Critique of Archaeological Reason
5. Excerpts and summaries

Robert W. Preucel

Laerke Recht - November 2016

Excerpts from 2006 Archaeological Semiotics

semiotics p. 5      Semiotics can be defined as the field, multidisciplinary in coverage and international in scope, devoted to the study of the innate capacity of humans to produce and understand signs. What are signs? Signs are such things as ideas, words, images, sounds, and objects that are multiply implicated in the communicative process. Semiotics thus investigates sign systems and the modes of representation that humans use to convey their emotions, ideas, and life experiences. Semiotic analysis, in various forms, is widely used today in a broad range of disciplines, including anthropology, architecture, art, communications, cultural studies, education, linguistics, literature, political science, sociology, and psychology.
p. 6
     Modern semiotics began in the 19th century and most scholars identify two distinct intellectual trajectories. The first of these might be termed "linguistic" and is due to the work of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. The second trajectory can be considered "philosophical" and is associated with the writings of American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Of these two trajectories, the Saussurian approach is best known and has been the most influential across the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Saussurian definition
p. 6
     Saussure coined the word "semiology" (sémiologie) to refer to "a science that studies the life of signs within society" (Saussure 1966:16). He proposed that the true nature of language systems could only be revealed by studying what they share in common with all other semiologic systems. "By studying rites, customs, etc., as signs, I believe that we shall throw new light on the facts and point up the need for including them in a science of semiology and explaining them by its laws" (Saussure 1966:17). For Saussure, linguistics was just one branch of this general science, albeit the most complex and universal of all representational systems.
Peircian definition
p. 7
     Peirce, in contrast, defined "semiotics" as the science devoted to the "essential nature and fundamental varieties of possible semiosis" where semiosis is understood as "the nature of signs" (Peirce Edition Project 1998:413).
archaeology and semiotics p. 2      In this book, I intervene in this debate in two ways [about the status and position of archaeology in relation to other disciplines]. I begin by rejecting the artificial oppositions between different kinds of disciplines which, in the end, are the result of historical and political factors. To do this, I argue that archaeology is a semiotic enterprise. This assertion, while perhaps not familiar to many archaeologists, is not particularly novel. All academic disciplines can be seen as semiotic enterprises. This is because all disciplines must attend to the linkages between their theories, data, and social practices in the pursuit of meaning. It can be argued that all archaeologists of whatever theoretical persuasion, be they processualists, behavioralists, selectionists, agency theorists, feminists, indigenous archaeologists, and so on, make use of the same procedures of logical reasoning in giving meaning to the past.
p. 11      Gardin's (1992) review of semiotic trends in archaeology is of particular interest. He identified three major intellectual trends - structuralism, logicism, and hermeneutics - that underlie interpretation. Structuralism involves making use of the methods of structural linguistics or structural anthropology, particularly as they have been developed by Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. Logicism is associated with the science of logic as devised by Charles Morris and Peirce. Hermeneutics focuses upon the actor as subject, the role of the interpretive community, and the generation of multiple perspectives. Gardin justifies placing these three very different approaches under a common semiotic heading on the grounds that they all address aspects ofmental representation or "mentalities."
Sassurian model shortcomings
p. 3
     [T]he Saussurian model, by itself, cannot provide an adequate account of material culture meaning. This is because of its flawed characterization of the sign and its focus on codes and rules at the expense of social practice.
p. 25
     Saussure defined linguistics as the scientific study of human language in all its varied manifestations. He divides the field into two parts. The first part, and the most essential one according to Saussure, is language itself, which is a collective phenomenon. "Language exists in the form of a sum of impressions deposited in the brain of each member of the community, almost like a dictionary of which identical copies have been distributed to each individual" (Saussure 1966:19). It exists in a realm that is beyond the ability of any one individual to effect change. This is what he calls the language system. The second part of linguistics is speech, which is an individual phenomenon. It
language as culturally constructed
p. 26
     Cultural variation in languages is due to different cultures identifying these meanings and encoding them with distinctive sound patterns. On this view, language is a device for naming and classifying the pre-given world into natural kinds. Saussure challenged this position and argued that appropriate interpretation depends upon a word's specific context within a written sentence or in spoken discourse. He argued that meaning is created in the process of the production of the sign itself. This characteristic means that language is culturally constructed.
     Saussure argues that language has a special character - it has a contemporary social existence and it is the product of a historical trajectory. For every society, language is always an inheritance from the past. "No society, in fact, knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generations, and to be accepted as such" (Saussure 1966:71). Each linguistic state is thus the product of historical factors and these factors tend to exert a conservative force and insulate the linguistic sign from arbitrary change.
    Saussure examines language in terms of a hierarchy of binary oppositions.
langue and parole
p. 27
     Within internal linguistics, Saussure distinguishes langue and parole. Langue refers to linguistic structure. It is language minus speech and consists of the set of linguistic habits that allow a speaker to communicate. It is the domain of articulation which accounts for the division of speech into syllables, or to the division of signs into meaningful units. Parole refers to speech understood as the social realization of language by a member of the linguistic community.
the sign
p. 28
     The sign is the fundamental unit of linguistic analysis. Saussure defines the sign as a "two-sided psychological entity" linking a concept and a sound pattern (Saussure 1966:66). The concept is not a thing in the world, but rather a mental image of that thing. Similarly, the sound pattern is not a physical sound, rather it is the hearer's cognitive interpretation of a sound. The concept and sound pattern are thus both mental entities and independent of any external object. Saussure defined the concept as the signified (signifié) and the sound pattern as the signifier (significant).
     Saussure then identifies two basic principles of the sign. The first of these is that the relation between signified and signifier is arbitrary.
the sign and structuralism
pp. 30-31
     Saussure defines language as a signification system composed of discrete elements where the value of any one sign depends on the simultaneous coexistence of all others.
     The value of a word is determined not only by its meaning, but also by its contrast with other words as elements within a system.
     He also suggests sign context is more important than the idea or sound since the value of the sign may change without affecting its meaning or sound because a neighboring sign has changed. There is, therefore, nothing that exists outside the semiological system, no preexisting ideas. This claim is a clear refutation of both Platonic essences and Kantian idealism.
p. 42
     Saussure's revolutionary insight was to conceptualize language as a system of relationships between elements defined only by their differences.
Peircian model advantages
p. 4
     I, therefore, advocate an alternative semiotic approach based upon the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (Gardin 1992; Knappett 2005; Lele 2006; Preucel and Bauer 2001). Such an approach requires identifying the different kinds of signs that humans use in the semiotic mediation of culture. Here Peirce's tripartite notion of the sign relation and his famous distinction between icon, index, and symbol are especially relevant. This approach also highlights how different cultures deploy specific signs and sign combinations toward particular semiotic ends.
     Finally, this approach involves acknowledging that archaeological interpretation is itself a social semiotic act. This fact implies that our collective interpretations are, and always will be, partial and provisional. It does not imply, however, that everything is relative or that there is no growth of archaeological knowledge.
p. 44

p. 49
     Peirce's august reputation is largely due to his role as the founder of the distinctive American philosophy known as "pragmatism." This is the theory that the meaning of an idea or action can be determined by considering what idea or action it routinely generates, that is to say, its practical consequences. He regarded this principle as basic to the logic of science.
     Tychism is the theory that absolute chance plays an active role in the universe and is a factor in evolution. Pragmatism, by contrast, is not a metaphysical concept, but rather a form of reasoning. It is a method for investigating the meaning of concepts by envisioning their practical consequences.
p. 45
     Peirce conceived of semiotics as an irreducible form of life, encompassing humans and nature, and indeed all that exists in the universe. This view of semiotics differs significantly from that of Saussure. Saussure, as we have seen, regarded semiotics as a signifying system of which linguistics was the most important component. In an often quoted passage, Peirce held that not only do humans engage in semiosis as they endlessly represent and interpret reality, they themselves are signs. "The fact that every thought is a sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign" (5.253).
the sign
p. 49

p. 54

pp. 55-56

p. 80
     Signs not only exist in the world, they also grow and continually produce other signs. For Peirce, semiosis is an uniquely irreducible formof activity in nature. This implies that all of nature, including humans, is the proper subject of semiotic study.
     For Peirce, the sign is "something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (2.228). It is irreducibly triadic in nature and contains within it the ability to produce another sign in an endless process of semiosis.
     Peirce's sign relation consists of three elements - the sign, the object, and the interpretant.
     Peirce's sign theory has two important implications. The first is that a sign never exists in isolation; it is always connected to other signs. It is part of an infinite series which points back in time toward the Object and simultaneously points forward into the future toward the Interpretant. The second implication is that signs have a life of their own. Signs have the capacity to generate new signs since the Interpretant of one sign relation can become the Object for another sign relation and so on in a process of endless semiosis. In this sense, the sign can be said to have agency.
     It avoids objectivism by reinterpreting the self-object relationship in terms of an irreducible triadic relationship between sign, object, and interpretant. This sign relation constitutes a process of semiosis which avoids the mechanistic causality of stimulus and response, or of self and environment. [...] The clear implication is that the self is only realized through social interaction and that consciousness is a collective property.
sign components
p. 57
     Peirce divides the sign-object relation into Icons, Indexes, and Symbols. Icons are signs that refer to an object by virtue of its characteristics. They are "mimetic," an example being a diagram or a painting. An Index is a sign that denotes its object by being affected or modified by that object. It can be thought of as a pointer or indicator - for example, a weathervane is an index that indicates the direction of the wind. A Symbol is a sign that obtains its character by virtue of some law, usually an association of general ideas. In this case, meaning is the result of convention. For example, a flag has no inherentmeaning, yet it is commonly taken as a symbol of a country. All indexes involve icons and all symbols are indexical because they act through tokens or replicas.
categories and Kant
pp. 52-53
     Peirce's semiotic is grounded in his famous doctrine of categories. This doctrine is both an engagement with Kant's system of categories and an attempt to improve upon it (Hookway 2000:37). It consists of three main categories, known as Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness...
     Firstness can thus be defined as unanalyzed, instantaneous, raw feeling.
     Secondness is the conception of being relative to, or in reaction with, something else. It involves the dynamic of otherness. [...] Secondness is how we experience reality around us.
     Thirdness is the conception of mediationwhereby a First and Second are brought into a relation with one another. It embodies continuity and general principles regarding the rule of feeling and action. [...] All intellectual thought is a Third since it creates order and regularity out of chaos and randomness.
p. 66
     Peirce's greatest contribution to science is his view of synechism as the connectedness of all life and semiosis as the process of growth. For him, the world does not consist of two kinds of things, things which are meaningful and things which are not. It is rather that everything is meaningful; all objects in the world are potentially objects of signification. Related to this is his move away from the Cartesian focus on knowledge of a thing through its causes, to knowledge of a thing by virtue of how it affects the knower. The knower and the object of knowledge are thus intimately associated through representational action. This is the basis of his pragmatic maxim that he considered the foundation of science. Peirce regarded Truth not as some absolute, but rather as the product of a community of interpreters pursuing knowledge over the long run.
Saussure vs. Peirce p. 69      [T]he subject matter of the Saussurian approach is natural language, literature, legends, and myths, while the subject matter of the Peircian approach is logic, mathematics, and the sciences. In terms of the sign, the Saussurian approach establishes a dyadic relationship (signified-signifier) while the Peircian approach recognizes a triadic one (sign-object-interpretant). The Saussurian approach regards signs as arbitrary while the Peirican approach considers icons and indexes as having non-arbitrary relationships to their referents.
p. 90      A Peircian semiotic anthropology enjoys certain compelling advantages over its Saussurian rival (Keane 2003; Parmentier 1997:xv). It does not priviledge language as the model for semiotics, rather it offers a more general model which incorporates language, social practices, and material culture. Related to this, it addresses the socialness of language and material practices without reducing the one to the other. Most significantly, it addresses what Peirce (Houser and Kloesel 1992:233) calls the "Outward Clash" of the real world. By this term he means how the direct consciousness of hitting something or getting hit by something enters into our cognition and makes something real. This is to say that it is a realist, rather than an idealist philosophy. For this reason, a Peircian semiotic is particularly well suited to the development of a pragmatic archaeology.
p. 90      A Peircian approach possesses certain advantages over its Saussurian rival (Parmentier 1994:xiii-xiv). Saussure emphasizes dichotomies, such as signified and signifier, langue and parole, diachrony and synchrony, paradigmatic and syntagmatic, and internal and external language. These dichotomies imply only the oppositional relation of difference. Peirce, in contrast, focuses on trichotomies, such as Firstness-Secondness-Thirdness, sign-object-interpretant, and icon-index-symbol. These trichotomies embrace the dynamics of mediation. Saussure consistently emphasizes the general and rule-based side of his dichotomies. For example, he stressed signifier over signified, langue over parole, synchrony over diachrony, paradigmatic over syntagmatic, speech over writing. Peirce regards his trichotomies as irreducible and derived from his theory of categories.
materiality and agency p. 4      My second intervention in this debate involves reconsidering material culture as social practice. I suggest that archaeology's longstanding interest in material culture needs to be augmented by a focus on materiality.
p. 5      Material culture is thus not a passive reflection of human behavior, but rather an active social practice constitutive of the social order.
     Materiality, or material agency, can be defined as the social constitution of self and society by means of the object world. [...] A focus on materiality demands that we consider the myriad ways in which material culture mediates social being. We thus need to shift our focus away from material culture per se toward the whole range of material engagements with the world.
p. 13      This is because material culture is tightly interwoven with language, and shares some of its semiotic properties. What makes material culture unique is its "materiality" and the ability of material meanings to be alternatively transformed or maintained over time depending upon context.
p. 14      One of the most exciting developments in contemporary anthropology is the revival of interest in material culture studies. There is a growing recognition that objects are not passive reflections of society, rather they are active participants in social practices that constitute selves and others.
     An influential theoretical perspective informing contemporary material culture studies is objectification. This is the view that in making things people make themselves in the process. Borrowing the idea from Hegel, Daniel Miller (1987:33) suggests that objectification is the foundation for a dialectical theory of culture. It merges the subject/object and individual/society dualities by insisting that both pairs of oppositions are asmuch constitutive of culture as constituted by it.
object biography
p. 15
     Yet another influential direction is the social life of things approach. This approach includes both the "cultural biographies of things" and the "social history of things," which can be differentiated with respect to temporality and scale (Appadurai 1986b:34). The cultural biography approach is the analysis of specific things as they are exchanged among people and accumulate biographies. The social history approach refers to whole classes of things that may shift in meaning over the long term.
material culture and language p. 84      [M]aterial culture, like language, often plays a central role in mediating social identities and relations. However, they also show that material culture does not participate in the same kind of structured system as language. Objects are not words and there is nothing in material culture comparable to syntax or grammar in linguistics. But because material culture has form and substance, it has the power to fix meanings in ways that are not possible with language.
Preucel's approach and semiotics p. 247      This book explores archaeological semiosis as a distinctive social practice implicated in the pragmatic mediation of material culture across time and space. I take as my starting point Foucault's (1970) thesis that the human sciences are not sciences in the standard sense, rather they are radically different forms of knowledge production. While they may make use of the physical sciences, they also implement a "double hermeneutic" whereby interpretation must always take account of the interpretations of the subjects in question, what Geertz (1976) calls "the native's point of view." This stance also follows from a commitment to the Kantian ethical imperative whereby one should act in such a way as to respect humanity in oneself and in others.
p. 248      Semiotics is the study of how humans make and use signs as they mediate their existence in the world. Semiotics permits the comparison of various interpretive strategies with respect to their modalities and arguments, but, at the same time, it provides no theoretical guidance as to how to value those arguments. These judgments must be supplied by external interpretive frameworks and defended in public discourse. Semiotics does not advocate a particular theoretical perspective beyond pragmatism, the thesis that for ideas to be meaningful they must have effects in the world. Semiotics is thus a special kind of unification theory, one that embraces epistemic disunity within ontological unity (Preucel and Bauer 2001).
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