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This article appeared in Volume 10 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

SRB Insights: Cassirer's Soft Edge

by Robert E. Innis

In a sorely neglected 1930 essay, 'Form und Technik' (in Cassirer 1985), Ernst Cassirer extended the mature semiotic framework developed in his three-volume masterwork The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Cassirer 1923, 1925, 1929) to a powerful descriptive and critical analysis of technology or 'technics.' The analyis is based on his differentiation of a semiotic triad of 'expression' (Ausdruck), 'representation' (Darstellung), and 'signification' (Bedeutung) as the ultimate sense-functions and sense-spaces governing all form-giving and world-building activities. According to Cassirer, they are the three fundamental ways a sign, through its meaning-focus, can relate us to an object. They correspond to an increasing 'distance' between the sign and the realities accessed through it, indeed, an increasing 'transparency' of the sign, a disappearing of its 'material' character and 'physical' reality and underpinnings.

'Expression,' in Cassirer's use of the term, is the sense-function where sign, meaning, and object are so indissolubly joined that the sign is taken to participate existentially in its intended reality. For Cassirer, word-magic and mythic consciousness are prime exemplifications of this stratum or form of consciousness, continued, even though residually, in 'higher' forms of religion and their distinctively 'affective' configurations. It is the realm primarily of physiognomic and qualitatively defined meanings. 'Representation' is the sense-function where the relations between signs, meanings, and objects have moved to a higher level of 'abstraction.' Whereas mythical consciousness works within the dimension of 'identity,' representation introduces 'difference.' The word is not the thing; the image is not the imaged. Words and images, doing the 'work' of representation, 'articulate' the world without being a part of it. Language and art exemplify in clearest fashion this sense-function, albeit in rather different ways. They 'grasp' the world (begreifen), upon an intuitive (anschaulich) base, to be sure, while not taking hold of it (greifen) in any material or magical fashion. 'Signification' is the stratum of sense-functions farthest removed from sensory, intuitive supports. The concrete physical reality of the sign and its objects recedes. This meaning-space accesses, indeed constitutes, a world of events and their relations to one another, and not to our intuitional capacities. It is exemplified in modern mathematical physics and the notation systems that make it possible (aswell as the various systems of pure mathematics and symbolic logic).

This semiotic 'ascension' of consciousness away from and through the concrete and the intuitive toward the abstract 'signifying' dimension is shown by Cassirer to be paralleled by an inner movement in technics from a mimetic, participatory phase, rooted in mythic consciousness's subjection of itself to a fundamental wish-world of magical and ritualistic acts, through an analogical-extending phase, wherein every tool is to be seen as an externalization (Nachaussentreten) of the hand or other bodily organ (an insight due to Hegel and Ernst Kapp), to a purely abstract or 'symbolic' phase of technologies that transcend or supersede, either in scale or speed, the organic limits of human being-in-the-world (a phenomenon noted by Marx). The progressive 'dematerialization' of the sign charted in Cassirer's semiotic phenomenology, its abandonment of intuitive supports, is matched, Cassirer thinks, by a progressive dematerialization of the body and its extensions in technics. The central message of 'Form und Technik' is that 'technics' is a 'way of world-making' sui generis and hence a multi-leveled 'symbolic form' in its own right, alongside myth, language, art, science, and ethics and law. It actively projects, indeed, inscribes, a pattern of intelligibility upon the world, giving rise to 'stamped forms' of every sort: from chipped stone to the 'automatic' processes of modern computing systems.

For Cassirer's Hegelianized (i.e., historicized) and semioticized Kantian project, our sense of self is correlative to our sense of an external, constraining 'reality.' The 'I-pole' and the 'object-pole,' making up a complex relational field, develop together. This correlation is especially exemplified in the realm of technics and its sphere of 'effective action.' "Knowledge of the 'I' seems to be bound up in a very special way with the form of technical 'doing'" (1930: 71). This special way is manifested in the sense of limits or constraints attendant upon the turn to the 'will' away from the 'wish.' "For human beings there does not exist from the beginning a firm representation of subject and object according to which they, so to say, orient their behavior, but in the whole of this behavior, in the whole of their bodily and animate-spiritual activities there first arises knowledge of both domains and the horizon of the 'I' differentiates itself from that of reality" (1930: 55).

Cassirer breaks in his work with all logocentrism in spite of the centrality of language and dialogue in his philosophical project. Instead he sees theessence of humanity in activity and the production of form, quite generally, even if many of the types of forms could only have been produced by a speaking and symbol-using animal. (See his Freiheit und Form.) For him humanity develops by 'embodying' itself -- in the sense developed in phenomenology, especially of the Merleau-Pontyan kind -- in the twin systems of (a) thought-forms, carried by language and the other semiotic systems, notational and otherwise, it makes possible, and of (b) material forms, effected by the 'working' up of matter and its transformation into tools, artifacts, containers, and controlled processes of all sorts. But just as the complex system of language is caught in the dialectic of 'proximity and distance,' so do the systems of tools both bring the world closer and set it at a distance. To 'take' something, indeed to look upon the whole world potentially, 'as' a tool -- or 'as' a sign -- involves the twin actions of Absicht and Voraussicht. Looking 'away' from the material reality of something, ceasing to be immersed in it, is the precondition for looking 'forward' to something. This 'turning'-of-sight-'from' makes possible 'fore-'sight, pro-jection into the future, a point Dewey emphasized in many places (see chapter 4 of his Experience and Nature). Consequently, "All spiritual mastery of reality is bound to this double act of 'grasping' (Fassen): the conceptual grasp (Begreifen) of reality in linguistic-theoretical thought (Denken) and its material grasp (Erfassen) through the medium of effective action (Wirken); to, that is, the conceptual as well as the technical process of giving-form to something (Formgebung)" (1930: 52). Here is a clear expression of the essential link between 'form' and 'technics.'

The significance of the transition to the tool (Werkzeug), as mediating device, resides in the fact that "the extension of effective action changes its qualitative sense (Sinn) and that it thereby creates the possibility of a new way of looking at the world" (1930: 53), that is, in terms of an overarching instrumentality, a point Hegel also made and that Marx exploited to the hilt. This new thought-form (Denkart) reveals the human formative power not only of 'working up' nature to satisfy immediate practical needs, but of projecting systems of novel relations over it that are, incipiently, more 'abstract' or even universal. It introduces an 'as' structure into the sensorium as a whole, that is, a hermeneutic structure. In a passage that reminds one of Heidegger, with whom Cassirer had a prickly relationship, Cassirer notes that a tool-defined object is determinedas something only in so far as it is determined to something (1930: 64). Any tool is grasped not as a whole composed of thing-properties (Dingbeschaffen-heiten) but as a whole composed of vector-magnitudes (Vektorgrössen) (1930: 64). It is precisely the elaboration of complex, interlocked systems of vector-magnitudes that make up the inner spaces and historical trajectories of the symbolic form of technics, quite generally.

In all instances, however, the material features and dimensionalities of signs and tools are apprehended (not 'focally,' but 'subsidiarily,' to use Polanyi's terminology) and enter constitutively into the sign-object and tool-world relation. (I am thinking here of James Bunn's, The Dimensionality of Signs, Tools, and Models.,1981) Accordingly, each stratum of embodied -- i.e., mediated -- sense-functions will 'bias' our access to the world. These biases are ineluctable, since for Cassirer, as for Peirce, there is simply no unmediated access to 'being' or the 'world.' The dynamic closure effected by mediation in all its forms -- semiotic and materio-technical -- is in fact a widening gyre of meaning-fields and function-fields that spiral 'upwards,' with seemingly no greatest upper bound. Even what, from the point of view of philosophical semiotics, is putatively 'outside' the play of signs is accessed through signs, and the play is not a 'free' play but a 'bound' play, as I have tried to show elsewhere (in my Consciousness and the Play of Signs, 1994). Bound to the world through specifically configured signs and sign systems, we are subject to their functional and semiotic logics. Bound to the world through materio-technical or technological systems, we are likewise subject to their functional and operative logics. This constitutes the material ground of what Cassirer calls our 'community of fate' (Schicksalsgemeinschaft), which demands to be turned into a 'community of will' (Willensgemeinschaft). Such a community is (ideally) discursively constituted and oriented toward freedom, though not necessarily 'happiness.' This is for Cassirer a 'lower' and impossible goal in light of the 'tragedy of culture,' whose objective weight and force more and more presses upon the individual. (See Cassirer 1960: 182-217.) The inner trajectory of the technical process (and semiotic process, too) should be toward an 'education' (Bildung) of the will-to-work and the development of humanity's deepest form-building power (1930: 90) manifested in freedom from the mere Triebwerk of labor and consumption (even of meanings and images in our 'information age') that marks the present daysocial matrix in which technological systems operate. From happiness exemplified in subjective gratification there is needed a movement to the open space of ethically considered possibilities, a consequence of our having a 'symbolic future.'

The ethical issues, in the broad sense, are so important because technics in all forms shapes the very matrices of space and time in which we live and hence in which we both experience ourselves and carry out our projects. The reformed transcendental aesthetic outlined in the chapter on 'The Human World of Space and Time' in Cassirer's An Essay on Man (1944) involves differentiating, following the tripartite schema of expression, representation, and signification, three spaces and times in which human culture -- encompassing both semiotic and materio-technical systems -- develops. As to space, Cassirer distinguishes 1) an organic space, a pragmatic space of action, 2) a perceptual space, "of a very complex nature, containing elements of all the different kinds of sense experience -- optical, tactual, acoustic, and kinesthetic" (1944: 43), and 3) an abstract space, a homogeneous space of geometrical and mathematical relations. Time is likewise divided into 1) organic time, which is "not a thing but a process" (1944: 49), which is absorbed in the present, 2) the time of human memory, which "implies a process of recognition and identification, an ideational process of a very complex sort" (1944: 50) and the construction of a general scheme of serial order, making possible 'symbolic memory' which allows human beings to reconstruct, through imaginative recollection, prior experience, to 'survey' it, and hence construct a 'sense' of the past, and 3) a transcending of the intrinsic, instinctual drive of organic life toward the future by the transforming of the immanent 'pressingness' of the future into an 'ideal.' This is the theoretical idea of the future, a "prerequisite of all man's higher cultural activities" (1944: 54). Here arises a symbolic future, indeed a 'prophetic' future, since such a sense, transcending finite, empirical life, is exemplified in the lives and teachings of the great religious prophets. The future become promise and imperative.

Cassirer offers us both a semiotically derived analytical framework and elements of a normative standard by which we can attempt to 'take the measure' of technics. His semiotic theory, culminating in a theory of culture, encompasses all media, or mediating structures, whatsoever. This is the domain of an Hegelian 'objective spirit' plays a central role inCassirer's thought as a whole -- and also in Peirce's, Royce's, and Dewey's. The 'materialization' of mind in signs and other exosomatic organs -- both 'hard' and 'soft' -- is a veritable 'realization' or 'embodiment' of mind, the 'inside' seeing itself 'outside' and the 'outside' defining and constituting what is 'inside' (Goethe). Cassirer's generative insight is that signs, tools, and 'media,' which are normally identified with information technologies in particular, can and should be seen together as exemplifications of the universal spiritual power of and need for mediation quite generally.

I would like to indicate, briefly and schematically, how this would work out in concreto by focussing, with Cassirer-informed categories, on two arch and provocative works by information theorist Paul Levinson, Mind at Large (1988) and The Soft Edge (1997). Looking intently in the rearview mirror supplied by Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and others, Levinson has attempted to chart the historical, systematic, and social trajectories of specifically 'information' technologies, which are thought of as so many "adventures in materialization" (1988: 223). In these books Levinson explores, with a wealth of examples and in clear adherence to a Popperian fallibilistic 'naturalized epistemology,' the putative inner logics of those types of specifically 'mindful artifacts' that have propelled the sequences of 'information revolutions' that, for him, mark, indeed define, the history of consciousness.

The story and its logic follow, with updated references, that told primarily by McLuhan and Innis. The rise of speech is assimilated to a "primitive technology" (1988: 126) in which we are embodied. The achievement of a first stage of abstraction by speech is called "the initial technological act" (1988: 129), an original and problematic 'distancing' from reality. Spoken language constitutes the "essence of our species" (1997: 2), generating, by reason of its creativity and flexibility, a multidimensional environment (1988: 127). It continues, Levinson rightly claims, in all its media offspring (1988: 126). The invention first of primarily alphabetic writing -- a level of 'abstraction' above speech -- is compared to a "volcano" (1988: 131) or to a "tsunami" (1988: 131). Levinson implicates it in the rise of monotheism. Seeing it as the "informational technology" par excellence, he asserts that it makes possible the very notion of "abstract or nonsensory knowledge" (1988: 208). Alphabetic writing's revolutionary potentiation by movable type and its permeation of the social world effect an even more radicalshift in the sensorium, differentiating it and biasing it even more toward abstract visual space, a process in fact begun with Euclid's systematization of geometry. Electro-chemical information technologies such as the telephone, the radio, photography, television, and now the computer and its attendant electronic networks, reconfigure in their own ways the temporal and spatial matrices in which the self is formed. Recording devices for sound and vision function as "cognitive refrigerators" (1988: 138). Indeed, photography even effects a "migration of subjectivity" (1997: 46) in that painting, challenged by photographic capturing of the objective world, developed further "into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image" (1997: 47). Radio, television, and the telephone make the spatially absent immediately present, in real time, and the network now known as the Internet generates a new type of community and new ways in which information is stored, accessed, and appropriated, fundamentally in non-linear fashion.

The evolution of information technologies, Levinson admits, is not uniformly benign. Radio can evoke "the primitive passions of the tribe" (1997: 90). Technologies, by reason of their reliance in different ways on various forms of abstraction, can cause a "withering of reality" (1997: 38), a movement away from the richness of aural/tactile space. The "upward spiral of vicariousness" that marks human cultural life continues on "two profound, more or less simultaneous tracks": abstract thought and technologies -- away, that is, from immediacy. Recognizing, however, that "a medium cannot exist, let along thrive, without content" (1997: 98), he admits with Jacques Ellul that "every device of communication, print as well as electronic, triumphs in one kind of propaganda or other" (1997: 156). But the constant rise of "remedial technologies" (such as window shades!) to counteract the deleterious effects of other technologies (glass windows) is not exemplified primarily on the level of content but on that of mediating power. Technologies, furthermore, can pervert the "rational factor" itself (1988: 223). There are pathologies of informational technologies (1988: 228) -- Cassirer also spoke of the pathologies of symbolic consciousness. Acknowledging "the qualitative way that mental expression differs from technology to technology" (1998: 81), the central question becomes, "in what ways does technologically extended perception distort or render unnatural the realms it brings into human focus" (1988: 99)? While there are organically based "human sensory ratios" (1997: 99)and technologies that more or less "snugly fit the human perceptual array" (1997: 99) -- for example, radio, phonograph, and even telephone fit into the "human ecological niche of hearing-without-seeing" (1997: 99) -- by reason of the phenomenon of embodiment no technology leaves us untouched and indeed there is no guarantee that radically debilitating psychic and social consequences can be in all cases avoided.

How can we bring Cassirer's analytical apparatus to bear here?

Perhaps the focal issue in Levinson's and similar accounts is the 'splitting' of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the sensorium by the rise of alphabetic man. The major contrast is between the plenitude and richness of the aural/tactile dimensions, with their properties of omnidirectionality, proximity, concreteness, and sensory thickness, and the abstract, distancing, objectifying and potentiating nature of vision and its embodiments and extensions in information technologies. Vision is, at least in one of the predominant historical forms, the 'abstract' and 'abstracting' sensory modality par excellence. Its history, and its cultural import, is wedded both to the 'alphabet' and to the consequent rise of Euclidian geometry. It has introduced and reinforced novel ratios between the senses, engendering, it has been argued (Francastel, Heelan), a 'carpentered environment,' in more senses than one, that is by no means in all cases the 'normal' or ecologically best for human intercourse with the world.

Now, while it is true that alphabetic and geometric 'man' has developed complex systems of abstraction and objectification, to thematize these systems fundamentally in terms of a contrast or dichotomy between aural/tactile and 'visual' seems to be, on Cassirerian grounds, less than satisfactory or ultimate. Cassirer's schematization of the three 'levels' of sense-functions and the correlative semiotically defined spaces and times in which animal symbolicum lives offers a more powerful analytical framework. Informational technologies can and do develop on the three semiotic levels simultaneously: the expressive, the representational, and the signifying. They do different kinds of work depending on which dimensions are foregrounded or 'torqued' and which dimensions are 'suppressed,' to use James Bunn's terminology. In general, information technologies quite generally are complex combinations and weightings of these factors. They inform, differentiate, and perhaps distort the spatial and temporal matrices of action and the physiognomic face of the world asa qualitatively configured expression field, the perceptual spaces and times of the natural world picture in which the world is 'represented,' and the symbolic spaces and times of the theoretical world view, accessed at high level of abstraction by what Levinson calls 'process extending' informational technologies.

The contrast between tactile/audile space and visual space is neither phenomenologically nor analytically ultimate. It is tied up with a problematic notion of 'abstraction' as applied to specific sensory channels or combinations thereof. For some reason Levinson speaks of the movement from the experiential level through speech and on to writing as putting experience through the "double wringer of abstraction" (1988: 123). But it is only through the labor of abstraction that we have access to a stable world of objects governed by structures and laws. Even physiognomic perception, both of the informational technologies themselves and of the world through these technologies, is a feat of abstraction. 'Abstraction' is not by definition diminishing; it is rather enriching. This is one of the main lessons of semiotics. Information technologies are defined by their abilities to perform different types of abstraction. Rather than looking upon them as fundamentally distortive and disruptive, which seems to me to be infected with a kind of longing for immediacy, we should resolutely hold fast to the ineluctable universality of mediation, fateful as it is.

Levinson's project, deeply dependent upon McLuhan's, is in many ways an attempt to 'make a case' for the novel electronic information technologies. Without denying their semiotic power and heuristic fertility, I am not sure such an approach is fully coherent. On-line education and courses, for example, of which Levinson is a radical proponent, do not in every case live up to or avail themselves of the highly desirable "physical substrates of in-person knowledge groups" (1988: 207). Universal universities may be made possible electronically (1988: 210), but what about the "loss of the myriad unnoticed, minor ways that shared physical presence acts as a stimulant to good thinking" (1988: 207), something that marked the Socratic origins of Western philosophy, for example, or that is a permanent feature of the rhetorical matrices of sign use and interpretation? And why is this presence 'minor?' Indeed, the permanent presence of print and of the logic of the alphabet in all informational media, which Levinson asserts, seems to make the 'on-line' mode, with itsclaims to immediacy, just as 'abstract' as other print-defined access to knowledge, if not wisdom. To be sure, inasmuch as all technologies, and technological artifacts, are perceived, they have an expressive or physiognomic dimension or qualitative 'feel.' To stick with informational technologies, the evolution of scripts as well as systems of numerals evokes forms of immediate participation and identification. In addition to being representational devices they have a life of their own, fusing expressivity with utility. The development of various hand-writing systems, systems of Chinese calligraphy, and the design and promulgation of typefaces are not under the strict control of efficient mediation of information but also point toward a concern with what Cassirer calls Formschönheit, the beauty of form. This entwinement of art and technics does not mean that they are isomorphic, a point Lewis Mumford also made in his still pertinent Art and Technics (1952). Beauty, however, is not the thematic goal of technics. This is rather efficient action. But in the case of information technologies the perceptual matrices in all their complexity and range of relevance are crucial. The felicitous or infelicitous 'design' of Web sites exemplifies the point quite clearly.

John Krois (1983: 68-94 and 1987, esp. 198-208) reflecting on Cassirer, has pointed out that modern technologies of all sorts, by reason of their speed-up and rapid turnover and multidimensional causalities, have fragmented the ability to synthesize and integrate time. The three temporal ecstases fall apart and no longer make up a dynamic, structural unity. Indeed, we have what Krois calls 'tychastic' time: a time of events that do not hang together and which is constituted by seemingly random, but full, upsurge of events, with stretchings and retractions of time's experienced dimensionalities. Submergence in the organic time of the present creates a sense of immediacy and fullness, but when it is mediated by informational technologies, especially electronic technologies, 'proximal' participation takes priority over distance and the ability to construct a general scheme of serial order, necessary for 'symbolic' memory, diminishes. One has access to the past, as data, but it so transcends our integrative powers that it begins not to be either surveyable or to hang together. The rapidity of turnover of images and information, by transcending organic limits, makes certain types of self-appropriation difficult, if not impossible. However, 'organic limits' are not easily specifiable and one must be wary of premature determination.

The thing Cassirer most feared in the world of sophisticated informational technologies -- Levinson's soft edge -- was the paradoxical outbreak and spread of mythic consciousness, which is revealed as a permanent possibility of consciousness and meaning-making. Cassirer charts in his The Myth of the State (1946) "the skilful use" of a new "technical tool" (277) to which he ascribes a "catalytical effect." In times of individual and collective peril, he notes, human beings turn to myth and magic, reinforced by rituals (279). The "volcanic soil" of political life is always prepared to explode with "demonic mythical powers" (280), exemplified in, but not restricted to, the personification of the desire for order and security in a leader. This leader (and his message), made available through all the technical resources of the media, wields a kind of "social magic" (281). But the spontaneous, and elaborate, turn to magic and myth, which marked the early stages of humanity, is replaced in the modern world -- in the 20th century -- with a new technique of myth, which has become "artificial things fabricated by very skilful and cunning artisans" (282). Thinking of the paradigm case of the rise of German fascism, Cassirer sees military rearmament as "only the necessary consequence of the mental rearmament brought about by the political myths" (282).

Language itself, he notes, manifests a constant tension between the "semantic" and the "magical" use of the word. The word-magic of early humanity recurs in a kind of generalized media-magic of high technological societies. Along with a transvaluation of ethical values goes a "transformation of human speech" (283), indeed, in Cassirer's evaluation, a degradation, a hyperventilating creation of and reliance upon the emotional effects of speech and, moreover, their supplementation by new rites and rituals. Although the "steering function" of language is a permanent feature of social life, it is the pervasiveness and technological sophistication -- its insistent unavoidableness -- of the exercise of this function in a "high tide of new rituals" which technically sophisticated mass democracies make available by means of media saturation. The effect of this saturation is a lulling of the critical faculty, a diremption of the feeling of personality, a loss of individual responsibility. The social myth -- whatever its content -- gains sovereign control over the "masses."

Modern political myths, Cassirer thinks, perhaps with some exaggeration, do not demand or prohibit actions of a certain kind. Their goal is to"change the men, in order to be able to regulate and control their deeds" (286). "The political myths acted in the same way as a serpent that tries to paralyze its victims before attacking them. Men fell victims to them without any serious resistance. They were vanquished and subdued before they had realized what actually happened" (286). While Cassirer was most concerned with the racial myths, whose catastrophic effects, both past and present, are undeniable, other myths, with different contents and horrible effects, have functioned according to the same logic: the myth of the proletariat, of manifest destiny, of the moral superiority of capitalism and the universalization of market relations to every sphere of life. In these circumstances, Cassirer remarks, freedom, the sphere of free actions, disappears. Freedom entails autonomy, the giving of a law to itself by the moral subject. But moral subjects need the open space of imagination and it is this which the modern homo divinans politicus takes upon himself to control and supply -- and even enforce, though not necessarily anymore through terror and physical force. *The politician becomes a sort of public fortuneteller. Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership. The most improbable or even impossible promises are made; the millennium is predicted over and over again" (289). Parallels with certain claims made for the 'media revolution' come readily to mind.

Although we do not have to subscribe to a Spenglerian "astrology of history," many political myths -- including the economic myth of the superiority of capitalism -- evoke the idea of a destiny that is inevitable, inexorable, and irrevocable (290). Messianic Marxism and messianic Americanism both became pliable instruments wielded by crafty political leaders. The idola fori charted by Bacon are, for Cassirer, "the most dangerous and enduring" (294). Philosophy must enter into combat with them, uncovering what should be the logic of the social world -- founded on increasing freedom and autonomy -- just as it uncovered, by eschewing finally magic, the logic of the natural world. Philosophy alone -- and semiotics alone -- cannot destroy the ruling myths nor their mediating structures. The omnipresence of these structures makes their centralization and control a danger to free political life. But, as Levinson points out and as we see from daily reports in the newspaper, certain types of new technologies effect a centrifugal force, multiplying foci and sources, leading to a radical polycentrism.

Cassirer issues us a warning and a challenge to think, from a semioticperspective, the consequences of technological embodiment quite generally. This embodiment is isomorphic with semiotic embodiment. Information technologies open different meaning-spaces upon which they bear and they are defined within the triadic structure of sense-functions that define not just the type of 'work' various technologies perform but also the kind of work upon which they depend. Modern 'digital' technologies, which may be used primarily for 'aesthetic' purposes, are themselves made possible by notation systems that belong to the stratum of signification. In this sense, 'signification' makes possible distinctive forms of 'expression' and 'representation.' The generative matrices of these technologies are highly 'abstract,' even though their uses and their perceptual impacts may be eminently 'concrete.' But the invention of the alphabet and other systems of writing involved a generative insight that was not dependent upon previously existing and highly sophisticated information technologies. So, the 'soft edge' really encompasses all systems of exosomatic organs wherein meaning and information is carried and its analysis and classification must be subject to a clearly formulated semiotic conceptual scheme or schemes. Indeed, although I can only gesture at it now, I think that the Peircean classification of sign-types and the Peircean account of interpretants can be interestingly brought to bear on determining the inner trajectories of information technologies. Such technologies function iconically, indexically, and symbolically. The information user is a multi-leveled percipient, a topos or place, defined by complex systems of affective, energetic, and intellectual or logical interpretants, understood as the proper significate effects of signs and sign systems. In this sense we are the affective, actional, and conceptual 'out-comes' of the mediating instruments in which we are embodied. Perhaps the 'soft edge' is pretty hard after all.


Bunn, J. H. 1981. The Dimensionality of Signs, Tools, and Models. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cassirer, E. 1916. Freiheit und Form. Reprint: Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975.

---. 1960. The Logic of the Humanities. Translated by Clarence Smith Howe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

---. 1944. An Essay on Man. New Haven: Yale University Press.

---. 1946. The Myth of the State. New Haven: Yale University Pres.

---. 1923, 1925, 1929. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 3 vols. Vol. 1, Language, vol. 2, Mythic Thought, vol. 3, The Phenomenology of Knowledge. . Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953-1957.

---. 1930. Form und Technik. In: Symbol, Technik, Sprache, E. W. Orth, John Michael Krois. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1985.

Dewey, J. 1925. Experience and Nature. Critical edition: Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. With an introduction by Sidney Hook.

Francastel, P. 1951. Peinture et société: naissance et destruction d'un espace plastique de la renaissance au cubisme.Reprint: Paris: DeNoël/Gonthier, 1977.

Heelan, P.A. 1983. Space-Perception and the Philosophy of Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Innis, R. E. 1994. Consciousness and the Play of Signs. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Krois, J. M. 1983. Ernst Cassirers Theorie der Technik und ihre Bedeutung für die Sozialphilosophie. In: Studien Zum Problem der Technik. Phänomenologische Forschungen., ed. E. W. Orth. Freiburg/München: Verlag Karl Alber.

Krois, J. 1987. Cassirer: Symbolic Forms and History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Levinson, P. 1988. Mind at Large: Knowing in the Technological Age. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc.

Levinson, P. 1997. The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. London and New York: Routledge.

Mumford, L. 1952. Art and Technics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Robert E. Innis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His books include Karl Bühler: Semiotic Foundations of Language Theory (Plenum 1982), Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology (Indiana 1985), and Consciousness and the Play of Signs (Indiana University Press 1994). He is presently working on Forms of Sense: Language, Perception, Transcendence.

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