Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Institut für Sozio-Semiotische Studien ISSS, Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Production and Reproduction of Cultural Signs: Changing and Exchanging Stereotypes

Janice Deledalle-Rhodes (Perpignan/Montbazin)



Stereotypes (concerning race, religion, etc.) concern the Other. They are cultural signs. But although they refer supposedly to the culture of the other, they are, in great part, self-referential.

The analysis of the stereotype has thus to deal not so much with the sign-object produced, as such, as with the conditions of its production: one representamen, itself the product of a previous semiosis or semioses, will produce widely-differing Objects, according to the various Interpretants at work in the course of the process of semiosis. The Object or Objects thus produced will in turn produce other Representamens and Interpretants resulting in the creation of Objects which will, in fact, be new, although they may be linguistically similar or identical.

This Peircean formulation of the matter is, in the view of the present writer, not so far removed from the Rossi-Landian, at least in what concerns the effective functioning of semiosis.

This paper will take as paradigmatic the history of a few stereotypes current in what is called ''the West'', and which refer to the populations of that equally ill-defined region, ''the East''.

Le Même qui est ce qu'il est indépendamment de l'autre, quel qu'il soit, peut déterminer chez le voyageur tous les Autres généralisés possibles, mais dans une situation donnée déterminera chez un voyageur donné un Autre généralisé spécifique qui fera du Même cet autre qu'il a en face de lui (Gérard Deledalle 1991: 20)



The term ''stereotype'' is borrowed from the process of printing. It comes from the Greek and means literally ''a solidified impression''. In a generalized sense it is used to designate ''something continued or constantly repeated without change'' (O.E.D.).

The term is used in different domains, but here we shall consider only the socio-cultural domain, and refer to stereotypes relative to such matters as race, religion, nationality and so on referring to members of a society as they are perceived and represented by other members of the same or of a different society.

In a paper read at Innsbruck in 1993 I examined the stereotypes present in nineteenth-century travel-accounts of the Middle East, which was also largely the subject of my book L'Orient représenté (2000). In this book, as in the paper, I tried to show that the stereotype is a cultural sign, but that this sign does not necessarily convey information about its purported object (in this case ''the Oriental''). In Peircean terms it is an index of something, but less of its apparent object than of its European user and of the particular socio-economic, political and religious situations prevailing in Europe at that time. In fact, this type of sign is self-referential, and while professing to give a ''true'' account of the East, this travel-literature must be considered, in great part, as no more than a reaction of one culture confronted by another, and thus rather as a sign of the former rather than of the latter. In effect, all representation is mediated and thus pertains to Thirdness. In these conditions, it is obvious that what should concern us here is not so much the purported object of the sign as with its manner of production, in other words the analysis of the fields of interpretants of the sign-user.

It must not be forgotten that all this literature was written by Europeans for European readers. This point was heavily insisted upon by Edward Saïd in his book Orientalism, but if this a self-evident fact, it is invariably forgotten by commentators of this corpus, because they also are Europeans, and because in fact the ''Oriental'' has rarely had a chance to present his own views. We shall return to this later, let it suffice for the moment to remember that authors and readers shared, in many respects, identical fields of interpretants. It must also be pointed out that these stereotypes usually imply a value-judgment, and that ''favourable'' stereotypes, although they may appear less offensive to the Oriental, are no more ''valid'' than ''unfavourable'' ones, produced as they are by the European culture. A last important point: in early travel-accounts where geographical explorations are the major concern, the local populations are often totally absent. Then appears a shadowy figure, known as "the Oriental", who inhabits regions from Tangier to Tokyo. As travel becomes more common, writers begin to make distinctions between different sections of these populations. Generalisations are then made about "the Arab", "the Turk", ''the Persian", and so on, and these persist into the nineteenth century. It is only at this period that travellers begin to analyse more closely the phenomena perceived, and that these vague stereotypes begin to evolve and to become more individualised. It is the conditions of production of these evolving stereotypes that we consider here.


Conditions of production

The traveller

On beginning to analyse the stereotypes thus produced, the first point one notices is that they are not shared unanimously by all writers, but occur in contradictory pairs, which we could call ''negative'' and ''positive'' or ''favourable'' and ''unfavourable''. In effect, for some writers the Oriental is untrustworthy, for others he is honest; for some he is a coward, for others courageous, for some barbarous, for other a representative of true civilisation, and so on. How to explain this ?

In the first place the personal interpretants of the sign-producer must be considered: his motivation for this journey, his particular character and upbringing, his previous knowledge or ignorance of the region he travels in and the circumstances of his journey. The first two chapters of my book analyse all these elements, which constitute in some measure a kind of basis for the production of the sign. As we know the representamen is not innocent, it springs from a previous process of production, and this has to be taken into account as far as possible.

The ignorance of the traveller concerning the language and customs of his hosts was responsible for many stereotypes. The Oriental was frequently accused of dishonesty. Burton expresses a common opinion: "lying to the Oriental is meat and drink and the roof that shelters him" (II, 211). But Palgrave attempts an explanation: an Oriental who accepts to do something that finally he will not do will be called ''untrustworthy'', ''a liar'', ''deceitful'' and so on. Only the ignorance of the traveller is in cause here, says the author, for in the East a direct refusal is considered as impolite, or even hostile. A ''discreet evasion'' is preferred ''to avoid the discourtesy of a positive "I will not", or of its equivalent "I cannot"'. ''Such unwillingness to appear unwilling is among Arabs a frequent source of innocent deceptions, if deceptions indeed they can be termed, like the 'not at home', or 'slightly indisposed' of our own land'' (1865: I, 282), he concludes. He wisely advises the traveller to think for himself about the chances of the promise being fulfilled, and to act in consequence. Other such misunderstandings, says Palgrave, are the result of ''vagueness in the language, not of any set desire to deceive'' (op.cit., I, 337)

Another typical example is the well-known stereotype of ''Eastern hospitality''. In the 19th century when Eastern travel became more common, the search for regions more remote and less frequented by tourists increased proportionately. There were diverse reasons for this movement which I analysed, but the practical effect was similar: travellers often found themselves alone in the desert and were entertained by the local populations without whose aid they could scarcely have survived. On their return, they wrote enthusiastic reports of ''Oriental hospitality'', which rapidly became a stereotype. Some travellers, however, who had, on the strength of this notion, begun to consider the East as a kind of enormous hotel where they were free to travel at will without counting the cost, became rapidly disillusioned. They discovered that this hospitality was not unlimited, and that after a few days they were requested either to go on their way or to pay for their keep. These travellers then complained that this so-called hospitality was a sham, and that their hosts had deceived them. Thus the Oriental was accused of duplicity and hypocrisy, which paradoxically reinforced the already current stereotype of the ''untrustworthy Oriental''.

This was to ignore completely the nature of the welcome extended to them. Hospitality in Islam is a social and religious duty, but if the guest has certain rights, he also has certain duties. Hospitality to passers-by is statutorily limited to three days, after which the guest is expected to depart. He is also expected to behave correctly towards his host, to respect his family, his tribe and his religion, (which was not always the case). The situation is not a question of personal relationships, but is regulated by a strict social code which all parties are obliged to respect. Again it is the total ignorance of the traveller which is responsible for the production, in the first place of a favourable stereotype, and in the second, an unfavourable one.

Another common stereotype is that of ''the noble Oriental'', fostered by Lamartine in his Voyage en Orient (1835), and other writers of his time, who liked to picture a valiant sheikh, clad in flowing white robes, mounted on a magnificent steed and ready to die for his honour, the Romantic hero in fact. Later writers tended to follow a policy of ''debunking'' this myth. Disillusioned by the ''reality'' of the East, the novelist W.M. Thackeray decreed that ''the life of the East is a life of brutes'', and concluded that ''the much maligned-Orient, I am confident, has not been maligned enough'' (1845: 235), and devoted the major part of his Journey from Cornhill to Cairo, to adverse criticism of all aspects of Eastern culture which had been admiringly described by previous writers.

The stereotype also extended to places. Eastern towns are seen as beautiful and poetic, by some travellers, as filthy slums by others. Is the Nile ''a strange mysterious stream'' flowing ''from the luxurious tropics'', or a muddy gutter with ''swamps of festering slime, and even a dead buffalo (...) rotting on the river's edge, with a pretty sprinkling of goitrous vultures'' (1845: 60) and giving out ''a pestilential effluvia of dead fish and living Arabs'' (op.cit., 34)? wonders Warburton. The author of this oblique comment on stereotypes draws no conclusion, but this juxtaposition perhaps represents a step in the right (i.e. semiotic) direction. Thackeray totally rejects the Romantic conception: ''The desert did not seem to me sublime, only uncomfortable'' (op.cit., 245), he complained.



But the traveller's personal tastes and experiences form only one field of interpretants. He was himself the product, the ''man-sign'' of a certain culture in which economic, political and religious elements were of major importance. It is impossible to distinguish any clear borderline between these different fields of interpretants: the traveller is one person who feels and reacts individually without analysing the process. The 19th-century travel-authors who do analyse their own reactions are few in number: Palgrave, Burton, Doughty and Kinglake, whose accounts have remained historical and literary references.

Socio-economic considerations frequently condition the travellers' response to the Eastern experience. Nineteenth-century Europe is rapidly becoming industrialized. ''Progress'' is a concept often evoked, and this progress is mainly material. The countries of the East are thus held to be ''backward'' or ''primitive''. Some travellers, like Palgrave, advocate bringing ''progress'' to these benighted regions, not so much in view of colonisation, which however does enter sometimes into these considerations, as in order to ''improve'' the lives of the populations themselves. However, there is already a reaction in the West against this materialistic conception of progress, and many of the travellers found in the East not only a culture more ancient than their own, but a mode of life which appeared to them more natural and human. Thus, Kinglake, Doughty, Burton and W.S. Blunt experience their Oriental travels as a welcome release from the existence led by the hyper-''civilised'' English middle class, seen by them as artificial and corrupted in a region already polluted by industrialism. Kinglake addresses the reader: ''O my dear ally, when you first spread your carpet in the midst of these Eastern scenes, do think for a moment of your fellow-creatures that dwell in streets and squares, and even (for such is the fate of many !) in actual country houses; think of people that are 'presenting their compliments', and 'requesting the honour', and 'much regretting' -- of those that are pinioned at dinner-tables, or stuck up in ball-rooms, or cruelly planted in pews - ay think of these, and so remembering how many poor devils are living in a state of utter respectability, you will glory all the more in your own delightful escape" (1844: 48-49). W.S. Blunt, returning from a journey to Egypt, exclaims ''How horrible civilized man is (...) and what countenances of filthy passions ! What abominations to the senses ! What foul rubbish heaps ! What stenches !'' (1919: 50). The ''primitive'' becomes the ''natural'', the ''authentic". This tendency has never been reversed. Westerners will travel further and further afield to escape " the slavery of civilisation" (Burton 1855: I, 150), and at the present time when the Middle East itself is becoming widely industrialised and thinking in terms of economy, this stereotype is perforce rapidly disappearing in discourse referring to these regions, although it continually crops up in considerations about other regions, notably Africa or South America. In other words the stereotype itself has not disappeared, because it corresponds to a fundamental attitude on the part of the sign-user, but it has been displaced.

Another stereotype produced by socio-economic conditions is that of the ''free nomad''. Travellers in the desert were delighted to observe and sometimes to share the journeying of the Bedouin nomads. This stereotype became common because mobility in the West was a sign of freedom, and most travellers assumed that this was the case in the regions explored. This was totally to ignore the reasons for mobility in the desert. These were entirely economic and political: the search for water and pasturage for the flocks, the need to transport precious goods like salt from one isolated place to another, or the flight from another, hostile tribe. This ''mobility'' was in fact simply the result of the precarious situation in which the Bedouin habitually lived. He was no more ''free'' than the Western factory-worker, or the office-worker tied to his desk.

This fact was remarked upon only by travellers who remained for long periods in the desert, like Palgrave who observed the extreme poverty of the Bedouin, and Doughty who actually shared it for nearly two years. If the Bedouin were free to do so, he remarks, they ''would leave the insecure wandering life (which all the Aarab, for the incessant weariness and their very emptiness of heart have partly in aversion) to become settlers. Beduins complain (...) of the wretchedness of their lives '' (1888 (1936) I, 355). The majority of the travellers, however, were themselves, ''free'' to leave these disinherited regions when it suited them, and the stereotype of the free nomad became a classical one.



The economic and political fields of interpretants are closely connected. In the first place the Middle East was seen as possibly supplying a land-route to India, then as a potential source of riches for the West. Much of the European political activity was simply the effect of a struggle for power in the East. This is the main thesis of Edward Saïd's book Orientalism, which he states quite clearly in his Introduction: ''The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony...'' (1978, 1995:5); ''Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be)'' (ibid.:6). A great deal of Saïd's own discourse about the subject hits the nail on the head. This was a book which had to be written, and, for the first time perhaps, a writer of Eastern origin was enabled to find an attentive audience ready to take account of the views of ''the Oriental'' himself concerning a whole area of research and activity in all domains which had previously been the exclusive apanage of the "Occidental". However, Saïd's own personal interpretants must not be forgotten. He was an exiled Palestinian living in the United States where he obtained a prestigious post. If this privileged situation enabled him to express himself, it also detracted from his reputation in the Middle East where he was sometimes seen as a kind of traitor who was not in a position to understand or comment on the situation which obtained there. And his book was banned in Palestine.

Saïd's positions are so well-known that it would be superfluous to expose them here. While recognising the major importance of the political interpretants at work, we must point out that the they did not concern the East/West dichotomy exclusively, as Saïd seems to think. Analysed more closely, some phenomena are revealed to be not so much signs of the latter as of the internal conditions of the European powers themselves. The comparison between the appreciations of Palgrave (in favour of progress) and of Kinglake (for a more ''natural'' mode of life) previously quoted are not signs in the former of a desire for power nor in the latter of an aim to prevent the development of ''backward'' regions. They are simply signs of a 19th-century Europe faced with the possibility of a radical change in its mode of living, and thus more purely social than political.

In these circumstances, the generalisation made by Saïd about the ''European greedy for power'' becomes itself an enormous stereotype. It does correspond, nevertheless, in some measure, to stereotypes current amongst the Orientals themselves at this time. Travellers frequently complain that their hosts cannot imagine that they travel for pleasure. As before mentioned, few Orientals travelled when not obliged to. Consequently, other motives had to be imagined for these apparently pointless journeys, and travellers are frequently supposed to be in league with the Infernal Powers, and capable of casting spells over the populations they encountered. Archaeologists were often the victims of another preconception: if they were exploring the country and digging, what could be their motive, except to search for buried treasure, which a great proportion of the inhabitants believed to be omnipresent in their localities ? Another current idea was that all Europeans were doctors, who could cure all diseases, based on the fact that the European traveller always had a few simple medicines in his baggage, which proved sufficient to cure or at least to alleviate the ills of a sufferer who had never taken any medicine in his life. It is plain that all these stereotypes do actually imply the belief in the great powers of the European, even if their basis is ignorance and superstition, rather than a clear concept of a struggle for political supremacy, which, indeed, never entered the mind of the ordinary traveller himself.



In the 19th century England was also undergoing a religious upheaval. Orthodox religion had already been undermined by positivism and the general advance of science, and Darwinism was the fatal blow. There were three main reactions to this situation: some people discarded religion altogether, others sought refuge in a stronger traditionalism and turned to Roman Catholicism, while still others attempted to reconcile science and religion. It was inevitable that any discussion about religion in the Middle East should reflect this conflictual situation. The traditionalists attempted to consolidate their position by insisting on the common origins of the three monotheistic faiths, thus stereotypes like the ''fanatical Moslem'', inherited from the Crusades, went out of fashion. The reconcilers, disapproving of the recourse to Catholicism, envisaged a more ''simple'' kind of faith and were also in favour of Islam, in preference to the Eastern Church whose adherents were charged with perpetuating ''idolatry'' and ''mummery''. Burton goes further: he compares Mahomet to a great Protestant reformer: the "theatrical music" of the Christian Church service in general, he says, "suggests the opera" (1855: II, 238), and these views are shared by many of his contemporaries. Even missionaries advocated the conversion to Islam in Africa, where it was supposed to be more accessible to the ''temperament'' of the animist, conceived as being simpler and more primitive than that of the European. This stereotype went out of fashion in its turn when the number of conversions in Africa became an alarming menace to Christianity as a whole thus reviving the former notion of Islam as a fanatical religion (Bolt 1971: 112-113). Moreover, the fatalism of "the Mahometan drug, which paralyzes whatever it does not kill outright" (Palgrave, op.cit., 1: 175), was perceived as an obstacle to progress. In conclusion, we can only remark that the tables have been turned many times, that the Crusaders were finally admitted to have been as ''fanatical'' as their enemies, and that at present political factors have produced Eastern stereotypes about Western ''fanaticism'', recently reinforced by an unfortunate remark by a certain politician referring to ''a Crusade''.

Palgrave sums up the situation: ''How little of Arab rule or life has yet been witnessed by Europeans, how little faithfully described ? Half romantic and always over-coloured scenes of wild Bedouins, painted up into a sort of chivalresque knight-errants and representatives of unthralled freedom; or perhaps, the heavy and hollow formalities of some coast or frontier courtlet, more than half Ottomanized; apocryphal legends, like those of Lamartine and the sentimental superficialities of his school, -- such is almost all we possess on these subjects, and from which we are invited to form our criterion and appreciation of Arabia and its people'' (Palgrave op.cit. I: 136). In effect, all these generalizations were widely published. Especially in England, any person who had travelled to the East produced an account of his travels. For many it was the only book they ever wrote. The East was such a popular subject at the time that any text concerning it was bound to find a publisher. Libraries are full of travel-accounts which have been completely forgotten, and perhaps never re-read since their first and only printing. But all these minor works which were popular reading and commercially profitable continued to produce and reinforce stereotypes about the East and Easterners.



The term ''stereotype'' usually has a derogatory connotation. It implies a critical attitude towards signs which may not correspond to an object, by reason of their abusively generalising character. It is therefore assumed that it is unwise to resort to them. But as in the cases we have described above, stereotypes are felt to be useful because they provide a ready-made explanation of a phenomenon that their user is incapable of analysing, or unwilling to do so. Pre-modern travellers appeared to carry these ''solidified impressions'' about in their luggage, as it were, as a kind of precaution. Lady Isabel Burton advises the prospective tourist that ''in the East it is safer to treat everyone as if he might some day become your enemy'' 1875: II, 280). At the beginning of his journey Cockerell, having received a gift from his host, wishes to return the compliment, and makes a small gift to the donor who refuses it. The traveller then thinks that he has perhaps acted undiplomatically and feels embarrassed. A little reflection however, convinces him that this was only ''the shallow finesse of the Oriental'' (Cockerell 1909: 10) It was the second stage of this process that corresponded to the true situation, however, that of embarrassment at the realisation of having made a gross error. But it was more convenient for the traveller to fall back upon a stereotype which justified his mistake. The situation has hardly changed to-day. Certainly the average European is better informed about the world in general, and the East in particular, but if the more offensive stereotypes have been, or are being discarded as not being ''politically correct'' they subsist in more insidious guise, because hardly perceptible.

Furthermore, not only have some stereotypes not disappeared, and are simply applied to different communities, but minorities and sections of society, national or international which had not previously found a voice, are making themselves universally heard through the media, and producing or reproducing stereotypes about other sections of society which had formerly been dominant and controlled this production, and the preceding considerations may be extended to all other domains where stereotypes abound, in matters of gender, class, occupation, and so on.

We are here faced with a somewhat paradoxical situation: on one hand, a common use of this type of sign, on the other a general feeling that this use should be avoided. Two questions arise here: on one hand, may stereotypes be really harmful ? On the other: is it possible to reconcile this conflict between theory and practice ?

The answer according to Peirce is affirmative in both cases. In the first place, ''(w)ords do produce physical effects. It is madness to deny it'' (5.106), for words constitute representations. And in the second place, when we take account of Peirce's remarks on generalisation. We could not think, he says, without generalising. This is because knowledge depends on regularity, for ''the existence of things consists in their regular behaviour'', ''an event altogether out of order and presenting no regularity could not come to our knowledge at all... only in its respect to its being orderly can we know it'', and again ''the original chaos, where there was no regularity, was in effect a state of mere indeterminacy, in which nothing existed or really happened'' (1.411). Thus ''generality is indeed, an indispensable element of reality; for mere individual existence without any regularity whatever is a nullity'' (5.430). And ''generals can be real'' (5.430), ''generality may be true'' (5.532).

Generalisation is the recognition of a certain regularity. Now if a phenomenon is perceived as having some regularity, this regularity must correspond to the phenomenon in question, and it is said to be ''true'', at least for all practical purposes. Does this mean that there can be ''truth'' in stereotypes ? Obviously. But, says Peirce, ''No possible collection of single occasions of conduct can be, or adequately represent all conceivable occasions... The generality of the possible, the only true generality, is distributive, not collective'' (5.532 CSP's italics). In other words, this generality does not refer to individuals.

The problem lies in the fact that the common way of considering stereotypes is inductive. Induction ''sets out with a theory and it measures the degree of concordance of that theory with fact. It can never originate any idea whatever'' (5.145). Thus, confronted by an individual and a stereotype a person will say that this or that individual either ''conforms'' to the stereotype, or alternatively is an ''exception''. This is neither constructive nor productive: ''All the ideas of science come to it by way of abduction. Abduction consists in studying the facts and devising a theory to explain them... if ever we are to understand things at all, it must be in this way'' (5.145). ''Studying the facts'' must consist in taking account, as far as is possible, of all aspects of a sign, of all the conditions of its production, in other words a careful examination of the process of semiosis. Only when this has been effected will there be a possibility of a cultural renewal in this domain.

© Janice Deledalle-Rhodes (Perpignan/Montbazin)


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