Thursday, October 06, 2005

Questioning the graphic nature of cartography

A copy (click to enlarge) of al-Idrisi's "world map" from his Nuzhat al-Mushtaq
(We don't have left any autographed manuscripts of Nuzhat al-Mushtaq by al-Idrisi or even by copiers from his time that is before his death in 1166. All known "al-Idrisi's Maps" should be always viewed as the copies and reproductions of other cartographers eventhough they usually seem similar. In other words, they are later independent works tracing the steps of a long cartographic tradition throughout the late medieval period. This is not, however, how they are usually portrayed)
Notes on Semiotics, Semiology, and Cartography:

The main theoretical work up-to-date on cartography still Jacques Bertin’s 1967 La Semiologie Graphique. In other words the methodological problems have been set from the beginning on the basis of a single methodology. Still, I think, the most serious problem with this “beginning” lies elsewhere: Bertin’s way of applying semiology to cartography. His (questionable) understanding of semiology.

He advances from the start the following formulas: there are three forms of representations whatever is the form of perception (that is either vocal or visual): first, “monosemic” signs, which includes mathematics and graphic (including cartographic) signs; second, “polysemic” signs, which includes language and “figurative images”; third, “panesemic” signs including music and “abstract images”. The major distinction according to him is between the two first categories: whereas the monosemic signs stand as postulaes that obvious by themselves (do not need an external referent) the polysemic signs depends on external references. The panasemic signs, however, are the most extreme form of dependence on external signs by trying to negate that very relationship (“abstract images”).

Many problems rise from the above principles (....)

These questions are further justified when digging in the actual definition of semiology. The following are my notes on the article “Semiotics” (in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (vol.8): pp. 85-109), (....)
1-Defining the field:
-After “The First Congress of the International Association for Semiotics, which took place in Milan in 1974” Culler (a major spokesperson of this field: articles by the end of 1970s and early 1980s) concluded “Semiotics, the science of signs [became] something to be reckoned with, even for those who [rejected] it as a Gallic or a technological obfuscation”: it looks like a “negative vote”… just something to avoid the others (structuralism, new criticism…)
-Perhaps a more helpful explanation of the position of semiotics with regards to the other approaches is made by Burgin (End of Art Theory). His is worth quoting in its entirety:
“Within the area of theory today the term ‘semiology’ is most commonly used to refer to the early approach, with its almost exclusive emphasis on (Saussaurian) linguistics; the word ‘semiotics’ is now most usual to designate the ever-changing field of cross-disciplinary studies whose common focus is on the general phenomenon of meaning in society. (Other more or less equivalent, expressions for its content forms include: ‘textual semiotics’, ‘deconstructive analysis’, and ‘post-structuralist criticism’.)” Still this is more confusing: it was semiology that crosses the lines and was applied (pretty early: 1967) to the theorization of cartography (Jacques Bertin’s Semiologie Graphique).
-More on the “shift” from semiology to semiotics “For him [Wollen a British critics], this can be located precisely in the aftermath of the May 1968 events in France, and the attempts by the Tel Quel group ‘to bring semiotics, Marxism and psychoanalysis into one field of discourse.’.”
-It is not that semiotics contradicted semiology it was more of a specific form of its persistence by the beginning of the 1970s: Roland Barthes is an “exemplary figure” since he laid out the basics of semiology (Elements of Semiology: 1964) and was a leading figure in the next phase (Sade, Fourier, Loyola: 1971)

2-Historical antecedents:
-Todorov and Umberto Eco, among the major semiotics critics, reflect the overwhelming interesxt in the historical genealogy: examples of their investigations.,
- Todorov (Occidental semiotics) focused among others on the Stoics (Stoicism was one of the new philosophical movements of the Hellenistic period… The Stoics hold that emotions like fear or envy either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage--a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection--would not undergo them). Todorov quoted one of their opponents who said that they say: “three things are linked together: the signfied, the signifier, and the object.”
-St Augustine is seen as another paternal figure even more important than the others for bringing (through Hermeneutics: Biblical exgesis/interpretation) the crucial differentiation between ‘natural’ and ‘intentional’ signs.
-The Saussurian early definition (earliest? If we say conscious definition) in 1915 “a science that studies the life of signs within society… I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion/sign)… Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semioliogy” But since Saussure practiced linguistics more than anything else he provoked the everlasting discussion over the problem of which is part of the other: linguistics or semiology. Barthes seems to have grasped in a contradictory way this contradiction between the theory and the practice of semiology when he says in his Elements of Semiology “it is semiology that is part of linguistics”… later he would practice semiology by leaving linguistics behind (his 1970 S/Z) that is making, in effect, linguistics part of semiology.
-At the other end the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce who once said almost “everything is a sign” was advancing from exactly the opposite venue: a generic approach mostly based on speculation (as opposed to the empiric linguistic approach of Saussure) that finally ended up with “59,049 different types of signs”. But his legacy has provided the non-linguistic fields including the visual arts a way to “avoid the taint of linguistic imperialism that may infect the semiological (Saussaurian) analysis of art”… especially Peirce’s following trichotomy: “which divides signs into icons (relating to their referent by resemblance), symbols (relating by convention), and indices (relating existentially, as ‘traces’)…. THIS IS CLEARLY A MAJOR BREAK FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE VISUAL MATERIALS THOUGH IT NEEDS MORE PRECISION…. A FUNCTIONAL APPLICATION ON CARTOGRAPHIC REPRESENTATION COULD BE THE DIFFERENTIATION THAT MUST HAPPEN BETWEEN PRE-MODERN (icons) AND MODERN (symbols) CARTOGRAPHIC SIGNS, WHICH IS NEGLECTED BY Bertin… THE IDEA OF A LINGUISTIC IMPERIALISM IS A VIABLE IDEA FOR A PRE-SEMIOTICS (PRE-1970) THAT IS SEMIOLOGICAL APPROACH LIKE Bertin’s.
-Other paternal figures (mentioned by Culler) include Neo-Kantians’ contributions such as Cassirer’s The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923-31) and Langer’s Philosophy in a new key (1942)… Marx and Durkehim’s analasys of the ideological and social structures and their effect on the unconscious are also mentioned…
-The actual birth of the term (semiotics) was in a 1962 article by an anthropologist (Margaret Mead) on the rhyme of other words like ‘mathematics’ and ‘ethics’…
-The Prague Formalist School during the 1930s (most notably Mukarovsky) is being recognized as the first to break away from the linguistic exclusivity of the semiological approach….and to apply it to fields that “extended from studies of costumes, folk songs and folk theatre, to cinema, poetry, the novel and the visual arts”. This explains the resurgence of Mukarovsky (especially his ‘Art as a semiological fact’) among later art historians (including the well spread Norman Bryson’s 1988 collection of articles Calligram).

3-Semiotic Practice: film and the visual arts
-In Cinema: the major contribution is the French scholar Christian Metz’s 1967 Film Language in which he argues for the possibility of uncovering a cinema grammar by the process of ‘large syntagmatic category’ (Grande Syntagmatique), which permits the “isolation of ‘autonomous segments’” though “not for granted”. Metz’s influence crossed the Atlantic as the major first American essay of cinema semiotics shows (Screen special articles by Stephen Heath).
-The visual arts “less easy to trace”… One reason is the fact linguistic analysis with the semiotic approach was already applied through the special influence that Cassirer had over Panofsky since the latter’s 1920s writings… here the critics always focus on the problem of the disconnection between the theoretical ideal developed by Panofsky (the last phase of the Iconological approach) and the practice, which seems to have spread among art historians exclusively an iconographic approach.
-The actual radical semiological approach was later: Jean-Louis Schefer’s 1969 Scenographie d’un Tableau (focusing on a single painting Paris Bordone’s Game of Chess); the writings of another French art historian Hubert Damisch Theorie de Nuage (1972) and his much later L’Origine de la Perspective (1987); Meyer Schapiro’s 1966 lecture turned into an article ‘Field and Vehicule’ (Semiotica in 1969 and the French Critique in 1973) fused with Peircian approach and shows a conversely interaction between the two sides of the Atlantic, Schapiro main focus was “the non-mimetic features which help to determine the constitution of the iconic sign—such features as framing, relations between high and low, left and right”; Schapiro extended his approaches in the larger essay (book) Words and Pictures (1973); other articles in the same issue of Critique (1973) which was a special number about “Histoire/Theorie de l’Art” tending to take profit from Schapiro’s methodology and challenging Panofsky’s iconographic approach even in a direct form (Jean-Claude Lebensztejn’s ‘Un Tableau de Titien’); Bryson’s works in the 1980s including his 1983 Vision and Painting and obviously the aforementioned editing of a collection of articles (Calligram); the role of October and especially the writing of Roslaind Krauss using openly the Peircian approach in her ‘Notes on the index’ opened the door for a series of studies professing semiotics in contemporary art.