Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Semiology, Psychoanalysis, and Phenomenology: Remembering What We Once Knew

Photo 1978 by Sophie Bassouls.
Since childhood, since the earliest memories of youth, we have been aware of an implicit, nonverbal, unarticulated aspect of experience.

This experience, contrary to what education insisted, was not primarily contemplative, but rather, emotive. Beneath the rational cognition, quite plunging and undulating, pushing and pulling, was the fundamental essence of visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile phenomenal experience. Meaning is identical in the senses, it is absent from a thing itself, only emerging in relational context to something else. Meaning is not of some thing, rather it is between, or in relation with some things.

The relationship, never simply a dyad, but a severely complex contextual system, forms signification of experience. Knowing is something we feel, not something we think. We can think something, yet it does not take hold of us, when we know something we feel it somatically. It finally hits us, it sinks in, and we experience the "a-ha" moment of knowing. It is a physical sensation of the body, this knowing that I speak of.

Auditory and visual symbols hold significance with each other in the perceiver. Perception is an intentional act, not a passive experience. Roland Barthes examined this phenomenon that we have known (have felt) since childhood. Whereas Barthes described it in image and music, Sigmund Freud was a semiologist of the psyche. We do not mean the bastardized, Enlightenment use of the word, but rather its seminal meaning: soul. Having soul requires that you feel.

Film, photograph, architecture, fashion, advertising, painting, poetry, music -these are all symbolic structures that act, as do words, to signify all that we come to call "reality". Barthes tells us that through indoctrination and repetition we become captivated by a reality effect. Husserl described this as a captivation-in-an-acceptedness -the reality that we have no recollection of actively fabricating reality. It never occurs to us to question it.

The photograph is not a sign it is a reality in itself -it is really a photograph. The signifier (iconic or echoic sensory trace) was arbitrarily associated with the signified (the concept). This is where science is confined, in the language games of the signifiers, predetermined by the grammar system from which it emerges. But there is something beneath this, something more that is felt rather than thought -the referent. Jacques Lacan called this referent -L'imaginaire- the place of the symbolic order. The ego ideal, according to Lacan, is the place, from within the symbolic order, that I seem myself from.

But how do sounds and images come to mean things? How does a referent come to be signified by a signifier? Charles Sanders Pierce tells us that this happens in three different ways: iconically, indexically, and symbolically. All signification can be described (unwritten) with one, or a combination of all three, of these functions. The icon resembles the signified. The symbol refers merely through tradition, and the index is presumed to cause the signifier.

We used to know, before we were educated, this relationship between signs (symbols). We were closer to the validity of our own experience. Ferdinand de Saussure reminded us of this experience which Barthes unfolds. The experiential, similar to the analytic methods of dream interpretation, is applied to the conscious as well as unconscious experience. In Carl Jung's development of the signs of the psyche (the archetypes) we come closer to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty described as existential communication. This move, from linguistics, to psychoanalysis, to phenomenology is a formidable path to which we see Martin Heidegger as the thread of thought.

Saussure would hold that convention is the mother of meaning. If we set images (signs) in relation to each other (parole) we have an act that communicates something. However, in the organization of the signs themselves we have yet a deeper level of meaning that is communicating to us, the code (langue).

Freud taught us to distinguish between manifest and latent content of a dream. Although we become fascinated in talking about the manifest content with others, it is the latent content of the dream that holds its greatest significance for us. The code of the dream is always written in the non-rational, that is, in the emotional. Dream meaning can be found by going through the manifest (parole), and experiencing the latent (langue) in which phenomenological experience informs us. This is something we all knew and then lost through civilization. The poet regains it and reminds us of what we once knew.