Unreal Nature

October 15, 2014

Awa Yusi?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… if the Dorze universe ‘consists principally of messages’ they know nothing of it, nor do I.

This is from Rethinking Symbolism by Dan Sperber (1974):

… A grammar is a device that generates the sentences of the language it describes by means of given axioms and by the operation of rules, independently of all external input. All sentences, the whole language, are contained in its grammar. Inversely, according to Lévi-Strauss, myths are generated by the transformation of other myths or of texts which carry a certain mythicism; in other words, by a device that allows an infinite and non-enumerable set of possible inputs. No grammar therefore generates by itself the set of myths, any more than the mechanism of visual perception generates by itself the set of possible perceptions. The device that would generate myths depends on an external stimulus; it is thus similar to cognitive devices and opposed to semiological devices: it is an interpretative, and not a generative, system.

Lévi-Strauss says that ‘the universe of primitives (or those claimed to be such) consists principally of messages.’ In fact, it is the universe of the French, and more generally, of Westerners, that consists of messages. In current usage, any object of knowledge has, perforce, a sense, a meaning — from the meaning of life to the meaning of the color of leaves in the autumn. To say that a phenomenon has no meaning is to avow that nothing at all can be said of it. The Frenchman lives in a universe where everything means something, where every correlation is a relation of meaning, where the cause is the sign of its effect and the effect, a sign of its cause. By a singular inversion, only real signs — words, texts — are said, sometimes, to mean nothing at all.

But this semiologism, though it is found in other cultures as well, is in no way universal. For the Dorze, for example, the question, ‘What does it mean?’ (awa yusi?) can only be asked about a word, a sentence, a text or a directly paraphrasable behavior, such as a nod. Even when a natural phenomenon is considered as the effect of a supernatural will, it is not counted as meaning it. In short, if the Dorze universe ‘consists principally of messages’ they know nothing of it, nor do I.

The attribution of sense is an essential aspect of symbolic development in our culture. Semiologism is one of the bases of our ideology. For centuries, this semiologism has, tacitly and undividedly, dominated symbolic production. It is less surprising therefore that those whose work for the first time questions this domination expressly render it a first and last homage. If they feel a need to call themselves semiologists, it is to hide — from themselves as well as others — the fact that they have ceased to be such, that they don’t know which sign to avow.

My most recent previous post from Sperber’s book is here.




Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: