Katre Pärn
University of Tartu, Department of Semiotics

American philosopher Alain Watts complained once that we live in a strange world where the reality gets confused with the symbols and instead of the former, the government is protecting the latter – it is illegal to burn the flag but polluting our environment is not. Too easy, he concludes, is to confuse the world as we symbolise it with the world as it is. (Watts 1971: 5)
From this perspective the layer of meaningful elements – of signs – is opposed to the reality. To reach the world as it really is, we need to overcome the signs that obscure and conceal it. Sign is a simulacrum (Baudrillard 1983), that replaces referential reality, a myth (Barthes 2000), that builds empty castles in the air, having lost all connections with the reality. The task of semiotics is to lay bare, to demystify, deconstruct this illusion.

Yet next to this paranoid approach, there has always been another line of thought that does not create this kind of antithesis between signs and reality, but sees the worlds as a playground of multiple realities, where signs and things are not opposed as real and imaginary, reality and illusion, but as different modalities of reality. For what is the reality – the real world we live in? Is it the world of meaningless things, physical, objective, independent from us, or is the world made meaningful by signs as self-evident, objective and independent? Is the question "does the word 'cat' really signifies this four-legged animal" for us more adequate than the question "is the cat really four-legged animal?". Is a cat really a cat?

Is it even possible, from the point of view of living beings, to talk about physical world independently from meaningful world – of the semiotic reality? In our everyday experiences the physical world is already in some ways meaningful, semiotisised, although we tend to be unaware of this. Because of our psychic makeup, we are unable to notice things that are, for us, so pervasive that they become unimportant in our daily lives, Benjamin Lee Whorf points out, adding that we need alternative phenomena, exceptions that would make their regularity evident (Whorf 1967: 209-211). To comprehend how much our world cognition depends on the language we use to describe it, we need another language that does this differently. Semiotic reality is not independent from physical reality, but organises it, makes it meaningful, exists in symbiosis with it. Yet to comprehend, notice this symbiosis, we need to experience world through different semiotic reality that organises world differently – through another culture. Since the phenomena we call culture is in its totality human semiotic reality. Culture can be studied as semiotic reality.

Mostly we do not perceive the signs and values of our culture as conventional or as having alternatives. In fact, being immersed in our culture, we do not have the need to perceive them in this way. We exist in certain system of meanings, interpretations and values and this system is part of the environment we live in – familiar and habitual to us. The same way for thousands of years nobody thought why exactly do apples fall on the ground. "Where else should they fall?", we could imagine the answer to this question before Newton. Accepting this system is inescapable for us if we want to understand others and to be understood. It is unnoticeable process, as it occurs to all of us through our everyday practices. This is also the reason why culture as semiotic reality is for us omnipresent and in our everyday life does not rise questions.

Yet it is no wonder that the approach to semiotic reality as illusion was most strongly formulated in the age of globalization, during the prolonged ideological aftermaths of World War II and post-colonial migrations. World had changed, different cultural and ideological perspectives collided in one space and made evident the regularities of our everyday habitual reality.

What today's cultural conflicts reveal is not the illusion of world of meanings, but the strength and multiplicity of semiotic realities, of interpretive worlds and value systems we live in. The building blocs and "gravitations" of semiotic reality are no less real or objective for us than the birds, the trees and the sun. The semiotic reality is the daily environment we live in.

Thus the semiotic reality grows out of individuals and builds itself as shared world that is ordered through signs and sign systems, understood and made coherent through them. Signs and signs systems – most important of them the natural language – establish themselves as objective institutions, objectivised, and impose themselves on the subjective experiences and interpretations (Berger and Luckmann 1972). The linguistic reality becomes as self-evident referential reality, that is a independent of our individual will as physical reality.

Of course we can apply positivistic approach in studying culture by describing its artefacts, behavioral patterns, even beliefs, but it leaves something undescribed - the culture as semiotic reality that Clifford Geertz was after with its thick description (Geertz 1993). The materiality of culture is the materiality of signs, yet a sign is always something more then an observable, describable material of expression – it is the relation between expression and content that does not obey to simple description but always needs interpretation, understanding.

Culture is reality mediated by signs and the aim of semiotics (of culture) is not to reveal the imaginary nature of the world created by signs, but studying how and why exactly world becomes meaningful for us, how this meaningful world becomes shared reality and how these meanings are upheld, how different and differently meaningful worlds, i.e. cultures become to exist and what is the dynamics and transitions between them.

Semiotic mediation: reality and modelling

The same way as it is not possible to perceive and comprehend the physical reality without making it meaningful, the semiotic reality is not illusion standing apart from the world of things but interlaced with physical environment – either as the empirical reality of culture itself or in the perspective of cultural ecology. Meanings always have carriers, carriers are always meaningful and semiotic reality is established through the creation of meaning-carriers, i.e. through the fact that things becomes meaningful to us.

We could start explaining the inevitable connections between physical and semiotic reality through the perceptual and cognitive processes, Umwelt and world cognition as mechanisms of selective ordering and organising of the world. What this points to, is the fact that living organism always models the world around it in different levels and ways. Reality is always semiotically mediated – through senses, signs and sign systems, through texts and their authors, personal experiences and memories that model our world in one way or another.

For us this supersystem that is modelling and mediating the world – semiosphere, as Lotman called it (Lotman 1999) – is entwined with physical reality so deeply that their separation is only analytical. The asemiotic gaze at "objective reality" trying to step outside its own semiotic space, is in the end semiotisising the world - simply differently, from the perspective of everyday life even abnormally. Yet in the end it attempts to achieve different understanding, not to escape meaningfulness altogether.

This modelling is not artificial construction of the world, the question about the possibility to get access to the "real" world, but an understanding that being alive means inevitably ordering of the world/information and this in turn means inevitably certain simplification (or enriching), transformation. Physical and semiotic reality exist in interaction and on the level of semiotic description the issue is mainly in acknowledging that we are not capable of perceiving or comprehending the world in its whole complexity and totality, thus we always clean out the elements that are meaningful, make sense. We create order where there was none before mediation of our senses and signs gives rise to understanding, comprehension. We model the world to make it comprehensible, or rather – start using the models our body, language and culture provide.

Understanding, comprehending – this is the basic mechanism of semiotic reality, that reveals itself in various forms. With good reason Lotman defines semiotics as the scientific study of understanding (Lotman 1969). The need to make sense of surrounding environment, understand other people and oneself, desire to be understood and fear being misunderstood – these are everyday processes that lead to establishing semiotic reality as shared interpretative world and value system. Since what else is the semiotic convention or habit if not the generation of the possibility of understanding. Semiotic reality is thus the result of our mutual attempts to understand.

Yet the meaning generation and modelling are processes that are not simply the outcomes of semiotic superstructures of the world but are built step by step out of our own body. We do not comprehend the world in its totality because for us the information about world is always already mediated by our senses, channeled and the repertoire of our senses is limited, species specific. In addition the information is always systematisised, ordered, understood - gaps filled, generalisations offered. Do we see or recognize – it's a matter of descriptive language. In one way or another for us the world is organised by us, primary cohesion and meaningfulness established.

The main issue of semiotic reality is understanding through signs and sign systems: sign as a medium (à la Peirce) – means to comprehend something out of reach, a mediator – or a moulder of expression and content, a form (à la Saussure), the analog of an object in the process of cognition, a model (à la Lotman). It is this function of sign – as forming, modelling and mediating agent – that gives rise to the issues of linguistic and cultural relativism. In the end both point at the understanding of culture as a semiotic reality, i.e. of world cognition mediated and modelled by different sign systems. We could even speak of cultural relativity as semiotic relativity.

On the other hand what becomes essential is the signs' and sign systems' potential to build new value systems and interpretative worlds, new semiotic realities – be it in art, in media or in daily discourse.

Semiotic reality and autocommunication

The processes of mediation in culture can be viewed as processes of communication constantly taking place between and around members of the culture, endlessly shaping and confirming semiotic reality. From the point of view of cultural mediation, every member of culture functions analogously to sign – mediating information from one point to another. Mediation, from semiotic perspective, is never simply moving information but always filtering, reprocessing, remodelling it by the mediator.

In the conception of semiosphere, Lotman exemplified this through the translators who mediate alien information to culture by translating it to culture's own language. (Lotman 1999) Yet next to these mediating processes on the border, culture mediates constantly information inside itself as well, since culture needs constant feedback to understand the state it's in. Thus from the point of view of culture as well as individual, every act of communication is at the same time act of autocommunication, every exchange of information with somebody else is at the same time exchange of information with itself, evaluation of one's own understanding against somebody else's. In these autocommunicative processes culture is always "at the same time subject as well as its own object" (Lotman 1999), at the same time own and alien – describing, shaping and comprehending itself through the act of description.

Culture itself as a supersystem can be viewed as a body of intertwined semiotic realities and these endless communicative and autocommunicateive processes, description and self-description cultures means to achieve cohesion. Thus Berger and Luckmann view world as consisting multiple realities (everyday reality, reality unfoulding on the stage in theatre, reality of scientific worldview etc.) and transitions from one reality to another are more or less marked. Yet what keeps us from getting lost in this maze of realities is the natural language through what we translate experiences from other realities (theatre, dream, scientific) and thereby transform them into everyday reality. (Berger and Luckmann 1972: 39-40) Natural language offers conventional reality (Lotman 2009), that can be taken as a point of reference in making sense of the world around us.

Isomorphously to individuals, culture is constantly diagnosing and defining its own state of being, trying to explain and make sense of the changes, probes its limits of tolerance and acceptance, attempts to understand new elements in its own terms. The central function of autocommunication is thus to explain culture to itself, to construct self-image of the culture and to cope with change by describing it through the languages it knows, thereby adjusting new elements to the self-image or in the other way around. Culture is constantly modelling itself through self-description (Torop 2005: 168).

The interdependence between cultural self-image and language of description points at the same time to the dynamic nature of semiotic reality. The issue on mutability and immutability of signs and sign systems that puzzled Saussure (1969), the question "how can a system change and at the same preserve its identity" (Lotman 2009) could be read on the level of individual, sign system, as well as culture as whole. On one hand autocommunication is the way culture shapes and changes itself (Torop 2008: 729). On the other hand and from the perspective of semiotic reality innovation is always stabilized by and limited with the issue of understanding and means of understanding. Too new, unfamiliar might not be understood, or it might be made understandable and normal through translating it into the language of everyday reality. Between them is the limited innovation as "moderate genius" (Lotman 2009: 21). The need to understand the world around us – whether physical or semiotic – is the stabilizing force that influences processing of both old and new information.


Semiotic reality is not world created and expressed through signs or violently manipulated by them but world turned meaningful by living being and for being alive. The phenomena we call culture can be equated with human semiotic reality. Culture is the totality of meaning-, value and interpretative systems, that we live in and that absorbs physical reality into itself by making it meaningful and allows us to explain why we understand the world as we do. Through the symbiosis between physical world, our senses, signs and sign systems.

Yet the semiotic reality grows more complex and its inevitable that next to the need to understand our physical environment raises the need to understand our semiotic environment itself. This creates different auto- and metacommunicative processes that aim to comprehend the (self-)comprehension of a culture.

Thus the culture as semiotic reality builds itself on perceptual, cognitive and sign processes and grows into multiple layered meaningful space, that is capable of ever more complex processes of description and comprehension. Yet the most basic semiotic mechanisms of this reality function on every level.


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This research was supported by the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (Center of Excellence CECT) and carried through carried out as part of the research project "Typology of Cultural Autocommunication" (ETF7594) .