[KB] "Deacon"-structing Burke Part Whatever

Edward C Appel edwardcappel at frontier.com
Mon Oct 6 15:34:18 EDT 2014


	I’ve already said that Terrence W. Deacon’s semiotic theory partly supports, partly enhances, and partly challenges Burke’s dramatism/logology, in my view.  Burke surely, we would maintain, enhances Deacon, as well.  Before I get to the “challenge”---as the song goes, “Don’t know where, don’t know when”---let me add to the themes of support and enhancement.  Here I’ll be referencing, in particular, two of Deacon’s shorter works, the journal article, “The Emergent Process of Thinking as Reflected in Language Processing,” and Deacon’s book  chapter, “Beyond the Symbolic Species,” The Symbolic Species being the title of the anthropologist/neuroscientist’s tome that preceded Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, about which I previously bloviated.
	I would judge Deacon’s explanatory “god-term”/”rome-term” to be “emergent,” as per the title of the here-featured treatise.  The word “emerge” plays a similar role, I think, in “Beyond the Symbolic Species.”  All roads seem to lead from “emerge”/”emergent” to the two sets of dialectical opposites subsumed below:

	The primary polar matchup term “emergent” is pitted against, is “innate,” as in the pre-processed, genetically-programmed and “engineered” universal generative grammar of Noam Chomsky and his epigoni.  No evidence of such a special facility can be found in the human genome or in the structures of the human brain, which actually look not that much different from those found in a mouse, let alone a chimpanzee.  (I’m referencing Incomplete Nature as well as “Emergent.”)  We have here a “process of coming out,” a “rising . . . out of a surrounding medium,” even “an effect produced by a combination of causes but unable to be seen as the sum of their individual effects” (The Shorter OED), except through careful, detailed scrutiny of the natural history and evolution of living organisms, pathways of electro-chemical discharge in the brain, the very neurology of sensory, motor, thinking, and linguistic development and outcomes,
 animal communication generally, even the listening and reading, as well as the speaking and writing, of symbolizers like us---all these operations recapitulating the same sequential steps.  (It’s appropriate here to note what Susan Greenfield and Christof Koch, both neuroscientists, said in an exchange in Psychology Today: Electrochemical discharges in the brain can occur within time frames of 1/14th of a second.)

	From this dialectical emphasis on “emergent” rather than “innate,” there is derived the contrasting concepts of “subject/predicate.”  They assume more independent “roles,” if not do “battle” with each other, seemingly asymmetrically, in a way that Chomsky would not likely entertain.  “Subject/predicate”; “noun phrase/verb phrase”; “”topic/comment”; “indexical support/predicate frame”; “’pointing’”/desired or undesired result; “orientation component”/act to accomplish in respect to that “orientation”; “function,” as in functionary/”argument”; “reference/sense”; “indexical operation/symbolic operation”; “slots” for “pointing,” or “addresses”/”operation”; “(embedded) bound indexes/symbolic operation”; “disambiguating” the “indexical”/successful “symbolic” action toward a desired end---these serve as various expressions of the “process” of
 “emergence,” left to right, in communication, part of which, the “indexical”-founded-on-the-“iconic” preliminaries I’ve already spoken of, homo loquax/dialecticus shares with other living creatures.

	The major point Deacon makes is, there is no built-in genetic-neurological template by which the symbolic species gets from subject to predicate.  That aptitude, that enabling juxtaposition, resides not in our biology, nor in our cultural conditioning.  It is a faculty humans learn in early childhood via the bound and required “logic” of successful symbolization.  “Disambiguating” indexicality---i.e., “:pointing” via gestures or indexical words to what it is we are symbolically talking about---is a requirement for successful human communication.  We must put those two communicative elements together somehow to get what we’re after, or tell others more or less accurately what we want them to know.  Nonsymbolic animals have no such indexical problem, because their communication doesn’t get beyond the “iconic,” the “:arousal” to “attention” a significant “form” will evoke for them---and the “indexical,” the gestural or
 vocal “pointing” to that feared or desired object.  “Symbolization” via predication complicates, potentially, actually practically, interrupts, erects barriers in succession to making clear, what we are talking about, who or what we have in mind, what we want others to “do” in order for our interests to be satisfied.
	How human thinking, sensory and motor skills, and language production get to happen involve similar, if not identical, neural continuities.

	And how all this dovetails so nicely with Burke’s dramatistic philosophy, yet broaches an issue Burke may not have adequately dealt with, remains.
	Next time.


On Tue, 9/16/14, Edward C Appel <edwardcappel at frontier.com> wrote:

 Subject: [KB] "The Symbol Concept"
 To: kb at kbjournal.org
 Date: Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 1:08 PM
     Thanks, Bob, for your response on Burke,
 rhetoric, and “repetition.”  I hope to get back on
 that one later.
     I posted a few weeks ago on Terrence W.
 Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from
 Matter.  I said, in effect, and sought to briefly
 summarize how, Deacon’s philosophy of language part
 supports, part enhances, and part challenges Burke’s
 dramatism/logology.  Ronald Soetaert of Ghent U.
 seconded that take on Deacon’s relevance to our
     Since then, I’ve been in further
 dialogue with Professor Deacon.  He sent me three of
 his published articles, then later, a fourth, later still an
 essay now in press.  Two of these pieces have to do
 with his mentor, Gregory Bateson, whose work I referred to
 in at least one of my posts as being a clear precursor of
 Deacon’s semiotics.  The other of those first three,
 an encyclopedia chapter entitled “The Symbol Concept,”
 I’d like to summarize in this post and maybe one or two
 more.  The chapter appears in The Oxford Handbook of
 Language Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2011).  If
 you’re interested, please read on.
     (And as you read, do keep in mind that
 Incomplete Nature has made a profound impact, judging from
 multiple reviews easily accessed on the internet.)
     First, Deacon’s confirmation of Burke,
 formerly unbeknownst to Deacon, as I noted: Deacon’s in
 anthropology and neuroscience, not communication and
 literature, the prime sources of Burkean interest and
 scholarship.  From the perspective of Incomplete
 Nature, I pointed out how Deacon’s critique of the
 commonplace “scientific lens,” maybe epitomized by
 behaviorism’s notion of the human mind, any “mind,” as
 a “black box” we ought to prescind from our motivational
 calculations, is faulty and inadequate.  Input and
 output, neural stimulus and response, reduction of mind to
 biology, then to chemistry, then to physics, are the
 requisite foci for useful data and explanation, so much of
 hard science, at least, seems to suggest.  Deacon says
 no, we have to factor in, indeed highlight, a necessary
 “absential feature”(similar to Burke’s negative) that
 becomes the basis for human purpose, trial and error---we
 can genuinely label it all the
  aspects of “action,” expressive of a chosen
 “preference,” that cuts across “spontaneous” causes
 in nature and orients persons toward “work” that limits,
 organizes, directs life outcomes.
     “The Symbol Concept” further
 underscores the dramatistic relevance of Deacon’s
 thought.  Deacon once again takes issue with regnant
 scientific/technological terminologies that confuse what a
 “symbol” actually is.  A symbol is not, Deacon
 claims, mere “code,” “sign,” “icon,” or number,
 that is, symbols are not mere pointers , markers, gauges, or
 portraits of the kind so often denominated
 “symbols.”  Actual “symbols” refer, abstractly
 and generally, “irrespective of any natural
 affinities.”  In other words, as per Burke, symbols
 synthesize, synthetically, disparate beings, entities, or
 events for seemingly pragmatic, culturally-conditioned
 purposes that transcend mere appearance of similarity. 
 Contra Saussure (with the exception of proper nouns),
 symbolic reference cannot be “mapped.”  To the
 extent that a common word or symbol “maps” anything, it
 “maps” a position in a given lexicon in relation to
  terminologies in that symbol system.
     The airy, diaphanous character of
 Burke’s equivalent notion of symbolic action/reference
 finds peak expression in his chapter, “What Are the Signs
 of What?---A Theory of Entitlement.” in LASA.  There
 Burke maintains what he said in the Grammar about how common
 symbols refer to “nothing” in the real world, only here
 he follows up with how “reference” is reversed, in terms
 of customary suppositions: “Things are the signs of
 words,” rather than vice versa.  In so “latching
 on” to the symbol’s concept, so to speak, tangible
 entities and “objects” “materialize” the
 “spirit” of the symbol, participate in its
 “pageantry” (pp. 361, 379).
     But---and here’s where Deacon gets into
 semiotic and semiological issues foreign to Burke’s
 dramatism, i.e., the “enhancement” I
 mentioned---“sign”-age, “signal”-ing,
 “code”deciphering, the whole gamut of concepts related
 to computer algorithms and “encryption,” come to bear in
 undergirding the higher-order cognitive process we call
 human symbolic communication.  Like love and marriage
 (for the traditionally minded, anyway), you can’t have one
 without the other.  The symbols of human language are
 fashioned out of sounds and written or printed characters
 the roots of which are presymbolic, and prehuman, for that
 matter.  Such “iconic” and “indexical” sources
 of communication are evident in the activites of nonsymbolic
 animals, as well as in the “symbolic actions” of you and
 me.  Thus, add “iconism” and “indexicality” to
 Deacon’s “absential feature” and Bateson’s
 “difference that makes a
  difference” (that results from some pre-ethical sense of
 negation, and occasions a form of “trial and error” in
 the service of a kind of “preference,” a capacity for
 which all living things show signs of possessing and
     In explaining this “hierarchy” of
 notions he uses in explaining how human symbolic action
 works, Deacon borrows from the philosophy of Charles Sanders
 Peirce.  Peirce coined the term “legisign” to refer
 to iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs in general. 
 The locution “sinsign” refers to a specific instance of
 an iconic or lexical sign (there can be no such thing,
 actually, as a “symbolic sinsign,” as will become clear,
 I hope.  “Natural affinities” characterize
 sinsigns; not so, anything that attains the level of
 “symbolic,” based on, as Burke and Deacon say,
 arbitrary, conventional, culturally reflective origins of
 reference.)  A stick figure drawing on a restroom door
 is an iconic legisign.  It “portrays” in
 general.  A picture of a famous person is an iconic
 sinsign.  It portrays in particular.  A smoke
 alarm sound is an indexical legisign, as is the position of
 a needle on a pressure gauge.  They “point” or
  toward an action in the large.  A particular smell of
 smoke is an indexical sinsign.  Spoken or written
 words, in a syntactical context or not, are symbolic
 legisigns.  The reference is to “a general concept or
 type of object.”
     Proper names might seem to be a bit like
 symbolic sinsigns, but they are not.  Their reference
 can be mapped, one-to-one Saussure-like, but “the
 sign-vehicle is a conventional form.”  Therefore
 Peirce would call them “indexical legisigns.” 
 “Dolphin signature whistles are indexical sinsigns”
 (Deacon, e-mail message, 9/9/14).  Symbolic signs of
 the most abstract or merely potential kind of reference
 Peirce calls “qualisigns.”
     Symbolic reference, then, functions like
 this: “A written word [for instance] is first recognized
 as an iconic sinsign (an instance of a familiar form), then
 an indexical legisign (a type of sign vehicle contiguous
 with other related types), and then as a symbolic legisign
 (a conventional type of sign referring to a conventional
 type of reference).
     Deacon employs the text message “smiley
 face” and Aristotle’s take on how a “signet ring”
 functions in communication as examples of this hierarchal
 progression in the production of meaning for symbol-users,
 one of Deacon’s most salient points being: This
 “dependency of symbolic reference on indexical reference
 [and iconic reference]” mirrors the dependency of human
 symbolic action/communication on the “genetic,” even
 “phylogenetic,” capacities for iconic and indexical
 communication of a sort in “living organisms” in
 general, a theme of Deacon’s (and Bateson’s) I
 emphasized in my previous posts on Incomplete Nature.
     So, for further review and/or comment:
     What do Deacon’s semiotic distinctions,
 and especially unifications, mean for Burke’s signature
 “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” dichotomy 
 (1978/2003)?  Is some sort of modification in order
 along the lines of Jim Chesebro’s complaint that Burke did
 not pay enough attention to nonsymbolic motive s (Burke
 panel at the ECA Convention, 1992)?
     Does Deacon’s critique of Chomsky’s
 Universal Generative Grammar as the innate “constraint”
 on syntactical linguistic relationships in human
 communication, in favor instead of “indexical”
 constraints, tend to support Burke’s notion of the
 negative as “the engine of intentionality” and the very
 dawn of human symbolism (1952/1953/1966)?
     Maybe something on those issues later.
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