23 May 2012

Ted Striker, African Gods, and Charles Peirce.

A friend reminded me of this, from my dissertation. I thought I'd share.

The problem at the heart of The Gods Must be Crazy is that the interpretants of the pilot and the Bushman are so fundamentally different that the bottle ceases to exist in a way that is remotely recognizable to someone from, literally in this case, a “Coca-cola” culture.  How, then, can the interpretant be real?  In fact, it is the reality of interpretant that creates the situation in the first place.  The fall of the bottle from the airplane demonstrates this.  We can see several interpretants at work for the pilot: soft drinks, garbage, the emptiness of the Kalahari.  If these are different—if the soft drink is not fully consumed, if the pilot thinks in terms of recycling rather than waste, if the pilot recognizes that the Kalahari is not so empty that the bottle could not possible hit anyone—the bottle is no longer something to be thrown out of the window.

The same is true for the Bushman.  In this case, we see the gods, the various activities for which the bottle can be used, communal order, and the mythological geography of the clan creating the bottle as it is used.  The Bushman’s belief in the existence of anthropomorphic gods who live in the sky leads him to believe that anything falling from the sky must have been given to him by the gods.  The belief that these gods have human-like emotions and motivations leads first to the sense that the bottle is a gift when it is brought into relationship with the everyday activities and then that it is a trick when it upsets social order within the clan.  The clan’s mythological geography—the belief in the “end of the Earth”—sparks the odyssey to permanently dispose of the bottle.  Like sign and object, interpretant displays its reality causally.  It causes something to be different than it might have been.  In so doing, it links the sign-object to other signs and objects.

But interpretant does more than this; it also links sign and object to each other.  When we ask the meaning of the sign “bottle” or “television” we can answer in two ways.  One is with description.  We explain what a bottle looks like, feels like, sounds like, and perhaps tastes and smells like.  We thus make reference to object.  Similarly, when we ask what an object is, we also answer in two ways that correspond to the question of a sign.  Analogous to the descriptive reference to the object is the nominative reference to sign: that object is a bottle or a television.  But neither of these ways fully satisfies us, much like the running joke in the film Airplane!:
“I have a message from headquarters.”
“Headquarters?  What is it?”
“It’s a big building where generals meet, but that’s not important right now.”
The joke is repeated several times: getting to a hospital (“a big building with patients in it”), helping out in the cockpit (“the small room at the front of the plane where the pilots sit”).  It is funny because the response doesn’t answer what the character is asking about—what any person would mean when they ask the question.  The character wants to know about the practices that relate to the sign, not about the object to which the sign corresponds.  They want to know not what objects the signs “headquarters,” “hospital,” and “cockpit” refer to, but what practices went on in these places that are relevant at the moment.  The character is asking about Thirdness.  Ted Striker wants to know what happened at headquarters, or what kind of help is needed in the cockpit; Captain Oveur wants to know why the passengers need to be brought to the hospital.  We can thus describe both sign and object in terms of a common interpretant, which unifies the sign and object.

This is the key function of interpretant.  In unifying sign and object through practice, interpretant unifies the natural and social aspects of reality in a single entity.  Peirceian semiotics, while idealist in that it posits the reality of ideal constructs, does not simply degenerate into an anything goes philosophy, one where the content of one’s own mind has no bounds but those of imagination, and in which unicorns and wormholes can be said to exist in exactly the same sense as a the computer on which I am typing.   The ideal is inexorably linked to the material in the sign-object-interpretant relationship.  Yet Peirce also shows that there can be no object without a sign, even if the sign is “that thing we just found.”  The reality of the object is linked just as inexorably to sign through interpretant.   Interpretant—which we should think of as sign and object in practice—thus serves to link the natural (object) and the social (the signs that we create for these objects) into a single fabric of reality.

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