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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

elephant crusoes


Alas, this week is going to be so crowded that LI is going to have a hard time doing what we promised: that is, writing about the social animal.

We wanted to go at this thing in classic philosopher-bot style by goin’ back to the greeks, scanning through Aristotle and Plato for some quote, then scanning up rapidly to Descartes. You know the drill.

Instead, I think we will be entering the subject through a different route. Instead of Aristotle or Plato, Pliny.

And instead of going at this all straightforwardly and with a tie on and chalk dust on the seat of my trousers, I’m gonna go at it crookedly (I saw I am Cuba last night – a film seemingly designed to be shown by IT’s Kino Fist! – and was impressed by the insane camera work, which seemed to be the expression of a camera man who had been taken with, nay, traumatized by Kertesz’s distortion photographs for the first episode involving riotous American sex tourists exploiting virtuous Cubans – and I thought, why not me?) and introduce here the topic we’ve all been waiting for: footprints.

In Umberto Eco’s A Theory of Semiotics, there is a passage on what has proved to be Eco’s favorite logical tool, abduction. Eco took the idea from Pierce. Pierce is a notoriously hard philosopher to pin down to canonical texts, since he wrote on the run, as it were – but this is from a notebook proposal for a book on logic:

… in my paper in the Johns Hopkins _Studies in Logic_, overemphasizing formalities, I failed to distinguish between abduction and a previously overlooked or little noticed variety of induction which may be called "abductive induction"; in consequence of which, that paper, although correct as far as it goes, and although fully covering the subject of which it professed to treat, entirely overlooked an indispensable mode of inference, abduction, I myself having previously described the inference correctly. Deduction is necessary inference; but if it is applied to probability, then, while remaining in itself necessary, it concludes a probability. That gives the doctrine of chances. Induction is a totally different sort of inquiry, proceeding, by means of experiment, to obtain an answer to a previously propounded question. It has two species: the extensive, where the question is how much, and the comprehensive, or abductive, where the question is to be answered by yes or no (or else is merely susceptible of a vague answer). Abduction is distinguished from abductive induction in not being, properly speaking, experimental, that is, it makes its observations without reference to any previously propounded question, but, on the contrary, itself starts a question, or problematically propounded hypothesis, to explain a surprising observation. Since I barely escaped error on this matter, I will in this present note illustrate the difference between abduction, abductive induction, and probable deduction.

Suppose, then, that, being seated in a street car, I remark a man opposite to me whose appearance and behavior unite characters which I am surprised to find together in the same person. I ask myself, How can this be? Suppose I find this problematic reply: Perhaps he is an ex-priest. He is the very image of such a person; he presents an icon of an ex-priest. Here is an iconic argument, or abduction of it. Secondly, it now occurs to me that if he is an ex-priest, he should be tonsured; and in order to test this, I say something to him calculated to make him take off his hat. He does so, and I find that he is indeed tonsured. Here at last is an indication that my theory is correct. I can now say that he is presumably an ex-priest, although it would be inaccurate to say that there is any definite probability that he is so, since I do not know how often I might find a man tonsured who was not an ex-priest, though evidently far oftener than he would be one. The supposition is, however, now supported by an inductive induction, a weak form of symptomatic or indexical argument. It stands on a widely different basis from that on which it stood before my little experiment. Before, it rested on the flimsy support of similarity, or agreement in "flavor." Now, facts have been constrained to yield confirmation to it by bearing out a prediction based upon it. Belief in the theory rests now on factual reaction to the theory. Thirdly, while the man's hat is off, I read in the crown of it a name that has been pasted into it. I have no doubt whatever that it is the man's name. I do not go into the question of how I come to be so confident of that.”

As you can tell from Peirce’s example, logic, here, runs into detective work. Indeed, logic is, for Peirce, wholly connected to inquiry. Eco, taking Peirce’s hints, writes about clues in his book on semiotics, and takes us to a familiar example – familiar, I suspect, because it was passed around so often in the early sixties by semioticians and critics:

In the recognition of clues, one isolates certain objects (or any other kinds of trace which are not imprints) left by someone on the spot where he did something, so that by their actual presence the past presence of the agent can be inferred. It is evident that, when used for mentioning, clues work in exactly the opposite way from symptoms; by a coded and proven contiguity (of the type ‘owned to owner’) a possible presence of the causing agent is abduced. In order that the abduction be performed, the object must be conventionally recognized as belonging to (or being owned by) a precise class of agents. Thus if at the scene of a murder I find a dental plate I may presume that, if not the murderer, at any rate someone who has no more natural teeth has been there…

As a matter of fact clues are seldom coded, and their interpretation is frequently a matter of complex inference rather than of sign-function recognition, which makes criminal novels more interesting than the detection of pneumonia.
One could say that imprints and clues, even though coded, are ‘proper names’, for they refer back to a given agent. The objection does not affect the fact that they refer, in any case, to a content, for there is nothing to stop the class to which the expression refers from being a one-member class…

But in fact very seldom can imprints and clues be interpreted as the traces of an individual agent (indeed maybe never). When looking at the footprint on the island, Robinson Crusoe was not able to think about an individual. He detected “human being”. When discovering Friday he was undoubtedly able to express the index-sensitive proposition “this is the man who probably left the footprint.” But even if he had previously known that there was one and only one man on the island he would not, when looking at the footprint, have been able to refer it to a preceise individual; the primary denotation of the expression would have been “human being” and the rest would have been a matter of inference.” (224, A Theory of Semiotics)


LI knows that these passages in Eco are fairly famous, at least among the lit crit crowd. We’d like to match them to some corresponding passages in an essay by Carlo Ginzburg which is also famous: Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes. But before we do that – before we make a contrast between Crusoe as prey and the detective in Ginzburg as predator – we want to introduce the animal note. This is from Pliny’s Natural History:

“The clemencie of Elephants: their foresight and knowledge of their owne dangers: also the fell fiercenesse of the Tygre.
A WONDER it is in many of these creatures, that they should thus know wherefore they are hunted, and withall take heed and beware of all their dangers. It is said, that if an Elephant chaunce to meet with a man wandering simply out of his way in the wildernesse, hee will mildly and gently set him into the right way againe. But if he perceive a mans fresh footing, before he espie the man, he will quake and tremble for feare of being forelaied and surprised: he will stay from farther following the sent, looke about him every way, snuffe and puffe for very anger. Neither will he tread upon the tract of a mans foot, but dig it out of the earth, and give it to the next Elephant unto him, and he againe to him that followeth, and so from one to another passeth this intelligence and message as it were, to the utmost ranke behind. Then the whole heard makes a stand, and cast round about to returne backward, and withall put themselves in battell array: so long continueth that strong virulent smell of mens feet, and runneth through them all, notwithstanding for the most part they be not bare, but shod.”

Crusoe is a mythical figure in classical economics, and thus in the history of the Great Transformation. He is like the first man in the Vedas - he plays that liminal role. He is the perfect individual: a maroon on an island, a man, and a maximizer of his self interest. His discovery of the footprint leads, in Eco’s account, to some detective work. But we sense a line being crossed here all unconsciously – that is, the passional aspect under which the footprint is discovered. Crusoe, as readers of the book know, goes into a profound panic due to that footprint. The panic has to do with the fact that the abduction, here, is made on the part of a creature who imagines himself to be possibly prey to a predator. Similarly, those elephants, wonderfully passing that image of a man’s footprint among themselves, gather themselves together in battell array to defend themselves. More than that, the footprint, which to Crusoe and to Eco is a visual icon, is, for the elephant, the site of at least two sense experiences – seeing and smelling. That ‘strong virulent smell of mens feet’ is left out of account in the detective novel – after all, men’s feet are usually shod, there. However, since we are plumbing mythology and natural history, here, the the piste – the trace – may well be odorous as well as visual, since we are in the realm of bare feet.

There’s a long and dominant tradition that divides man and animal according to one divine property – language. Usually, language is taken from the noun-side – it is the names of things that animals don’t have. But of course, language would not get off the ground if it were simply a cloud of names. It wouldn’t, to use Peirce’s language, respond to then needs of inquiry, as a footprint passed among elephants does.
LI will try to post about Ginsberg’s essay next.

2 comments:

Chuckie K said...

I'm not even going to trifle with details. Just let me say, PEIRCE! WOOO! WOOOO! PEIRCE!! Icons! Indexes! He's the best!

northanger said...

AZ 66 = ELEPHAND CRUSOES = ROBERT K. MERTON, oops...

AZ 64 = ELEPHANT CRUSOES = ROBERT MERTON = ROGER GATHMAN.

AZ 94 = ABDUCTIVE MULTILOGUING = CRITICAL REALIGNMENT = GO TO THE PLACE THAT'S THE BEST = PIPELINE UNPLUGGED.

AZ 76 = SPIRIT IN THE SKY = OUT OF MY BLIND SIDE.

AZ 271 = STARTING FROM THE INVISIBLE WORLD THE VISIBLE WORLD WAS INVENTED = ABDUCTIVE MULTILOGUING: THE SEMIOTIC DYNAMICS OF NAVIGATING THE NET.

AZ 177 = THE SEMIOTIC DYNAMICS OF NAVIGATING THE NET = GOES-R GEOSTATIONARY LIGHTNING MAPPER = NASA INFORMATION AND INTEGRATION THEORY = NEITHER WE NOR GOD GET BEYOND TELEOLOGY = MAGIC MISTS WHICH CONFER INVISIBILITY = THREE THINGS REQUIRED OF THE OLLAM-POET = YOU CAN TURN A SPHERE INSIDE OUT, BUT NOT A CIRCLE.

AZ 153 = HYPOTHETICAL RULE OR PRINCIPLE = DEMARCATING SCIENCE FROM NON-SCIENCE.

AZ 147 = REASON FROM THE EXPERIENCE AT HAND = (1) WRITE DOWN THE PROBLEM : SUBJUNCTIVE = TRALFAMADORIAN GEOMETRICAL LANGUAGE.

AZ 240 = A MEANINGFUL CASE OF SOME HYPOTHETICAL RULE OR PRINCIPLE = A STATE OF AFFAIRS THAT IS RADICALLY DIFFERENT FROM THE ACTUAL ONE = PUTTING TOGETHER THE PIECES OF A LONG FORGOTTEN PUZZLE = THREE THINGS WHICH DIGNIFY THE DIGNITIES OF A POET = TO THE THRESHOLD OF THE GATE AND THE LOWER AND UPPER LOCKWOOD.

AZ 184 = TEINM LAEGDA - IMUS FOROSNAD - DICHETAL DO CHENNAIB = THE AUTHOR, THE READER AND THE LITERARY WORK = BRINGING TOGETHER TWO SYMBOLIC HYPOSTASES = DIRECT YOUR COURSE ACCORDING TO YOUR WILL = ENTERTAINING THE HOTS FOR YOUNGER WOMEN = LET THIS BE WRITTEN IN TAMHLORGAIBH FILEADH (Let this be written in Tamhlorgaibh Fileadh [Headless Staffs of Poets], and after the manner of professors, and in the language of the Ollamh; so that every one may take his copy [or share] with him to his own territory and land, of all the knowledge, and all the history, and all the topography, and all the deeds of bravery and valour, that Caeilté and Oisín have related; p471. Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History) = ASTRONOMY IS A SCIENCE… ASTROLOGY IS SILLY. GOT IT?