Mobile Signs: Matter, Medium, and Generation

Oswell, David. 2005. Mobile Signs: Matter, Medium, and Generation. Sociology Working Papers, pp. 1-10. [Article]

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In a discussion of the intellect in his 1911 work Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson refers fleetingly to mobility and semiosis:
There must be a language whose signs – which cannot be infinite in number – are extensible to an infinity of things. This tendency of the sign to transfer itself from one object to another is characteristic of human language. It is observable in the little child as soon as he begins to speak. Immediately and naturally he extends the meaning of the word he learns, availing himself of the most accidental connection or the most distant analogy to detach and transfer elsewhere the sign that had been associated in his hearing with a particular object. “Anything can designate anything;” such is the latent principle of infantine language. (Bergson, 1911/1968: 158)
Bergson makes this observation about human language in the context of thinking about the intellect and human social life and in contrast to the social life and language of insects. Signs are central to Bergson’s understanding of community as a common social life (‘By language community of action is made possible’ (157)), but there are striking differences between a colony of ants and human society. Insects are dependent on instinct and the form of their organs. The number of signs in their language is very limited and each sign ‘must remain invariably attached to a certain object or a certain operation’ (158). For humans, there is no preordination of person to structure and no necessary attachment of sign to object or operation. It is the finiteness of the number of signs and also the ubiquity of their use that, according to Bergson, makes possible the ‘liberation’ of the intellect from the material object: ‘[t]he word, made to pass from one thing to another, is, in fact, by nature transferable and free. It can therefore be extended, not only from one perceived thing to another, but even from a perceived thing to a recollection of that thing, from the precise recollection to a more fleeting image, and finally from an image fleeting, though still pictured, that is to say, to the idea’ (159). Thus, Bergson declares that ‘[t]he instinctive sign is adherent, the intelligent sign is mobile’ (158). That said, Bergson offers no further insight as to how a sign might be both intelligent and mobile.

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Date Deposited:

06 Jun 2013 14:41

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29 Apr 2020 15:51


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