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A Semiotic Framework for the Social Imaginary


Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciências da Comunicação,
Unisinos (Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos),
São Leopoldo, RS, Brasil

ABSTRACT: The paper is an attempt to provide a semiotic or sociosemiotic basis for the much used notion of «social imaginary». A frequent notion in the writings on the social sciences, the social imaginary can benefit from a more strict characterization. The triadic model of sign action or semiosis elaborated by C.S. Peirce is ideally suited for that theoretical framework. Castoriadis’s notion of social imaginary is criticized, and some concrete examples are given of how a semiotic-based concept can account for some important social phenomena, namely the representations of mass media in relation to a country’s hegemonic ideology.


Theoretical terms do not escape the fate of other more earthly and tangible goods: their star rises and falls according to fashion. There are indications that for some time now THE SOCIAL IMAGINARY (henceforth, SI) has occupied a central place in some of the recent literature of the social sciences in Europe and Latin America. A quick look at recent publications in sociology, history and political science will bring an abundance of titles such as "The workers' imaginary in industrial cities (1890-1913)".1 A first doubt arises: is SI a new concept or just an old one in new garb? The so called death of ideologies may account for the strategical need to find some valid substitute for the worn out and no longer attractive concept of 'ideology'. There is some evidence that this could be the case, a sort of lift up job of a traditional approach to society.2

This paper, however, will explore the first alternative: in spite of some common concerns with classic studies of ideology or even 'mentality',3 there is some evidence that we are facing a new comer to the field. The influential writings of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis4 on SI have started a lively discussion, even a new perspective for the study of society. In spite of the many interesting roads opened up by this provocative concept, there are many problems in accepting the theory behind SI. Peircean triadic phenomenology, his phaneroscopy, is postulated here as a more complex and suitable theoretical environment wherein to develop and account for some of the valuable implications of SI. Thus I hope to advance in the construction of a possible sociosemiotic. The paper ends with a brief consideration of SI in the light of two concrete cases drawn from the transition from dictatorship towards democracy (1973-1984) in what was called the first Welfare State of Latin America, Uruguay.


So the social principle is rooted intrinsically in logic. (5.354)5

A full characterization of SI should deal with both of its defining aspects, that related to the imagination proper ('imaginary'), and the collective dimension ('social') which qualifies the former. Of the many definitions to be found in the work of Castoriadis, the following provides a suitable entry for such a discussion:

I call imaginary those significations because they do not correspond to "rational" or "real" elements and they are not sufficiently dealt with in reference to them, but they come into being by creation, and I call them social since they only exist as instituted and as an object of participation of an impersonal and anonymous collective entity. (1986:68 emphasis mine)6
Prominent in this definition are 'the imaginary social significations', according to Castoriadis they constitute a key aspect of SI, its representative power. He further specifies that this mode of semiotic creativity characterizes the very being of history - as opposed to the material dimension:
But creation, as the work of the social imaginary of the instituting society (societas instituens, not societas instituta), is the mode of being of the socio-historical realm. Society is self-creation which unfolds (itself) as history. (1986:73)
Two dimensions then can be clearly elicited from this definition of SI: its scope (=social) and its nature (= semiotic capacity). I shall present now both aspects and their relationship to Peircean semiotic in some detail.
Max Weber's influence on Castoriadis is visible and acknowledged.7 Thus the latter's emphasis that 'man only exists in society and by society' (1986:66) or that 'the opposition between individual and society is a total fallacy' (1990:52). In the same vein, Castoriadis rejects marxism as a form of 'functionalism', a vision he accuses of considering 'society as a collection or gathering of individuals (...) while both individuals and things are social creations' (1986:66). For Castoriadis human imagination can only be studied in its natural, that is, social environment. What remains outside of it is just the animal part of man, or, at any rate, something that cannot become a legitimate object of the social sciences. The parallelism with Peirce on this point, mutatis mutandis, is again striking.
In his presentation of phaneroscopy, Peirce highlights both its formal and its social nature, the latter being a kind of corollary of the former. He characterizes the phaneron, phaneroscopy's object, as 'the collective total ... present to the mind' (1.284). Its social nature is made explicit when Peirce forwards an answer to a possible question regarding whose mind he refers to:
If you ask to whose mind, I reply...(I never entertained) a doubt that those features of the phaneron that I have found in my mind are present at all times and to all minds. (1.284, emphasis mine)
A few years later, in one of his last definitions of the sign, Peirce makes it quite clear that signs are a social instrument, and semiosis a collective affair:
A Sign has for its Object some fragment of history, that is, of history of ideas. (Ms 849, 1911)8
Therefore, Castoriadis and Peirce describe a non-individual sort of entity: both SI as an account of human creativity, and Firstness, the phaneron's mode of being which accounts for the possible in human experience, respectively, are construed as pertaining to the community.
Let us now turn to the second definiens of SI, the one dealing with its semiotic capacity for conceiving the new, or, as Castoriadis says, for 'instituting' the social. Not only or mainly a stock or Thesaurus of mental images,9 SI is presented as a power to bring forth what is not to be found in the previous social context. The concept is proposed by Castoriadis as an answer to the central question 'what brings forth new and different forms of society?' (1986:66):
The central (imaginary) significations are not significations "of" something, neither are they significations "added to" or "referred to" something. (1975: 320)
'Radical'10 often replaces 'social' as an attribute of 'imaginary' in Castoriadis. From the above description, I believe 'radical' should be construed as totally autonomous. Again, the phaneroscopic category of firstness apparently meets this description:
The quality in itself is a Firstness, a new possibility. The relation of inherence does not change the quality in itself, but merely imparts to it existence.11
To sum up Castoriadis' characterization, SI is

      a) Capable of Semiotic creativity

      b) Radically opposed to the Socially Instituted

      c) Absolute or autonomous

I now propose to consider critically these three central features of SI in the light of the three phaneroscopic categories for analysing the universal modes of being. My approach involves the 'development from within' or 'mingling' of the categories,12 that is, their recursive application to themselves.

In the Lowell Lectures of 1903, Peirce speaks of three kinds of firstness, each being the result of exhaustively applying this category to the whole set. Thus he attains the 'purest conceptions' or Primity, Secundity and Tertiality (1.533). In their less abstract manifestation, that is, considering them as modes of experience, Peirce calls them 'quality, existence and mentality'. They correspond to each of the three features which define SI. 'Mentality', one of Peirce's term for the Firstness of Thirdness captures well the semio-poietic aspect of SI:
thought in its capacity as mere possibility... mere mind capable of thinking... (1.537, emphasis mine)
Castoriadis insistently poses SI as an irreconcilable antagonist of the socially instituted, i.e., as the material and already legitimized aspects of society. The latter could be construed as reaction or 'existence', the Firstness of Secondness, minus the polemical dimension so central in Castoriadis' theory, i.e., as the sheer actualization of the possible:
'the general Firstness of all true Secondness is existence' (1.532)
Last, in order to account for the autonomy of SI, we have the category at its most abstract or 'pure Firstness', the subject considered
'positively such as it is, regardless of aught else (...) only a positive qualitative possibility' (1.25).
But what is the point of this matching and reconciling operation? Just a neat arrangement to conclude both Peirce and Castoriadis are talking about the same, but use a different terminology? Far from such a superfluous exercise, I propose to construe SI as constituted of three aspects or phaneroscopic dimensions.13 The advantage of this approach over Castoriadis' absolutist, non-relational model of society is clear. Below I attempt to deconstruct in Derridean fashion Castoriadis' apparent dyad into a monad: the only "true" realm being SI. Before that, and to show the main flaw of the theory of SI , I want to present some of the conclusions at which M. Balat arrives when he compares Peirce's triad to Lacan's imaginary-real-symbolic.
Balat (1992: 106) draws a convincing parallelism between psychoanalysis and semiotic; in both theories each category is already present as a possibility in the other two:
(Firstness) is not pure form, but form already "worked upon" by the other two instances. The three categories of Peirce (correspond with) the originality of the primordial form, the obsistence of objectivation, and the transuasion of language.
For Balat there is an homology between semiotic Firstness and psychoanalytic Imaginary. Both are three-in-one conceptions: each is a 'matrix' which bears 'in germ' the other two categories. Instead of talking of one category, SI, pitted against the other, as in Castoriadis' (pseudo) dichotomy, I propose the necessary interplay of three categories: mentality, reaction and qualitative possibility. Castoriadis (1975:308-12) speaks of 'capitalism's imaginary social signification' as being something different from and opposed to capitalists, actual machines and market laws. In a similar vein, Peirce talks of the 'total feeling' or 'flavour' of the King Lear tragedy, as an illustration of 'universal Firstness', something which is to be found neither in the actual dramatic experience nor in the language of the play. The two examples seem to refer to the same concept. However, the semiotician insists throughout his vast work that the structure of experience is made up of three and no less than three dimensions, and the three are equally important and central to semiosis. For Castoriadis 'difference' means radical "confrontation." This leads me to another apparent point in common between the two models, which also turns out to be a substantial difference.


Nothing separates me more surely from that unreal object: the imaginary world is entirely isolated, I cannot penetrate in it except by becoming unreal.
(Sartre, 1940:253 emphasis mine)

Just like Peirce, Castoriadis (1986:152) explicitly disclaims all ontological commitments, those that lead Sartre, for example, to reject the imaginary realm because it is 'unreal and inexistent':
Phaneroscopy is the description of the phaneron... the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind quite regardless of whether it corresponds to any real thing or not. (1.284, emphasis mine)14
Ironically, it is Castoriadis' unacknowledged ontological commitment which accounts for the main flaw of SI as a sociosemiotic model. To prove this, I must make a short digression.
To understand the full purport of SI, we must place it in the light of an old intellectual controversy on the power, good or evil, of images, a field that a recent study called 'iconology'.15 The larger-than-life, even titanic aura around SI in Castoriadis' descriptions should be read as a reaction to the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre in a book-long study which precisely bears the title of The imaginary.16 Sartre's basic contention is that what he calls 'l'imaginaire' is to be blamed for much that is inauthentic, false and even perverse in human life, as the following eloquent description shows:
We can distinguish two classes of feelings: the true feelings and the imaginary ones. The latter are unreal and only appear in front of unreal objects, and the apparition of the real ones is sufficient to make them run away, just like the sun clears the shadows of the night. (1940:280)
The French thinker's damning account of mental images makes him a fervent iconoclast. Besides, he approaches the issue as something pertaining to the individual, not to society. This is the exact reversal of Peirce's own account of the effect of mental images on human action, as we shall see later. What in Sartre is helplessness to deal with reality or bad faith,17 constitutes the very engine for any possible change, for the semiotician. More recent notions such as 'the effect of the real' and 'the illusion of a direct renvoi to reality',18 attributed to images or to the iconic domain, can be read as later days avatars of Sartre's iconoclasm. Such conceptions bespeak of a fascinating but treacherous legerdemain imputed to images and to what can be imagined through them. The seduction of the (supra) sensual is thus morally opposed to the reasonable persuasion of the logical and the reassuring sturdiness of the real.
At first sight, Castoriadis' own position about the imaginary seems to be closer to Peirce on this point, but his fervent iconophilia,19 leads him to a monadic vision that is quite alien to the Peircean triadic epistemology. Actually, SI is presented in the guise of a true hero embattled against society's reactionary reified ways, namely 'instituted society'. This is the direct outcome of Castoriadis' rejection of a central semiotic concept, that of determination.20

Essentially, the imagination is rebellious to determination. (The already instituted) conditions and limits it - but it does not determine it. (1988: 150)21

It is at this point that Peirce and Castoriadis part ways. Firstness and SI do have many points in common, which we could sum up in their poietic and autonomous nature. To define Firstness as those 'qualities themselves which, in themselves, (are) mere may-bes, not necessarily realized' (1.304) does not imply to forswear, however, 'some determination, otherwise we shall think nothing at all' (1.303). Determination, then, is not contradictory but complementary with the kind of cooperative action Peirce called "semiosis":

an action or influence, which is or involves the cooperation of three subjects (...) such a tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs. (5.484)

While semiosis involves a network of relationships without which it just would not make sense, in both senses of the term - it would not be able to generate meaning, and it would be alien to Peircean relational semiotics - Castoriadis' SI relies on a pollemical or dualistic model. From the perspective of such a model, life in society is an either/or duel between the positive forces of the radical imagination or SI, on the one hand, and its reified and antagonistic products on the other. This has a familiar look: it is G.Vico's verum factum principle revisited in the dark light of Orwellian social dystopia. My assumption accounts for Castoriadis' many references throughout his work to 'the concealment of' SI or to its 'total and flagrant occultation' by philosophy. This conspiracy usually bears the name of 'traditional ontology', its principal instrument (weapon?) being 'the fundamental hypercategory of determination (Greek peras, German Bestimmheit)' (1986:65).
Far from being an obstacle to emancipation or the source of human stagnation, determination is what makes semiosis evolve:
A Sign is a Cognizable that, on the one hand is so determined (that is specialized, bestimmt) by something other than itself, called its Object, while on the other hand, it so determines some actual or potential Mind... (8.177)22
It is not very hard to deconstruct Castoriadis' apparent binarism into its underlying monad:23 all the power to the (radical) imagination. Against what Castoriadis states, his reductionistic model has, in fact, room for only one element, SI, the 'instituting force'; the rest is nothing but its shadow or, better still, nemesis - the very role imputed to the imaginary by Sartre. In Castoriadis' model, the instituted is conceived of as the negative moment of the social. The new to come and the already established in society are 'winter-locked brothers', to use Dylan Thomas's powerful expression for a deadly fraternal stalemate 24
What Castoriadis has in mind, actually, is not determination, the process whereby signs grow and reference of one sign to another results, but determinism which, indeed does lead to the abolition of time and change, as Castoriadis fears.25 By conflating Secondness - experience and facts or teukhein, Castoriadis' (1975: 315) term for the instrumental or technical domain, with Thirdness, his legein, as the dimension of representation and speech (Ibid) in a single realm, the instituted or reified society cut off from SI, we end up with a pollemical and rigid binary framework that pursues the imposition of one term over the other. It is this non-relational scheme and not determination which disavows time and change.
What is then the crucial difference between considering as Peirce does, that which is not related to anything else, namely Firstness, and that which being radical and autonomous is alien to any determination, namely SI? The answer is prescision, the kind of logical analysis Peirce borrows from Duns Scotus for his phaneroscopy.26 After postulating the triadic structure as inseparable from the structure of the phaneron, Peirce considers the three essential elements of any form of semiosis at its most abstract, just A, B and C:
There must be one of the three, at least say C, which establishes a relation between the other two, A and B. The result is that A and B are in a dyadic relation, and C may be ignored, even if it cannot be supposed absent. (Ms 908)
The difference then is that which exists between pretending something is not there for the sake of analysis (prescision), 'our imagination (being only) constrained by the reality of the phaneron',27 and claiming that there is only one true or authentic social force, SI, while the rest is sheer antagonism to it. Thus an ontological claim has gotten in through Castoriadis' back door: the absolute hegemony of SI over everything else in society. The actual existing institutions and their generality or legitimacy are forced together in a single dimension, the inevitable and antagonistic forces of the instituted. This is what separates Peircean mobile semiotic from Castoriadis' static social theory. The former respects Ockham's razor: it does not need to include any kind of supremacy to account for the production of new information in society. Neither does it call for the supposition of a conspiracy of silence over the ways of SI.
My next step will involve a demonstration of the adequacy of the triadic model to account for changing society, conceived as an endless journey from the hardened preconceptions of experience to the reasonable realm of verisimilitude through the fragile ('airy nothingness') realm of dreams.


'Einmal ist keinmal'
(German proverb)

Peirce takes us in a guided tour through the kitchen of his semiotic, there he gives us a recipe for wishing, asking, preparing and eventually getting an apple pie, which is also a recipe for understanding the working of phaneroscopy. Thus, we witness the semiotic process whereby the possible, the actual and the general work together to produce sense.

It all starts with a quite simple craving expressed in a not so simple manner:'An apple pie is desired' (1.341).28 Why use the marked syntax, the passive, instead of the much more obvious and unmarked active form, e.g. I desire an apple pie? The passive voice, I think, is central for Peirce's purpose here. The absent, and thus unmarked, passive subject of that sentence - by me or by somebody - points to the presence of a collective, anonymous semiotic agent, what Aristotle called doxa.29 So the sentence could be paraphrased thus: It is well seen or completely legitimate to desire an apple pie (and not a snake pudding, for instance). Desire is thus presented as a form of Thirdness or generality, the explicit topic of the whole paragraph. In an apparent contradiction to the very formula he uses ('an apple pie') and to common sense, Peirce deems it impossible to desire anything as an absolute singularity, 'we seldom, probably never desire a single individual thing'. What we obtain as a result of that desire is, he adds, 'a certain pleasure of a certain kind.'
Thus Peirce links 'desire' and 'generality' in a strong way. "Desire" in this technical sense appears to be what elsewhere he calls the social 'endorsement'30 or convalidation of what may be recognized or acknowledged as a demand. We can desire anything but not every thing in the same way. Even a debauchee like the Marquis de Sade, just like any black mass acolyte, knows well that in order to infringe a ritual one must be a thorough and knowledgeable, even if renegade or questionable, performer of that very ritual. Otherwise it is not out of perversion but out of sheer ignorance that one behaves in that peculiar fashion (wild orgies or inverted crosses). To desire the unlawful one must be well read in the law, as saint Paul reminds us:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin but by the law... (Saint Paul, Romans, 7:7)
Indeed without the law the desire to sin or to eat an apple pie is 'dead'. To talk of a desire for 'a kind of pleasure' not for a single one, is to describe the (socio)semiotic place from where we formulate all our desires. It is because apple pies are a normal source of (North American) gastronomic delight that one/Peirce feels entitled to ask for them on certain occasions. This concrete circumstance brings us to another phaneroscopic category. Secondness is 'the experience of pleasure' which is a once only sort of event, i.e., the haecceity determined by that particular pastry I ate on a certain occasion. However, that alone is not what allows me to conceive of apple pies as an edible and tempting dessert.
A desire, no matter how legitimate, and solid green apples, are not enough, Peirce's recipe leaves for the last that 'airy nothing' (6.455) which makes the world go round; we are talking about the 'dream of eating' such a pie. Guided by Peirce's desire for a kind of sweetness (a typical pastry), the cook handles 'shocking', i.e., real apples31, but does so to 'realize the dream of eating an apple pie' in him. This 'dream' is Firstness, and as such it lacks 'prominent thirdness, it is utterly irresponsible: it is whatever it pleases'. Instead of opposing this volatile element or pure, unrealized quality to the generality of law (social institutions), as Castoriadis does, Peirce links both realms in a radical manner: 'desire has nothing to do with particulars; it relates to qualities.'
Translated in terms of the triadic sign relation this means that 'an interpretant is simply the addressing of an impression to a concept', as one of the drafts of the "New List" of 1867 puts it.32 The path of semiotic determination (the 'addressing') runs from the manifold of impressions or pure qualities to the unity of a concept or general. Desire refers to these qualities, and thus transitively connects the concrete instances of experience to the concept.


Let us recapitulate our apple pie recipe. Some 'fragment of the history of ideas' (Ms 849), not only the pie as a traditional pastry but also the familiar sensation of appetite at a regular hour and place, i.e., the sign as Secondness determines a range of possible, unrealized qualities, the sign as Firstness. The vision or 'dream' of something or anything sweet constitutes the possibilities to be determined. This airy realm of absolute freedom is steered to a goal: of the myriad ways of satisfying that familiar experience of appetite there is the probable or acceptable manner associated with apple pies (in general). Of course, there is always the possibility of not wanting to eat that (traditional) kind of food. In this tension between the unexpected and innovative and the wholly typical and established way lies what we call (human) freedom.

I foresee an objection to my example: the desire of an apple pie seems to leave us well within the safe boundaries of the wholly acceptable and predictable. Castoriadis' point is precisely that the instituted in society prevents us from imagining new ways, and from even seeing ourselves as capable of excercising that power. There are, however, two instances which come from Peirce's work to help me prove that it is in the cooperation of the categories and the semiotic subjects of the sign that we are to find possible new ways, not in the dyadic confrontation of Firstness and the other two realms fused into one.
On one occasion, Peirce tells us, he must kill time at a railway station. So he starts reading the advertisements on the walls and musing about
different trains and different routes which I never expect to take, merely fancying myself to be in a state of hesitancy. (5.394)
Slight as this imaginative occasion seems,33 Peirce sees in this 'feigned hesitancy' the very same attitude demanded by 'the production of scientific inquiry' (5.394). The gap between the banal and the sublime, when Firstness as an imaginary journey is concerned, seems to be narrow. The possible itineraries traced by 'the firstness of thirdness' or 'mentality' (1.533) may - or may not - play a decisive role at some non-theoretical future occasion, as the next example shows.
Twice Peirce writes about the anecdote of how his brother Herbert, when he was 'scarce more than a child', reacted with astonishing deftness and courage to an accident in his house.34 The explanation the semiotician gives is that his brother had previously imagined that dangerous circumstance. So his behaviour is presented as 'a striking example of a real habit produced by exercises in the imagination' (5.487). Still more central to the argument presented in this paper is Peirce's explicit connexion of the possibilism of imagination (Firstness) with the lawfulness of habit, as a general tendency (Thirdness):
This act of stamping with approval, "endorsing" as one's own, an imaginary line of conduct so that it shall give a general shape to our actual future conduct is what we call a resolve. (5.538, 1902)
Such a process, we are told, is pertinent not so much for the sake of 'practical beliefs' but for theoretical ones. I do not doubt to include among the latter the kind of political engineering we are familiar with since Plato's Republic. Both cases I take to be illustrations of how 'a mere imagination of reacting in a particular way seems to be (...) capable of causing the imagined kind of reaction really to take place' (5.538). There is also an interesting coincidence between Peirce's mental experiments and the role Erving Goffman (1986:277-78) attributes to fictional frames such as the theater or cinema in society. Artistic portrayals of taboo subjects are not to be taken only as symptoms of what goes on in the community - mere reflections of reality - argues Goffman, but as imaginary experiments which actually bring about more tolerance concerning the real situations they depict fictionally.


We shall move now from Peirce's homely culinary backstage to the high power kitchen where Realpolitik is cooked. The leap from Peirce's sweet dream of apple pie to the vision of a new kind of society is bold but feasible. Contrary to appearances, from that domestic realm to the macropolitical scene there is a change in size, not necessarily in structural complexity.

There was once a man who hated bullfights, loved culture and became the democratic leader35 of Latin America's first full fledged welfare State. After his first term as president of Uruguay (1903-1907), José Batlle y Ordóñez (henceforth JBO) was living in Europe, not just waiting for the occasion to run for re-election, but passionately studying the ways of European democracies and how the sociopolitical system of his own country, Uruguay, could be changed in order to resemble all that he considered admirable in the modern nations of the Old World (particularly Switzerland). It is in this mood that he writes a letter to two of his close political allies in Uruguay. In it we can reconstruct the exciting experiences he had had, his dream of a brave new political world and the desire for building it:
I think of what we could do to build a small model country where education is vastly spread, where arts and sciences are cultivated with honour, where ways are mild and refined. (February 7, 1908)
This 'utopist's'36 statement became the very foundation of modern Uruguay's SI, one which in spite of severe economic crisis, a decade of dictatorship, and other social upheavals seems to still enjoy good health, eight decades after JBO's days. Thus was born the realm of mesocracy or the social hegemony of the average, the non-exceptional, a white collar empire of civil servants, doctors and lawyers. The calm exploits of these low key figures have been celebrated over the feats of industrial enterpreneurs, captains of capitalism, or military heroes. Bureaucrats and politicians seem to embody best the mesocratic ideals.
I do not intend to make out of that capable statesman a superhuman figure, one who had in his brain the perfect and final shape of the future country he dreamt of, and which he then single-handedly built. Far from that, what I propose here is a sociosemiotic analysis which accounts for modern Uruguayan ideology as a continuum of permanence and change. As part of such a continuum, JBO's sociopolitical desire became the driving force with which all dreams, individual and collective, had to negotiate to become true (desires). Such a negotiation, I believe, is mostly unconscious, like many other semiosic acts which 'sink into consciousness' and thus become 'automatized and mindless', as Merrell (1991:10) rightly asserts. Thus the strength but also the flaws of Castoriadis' model and the convenience of the phaneroscopic categories as the basis of an alternative one will become apparent. Instead of the reductionistic dichotomy of an oppressive instituted social realm opposed to what may still be imagined or dreamt of, I appeal to a triadic model. In it to move from Secondness - what has been, the semiotic Object as everybody's archeology - to Thirdness - what will be as habit or tendency - necessarily involves crossing the domain of 'irresponsible' vision, which furnishes a global, 'tout ensemble' emotional tone to life in society. Two examples will help me to illustrate this constant although not conscious process whereby JBO's legacy is reshaped and even reinvented in Uruguayan society.
By 1980, the Uruguayan military had not only broken brutally with the legitimate order of mesocracy dreamt of by JBO, but were ruling a financially successful country. 37 Still, they deemed it necessary to have an election, actually a plebiscite, in order to change the constitution and make their presence in power legitimate. What was the need, one could ask, since they were absolute and efficient, albeit ruthless, rulers?38 Only the fully 'irresponsible' dream of Firstness, combined with the country's many decades of democracy (Secondness) and the goal or telic force defined by the mesocratic myth (Thirdness) can account for their strange attitude. In JBO's letter, just before the quoted passage, the statesman had written about his distress on hearing about a project to legitimize once again in Uruguay the then banned bullfights:
(Bullfights) would be in my opinion a step towards barbarianism, which is the kind of pleasure felt in front of the risk of human life, and of bloodshed, even if this be not always human.
Universal learning was supposed to suppress such bloodthirsty leanings. The military just like the Uruguayan guerrilla, the MLN-Tupamaros or National Liberation Movement, had rebelled against that peaceful dream, inseparable from JBO's ideal of a quiet nation of cultivated mesocrats. Within this sociosemiotic framework to vote had always meant far more than a civic duty, it was one of the highest gifts of that 'model country'.39 Not even the military could dispatch that desire into total oblivion. I take their attitude as an evidence of the utter freedom of the imaginary; firstness indeed goes where it pleases, in a wholly 'irresponsible' way. Without any physical or political resistance in the country, these all powerful de facto rulers dreamt of appealing to the democratic approval of an election. It was their 'musement' (6.461) which took them to the paradoxical position of dreaming and then officially desiring the impossible. So in 1980, through a plebiscite, they sought for a collective endorsement of their government. With almost no media support the opposition won: 57% voted against the plebiscite's proposal of a constitutional amendment presented by the dictatorship. Paradoxically, the military's electoral defeat was a consequence of the people's own mesocratic dream, translated as a desire to vote for real politicians, beyond any concern with the actual (healthy) state of the economy. My hypothesis is that had these military not shared, partly at least, the mesocratic dream, they would not have invested elections with that kind of value.40 This wrong political move is precisely what constitutes their 'Originality'.41 This is a semiotic dimension which is neither reasonable nor practical, if I had to name it, maybe 'esthetic' would suit it best.
A second example. On May 8th, 1989, the corpse of one of the men that had dramatically changed Uruguayan modern history, the guerrilla leader Raúl Sendic, is brought back to the country for his massive burial.42 Television faces a dilemma: shall they miss one of the greatest news of the year, or shall they risk to show it in all its multitudinous pomp and glory? To do the former is bad for business, but to do the latter runs counter to mesocratic norms: it is to put one of the "bullfighters" banned by JBO full in the limelight. Two of the three private channels choose silence, but the third comes up with an ingenious if farfetched strategy.
The 7.30 pm news of Channel 10 begins that day with an announcement of an announcement of an announcement. This complex triple structure includes
a. first, a brief and vague preliminary comment on a 'rather unusual beginning',
b. the use of an old News fragment from 1984, and
c. the "official" introduction back in 1989
This elaborate presentation is supposed to insulate in a triple metamessage the explosive potential of broadcasting this burial. After a very slight routine opening, came the 1984 piece, which was not announced as such but simply broadcast as a "normal" introduction of the day's news. In it a visibly upset anchorman speaks to his audience about starting to broadcast once again, after a week-long suspension decreed by the military.43 At a climactic moment of his stern narrative, he asserts with suffused anger that the dictatorship had thus achieved what not even a terrorist act of the Uruguayan MLN-guerrilla had been able to do. Back to the present, and still without any mention of this peculiar back and forth movements, the 1989 anchorman comments on an irony of the recovered democracy: the MLN (by then a political party) is now able to bring the corpse of their leader back to the country and have it buried with the full ceremony of a hero. After so many expensive prime time digressions, the newsman finally goes to point:
As an homage to the democracy we are all trying to build... we begin our news of today with a coverage of the arrival and burial of the body of R.Sendic...
The third and most explicit metamessage discloses the "team work" of dream, desire and experience. This news program has imagined a new possible way for showing what could not be shown, at least not as a legitimate desire of that mesocratic channel. How to cover this burial and not seem to be also paying an homage to the guerrilla leader? How to stop television from using its audiovisual power to make that ritual even more glorious, by showing it to a much larger crowd than the one that had attended the ceremony? Thus television dreamt of this complicated box-within-a-box format for not endorsing this kind of radical politics, and still show the massive and highly moving participation of a huge crowd of followers of the dead leader in this last good-bye. Television news is endorsing 'democracy', not the man and his deeds, announces the complex framing device set up for that specific coverage. There was also that chief mesocratic desire of not being extreme or outstanding. In another democratic country, five years after the end of the dictatorship, that piece of news would have had enough intrinsic historic value to amply justify the possible risk of television coverage's being interpreted as an apology for the no longer existent terrorist movement of the previous decade.
The final metamessage quoted above does not tell the truth though: they do not 'begin the news' of that day by the coverage of R.Sendic's burial. Actually, they begin by showing an intricate, long negotiation between desire, dream and experience, the phaneroscopic mingling of the lawfulnes of Thirdness, the irresponsible pure qualities of Firstness and the hard historical facts of Secondness.
In my two examples, there is the creation of something new inseparable from the experience of the past and from the future goal pursued by semiosis. This is the way SI operates. By calling for a plebiscite the military unwittingly begin the long road that would end their dictatorship; the only Uruguayan channel which dares to cover that multitudinous funeral opens up a new possibility for dealing with delicate political subjects on Uruguayan television. There is in both episodes the possibilistic vision which attempts to come to terms in an original manner with 'a fragment of the history of ideas', Peirce's (Ms 817) description of the past as represented in semiosis, and also to meet the goal of all sense production, i.e., to become legitimate.44
Instead of talking of these two instances, as Castoriadis probably would, as if they were two battles won by SI, two victories of the 'radical imaginary' over the dark forces of the instituted, I prefer to think of these episodes in terms of the 'trirrelative influence' of the phaneroscopic categories and the logical subjects of Peircean semiotic. The three realms are equally real, the three participate actively in the progressive determination of what we call human (social) life. Which one predominates is a question that cannot be answered a priori, but one that a Peircean-based sociosemiotic should be able to study and answer on each particular occasion.


My journey through the mysterious land of the social imaginary is about to end. There are many valuable insights to be found in it. But to appreciate them, we must accept the force of determination as the nature of all meaning. Determination is not the prison-house of wishes, but the power that moves semiosis in its three aspects as Firstness, Secondness and Thirdnes and as Sign, Object and Interpretant. This points out to the relational nature of social meaning. Phaneroscopy and semiotic proper provide a reliable theoretical framework for the study of issues such as ideology, public opinion and collective identity. This is, I believe, the sociosemiotic realm, accurately described by Flynn (1991:5) as the locating and analysing of 'meaning structures and signification systems from the point of view of the producers' use and conceptualization of them.'

If we leave aside the deadlock confrontation of an instituting or radical imaginary pitted against the instituted or socio-historical imaginary, a far more complex and interesting semiotic landscape emerges. To attain a better understanding of its workings, we need to go one step down in the architectonic of Peirce's science classification. It is to the normative realm of esthetics, ethics and logic that I now appeal to find the rules that account for society's ways in a 'retrodictive' manner.45 Originality is absolutely unconnected only when prescinded, that is, when considered by itself for analytic purposes. In the actual semiosis of the Lebenswelt, it receives its own specification (Bestimmtheit) from the past (knowledge as 'history of ideas'), while it further specifies that dual relationship in terms of the law.
The three normative sciences (2.198-199) attend to what is kalós (right as goodness), ethos (one's own acknowledged purposes) and eikós. Since mine is a sociosemiotic perspective, I have substituted Peircean 'logic', i.e., 'the study of the means of attaining the end of thought' (2.198), for the spontaneous methods used by people - Logica Utens - for becoming verisimilar or eikós. The latter is to social interaction what the former is to science. The relationship of the three domains precludes the supremacy of one over the rest. We may be inspired by the kalós, as Peirce seems to suggest,46 but the past as the burden and also assurance of what has been thought of, and the future as the 'ascending mimesis' of human aspiration,47 contribute in equal parts to produce society as co-produced meaning.
These normative sciences allow us to reconstruct the ways of society according to the three semiotic dimensions present in every action. Human purpose in society is the resultant of personal visions, objective conditions and collective projects acting in close interaction with the limits of semiotic systems. Based on Peirce's interpretant, Liszka (1989:61-96) develops the concept of transvaluation. It is a remarkable synthesis of linguistic theory (markedness and hierarchy) and Peircean pragmaticism (the central role played by purpose). Liszka defines "transvaluation" as

The comprehension of sign translation in terms of rank and markedness (...). In its most general form, transvaluation is a rule-like semiosis which revaluates the perceived, imagined, or conceived markedness and rank relations of a referent as delimited by the rank and markedness relations of the system of its signans and the teleology of the sign user. (1989:71 - emphasis in the original)

Concerning the same theoretical issue, Shapiro (1981:315) talks about an 'evaluative superstructure' in order to describe the process of reframing the sign-object reference in terms of human designs. This is an account of the dialectical tension between these two telic forces: the semiotic agency and the system's own pattern.48 I would like to add a third element to this configuration. The third factor involved in transvaluation is verisimilitude, a central matter of classical rhetoric. In his Rhetoric (1357a 34-36), Aristotle defines the verisimilar - tó eikós - as that which 'happens in general (...) it concerns that which may be in some other way.' From this perspective, we may think of a person as 'a semiotic squid which covers up its non-verisimilar movements under the thick semiotic fluid of a seemingly easy consensus'.49 Transvaluation is the theoretical, and, therefore, general term which accounts for the whole range of strategies used by people to attain this specifically human aim. Many years ago, Goffman's teacher, Ray Birdwhistell (1970:14) expressed this idea in a most succint manner: 'being in some measure predictable constitutes the sine qua non of sanity and humanity.' To become eikós is to stand in the right end of transvaluation: to make our actions and purposes seem unmarked, i.e., normal. Normality, in this sense, means that others may accept us and our demands without jeopardizing their own semiotic systems.
Transvaluation, Liszka's central contribution for the study of the acceptance and rejection of ideas (in the guise of stories, myths, fables, movies, etc), helps us understand how the three normative domains of what is deemed kalós, êthos and eikós meet and mingle to create sense in society. We can predict human behavior, in spite of admitting the sheer creative freedom of Firstness as SI, because of that tripartite semiotic cooperation which is guided but not tyrannized by the hegemonic (= unmarked) values in a community. We may make our greatest efforts to attain certain collective ideals, but, whether we know it or not, our actions end up by transforming these norms, and thus changing the past.
Human life consists in the triple coexistence of the right thing or kalós, with the familiar behavior or êthos, all leading to the social endorsement or eikós. The weight of past experience connects with the whirlpool or anarchy of wishes and with the aspiration of continuity or agreement with what is consensually defined as true at a certain moment in the life of a community.
Of course, nothing in real life and politics is as simple and smooth as I have presented it in this paper. There will be regressions and breakdowns: the Obsistence of tough interests levelled painstakingly by the Transuasion of constant negotiations. However, for the judge (the law) to find the proper sheriff (the actual), as in Peirce's famous example (7.532), we must also have the legislator as a dreamer (the possible). Without the imaginary resolve to leave behind a world where the use of violence is the tacit rule, we do not even have or need a judge to begin with. To the poets, and pure mathematicians mentioned by Peirce in the Universe of Firstness (6.455), I would like to add law-makers and fashion designers, and just about anyone whose 'airy nothings' furnish the limitless space where we house our desires.


Click on the note number to return to the place in the text where the reference to the note occurs.

1  Some other recent examples: J.Arnason (1989), G.Cornu (1990); A.Moles (1987)

2  I will not follow this lead, though it seems also promising. The description of ideology in D.Vidal (1971:36), based on N. Poulantzas, as a device to conceal in 'an imaginary plane real contradictions' shows an interesting parallelism with SI: 'It is not representation which gives the key of ideological intelligibility, it is the "opacity" of its structure which makes that representation intelligible'.

3  The kind of historical analysis associated with J. Le Goff and his school. A famous instance is his description of the 'birth of the purgatory' in medieval times (La naissance du Purgatoire). I shall also leave aside the anthropological approach of the imaginary associated with G. Durand.

4  As a fair sample of his thought, reference will be made to Castoriadis 1975, 1986, 1990. These texts cover almost three decades of elaboration of the SI concept.

5  References to Peirce are made in the conventional way: to volume and paragraph of Hartshorne, Weiss and Burks (eds),(1931-58). Manuscripts references are to Robin (1967).

6  An obvious source of the SI notion is Aristotle's speculation on human fantasy, as the author explicitly acknowledges. See Castoriadis' (1988: 149-76) discussion of the 'first fantasy' in "The discovery of the imagination".

7  Castoriadis (1990:39) calls himself 'an old acquaintance and admirer of Max Weber'. For a detailed account of this point see "Individu, société, rationalité, histoire", in Castoriadis (1990).

8  This consideration pertains to Peirce's Speculative Rhetoric (e.g. 1.444), since the problem of 'collateral observation' is presupposed by any study of human communication, namely the common cultural universe of reference between individuals.

9  Such a reductionistic fallacy is found in much of the current literature on SI, e.g. in the approach of Moles (1987).

10  For my present purpose, I will neglect an early distinction made by Castoriadis (1975: 328) between 'social imagination as instituting society' and the 'radical imagination as what creates at the psychological and somatic level.'

11  V. Potter (1967:15)

12  Ibid.

13  In the same sense in which Liszka (1989:38, emphasis mine) says Object, Sign and Interpetrant 'are but three aspects of the process of sign determination.'

14  Another approach which I deem central to the foundation of a Peircean based sociosemiotic is Erving Goffman's frame analysis. He presents it in distinctly non-ontological terms, not based on but akin to phaneroscopy. Goffman (1986:6) criticizes the James-Schutzian idea of 'multiple worlds/realities' since 'what (scholars) are often concerned with is not an individual's sense of what is real, but rather, what it is he can get caught up in, engrossed in... and this can be something he can claim is really going on and yet claim is not real.'

15  The term is used by W.J.T. Mitchell (1986) in a suggestive essay, "The rhetoric of iconoclasm".

16  Of course, I do not mean that Sartre is the only thinker involved in this controversy, Castoriadis mentions Merleau Ponty, and many others could be included. The former's work is only an illustration of this ideological position, and a paradigmatic one at that.

17  This is an echo of Marxian 'false consciousness', as it is formulated in The German Ideology: an optically distorted image of man's real social conditions which serves the interests of the ruling class.

18  Barthes (1970) and Sercovich (1977), respectively. For an interesting Peircean approach to this issue see F. Merrell's (1991:8) discussion of two types of 'de-generacy' whereby the sign relations become 'indexicalized' (R-O) and 'iconized' (R-I). The former leads the semiotic agent to believe in a direct access to reality without semiotic mediation, the latter to such an engrossment in sign fiction that we forget 'it is not the "real" thing.'

19  I refer thus to his radicalization of the SI concept: 'the radical imaginary.'

20  Castoriadis (1975:283-334 and 1986:65) appeals to the German concept of 'Bestimmheit', just as Peirce (8.177) does, but for the opposite purpose.

21  When he describes the emergence of capitalism, Castoriadis (1989:310, emphasis mine) argues about the insufficiency of 'things for making capitalistic relations come into being, since (the former) do not determine (the latter)'. It is true, not things but (semiotic) objects do determine capitalism in this sense.

22  For an enlightening discussion on the two senses of "determine", 'logical and causal' in Peirce's definitions of sign see J.Ransdell (1992), specifically his chapter "Peirce's definition of the representation relation".

23  In the same fashion than Derrida's analysis of the Saussurean metaphysical assumptions underlying the supposed superiority of the spiritual Signified. The signifier is, in this vision, only reified opacity, just like instituted society for Castoriadis.

24  In his poem "There was a saviour" (Dylan Thomas, 1953).

25  Indeed, determinism implies that 'all that has been and what is and what will be, what happens and will happen, is fixed beforehand, conditioned and established, there cannot be or happen anything but what was fixed, conditioned and established beforehand', as Ferrater Mora (1980) defines it in his dictionary of philosophy.

26  Houser (1989:91) quotes C.Dougherty on this point, and on the identity of the practice of prescision and phenomenology.

27  Houser, op. cit. 93

28  Unless indicated all quotations in this section are from this passage in the Collected papers, it dates from 1895.

29  "Doxa" meant not just common opinion, but also 'good reputation or fame', according to commentator and translator A. Tovar's (1953).

30  See Peirce (5.538) on the role of the imagination as preparation for legitimate and efficient action.

31  Peirce seems to identify Secondness with varying degrees of the 'shock' of otherness or non-self: 'That shock which we experience when anything particularly unexpected forces itself upon our recognition... Low grades of this shock doubtless accompany all unexpected perceptions; and every perception is more or less unexpected' (1.332,emphasis mine).

32  The passage is quoted in M. Murphey (1961:83-85).

33  The context of these considerations on publicity from such early marketing period is quite interesting and central to Peircean semiotic: the Pragmatic Maxim is introduced here.

34  His mother's muslin dress catches fire and Herbert puts it out as if he had always done it. This must have impressed Peirce: not only does he write about it in 1902 and 1903, 5.538, 5.487, respectively but he also changes the identity of the victim: the second time it is a guest of the house.

35  For a full discussion on the political myth associated with J. Batlle y Ordóñez see F. Andacht (1992).

36  This is how his opponents called him. See M. Vanger (1980)

37  The dictatorship lasted from 1973 to 1984.

38  On this point I draw many ideas from C. Perelli and J. Rial's (1985) excellent analysis of the period.

39  A sociologist compares voting in Uruguay with the highest expectation of the people, almost as if the election's result were the outcome of a match of soccer between the two traditional rival teams. See Solari (1965).

40  This is the mechanism of transvaluation. See J.J. Liszka (1989, passim)

41  I agree with Balat's (1992:205) decision to adopt this Peircean term to designate Firstness.

42  For a more developed analysis see "Chronicle of an overannounced burial" in F. Andacht, (1989:37-56).

43  As in the legendary broadcast of O. Welles's War of the Worlds, lots of people actually called the TV station to find out why the station had been closed. This took place in 1989, four years after the return of democracy!

44  This strategy is part of the 'phatological dimension' (F. Andacht 1992a), that is, all those aspects of semiosis concerned with legitimizing the self in any kind of interaction.

45  See Liszka (1989:8-12) on the type of explanation afforded by social sciences, opposed to the predictive nature of the laws of natural sciences.

46  Peirce (2.199) makes the other two sciences 'depend on' esthetics.

47  The term appears in P.Aubenque's (1962:498) masterful exegesis of Aristotle's metaphysics: 'L'imitation aristotélicienne n'est pas une relation descendante de modèle à copie comme l'était l'imitation platonicienne, mais une relation ascendante par laquelle l'être inférieur s'efforce de réaliser ... un peu de la perfection qu'il aperçoit dans le terme supérieur...'

48  Shapiro (1981) compares and combines in a subtle way Saussure's central notion of value, with the Peircean interpretant, in the light of Jakobson's markedness theory.

49  F. Andacht (1992a: 1470)


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END OF:  FERNANDO ANDACHT, "A Semiotic Framework for the Social Imaginary"


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