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Speaker's Abstacts

Christoph Baumberger
Built Signs
A Theory of How Buildings Symbolize

In my presentation, I propose a theory of how buildings symbolize. I first argue that buildings can function as symbols even though they differ from paradigmatic symbols. However, this requires not only a sufficiently comprehensive notion of symbol but also more ways of symbolizing than just denotation and depiction. Since Nelson Goodman’s theory of symbols distinguishes between denotation, exemplification, expression and allusion, it proofs suitable for my project.

Denotation is a symbol’s reference to what it applies to. It comprises naming, description, depiction and representation. Most buildings do not denote; but there are interesting exceptions. Denotation can be fictional, ambiguous or metaphoric.
  • A building which functions as a fictional representation pretends to denote something that does not exist, e.g. a dragon. The point of fictional representations is not what they denote (i.e. nothing) but how they are characterized as symbols.
  • A building is denotationally ambiguous if admits of several denotational interpretations, e.g. if it can simultaneously be interpreted as a ship- and as an duck-representation.
  • If an ambiguous building functions as a metaphor, then its metaphorical interpretation depends on its literal interpretation, e.g. the interpretation of a chariot-shaped temple as a sun-representation on its interpretation as a chariot-representation.
In contrast to typical representational sculptures, denoting buildings have only few parts with representational functions, represent only few aspects of their subject, are not very realistic representations and thus do not make it easy for us to recognize what they represent.

Exemplification is reference from a symbol to one of its properties. A tailor’s swatch exemplifies its colour and material, but not its size. Buildings can, e.g., exemplify their building type, their way of construction and aspects of their form. Exemplification can be multiple, fictional (pace Goodman), ambiguous or metaphoric.
  • Buildings exemplify usually many properties; the different exemplifications can support each other or be in tension or in balance with each other.
  • In case of fictional exemplification, a building purports to exemplify a property which it does not possess, e.g. a concrete skeleton construction being a brick building.
  • A building is exemplificationally ambiguous if admits of several exemplificational interpretations, either in different symbol systems or in the same minimal subsystem, e.g. if different social groups use different symbol systems or if a façade vacillates between different ways of being structured.
  • A building exemplifies metaphorically if it possesses the exemplified property only metaphorically, e.g. a department store the property of being masculine.

The concept of metaphorical exemplification admits an explication of architectural expression: A building expresses a property if it metaphorically exemplifies the property as an aesthetic symbol. Buildings can, e.g., exemplify emotions, virtues, ideas and values.

Besides the elementary forms of reference – denotation, exemplification and expression – there are also complex forms of reference. Allusions are indirect ways of reference running through chains of elementary referential relations. I discuss stylistic, typological, local and cultural allusions.
  • Stylistic: A building alludes to works in the style of an individual, a group, a place or an epoch by exemplifying features which are typical for buildings in this style.
  • Typological: A building alludes to works of a functional, formal or constructional type by exemplifying features which are typical for buildings of this type.
  • Local: A building alludes to aspects of its surrounding by exemplifying features that are typical for this surrounding.
  • Cultural: A building alludes to non-architectural aspects of its cultural context by exemplifying features that are typical for this context.

I conclude by arguing that the proposed symbol theory avoids the standard objection against theories which take architecture to be a kind of language and provides a much richer framework for the interpretation of buildings than alternative semiotics of architecture do.

Jan Bovelet
Architecture as language – semiotic componential analysis of architecture à la Charles Jencks

Theoretical and practical semiotics

Charles Jencks is seen as one the main representatives of the architectural theory of the post-modern. His 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, can practically be considered as one of the theoretical founding tracts of post-modernism. The book distinguishes post-modern architecture from architectural modernism in terms of cultural and architectural history by transferring the term post-modernism from the study of literature to architecture.

Jencks bases his approach on semiotics, which he regards as the fundamental science. The object of semiotics is the analysis of signs and sign processes of all kinds. The basic idea is that sign processes are involved in everything we do. Thus, if we wish to understand what we are dealing with when we address something, we have to understand the sign processes with which we deal with this something. This is of course also applicable to architecture, for which Jencks proposes the idea of “archisemiotics” [Charles Jencks, "The Architectural Sign", in Signs, Symbols, and Architecture, ed. by Geoffrey Broadbent, Richard Bunt and Charles Jencks (New York/London: Wiley, 1980), p. 74].

In order to demonstrate the semiotic bases and methods on which Jencks develops his theses, I will exclude two aspects of his approach. First, the cultural-historical and architectural-historical aspects of Jencks’s approach will not be explicitly addressed here. And, second, no account is taken of the non-uniform structure of semiotics. There were – and still are – numerous different approaches, methods, models and theories in the development of semiotics, for instance the different branches of semiology and semiotics, language-centred and general approaches, or dyadic and triadic sign models. Nor is the main purpose of this contribution to place Jencks in a historical or systematic context.
The idea is instead to demonstrate and reconstruct Jencks’s semiotic technique on the basis of certain examples that he gives in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. The examples themselves are to be the starting point for approaching the idea and the value of Jencks’s proposed semiotic perspective on architecture. 

Jencks’s semiotic approach

Jencks holds that language is the paradigmatic sign system: “Language dominates all sign systems” [Ibid.]. Architecture can therefore be understood in direct analogy with language and thus reconceptualised in semiotic terms, with architecture based, instead of words, on “visual codes” [Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 4th ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), p. 40]. Just as different languages have been spoken and used by different groups of people in different epochs, different architectural codes have been used at different times by different groups. Jencks calls these “semiotic groups”: “usually a complex mixture of ethnic background, age, history and locale”. [Ibid., p. 209] Jencks’s main analogy is that each of these semiotic groups thus ‘speaks’ their own ‘architectural language’.

For Jencks, all of these different architectural languages are in principle completely transparent: “[w]e can make a componential analysis of architectural elements and find out which are, for any culture, distinct units” [Ibid., p. 52]. The task of the semiotic componential analysis is thus to find the basal expressions of an architectural language and to assign it the contents that characterise it. The idea underlying this conception of language is as follows: language can in principle be understood as the relationship between something that designates (the significans) and something that is designated (the significate). In the same way that a word stands for a certain meaning, a particular architectural element – an architectural expression – must, according to Jencks, also stand for a certain architectural meaning: “architecture must have a signifying reference” [Ibid., p. 112].

Based on this conception, architectural theory should according to Jencks make use of archisemiotics in order to establish architectural corpora for various semiotic groups. These corpora can be imagined as giant lexicons that list, for the various semiotic groups, which architectural expression stands for which architectural meaning. With these lexicons at hand, believes Jencks, the dual and multiple coding of architecture in the plural intermixed fields of post-modernism can be deciphered.

Architectural theory and practice

Of the possible questions that arise from the examples given by Jencks for the application of his semiotic component analysis of architecture, I would like to emphasise two in particular. The first is whether and if so how we can connect semiotic component analysis with architectural design and making. What role can it play in the design of something new if an “architectural sign can only be completely analysed a posteriori, in a context” [Jencks, "The Architectural Sign", p. 102]? The second is whether and to what extent the analogy between architecture and language actually works. Why should we assume that we can differentiate between expression and meaning in architecture in exactly the same way as in language? [This question is made all the more poignant by the fact that there are numerous arguments in the philosophy of language and in linguistics that it is also not possible in language to differentiate categorically between expression and usage]

Claus Dreyer
Architectural Signs and Their Meanings

The analysis and interpretation of signs, complexes, and processes in the context of communications of all kinds is the object of semiotic research, and in the semiotic study of architecture, the analysis and interpretation of architectural elements, situations, and objects play a correspondingly central role. Even if, in this context, the theory of interpretation is often emphasized more than its practical application, it is nevertheless still possible to find a few representative applications from which typical procedures of semiotically oriented interpretation can be derived. Generally speaking, one can say that, from the semiotic point of view, architecture is based upon a conception of sign via which the given interpretation can be developed, e.g., the following "triadic" conception based upon widespread approaches:

                                         (Material, Construction, Shape)       
         2. Function                                                  3. Meaning                              
            (physiological, psychic, mental)                     (emotional, practical, ideal)

In this model, the practice of analysis and interpretation consists of determining the relationships between the forms, functions, and meanings of architectural signs and, if possible, uniting them in a synthesis; in doing so, the differentiation of individual aspects of the given sign referent has an important role. While in traditional modern architecture the path to meaning necessarily should proceed from the function, and then the form, in late and post-modern architecture, this relationship has been relaxed, and form has taken on a life of its own to such an extent that it can communicate meaning independent of function or sometimes even in opposition to it; this is the case especially with buildings with open or artistic functions, but is increasingly seen also with in functional buildings of all kinds.

Primarily the following three aspects can be considered for the semiotic approach to interpretation:

  • All architectural elements, from over-arching structures down to the smallest detail, can be interpreted as signs – provided they are intersubjectively identifiable on a physical medium and provided a cultural "field of discourse" exists on which the interpretation can be based. In architecture, this "field of discourse" is defined essentially by architectural and art history, but also by the given cultural and socio-theoretical framework of the discourse, and the boundaries of competence in these areas are also the boundaries of interpretation.

  • Another central theme of architectural semiotics is the determination and interpretation of "codes" which can be found in the specific design of an object. According to Eco, a "code" is a system or partial system of signs possessing an orderly context of signs, meanings, and interpretations and which are based on social conventions or norms. In architecture, one can distinguish between iconological, typological, stylistic, regionalistic, individualistic, etc. codes; according to Jencks, the difference between elite and popular codings has a special role. The determination of "codes" places the given object in front of a horizon of meaning which illuminates relationships with greater cultural objects and processes. In late and post-modern architecture, it is the special mixtures and superpositions of various different codes which lead to complex and multi-layered meanings.

  • The old theme of "symbolism of architecture" is likewise continued by semiotics and brought into a more-stringent relationship: According to this, symbols are signs with an especially deeply anchored meaning in social, cultural, and historical processes, and which serve to express important ideal contents in concentrated form. In his "Intentions of Architecture," Christian Norberg-Schulz declared that "cultural symbolization" was one of the primary tasks of architecture, and that it consisted of realizing a synthesis between the given architectural task, the ideals it contains, and the given appropriate culturally transmitted forms; this synthesis was to be based on the involved poles. This should yield architectural "cultural symbols" forming – together with other highly valued cultural objects – the "symbol milieu" (or, using our terminology, the "field of discourse") of a society in which its members can communicate with each other and reach a consensus about essential values and meanings. The identification of such cultural symbols represents one of the most-noble tasks of architectural semiotics.

In this contribution, these approaches are to be presented, explained, and demonstrated on the basis of several examples.

Kurt W. Forster
“Above the trash…”

Design claims attention and emits messages via objects. As a language of things, design defies language as such. Its linguistic turn, if ever there was such a thing, is minor compared to its objective reach and its subjective power.

An example of how advertisement design overreaches and undercuts language is the following: the BBC has recently entered the American television market and is advertising its programs. Claiming particular distinction and quality, one of the key phrases adopted for the campaign is “Above the trash…” Along one of the country’s major commuter routes linking New York City and New Haven, trashcans on the station platforms have been specially fitted with panels on which the slogan “Above the trash…” is affixed. Obviously, the phrase alone is clear and the presence of trashcans also holds few secrets, but placing the phrase literally above real trash affects the nature of both. There is trash, and now there is something above it. This is a product of design, not simply a statement or a fact.

Another example of design’s transformation of things and, more decisively, of action has reached a worldwide audience through Apple products: iPod, iPhone and iPad are paradigms of contemporary design precisely because they render everything that you can do with them ‘tangible’: icons, digits, letters and symbols are activated by touch, as if the sphere of signs had returned down to earth and melted like snowflakes on the skin. Surface represents the operative level of every transaction. Because action spends itself in a virtual depth, design recreates one of the mysteries of the imagination, the mermaid: endowed with a human face and a navigational tail. Like her, design enchants, bewilders, escapes, and, perhaps, also destroys. Everything about the iPhone is addictive and partakes of two worlds, the deep and the air, the hard and the soft, the smooth and the impenetrable. Its sound is that of the siren bringing the remote within reach, consuming time and conserving a memory of the lost. Everything that materializes—as it does with ever so slight a delay—remains entirely immaterial. Its properties of “floating,” “gliding,” “shrinking and expanding” betoken a profoundly immaterial state that can only be apprehended on surfaces.
Architecture now reacquires an overarching role as it did in the Renaissance when it became the mothership of all the (visual) arts. Undeniably made of materials, necessarily shaped in every part and defined in every detail, architecture embraces the “situated sense” of all its components as well as their material depth. Today, architecture may be the only practice capable of uniting matter and meaning beyond their respective domains. After a very long time of dissipating the art of its wellspring, architecture may have more “turns” ahead of itself than it has already made. 

Andreas Hapkemeyer
Buildings as signs: the architecture of the 1930s in Bozen-Bolzano

Bozen-Bolzano is one of the cities in which Mussolini’s Italian state systematically built in the 1930s and 1940s. From a small town of some 25,000 inhabitants, an influx of heavy industry caused it to grow in just a few years into a city of 100,000 people. This transformation of the former Austrian provincial town into an Italian border city with a symbolic character can be observed in its architecture.

After long years during which the architecture of those times was regarded by the German-speaking population of South Tyrol as a sign of oppression, the 1980s saw a revaluation of the formal qualities of these buildings (see Oswald Zoeggeler, Architektur für ein italienisches Bozen). Apart from some buildings, for example the city’s pathetic victory monument, the prevailing forms are developed from Bauhaus rationalism. For all the brutality (in town planning terms) with which this architecture was imposed, it does have considerable qualities. A positive example of urban development was the building of a more monumental and consciously modern row of arcades along the Freiheitstrasse-Corso della Libertà on the other side of the River Talfer in contrast to the central row of arcades in the middle of the medieval town. Large ensembles were created, for instance at the Siegesplatz-Piazza della Vittoria, which is still today reminiscent of the metaphysical images of Giorgio Morandi, or at the Gerichtsplatz-Piazza del Tribunale, which lies on the south-facing axis formed by the Italienallee-Corso Italia and Romstrasse-Via Roma.

This architecture is the expression of a society whose elites saw themselves as standing at the pinnacle of progress and who intended to march on to a yet more glorious era. It however also expresses the fact that, here, the individual is of only limited significance. While the arcades in the city are on a human scale, the 1930s arcades in Gries are consciously larger. Under these arcades, with their right-angled rather than rounded forms, the individual cuts a small figure: it is the times that are great. The buildings are also noteworthy for their detail: their entrance doors, their stairwells with marble stairs and curved handrails, the fine woods used to manufacture the doors with their stone frames, the arrangement of the generously-sized housing units – everything manifests a style that is all the more visible when compared with the relentlessly faceless architecture of the period after the Second World War.

The Italian architecture of the 1930s (and the 1940s) is characterised – and not just in Bozen-Bolzano – by its systematic integration of sculptures that often assume the heroic poses that are expressed in architecture as monumentality. As in Bauhaus, the idea is to unite the arts under the hegemony of architecture. As for example at the Siegesplatz-Piazza della Vittoria, sculpture is again and again supplemented by means of ideological statements chiselled in the stone, filling the architecture with the implicit content. So much for the symptom of architecture, to which also belong design and art.

The Gerichtsplatz-Piazza del Tribunale has a special story to tell: the law courts stand opposite a structure conceived at the time as a party building. This latter, today used by the state tax authority, is adorned by an enormous frieze, at that time one of the largest in Europe, if not the largest. It shows the history of the Fascist party in two sections, one above the other with, at the centre, Mussolini high on his horse with his famous saying: credere, obbedire, combattere [believe, obey, fight]. This recounts the most important steps on the way to power and the subsequent deeds while in possession of power (including the Abyssinian war). Remarkably, Hans Piffrader, a German-speaking South Tyrolean artist, was selected to laud policies that in South Tyrol conflicted with the interests of the German-language majority. By no means the only artist to select the dictator Mussolini as the subject of his work, Piffrader’s model was Trajan’s Column in Rome. Strangely enough, the work would only be completed in 1957, around a decade and a half after Mussolini’s fall from power. A high-ranking deputation was due from Rome and the authorities wished to avoid presenting an incomplete façade: the artist was thus requested to use the missing stones that had in the meantime been warehoused. The work indicates the relationship between art and power. Moreover, the work remains – if differently from the Victory Monument – an object of discussion and protest. We can thus to an extent speak of an entirely current symptom that makes a statement about the state of health of South Tyrolean society.

Some two years ago, a politically auspicious moment seemed to have arrived. The then Minister of Culture granted the South Tyrolean regional authority what had for a long time been regarded as impossible, namely permission to cover the embarrassing frieze. The official explanation was to avoid the glorification of fascism. Part of the media (and of the population) revolted: the real aim here appeared to be an attempt to cover up the Italian history of South Tyrol. When the authorities tendered for bids to cover the frieze in an artistic manner, numerous South Tyrolean artists responded with proposals. Their participation was an indirect indication of their opinion that a frieze in celebration of fascism must be covered up. It should thus – in contrast to the demands of a group of historians – no longer be visible and not historicised by means of communicative measures that would of course not necessarily be a pleasant experience for either the Italian-speaking or the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol. Furthermore, through their participation in the tender process, the artists showed that via their interventions they would be prepared to cover up the work of another artist. So much for the symptom of art.

Tatsuma Padoan
Beneath the Signs. Strategies of Behaviour Prescription and Negotiation
in the Design Communication of Tokyo Metro

“Please refrain from putting on make-up in the train.”
Manner poster, August 2009

This paper intends to investigate the functioning and efficacy of visual design in everyday urban life, by exploring the strategies of prescription and negotiation of behaviours employed by a particular corpus of subway posters. In September 1974 the Tokyo Metro subway company spread a series of posters which invited, in a humoristic style, to respect the “good manners” inside its stations and trains in service in the Japanese capital. The name assigned to these adverts was Manner Poster. From then on, this initiative was repeated every month, by changing every time messages and images, but maintaining an annual format.

The three editions from 2008 to 2010 are particularly striking for their irony and visual impact. Produced by the graphic designer Yorifuji Bunpei, they depict – in a comic-strip style and using white, black and yellow colours – narrative situations inside the subway stations and trains, where one or more persons perform, under the astonished eyes of the other passengers, actions considered as “ill-mannered”. The images present a large variety of such situations, ranging from occupying priority seats for elderly people and pregnant women, to rushing to board as the doors are closing, from throwing waste tissues on the ground, to blocking entrances with suitcases and backpacks. But the range of “ill-mannered behaviours” becomes quite wide. Indeed, it also includes eating food inside the trains, applying makeup, talking on mobile phones, pouring water on the other passengers while shaking the umbrella, falling down drunk and doing gym exercises in the metro. The images actually suggest paradoxical narrative sequences, visual hyperboles which exaggerate actions considered as impolite, trying to emphasize the negative effects on the other passengers. The bad-mannered subjects are visually distinct from the other passengers and from the portrayed settings according to different colors, positions and traits, in order to indicate the improper character of their behaviour. The victims, depicted with large bulging eyes, are active agents who perform through their gaze the negative sanction of the ill-mannered action, presenting an universe of values which has to be adopted, in order to guarantee the good functioning of the social relations. And the messages written above the images do not leave any doubts about the target of the posters: “Please do it at home”, says the one above the instant ramen (noodles soup) devourer, “Please do it at the office” says the message over the businessman engaged in writing notes while talking on the phone in the train. Manner Posters are first prescriptive and then proscriptive: they tell you what you “have to do”, in order to make you understand what you “have not to do” when using the subway. Posters are characterized by a written message (“Please do it at home”) which, according to the same author Yorifuji, conveys “the repressed frustration of the typical commuter” who is emotionally affected by the impolite behaviour. These posters, in other words, construct a form of identity for the metro passengers, posing everyone under the gaze/judgment of the other commuters, and prescribing situations and places which are appropriated to take specific courses of action. They are “regulators of the social life”, which charge everyday actions with positive or negative values, according to their spatial-temporal localisation.

An analysis of this “subway etiquette” discourse and of its development along the three editions, reveals a particular linguistic and visual differentiation of identity, which points to models of behaviour and sociality very different between each other, according to the Japanese or foreign origin of the passengers to which the poster’s persuasive action is directed. I will therefore try to demonstrate, on the one hand, how the interactions between poster-actors and human actors try to define distinct regimes of political enunciation (Latour 1999), on the other hand, how parodic translations of the Manner Posters – which immediately proliferated on web-sites and magazines in Japan – also lead to modes of negotiation of the values and social bonds prescribed.

Roland Posner
The semiotic bases of design

Design is the creation of objects with the aim of communicating information about themselves by means of their perceptible characteristics. We can differentiate between the design process (i.e. the work of the designer, the design activity) and the design result (i.e. the design object with its perceptible characteristics) and the communication process (i.e. the design experience).

Design theoreticians generally agree that design objects communicate information about themselves: however, heated debate surrounds the possible nature of such information and how it is produced.

The most widespread view in this regard is that a design object is a speaking thing that communicates its messages in a kind of “thing language”, with the content of the message arising from the spectrum of possible usages of the design object. This view is based on the following semiotic models, which are characterised and analysed in this contribution.

1. The code model, which treats design objects like words and understands their information as word meanings: this presupposes the existence of a thing language that divides things into object types and assigns a distinguishing category to each type of article in conventional manner.

The relevant category is called to mind in each member of a culture encountering an object of the relevant type. This applies both to natural things (e.g. “rocks”, “trees”, “horses”) and artefacts (e.g. “houses”, “shoes”, “typewriters”).

The advantage of such a model, which is usually attributed to the linguist Saussure (1914), is the assumption of a system of culture-specific conventions that permits a classification into object types (see Posner 1988 and 1992). The disadvantage lies in its rigid categorisation as well as its inability to take account of the character of the message of the design object.

2. The communication model, which treats design objects as communicative expressions that communicate their manufacturers’ information to their users: it presupposes a manufacturer with a manufacturing intention and intends that users understand this intention.

Each person encountering the relevant design object becomes involved in a dialogue that requires him or her to deduce the manufacturing intention from the object’s perceptible characteristics and to use the design object in the relevant way. This however is not (any more) applicable (today) to natural things that have no manufacturer, but only to artefacts such as houses, shoes and typewriters.

The advantage of this model, which is often attributed to analytic philosophers such as Grice (1957), lies in the accuracy with which each individual detail of the design object can be understood and reference made to the overall intention. The disadvantage consists in the dialogue fiction that makes random characteristics of manufacturers and their biography into parts of the understanding process for the messages of the design object. 

3. The function model, which treats design objects as instruments and as a means to an end, without requiring a manufacturer to define their purpose: it merely presupposes the existence of potential users who pursue certain action objectives and ascertain what the use of the design object can contribute to the realisation of their own ends and how it must be used. 

Each potential user is free in the choice of his or her objectives; they can align themselves with others’ purposes, follow existing traditions, or invent their own more apt purposes. They can also ignore the known functions of the design object and, according to the needs of the moment, see for example that the form of a clothes peg makes it ideal for keeping a food bag closed (or see that the back of a chair can be used as a coat-hanger, or that a beer mat can be used to steady a wobbly table, or that a plastic bag can be used on a wet seat to keep the sitter dry; see Bürdek 2005: 270).

Such information concerns the spectrum of possible uses offered by the respective design object in given situations and does not stop at the redesigning of these objects. The corresponding messages become accessible to potential users in a reasoning process that determines situation-related solutions to problems (i.e. “affordances” in the sense of Gibson 1979). These messages are less inflexible than the code model allows, and less person-dependent than the communication model requires; they are appropriate to the task of design objects to communicate information about themselves. The message content is here however limited to the usefulness of the design object, which is also the main restriction of the function model: traditional symbol meanings cannot be explained in the function model, unless we use the term “function” in very broad sense. 

This analysis of semiotic models can be followed by a comparison of the circumstances of the messages of design objects with the circumstances of normal language messages. From this we see: (i) design objects do not speak; thus they do not need a language; (ii) design objects do not communicate; thus they do not require any understanding of their message intentions; and, in positive terms, (iii) design objects only suggest certain conclusions about themselves; they require no more than the interpretation of signals and indication.

Gert Selle
On Visible and Invisible Design

It is unavoidable that the term "design" is taken to mean not only the symbolically effective form of products, but also the invisible shaping of the experiential profiles of their users. There is both a visible and invisible design at the object as well as visible and invisible design at the user. That is the starting-point of my thesis.
It creates a framework for speculations with the help of which one can practice design-philosophical thought and gain distance to one's everyday activity. I am talking about relations between the design-object and the user-subject. No one should be dissuaded from the challenge of thinking in a design-philosophical manner, from attempting it in actual practice, and from placing oneself in the role of an observer who recognizes that he, himself, and also others are in design-determined action fields on a daily basis – and from asking: What is design? What visible an invisible properties does it have? What does it do to and with its users? What experiences does it impart?
Of course, a fundamental ontologist like Heidegger, with the instrument of his elaborated philosophical logic, would first ask what a ding (or design-object) is at all or what conditions the "ding-ness of the ding" imposes. On the other hand, we can make use of our own observations and experiences. A practicable method for laymen to approach, on an everyday basis, the topic of design shall be proposed: What does this design intend and what does it effect?
As thinking users accustomed to handling and operating things, we can ask: What forms of objectification does one, oneself, experience nowadays? What experiences does one have when interacting with the tangible and the virtual? What does it mean to be culturally situated by technology and design?
Modern technology has or is such a powerful self-design that, as early as the middle of the 20th Century, the philosopher Günther Anders expressed the fear that "technology as a subject of history" could possibly disenfranchise its users. That was an assumption to which, today, must give rise to thoughtfulness.
On the basis of actual practice in coming into contact with dings, half-dings, non-dings, in-dings, and über-dings, the question arises as to what our position is in current product-cultural behavioral and experiential spaces. This lecture focuses on these spaces and is intended to animate its listeners to undertake a phenomenologically based practical exercise. Some pointers on this are provided in parts 2 – 6 of the paper.

Outline of Contents
  • Cultural situation
  • Yesterday
  • Rituals
  • Images, icons, idols
  • The ding rehabilitated in the fetish
  • The involved observer
  • (optional): On the secret lives of dings

Uwe Wirth
Symptoms and Signals:
Derrida's Concept of "Trace" in Light of Peirce

In my lecture, I would like to focus on the development of a pragmatic/semiotic interpretation of the concept of "trace" based on a remark made by Derrida in his Grammatology: "[...] the trace whereof I speak is not more natural (it is not the mark, the natural sign, or the index in the Husserlian sense) than cultural, not more physical than psychic, biological than spiritual." [Jacques Derrida, Grammatologie (1967), Frankfurt am Main 1983, pg.83].

I wish to demonstrate that such a concept of trace is difficult to conceptualize in relation to Peirce's semiotics. In Peirce's theory of signs – which differentiates between "symbol," "index," and "icon" – the symbol is in a functional analogy to Saussure's signe. According to Peirce, the symbol is a "general sign" dependent upon a convention, a habit, or a natural disposition (CP 8.335) [Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Peirce, vol. I-VI, publ. by Charles Harsthorne and Paul Weiss, vol. VII and VIII, publ. by Arthur W. Burks, Cambridge, Mass. 1931-1958. All citations in the text in decimal notation]. Examples cited by Peirce for symbolic signs include a word, a sentence, a book, or an argument (CP 5.73).
In contrast to the symbol, the index represents a connection between two individual events. The index "marks the junction between two portions of experience" (CP 2.285) and thus creates a relationship to reality. The index sign has, regardless of its form, "a real connection with its object" (CP 5.75). In another passage, this "connection" is termed "referential:" Indices "refer to individuals" and thus "they direct the attention to their objects" (CP 2.306). A pointing index finger is an example of this. In contrast to the index, the object to which an icon refers need not actually exist. An icon can be an image or a diagram; however, it can also display only a similarity with the object to which it refers.

Against the backdrop of these three aspects of the sign, I will attempt to further differentiate the index sign, i.e. the difference between genuine and degenerated index signs: Genuine indices are part of a motivated, "existential relation" (CP 2.283) determined by causality or "natural contiguity" (CP 2.306). In exactly this manner, symptoms are causally motivated (CP 8.335): It is assumed that symptoms have an non-arbitrary, motivated connection to their referents. The epistemic point of a genuine index consists of the double supposition that it is a component of a causally motivated but unintentional relation. This existential relation to an object is the prerequisite for interpreting the symptom as a "natural sign." In contrast to a genuine index, the degenerated index is not causally motivated. A degenerated index is a referential pointer: "a proper name without signification, a pointing finger" (CP 5.75), i.e. a non-propositional reference specifying nothing other than "there" (CP 3.361).

Against the backdrop of these differentiations, I will attempt in my lecture to discuss two central ideas for Derrida's concept of trace and writing. Firstly, Derrida writes in his Grammatology of the "play of the writing," which he describes as the "unmotivated-becoming of the trace." [Derrida, Grammatologie, pg. 87]. 

Secondly, in his essay "Signature Event Context," Derrida identifies another dynamic characteristic which, in his opinion, belongs to the "structure of the writing itself:" the iterability (i.e. ability to be repeated) of signs. The iterability of the sign is visible in the fact that every sign can be "cited – placed in quotation marks." [Jacques Derrida, „Signatur Ereignis Kontext“, in: Limited Inc, Vienna 2001, pgs. 15-45, pg. 32] Thus, Derrida asserts:

"…by virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of "communicating," precisely. One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing it or grafting it onto other chains [Ibid].

The question posed in particular with regards to this second passage is: What relationship exists between "quotability" and indexability?
What kind of index signs are quotation marks – and what form of indexability is to be found in "written traces?" Are quotation marks signals, i.e. degenerated indexes– and are written traces a special form of symptoms, i.e. genuine indexes?

Conference secretariatManuela Degasperi
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