The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotic Analysis of Discourse. Marcel Danesi University of Toronto

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1 The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotic Analysis of Discourse Marcel Danesi University of Toronto A large portion of human intellectual and social life is based on the production, use, and exchange of relevant meanings in verbal discourse. This has endowed the human species with the ability to cope effectively with the crucial aspects of existence knowing, behaving purposefully, planning, socializing, and communicating. Clearly, then, one of the primary tasks of semiotics is to identify and document how discourse unfolds and how it encodes meanings. The purpose of this brief paper is to put forward a principle, as a target for discussion, which is proposed as a framework for studying the meaning flow of discourse. It has been drafted here from previous work (e.g. Danesi 1998) and is based primarily on the kinds of data that have been captured on taped conversations that I have been compiling over a seven-year period (from 1992 to 1999). The conversations caught on these tapes are typical instances of everyday social interactions. Most of the taping was done on the campus of the University of Toronto. It is certainly beyond the scope of the present brief note to provide a detailed breakdown and analysis of the data that these tapes contain. That is the objective of a future study. Here, the aim is simply to present an initial analysis of how meaning flow in discourse is shaped by a syntagmatic chain of signifieds and, thus, to propose the notion that discourse unfolds primarily through a circuitry of connotative meanings through which interlocutors navigate mentally, or so to speak. This principle, therefore, goes counter to classical theories of mean- Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée 3 : 6/7 (1999)

2 Marcel DANESI ing based on the principle that denotation is the primary form of meaningencoding. Discourse Circuits Like an organism, language is a highly adaptive and context-sensitive instrument, susceptible to the subtle connotative nuances that the discourse situation entails. The internal structures of language are pliable entities that are responsive to these nuances. Although there is much leeway in the linguistic choices that can be made to match a function, the choices are not completely open to personal whims. Indeed, speech act theory argues strongly that language is cut out to match each situation with appropriate categories, and that the number of categories is constrained by cultural and historical factors. The claim to be made here is that the choice of language structures in conversations is shaped by a circuitry of connotata. In traditional theories of language, denotation is considered to be the primary shaper of the cognitive flow of meaning during discourse, and connotation only a secondary, context-dependent option within this flow. But this type of dictionary model of meaning yields very little insight into the nature of verbal communication, as the data collected for this study (and the plethora of findings on discourse in general) strongly suggest. What is saliently obvious is that denotationis a limiting point of meaning; i.e. it is the meaning that must be excogitated on purpose in the use of a word or expression. In actual discourse, it is the connotative dimension of structures that guides the navigation of meaning through the discourse situation, a point that Roland Barthes (1957) made persuasively over four decades ago. One connotatum suggests another which, in turn, suggests yet another, and so on. The ability to navigate mentally through these connotative circuits constitutes, arguably, discourse fluency. Someone who studies a foreign language has, initially, little or no access to such circuits, given that language teaching tends to be based on denotative models of meaning, and thus can rarely be a participant in real discourse situations until he or she has acquired the underlying connotative maps that chart the flow of meaning in discourse. Michel Foucault (1972) characterized such circuits as consisting of an endless interrelated fabric in which the boundaries of meanings are never clear-cut. Every signifier is caught up in a system of references to other signifiers, to codes, and to texts; 98 AS/SA

3 The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotics Analysis of Discourse it is a node within a network of distributed signifieds. As soon as one questions that unity, it loses its self-evidence; it indicates itself. To extract meaning from a discourse act, one must have knowledge of this network and of the connotative signifieds that constitute it. The data collected on the tapes reveal that the main type of connotative signified in discourse circuits is metaphorical. In their widely-known 1980 work, Lakoff and Johnson, call such signifieds conceptual metaphors. For example, the expression The professor is a snake is really a token of something more general, namely, people are animals. This is why we say that John or Mary or whoever is a snake, gorilla, pig, puppy, and so on. Each specific metaphor ( John is a gorilla, Mary is a snake, etc.) is not an isolated example of poetic fancy. It is really a manifestation of a more general metaphorical idea people are animals. Such formulas are what Lakoff and Johnson call conceptual metaphors: Figure 1 The following brief stretch of conversation between two students (captured on one of the tapes) shows how this metaphorical signified shaped the pathways of one of the circuits of their conversation: Student 1: You know, that prof is a real snake. Student 2: Ya, I know, he s a real slippery guy. Student 1: He somehow always knows how to slide around a tough thing. Student 2: Keep away from his courses; he bites! The circuit that this signified triggered in that conversation can be represented as follows: o Vol. 3 (N 6/7) 99

4 Marcel DANESI Figure 2 An analysis of most conversation shows that verbal communication consists of arrays of such mini-circuits that are somehow seen as leading to an overall meaning source or purpose to a specific conversation. Often the circuit is made up of a series of metaphorical signifieds, which are interconnected to each other in the discourse pathway. In one conversation about ideas, an interlocutor made use of the following metaphorical signifieds: [ideas are visualizable] Typical examples: 1. I can t see the point of your ideas. 2. What is your point of view? 3. Can you visualize what I am saying? 4. How do you view what he just said? 5. I glanced over that new theory. 100 AS/SA

5 The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotics Analysis of Discourse [ideas are food] Typical examples: 1. Those ideas left a sour taste in my mouth. 2. Its hard to digest all those ideas at once. 3. Even though he is a voracious reader; he can t chew all those ideas. 4. That teacher is always spoonfeeding her students. 5. That idea has deep roots. [ideas are persons] Typical examples: 1. Darwin is the father of modern biology. 2. Those medieval ideas continue to live on even today. 3. Cognitive linguistics is still in its infancy. 4. Maybe we should resurrect that ancient idea. 5. She breathed new life into that idea. [ideas are fashion] Typical examples: 1. That idea went out of style several years ago. 2. Those scientists are the avant-garde of their field. 3. Those revolutionary ideas are no longer in vogue. 4. Semiotics has become truly chic. 5. That idea is an old hat. o Vol. 3 (N 6/7) 101

6 Marcel DANESI The interlocutor in question uttered the following statement: I do not see how anyone can swallow your ideas, especially since most of them have gone out of fashion, and thus are dying. The circuit that his statement entails can be represented as follows: Figure 3 Metaphorical signifieds are not the only ones found in the discourse data. Often the simple connotations of words are the triggers that set off a circuit navigation. The word cat, for instance, does not refer to a specific cat, but to the category of animals that we recognize as having the quality catness, namely a prototypical mental picture marked by distinctive features such as [mammal], [retractile claws], [long tail], etc. This image is extended, by connotation, to encompass other kinds of referents that appear, by association or analogy, to have something in common with it. These are embedded into discourse circuits. This is why, for instance, a devotee of jazz music was referred to as a cool cat whose music purrs wonderfully in one of the conversations captured on tape. Finally, a third type of connotative signified can be fleshed out of the discourse circuits captured on the tapes. This can be called a mythic signified 102 AS/SA

7 The Interconnectedness Principle and the Semiotics Analysis of Discourse and can be defined as a connotation derived from mythic themes, characters, and settings. Thus the mythic theme of good vs. evil is a signified that influences, for instance, the perception of sports events, whereby the home team = the good and the visiting team = the bad. In one conversation, an interlocutor referred to a colleague as someone who has fallen into disgrace, an expression triggered by the mythic signified that comes from the story of Adam and Eve. Concluding Remarks The main implication for the study of discourse that crystallizes from the interconnectedness principle is that the meaning of a conversation is determinable in terms of circuits that are interconnected connotatively to each other. This principle thus provides a framework for relating what would appear to be disparate and heterogeneous stretches of conversation to each other. The connotative circuits of conversation provide the conceptual maps that keep discourse acts meaningful. Conversation is apparently a mental journey that leads to various places according to the situation and to the interlocutors, but all within the same connotative map space. The interconnectedness principle is not new. It has been identified in various ways, and with differing terminological guises, in the relevant literature. I have offered it here as synthetic statement to make it testable for use in further research on discourse. What it attempts to make clear is that systems of representation are not based on literal-denotative, but rather on the subjective paths that connotative circuits entail. Unlike a machine, a human being can construct models of meaning in the very process of making them. Most of these are socially motivated. As McNeill (1987: 263) aptly puts it, We become linguistically conscious by mentally simulating social experience. o Vol. 3 (N 6/7) 103

8 Marcel DANESI Bibliography Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. Paris: Seuil. Danesi, M. (1998). Sign, Thought, and Culture. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press. Danesi, M. and Perron, P. (1999). Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. McNeill, D. (1987). Psycholinguistics: A New Approach. New York: Harper and Row. 104 AS/SA

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