Phenomenology and Signification
There are many discourses within the field of philosophy, all of which have their own methods for viewing the world around us, our own bodies, our minds, and our consciousness. Phenomenology is a philosophical discourse which studies consciousness and its importance as the basis for all experiences. It emphasizes reflection upon that consciousness and the phenomena which we experience in our conscious state. Edmund Husserl pioneered the movement, but some of the concepts date back to Immanuel Kant. Kant first described the difference between how humans perceive and interpret an object (phenomenon), and the object itself, its essential form. Maurice Merleau-Ponty paralleled the work of Kant in his distinction between physiological and phenomenological bodies. Each object has both a physiological body (which I equate to its ‘essence’), and a phenomenological body (what we experience as a result of our conscious state, a meaning which transcends the essence of the object). Phenomenology and the study of phenomenological bodies is intertwined with the concept of signification, or representation of something beyond the physical presence of the object. In this essay I will attempt to display the close link between the concepts of phenomenology and signification, and answer the question: can anything truly have significance, or is significance merely a construction of our mind?
Let us begin with a discussion of phenomenology, and its view of human existence. Merleau-Ponty asserts that the human condition of ‘being’ cannot be stated as part of a greater world scheme, or put into terms of its anatomical, socially constructed, or psychological makeup. He argues that in fact the condition of ‘being’ exists from no causality or by the means of any external forces, but rather solely from within. It is his essential being, his ‘essence’, which gives rise to his subjectivity. “I am, not a ‘living creature’ nor even a ‘man’, nor again even ‘a consciousness’ endowed with all the characteristics which zoology, social anatomy or inductive psychology recognize in these various products of the natural or historical process-I am the absolute source, my existence does not stem from my antecedents, from my physical and social environment; instead it moves out towards them and sustains them, for I alone bring into being myself (and therefore into being in the only sense that the word can have for me) the tradition which I elect to carry on, or the horizon whose distance from me would be abolished-since that distance is not one of its properties-if I were not there to scan it with my gaze” (Merleau-Ponty in Fisher 1969: 29). To boil down what Merleau-Ponty much more eloquently states, the essence of his being does not bloom from his surroundings, his “physical and social environment”, but rather stems from within, and expands out to those surroundings. In other words, it is not the properties of the man that create his essence, but rather the inverse: the essence of the man creates conditions which allow for the assignation of these properties; they are a result of the man’s existence. Existence becomes apparent when man reaches the conscious state, and is able to perceive the world around him: his consciousness dictates his subjectivity. External forces cannot mold a man if he does not first exist and gain consciousness; it is only through consciousness that the world can be viewed.
Similarly, our world does not inherently possess the qualities that we perceive in it; rather, the qualities we perceive follow from the existence of ourselves. The sun cannot be defined as bright without following from human consciousness; there is nothing inherently bright about the sun. The reason the sun appears bright to us is because we consciously perceive it to be so. Humans (and other animals) are able to perceive the sun as bright because there are neurons present in the tissue of our eyes which detect photons. These microscopic particles of light are emitted by the sun as a result of nuclear fusion, and from the presence of these photons which are detected by our eyes we can infer that the sun is bright. However, humans born with NLP (total blindness) have a different reality, since they are physiologically unable to perceive these photons emitted by the sun as most humans are. For this small group of individuals the sun retains the quality of providing heat, but lacks the display of brightness. While this does not deviate from the universal reality that the sun exists, it shows that the sun’s brightness is not an inherent quality of its existence, but rather a relative quality that relies on the extension of our human consciousness and perception. It is our ‘being’, our innermost essence, which creates consciousness and defines both ourselves and the world that we perceive around us.
Continuing with the same basic thread of logic, we can apply this argument of consciousness and perception to any quality of an object. Phenomenology discards the notion of an object having any specific physical attributes such as size, shape, and color. Some philosophers argue that an object has a specific size and shape that remains constant, that there is a ‘real’ size and shape of any given object. In this case the viewer’s position is the only thing that changes, preserving the ‘real’ qualities of the object. The issue with this theory is that for different viewers the object will have different qualities. For example, a child will perceive a football to be much larger and heavier than an NFL quarterback will perceive it to be. Which then is the ‘real’ size and shape of the object? How can we arrive at an objective answer for a purely subjective question? This complication gives rise to the phenomenological answer, provided by Merleau-Ponty: “The thing is big if my gaze cannot fully take it in, small if it does so easily … circular if, all its sides being equally near to me, it imposes no deviation upon the regular curvature of my gaze, or if those deviations which are imposed are attributable to the oblique presentation, according to the knowledge of the world which is given to me with my body” (Merleau-Ponty 1945: 303). As Merleau-Ponty describes, an object gains its attributes from the point of view of the observer. A large object will appear to be small at a large distance, while a small object will appear to be large at a small distance. Other objects gain significance when viewed from an ideal distance, such as paintings that utilize the pointillism technique. At too near a distance, the human mind does not form the image intended by the painter but rather sees only a collection of multicolored dots. At too far a distance, the image becomes obscure because it is too small for the human eye to ascertain its finer details. At the correct distance, the mind interprets the overall image with all its details intact. If we adopt the theory of the ‘real’ object, we must define the painting as a coherent image, a very small image, or a large collection of dots. This presents the same problem of perspective, because is the painting not all three? There is no objective reality of the image; it is completely up to our consciousness and perception to construct the image from our individual perspective.
Returning to the notion of color and object, we must examine the effect of lighting. Lighting can change the color or brightness of an object, depending on what the source is. This effect is especially noticeable when your eyes are in a transitional phase between one lighting environment and another. When you walk outside on a sunny day, instantly you are ‘blinded’ by the brightness of all the objects in your view. Walking into a dimly lit interior from the outside has the inverse effect, and all objects appear to be very dark and almost indistinguishable. Initially it is may be difficult to see, but your eyes will gradually adjust to the lighting conditions, and objects will once again appear to be at a ‘normal’ level of brightness. But what is ‘normal’? When our eyes adjust to the inside lighting, that level of brightness becomes ‘normal’. When we step outside, our eyes adjust to the outdoor lighting, which becomes our new ‘normal’. This notion of ‘normal’ is impossible to define, since it is merely a condition of perception. One way humans have developed to make this transition much more comfortable is by wearing sunglasses outdoors, and taking them off indoors. Darkened lenses change our perception of objects (making them appear darker), which smoothens the transition between indoor and outdoor lighting. Lighting can not only affect the perceived brightness of an object, but also its perceived color: in a room illuminated with only red light, a piece of paper will appear red to the viewer. However, when illuminated with all colors of light, the paper appears white. In this instance it is undeniable to the observer in the room that the object is red, when typically we perceive paper as white. This once again challenges the notion of the ‘real’ color of the sheet of paper. While most people would agree that paper is white, when put in a controlled lighting environment this becomes very much untrue.
A much more subtle incarnation of the same phenomenon occurs under different types of light bulb. While different types of bulb used for indoor lighting produce light that is mainly white, fluorescent bulbs have a different ‘color temperature’ than incandescent bulbs, or light from the sun. Color temperature is a measure of hue, and gives objects a slight tinge when viewed under the various types of light. A common tragedy is that of the shopper: since large stores typically use fluorescent lighting, an article of clothing or household decoration may take on a significantly different color when brought into the illumination of one’s home (which commonly use incandescent lamps), or outside into the sunlight. As John Bannan succinctly states, “we do not see [light], but rather we see according to it” (Bannan 1967: 108). While we cannot perceive the light that illuminates objects around us, we can certainly see its effect on the color and visibility of our surroundings. In this way light alters our perception of the world around us.
In addition to having no concrete physical form, objects in our world also have another form which is even less concrete: the phenomenological body. The phenomenological body is the meaning of an object beyond that of its physiological body, or physical presence. Objects take on a subjectivity or meaning through the process of signification. All objects that have a meaning beyond their physical presence are signifiers, the study of which is semiotics. In his A Theory of Semiotics, Umberto Eco gives a basic description of the discourse: “Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it” (Eco 1976: 7). Eco’s description is very vague, as any description of semiotics must be, since it is such a broad ranging topic. A sign is basically comprised of two elements: the signifier and the signified. A signifier can be an object, a word, or an action (For the sake of simplicity, we will restrict the current discussion to objects as signifiers, as the use of language presents an entirely more complex and nuanced discussion). The signified is typically a concept, something that is much more complex than the signifier (it would make very little sense to use something complicated to represent something simple). In the formation of a sign, the two are inextricably linked: the signifier and the signified are two sides of the same coin. It is impossible to separate them, as the signifier (object) is a physical incarnation of the signified (concept). However, the two need not have any organic connection: signification is a fabrication which follows from human consciousness, perception, and interpretation of the sign (with one notable exception, which will be addressed later). This point is expressed be Ferdinand de Saussure, who conveys that the any connection is “unmotivated, i.e. arbitraty in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified” (de Saussure 1966: 69). This concept ties directly into the same logic of Phenomenology: objects are signifiers only because we consciously perceive them to be so: there is no predetermined connection, but rather a connection fabricated by humans. Take for example the rose. A rose is a flower, just like any other flower: iIt has the same basic structure of any other flower – a stem, leaves, petals, etc. Yet the rose is a signifier for which the signified is the concept of ‘love’, or romance. Love and romance have no inherent connection to the rose in particular, or any flower for that matter, yet it is a widely recognized sign. Other objects can have multiple significations, such as sweat. Sweat can signify physical exertion, heat, or stress.
Viewing the film Julius Caesar, Roland Barthes analyzes the meaning of sweat in the portrayed scenario: “Like the Roman fringe or the nocturnal plait, sweat is a sign. Of what? Of moral feeling. Everyone is sweating because everyone is debating something within himself; we are here supposed to be in the very locus of tragedy, and it is sweat which has the function of conveying this” (Barthes 1957: 27). Sweat signifies the stress that is overwhelming these men as they are torn by their moral obligations. As seen in this example, even the basest objects act as signifiers. In fact, most signs are not as lofty as the rose, but rather much more mundane and logical. Common signs include the type of clothes a person wears, the type of car they drive, the furniture in their house, and the decorations in their living spaces. All of these objects are signifiers of that person’s style, taste, wealth, and class. Jewelry is another common sign which can be seen every day. Nothing is inherently trashy about plugs (also known as tapers or gauges, piercings that stretch a hole in a person’s earlobe) as an object, yet they signify a lower class. These types of signs can often offer much insight about a person, with no natural connection between the signifier and what is signified.
The exception (mentioned earlier) to this non-connection rule is that of the image. An image is an object in itself (a painting, a photograph, etc.), which has tangible properties (setting aside the digital image). However, the image often represents a much more ‘real’ object. Surrealist painter Rene Magritte highlights this dichotomy between image and object in his 1929 painting “La trahison des images” – The Treachery of Images. Magritte’s painting is of a pipe, and below image, the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – This is not a pipe. With this caption, Magritte calls attention to the paradox which he has created. While there is no doubt the painting is indeed an image of a pipe, it certainly is not an actual pipe. It lacks all the necessary physical qualities of pipe: a three dimensional, hollow object, with a bowl in which tobacco can be stuffed. Magritte’s painting is merely a representation of a pipe: it is the signifier, and the actual pipe is the signified. In this instance the sign is non-arbitrary, and follows a natural connection between the signifier and the signified.
How signs came to be, the process that links the signifier and the signified, is an interesting facet of semiotics. In most cases there is no natural link between the signifier and the signified, and in many cases there is some ambiguity of the sign. So where did these representations come from? Our conscious mind establishes these connections from our perception of objects. Since each representation is subjective to our consciousness, people of different cultures, ages, ethnicities, religions, or other groups may establish different meanings for the same object. In India, the cow signifies divinity and the sacredness of all life. In America, the cow signifies multiple concepts, including corporate farming, animal cruelty, and McDonald’s hamburgers. Plugs, as mentioned earlier, are often viewed in American culture as a symbol of adolescent rebellion, drug use, and generally signify a lower societal status. While this interpretation is not universal, it is quite common. Inca culture, on the other hand, considered them to be a signifier of nobility: men wore silver or gold plugs as a symbol of higher status. The irony of the situation is that these representations are almost exactly opposed to each other. Such an antithetical concept serves to illustrate the subjective nature of signification: nothing is concrete, but rather determined by our consciousness and perception, which can be influenced by the culture around us.
Now we shall return to the question: can anything truly have significance, or is significance merely a construction of our mind? When we view an object, we often associate it with a deeper meaning, a representation of a more complex concept. The question here lies in the distinction between perception and reality. When viewed from the Phenomenological perspective, I believe the answer is very clear: reality is a product of our perception, and therefore signification is simply a construction of our conscious mind.
Brian Halbur (2015)
Brian is a first year business major from Yorba Linda, CA