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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, March 8, 2018

SIGNMAKING AND WORLDBUILDING

I concluded Part 3 of ARCHETYPE AND ARTIFICE  with this statement:

it stands to reason that artifice as a mode embraces both simple variables ("stereotypes") and complex variables ("archetypes.")

I followed up this distinction in Part 4:

I may have on occasion connected "affective freedom" with the author's ability to generate discourses of symbolic complexity, but if I have done so, this would be a mistake. "Affective freedom," rather, stems from the author's intention to privilege the tropes from the domain of literary artifice over tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude, and that freedom can be found in any uncanny or marvelous work, regardless of its symbolic complexity, a.k.a. "mythicity." 
Although both of these are abstract conceptions, the best way to figure out how they work is to treat them as if they were physical objects, able to be broken down into their constituent parts.

Archetypes, both in their Jungian and Fryean conceptions, stand outside the realm of the semiotics disciplines of Saussure, Pierce and Morris. Yet clearly many ideas from semiotics coincide with those of archetypal psychology and "myth criticism." Frye's concept of simple and complex variables sounds a lot like Morris's distinction between straightforward "signals" and more involved "symbols," and they both also resemble Wheelwright's arguments for a spectrum of language ranging from the *monosignative,* or "denotative," to the *plurisignative,* or "connotative." So even though the term"archetype" may have special usages, it's not hard to see that it bears a strong relation to semiotics, the study of signs, even though Jung probably would not agree that an archetype reduces down to a linguistic sign.

"Artifice," however, cannot reduce down to something as elementary as a "sign." I said that it lined up with an author's intention to privilege tropes peculiar to literary expression than to "tropes that signify adherence to worldly verisimilitude." My use of "trope" is probably closest to the definition cited at Dictionary.com:

any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and
irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.

Within a naturalistic phenomenality, the author must always privilege verisimilitude, though it's always possible to bend the rules of the strictly probable to suit the audience. The 'birth-mystery plot" from Dickens' OLIVER TWIST is an artifice designed to begin the main character's life without any of the familial support that most children receive in their upbringing. Nothing that happens in the early chapters of the novel is purely outside the domain of the naturalistic, in which, as I've said before, reality is both coherent and intelligible. Yet, once Dickens has generated the maximum pathos from his character's plight, the author bends the rules so that Oliver's first, Fagin-inspired attempt to burgle a house puts him in contact with the character of Rose, who just happens to be Oliver's long-lost aunt. At the same time, Dickens must use a certain amount of verisimilitude in setting up the situation-- for instance, Fagin's gang must have good reason to think that the house is worth robbing. There's some artifice in Oliver's deliverance from the hardships resulting from the mystery of his origins, but not enough to render it "anti-intelligible--" and further, all the "literary or rhetorical devices" Dickens uses, whether allied to artifice or to verisimilitude, should all be seen as tropes.



So, whereas archetypes can be seen as related to, or identical with, those atomistic entities we call "signs," both the artifice-mode and the verisimilitude-mode are related to those "molecular entities" built up from the sign-atoms. Jung probably did not use the term "trope" back in his day, but in some essays he did use "motif" as a more neutral term than archetype, and I imagine that for him "motif" carried the same meaning that "trope" does for readers today.

One scholar whom Jung influenced, Joseph Campbell, was attracted to the use of the term "signs," though his orientation seems more toward ethology than semiotics. In this early essay, I hazarded a parallel between Campbell's concept of supernormal signs and Frye's concept of complex variables:

For the purpose of this argument I'll assume that though Campbell's "supernormal sign stimuli" don't share the same philosophical etiology as Frye's "complex variables," the two writers are essentially talking about the same thing: the power of certain signs to evoke far stronger responses-- affective and perhaps cognitive as well-- than do their opposite numbers: "normal sign stimuli" and "simple variables." Both Campbell and Frye frequently addressed the interpenetration of art and myth, though naturally each man hewed to his specialty.

However, of late I've been doubting that "supernormal signs" are adequate for talking about either Fryean or Jungian archetypes. Ethologists evolved the notion of such signs for talking about the instincts of lower animals, to better understand how, to use one of Campbell's examples, a newborn chick might fear the image of a hawk even though the newborn has never seen a hawk before. But most lower animals are not able to respond to images or motifs beyond the level of the simple "sign." In contrast, as soon as human beings were able to formulate language, and to begin the long process of symbolic elaboration seen in culture, they took the step into the domain of the pure symbol. The images we see in early man's cave-paintings may vary between sign and symbol, but by the time we see an image as elaborate as "The Sorcerer" from Trois-Freres, we're probably not dealing with a simple sign, but with a "molecular" trope built up from many "atomistic" signs. Thus I would say that as a rule, there are no "supernormal signs" in human culture, only "supernormal tropes."



A partial exception is suggested by this passage from Philip Wheelwright, last printed here:

Certain particulars have more of an archetypal content than others; that is to say, they are 'eminent instances' which stand forth in a characteristic amplitude as representatives of many others; they enclose in themselves a certain totality, arranged in a certain way, stirring in the soul something at once familiar and strange, and thus outwardly as well as inwardly they lay claim to a certain unity and generality.-- FOUNTAIN, p. 54.

I gave my own example of both an "eminent instance" and its "non-eminent" relation:

It's true that one cannot say, in any meaningful context, that real eagles are more important, more significant, than real mudlarks. However, in any symbolic universe the symbolic (or gestural) eagle is worth more than the symbolic/gestural mudlark. 

And yet, by the end of the essay, I've noted that the richness of the symbolic eagle is still something that resulted from an ongoing process:

The concept of complexity, which suggests an "eminent instance" with a huge accretion of associations, not unlike the outer periphery of a black hole:
In short, then-- Tropes, good. Signs, not as good.

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