Galtonian composite photograph, frontispiece to The Criminal by Havelock Ellis (1890).

Losing Face

[Camera] operants, with not very numerous exceptions, bore a reputation similar to that of itinerant portrait painters, who anticipate the death of their victims, by destroying every aspect of life-likeness in the faces they execute. (M.A. Root, The Camera and the Pencil, xv, 1864)

Alan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive” is a masterful piece of writing. Sekula proposes that the growth of photographic archives in the 19th century follow two paradoxical models. There is the nominalist position of Bertillon, who amassed files of criminal photographs and catalogued their various facial features. The other position could be characterized as essentialist, marked by Francis Galton’s composite photographs which sought to determine the essential “look” of the criminal face by synthetic means. Bertillon’s attempt to identify criminals by their faces was later displaced by Galton’s invention of fingerprinting—the bureaucratic difficulty of sorting and cataloging faces was greater than the more easily quantifiable fingerprint. But this did not deter the effort to identify qualities of character through images; Galton’s method was applied to ethnography and anthropology more successfully than it was in criminology.

While Sekula cites Marcus Aurelius Root to support his thesis that photography was used to generalize mass quantities of data, and to promote cohesive social bonds, I believe this reading is skewed. Root’s writing reflects to a larger extent his desire that photographs be individuated. Root devotes an entire chapter to “Expression—Through the Face”:

In the course of this work I have repeatedly and most emphatically urged that expression is essential to a portrait, whether it be taken with a camel’s hair pencil, or with the pencil of the sun. Nor can this point be pressed too often or too forcibly. For a portrait so styled, however splendidly colored, and however skillfully finished its manifold accessories, is worse than worthless if the pictured face does not show the soul of the original,—that individuality or selfhood, which differences him from all beings, past, present, or future. The creative power never repeats itself; but in every successive performance presents somewhat varying from all existences that have been or are. (143)

There is a pronounced division between the aesthetic response to the face as a window to the soul and the “scientific” approach to faces as a generalizable datum of types of mind. It isn’t that Sekula is wrong, so much as that he is concerned entirely with the construction of the nineteenth century “mind” as reflected through its statistical approach to quantifying the behavioral as a function of appearance. I am more concerned with the construction of the face as an ethical “call to conscience.” That Root equates bad portraits with murder is intensely fascinating to me.

C.S. Peirce was tremendously influenced by Galton’s work. The way we read someone’s personality at a glance to determine if we like them or not is likened to a comparison with a Galtonian composite photograph:

In general, we virtually resolve upon a certain circumstance to act as if certain imagined circumstances were perceived. This act which amounts to such a resolve, is a peculiar act of the will whereby we cause an image, or icon, to be associated, in a peculiarly strenuous way, with an object represented to us by an index. This act itself is represented in the proposition by a symbol, and in the consciousness of it fulfills the function of a symbol in the judgment. Suppose, for example, I detect a person with whom I have to deal, in an act of dishonesty. I have in my mind something like a “composite photograph” of all the persons that I have known and read of that have the character, and at the instant I make the discovery concerning that person, who is distinguished from the others by certain indications, upon that index, at that moment, down goes the stamp of RASCAL, to remain indefinitely. (Of Reasoning in General, 19-20)

However, it is also notable that for Peirce all photographs are composites:

Even what is called an “instantaneous photograph,” taken with a camera, is a composite of the effects of intervals of exposure more numerous by far than the sands of the sea. (21)



In one of his letters of 1905, Peirce says,

on May 14, 1867, after three years of almost insanely concentrated thought, hardly interrupted even by sleep, I produced the . . . “New List of Categories” in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . . .we may classify objects according to their matter; as wooden things, iron things, silver things . . . etc. But classification according to structure is generally more important . . .I hold that a classification of the elements of thought and consciousness according to their structure is more important . . . I examine the phaneron and I endeavor to sort outs its elements according to the complexity of their structure.

Here we have the beginnings of a clearly structural approach to the phenomenological problems. And he adds, “I thus reached my three categories of signs.” Yet, permit me to say what the editor adds to the words of Peirce in a footnote: “Peirce then begins a long discussion of the categories of signs.” The editor does not publish this discussion. This is an incredible thing.

. . .

One of the most felicitous, brilliant ideas that came from Peirce for semiotics and linguistics in [is?] his definition of meaning. Meaning is the translation of a sign into another system of signs. How many fruitless discussions about mentalism and anti-mentalism would be avoided if one would speak simply on the problem of translation, which no mentalist, no anti-mentalist, and no behavioralist would consider as something that is not completely new? The problem of translation is really the fundamental problem in Peirce’s views.

. . .

As Benveniste says, the most known concept from Peirce is the existence of three types of signs—icons, indexes, and symbols. It is known. But things that are well known are usually distorted. Peirce never divides signs into these three classes. There are three poles, three categories, and all three can be present in the same sign. He says that a symbol may have an icon and index incorporated into it. He speaks about the various bonds of signs. For him the essence of semiotics is just this interaction, the hierarchical interrelation of these three semiotic forces.

Roman Jakobson, “A Few Remarks on Structuralism,” 1535, 1537, 1539, MLN Dec. 1976


C.S. Peirce, detail of a notebook sketch

Psychology and C.S. Peirce

In “An Essay towards Reasoning in Security and Uberty” C.S. Peirce praises the advances of modern psychology, but he also offers a cautionary note:

I beseech my readers to make no mistake as to my enthusiastic rejoicing over the great light this new psychology has brought. Of course I do not think it is the final word to be said about the mind; for such finality is not yet known, thank God, in any modern science; should such ever take possession of scientific minds it will forebode either the speedy extinction of the human race, or else an era of intellectual epilepsy. So, it in no degree conflicts with my admiration of modern psychology that I at once express the opinion that (at least as far as I am acquainted with it) it can afford no aid whatever in laying the foundation for a sound philosophy of reasoning, albeit it has been and can still be of the most precious service in planning and executing the observations on which the reasonings depend and from which they spring. (471)

Peirce is even more explicit in discussing the low stature of psychology in matters of semiotics and logic in his outline of a proposed work in a letter to William James. Book I was to be about the classification of signs—the foundation of thought.

Book II, on Critic, discusses the warrant for each of the different kinds of reasoning. Throughout this book and Book I, I do not allow myself to accept any discovery of “Psychology Proper,” by which I mean the Empirical Science of the Modes of Functioning of finite Minds. For example, the modes of Association, its formations, suggestions through it, etc., Fatigue,—in short, the Physiology of the Mind. For in my opinion, excepting Metaphysics, there is no science that is in more need of the science of Logic than Psychology Proper is. (501)

However, Peirce goes on to state that psychology plays a large role in his concept of Phaneroscopy, the keen observation and generalization from immediate perception.

Peirce’s realism attempted to embrace both the constructions of the mind and the mind’s interface with reality through perception. It seems notable to me that his semiology did not spring from psychology, but rather informed it.


Tracing the Circuit

The “Brief Survey of the History of Linguistics” which opens Saussure’s Course in General Lingusitics discusses two opposed precursor humanistic disciplines. “Grammar” was founded as a prescriptive discipline for normalizing correct usage. Philology, on the other hand, was more concerned with texts and their interpretation than language. Comparative philology and grammar emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, based on flawed ideas of the structure of languages and the role of comparison as a method for determining a scientific “method” for the study of languages. However, Saussure credits the Neogrammarians of the late nineteenth century as finally dethroning the “illogical metaphors” of the comparativists: “From then on it became unacceptable to say ‘the language does this or that,’ to speak of the ‘life of a language,’ and so in, because a language is not really an entity, and exists only in the users” (5). The study of language, from the late nineteenth century forward, is conceived as the study of a form which exists only in relation to the context of psychology and sociology of beings.

Attributing a form to language which exists outside of the materiality of discourse gave life to a science of linguistics which displaced it from its origin in the humanities. Language was conceived by Saussure as not being limited to vocalic or alphabetic utterances: “The language we use is a convention and it makes no difference what exactly the nature of the agreed sign is. The question of the vocal apparatus is thus a secondary one as far as the problem of language is concerned”(10). The primary distinction for Saussure is that languages are articulated— they are composed of discrete signs which are transmitted across a circuit:

Language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable to writing, the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, and so on. It is simply the most important of such systems.

It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as a part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, “sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them (15).

Saussure placed semiology firmly in the human sciences, under general psychology. However, the separation of form from being makes this placement somewhat paradoxical. Saussure attempts to explain this by differentiating the terms meaning and value. Units of language convey values, not meanings. Meaning is constructed by a differential association of linguistic values, through their relationship—the code is “empty” without a receiver to calculate the meaning (158). In a sense, language is pure energy which has no material value—though it can stimulate material construction of meanings in the receiver. Thus, the aptness of Saussure’s circuit metaphor seems assured—until the proliferation of radio and the conduit metaphor of communication which supplanted it in the 1930s and 40s.

If semiology is merely the study of the relationship between signs, to be contrasted with semantics which was later proposed as the science of meanings, then it seems devoid of the human context which Saussure sought to place it under. The transformation of metaphors—from the metaphor of language as a “living thing” to language as a “circuit” to language as a “conduit” (in communication studies) is fascinating, though I’m a bit unsure whether progress has really been made.

Central Questions

Three Central Questions

In Philosophy In The Flesh George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that the central findings of cognitive science can be isolated in the form of three propositions:

  1. The mind is inherently embodied.
  2. Thought is mostly unconscious.
  3. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical

The first finding contradicts the Cartesian division of mind and body. The second, the primacy of reason as it is generally explicated. The third, the standard definition of metaphor as a form of linguistic transgression where an improper concept is applied to a target word. Sperber and Wilson claim that the concept of “tropes” is ill formed—that tropes group together dissimilar phenomena in confusing and unproductive ways. The cognitive claim of their relevance principle is that thought “tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance” (260). This seems at odds with the second assertion of cognitive science, because if we include within the definition of cognition those unconscious procedures which furnish data for reason as it is conventionally described, sensory processing tends to make relevance a “special case” where data warrants attention. Lakoff and Johnson’s application of a tropological label to the formation of abstract concepts requires a wider definition of the trope of metaphor, as much as Sperber and Wilson’s concept of relevance seems to require a narrowed definition of cognition. Neither “naming” of the primary function of cognition can stand without explicit grounding of their assumed conventions.

Sperber and Wilson attempt to ground contextual relevance in variety of ways: “For some phenomena, the best course is to filter them out at a perceptual level. For others, it is to represent them conceptually and process them in a rich encyclopaedic context” (152). In other words, ignoring stimuli constitutes processing them for relevance. They also suggest, in congruence with Lakoff and Johnson’s second proposition, that stimuli are processed at either attentive or sub-attentive levels. Sperber and Wilson use the example of wearing aftershave to stimulate a partner as an example of communication through the “sub-attentive level” however, if effective, is this the case? If the smell is ignored (sorted as irrelevant) then how can it be processed cognitively as a communicative act? Sperber and Wilson switch abruptly to the communicative dimensions of the act of wearing aftershave, relying on a fuzzy notion of relevance—some stimuli are more completely processed as more relevant than others. This does not match well with the binary sorting behavior they initially suggest—relevant vs. irrelevant. Lakoff and Johnson’s approach appears to offer an alternative to simplified or graduated (degrees of relevance) theories of sorting stimuli.

Metaphor, for Lakoff and Johnson, is the mapping of a “source” stimulus on a target schema. Thus, when they say that “abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” they do not mean that they proceed through transgressive comparisons, but rather by cognitive comparisons that can be conscious (in the case of “creative” metaphors) or unconscious (in the case of shopworn or “dead” metaphors). Metaphor, in the widely comparative sense, is the engine which drives cognition. Thus, the “general abilities and procedures of communication” that Sperber and Wilson claim explain metaphor and other tropes, are for Lakoff and Johnson, metaphor. This seems a circular impasse. The explanation cannot be the phenomena that is supposedly explained.



Given the name lion, we need neither the actual vision of the animal nor its image even: the name alone, if we understand it, is the unimagined simple representation. We think in names.

The recent attempts—already, as they deserved, forgotten—to rehabilitate the Mnemonic of the ancients, consist in transforming names into images, and thus again deposing memory to the level of imagination. The place of the power of memory is taken by a permanent tableau of a series of images, fixed in the imagination, to which is then attached the series of ideas forming the composition to be learned by rote. Considering the heterogeneity between the import of these ideas and those permanent images, and the speed by which the attachment is to be made, the attachment cannot be made otherwise than by shallow, silly, and utterly accidental links. Not merely is the mind put to the torture of being worried by idiotic stuff, but what is thus learnt by rote is just as quickly forgotten, seeing that the same tableau is used for getting by rote every other series of ideas, and so those previously attached to it are effaced.

Hegel, Philosophy of Mind 462 p. 220

Hegel’s example here is interesting—I have no idea what practice he is talking about (understandable if it was “forgotten” in 1845). However, after reading an article by Janis Edwards on the multiplication of the iconic representation of JFK jr.’s salute at the funeral of JFK, I begin to wonder if cultural iconography can usually be described as “shallow, silly, and utterly accidental.” I also think, sometimes, as I read dissections of cultural images like the flag-raising on Iwo Jima compared and contrasted with the flag raising at the WTC that “the mind is put to the torture of being worried by idiotic stuff, but what is thus learnt by rote is just as easily forgotten.”

Attempts to circumscribe “visual rhetoric” as the hermeneutic practice of deconstructing such images falls flat to me. What seems far more pertinent is how these images become “names”—not of things, but of qualities with a cultural currency. Images have a persistence beyond what Hegel claims—as symbols, not just as icons.

Shopping Cart Theory

Shopping Cart Theory

It is difficult to avoid picking up bits of this and that and trying to apply them to questions that concern me. One of the graduate faculty here labels this “shopping cart theory.” The difficulty, of course, is that most people who do that sort of thing have a very limited grasp of the theories that they appropriate and hence bind together ideas that are really in opposition as if they might be simultaneously true, treating them uncritically. However, it seems to me that if one is critical about what one appropriates that the benefits outweigh the hazards.

One of the most eloquent arguments from multiple perspectives can be found in C.S. Peirce’s Some Consequences of Four Incapacities:

Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premises which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments rather than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected. (1.29)

Peirce’s position explicated in this essay, and in a previous essay Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man is of great interest to me. I might as well throw it on the cart. Peirce proposes:

  1. We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts.
  2. We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically from previous cognitions.
  3. We have no power of thinking without signs.
  4. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable.

The first proposal is taken to be certain by much of twentieth century philosophy, except phenomenology. None of these assertions were considered certain by Peirce, but they represent an interesting point of departure. The second proposal tends to predict “social constructionism” fairly nicely. However, I have some issues with the concept of cognition being “determined logically.” Lakoff and others in cognitive science suggest (I think rightly) that around 95% of our cognition takes place at an unconscious level, so the definition of logic would need to be stretched to accommodate this. Peirce anticipates this objection in an interesting way:

But does the mind go through the syllogistic process? It is certainly doubtful whether a conclusion—as something in the mind independently, like an image (emphasis mine)—suddenly displaces two premises existing in the mind in a similar way. But it is a matter of constant experience, that if a man is made to believe in the premises, in the sense that he will act on them and will say that they are true, under favorable conditions he will also be ready to act from their conclusion and say that they are true. Something, therefore, takes place within an organism that is equivalent to the syllogistic process (30-31)

A conclusion then is not a sudden synthesis of thought, but rather an action brought about by the acceptance of premises—previous cognitions, not intuitive insights.

The third proposition casts an interesting light on the question of cognition itself. Rather than the Aristotelian proposition that thought necessarily involves images, or the Hegelian proposition that thought necessarily involves words (both assertions are echoed in Wittgenstein), Peirce in a way embodies both—signs may be images or words or neither. Thought proceeds through signs. I find this fascinating, and at the same time it increases the difficulty in arguing a cross-modal approach. That we cannot cognize the uncognizable does seem to be a tautology, and might best have been left out. But philosophers seldom shut up when they should.



Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson make two strong claims in Relevance. The first is about cognition, and the second about communication:

  1. Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance.
  2. Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance. (260)

Sperber and Wilson assume that utterances are interpretations of the mental states of speakers which are entertained by listeners as either interpretations or descriptions, decoded along a Porphyrian tree to determine if they are actual or desirable either as representations or actual states of affairs (232). Interpretations of propositions such as “I make $200 a day” are not evaluated for their truth value in order to ascertain if it an actual state of affairs, but rather we take it for granted that the figure may be inexact and that the speaker may instead make $192.50 instead. It is likely that we will offer an “optimally relevant” simplification rather than communicate longwinded facts. They propose that metaphor works in much the same way.

Sperber and Wilson suggest that processing “Bill is the nicest person there is” (106a) proceeds along the same lines as “This room is a pigsty” (88):

Moving along to a marginally more creative example (107) is a fairly conventional metaphor whose interpretation involves bringing together the encyclopaedic entries for Robert and bulldozer, which do not normally come together in a subject-predicate relationship:

(107) Robert is a bulldozer.

The result will be a wide array of contextual implications, many of which, being contradictory, can be automatically discarded. The relevance of (107) will be established by finding a range of contextual effects which can be retained as weak or strong implicatures. Here there is no single strong implicature that automatically comes to mind, but rather, a slightly weaker, less determinate range having to do with Robert’s persistence, obstinacy, insensitivity and refusal to be deflected. The hearer has to take a slightly greater responsibility for the resulting interpretation than he does with (106a) and (88).

In general, the wider the range of potential implicatures and the greater the hearer’s responsibility for constructing them, the more poetic the effect, the more creative the metaphor. A good creative metaphor is precisely the one in which a variety of contextual effects can be retained and understood as weakly implicated by the speaker. (239)

In Sperber and Wilson’s view, metaphor and other tropes “are simply creative exploitations of a perfectly general dimension of language use” (237). Their framework is fairly persuasive in its flexibility. If communication is assumed to be propositional in nature, then hybrid contextually dependent “events” can also be explained. For example: Robert walks into a room, knocking over all the furniture in his path. The speaker points at Robert and says “Bulldozer!” Having only a single term, this would be difficult to analyze as a textual or linguistic metaphor. Taken as a proposition (assuming the utterance is relevant to the “framing” situation) which is not overtly stated, but rather, implicated then its analysis as an instance of metaphoric labeling is possible. However, this is not a case where Robert has been “named” as “Bulldozer” but rather one where his performance mimics the nominative label. The utterance expresses an actual similarity, a description, as much as it does an interpretation. It is in this that we see the primary difficulty with Sperber and Wilson’s framework. Can propositional acts of communication be segregated into categories of description vs. interpretation, or actual vs. desirable? In many communicative situations the boundaries do not seem clear. Constructing examples to demonstrate relevance presumes relevance, rendering Sperber and Wilson’s framework a tautology.

Sperber and Wilson’s conclusion that metaphor requires “no special interpretive abilities or procedures; it is a natural outcome of general abilities and procedures used in verbal communication” would not be disputed by most metaphor theorists. Many, George Lakoff in particular, would claim that metaphor, rather than relevance, is the “primary principle” of both cognition and communication. The central problem of this claim is defining precisely what metaphor is and how it works. Framing the question as a purely linguistic one—where metaphor is a comparison between two terms, or between a focal term and a “frame”—does not establish metaphor as a property of cognition, but only as a matter of communication. Addressing the cognitive properties of metaphor to differentiate it from relevance must transgress the boundaries of linguistic demonstration.

* I couldn’t help but think about an Iggy Pop song from Zombie Birdhouse while I was trying to write this:

Like a giant clam
Run that girl over
Get that poseur

Of course, that’s a simile and not a metaphor� and a rather shaky one at that.

Positive and Negative

Negative and Positive

In the rush to get things done at the end of the semester, some thoughts have been avalanching at me regarding the research I’ve done. I feel like I should note them in a brief and unsupported way.

I moved from “literature” to rhetoric in a long and twisted way. What bothers me about the current state of literary studies is the emphasis on political-cultural-gender-race-economic studies. I’m really not all that interested in treating texts as tea leaves where issues about the greater society can be read like a fortune. Of course, similar things are going on in Rhet/Comp, but the emphasis on productive discourse (new writing, not just old) and the wider variety of condoned “texts” for study attracts me more.

I’m interested in how we can say anything at all. Of course we do, all the time—but what makes one way of reading (or writing) a text preferred outside the contexts of politics-culture-gender-race and economics? The quick response is usually to say that a preferred reading cannot exist outside these contexts. I don’t think that is true. There is such a thing as “common sense” which is not “community sense”—without it there would be no such thing as community sense. I suppose this pegs me as an anachronistic humanist, but so be it.

I’ve been forced to defend my resistance to cultural theory numerous times in the past few months. It isn’t because I don’t see the value in it—or that I have not read it or understand it. It is simply because what interests me is how human beings put words or images on page or screen and seek to communicate using these tools. I don’t think that cultural theory has the answers I seek. It is deeply implicated in it, yes—genre conventions and modes of discourse arise due to cultural factors, but these cultural factors do not construct discourse alone. I think that the way that we process language and images (cognitive theories and language philosophy) has more to do with it. Many of these theories are positive and generative in nature, rather than negative.

After reading a lot of queer theory, feminist theory, Marxist theory, etc., I really got tired of the entirely negative approach—language is filled with “gaps” economics is constructed around power transfer (which usually results in the poor getting shafted, etc.). Life isn’t sales. Language isn’t hopelessly flawed—it works, and it works in really magical ways—at least in my opinion.

I think the “flaws” in language can also be thought of as features. We express ourselves with incredible economy and speed. I’m interested more in how it works rather than doesn’t work. I feel like I have developed a conceptual framework for considering how communication works, which although it involves cultural and political issues, is not culture or politics in the larger sense of these terms. I am interested in issues of representation, which are never neutral. But neither are they entirely social, psychological, or economic. Each mode of study has something to contribute; but I am interested in the positive core of it all—the concept that we can make meaning through representation, not just regenerate existing structures. Otherwise, there is no potential for meaningful change.



Reading “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” by Theodor Adorno, I was struck by a few passages that sounded almost punkish. While the overall thrust of the article seems to be hopelessly elitist, Adorno decries both the cults of “classical” and “pop” music.

In earlier epochs, technical virtuosity, at least, was demanded of singing stars, the castrati and prima donnas. Today, the material as such, destitute of any function, is celebrated. One need not even ask about capacity for musical performance. Even mechanical control of the instrument is no longer really expected. To legitimate the fame of its owner, a voice need only be especially voluminous or especially high. If one dares to in conversation to question the decisive importance of the voice and to assert that it is possible to make beautiful music with a moderately good voice as it is with a moderately good piano, one will immediately find oneself faced with a situation of hostility and aversion whose roots go deeper than the occasion. Voices are holy properties like a national trademark. As if the voices wanted to revenge themselves for this, they begin to lose their sensuous magic in whose name they are merchandised. Most of them sound like imitations of those who have made it, even when they themselves have made it. (277)

Adorno finds the appropriation and recycling of bits of melody as childlike. The “postmodern” cut-up sensibility is seen as the mockery of an infant. Adorno sees modern listening as atomistic, as a regression away from the concept of music as a holistic enterprise. I see a strange contradiction in his stressing technical virtuosity, while also suggesting that beautiful music can be made with more meager equipment. However, the notion of musical voice as a brand, a “trademark” to be bought and sold seems pretty astute for 1938. On the classical side, it is the ascendancy of the conductor as trademark which catches his attention.

The sensuous perception of music as a holistic experience is not transmissible or reproducible. In this, he argues with Benjamin by reasserting the cult value of musical experience as the prime example of “aura.”