Freedom as Photographic Synechism

Geoffrey Sykes
University of Wollongong, Australia



     How are we to interpret this photograph of Charles Peirce and Juliette at well at Arisbe in 1907? To say the obvious, that in the sense of its biographical ubiquity, that it is a symbolic icon, seems merely to disguise its polysemic interpretation.

Charles and Juliette Peirce

     Two differing yet complementary methodologies of interpretation will be suggested — one derived from code analysis, the other from Peircean semiotics. However familiar or iconic, the meaning of this famous photograph proves sensitive to divergent methods used in its analysis. Two main interpretive meanings emerge, meanings which can fundamentally determine the value of the photograph as evidence for Peirce’s character, biography and ideas and political persuasion generally.

     The first method of code analysis produces a negative connotation based on a series of intersecting absences. The couple are defined and seen by what they, and the photograph, are not. This is not a studio professional portraiture, of Peirce as a mature scholar: there are limited such images available. This is not a group or institutional setting — when it was taken Peirce has been absent from academic employment for over 20 years. The symbolic indices of careerism, and social position, seem absent — instead of the asserted gaze, attire and composition of social accomplishment, there is a gaze of indeterminate deference and composition of uncertain intimacy. As one of a set of Peirce and Juliette, at Arisbe, this can confirm a negative connotation whose content is one of social isolation. Some snaps, including the pathetic images Juliette bedridden in a large, and empty bedroom, and Charles on his deathbed, seem to express circumstances of poverty, illness, aging, professional failure and social isolation — in short what Brent terms the "endgame" of Peirce’s life (1998).

     A sense of spatial location, suggested in this medium shot, of the well and partial building, physically frames the couple within the unfulfilled symbolism of Arisbe. Inspired by the Greek site of cosmology and philosophy, on the river Selleir in Asia Minor, after 1900 the house became an empty testimony of unfulfillment of a stack of business, education and scholarly projects that Peirce undertook, in the 1890’s, and following his loss of employment at John Hopkins.

     Admittedly, there is little evidence in it of the grinding, daily poverty and accumulated debts that the couple faced in 1907, when their expenses could only be met by the goodwill of William James. Yet it can be interpreted, inter-textually, as a part of a series of Arisbe snapshots, as a subgenre of individual pathos and loneliness, that together provide visual connoters of what Brent terms the "endgame" of Peirce’s life and career. If a code is present, it is one that substitutes for those of social accomplishment, and is defined through the absence and opposition of visual markers of social identity, success, health and energy.

     An immediate problem with such interpretation is revealed within Brent’s Endgame chapter, when the productive nature of Peirce’s semiotic writings is documented, and dated around the time of this photograph. The year 1907 signifies contradictory evidence, of poverty and ill health, and prolific and creative philosophical writing. How can apparently divergent biographical information be reconciled?

     It might be tempting to compensate for a lack of social signification by "seeing" a quality of indexical immediacy — that this photograph documents a private as well as public meaning, that the informal, interpersonal order of its composition, and the spatial temporal coordinates of its selection, can be valued as a truthful, direct expression of the private world of Peirce, whose curiosity and value precedes or extends any public truth. The direct act of photography captures a transparent quality of personal facticity and sincerity, and for the viewer provides a privileged window onto a famous, celebrated figure. The photograph becomes iconic in the sense of a literal quality — as a momentary snapshot, it captures an idiosyncratic quality of life that no generalised opinion can provide.

     I wish to suggest that there is a certain truth in such analysis, although it needs to be carefully elaborated. I would argue that interpretation of this photograph cannot be restricted to a phenomenological or psychological explanation, of Peirce as an individual — whether as a retiring genius, or disturbed or ill thinker. As Peirce himself said a hundred years ago, and we now know too well, the meaning of a visual image, and photographs generally, cannot be restricted to any singular or literal sense, or semiotically, as a sign of seconds. Its indexical indication of its human and geographic subject, and their iconic or dicent reproduction, as "mere print", or "section of rays projected from an object", "does not, in itself, convey any information" (2.320).

     Information always come from somewhere else — it is in this sense that a photograph has semiotic status, acting as a sign that stands for or points to and from other events that are not immediately seen. As a pragmatist, Peirce was reluctant to attribute meaning to unseen, uncognizable mental or emotional states. It is true, as a sign of Seconds, an individual photograph can always be generalised symbolically, according to "further determination of an already known sign of the same object"(2.320). Yet how can the problematic interpretation caused by code analysis of this photograph be resolved?

     About photographs, Peirce also discussed the sense of movement and time implicit in any "instantaneous photograph" which, although apparently still, is also "a composite of the effects of intervals of exposure more numerous by far than the sands of the sea." (2.441). Such discussion is part of Peirce’s move beyond Kant, to a dynamic account of the temporal and spatial dimensions of reasoning, understood as semiosis, involving tools or media of reasoning, exemplified by maps, scientific tools and existential graphs, and summarized in the category of Firstness.

     The photograph, rather than being still or, through its structured repetition, generalizable or narrative in nature, can be regarded as an interval in a disorganized sequence of possible perspectives that surround it. Gilles Deleuze, using Peircean concepts, sees a relationship between photographs and film — both do not represent social reality, or mimically depict what is immediate, but express the complex constitutive nature of social and natural knowledge, understood as assemblages of moving images, and in particular in terms of what Deleuze calls an affect image, and Peirce a First (Deleuze 1986).

     You can see it in the faces. These are comfortable in themselves, in the situation and relationship to the camera. A synechist sequence of intervals before and after is suggested. This is not a formal or public shot; it is paused, but by no means immobile; its subjects are old, but not exhausted. In the gap or lack of social content, there is not negative connotation but what Deleuze calls intensification or subjectification; in the gap of perception and action, the social determination of movement, the facial affect images endlessly complexify and express the sense of the possible that is ever present in the actual and immediate.

     In lines of the faces, beard and hair are the "germs of loveliness in the hateful" circumstances that "gradually warms it into life, and makes it lovely. That is the sort of evolution which ... synechism calls for" (6.289). That is, the continuum of perception afforded by Firsts can compensate for the abrupt severances and discontinuities that are part of Seconds. The term "devolution" could be well substituted for Peirce’s unusual almost subversive use of the word "evolution" here. In Deleuze’s terms the photograph "disassembles", or we might say fragments, the illusion of movement and narration, of which natural perception and social signification is constructed. Rather than reproducing, the photograph punctures the seamless appearance of perception, and doubles, in Deleuze’s terms to an nth degree layers, its function as an indicative sign. Rather than stasis or lack, and liberated from the narrative and temporal determination of representation, the photograph refers to an infinitude and potentiality of intervals that immediately surround it. In the sense of perceptual "continuity", mediated by celluloid, the identities of Charles and Juliette are renewed rather than ended.

     Observed by means of the camera, the faces offer quiet but crowded mobility, "n-carrying plate of nerves", existing in an interval of infinitesimal representation which does not serve only as the illustrator of general meaning, but as a source or plane of signs by which meaning itself is possible that can be detected underneath social stereotypes and biological determinations. The fixation of the individual shot infers possible intervals of faciality: what is absent is now very immediate, a potential, a physical and actual fullness of self. The sense of absence perceived in their presence has been doubled or explained. Any sense of lack or emptiness associated with lack or sacrifice of social mobility has been transformed into an act of what Peirce calls, "evolution", and Deleuze "subjectification". This is evident in a sense of plenitude, of the "redundancies and superfluities" of perception, achieved through the sacrifice of stability of meanings, that occurred in the circumstances of Arisbe. The face "has sacrificed mobility but now gathers or expresses in a free way all kinds of tiny actions," in a "multidimensional, polyvocal corporeal code" that precedes codes of society and life (Deleuze 1986).

     The subjective and private is not created in opposition to a social, symbolic order, nor from an internal psychological drive, but by means of a transformative dynamic correspondence of individual expression and perception corresponding to a diagrammatic pattern of nature. Deleuze calls the semiotic, or diagrammatic face, as darkened, compared with the white lightness of social order symbolic sense. Peirce would explain the same paradox of facial perception that operates between categories of Firstness and Secondness. What is barely perceptible is seen abstractly and diagrammatically, in the Peircean phrase, as a graph or "like grains of sand", or as the Deleuzian rhizomic image: both are appropriate, non metaphoric, descriptors of a radical pragmatic logic: the nature of cognizable perception and action is doubled to an "nth" degree, through a medium like photographics.

     The metaphoric application, by Peirce, of the geographic "sands of the sea" to the domestic and photographic "interval", provides a further perspective on the spatial characteristic of this photograph. The phrase summarizes the transformation of Peirce’s own life and ideas, from dispersed events and nomadic travel, criss-crossing orders and lines of social authority and commercial culture, and returning to a labyrinthine synechism (6.289) at Arisbe. If anyone was at home there, it was the cartographer of the heavens and coast that he could surveyed. A David Hockney 360-degree photographic montage would blur the finitude caused by a fixed frame, and make visible the plenitude of perspectives afforded by the 2000 acres and the River Delaware and coast that surrounded the house and its well by day, and the astronomical perspectives that could be clearly seen by night in this remote setting. It is between margins, of social order, and natural and social plenitude, that the photographic "snap" is taken.

     The sense of space and geography that can be inferred in the possible intervals that surround this photograph qualifies any sense of discontinuity, by which Peirce’s life was a failure or endgame at all, and helps explain the motivations that generated the vast productivity of ideas, in spite of physical circumstances of poverty and illness. To begin with, it was surveying work, with the Coastal Surveying, that provided his most continuous source of employment and income. He returned to it after the loss of his Hopkins position, and was engaged professionally for the first years of his stay at Arisbe. Surveying of coast and heavens provided a new sense of physical perception of infinitude — of a physical or perceptual basis for mathematical infinitude and continuity. In the microscopic, telescope and surveying instrument, sub-quotidian and seeming abstract realities that underlie quotidian perception became cognizable, measurable and part of experience.

     The empty, two storied shingled renovation of the farmhouse that he termed Arisbe, and its geographical surrounds, can be regarded as emptied of content and planned projects of one kind, and converted instead into a place of confinement and convalescence - on the other hand, it was a place full of intensities of energy and potentialities of health, thought and spatial expression. The two senses — of biological decay, and social subjection, and semiotic liberation and intensity, seem strangely to co-exist — therefore it is important to delineate these senses conceptually, in order to assess their boundaries, and generally the value and nature of Peirce’s late life. My argument is that that life can best be assessed reflexively, using the concepts Peirce developed in his mature semiotic categories.

     Thus, the faces we see have sacrificed social as well as geographic mobility. Yet the experience of surveying and travel generally was always paradoxical — the macro perception of space, of a coast or an intellectual contact, was always subject to seemingly infinite division, or continuity, assisted by tools of scientific or, as with the photograph, social perception. Both the broad, lateral, and the infinitesimal, micro intervals, of knowing a landscape and another person, were caused by and resulted from cutting against conventional, familiar ways of knowing. Both offer a continuity of fragmentary, hypothesized experience that supplemented the crude criteria, codes or lineage of geographical or social organization.

     In the undefined, vague spatial location of the couples’ figures, including the interaction between them, can be evidenced a distributed account of community, that can be substituted from the loss of conventional loci of power and position. Peirce struggled throughout his life for a definition of community that would counter prevailing notion of progress, nationalism and social hegemony. Philosophically he constantly took issue with the historicism of Hegel or varieties of social Darwinism from the time of his first encounter at the Metaphysical Club.

     Living at Arisbe, in 1907, Peirce would have felt as much part of a vast community of international scholars, deceased or living, many of whom he reviewed, as he did when he helped form, half ironically, the Metaphysical Club, or before that, as a young postgraduate, sought, in 1868, to synthesize Kant and Locke, and European and England philosophy generally, in "A New List of Categories".

     Peirce was never very settled in his own search for genuine signs. "The investigation, in the exposition, and in the application of truth" (1.191) involved a peripatetic lifestyle, in coastal survey for three decades, in several European trips and overseas conferences, and endless wanderings between Milford, New York and New England. For many years he truly had more than one home, including a New York pied-à-terre. His professional reputation in science and philosophy was based internationally even more than locally. In 1904 he was elected as foreign associate to the French academy of science, in an "extraordinary honour for an American" (Brent 1998, 294). At the time of this photograph, he corresponded with Lady Welby in England. Commencing with the enigmatic French identity of his second, young wife Juliette, their multi lingual household, his passion for all things French, including wine, Arisbe represented a foreign direction in Peirce’s life that consistently lost as much as gained favor on the East Coast of America.

     Even though at age 67 he had sacrificed a peripatetic lifestyle in travels on the East Coast and to Europe, the sense of a geographically dispersed community remained, in a perpetual sense of intense, unsettledness. Consider the twofold qualification of community as "unlimited" and "unsettled" in the following, written in 1907. "Dr. Carus holds that from my social theory of reality, namely, that the real is the idea in which the community ultimately settles down, the existence of something inevitable is to be inferred ... I thought just the reverse might be objected, namely, that all absoluteness was removed from reality by that theory" (6.610).

     Peirce contradicts both the epistemological and geographical senses of the phrase "settles down", and the rigidities of knowledge it involves. In place of a local co-present community, fixed spatially and in social consensus, there is an "unlimited continuation" of communicative exchanges and "intellectual activity" (2.655) in a geographically dispersed "theatre of reactions" (6.195) built on forms and acts of possible knowledge.

     At the period of this photograph, Peirce could speak of a "social theory of reality", and how communicatively "signs require at least two Quasi-minds; a Quasi-utterer and a Quasi-interpreter; and although these two are at one (i.e., are one mind) in the sign itself, they must nevertheless be distinct" (4.552). This unsettled sense of truth, place and community follows on from the discontinuities and separation caused by litigation, debt, argument, wild speculation and unfulfilled hopes, in the two decades before 1907. From the discontinuous acts of "brute force" of Seconds, arose, in Peirce’s ideas and biography, the possibilities of Firsts.

     This photograph does not only document or represent that progressive losses and discontinuities of Peirce’s life, but celebrates, cuts or snaps at a sense of lack again and again, finding within the negative connotation or loss, more than a substitutional illness, but through its synechist properties, according to a "logic of reciprocity" (Esposito 1999). The doubling of sense of the photograph corresponds to a quality or realism of Peirce’s life, and helps explain the apparent contradiction of productive philosophical output at a time of financial and physical poverty.

     Thirdness can be "an important element in the happening of ... events" (6.457), and it is important to see and comprehend the various senses of eventfulness that this photograph captures and creates.



BRENT, Joseph.
1998. Charles Sanders Peirce. A Life (Bloomington: Indiana UP.)

DELEUZE, Gilles.
1986. Cinema I. The Movement Image, trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.)

1999. "Peirce’s Theory of Semiosis: Toward a Logic of Mutual Affection", Lecture 4 (Cyber Semiotic Institute; http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/spc/srb/cyber/espout.html).

PEIRCE, Charles S.
1866–1913. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. I/VI ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931/1935), vols. VII/VIII ed. Arthur W. Burks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958).

END OF:  Sykes, "Freedom as Photographic Synechism"


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