The Effectiveness of Symbols by Claude LÚvi-Strauss
Barnard Electronic Archive & Teaching Laboratory
Barnard College, Columbia University
New York, NY 10027
This paper was written for a seminar on Peirce taught by E. Valentine Daniel at Columbia University, Fall 1997. The seminar was my introduction to Peirce and the paper was an attempt to synthesize seminar readings with my understanding of LÚvi-Strauss's essay.
Since a web document does not have a standard page format to use for purposes of reference, paragraph numbers (enclosed in brackets and placed on the right margin) are provided for that purpose instead. The website location is:
Applying the philosophy of Charles Peirce is a difficult task. To those who have tried that statement may stand on its own merit, but only in a general sense. A refraction of this general difficulty into two senses, however, will provide the current essay an introduction to its topic, an application of Peircean philosophy to the essay by Claude LÚvi-Strauss, The Effectiveness of Symbols.(1) But first I will proffer this refraction to make an elemental point regarding any application of Peircean philosophy.
The primary difficulty, many might agree and have historically, is the acquisition of a sufficient understanding of Peirce's logic and its constituent technical definitions. The second difficulty is more subtle and substantial, and concerns the application of the semeiotic grammar to subject matter. This secondary difficulty is subsequent to the user's grasp of the grammar and is a function of its philosophical underpinnings, Peirce's metaphysics. While first I will briefly evidence that initial obstacle of attaining Peirce's thought, let me just say here that the second difficulty concerns the rationale to engage in semeiotic analysis.
Even Peirce's contemporaries rarely grasped the full scope of his logic. His peers can be fairly dichotomized by the following general description: at one side, a cadre of distinguished, sympathetic philosophers, most only partly comprehending or interested in the breadth of Peirce's work; and on the other side, a persistently adverse group of other academics and bureaucrats, either professionally unqualified or intellectually under-powered to understand Peirce.(2) This difficulty of acceptance, characterizing much of Peirce's lifetime, is well expressed by a close personal friend and intellectual ally, William James, the Harvard philosopher and expounder of pragmatism.
From a small sampling of James's comments on the difficulty of grasping Peirce's thought, the essence of this difficulty surfaces. It is reasonable to ask, though, why belabor the point that grasping Peircean thought is a slippery task? The answer is that what also surfaces is the interdisciplinary depth of Peirce's philosophy. And this depth not only makes Peirce difficult to understand at the outset, but also forms the secondary difficulty of applying the semeiotic grammar as a mode of analysis.
In a fundamentally emblematic statement about Peirce's original, hence abstruse thinking, James wrote in a letter to Peirce, "Your mind inhabits a technical logical thicket of its own which no other mind has as yet penetrated."(3) James admired his friend's brilliant originality, but alluded to a more important issue in the phrase "technical logical thicket".(4) Peirce's originality was a natural growth from Peirce the eminent polymath whose field of thought comprised mathematics, logic, the physical sciences, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. As such, the Peircean semeiotic is an intricately faceted touch stone of thought, at once rigorously logical and positivistic, but also deeply metaphysical and transcendent, an expansive cosmological and evolutionary principle that is not opposed to mysticism.
Herein lies the interdisciplinary novelty of Peirce's thought, that seemingly irreconcilable metaphysical poles converge for a grandly inclusive yet pluralistic philosophy which defines Reason as both immanent and transcendent. In essence, one could trust in a comfortable time worn reality, but simultaneously recognize that Reason exists independently of individual experience. This last proposition represents Peirce's criticism of a priori idealism as well as his specific criticism of George Berkeley's nominalism:
Among other things, the philosophical power of the semeiotic is the recognition of an "object's independence" of particular experience and thought. But to arrive at the semeiotic, the combination of logical realism with objective idealism, Peirce used his knowledge of mathematics and logic to move beyond the metaphysical limitations of nominalist and a priori thought and into pragmaticism. The semeiotic, then, is an intellectual blend, a complex weave of logical and philosophical learning. Without the benefit of late day secondary sources explaining this situation, Peirce's contemporaries suffered their less well-rounded views.
The following extended reflection of James on Peirce's 1903 Lowell Lectures at Harvard expresses well the difficulty of following Peirce, due in no small part to the interdisciplinary quality I have indicated.
Within this commentary, James's unease with logic and mathematics is plain to see. But an understanding of Peirce's use of logical and mathematical concepts is a solid requirement towards applying the semeiotic to some subject matter. At this point, the inherent difficulty of understanding Pierce, my primary difficulty, extends to what I have earlier termed my second difficulty, that of a rationale for applying the semeiotic as an analytic mode.
This extension is contingent upon the logical and mathematical framework supporting Peirce's semeiotic. The framework is succinctly manifest in Peirce's theorem that only three elemental relations exist: monadic, dyadic, and triadic. All relations numbering more than three are formed by joining triads. And all such relations greater than three can be reduced to triads. But triads cannot be reduced to dyads, and dyads cannot be reduced to monads, thus monads, dyads, and triads constitute the fundamental categories of relations. Pierce's conceptual framework is his logic of relatives wherein abstract forms of relation, monads, dyads, and triads are objects of a mathematical inquiry, the recombination of these relations.(7)
Having briefly outlined this logicomathematic framework of Pierce's semeiotic, I am now closing in on what I mean by my secondary difficulty of applying the semeiotic. It refers to the metaphysical importance of the logic of relatives. In a nutshell, this logic is boundless; nothing escapes refraction into trinities.
All thinking is done in signs which of course pulse along this logic of relatives. By hypostatic abstraction, the first set of relations, monad, dyad, and triad, are not self-contained, but extended such that the mathematic logic of their relations is prescinded and applied ad infinitum, as the general trinity of first-, second, and third-ness. Applied, however, may not be the best term since it implies that I am imposing something external. Signs, for Pierce, are reals.
The trinities simply are. Applied would be a term of semeiotic analysis, meaning to look at something that is already there. To look beyond signs for the real behind them is like peeling away layers of the onion to find the onion.(8) The semeiotic, in other words, is a like a reader or viewer of the trinities which characterize everything in creation, including creation (remember: there is no Kantian style a priori unknowable "Thing-in-Itself" (9); it too has predicates, or layers of onion).
So, applying the semeiotic, engaging in semeiotic analysis is always a matter of viewing intrinsic form, looking at what is simply just there. That quality, that suchness, is what I mean as the secondary difficulty, beyond the first difficulty of understanding the mathematic logic and metaphysics of the semeiotic as a technical construction. The second difficulty, then, is having some rationale for viewing the trinities of a certain subject matter, given that these trinities exist regardless of the observer's effort to reveal them.
Hypothetically, just assume that anytime we analyze some phenomenon, some structure is revealed in whatever analytic mode the observer chooses. Now, according to the metaphysics of the semeiotic this structure is ultimately triadic, and infinitely refractable into triadic relations in the very same sense that an infinity adheres within the continuum of zero to one; every triad may be refracted into a series of triads, and every triad, including its refraction into a series of triads, maybe subsumed within a more general triad.(10) In other words, why bother, why look at something semeiotically, as a logic of relations, if everywhere I look a triad appears? If my chosen form of analysis is not the semeiotic, and I am revealing sensible structure without resorting to triadic relations, why should I start?
Assuming the observer is a realist and is a proponent of the semeiotic, the first part of the answer to this question is that the triadic relations are there, at least implicitly even if the observer has not sought to analyze the phenomenon semeiotically. The second part of the answer is that because any phenomenon is fundamentally a semeiosis, a logic of relatives, then the semeiotic mode of analysis is nothing short of the most accurate mode of observation at our disposal. If the phenomenon is a logic of relatives, a semeiosis, then the semeiotic will reveal more about its structure then any other analytical mode. In essence, assuming the truth of the semeiotic, refracting a phenomenon into trinities assures us the most complete understanding of its workings.
Deriving this second difficulty seemed important to me since my topic for this essay is a partly analyzed phenomenon, but not in an explicit semeiotic mode. In The Effectiveness of Symbols, Claude LÚvi-Strauss asserts that in a certain healing ritual a relationship obtains between a myth as psychological expression and the patient's physiological state. Without the use of a semeiotic analysis, the relationship is established, or at least that there is one. He defines or proposes a symbolic relationship between the mythical healing rite and the physiological effect of a cure, but not by analyzing this relationship as a logic of relatives.
Why then should I bother conducting a semeiotic analysis of this phenomenon if LÚvi-Strauss has already proposed some structure for it? Again, assuming the truth of the semeiotic, refracting a phenomenon into trinities assures us the most complete understanding of its workings. Whatever the subjective matter of the given phenomenon, it is structured as a logic of relatives. This would be a fair definition of Peirce's logical realism, or that signs are reals. In other words, a semeiotic analysis should reveal something fundamental to the phenomenon in question, something fundamental but left hidden, obscure, implied, or only partially revealed in the absence of a semeiotic analysis.
In the application of the semeiotic to The Effectiveness of Symbols, a good place to start reveals itself about two thirds of the way through the essay. Having recounted much of his telling of the details of the rite, meant to facilitate difficult childbirth, and its corresponding myth, which comprises tutelary spirits, malevolent spirits, supernatural monsters, and magical animals, LÚvi-Strauss suggests that the ritual explains to the patient the cause of her ailment. With this understanding, she is able to reset her physiological system as a coherent whole from which birth may proceed.(11) He proceeds, however, to suggest a consequent paradox when we compare this kind of therapy to conventional medical notions of disease causation.
That she does get well, in the absence of any pharmacological treatment, indicates that in fact monsters do exist. The interesting question, though, is in what manner do these monsters exist such that they are instrumental within an ostensibly separate phenomenological order, that of the physiological workings of the body? LÚvi-Strauss continues in this vein with a partial answer, making a distinction between mythical and medical characterizations of the relationship between patient and disease.
The operational difference lies with the distinction between internal and external relationships between patients and disease causation. This distinction is really a metaphysical fork in the road. The disease caused by malevolent mythical forces and the disease caused by germ are metaphysically distinct entities. And a semeiotic unpacking of this distinction will help to show as much.
LÚvi-Strauss asserts that the internal relationship between monster and disease "is a relationship between symbol and thing symbolized, or, to use the terminology of linguists, between sign and meaning."(14) Now, the relationship between germ and disease external to the mind of the patient is also one of symbol and thing symbolized, a relation between sign and meaning, but of a radically different nature. In this case, the term symbol is only appropriate if we are referring to the terms "germ" and "disease" and this kind of relationship in abstraction, for we would be using these terms and the abstraction as a conventional representation of real entities and the relationship between them. In subjective terms, however, germ and disease do not exist in a conventional relationship but in their own natural and non-human one.
Both relationships, internal and external, are subsumed within the larger semeiosis of the general relationship between patient and disease, but each of these two subsidiaries travels a separate semeiotic path. In semeiotic terms, the internal relationship, because it exists within the mind of the patient, allows for self-control while the relation between germ and disease, external to the mind, follows a path of habit formation that may not be entirely devoid of the patient's self-control (depending on the type of affliction), but does operate substantially outside of the patient's ability for mental self-correction.
For the disease caused by a germ, the disease-causing relationship external to the mind of the patient, habit formation in the form of reestablished good health would mean that self-correction is done largely without the patient's rational ability of self-control. This kind of disease semeiosy allows the transmission of natural information without a sentient interpreting agency in the form of the patient who may understand little if anything of the disease and its treatment. And, of course, disease caused by germ is notoriously unresponsive to the willfulness of a patient's mind. The positive will of the patient's mind, however, can have a beneficial effect on the bodily response to disease, but the extent of this effect is relative to the virulence of the disease in question. Because the relationship between germ and disease is external to the mind of the patient, external means of correction are required.
Instead of the mind of the patient, it is the mind of the doctor which acts as the interpreting agency in the first triad. The doctor interprets signs, signs which take their ground from the dynamic object, the disease. The subsequent medical interpretant defines or proposes the relation between sign and object. This interpretant as a definition of a sign-object relationship could be called a diagnosis. Indeed, before a correct diagnosis is made, the disease as object could be thought of as the immediate rather than the dynamic object since the full character of the disease is not yet established. Therefore, before a diagnosis is made, the signs or symptoms of the disease are determined by an immediate object, the reality that disease is present but that the exact disease, the determination of a dynamic object, is not yet known. For the symptoms as sign of a disease to indicate precisely what ailment has caused the symptoms, the process of interpretation must precisely determine how the sign has been determined by a dynamic object, the disease eventually figured as the culprit. And until we have the final interpretant defining the relation between the sign as symptom and of the disease as dynamic object, the process of interpretation could be thought of as the immediate interpretant.
The final interpretant, the diagnosis, would then be used as a first in a new system of relations, a second triad, called a treatment. But this new sign, as treatment, is taking its ground from an immediate object which represents all possible treatments. The treatment actually decided upon is determined by the dynamic object obtained as the final result of drawing relations between the immediate object, the spectrum of possible treatments, and the sign or the diagnosis (the final interpretant from the prior triad). The treatment actually decided upon is the result of the immediate interpretant, or the process of measuring the relations between the diagnosis and the hypothetical outcome of a class of possible treatments. Subsequently, the treatment, as final interpretant, would be the medical idea that there is some lawfulness or predictable behavior that occurs when the chosen treatment is applied to the given diagnosis.
This chosen treatment, the final interpretant of the prior semeiotic process is itself a sign in a new triad, the third triad in this semeiosis. As the final interpretant of the second triad, the treatment becomes a sign in the ensuing application of the treatment to the patient and how the patient responds to this treatment. In the response of the patient to the treatment, we are led back to some form of an internal relationship between the mind of the patient and the disease and its causative agent. This kind of internal relationship, as opposed to the internal relationship referred to by LÚvi-Strauss, however, is clearly secondary to the semeiosis of the germ as agent of disease, and the semeiosis of the externally derived and applied treatment. But we can see from the explication of this semeiosis (establishing a diagnosis, determining a treatment, and the consequent response of the patient) how the relationship of the germ to disease is itself the sign which initiates (is a sign of) this logic of relatives, of a semeiosis involving three basic triads.
Relative to the rational self-control of the patient, the presence of the germ as the object of disease and the subsequent symptoms as signs are together a semeiosis of the transmission of natural information, a disease process, which the patient cannot control by internal or rational means alone or at all. The symptoms of such a disease are signs of an object, signs determined by an object in a relation determined by an interpretant, an interpretant which signifies that the disease process caused by germ exists independently of any human interpreting agency. In other words, this sign-object relation has the power to exist whether or not a human mind interprets it.
The external relationship of germ and disease avoids the interpreting agency of the human mind of the patient. "Rather than mind in its fullest sense, the interpretant is bound up with what Peirce calls a quasi-mind, which is clearly not restricted to the human cortex."(15) The external relationship in question is characteristic of "teleonomic semeiosy" in which an interpretant is "triadically produced but not conventionally established."(16) This means that the disease process creates and is created by interpretants (thirds in preceding triads, and firsts in succeeding triads), but that these interpretants are not of human convention but of quasi-mind.
The quasi-mind can be compared to a semeiosis of human thought; both are variable and self-correcting. But unlike human self-control, quasi-mind is not deliberate and therefore not conventional. Instead, the quasi-mind of teleonomic semeiosy exhibits "naturally indurated habit".(17) In terms of the germ-caused disease process then, we might say that sign-object relations are variable as they are processually determined by interpretants during a disease process, but that the disease process as a whole is not a rational one, it is a natural habit beyond the human brain, it is "thought not necessarily connected with a brain."(18) The interpreting agency in such a process is the body not the mind. Such natural thought or quasi-mind "appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world."(19) It also appears in the work of germ-caused disease within a body.
The sign-object relations, in this case the relations between the symptoms and the germ determining those symptoms, are determined by a series of interpretants or rule-like facts about the disease process. As the germ does its damage, determining the symptoms or signs of that damage, there are interpretants which describe the law-like behavior of the germ in contact with the afflicted body, or what it is about the nature of the germ relative to the nature of the afflicted organ or organs that determine how the disease progresses.
For this essay, the significance of the germ-disease relationship as a teleonomic semeiosis lies with the fact that because it is external to the mind of the patient it is "not highly influenced by conscious self-correction."(20) Because of that quality, however, it is possible to think of the germ-caused disease process, external to the mind, as "mechanical semeiosy" wherein the "interpreting agency is caused in a mechanical way to respond to the sign without alteration or correction to that program."(21) In this regard, the body is the interpreting agency at the mercy of a virulent germ and its programmatic course within the body.
In this process, semeiosis proceeds in a predetermined fashion extrinsic to the system in which it adheres. Thus, the disease process caused by a germ proceeds in the interpreting agency, the human body, which cannot alter or correct the program. To describe this disease process as mechanical, of course, means that we imply a chronic, terminal, or incurable disease; something that will run its course if the body as interpreting agency is powerless to alter the semeiosis, to terminate the disease process at the request of mind. Of mechanical semeiosy, Liszka states, "There is little inherent development or correction in these sorts of processes unless made from some external source; goals are automatically predetermined or set by agencies external to the system."(22)
By this last statement, we are led back to the idea that a medical doctor must treat the patient afflicted by the external relationship between a germ and disease. The germ-caused disease process is predetermined within the body and external to the mind of the patient, thus alteration of the process must come from without in the form of doctors prescribing treatment.
By the foregoing interpretation there is at least a coincidental parity of the semeiotic implications of LÚvi-Strauss's external germ-disease relationship (at least as I have expressed them) with the notions of teleonomic and mechanical semeioses. The parallel may represent what I have earlier stated about the metaphysical reality of the semeiotic, as fundamentally implicit or pervasive. Or it may result from a line of intellectual descendence from Peirce to LÚvi-Strauss. As circumstantial evidence for the latter possibility, there is an interesting reference in Brent's biography of Peirce. He cites Roman Jakobson as having said that his "most powerful inspiration" came from his reading of Peirce.(23) And Jakobson, of course, heavily influenced LÚvi-Strauss. Therein seems a direct line of intellectual inheritance.
Whatever the case, LÚvi-Strauss's distinction between the mythical/internal and medical/external disease processes is an important one. As manifestations of the latter process, teleonomic and mechanical types of semeiosy are degenerate forms of triadicity. Mechanical semeiosy, however, is the most clearly degenerate of the two. What this means is that in mechanical form, semeiosis dyadically produces interpretants. More specifically, mechanical semeiosy is indexical, so that a sign as an index has its relation or connection to its object independent of any conscious agency which might interpret it as representing that object.(24) Thus the smoke from the fire, the smoke as an indexical sign of the object fire, is clearly independent of any agency which might recognize the natural interpretant, or create a conventional interpretant, that the smoke is from the fire. There remains, however, the formal condition of triadicity in that there is a natural interpretant which defines the sign-object relation.(25) Thus, regardless of any conscious interpreting agency the smoke is from the fire. What is being said here is that the only way that smoke can indicate or index the existence of the object fire is through the natural physical relationship between fire and smoke. And it is this relationship that is formally described by the natural interpretant, which can be realized in the mind of a conscious agent. The smoke as sign, then, at least retains the possibility of interpretation by an conscious agency.
Perhaps, then, it is not wholly accurate to maintain that mechanical semeiosy dyadically produces interpretants since the natural interpretants defining the indexical sign-object relations obviously exist. When we say that mechanical semeiosy dyadically produces interpretants we are referring to the idea that these indexical sign-object relations do not require any conscious agency to propose some conventional interpretant to define how the sign shall be determined by the object. Upon this statement mechanical semeiosy is virtually indistinguishable from teleonomic semeiosy. The only trait that distinguishes the two is that mechanical semeiosy cannot be altered within the agency which harbors its process. Some external agency must install extrinsic interpretants which can alter the mechanical sign-object relations. Thus, germ-caused disease is a teleonomic semeiosy in a body triadically producing indexical sign-object relations according to its natural interpretants, but it is also a mechanical semeiosy in that it requires external interpretants from the doctor to alter the natural habit.
The body as interpreting agency and receiver of the mechanical semeiosis cannot alter the program. Metaphorically, the body must endure the smoke from the fire with no ability itself to douse the flames (no ability for correction); alteration is only the result of the external source (the doctor as interpreting agency and the ensuing semeiosis of treatment). The germ-caused disease process as mechanical semeiosy therefore at least retains the formal possibility of interpretation.
Teleonomic semeiosy is similar to the mechanical form in that interpretants are not conventionally established, but also differs since the semeiosy may correct itself within the body that harbors it. It is not conventional triadicity because the semeiosy is a natural habit, a natural disposition of something that does not self-correct by means of consciousness or by means of establishing interpretants that are based in conventionally established sign-object relations. In this teleonomic view, then, a germ-caused disease process is always indexed by symptoms that are the natural result, a natural disposition, of the germs inhabitation of a host body.
The germ-caused disease process as teleonomic semeiosy may correct itself, but not by the mediation of conventional interpretants. If a virus, for example, is on the retreat from an adapted immune system, it cannot by caveat recreate its relationship as attacker of host cells by representing the process of cell infection as, say, a dangerous stranger gaining entrance to one's apartment by claiming to be the building exterminator. This kind of sign-object relation is reserved for symbolic interpretants (i.e. convention). In other words, the virus cannot attack a cell by metaphoric convention, only by the natural disposition of how a virus can invade cells.
[41This means that although the virus cannot correct a disease process semeiosy (to its advantage) by establishing conventional relations between itself and the host cell, it can self-correct by establishing new natural relations, by perhaps a mutation of its DNA, that allows it to subvert a new cell membrane defense by the host cell. That alteration or triadic mediation of the naturally indurated habit that obtains between the virus and the cell is thus, not by convention, not by a symbolic relationship, but by the natural rules (the interpretants) that govern how a virus may generally attack a host cell. That mediation of sign-object relations by natural interpretants, or natural thought, is what is meant by quasi-mind.
The interpretants in this case are not conventionally established. In teleonomic semeiosy, the interpretants that define how an object determines its sign are purely products of a natural process or habit. In the above example, the newly retooled defense of the host cell is the object which defines the ground of the mutated virus as a sign of that object. The interpretant of that relation is the natural rule which describes the dynamism of this sign-object relation, or in other words, how the virus may adjust itself to subvert the host cell. But all of this is played out on an unconscious, molecular level. The virus and the cell as natural elements at this level do not, cannot, respond to one another by convention but by the biological rules, and the variations on those rules, of how a virus can enter a cell.
Conventional relations between a sign and its object are those that may be products of widely variable interpretants, or conscious, hence symbolic habits, like poetic metaphor. Natural relations between a sign and its object are those that can only be products of certain, less flexible, formal kinds of interpretants, or natural habits, like the happiness inextricably manifest in a dog's wagging tail.
Conventional sign-object relations are exceedingly important. As we know, symbols are not purely conventional. They tend to comprise firsts and seconds. As such they tend to rely on the fundamental qualities of non-conventional, naturally indurated sign-object relations. When a symbol represents by convention naturally indurated habit, that symbol has the power to represent, reveal, or utilize the relations or semeiosis of the given naturally indurated habit.
Take, for example, the "reciprocal teleological congruency" of the metaicon in M.C. Haley's The Semeiosis of Poetic Metaphor.(26) Without going into too much detail, let me just represent the meaning and importance of this concept with Haley's own good example: "Keats wonders aloud whether the poet might not see more, when he looks up at the evening sky, than 'the dark silent blue / With all its diamonds trembling through and through?'" Essentially, Haley suggests that the power of the "diamonds trembling" phrase to act as a metaphor for sparkling stars is that the phrase represents the "rapid oscillating motion" or "structured energetic vibration" that is a natural quality of stars.(27)
The poetic convention includes within itself something of the natural habit of stars. Even further, the energy wave not only powers stars, but also the poetic metaphors which represent the them. The point I wish to make, then, is that conventional signs have the power to represent natural thought. Reciprocal teleological congruency can mean that the metaphor and the star "work" because they are both signs of the same object, the natural energy wave.
Now, as poetic metaphor, the conventional representation of natural habit or thought is only providing a rational sense of a natural semeiosy. The poetic metaphor, because it functions merely in a poem, is not intended to actually harness, utilize, or deploy the natural habit for some goal-directed, scientific human semeiosy, like an intellectual model or technological application. The poetic metaphor has no other purpose than likeness, or iconicity. This is not to say that poetic metaphor as a conventional representation of natural habit is always restricted to mere aesthetic presentation of that natural habit, but that in this example at least, the metaphor only conveys meaning for meanings' sake.
But what of the case wherein conventional representation of a natural semeiosy is functional in a human semeiosy, is used as more than mere likeness or poetic metaphor? If "The function of consciousness is to render self-control possible and efficient"(28), might it be that the symbols of human semeiosis use the sign-object relations of natural habits to achieve this self-control? Generally, this is just what I propose for the effectiveness of symbols in a healing ritual.
Remember that for the patient, LÚvi-Strauss asserts, "the relationship between monster and disease is internal to his mind, whether conscious or unconscious: It is a relationship between symbol and thing symbolized, or, to use the terminology of the linguists, between sign and meaning." That this kind of disease, as represented in LÚvi-Strauss's piece, is curable when symbols are applied indicates that the we must look to the symbol and analyze that "thing symbolized", for it is this "thing" that the symbol has deployed to effect a cure.
Obviously, LÚvi-Strauss's approach is amenable to semeiotic analysis. As I indicated earlier, this may be a natural function of the metaphysical assertion that the logic of relatives is real, that it is a ubiquitous structural principle. Or it may be a result of LÚvi-Strauss's intellectual lineage. Most obviously, however, LÚvi-Strauss employs a brand of symbolic, hence semeiotic analysis. What I will attempt to do is to semeiotically explode or unpack that relationship between symbol and thing symbolized to make a more explicit suggestion about the effectiveness of symbols in the healing rite.
Broadly this means that I must attempt an understanding of the relationship between monster and disease that resides within the mind of the patient. In LÚvi-Strauss's analysis, all of the important elements are mentioned. That we are looking for the relationship between mythical / cultural information and the state of a physiological system (reproductive) is plainly stated. A more explicitly semeiotic analysis, however, will suggest the significant point of contact between myth and physiology.
But as is the nature of semeiosis, which is to say the nature of nature generally, we will be left with an answer that elicits a new question. Although I may deduce the operative element within the mythical healing rite that employs physiological information to effect a cure, semeiotic analysis alone cannot say how this element is physiological. For this, I need to know reproductive physiology. Semeiotic analysis can show me what it is about the myth I must understand in terms of physiology so that I may truly discover the physiological effectiveness of symbols. In other words, the semeiotic can reveal the contact between the phenomenological realms of the myth and reproductive physiology, where resides the point at which physiological information is transduced from the myth to the mind to the body.
This is the very same situation as in the example of the Keats metaphor. Understanding that the effectiveness of a poetic metaphor about stars relies on the representation of the physics that powers the star really does not teach me anything about why that physics helps to power a satisfying metaphor. What it did do, however, was reveal to me that this element of the metaphor is what gives it its poetic power. The "diamonds trembling" metaphor is effective because it is a point of contact between the poem and the physics of stars.
Through this reciprocal teleological congruency, or reversible metaphor, the poem is able to receive some quality of the star. The "diamonds trembling" element functions to transduct this star information into the data, the words of the poem, to make the poem effective. Knowing that this poetic effectiveness is due to this physics, the waveform, is only very general knowledge about why the metaphor is effective. To really know anything substantial about the effectiveness of this physical metaphor would require that we learn something about the apparent affinity of the mind for perceptions of the physics of the waveform, why it should be a pleasing sensation.
In the same way, knowing which mythical element is transducing physiological information into the data of the myth is only the most general knowledge about why the mythical rite is effective. To really know anything substantial about the effectiveness of the mythical element as physiological metaphor would require that we learn something about the apparent affinity of the mind for perceptions of the reproductive system, why it should be a physiologically therapeutic sensation. The semeiotic scope of the following, however, will not include physiological knowledge, except to show where in the myth lies the point of contact with physiology, what mythical element is the physiological transducer.
Having stated that disclaimer, let me focus the semeiotic scope to find the transducer, that point of contact between myth and physiology which converts mythical information into physiological information. The semeiotic scope will focus on the relationship between monster and disease, internal to the mind of the patient, and see how it refracts into a logic of relatives, a general principle that mediates between the myth and the body.
The relationship between monster and disease, symbol and thing symbolized, internal to the mind of the patient, is a true human semeiosy, or as Liszka calls it, a teleological semeiosy. Unlike mechanical and teleonomic semeioses, teleological semeiosy is genuinely triadic rather than degenerate. The distinction between mechanical and teleonomic as degenerate, and teleological as genuine simply means that teleological semeiosy generates conventional interpretants whereas teleonomic and mechanical semeioses generate interpretants of quasi-mind, or natural thought.
What we are interested in here is the power of conventional signs to represent the interpretants of teleonomic and mechanical semeioses. The Keats metaphor achieves its resonance because it conventionally represents the natural thought or habit (teleonomic) of the energy wave. The medical doctor's cure is powerful because it is the external source or interpreting agency which can represent the semeiosy of the germ-caused disease process (mechanical) within the body.
Both of these examples, of conventional signs representing respectively teleonomic and mechanical semeioses, exhibit the power of teleological semeiosy to interpret, hence utilize, sign-object relations that are not naturally related to the conventional signs which represent them. Teleological semeiosy has the power of convention. Essentially human symbols have the power to represent by convention natural processes thereby utilizing those processes for a human purpose. And as Liszka states, "Teleological semeiosy is capable of generating genuine signs, i.e., conventional symbols (after all, a 'purpose is precisely the interpretant of a symbol' (NEM 4: 244; cf. NEM 4: 254, 4: 261)."(29)
The mythical healing rite as a teleological semeiosy is internal to the patient's mind. The conventions of the myth represent the natural habit of the patient's reproductive physiology for a purpose. The purpose as interpretant of the mythical symbols defines the relations between signs and objects; the signs are the conventions of the myth and the objects are elements of reproductive physiology. The myth as signs of physiological objects appropriates the naturally indurated habits of those objects thereby utilizing those habits for the explicit purpose of self-control or correction of the ill-functioning reproductive system.
This last statement is a general restatement of LÚvi-Strauss's more explicit, if not explicitly semeiotic, expression of this teleological semeiosy. It is worth quoting him at length:
We can see in these words the semeiotic outline of the myth as sign for the physiology as object; "verbal expression" reorganizes the physiological process of birth. There is in this sign-object relation an interpretant for us to discover, some mediating principle which will reveal what part of the myth, the verbal expression, acts as transducer of physiological information or, put another way, what part of the myth is responsible for the physiological reorganization.
But first, let's hear from LÚvi-Strauss again. In the following words he gives us his notion of the effectiveness of symbols and a more explicit sense of how the physiological reorganization is achieved.
What we have then is a real suggestion of teleological semeiosy at work in this structural reorganization. The myth is a structure, a symbol, a conventional representation of processes at the organic level. By reorganizing the mythical structure we reorganize the physiological structure. The myth as metaicon, as reciprocal teleological congruency, is a metaphor for a natural habit, a teleonomic semeiosy.
And in uncanny resemblance to the earlier discussions of Haley's work, LÚvi-Strauss follows with the assertion that "Poetic metaphor provides a familiar example of this inductive process "(32) Except in the case of the healing ritual, we are powering more than the affective sensation of poetic metaphor. The mythical metaphor of the healing rite must power a physiologically effective therapeutic sensation. Let's see to this mythical metaphor then, and examine how its conventions represent the body as object.
Within the myth we have two main semeiotic nexus. One of the social world and the other of the body. The myth, LÚvi-Strauss suggests, is a metaphorical geography of the body. But the myth is also replete with tutelary and contrary spirits that operate within this bodily geography. The actions of these spirits effect the physiological reorganization as represented by mythical conventions of the bodily geography.
The social world of the myth includes the shaman and his evocation of an army of tutelary spirits. These spirits, called nuchu, ritually embodied in carved wooden figurines, are led by the shaman into the bodily geography of the myth. The shaman marches the nuchu into the "abode of Muu". This abode is the womb, and Muu is the feminine power who oversees fetal development. Muu and the nuchu are the main players in this mythic social drama. It is Muu who is responsible for the ailment, though she is not an intrinsically evil force, just one that is out of control. The nuchu wage a fight with her to restore normalcy to the patient's birth process. Muu has wronged the mother-to-be by stealing her purba, or soul. And so this is the theme of the myth, the fight of the nuchu, and their eventual success, against Muu, in their "quest to return the lost purba."(33)
The mythical representation of the body is more complex than just the abode of Muu as the womb. Each part of the body has its own purba. "In a difficult delivery, the 'soul' of the uterus has led astray all the 'souls' belonging to the other parts of the body." Muu is thought of as the purba of the uterus. She has precipitated physiological disorder by capturing and paralyzing the other purba of the body.(34)
Normally, the purba all cooperate and insure physiological integrity. This integrity would allow birth to proceed smoothly. The purba as souls of organs are not only conventional representations of the body, but also represent a broadly metaphysical principle. Everything has a purba. And every thing is a physical manifestation of its purba. Human beings and animals, however, possess an additional spiritual principle; they have niga. Niga, LÚvi-Strauss defines as "vitality" and "vital strength". Purba can be stolen but niga cannot.
As a metaphysical principle, niga is contingent upon, but supercedes the notion of purba. LÚvi-Strauss suggests the niga of a person is contingent on the functional interrelation of the multitude of purba. The niga as a principle compounded with that of the purba is therefore known as niga purbalele. The significance of this, LÚvi-Strauss suggests, is that
Now let me just add this very important component of LÚvi-Strauss's interpretation of the metaphysical underpinnings of the nuchu as pivotal social players in the myth: the nuchu are endowed by the shaman with niga. With this endowment of niga, the nuchu become nelegan, spirits "in the service of men" or in the "likeness of human beings."(36)
What I suggest is that restoration of niga purbalele is the goal of a teleological semeiosy. Within the myth, both the fight and eventual success of the nuchu are conventional representations of the discordant and then harmonic purba, respectively. The purba are conventional representations of the natural habits of the organs. This is, then, a teleological semeiosy appropriating the natural thought, the quasi-mind, of the teleonomic semeiosy intrinsic to the organs. Thus the battle waged by the nuchu against Muu, the uterine purba, is a metaphor for the physiological reorganization of the patient's reproductive system.
Let me reiterate that teleological semeiosy is the genuine triadic production of symbolic interpretants. A symbolic interpretant is the capacity of the human mind to create relations, between signs and objects, that do not naturally exist. In other words, the symbolic triad is composed of an interpretant, a law-like principle, that determines a relation between a teleonomic object, a natural habit, and a teleological sign, a symbol, a human convention.
Generally, I see the purba as the object and the nuchu as the sign. I propose further that our interpretant is the principle of niga purbalele. Herein we have the elemental triad of a semeiosis that is refractable into at least three component triads that follow the course of the disease semeiosy from illness to health.
The patient's initial predicament of a birth proceeding in difficulty is a sign of the immediate object that some physiological trouble exists. This relation is the effect of the immediate interpretant that there exists an initially undetermined physiological problem. The immediate interpretant, "the total unanalyzed effect" of the sign, as a representation of this interpretant, is transmuted to the dynamic interpretant once the shaman has examined the signs of disease and determined that these signs are taking their ground from a dynamic object, Muu, the uterine purba out of control. The dynamic interpretant is the determination of a relation between a dynamic object and the sign which takes its ground from that dynamic object. The dynamic interpretant is the shaman's determination that the physiological problem, the general unanalyzed immediate interpretant, is the effect of Muu's capture and paralysis of the purba. Thus the shaman is able to see that the patient's signs of disease are grounded in Muu's troublesome behavior.
From this first round of semeiotic analysis, the shaman arrives at the final interpretant which translates our initial sign of disease into a new triad which would be the healing ritual itself. For the shaman, the final interpretant "determines certain habits of conduct"(37), meaning that as the interpreting agency he has inferred the existence of particular affliction (this inference derived from the initial analysis of the patient's condition), and will proceed to treat the patient. The semeiosis as a system of information has evolved with the translation of the first general sign of disease (the immediate interpretant) into a sign of a particular disease (the dynamic interpretant) and, again, into a sign of and for a prognostic habit of conduct, the ritual healing (the final interpretant).
Now, within our evolving disease semeiosis, I have earlier suggested the purba as the object, the nuchu as the sign, and that our interpretant is the principle of niga purbalele. This triadic relation is expressly internal and I mean it as a recasting of LÚvi-Strauss's point that the relationship of monster to disease is internal to the mind of the patient. What we now have as internal to the mind of the patient is the fight between the nuchu and Muu, the sign-object relationship defined by the interpretant, the principle niga purbablele, the harmony of the purba that constitutes human vitality. Health will be the proper effect of a sign-object relation between the nuchu, as sign, and Muu (and her effect on all the purba), as object.
Now moving on from the first triad that determined the necessity for the healing ritual, I will delineate two further triads that compose the process of the mythical healing within the patient's mind. The battle waged by the nuchu is a sign of Muu's corruption of the purba, the dissonance of the organs, and the dynamic object determining the battle as sign. The niga purbabele, as the principle of human vitality contingent upon the concordance of the purba, is the interpretant which defines this sign-object relation. Niga purbabele can be thought of as the logical interpretant; it is the goal of the mythical healing directing the semeiosis as a whole.
For this second triad, however, niga purbalele is defining a sign-object relationship whose effect is the corruption of niga purbalele. This corrupted principle is then the final interpretant of the second triad, and the sign for the third triad. As such a sign, it takes its ground from the dynamic object, Muu's intransigence. The effect of this relation is to spur the nuchu onto success in battle with Muu. Thus our dynamic interpretant within the third triad is the successful fight of the nuchu that determines a sign, restored niga purbalele, which takes its ground from the dynamic object, the actual physiology of proper reproductive function.
That the nuchu as spirits can act as the dynamic interpretant, however, determining the proper relation between correct reproductive function, as object, and restored niga purbalele, as a sign of that object, depends on the nuchu themselves having been endowed with the ability to represent this conventional relation between niga purbalele, the teleological sign, and reproductive physiology, the teleonomic object or natural habit which determines that sign. In essence, the nuchu are capable of creating symbols; they are virtually conscious agents.
Having been endowed by the shaman with niga, the essence of human beings, the nuchu possess a symbolic ability similar to human beings. Let me suggest this semeiotically, as a triadic relation. Both human beings and nuchu are signs of the same object, niga. One of the effects of this relation is the ability to create symbols, to propose conventional interpretants between signs that do not naturally (i.e., indexically) represent their objects. As I stated earlier the power of the symbol is to represent or utilize the natural habits of teleonomic semeioses. As symbol-using beings, then, the nuchu are capable of utilizing the natural habits of organs; that is their particular symbolic or conscious ability. The nuchu have the ability to guide the teleonomic semeiosy of reproductive physiology.
By evoking the nuchu, the shaman has created a social world, a discourse community, within the mind of the patient. The patient, it is important to note, is no passive player in all of this; she "accepts these mythical beings or, more accurately, she has never questioned their existence."(38) The nuchu, as symbol-using beings created by humans, are themselves symbolic of the human capacity to engage in teleological semeiosis, the ability to create conventions which utilize the sign-object relations of natural habits. The human beings who created the nuchu harnessed the power of symbols to functionally represent (i.e., alter) natural habits, or quasi-mind.
Thus we have these nuchu, in the likeness of human beings, who have the exceptional power to represent the natural habit, the teleonomic semeiosy, of reproductive physiology. The active principle defining this sign (nuchu) - object (purba) relation is the niga (interpretant), the "vital strength" of human beings. If niga is the metaphysical principle which constitutes human beings, the result of the harmonious interrelation of the purba of all the organs; and the nuchu, who have niga, are the mythical element responsible for the physiological reorganization, then the nuchu are like real human beings who, in the context of myth, have the exceptional power to manipulate reproductive physiology simply because they themselves, as the agents in the fight with Muu, are precise representations of the natural habit of this physiology.
By placing this social world, composed of uniquely capable human-like beings, within the mind of the patient, the shaman has internally endowed the patient with beings who are capable of manipulating the teleonomic semeiosis of reproductive physiology. Some words from Colapietro will help me elucidate just what I mean:
The nuchu are entered into the inner world of the patient's mind, and they have taken to her mind their language of reproductive physiology. By entering these nuchu into the mind of the patient, the shaman has allowed the patient to borrow from the nuchu this wealth of signs. This domain of inwardness is a spacious place indeed, for not only does it include her own dimensions of inwardness, but also the inward dimensions of the nuchu, their capacity as symbols to functionally utilize the natural habits of reproductive organs. These nuchu, then, I point to as the elements of the myth which behave as transducers of mythical / cultural information into physiological data.
Generally stated, the nuchu within the mind of the patient is tantamount to having the uniquely talented consciousness of the nuchu within the equally but differently talented consciousness of the patient. What we have here, then, is two subjectivities semeiotically connected in an exceptionally intimate way. The patient's consciousness is effectively bifurcated such that her unique talent is the ability to include within her own mind the consciousness of another mind thereby using its knowledge. The unique talent of the nuchu "mind", of course, is the ability to communicate with the body in the language of reproductive physiology. I would say that this is an excellent example of viewing the subjective realm in intersubjective terms, of witnessing a dialogic that results in a moment of efficacious subjectivity, to paraphrase Colapietro. But in his own words:
Our moment of efficaciousness is the moment when the patient gets well. Instead of the introspectively of consciousnesses residing in physically separate bodies, the healing ritual places the abstractly embodied consciousness of the nuchu within the consciousness of the patient.
The ritual, then, as the introspectively between the mind of the patient and that of the nuchu, whose mind consists essentially in the quasi-mind of reproductive physiology, is really about the creation of the cominterpretant. The cominterpretant "consists of all that is, and must be, well understood between utterer and interpreter at the outset, in order that the sign in question should fulfill its function"(41). This introspectively of the patient and the nuchu as cominterpretant would mean that the patient as interpreter understands the nuchu as utterer of the sign of the object, the object being the proper functioning of her reproductive organs.
The cominterpretant is a synechistic principle wherein the patient as interpreting agency, as "man-sign" is "welded" or "fused"(42) with the ritually successful nuchu, the sign of proper reproductive function. In other words, communication between interpreter and utterer is the establishment of meaning such that the nuchu as sign is able to determine in the patient, the sign-interpreting agency, "an interpretant which translates the dynamic object's determination of the sign"(43). The successful nuchu, as sign of proper reproductive function, the dynamic object, would determine in the patient the very same interpretant, niga purbalele, which defines them, the victorious nuchu, as a sign of reproductive health. Considered as abstraction, at the level of myth, the interpretant is symbolic, but for the patient's body, the effect of the sign (nuchu) - object (purba) relation, the restoration of niga purbalele, the interpretant is physiological; its meaning is therefore real for her body.
The myth as a system of signs, a semeiosis representing the natural habits of physiology, is effectively translated into another system of signs, the more inclusive semeiosis of the patient's mind. Her consciousness, however, is external to the semeiosis of the disease process, the physiology of her reproductive organs. By creating the introspectively with a "mind", the nuchu, whose very existence is predicated on contact with that semeiosis of the reproductive ailment, which is purely unconscious and therefore inaccessible to the patient, the ritual allows the patient to participate in, effectively become conscious of, the discourse community of the nuchu and their language of physiology.
Claude LÚvi-Strauss, "The Effectiveness of Symbols,"
in Structural Anthropology, Chapter 10, translated from the French by Claire
Jacobson and Brook Grundfest Scheepf, New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963.
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