20 November 2007

What Structure Means to Me

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:10 am

The human environment is populated by real phenomena. Through sensory-perceptual systems we can detect and interpret information generated by phenomena — their color, shape, pattern, sound, velocity, etc. We can then categorize and organize these phenomena in a variety of ways, depending on the particular salient features under consideration. So, this particular thing can be a dog, an animal, a chocolate Lab, the neighbor’s pet, Fido, the cause of the yellow spots on my lawn, the source of all that barking, the dog that likes to be scratched under the chin. Each of these ways of categorizing the real phenomenon is embedded in and derived from a larger structural order. The structural order assigns a particular kind of meaning to the environment. This meaning is conveyed linguistically, so that the structure can be understood by the community of language-speakers in approximately the same way.

It’s possible to imagine phenomena as they really are, disembedded from the various systems of meaning by which we understand them. But we can’t actually encounter the raw thing in itself: even the sensory signals we receive from phenomena are organized by our perceptual systems so that we can make sense of the input. Raw phenomena exist, but from our human perspective they are an abstraction, the result of a thought experiment in which we strip phenomena of all the meaningful structures in which they’re always already embedded. Likewise we can imagine empty structures unpopulated by real phenomena. However, it may be impossible to generate a structure out of thin air without at least imagining the kinds of phenomena that would populate it. More often we abstract the structure beyond the bounds of the specific phenomena available to us.

From memory we are able to call up mental representations of specific phenomena: events, people, objects. We can also call up a variety of cognitive-linguistic schemata whereby we can make sense of phenomena, directing our attention to specific salient features in order to assign them to appropriate categories in various cognitive-linguistic structures. The linkages between phenomena and schemata are multiple and loose, so we can match them up on the fly according to our needs and intentions and whims of the moment.

Because of these loose multiple connections it’s possible for us to embed familiar phenomena in unfamiliar structures, and to extend existing structures to new phenomena. However, this doesn’t mean that structures exist in memory decoupled from representations of real phenomena, that signifiers float free of signifieds. Neither do signifieds float free of signifiers: our memories aren’t occupied by ghosts of raw phenomena decoupled from the various schemata by which we are able to incorporate them into structured systems of meaning. The connections between phenomena and structure, between signifier and signified, are loose and many-to-many. Together, phenomena and schemata constitute an unlimited variety of alternate virtual realities, any one of which can be activated by attention, intention or contagion and assembled in real time.

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