redundancy’ may be at least partially misleading when applied to cases of visual semiosis. It stands to reason that the term allotopy, first introduced by Groupe µ (1977), must, in one way or another, designate something which is the opposite of isotopy (‘non-


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images isotope’, 1977:36): it could thus be imagined to be the expectancy that no units (or, more reasonably, some particular set of units) are going to recur in the future; or it could simply be the fact of the expectancy of recurrence embodied in the isotopy having been deceived. In the book in which it is introduced (Groupe µ 1977), and then in the Traité, the second sense of the term is certainly the one intended. However, Groupe µ should have been able to discover the first sense already in the earlier book: in discussing Rastier’s isotopies of expression (1977:35), they judiciously observe that, contrary to the content plane, where recurrence is expected, the verbal expression plane would normally offer a variety of sounds or letters. Thus, in the case of language, isotopy may be the norm of content, but allotopy constitute the norm of the expression plane. Interestingly, in their earlier discussion of the collage, Groupe µ (1978:17ff) seems to use the term allotopy in our first sense, to stand for a norm opposed to that of isotopy. Thus, for instance, the collage is said to be allomaterial, which means that it is made up of different materials, in contrast to the picture norm, which requires pictures to be isomaterial, which, in this case, signifies that pictures should be put together using material pertaining to a single category. The norm of plastic discourse is said to be isotopicality, or more precisely, isomateriality of the expression matter, and allotopicality, which is to say, allograduality of the expression graduality — more simply put, that a single material has been employed to compose the picture, in order to express distinctions between the intervening signs making it possible to hold them apart (‘une répartition suspendue à la fonction de reconnaissance des signes iconiques’; op.cit.:18 ).31 In contrast to these norms, it is concluded, collages may therefore be isogradual and isomaterial, or allogradual and allomaterial — and even, as it is added in Groupe µ (1979:185), isogradual and allomaterial. But if this is so, some more generic instance is needed, in order to lay down that, in a given case, recurrence or non-recurrence is to be expected, and what particular form the one or the other will take. Thus, while a picture joining together the bosom of Mae West, the face of a general, and a football player’s hairy legs is undoubtedly deviant (1978:18), the same holds true of another picture displaying multiple copies of Mae West’s bosom where other body parts should occur. It is apparent, then, that something like the scheme is necessary, in order correctly to distribute expected recurrences and nonrecurrences. Indeed, the authors may themselves be suggesting this in a late text (1984:20f ), and in the introduction to the Traité (p.39ff), where they recognise two separate tendencies in rhetoric, the ‘adjunction of order’, and the ‘adjunction of heterogeneity’. There are several instances in which Groupe µ would really seem to be thinking about something different, although they refer to the notion of isotopy or, more often in the Traité, to its key defining concept, redundancy. In the entire chapter about threedimensional visual signs (p.400ff), the authors seem to forget entirely about isotopies and redundancies, and instead set out to discover ways in which sculpture and architecture may depart from the properties we expect them to have (they talk about properties which 57

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images are ‘statistiquement normales’; p.401), such as the three-dimensionality, frontal presentation, and immobility of sculpture. In discussing architecture, they claim that one of the walls of the Ronchamps chapel is rhetorical, because it seems to be two meter thick, whereas we know that it is actually made up of two thin screens (p.412). But clearly, this wall is not rhetorical simply because it is not what it seems to be: it only becomes so to the extent that we take it to be in infraction to the defining norm of functionalism (‘form follows function’ and the like). But functionalism is not an isotopy: although the sheer repetition of functionalist objects may well have made it redundant by now, it didn’t have that character when it was first imposed. But this double entendre extends to more basic concepts. Thus, for instance, we are told (on p.268f) that the iconic (that is, pictorial) sign and the visual sign underlie the principle of concomitance, according to which the limits of the units of the iconic (pictorial) layer coincide with those of the units of the plastic layer; and that the three elements of the plastic sign, texture, colour, and form, are supposed to obey a similar principle of concomitance, also termed coextensivity. This formula is certainly reasonable, and in one or other form it is undoubtedly valid32: indeed, it could well be taken to be one of the principles of ecological physics, as we will discuss it in the following section. But it is said to constitute a zero degree, which has beforehand been identified with isotopy. Now it is clear that, to the extent that there are both plastic and pictorial criteria for isolating a certain unit, and properties of texture as well as of colour and form giving rise to the same segmentation, the unit in question is indeed redundantly delimited. Thus, redundancy is a result of following the principle, but it does not characterise the principle itself. Concomitance is something which is expected to obtain, because that is a ‘regularity’, as Peirce would have said, observed in the ordinary, perceptual world. Another case is point is the so-called ‘projected isotopy’ of the Traité (1992; 267, 271, 275, 278, 313, 356), which was earlier called the ‘pre-textual isotopy’, (cf. 1977:56, 59; 1980: 266ff), although it is certainly no isotopy, for is does not involve any recurrences and redundances, but perhaps a projection and certainly a pretext or, better, a presupposition. This notion is used to take care of cases in which a meaning is projected onto a picture from some other place, based on our knowledge that the picture in question belongs to a series of other pictures, or to a particular pictorial genre, or because of its title, the communicative situation, or even a phantasm on the part of the beholder. Consider the case in which the projection is made from a text which accompanies the picture; then, if it is a long text, it may establish its own isotopy, but in the example considered by Groupe µ (p.278), in which a picture of a square bears the title ‘circle’, no isotopy would have the time to constitute itself. More to the point, however, even in the former case, there would be no isotopy between the title and the picture. Again, in the case of a picture of a square having the title ‘square’, there would indeed be a redundancy, in the sense that the same general concept is referred to in two semiotic systems (though of 58

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images course different information is carried about the square in the two cases), but this would be a result of something more general, which is a schema of expectancy. When discussing that part of iconical rhetoric which they call the rhetoric of transformations, the authors of the Traité (p.295) claim that transformations are only rhetorical to the extent that they apply heterogeneously; if so, transformative rhetoric would indeed depend on a rupture of isotopy. But when discussing concrete transformations, as we pointed out above, Groupe µ (p.307f) also attends to some homogeneous transformations, and this is also the reasonable choice, if historical circumstances are taken into account. But there is no rupture of isotopy in homogeneous transformations: they simply may constitute an infraction of the historical norm stipulating the way in which objects are to be rendered in pictures. The other part of iconical rhetoric, the rhetoric of the type, is really more problematical still. To apply adjunctions, suppressions, substitutions and, in particular, permutations to an isotopy is simply absurd, if we take the term according to definition, as an unordered set of redundant features. It does not matter whether we analyse Magritte’s ‘Le viol’ as a simple permutation, putting the breasts in the place where the eyes are expected, as Groupe µ (p.303) suggests, 33 or as a more complex projection of the entire female trunk onto the face, as we have argued above; in both cases, there will be no rupture of isotopy, for both the eyes and the breasts, as well as the face and the trunk, form part of the same isotopy, which we might call ‘human body’, and even ‘female body’, for, in our culture, the shape of the hair-do is a female as the breasts. When introducing the notion of a rhetoric of the type, Groupe µ (p.293f) claims to be able to determine the identity of the type with the aid of the isotopy: in André François’ cover drawing for ‘Nouvel Observateur’, the hollow circles standing for the heads are seen to be rhetorical, although in other drawings heads may actually be rendered in that way, because the rest of the drawing showing the other parts of the human bodies contains much more details, making us expect the same thing in case of the heads. It will be noted, however, that what was introduced as the rhetoric of the type is here reduced to transformative rhetoric: there is a rupture of isotopies because heterogeneous transformations have applied! It is true that, in the book on the rhetoric of poetry, Groupe µ (1977) argued that syntax must be added to the isotopy. No parallel critique is formulated explicitly in the Traité, and if it had been, it seems to us that it should have had to imply such a radical modification that it would have to upset the whole notion of isotopy. In fact, such an organisation is proposed, and also constitutes the standard against which rhetoric is really measured, although the opposition between this organisation and the isotopy is never accounted for34: it is the ‘articulation’ (or, as we would say, the configurational levels) of the ‘type’, first derived from Palmer’s model of perceptual information processing (p.99ff), then extended in the discussion of the iconic sign (p.149ff), and finally used in 59

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images the analysis of the rhetoric of the type (p.291ff). According to Palmer’s model, objects are organised into parts, related to the whole by ‘subordination’, and integrated into more extended objects, related to them by ‘superordination’; in addition, they also have socalled global properties distributed over their whole extension. Groupe µ suggests that relations between units of the same level, ‘co-ordination’, and those between units in time, ‘pre-ordination’, should be added to the model. Thus, the model becomes similar to the one we introduced (in Sonesson 1989a,I.3.2), on the basis of Koestler’s notion of hierarchy, Benveniste’s distributional and integrative relations, and Rosch’s notion of basic levels. The difference is that we did not take account of ‘pre-ordination’, and that Groupe µ does not attend to Rosch’s (et al. 1976:383) evidence for the existence of a level of organisation, a basic level, which is privileged, in so far as it describes ‘intrinsically separate things’. Moreover, Groupe µ seems to have very mixed feelings about the notion of global properties: on the one hand, they want to do away with them reducing them to causal and even subjective complexes of ‘atomic properties’ (p.105f), but on the other hand, they include them in their list of properties (p.108), and they even use them to distinguish transformative rhetoric from that of the type, the former affecting only global properties (p.293, 306f). In fact, Groupe µ:s notion of global properties anyhow turns out to be very restricted, corresponding more to what we (in Sonesson 1989a,I.3.4.), following the Leipzig school of Ganzheitspsychologie, have called configurations, as opposed to other holistic properties. Thus, the authors refer to such things as the contour of a drawing (p.108); and when they define the head of the human body by such traits as ‘curvaceousness’ and ‘circularity’, they go on to define them as approximations to particular configurations (‘ligne tendant vers la clôture’ and ‘contour inscriptible dans un cercle ou un ellipsoïde’; p. 153). They thus ignore, or at least fail to single out, such holistic, non-configurational properties as ‘angularity’ and ‘roundness’, which has been shown to be perceived before any other features by children (as shown, for instance, by Hoffmann’s experiments, mentioned above), and to be differently located in the brain (see references and discussion in Sonesson 1989a,I.3.4 and I.4.4.). We will see the importance of this distinction later. Let us now attend to a few examples: we will begin with Hokusai’s ‘The wave’, in which, from one point of view, one could really distinguish a double isotopy, comparable in some respects to the poly-isotopy discovered by Rastier in Mallarmé’s poem. In their long analysis (P.352ff; really, for once, a text analytical approach, as we will describe it below), the authors of the Traité point to the resemblance of shape and colour (bluish, with white dots, and surmounted by a white apex) between the two waves and Mount Fuji. These traits could then be taken to be common to the two isotopies, the one of sea and the one of mountain landscapes, like the word ‘poupe’ in Mallarmé’s poem. This is perhaps not so far from Groupe µ:s suggestion that one of the waves functions as an intermediary between Fuji and the other, more imposing wave. It should therefore be 60

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images possible to extend the mountain reading, or alternatively the sea reading to the whole picture, or at least to an appreciable portion of it. Here redundancy reins supreme. However, from what we know about perception, it is much more probable that a beholder would start by recognising the mountain as a mountain and the wave as a wave; only later will he then discover that two things which, as wholes, are very different, share many elementary details. As we suggested earlier (in Sonesson 1989a:80), distinctness, or allotopy, is first posited, and then lower-level isotopy comes as a surprise. There is of course another difference between this case and the one analysed by Rastier: the identity between the two isotopies appear in the poem on the level of content, whereas, in ‘The wave’ it figures primarily on the level of expression. It could be argued, however, that in the case of pictures, similarities of expression tend to translate into similarities of content. Probably, Groupe µ would say that the possibility of this picture shows that mountains and waves have properties in common, just as they claim that the possibility of the ‘chafetière’, the composite picture of a cat and coffee pot, demonstrates the similarities between the animal and the utensil (p.274, 301f). In fact, of course, only the similarity of the ‘cat-as-seen-in-the-picture’ and the ‘coffee-pot-as-seen-in-thepicture’ has been demonstrated. What is needed is really a distinction between the referent as a cultural type, and the referent as it is seen-in the picture, that is, a distinction, in Husserl’s terms, between the picture subject and the picture object, which should really account for a further layer of rhetoricalness. In Max Ernst’s collage ‘Rencontre de deux sourires’, a bird’s head is placed on a human body, thus subverting, according to Groupe µ (p.256,261), the isotopy of the human body. Actually, something more complex would seem to happen: the bird’s head constitutes a deviation in relation to the human body scheme, but it also serves to confirm some more general body scheme valid for all ‘higher’ animals, for a head actually appears where a head is expected. Similar observations apply to André François’ magazine cover: the circle confirms some properties expected of a human head while disconfirming others. A more interesting case is Matisse’s cut-out ‘Nu bleu IV’, which we have analysed in detail in another publication (Sonesson 1989a,III.5.2.). When confronted with the cut-out, we immediately see that it represents a woman who is sitting down on the ground with one of her legs drawn up in front of her, and who grasps her other leg with one hand, while raising the other arm in order to touch her head. It is possible to ‘see in’ still further properties of the woman’s body and her position; and yet, it may be shown that no single relation of super-ordination and subordination is such as it should be, according to the ordinary body schema. Thus, for instance, one of the arms appears to be co-ordinate to the head, but both are only indirectly linked to the trunk. Actually, the cut-out is different from the body scheme, not only in terms of parts and wholes, but also when considered from the point of view of dominance. It thus confirms the body scheme on some very abstract level, when disconfirming it as soon as we attend to details. 61

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images The concept of scheme to which we have been referring so far is a fairly precise one. The term has been used recently in artificial intelligence (Rumelhart & Norman, Minsky), in memory research (Kintsch), perceptual psychology (Neisser), and text grammar (van Dijk), but it derives from a much longer tradition, in which is meaning is often much more specific.35 One of the originators of the term was the social psychologist F.C. Bartlett (1932), who used it in order to explain the successive modifications which a story stemming from an alien culture was subjected to, as the experimental subjects were asked to retell it in increasing temporal distances; but also how one and the same drawing was transformed in later reproductions from memory, in different ways according as it had been labelled as glasses or as a dumbbell upon first seeing it. The scheme is to Bartlett ‘the setting which makes perceiving possible’, but also, more dynamically, an ‘effort after meaning’ (p.32,44); more precisely, it is ‘an active organisation of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organism’s response’, with the result that responses do not occur in isolation, but ‘as a unitary mass’ (p.201). Even before Bartlett, however, both the psychologist Pierre Janet and the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs conceived of the schema as a lattice of pegs on which individual facts may be hooked up, originating as a construction based on the spatial layout of the experimental world. The reference to past experience hinted at by Bartlett is made more explicit by the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz (1932:109ff), according to whom a scheme of our experience (‘ein Schema unser Erfahrung’) should be understood to be a series of earlier ‘polythetic acts’ now reconceived ‘monthetically’, in order to be applied to the interpretation of new experiences. This is clearly the same procedure which Husserl and Gurwitsch called formalisation, and which the second compared to what Piaget describes as ‘abstraction from the action’ (cf. Sonesson 1989a, I.3.4. and I.4.4.). The term scheme, however, is used by Piaget (1967:20ff,25) to focus on the processes of assimilation and accommodation. At first, the organism assimilates stimuli to a pre-given scheme, but at the same time the scheme is modified, as it accommodates to the outer environment. In Piaget’s view, to grasp an object with both hands constitutes, to the 5-6 months old child, essentially a scheme of assimilation, an incorporation of the outer world into the self, but in this same scheme, there are also factors, such as the distance of operation, which must be accommodated to the size of the object, which means adapting the inner representation to the world. Putting these different traditions together, we will take the scheme to be an overarching structure endowed with a particular meaning (more or less readily expressible as a label), which serves to bracket a set of in other respects independent units of meaning, and to relate the members of the set to each other. Illuminating examples of schemes are receipts, calendars, visits to restaurants, meals and clothing (cf. Barthes 1964b; Douglas 1972). Apart from being somewhat like what is often called ‘semantic fields’ in linguistics, 62

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images which are lists of words close in meaning which may be subsumed by a more general term, schemes contain some principle of order, which may, as is often the case, be a temporal link. Thus, the ‘menu conseillé’ posted before the entrance to most French restaurants usually will contain a number of categorical slots which follow each other in time, and which constitute so many points at which a choice must be made. Thus, we have for instance: ‘(hors d’œuvres) — entrée — plat principal — (fromage) — dessert’, where first we have to select an item from a list of possible hors d’œuvres, then perhaps from a choice of entrées, and so on. We may use the term ‘paradigm’ for such sets of alternatives, and the term ‘syntagm’ for the nexus and the operation of specification together, if we remember that these terms stand just for ‘chain and choice’ (Douglas 1972:62 ), for ‘assemblage in praesentia’ and ‘in absentia’ (Saussure 1968:278ff ), for logical conjunction and disjunction (Jakobson 1942 ); but not if we think (as Barthes certainly takes for granted) that a syntagm must imply an ‘enchaînement’, a lineal order. The meal, just as clothing and the picture, is, as Saussure (1974:39) says about the latter, a multi-spatial, or perhaps better, a multi-dimensional semiotic object. In the clothing system, for instance, we cannot obtain all the relevant categories of the system, if we restrict our search to what is worn ‘sur un même point du corps’ (Barthes 1964b:135), since the different paradigms of pants, long underpants, trousers, sweater, jacket, and overcoat all entirely or partly occupy the same body spot. The scheme is thus an overarching structure endowed with meaning, which, with the aid of a relation of order, in the form of syntagms and/or paradigms, joins together a set of in other respects independent units of meaning. Normally, schemes are constituted out of earlier experiences, i.e. they are sediments of past sequences of behaviour (according to Bartlett, Neisser, Schütz, Piaget); and, more specifically, they are socially constituted, i.e. the actions from which they derive, and/or their results, arise in interaction with other members of the socium, and thus possess a least some amount of intersubjective validity, inside the limits of a particular society. No doubt, some schemes may contain innate elements, and there may be abstract schemes, such as those distinguished by Piaget, which only seem to require the mere form of sociability, in other words, human interaction. and so may be found in all societies, or at least in some classes of cultures. Schemes contain principles of relevance which serve to extricate from each ineffable object such features as are of importance relative to a particular point of view (this is Piaget’s assimilation, as well as the principle of abstractive relevancy according to Bühler 1934 ; cf. discussion in Sonesson 1989a,I.1.4./II.4. ). On the other hand, schemes also supply properties missing from the ineffable objects, or modify the objects so as to adapt them to the expectancies embodied in the schemes (this is another aspect of Piaget’s notion of assimilation, and also what Bühler terms apperceptive supplementation, and it is involved in what Halbwachs and Bartlett call reconstruction, and in Gregory’s perceptual hypothesis). We have seen this factor at work in the way the ordinary body scheme may 63

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images be recovered in Matisse’s ‘Nu bleu’. Schemes also incorporate (some of) the results of their own use on ineffable objects, and are themselves changed in the process (this is Piaget’s accommodation; and it also seems to correspond to what Lotman calls the internal recoding of ‘texts’, and to the Bachtinean intertext conceived as a matrix for engendering other ‘texts’). Part of what is addressed here is clearly the eternal antinomy of the functioning system and the hazards of history, abolished in Coseriu’s (1958:17) decisive phrase, that ‘la lengua cambia para seguir functionando’. From Coseriu, however, we should also retain the capital fact that every system contains a norm, that is, a more limited set of ‘las estructuras simplemente comunes (tradicionales)’ inside ‘las estructuras functionales (distintivas)’ (op.cit.:29). One way in which the system prepares for change is found in the combinatory possibilities present in the system which lie beyond the norm. There is also the fact that one system may contain several norms, some of which are endowed with more prestige than the others. One norm may thus be quoted by others, and even invade them, in particular if it is associated with a particularly prestigious person or group (the latter is the case in many of Bachtin’s intertexts, e.g. the street cries; however, in this example prestige is not assigned by the norm doing the import). But there is also a more intrinsically motivated form of modification, through which the system is developed, rather than demolished. This is the principle behind the wine-taster code: beginning with a simple opposition separating wine from what it is not, one learns to differentiate a little further, first perhaps the major wine sorts, then the ‘appellations controlées’, the different ‘vignobles’, and so on (cf. Gibson 1969). None of the primitive distinctions are abolished, but each member of the oppositional pair is developed into a new distinction, the members of which give rise to further oppositional pairs, and so on for a number of levels. This principle is found in the way children learn phonetic distinctions, as shown by Jakobson (1942), and perhaps even in the way they develop a drawing ability (as suggested by Gardner, Olivier, and Krampen, and discussed in Sonesson 1989a). A particular object given in experience may relate in different ways to the scheme by means of which we have access to it: first, it may accord in a routine fashion with the scheme, in case it has precisely those relevant properties which may be expected, and while missing features may be filled in (by accommodation or assimilation), no awareness of distinctness emerges. In the second place, the object may not only tally with the scheme, but also agree with its norm part, i.e. it appears as a prototypical instance of the scheme. Thirdly, however, the object may diverge from those properties predicted by the norm, and maybe even from those of the scheme; but the divergence is of such a nature, that the features of the object can be projected back onto those present in the scheme, with the aid of a small number of operations, such as permutation, addition, suppression, and substitution. In such cases, there is an awareness of the divergence, and thus a rhetoric.36 Two cases, which have a much wider conceptual importance, should be singled 64

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images out here: signs referring to the scheme may exaggerate tendencies contained in actual instances of the scheme, and/or may realise properties never appearing together in those instances, in which case they are idealtypes; or they may invert the prominent values of actual instances, in which case they may be called antitypes (cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.3.1.). Finally, when divergances are pushed so far that the connection with well-known schemes can no longer be sustained, incomprehensibility may result (as suggested by Halbwachs, Bartlett, and Hjelmslev). It is not certain that this last case is an actual possibility, for at least the history of the 20th century avant-garde gives the impression that even such deviations end up being absorbed into the system. This was precisely the idea of the Russian formalists, according to which each new movement arriving on the scene in order to ‘deautomatize’ perception and ‘make strange’ what had been transformed into routine in the artistic canon, was then itself established as a new canonised body of artworks, which would have to be challenged by still further movements (which amounts to ‘a false dialectics’, according to Medvedev 1978:75ff ). In the long run, what may happen is that the scheme is extended to cover new cases. The Tartu school would say that ‘texts’ which are imported into the culture are at first ‘deformed’, but then new ‘codes’ (that is, ‘schemes’) are set up to take care of them. We will use the case of the human body scheme to illustrate these cases. Although it concerns a physical object, our own body, it arises out of our experience of the body, and is thus socially organised, although this organisation may be largely based on universals of human sociality. It may be difficult to spot prototypical cases of human bodies, but most real cases, as well as those depicted in photographs and many paintings and drawings, will probably be found inside the limits offered by the processes of accommodation and assimilation, giving rise to no sense of distinctness. Perhaps the stick-man may be considered an idealtypical case. If we admit that the human body scheme must have subtypes for men, woman, and children, we can find clearer cases of idealtypical instances: the double mirror-symmetrical curve figure often scribbled on the walls of public lavatories, and the ‘supranormal head-form’, that is, the exaggerated vault of the forehead in representations of babies (cf. Sonesson 1988,II.1.3.8). The Swaihwé and Dzonokwa masks of the American Northwest coast studied by Lévi-Strauss (whose analysis we have criticised in Sonesson 1989a,I.1.3 and I.3.5., and 1992a), would be instances of antitypes in relation to many of the properties prescribed by the human facial scheme. Magritte’s ‘Le viol’ realises two different parts of the female body scheme, but one partially at the same place as the other, in different scales, and without the connecting links which the scheme make us expect. There is thus a permutation of the order of body parts, but of a particular kind, for that which should appear above the other appears in the same location; at the same time, there is an heterogeneous transformation of scale, and a suppression of intermediary elements. The principle of order of the scheme is thus seriously upset. Max Ernst’s collage, in which a bird’s head takes the place of the human one 65

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images illustrates the case in which the body scheme, which in other respects is confirmed, is partially refuted. This time, however, we do not have to set up a new, extended scheme, for such a scheme already exists, as an abstraction from the class of body schemes pertaining to all ‘higher’ animals, and in this scheme, the bird’s head is confirmed as a head in the expected position of a head, while being denied the status of a human head. In André François’ cover drawing, the head is similarly confirmed as a head, even an idealtypical one, and even a human head, since there is nothing to contradict such an interpretation; it is only that the details of a normal human head have to be filled in from the scheme. As we suggested above, very little is needed for a face to be identified as such: although it lacks the traits ‘circularity’ and ‘curvaceousness’ (as described by Groupe µ 1992:153), the square figure apparently retains a sufficient number of global traits, or ‘invariants’, as Gibson would say, to be immediately assimilated, in Piaget’s sense, to the facial scheme. A particularly interesting case should be Matisse’s ‘Nu bleu IV’. As we have seen, the cut-out fails to observe any of the syntagmatic relations prescribed by the Western body scheme. The contours of the different parts could hardly be said to correspond, to any greater extent, to that of real human bodies. Yet the picture is immediately projected onto the human body scheme. This means that there must be some global, at least partly nonconfigurational properties of the picture which are sufficient to identify it as an instance of the human body scheme, although all efforts to hang up the observed details of the picture on the pegs of the body scheme must fail .37 The possibility of such a projection, we submit, must also have something to do with the prominence of human bodies in the human Lifeworld.

From the semiotics of the ‘natural world’ to semiotic ecology
In several passages of the Traité, Groupe µ attends to a distinction between what they call ‘natural spectacles’ and ‘artificial spectacles’, on the subject of which the group seems to have very mixed feelings (p.29ff, 109ff, 345ff). We believe that they are right in distancing themselves from this distinction, and wrong in then proceeding to make use of it: ecological semiotics should take its place. The latter speciality will be required to accomplish some of the tasks earlier attributed to Husserl’s science of the Lifeworld, Gibson’s ‘ecological physics’, and Greimas’ semiotics of the ‘natural world’ (cf. Sonesson 1991b, 1992b,c). Like the former two, semiotic ecology will suppose the Lifeworld to be a privileged version of the world, ‘the world taken for granted’, in Schutz’s phrase, from the standpoint of which other worlds, such as those of the natural sciences, may be invented and observed. It is true that Greimas (1970: 49ff) fails to accord such a privileged status to his ‘natural world’ (a conception which we have criticised in Sonesson 1989a,I.1.4, I.2.1, and passim). However, Greimas, like Husserl and Gibson, invents this science because he realises that the ‘natural world’, as we experience it, is not identical to that of physics, but is culturally constructed. For semiotics, as for all other human and social sciences, the


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images Lifeworld is important in two respects; first, because, like the natural scientists, semioticians live, work, formulate their theories, and make their analyses, in the Lifeworld. And secondly, because the Lifeworld is the very theme of semiotics, its general principles of organisation forming the background against which all the objects of particular semiotic interest detach themselves. It may seem strange to put together ideas and observations made by a philosopher, a psychologist, and a semioticians. In many cases, however, these proposals are simply identical. One peculiar thing about the so-called ecological psychology devised by Gibson is that it is, on so many counts, remarkably similar to Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy. Gibson, it has been reported, was very interested in philosophy; he was even censured for trying to resolve philosophical puzzles empirically (cf. Lombardo 1987; Reed 1988:45). Apparently, Gibson had some knowledge of Husserl's work. Yet, from reading Lombardo and Reed, one gets the impression that neither they, nor Gibson have any idea of the degree to which their conceptions coincide. No doubt, apart form being a good psychologist, Gibson was also an excellent phenomenologist. As for Greimas, he was certainly familiar with Husserlean phenomenology, if not directly, then at least through Merleau-Ponty. In the following, we will describe some of the general principles obtaining in any conceivable Lifeworld, as they have been indicated by Husserl and Gibson. It is a basic property of the Lifeworld that everything in it is given in a subjective-relative manner. This means, for example, that a thing of any kind will always be perceived from a certain point of view, in a perspective that lets a part of the object form the centre of attention. What is perceived is the object, though it is always given through one or more of its perspectives or noemata, which themselves are unattended.38 Looking at a dice, or any cube, we can perhaps see one of its sides rather directly and two others in perspectival distortion, while the remaining sides are actually out of view. For Lifeworld consciousness, however, this constitutes the seeing of the entire dice. When Gibson (1978:228), much later, observes that, when we are confronted with the-cat-from-one-side, the-cat-from-above, the-cat-from-the-front, etc., what we see is all the time the same invariant cat, he actually recovers the central theme of Husserlean phenomenology, according to which the object is entirely, and directly, given in each one of its noemata (see Husserl 1939, etc.). To Husserl, this seeing of the whole in one of its parts is related to our knowledge of being able, at any one point, to turn the dice over, or go round it, to look at the others sides. This awareness of always being able to go on has also been termed the etc principle. Gibson describes its conditions of possibility more strictly in his ‘ecological optics’. Everything in the Lifeworld is given in ‘open horizons’, that is, reality is not framed off like a picture, but goes on indefinitely, however vaguely indicated. Beginning with the theme, or centre of attention, the experienced world gradually fades away, without there 67

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images being any definite limits, and we only have to change the centre of attention in order to extend the field of distinct experience. Every object has an outer horizon, i.e. the background field of other, nearby objects, and an inner horizon, the parts and attributes that are presently out of view or just unattended. To both the horizons, the etc principle applies. It is this aspect of Lifeworld experience which is projected onto the picture, when, as Groupe µ (p.212) judiciously observes, the space inside the frame, which is actually a figure in its own right, is treated as if it was a ground, a ‘fond paradoxical’. The temporal organisation of the Lifeworld is similar to the spatial one. In the consciousness of each moment lies embedded the consciousness of the immediately following moment and the consciousness of the immediately preceding moment, called the protention and the retention, respectively. Each protention, in turn, contains its protentions and retentions, as so does each retention. They may be general and vague, like the expectancy that life will go on, or that something will change, or more definite, like the expectancy that the dice will turn out to have a certain number of eyes on the hidden sides This model of time consciousness was used in theatre semiotics, and in literary semiotics, by members of the Prague school, notably by Mukar&ovsky!. However, it is much more general: it actually underlies all schemes of expectation, including all isotopies. Every particular thing encountered in the Lifeworld is referred to a general type. Typification applies to all kinds of objects, even to human beings: according to Schütz, other people, apart form family members and close friends, are almost exclusively defined by the type to which they are ascribed, and we expect them to behave accordingly, However, types are not really like scientific concepts, though the former may initiate the latter. Husserl’s description of geometry as idealisation supposes that geometrical shapes do not exist as such in the Lifeworld. ‘In perceptual experience, the spatial shapes of things are determined only as to type — a margin of latitude is left for variations, deviations, and fluctuations’ (Gurwitsch 1974:26). Thus, there are no circles in the Lifeworld, only things with ‘roundish´ shapes, with ‘circular physiognomy’. Indeed, the ‘good forms’ of Gestalt psychology, and the prototypes of Rosch’s theory, are clearly typifications (see Sonesson 1989a,I.2.1.). As we suggested above, types are of different kinds, not only prototypes, but also idealtypes and antitypes, and perhaps still others. However, if Groupe µ (1992:29ff; and, in particular, Edeline 1992) is correct, there will really be two kinds of idealisation, the one described by Husserl which starts out from relatively irregular, and even ‘fractal’ objects (such as a leaf or a littoral) and makes them more regular, by means of a ‘supplément d’ordre’; and another one which transforms fairly regular objects into more ‘fractal’ ones, by means of a ‘supplément de désordre´. Closely related to the typifications are the regularities which obtain in the Lifeworld, or, as Husserl’s says, ‘the typical which in which things tend to behave’. In fact, once an object has been assigned to a particular type, we know more or less vaguely what may be expected, or rather protained, from it in the future, and we can then learn to 68

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images manipulate desirable changes ourselves. Many of the ‘laws of ecological physics’, formulated by Gibson (1982:217ff), and which are defied by magic, are also such ‘regularities /that/ are implicitly known’: that substantial objects tend to persist, that major surfaces are nearly permanent with respect to layout, but that animate objects change as they grow or move; that some objects, like the bud and the pupa transform, but that no object is converted into an object that we would call entirely different, as a frog into a prince; that no substantial object can come into existence except from another substance; that a substantial detached object must come to rest on a horizontal surface of support; that a solid object cannot penetrate another solid surface without breaking it, etc. Some of the presuppositions of these ‘laws’, such as the distinction between ‘objects that we would call entirely different’, are also at the basis of what we have called the Lifeworld hierarchy, and the definition of the sign function. It is also here that we should place the principles of concomitance and coextensivity formulated in the Traité. The Husserlean description of regularities fit in with the notion of abduction, which Peirce wanted to put beside the more familiar procedures of deduction and induction, and which reasons from one particular instance to another, not, however, as has been suggested (by Ginzburg 1983), exclusively on the level of individual facts, for the facts, Peirce tells us, are mediated by certain ‘regularities’, principles that are tentatively set up or taken for granted. Peirce wondered how it was possible for so many abductions to prove right, postulating a natural instinct as an explanation. Actually, there is an infinite number of ways to relate facts, but most of them would seem to be humanly inconceivable. The limited number of alternative abductions being really proposed may be due, not to a natural instinct, but to the commonalty of the most general organisational framework of the Lifeworld. Contrary to what is often believed, Gibson (1982:218) suggests, children spontaneously believe in non-magic, not the reverse; indeed, it is on this background that magic gains an interest, as a kind of rhetoric of the ‘natural world’. In the world of ecological physics, like in Husserl’s Lifeworld, the sun continues to rise, and the earth does not move. In an earlier book, Gibson (1966: 8ff) observed that ‘the terrestrial environment’ of any animal has continued to possess certain simple invariants, during the millions of years of evolutionary history, such as the earth being ‘below’, the air ‘above, and the ‘waters under the earth’. The ground is level and rigid, a surface of support, whereas the air is unresistant, a space for locomotion, and also a medium for breathing, an occasional bearer of odours and sounds, and transparent to the visual shapes of things by day. As a whole, the solid terrestrial environment is wrinkled, structured, at different levels, by mounts and hills, trees and other vegetation, stones and sticks, and textured by such things as crystals and plant cells. The observer himself underlies the consequences of the rigidity of the environment, and of his own relationship to gravity. Also linguists trying to explain the existence, in all languages, of a set of small words designating the 69

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images spatial and temporal dimensions of the environment, have found it necessary to postulate a basic framework of the experimental world, determined, in part, by gravity (cf. Miller & Johnson-Laird 1976; also cf. Greimas 1970:46ff). Inside ‘ecological physics’, in Gibson’s sense, there must be some kind of ‘social physics’, not exactly in the Durkheimian sense, but on the micro-level. Schütz and Mead have talked about the array of ‘things’ of the human world which are peculiar in being ‘at hand’, occupying the ‘manipulatory sphere’; and Wallon has discussed the ‘ultra-choses’, which are outside this sphere, but seen from there. Even these humble things do not only have a use, but are also there, as Lévi-Strauss would have said, to think with. In this sense, we have referred above to the hierarchy of prominence of Lifeworld things, and we have in fact been using such a scale in two different, but complementary, ways. On the one hand, we have observed that some objects, such as the human body itself, in particular its face, but also common objects like chairs, must be so central to the human sphere, that they will be recognized with only scant evidence, even though the invariants embodied in a particular picture are found in other objects as well. In this case, the objects and the highest levels of the scale stands the best chance of being selected. On the other hand, we have argued that only objects low down on the scale will be recognized as susceptible of carrying a sign function, without being particularly designated as such, which is true, in our culture, of a sheet of paper or a canvas. One may wonder whether the same scale, with the same ordering, would be involved in the two cases. This it not clear at present. However, a human being, a shape which is easily recognized as such with very scant indications, is perhaps also that object which is most difficult to see as a mere signifier of something else, if he is not explicitly so designated, as in the theatre, or in a ceremony. On the other hand, the human face, which is probably that object which is most easily identified of all, serves at the same time as support for conveying other signs, the expressions of feelings and attitudes; but then again, it is not the face, but its movements which are signifiers of these other signs. It is just that, unlike that of the Cheshire cat, the human smile cannot exist independently.

An excursus on method
Before turning to the last issue of our discussion, the rhetorical operations, we must entangle the muddle of methods and goals involved in the distinction between microsemiotics and macrosemiotics, as it appears at the beginning of the Traité. If we take method to imply a series of operations applied to a set of phenomena, yielding a number of general conclusions, three or four methods may be distinguished in semiotics: text analysis, system analysis, experiment, and text classification (cf. Figure 12). Textual analysis consists in treating any meaningful phenomenon occurring in a culture, e.g. a sentence, a work of art, a piece of behaviour, and so on, as being the ’text’ of a given ’system’, i.e. as being exhaustively (at least from a certain point of view) reducible


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images to a series of repeatable elements and the rules for their combination. The issue here is not whether pictures are made up of fixed, detachable units (which would be denied by most contemporary semioticians) or whether the rules are really concerned with transformation and/or construction rather than combination (as Eco and certainly Groupe µ would argue). We may put the basic assumption of textual analysis more succinctly by stating that behind all phenomena there is a categorical framework the instantiations of which are seen (from one or other point of view) to recur all through a series, which, as such, is characterised by a constellation of categories. It does not follow, of course, that what is repeated is in any way comparable to a phoneme, a word, or even a rule of syntax. In this sense, textual analysis is certainly not peculiar to the semiotic approach; it has been employed in many other disciplines, such as sociology (’natural history approach’) and cognitive psychology (’protocol analysis’). Structuralism, in the primary, linguistic sense, requires, in addition, that the ’system’ should be studied, and the categories derived, by means of the application of operations to a set of ’texts’; and that the identity of the elements in the ’texts’ should be determined through recourse to the relations which the elements contract with each other in the ’system’. This supposes a complex dialectic between the ’system’ and its ’texts’ which is not explicitly present in other textual approaches. On these assumptions, it becomes necessary, not only to study a sizeable set of texts pertaining to the same system, but to adjust all earlier analyses of a phenomenon each time a new analysis of other phenomena of the same general type is made, for instance as far as the limits between units, or the identification of variants for an invariant, are concerned. It seems doubtful that any exponent of structuralism, such as Barthes, Marin, Schefer, Gauthier, Floch, Thürlemann, Lindekens, Tardy, etc., have ever analysed more than one picture ’of the same type’ (of course, the notion of ’type’ here is problematical); and if we take all pictures to be in some sense type-identical, it is easy to ascertain that none of these researchers has ever cared to revise earlier analyses in the light of later ones. Thus, if text analysis retains any heuristic value in visual semiotics, this must be for reasons foreign to structuralism. In the introduction to the Traité, Groupe µ denies all value whatsoever to textual analysis, because they believe it to get lost in idiosyncratic details. Contrary to text classification, however, which is, as we will see, the method favoured by Groupe µ, it requires an exhaustive account, from one or other point of view, of the entire text. It seems to us that such a requirement of exhaustiveness imposes a constraint on the analysis, which may at least have some heuristic value. For our purpose, the experimental method may be described as an approach in which a fragmentary ’text’ is constructed by the investigator and completed (or, alternatively, evaluated) under strictly limited and controlled conditions by the experimental subjects, the ’system’ being deduced on the basis of majority reactions. In this way, Tardy studied the procedures of picture perception. Lindekens investigated what different values where 71

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images attributed to shapes such as triangles and circles, as well as the way in which the relative degree of contrast and nuance of a photograph modified the manner in which its referent was interpreted. Espe, apparently independently, approached the same problem, and later went on to study the effects of photographic angle on interpretation. Both the experimental and the semiotical sophistication of these studies is extremely varied. Experiments of this kind, whether performed by psychologists or semioticians, are important for our understanding of the pictorial sign. They have, however, the disadvantages found in all experimental studies: either they are based on artificial, instead of actual ’texts’; or, when they involve real texts, they expose them to experimental subjects in situations which are in some or other way artificial. In a weak sense, we shall take system analysis to mean an attempt to account for, and systematise, the researcher’s own intuitions pertaining to a semiotic system, of which he is also a user in his everyday life. But we shall also introduce a stronger sense of the term system analysis, in which it means a systematic variation of features contained in the system, to detect the limits of their variability, and their possibilities of combination. Both Husserlean ’ideation’ and Hjelmslevean ’commutation’ are varieties of this general kind, in spite of their differences, as is the Chomskyan judgment of grammaticality and synonymy. In its ideal form, then, system analysis gives rise to a table having (at least) double entries, and permitting the cross-classification of a number of categories according to the possibility of putting certain features together. The Peircean apparatus for classifying signs, which, in its most simple version, involves three times three categories, is a good illustration of this type of analysis. Eco's work could be ranked with system analysis in the weaker sense. Elsewhere, we have proposed to distinguish yet another method of pictorial semiotics (cf. Sonesson 1989b,1992a, 1993b), which is a kind of hybrid between system analysis and text analysis, and which might well be the second most common approach to our domain. Text classification, as it will be called in the following, is similar to system analysis in its developed form in that it is based on an intersection of two or more conceptual series, the compatibilities of which are tried out in the analysis. But these compatibilities are not tested on a purely conceptual basis, but by means of spotting actual examples of pictures, answering to that particular constellation of features defining each single case. The result of a text classification is thus a series of analyses of pictorial texts, but unlike what occurs in real text analysis, there is no attempt to account completely for the given picture; indeed, it is characterised only to the extent that it realises that particular constellation of features which is contained in the conceptual series defining the cross-classification. It is clear that, should we be able to inscribe a given text in a sufficient number of such categorical frameworks, we will have ended up with a text analysis, but this prospect is not only utopian; it also goes beyond the intentions of those who have recourse to this method. The most significant contribution of this kind inside 72

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images pictorial semiotics is now doubt the one given us by Groupe µ (1979; 1980; 1989b,c); in the Traité, however, the approach is, on the face of it, much closer to system analysis. This may really be an artefact of presentation, however.

Text analysis

Domain of analysis several texts a single text

System analysis


intuition, socially derived knowledge artificial construction of texts intuition and texts

Operation applied modelling, generalisation modelling, heuristic construction of models variation, combination evaluation or supplementary construction of texts insertion into conceptual frames

Operator(s) involved the researcher the researcher the researcher the researcher + experimental subjects the researcher

Exponent in pictorial semiotics fragmentary attempts most common Peirce, Eco, common in semiotics of photography Lindekens, Tardy, Espe, Krampen, etc. mainly Groupe µ,

Text classification

Fig. 12. Semiotic methods and their application to pictorial semiotics (Adapted from Sonesson 1992a) There is actually a certain dialectic between these different approaches to semiotics: we need to have some notion of the system, before we can set the procedures of text analysis to work; system analysis must be elucidated using real texts, and the artificial texts of the experimental approach must be constructed by comparison with texts which can really be observed ’out there’ in culture. System analysis claims to have direct access to the system, whereas the latter is attained indirectly by the experimental method making a detour over artificial texts. In the case of text analysis, on the other hand, the object studied is the text(s), while the object of study, in which we are interested, remains the system. Since it is impossible to start from zero, the researcher will have to construct a 73

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images model before he embarks on the analysis, and since this model cannot be completely arbitrary (in spite of Hjelmslev and Greimas), he must rely on his intuitions as a user of pictures and, ideally, on his system analysis of these intuitions; he will then modify the model as he goes along. If the result of a text classification is to be illuminating, the categories crossclassifying the slots must be correctly chosen, and no sufficiently distinct textual case must have been left out of account. The first requirement stems from system analysis, and the second derives from the principle of exhaustiveness found in text analysis. It is more or less impossible to show that these requirements have been fulfilled: unfortunately, however, it remains possible to show that they have not. To show that the latter is the case with the rhetorical models proposed in the Traité is precisely the task which remains for us to accomplish before putting an end to this review.

Absent figures and present ones
According to the principle of fundamental visual rhetoric, rhetorical figures consist of two units which may be cross-classified in absentia or in praesentia, and conjoint or disjoint. The figure is in absentia conjoint (IAC), that is, a trope, if the two units occupy the same place in the statement, one being totally substituted for the other. It is in praesentia conjoint (IPC), also called an interpenetration, to the extent that the units appear in the same place, with only partial substitution of one for the other. There will be a figure which is in praesentia disjoint (IPD), also called a pairing, if the two entities occupy different places, without any substitution taking place. Finally, the figure will be in absentia disjoint (IAD), that is, a projected trope, when only one unit is manifested, while the other is exterior to the statement, but is projected onto it. These distinctions are valid for the purely iconical (that is, pictorial) and purely plastic figures.39 They are pictorial in case both the information which has to be supplied (Haddock’s pupils where we see bottles) and the indications permitting us to supply it (the rest of Haddock’s face) depend on our recognition of the visual world as rendered in the sign; they are plastic when both the information to be deduced (a further circle where we see a square in Vasarely’s ‘Bételgeuse’) and the features making it possible to deduce it (a long series of vertical and horizontal circles) are properties of the plastic sign. There are, however, also icono-plastic (we would say pictoro-plastic) figures, in case the information lacking is iconic and that which must be supplied is plastic, or vice-versa. They are all disjoint, so that the only remaining distinction is that between figures in praesentia and in absentia, also called tropes and pairings, respectively.40 Thus, for instance, there would be an iconic pairing in the plastic sign, when plastic similarity (for instance of the vague and Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s engraving) tends the induce the idea of an iconic similarity (cf. Figure 13).


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images In absentia In praesentia pictorial interpenetrations ‘La chafetière’ by Julian Key (cat combined with coffee pot) ‘Sun and moon’ by Escher pictorial pairings Magritte: ‘Les Promenades d'Euclide’ where a roof and street seen in perspective have the same shape In praesentia plastic interpenetrations circle and square combined as the shape of Sergels torg in Stockholm (Piet Hein); the art of the American Northwest coast plastic pairings Square and circle having the same centre (the Mandala): a Mondrian with only circles In praesentia plastic pairing in the pictorial layer Human being with one leg painted blue, the other ; green pictorial pairing in the plastic layer Hokusai’s ‘The wave’ in which the waves and Mount Fuji are plastically similar to each other; painting by Pirenne in which the city and the country are similarly yellow; Klee’s Mother and child’

conjoint Examples pictorial tropes Bottles instead of pupils in a person’s eyes (Haddock) projected pictorial tropes The titles of many of Magritte’s works

disjoint Examples

In absentia

conjoint Examples plastic tropes ‘Bételgeuse’ by Vasarely where a square appears at the crossing point of 14 horizontal and 22 vertical circles projected plastic tropes A square on a canvas having the title ‘circle;’

disjoint Examples

In absentia

pictorial conjunction Examples plastic conjunction Examples plastic trope in the pictorial layerr Human being in blue as in Leloup’s comic strip; Hindu gods pictorial trope in the plastic layer Capitals with repeated human motives in which an animal appears

Fig. 13 . The figures of visual rhetoric, according to Groupe µ (reconstructed in Sonesson 1992a)


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images One cannot help admiring the elegance of this analysis, and Groupe µ also deserves proper acknowledgement for having modified their earlier system by the introduction of a second dichotomy, beside the one between absence and presence, in order to account for the peculiarities of visual semiosis deriving from its ability to present simultaneous meanings (cf. p. 270f). However, we will argue that the symmetry on which this analysis relies is a false one: in spite of its convenience it will in the end turn out to be uninformative. The first thing we should note is that the fourth variety, the mode in absentia disjoint, does not fit into the system. It is not really disjoint, because it is said to be projected on the other unity; and for the same reason, it is not really absent either. Curiously, while it is specified, in a note, that the sense in which the units making up the trope occupy the same place in the statement is quite precise, the sense in which they do not do it remains quite vague and ambiguous. The different cases of projected tropes seem very different in this respect: if it is due to the fact that the picture is one in a series, then the indications permitting us to supply the necessary information are actually in our immediate presence, perhaps on the preceding page of the book, or, in a comic strip, on the preceding line, or to the left of it. If the projected trope originates in the title of the picture, then it is most probably directly present, as a label below or on the side of the canvas. If the projected trope stems from a genre convention, the information is present in the knowledge base which we possess as members of our culture. If the projection is a result of a personal phantasm of the beholder, the needed indications have come a long way. Probably, intertextual relationships, stemming from our knowledge of one particular other picture, such as Picasso’s paraphrase of Las Meninas, or the advertisement pictures referring to the stills from the ‘Seven year itch’, would also be considered projected isotopies (Cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.3.3., 1992a, f, 1993e). Then, of course, the recognition of the imitation of the manner in which another artist paints could also appear as a projection. The ‘places’ of these different pieces of information appears to be very differently located. Perhaps it is no accident that Groupe µ can only propose a contrived example for projected plastic tropes. This may be the moment to take a closer look also on the other cases. We could begin by asking exactly when two units which are conjoint are considered to be present rather than absent. Instead of considering the bottles as a substitution for the pupils in Haddock’s eyes, we could perhaps see the whole as an interpenetration of the bottles and Haddock, just as the ‘chafetière’ is an interpenetration, in relation to the cat and the coffee pot. It seems that this suggestion could be countered rather easily: no doubt we first identify the drawing, globally, as a person (and, more in particular, as Haddock), and then discover that the tag of the body scheme on which we would normally suspend the central part of both eye parts, the pupils, is occupied by other objects, the bottles; whereas the ‘chafetière’ contains contradictory global information for the identity of the represented phenomenon. This is certainly true, but it does not appear to have anything to do with 76

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images any part of the figure being present or absent. Indeed, one may wonder whether it had not been better to say that both figures are in praesentia, the first being disjoint, since one of its parts is singled out from the whole, and the second conjoint, since two objects coalesce in it. In fact, this vocabulary is equally misleading, for we could just as well turn it around: the first case is conjoint, for it concerns a part being attached to a whole, the second disjoint, because is relates two separate objects. The difference between the tropes and the interpenetrations really has to do with the relations of wholes to parts, that is, of factorality, or, as Groupe µ says elsewhere, of subordination and super-ordination. It is also in this respect that these cases are opposed to the third one, which is a pure case of contiguity, the pairings. However, there seems to be yet another case: in the picture representing a bottle of liquor inside the Coliseum (cf. Figure 14 and Sonesson 1989a,I,2,5,), two independent objects are represented, but they are not merged as in the interpenetrations; nor is (a part of) another object substituted for a part of the globally presented object, as in the tropes; nor are the objects simply put side by side in a surprising combination, as would seem to be the case with the pairings.41 The joint appearance of Coliseum and the bottle (of this size and in this precise position) is unexpected, whereas there would be nothing strange in encountering a cat and a coffee pot, or a bottle and Haddock, side by side — the strangeness largely resides in the relations of part to whole. Yet, unlike the unexpected combinations of the pairings, the Coliseum picture does anticipate the presence of a well-defined element which is not there to be seen, that is, an ice-pail. Together with the ice cubes, the bottles require the presence of an ice-pail, like the body scheme requires the pupils of Haddock’s eyes: yet the ice cubes, the bottle, and the ice-pail do not make up any complete whole, only a set of interconnected objects. On object, the contour of which designates one entity, and the details another, is hardly comparable to the case in which properties of two objects are united into a whole. What is needed is a notion of an object, that is, of parts and wholes, as compared to mere contiguity. The attempt, by Groupe µ (p.79f), to define the notion of object does not seem to be of any help here; yet it will be useful to take into account a distinction which is basic to perception. As we suggested above, there are different kinds of wholes, and these all have their part to play in the present context: if the overall configuration suggests one interpretation, and the parts another, as in Arcimboldo’s paintings, we will call this a configurational factorality; if one interpretation is indicated by the different parts, and another by their relationships, as in the case of Magritte’s ‘Le viol’, where the details are those of a trunk, but the proportions those of a face, we will talk about a diagrammatic factorality; and if abstract invariants suggest the application of one scheme, but there is no possible projection of in onto the subdivisions, as in Matisse’s ‘Nu bleu IV’, we will use the term holistic factorality.


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images

Fig. 14. Coliseum as an ice-pail.


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images The heart of the matter, however, lies elsewhere: in spite of the misleading terminology, the signifier of the rhetoricalness of the tropes, interpenetrations, and pairings of the Groupe µ model consists in the concurrent presence to visual perception of two elements which are, in some respect, in contradiction to each other. Thus, there is contradiction between the body of Haddock and the bottles, between the cat and the coffee pot, and between the identical shape of the street and the roof in Magritte’s ‘Promenades d’Euclide’ — because in all three cases different schemes of interpretation are jointly, but only partially, satisfied. In some respects (but we shall see that this is only part of what may be said about this case) this is also true about the Coliseum picture, in which the presence of the Roman arena and the bottle invoke different schemes. It will be noted, however, that in Groupe µ:s fourth case, the projected trope, there is nothing in the picture to give away its rhetoricalness: the signifier of its rhetorical character can only be derived from adding together the picture and a knowledge derived from what we would term culturally-specific abductions. This is also the respect in which the Coliseum case is intermediary: abductions are heavily important for its functioning. Just as the presence of two elements are imperative for the emergence of all the first three kinds of rhetorical figures, absent elements have an important part to play in the first two, as well as in the fourth. We anticipate the presence of an entire cat and an entire coffee pot, just as Haddock’s body make us expect the pupils in his eyes which are not there. The case of the pairing, however, is different, at least if we take presence to include that indirect mode in which contents are normally given through the corresponding expression: only the roof and the street, or the circle and the square have to be perceived for the figure to emerge.42 Thus, if we except the case of the intertextual or, more largely, intersemiotic figures, that is, Groupe µ:s projected tropes, which really deserve an analysis of their own (cf. Sonesson 1993e), all figures suppose the co-presence, on the visual expression plane, of two elements not expected to occur together in this way. In other words, the signifier of the rhetorical figure consists of the concurrent presence of two other signifiers whose signifieds would not normally co-occur. Elsewhere, we have pointed out that all cases of contiguity, just as all cases of factorality, depend on indexicality (that is, indexical grounds, which are not necessarily indexical signs), and that indexicality may be of two kinds (cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.2.5.): it is performative when it results from the fact of two units having been combined in the immediate perceptual context; it is abductive when only one item, which is perceptually present, refers to another item which is absent and to which it is connected by means of a known regularity, or abduction. In this sense, tropes, interpenetrations, and pairings are all mainly performative. The terminology favoured by Groupe µ veils the fact that presence (and, as we have seen, also a certain absence) is a defining criterion of all real figures, that is, of all but those which are intertextual, and thus have a quite different origin. It also serves to conceal the 79

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images fact that the figures said to be in praesentia disjoint, that is, the pairings, are really not defined at all. All units which form part of the same visual ‘statement’ are necessarily, and by definition, present together, and disjoint from each other. It is true that Groupe µ (1992;35ff, 353ff) discusses how close two items must be to be considered contiguous (principle of proximity due to Gogel), but no matter how great the precision in the definition of proximity, it will not be enough. As we pointed out when discussing the arrow, there may be objects which are as close to the arrow as the one in front of the arrow-head, and yet they are not designated by the arrow; in a similar way, some further principle is needed here to explain why certain nearby objects are part of the figure while others are not. 43 In fact, it is the similarity of two contiguous objects which renders them rhetorical to Groupe µ, as is made clear by the examples from Magritte and Hokusai. This idea is even made quite explicit in case of the pictorial pairings: ‘Toute image visuelle iconique où deux entités disjointes peuvent être perçues comme entretenant une relation de similitude, entre dans ce groupe’ (p.274). Thus, the figure would result from an isotopy where an allotopy is expected. Interestingly, the existence of still further principles transforming two contiguous signs into a pairing is at least obliquely suggested, when discussing purely plastic pairings and plastic pairings in the pictorial layer: thus a square and a circle having the same centre and being tangents to each other are thereby supposed to form a figure (which is not simply a question of resemblance); and a human figure whose symmetric legs are painted in different colours also give rise to a rhetorical figure (in which case a dissimilarity must be supposed to become pregnant on the background of similarities, that is, an allotopy emerges where an isotopy is expected). It should be noted, however, that, in spite of the description, implied by the term ‘pairing’, these examples hardly appear to be ‘disjoint’: the square and the circle having the same centre more resemble an interpenetration than a pairing (although the coalescence goes still further in the case of Piet Hein’s superellipse); and both the colours of the human body, in the other example, clearly merge with the other properties of the bodily representation.44 It seems reasonable to make explicit the requirement that two contiguous elements entering into a pairing must possess some further property in order to qualify as rhetorical figures, and that this property, if it is not a similarity perceived on the background of a dissimilarity, could just as well consist in a dissimilarity perceived on the background of a similarity. If, in addition, we allow this latter case to be realised not only by objects merged into one, but also by objects which are merely contiguous, this domain will suddenly emerge as being particularly rich in figures. Indeed, most of the cases discovered in the analyses of Floch, and the Greimas school generally, which are based, not on mere dissimilarities, but on oppositions, are of the latter kind. As is well-known from linguistics, oppositions are defined by a dissimilarity on the basis of a fundamental identity, which would seem to be the inversion of the case mostly considered by Groupe µ, the similarity 80

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images emerging on the background of a basic otherness (Hokusai’s ‘The wave’, etc.; cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.3.3.). It seems curious that Groupe µ should treat such a traditional item of structuralist lore as the binary opposition so negligently. Even if one may have some doubts of the authenticity of the binary oppositions which Floch finds so deeply embedded in the ‘News’ publicity, and elsewhere, more clear cases can easily be shown to exist: thus, for instance, in the Kindy publicity, organised around the man and the woman, and the inversion of their respective properties in relation to another picture, a still from the Marilyn Monroe film ‘The seven year itch’; or, more clearly still, the minimal representation showing only a bottle and a tomato, the first being a prototype of angularity, and the second of roundness (Cf. Sonesson 1990d; 1992a,4.1.2 and 4.32; 1992f). Many other examples could be found in the rich domain of the rhetoric, not exactly of pornography, but of erotic photography: the curious insistence with which the photographer will place the nude body in direct contact with some hard and rugged material, such as a rock or the bark of a tree, goes a long way to confirm the persistence of softness and smoothness as global properties of the woman prototype, or at least of the female body prototype (cf. Sonesson 1988). Finally, it should be noted that, to the extent that two objects appear more or less isolated in the picture, and they are not of the kind which would often appear together in reality, they will function as simple pairing, even though there is no similarity and no opposition between them, which is often the case in publicity (Cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.2.5.). We will conclude, not by proposing a rival table of rhetorical figures, but simply by listing a few rhetorical kinds (excluding those which are purely abductive), in order to account for the way in which their meaning is produced from the initial contradiction between the two locations in which signs are perceived to be present (see Figure 15). Although this listing is concerned with the difference between various kinds of contiguity and factorality, it is very different from the one which we have presented earlier (in Sonesson 1989a,I.2.5.), mainly because of the insights gained from reading the Traité. On the other hand, our table does not take into account the purely plastic figures, although we do not doubt their existence, but perhaps the pertinence of some of the distinctions proposed; and it does not uphold the distinction between pictorial and pictoro-plastic figures, which, if real, does not seem to us to apply to the pairings. Basically, our table is a table of pairings — allowing for our observations above, that the tropes, interpenetrations, and pairings of Groupe µ are all basically figures deriving from the concurrent presence of two items which were not expected to co-occur, and that both the former types are in addition concerned with something absent.

An extensive review is most certainly an enduring evil. Yet this one may be doomed to go on for a long time still. Many extant disciplines are simply ongoing commentaries on a 81

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images small set of really important books, and semiotics as a whole was for a long time precisely that in relation to the Cours and the Collected Papers. And just as semiotics has consisted in footnotes to Saussure and to Peirce, visual semiotics may have to be, for a long time now, a discussion of the Traité. We have seen, of course, that there are many statements in the Traité to which one may tend to dissent: yet it certainly is the magnum opus of contemporary visual semiotics, as well as a synthesis and a systematisation made with a theoretical application, sincerity and seriousness not to be found anywhere in the domain before it. Even when visual semiotics has come of age, there will still be a lot to learn from rereading the Traité. As in the case of all great books, however, we shall expect to learn the most from our disagreements with it.

Type of figure (+ example)

Performative indices
simple pairing
Ex. gin bottle and crown

pairing with similarity
Ex. ‘Les promenades d’Euclide’

Expression Location 1 Location 2 Abduction Basic abduction: the combination of location 1 and 2 is unexpected object from object from — scheme A scheme B (alone with (alone with location 2) location 1) object 1 with object 2 with — attribute α attribute α object 1 with attribute α object 1 from scheme A object 2 with attribute –α object 2 from scheme B —

Content ≈

object 1 is similar to object 2 object 1 is similar to object 2, not only in property α object 1 and 2 are extreme prototypes of opposite values object B2 has the function of object A2 (retaining its particular values) in this case object 2ß is similar to/has the function of α in object 1

pairing with opposition
Ex. tomato and bottle

pairing with abduction
Ex. Coliseum and icepail

object A1 requires object A2

factorality from part to whole
Ex. Haddock with bottles

object 1 without part α

factorality from part to whole with abduction
Ex. orange with bottle opener

object 1

part ß of object 2 in place of α (≈ in location 1) part ß of object part ß of object object 2 has the 2 in contiguity 2 goes with properties of object 1 to object 1 part α of object 2


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images factorality from parts to whole with double abduction
Ex. ‘la chafetière’

configurational factorality
Ex. Arcimboldo

diagrammatic factorality
Ex. Magritte’s ‘Le Viol’ (not only this type)

part α of object 1 in place of part ß of object 2 (merged with location 2 thanks to properties γ) contours representing object 1 (enclosing location 2) parts of object 1 (related as in object 2) abstract invariants of object 1

part ß of object part α of object object 1 and object 2 2 in place of have something in 1 goes with common/are similar part α of object part ß of object 1 (merged with 1 and part ß of beyond properties γ location 1 object 2 goes thanks to with part α of properties γ) object 2 object 2, etc parts of object (enclosed inside 1 not depicted location 1) object 2, etc. have something in common with/are contained in/follows from object 1 object 1 and object 2 (and their parts) are similar in some respects

holistic factorality
Ex. Matisse’s ‘Nu bleu IV’

object 2 given parts of object as the 2 interrelations between parts of object 1 subdivisions of (actual plastic values of object 1 subdivisions of location 2 transferred incompatible object 1) to location 1 with object 1

Fig. 15. A few figures of performative rhetoric

* Review of Groupe µ (Edeline, Francis, Klinkenberg, Jean-Marie, & Minguet, Philippe), Traité du signe visuel. Pour une rhétorique de l’image, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1992. All page references with no further specifications refer to this book. 1 This is, as Prieto 1975a has convincingly shown, the real meaning of the famous Saussurean saying that the point of view creates the object of semiotics. Further arguments are adduced by Sonesson 1989a,I.1.4. 2 In fact, Debray believes he is suggesting a new discipline, which he takes care to dissociate also from ‘semiology’ (1991.53ff), of which he takes a very limited view, however: Saussure and Barthes, and, in fact, a certain Saussure (and perhaps even a certain Barthes) 3 For a discussion of the problems encountered by these different schools of perceptual psychology, cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.3. and 1993b. 4 Hjelmslev (1946), argues that two planes must be distinguished when their units are further subdivided in different ways; but such a ‘pragmatic’ criterion will only account for some of those occurrences which we would ordinarily call signs, and it is not essentially involved with the sign character itself. 5 Not all of Piaget's examples of the semiotic function may really be of that kind, even applying his own criteria For some critical observations, see Bentele 1984, Trevarthen & Logotheti 1989; and Sonesson 1992c. 6 About proper parts, perceptual perspectives, and attributes as different ways of dividing an object and thus different indexicalities, cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.2.


Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images


What is disturbing, however, is the use of the term ‘form’, both in its Hjelmslevian sense, and in that of Gestalt psychology, sometimes even in the same passage (but most of the time, the sense in which the term is used is specified in the text). 8 We must dispense here with Peirce’s idiosyncratic terminology. For reasons explained in Sonesson 1989a,III.1., we will take ‘representamen’ to be roughly equivalent to ‘expression’, whereas ‘object’ corresponds to both ‘content’ and ‘referent’. The Peircean ‘interpretant’, on the other hand, appears to be a determination of the relation between the former two. 9 As the term is used by Groupe µ, certain norms are perhaps not social in any relevant sense: the ‘perceptual norm’ (p.35) which is a hypothesis pertaining to the optimum between too much organisation and too much fractal disorder, is only social in the sense that there must be a subject, and preferably several, to entertain it. However, we have another quarrel with the norm concept as employed by Groupe µ, which has to do with its connection to isotopy, and which will be considered later in this essay. 10 Genre norms, which could be taken to be intermediary in some sense, are mentioned several times, but are never given any systematic status. 11 As we will see, this would apparently constitute a ‘projected isotopy’ to Groupe µ. 12 Precisely in the case of classical ballet, it is very difficult to establish the difference between a transgression of an exemplary work of art, and of its norms of concretisation, since ballets are normally not written down, but are handed down from generation to generation in the form of oral (or, more properly, corporal) tradition. 13 We will, however, avoid the term symbol, which Peirce uses to stand for conventional signs, since it has an entirely opposed meaning in the European tradition: indeed, in the latter context, the same term is mostly used for a particular variety of the iconical, or similarity motivated, sign. As we will see, the employments of the term appearing in the Traité must be of this latter kind. 14 For this claim, cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.1. and literature referred to in that place. 15 It will be noted that, if we choose to define indices in terms of causality, which is also an option appearing in Peirce’s work, and which is the only one quoted by Groupe µ (p.195), it will be impossible to exhaust the domain of signs by means of the three sign types: indeed, many examples of indices given by Peirce are certainly not causal (cf. Sonesson 1989a,I.2.), nor is the frame quoted by Groupe µ (p.378) as an index. 16 Groupe µ (p..115, p.195) claims to be using the term ‘symbol’ in Peirce’s sense, to stand for a conventional sign, but this seems hardly compatible with their examples, as we shall see below. 17 Uspenskij himself seems to favour a more radically conventionalist interpretation of this experience, which is unacceptable to us for reasons given above. 18 This argument is given more fully in Sonesson 1989a,III.4. It is unfortunate that, in discussing the different levels of organisation of the visual world, here called configurations, Groupe µ (p.101ff) chooses to talk about ‘articulation’, which has such a specific, and different, meaning in linguistics: they do, however, observe elsewhere, that there is no double articulation in pictures. 19 There is at least one passage in which Groupe µ (1992:195) would seem to recognise the possibility of plastic language being iconic: we are told that it ‘tend tantôt vers le symbole, tantôt vers l’icône’, but the authors do not seem to realise that it must then be absurd to oppose it to the iconic sign. It is true that they go on to claim that the real nature of plastic language is indexical! 20 We are not claiming that all plastic meaning is symbolic, and thus motivated; indeed, a lot of it certainly remains culturally derived (sometimes indirectly so, as we will see). Curiously, Groupe µ does not favour any explicit social theory of meaning either: thus, for instance, the fact that the ‘syntagmatics’ of colour is so historically variable seems to make them think that is lacks normative character (p.242ff); but most norms really are social in character, as we have argued above. 21 Elsewhere (cf. Sonesson 1989a,III.6.5.), we have suggested that symbolism normally inheres in things, not in signs particularly created for the purpose, because , the symbol, like the identity sign, is based on an independently existing object, which has its primary justification elsewhere, and which is valued, first of all, as a ‘self’. This may be true of the plastic layer of a pictorial signs, whose ‘self’ it is to convey the pictorial function. However, symbolism will be used here in an extended sense, to cover also the cases in which the symbolic function is realised alone. 22 This could be seen a case of the principle of ‘concomitance’ (as Groupe µ would have said) running wild! 23 This is consistent with the transformation model proposed by Groupe µ (p.132f), according to which some of the properties of the visual sign are transforms of the represented object, and others result from the personality of the producer. Such a neat separation of the two classes of features does not appear convincing to us. It is true, of course, that we may look at Turner’s work, both because we are interested in mist, and because we take an interest in Turner, but more probably, our interest is really directed to the mist-as-seen-by-Turner. 24 The distinction between two kinds of rhetorical operations is not such a criterion, for its relation to the type and the referent, in spite of the names, is not at all obvious.


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The analysis which follows below summarises, and then expands on, the one contained in Sonesson 1978b:50ff and Sonesson 1988:19ff. 26 We also suggested, in Sonesson 1978a and 1988, that the isotopy should be able to account for the fact that some units of discourse establish parts of their semes as anaphoric referents, while others fail to do so. The following analysis of Greimas’ joke relies on such an anaphoric chain. 27 Greimas (1966:71) claims this term is the ‘terme connecteur commun’ of the two isotopies, but then adds, curiously enough, that we do not have to ask ourselves if they possess a common semical figure! It is true that Greimas’ disciple Rastier (1972:83,99ff) introduces isotopies also on the plane of expression, but although we are concerned, in our funny story, with two contents having just one expression, there is really no expression isotopy, for the expression itself is never repeated; and, in any case, it is certainly on the level of content, that a ‘rupture’ is produced. 28 Rastier (op.cit.:84) introduces what he calls ‘semiological isotopies’, where it is the ‘nuclear figures’ (that is, those semes of the lexemes which are context-independent), not the classemes, which are repeated. Strictly speaking, this suggestion amounts to an abolition of the distinction between classemes and nuclear figures, for Greimas (1966:52f) uses the very fact of iteration to define the former; however, intuitively, Rastier’s proposal seems meaningful, so let us suppose that the distinction may yet be operationalised in some fruitful manner. 29 Koestler goes on to suggest that, in funny stories, expectations are built up, but climax is never reached (although, strictly speaking, not every scheme, not even every temporal scheme, possesses a climax; thus, for instance, the festive scheme may lack it): ‘The punch-line or point acts as a verbal guillotine which cuts across the logical development of the story; it debunks our dramatised expectation; the tension we felt becomes suddenly redundant and is exploded in laughter.’ (1978:114). 30 The analysis of Greimas’ joke in terms of schemes was first suggested by Sonesson (1978a) and, quite independently, by Umberto Eco (1979: 136; 1984:195). However, Eco continues to consider this to be a kind of isotopy, which he understands, in conclusion (1984:201), much more broadly than Greimas, as a ‘constancy in going in a direction that a texts exhibits when submitted to rules of interpretative coherence’. In our view, the definition of schemes should be even broader, as we shall se below. 31 The use of the Hjelmslevian terminology is of course misleading, and yet something gets lost when this analysis is rephrased in terms of texture in the Traité (p.331ff). Something of the earlier analysis apparently subsists in the positing of two different zero levels! ‘Allomateriality’ here (p.334) appears as a way of deviating from the norm, not as a kind of norm! 32 To be adequate, the formula would have to take account of our observation (1989a:151ff), quoted elsewhere in the Traité (p.430), that the ‘form’ (in Hjelmslev’s sense) of the plastic expression plane does not coincide completely with the ‘form’ of its pictorial counterpart, since the limits of variability for a drawing being, for instance, a circle are not exactly the same as those for its representing the sun. 33 Such an analysis is at least incomplete: it does not account for all the deviant facts of the picture. 34 Later (p.261) we are actually told that ‘la coprésence d’un corps et d’une tête est constitutive d’une isotopie’! 35 For further details on the notion of scheme and its history, cf. Sonesson 1988. 36 It might be argued that fashion is a kind of rhetorical modification of the body scheme, or perhaps rather, of a more ‘normal’ derivation of the latter, the clothing scheme. So, for instance, the dislocation of the waist and the modified length of the skirt from time to time give the appearance of transforming the segmentation of the body into parts. 37 That we see it as a female body is perhaps more trivial: the twin shape of the breasts, in the place where they are, in spite of all, expected to appear according to the body scheme, is actually emblematic or, to coin a new term, or rather to introduce a new sense for an old term, archetypical: they signify femininity all of their own, just like certain objects stand for particular saints or gods. There may, however, be more subtle indications of femininity in the picture: the position of the legs and the arms which we ‘see in’ in the cut-out appears to be conspicuously feminine in our culture. 38 In pictures and other signs, however, they may often become the focus of attention. That is why we suggested (in Sonesson 1989a,I.2.4) that, apart from the two decompositions into proper parts and attributes, termed the modes ∏ and ∑ ,by Groupe µ (1970:97ff), there is a third one, into perceptual parts. 39 As a consequence of our earlier critique of the word ‘iconic’ in this context, the term ‘pictorial’ will be substituted for it in the following. Similarly, Groupe µ:s ‘iconico-plastic’ figures will be called ‘pictoroplastic’ figures. 40 There seems to be a terminological inconsistency here, which is perhaps not only superficial: the pairings are defined as disjoint in pictorial and plastic rhetoric, yet they are part of pictoro-plastical rhetoric which is supposed to contain only conjoint figures (p.280). In the latter case, conjunction does not seem to have that ‘precise’ import of referring to the same ‘location’ which is required in the definition (p.271): the similar features of the wave and Mount Fuji in Hokusai’s picture are certainly not in the same ‘place’.


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This may not be the notion of pairing intended by Groupe µ: we will return to consider some problems pertaining to its definition later. 42 It is difficult to understand in which respect Magritte’s ‘Promenades d’Euclide’, classed as a purely pictorial pairing, is supposed to be different from Hokusai’s ‘The wave’, given as a pictorial pairing in the plastic layer. In both cases, objects which are a priori seen as being entirely different appear, in the picture, to have properties in common: if then we take Magritte to denounce the artifice of perspective (p.275), and Hokusai to show the harmony of nature, this is a difference of ‘ethos’, as Groupe µ would say, or perhaps something even more superficial — the interpretation certainly seems open to debate. It will be remembered that the expression plane of the pictorial and the plastic sign overlap, without being entirely identical, but it may often be difficult to determine exactly where the overlap ends. However, it is certainly not merely for pictorial reasons that Magritte has rendered the roof and the street in the same shape, size, and colour; nor are the relevant features of Hokusai’s picture only plastically motivated, for they may be resemanticized both as parts of waves and parts of mountains. If there are purely pictorial pairings, they must be of another kind. 43 Also cf. our critique (in Sonesson 1989a:48) of Groupe µ:s conception of the metonymy as a double synecdoche: it may be true to say that ‘Caesar’ stands for ‘De Bello Gallico’, because both are part of the greater whole ‘Caesar’s life’, but some further principle is needed to account for the fact that the term ‘Caesar’ cannot just as well designate any other parts of Caesar’s life. 44 As we observed in note 40 above, there is a terminological inconsistency here, but the example given for the other type of pairings, the iconical pairing in the plastic layer, actually seem to correspond to the term, not to the description.

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Göran Sonesson obtained his doctoral degree in linguistics from Lund University, Sweden, in 1978, and was awarded in the same year an equivalent degree in semiotics by the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. From 1974 to 1981, he conducted research in general semiotics and of the semiotics of gesture in Paris, and was 93

Göran Sonesson, An essay concerning images later involved with general and Mayan linguistics, as well as with Mayan semiotics of culture, in Mexico. Since 1983, he has been in charge of the Semiotics Project at Lund University, transformed in 1992 into the Seminar of Cultural Semiotics. One of the founding-members of the International Association for Visual Semiotics, created at Tours in 1989, and a Swedish representative to the executive commission of the IASS, he was the first president of the Swedish Society for Semiotic Studies, created in 1991, and the chief organizer of its first congress, in Lund 1992. He has recently been elected president of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies.

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