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Saturday, April 11, 2009


My fellow four-ist (though not always the same fours!), Hyatt Carter, aware of my Peircean proclivities, has alerted me, by an email titled like this post, to an article appearing in the current issue (45.2) of The James Joyce Quarterly:
“The Index Nothing Affirmeth”: The Semiotic Formation of a Literary Mandate in James Joyce’s “The Sisters”

by Murray McArthur

My purpose in this essay is to consider certain aspects of the way James Joyce discovers and deploys the central semiotic resource of literary language, indexicality, to stage in “The Sisters” the—to adapt a Hollywoodism to Giambattista Vico’s writing—precorso of his literary mandate. [….] Specifically, I am interested in that “certain signifying formation” as it manifests itself in the disposition of the index in Joyce’s opening frame. To focus on this disposition, I want to examine closely three scenes: the first from Stephen Hero that represents directly the “certain signifying formation” of the artistic mandate and the second and third from “The Sisters.” In these scenes, the “signifying formation” disposes itself in a triune or trinitarian structure of the sign that C. S. Peirce, an American forty years older than Joyce and completely unknown to him, was defining, in his major contribution to semiotics, as the index. The index, as Peirce so strikingly describes it in the passage cited below, is itself the sign type that compels attention.

In 1903 and 1904, Peirce was beginning the last great revision of and addition to his triadic classification of the sign, starting with his Lowell Institute Lectures in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 1903. Peirce divided semiosis or sign-making and sign-interpreting into a firstness or icon or resemblance, a secondness or index or indication, and a thirdness or symbol or arbitrariness [….]
Quibble: (There's always a quibble.) McArthur's version of Peirce's conception of the symbol sounds more like Saussure's than Peirce's but you can't have everything. The symbol is any sign which is "arbitrary" or independent with respect to resemblance or actual connection to its object. It signifies, nevertheless, because of how it will be interpreted, that is to say that it signifies as an interpretive norm or habit (in a system of same) and is not eminently arbitrary or independent with respect either to itself, or to the symbol system in which it participates, or to logical / semiotic / representational relations to its object

Anyway, let me attempt a self-fulfilling prophecy (why should only Joe Ransdell be able to do them?). A Joycean among us desires to look into Murray McArthur's article and report back!


Ben Udell said...

Well, nobody has any comments about this post, so as punishment I'll just add that Carter followed up by emailing me one of his typical puns: "You can’t see the four-est for the threes." I think it's funny.