Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Unmasking Narrative: A Semiotic Perspective on the Conviviality/Non-Conviviality Dichotomy in Storytelling About the German "Other"

Wendy Ashby (Tucson, AZ)


Summary: This paper demonstrates that the "emancipatory, enlightening, demystifying, peacemaking and group-binding potential" of convivality as a value structure shaped by semiosis fails to address two of its underlying principles: markedness and binary opposition. Via narrative discourse analysis, these two properties are demonstrated to be operant in narratives told about German minorities in ways that highlight and problematize difference. Instead of traditional narrations told for entertainment, argumentative narrative structures will be shown to mark the "Other" via a Peircean firstness to thirdness process by which a binary opposition of "Us" and "Them" is created. The outcome of semiosis in this case is that "truth realities" about minorities are built from the perspective of the majority via template token instances in which conflict is highlighted and resolution is achieved through minority assimilation to majority norms. It is argued that the resulting semiotic, narrative models of group interaction rest on a paradoxal convivial relationship; namely that convivality is achieved for the majority, but only through a process by which non-convivality is reinforced for the minority.


I. Conviviality and the construction of culture

When speaking of conviviality, Ivan Illich is quoted as saying,

I intend it to mean the autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value (1975: 11).

Such collective intercourse among persons and surroundings is what constitutes, in general terms, the notion of culture; an agreed upon and interactive system of signs, signifiers and signifieds. Perhaps it is partially for this reason that Umberto Eco (1976: 28) stated "culture can be studied completely under a semiotic profile". Just as Eco pointed out that signification encompasses the entire cultural universe, so is semiosis present at any site of expression and interpretation in the human universe of sense.

One such site is the so-called "culture box"‚ or "Kulturecke" of the U.S. German as a Foreign Language textbook, a place in which stories about the German "Other" are told. In terms that parallel Eco's observations, the culture box is the site of expression and interpretation in the L2 German learner's universe of human sense. For the purposes of this discussion, the culture box as an entity is considered to be a marked, semiotic, argumentative, ideological, narrative message engaged in political representation of the "Other" via intertextual dialog with L2 learners within the larger context of the foreign language textbook and the L2 German classroom.

However, departing from both Eco's and Illich's observations, it is argued that the products of the culture box are the result of a semiotic process that fundamentally and necessarily rests on a conviviality/non-conviviality dichotomy in which conviviality (or the appearance thereof) is achieved for the cultural minority, but only via non-convivial conditions for the minority. This necessity is due to the factors of markendess and binary opposition and the resulting non-convivial stances toward the "Other" will be demonstrated via a process of argumentative narrative that clearly parallels the Peircean semiotic sign phenomology of states of firstness, secondness and thirdness. The results of said process are clearly demonstrated to be in direct opposition to Illich's notion of semiosis creating "conditions of possible conviviality promoting the reconciliation of groups and peoples."


II. Semiotic principles of markedness and binary opposition as non- convivial properties

When speaking of the potential of semiotic processes to unlock the emancipatory, enlightening, demystifying, peacemaking potential that fosters the reconciliation of groups and peoples, two concepts fundamental to semiosis, yet diametrically opposed to genuine conciliation seem to have been either forgotten or underestimated. These are markedness and binary opposition. Markedness theory is based on a dichotomous system of relationships surrounding the simple observation that things come in pairs. Marked and unmarked in their most fundamental sense are defined by and only by the existence of each other. An understanding of the pairings of opposites is key to understanding both linguistic and cultural phenomena, forming a basis for structuralist linguistic theory, whereby "differences are systematized into 'oppositions' which are linked in crucial relationships" (Hawkes 1977: 22). "As Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle point out, binary opposition is a child's first logical operation, and in that operation we see the primary and distinctive intervention of culture into nature" (Hawkes 1977: 24).

Whereas nature is biological, culture operates on a social and collective plane. The need to differentiate serves a natural, biological function and contributes to our survival as a species.

More importantly, the human cognitive need to differentiate also appears in a cultural context that may be just as important to our survival, at least in a figurative sense. In terms of identity formation, we human beings rely on oppositional categories to construct and evaluate ourselves. This is demonstrated by a seemingly fundamental human need for in-group and out-group affinities. As a cultural phenomenon, "difference [is] the primary motor of semiosis" (Hodge & Kress 1988: 151), or the process of assigning meaning to that which we encounter in our environment. Waugh (1982: 315) highlights the importance of this fundamental category in her assertion that

any investigation of any semiotic system must take this dialectic [of oppositional pairs] into account if it is to correctly characterize one of the ways in which human beings create symbolic and conceptual frameworks.

This type of markedness and binary opposition is clearly evident in the texts that U.S. American learners of German as a Second Language use regularly to learn about other cultures and peoples, presumably in a humanistic attempt at the creation of convivial attitudes and relationships as is generally thought to be the purpose of a broad, liberal undergraduate education in the U.S. American context. However, the non-conviviality of this endeavor is hinted at by the very nature of the texts themselves, as across the entire corpus of books used by post-secondary institutions in the United States, German culture and its representatives exist in a marked, boxed-off space that is clearly diametrically opposed to other language learning endeavors such as grammar and vocabulary. The semiotic process is thus begun in an atmosphere of non-conviviality.


III. Semiotic processes and narrative

A semiotic process in the form of narration or storytelling has traditionally been one of the primary means of cementing these inherently dialectical, cognitive conceptual frameworks for use by a defined group of people - or members of a specific culture - as a means of identifying the self, negotiating status within a like group, and recognizing outsiders. In order to view these resulting conclusions in the proper semiotic light, let us first examine the parallel processes of semiosis and the formation of truth substantiations via narration by viewing Charles Sanders Peirce's sign phenomology as the basis for argumentative narrative of the kind identified by Teun A. van Dijk, who is perhaps the most important and prolific theorist on discourse and ideology as it relates to culture and more specifically to public myths about the "Other." His research focuses on the processes whereby human beings create proposed relationships between the Self and the Other.

These relationships, whether consciously or subconsciously, maintain what can be considered in the light of Illich's commentary a convivial place for the Self, while relegating the Other to a non-convivial place that is based upon and results in "conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment" (1975: 11) - in this case, that of the "culture box." This process begins at the level of the sign and progresses via code to public discourse and mythology.

Peircean sign phenomology as argument formation

Understanding Charles Sanders Peirce's triadic sign phenomology is thus the first step to understanding the conviviality/non-conviviality dichotomy found in the cultural portrayals of the "Other" in the culture box. Peirce divides the sign process into "moments" of firstness, secondness and thirdness by which things are first represented, then signified, and finally, interpreted. For Peirce, the moment of firstness represents the quality of something without context, or the mere state of its being. He identifies the moment of secondness being at the level at which objects have context but in a state that has not yet been interpreted, or contextualized by human understanding. This is described as the state of factuality and actuality. Finally, Peirce posits the world in which humans exist consciously as constituting the moment of thirdness. This is the world that humans construct for themselves by making sense of and organizing patterns, making generalizations, constructing norms, relating things to each other, and developing laws. Peirce considers the sign to be the center of thirdness.

Within Peirce's sign phenomenology, the moments of pure firstness and secondness are not accessible to us as humans within our realm of conscious experience. Because our sign-mediated thirdness also has its own inherent developmental process, Peirce conceptualizes the moment of thirdness as being further subdivided into firstness, secondness and thirdness. These correspond to sign representation (first), object (second) and interpretant (third) - the basic Peircean sign trichotomy. In turn, Peirce theorizes that each point of this trichotomy gives rise in turn to its own trichotomy, from which ten categories of sign are derived when overlapping and mutually exclusive categories are eliminated (cf. Hervey 1982).

When these ten sign categories are translated into argumentative terms, the following adapted Peircean sign phenomology outlining parallels between the sign process and the argumentative code process can be distilled, as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1: An adapted Peircean sign phenomology as argument formation

While Peircean sign theory in isolation seems to do little to illuminate the contents of the culture box, it provides a basis upon which signification can be understood as it operates strongly and decidedly, yet subtly behind the scenes of our day to day discourses about encountered information. The critical theoretical concept upon which the next part of the discussion is based centers on what happens when the properties of the examples outlined in the chart are read and conceptualized diagonally top to bottom and left to right.

This Peircean-derived distillation of argument and public discourse formation is meant to illuminate the sign process behind the code and discourse productions by which we encounter the Other in an unconscious state of firstness, become aware of, label, categorize, and lump members of the "Other" into metacategories in a state of secondness, and then finally, label the resulting relationships between people, characteristics and actions and propose these relationships in argumentative propositions and narratives in a state of thirdness. This state subsquently becomes the reality upon which we base our assumptions, thoughts, and actions.

Semiosis and argumentative narrative

This "reality" of sorts is transmitted and codified via various forms of "storytelling" in public discourse. As van Dijk points out, this occurs via storytelling (1993a), everyday conversation (1984, 1987a), through institutions such as governments and education systems (1993b), and their tangible products including the media (1989, 1996) and textbooks (1987b). Such storytelling ultimately creates and reinforces a series of generalizations. As such generalizations enter the sphere of public discourse, a site that "plays a prominent role as the preferential site for the explicit, verbal formulation and the persuasive communication of ideological propositions" (van Dijk 1995: 17), a cognitive set is formed comprised of a mutually agreed upon, text/sign mediated system of knowledge, values, beliefs, attitudes, tasks, interests, values and norms. This is clearly reflective of the Peircean process from firstness through thirdness by which signs progress toward meaning.

The stories generated via such semiotic processes have also been shown via van Dijk's work to be argumentative vs. entertaining in nature. The properties of traditional Labovian narrative, as well as those of van Dijk's argumentative narrative are listed in Table 2. From that research, I proposed a type of ideological narrative that goes beyond argumentative narration in that it rests upon the creation and maintenance of an ideology that I found to be based on hoped-for encounters with minorities in which assimilation to majority norms occurred.

Table 2: Traditional, argumentative and ideological narrative patterns

While such assimilative narratives, often told in the first person, appear to exist in and promote a convivial state in which Illich's "autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment" is present, the reality of assimilative, ideological narratives is that the majority has used the tools of narrative in a non-convivial manner to create an ideology in which minorities interact with their environment in a non-autonomous manner.

When speaking of tools, Illich promotes the use of convivial tools that "maximize liberty," and "rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming" (1975: 16-17), though he concedes that they "can be abused for purposes of manipulation and control" (Illich 1975: 22). He further states when commenting on the potential of semiotics that "a convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others" (Illich 1975: 20). He argues that present tools of control in public media such as government institutions and the education system are clearly non-convivial, a point which van Dijk also makes in his writings. However, the assertion that semiosis has the potential to create a convivial society does not take into account that the very motor of semiosis, binary opposition, is inherently non-convivial by its nature of promoting markedness and difference.


IV. A marked instance of non-convivial semiotic narrative - Fatma Yützel tells all

The text for this study is comprised of the "Kulturnotiz" (culture box) of Chapter Two in Treffpunkt Deutsch - Beginning Level. The main character is "Fatma Yützel", the fictional daughter of Turkish guest workers. Born in Berlin, "Fatma" represents a very real group of young people who speak better German than Turkish and are much more familiar with life in Germany than in their "home" countries, but are not granted citizenship based on German citizenship laws which hold blood/ethnicity over naturalization as an indicator of "Germanness".

Posited by textbook authors Widmaier & Widmaier (1999) as "Fatma's" self-narrative, it appears next to a picture of a teenager marked by clearly non-German features and clothing.

My name is Fatma Yützel and I am fifteen years old. My parents come from Turkey. They have lived in Berlin since 1975 and I was born here in Berlin. We live in a large apartment complex and we have a lot of neighbors there - Turks and Germans. We often visit our Turkish neighbors in the evenings and on the weekends, or our neighbors visit us, because our neighbors are also our friends. We never visit our German neighbors and the Germans almost never visit their German neighbors either. My parents think that the Germans are cold and that they don't have any friends. But my schoolfriend Melanie says that this isn't so. Melanie is German and she says that her parents have very good friends. These friends are not their neighbors though, rather, friends from their school days or their work colleagues. So, the Germans aren't cold at all, just different from us Turks.

My parents speak almost no German and for that reason, they have very little contact with the Germans. I speak and write well in German and I am often at Melanie's house because I find not only her, but her brother as well, to be nice. But I don't say that at home because in Turkey, a decent girl doesn't have a boyfriend and the parents find the husband for their daughter. But I was born here in Germany, speak much better German than Turkish and maybe I'll even marry a German someday (Widmaier/Widmaier 1999: 73).

In keeping with semiotic processes that are inherently non-convivial, this narrative is found within a marked, sectioned off part of the book referred to as a "culture box." It is made interesting to the audience through the existence of an exotic, foreign "Other." Her photo shows exotic clothing and colors that mark her as a minority presence and are designed to presumably entice the reader into finding out more about this odd specimen. While this selection is posited as a first person narrative, it is important to keep in mind that it was authored by a third party textbook writer/publisher.

Thus, even if "Fatma Yützel" is a real person, it will be argued that the story she is telling about herself is not a first person narrative, rather, a non-convivial construction of her identity by a third party that is designed to reinforce the German self by assimilating the Other to its mainstream norms. This is accomplished by telling a story about the German "Other" in the first person that substantiates third person stereotypes and creates a more assimilated, Germanized, idealized foreigner in Fatma, as illustrated in the narrative breakdown of conflict and resolution categories in Table 3.

Table 3: Conflict/resolution categories in Fatma Yützel's narrative

At first glance, the text seems to follow a simple and possibly even neutral pattern of highlighting difference and then demonstrating overall similarity via overriding human activities such as birth, social interaction, courtship, and marriage, leading to the probable reader evaluation via Fatma's linguistic and cultural assimilation that although the German ways are different from the Turkish ways, they are acceptable and understandable to those who have access to and contact with Germans such as Melanie. However, despite this seeming innocence, the text does have its liabilities.

This liability lies in the unenlightened results of non-assimilation to German norms, as evidenced by Fatma's Turkish parents as juxtaposed against the fruits of Fatma's progressive and integrative activities in the German context. "Fatma's" narrative is based on a differences to similarities approach and has well-developed resolution categories that are based on solving the complications of Turkish difference through Melanie's German norms. Because of her mastery of the German language and her contact with the Germans, Melanie can choose to reject the Turkish ways of her parents and assimilate to the German way, a potentiality that is evidenced by the final resolution category of possibly marrying a German in order to solve the conflict category of not having a boyfriend and/or having her parents choose her husband in the Turkish tradition.

This ultimately leads the reader to a probable conclusion based on assimilation into German culture and partial to whole rejection of Turkish culture. Thus, the primary narrative centered on the Turkish parents' perception of difference is abandoned at the resolution stage in favor of a secondary narrative which points towards a conclusion that shuns the stupidity, backwardness, ignorance and inability of her still-foreign parents and posits them as the fruits of non-assimilation. In this case, the resolution doesn't solve the complication categories created by the "Other" either, rather, it leaves the "genuine" Turks in the story behind as unassimilated and hopelessly uninformed while simultaneously pointing to "Fatma's" potential ability to avoid this fate through her linguistic and cultural savvy with things German.

Narrative and power relations

The contents of the culture box, like any product of the majority, can be used to maintain power relations and one of the key ways in which this is accomplished is via first person narrative voice portrayals. A look at linguistic research on the loss or blurring of the first/third person, subject/object distinction, especially in regard to women's language and power, can be illuminating. Taking away a person's ability to portray him/herself in his/her own words by a third party has been shown to be an effective tool in pragmatic silencing which in turn, feeds power and hegemony maintenance of the dominant over the powerless (cf. Gal 1989). This kind of dominance is referred to as "interpretive control" and usually takes the form of the dominant group reserving the right to assign meaning to the communications of the powerless group (Lakoff 1993: 29). Yet the tactic of this narrative goes a step even beyond that in that not only is the majority portraying the minority in a manner that is advantageous to the creation and maintenance of constructs supporting existing hegemonies, but it is portrayed as if it came from the minority itself.

When a minority group member is represented in the third person by a member of the dominant group in a manner in which it is represented as a first person minority portrayal, the power inherent in that act is truly alarming because it gives the appearance of first-person substantiation of the "truth" to the stereotype produced. This leads to a perception of the subject "acting more or less voluntarily according to the interests and wishes of the powerful [which is] much more effective [in] control[ling] the minds of others" (van Dijk 1995: 101).

The conviviality/non-conviviality dichotomy

This presumed mind control of the minority by the majority is also addressed in Illich's commentaries on conviviality, stating that

what is fundamental to a convivial society is not the total absence of manipulative institutions and addictive goods and services, but the balance between those tools which create the specific demands they are specialized to satisfy and those complimentary, enabling tools which foster self-realization (1975: 24).

Though Illich's philosophy on the nature of a convivial state does not naively ignore the reality of manipulation and exploitation of some by others, the properties of the Fatma Yützel text (and similar properties of many other analyzed texts in the corpus) are clearly not intended to foster self-realization of the minority "Other." Rather, in their ideological narrative structures, they tend to create a reality for the learner of German in which seamless integration to German norms creates or at least contributes to the appearance of convivial relationships. However, in demanding assimilation for the resolution of conflict categories, these narratives actually rest on the non-convivial act of eliminating Otherness in favor of the needs of those who belong to the cultural majority.

© Wendy Ashby (Tucson, AZ)


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Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Moderation / Chair: Gloria Withalm
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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For quotation purposes:
Wendy Ashby (Tucson, AZ): Unmasking Narrative: A Semiotic Perspective on the Conviviality/Non-Conviviality Dichotomy in Storytelling About the German "Other". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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