Richard L. Lanigan — Communicology as a Human Paradigm For Urban Semiotics

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

Communicology as a Human Paradigm For Urban Semiotics

Richard L. Lanigan (International Communicology Institute, Fairfax Station, VA, USA) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication

1. The City as Embodiment

City is a name that constitutes both a consciousness and experience for me, as it does for every person. I first became conscious of the notion of a city when, at age nine, I declared my ability, as C. S. Peirce would say—my capacity, to take a public transit bus by myself into the downtown section of the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, then as now, part of the United States of America since statehood in 1912. My father, Richard Sr., was the first baby born in the new State which has forever officially tied my family with that sense of local place called home. With an assumed adult consciousness, I was confident that my child’s body could take care of itself without parental supervision. The consciousness of that unknown alien reality of getting on the bus, which became the experience of a known actuality of riding the bus, forever transformed by sense of lived embodiment.

At the time, I did not realize that I was a living embodiment of one of the major models for defining a city, namely the Kinetic-Chronemic Field Model in which a city and its domain are measured by how far a person can travel spatially within a certain span of time. Irregardless of culture, most human beings use this model to locate, to center themselves in their village, town, or city, this is to say, in their HomeWorld. When any of us ask how far it is to some destination, the first measure is the inquiry “Can I walk there?” and the next question is “How long will it take?”. The walking question is a human body measure of proxemic location typically noted by an emblematic building (architectural object), and, the time taking question is a chronemic measure of kinesic action (phenomenological subject). The sum of both answers is a semiotics of embodiment referred to by communicologist as the HomeWorld Model of Communication. Home is where the body is (position), World is where the body goes (activity).

As may be apparent to some, my method in this analysis is a semiotic phenomenology approach known as Communicology. In the first instance for this approach, I am following the recommendation of Roland Barthes (1967: 97) whose own urban analysis concludes with this research advice:

In conclusion, I would like to say only this: in the comments I have made here I have not touched on the problem of methodology. Why? Because if we want to undertake a semiology of the city, the best approach, in my opinion, as indeed for every semantic venture, will be a certain ingenuity on the part of the reader. Many of us should try to decipher the city we are in, starting if necessary with a personal rapport. Dominating all these readings by different categories of readers (for we have a complete scale of readers from the native to the stranger) we would say that it is not so important to multiply the surveys or the functional studies of the city, but to multiply the readings of the city, of which fortunately only the writers have so far given us some examples.

In the second instance, my approach follows the perspective of Umberto Eco (1968: 58) who reminds us: “A phenomenological consideration of our relationship with architectural objects tells us that we commonly do experience architecture as communication, even while recognizing its functionality”. In his analysis, Eco offers us a full consideration of the semiotic levels of human communication ranging from social interaction to mass media as they impact our understanding of urban architecture. However, my interest is the contextual urban space, it place and locality, beyond the buildings that mark that spatial semiosphere.

Returning to the nine year old boy that I was on that first bus ride downtown to where the tall “sky scrapper” buildings stood, I became fascinated with the phenomenology of the emergence of the embodied city. The street where I lived, the neighborhood of that street, the neighborhoods in that section of the city known as the Valley (versus the Heights to the East and the Mesa to the West, and the imposing Sandia Mountains to the Northwest and the Rio Grande River to the Southeast). These are places of the body and embody the spatial locus and temporal focus of my lived-experience. River and mountain were the walking boundaries of the city.

During my youth, three books came to form the core horizon my understanding of the embodied city I have just described. First was Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe (1956). I first picked up this book of historical fiction because I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city founded by the Spanish in the year 1610, after first being settled in the year 1540 (about the same time that the French were founding a city known as Montréal, Canada). Please note that the established City of Santa Fe occurs ten years earlier than the disorganized settlement of Plymouth by the English in 1620, although the lesser known Jamestown settlement was founded in 1607.

Horgan’s book details the emergence of a unique city, Santa Fe, that became the boundary condition between the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic culture of white people riding horses and pulling four wheeled wagons and, by comparison, the Spanish culture of brown people riding donkeys and pulling two wheeled carts. The white pioneers carried breach loading rifles, and six shot cartridge pistols; the Spaniards carried muskets and single shot powder and ball pistols. In fact, the technology of the 18th Century had arrived at the doorstep of the 17th Century. Even the image of the horse and the donkey were mutually frightening to the animals themselves!

The second book that stimulated by embodiment of culture was James Marshall’s Santa Fe: The Railroad that Built an Empire (1945). Unlike the first book of influence, this is a book of history. Simply put, the book details the replacement of the Spanish donkey and the Anglo horse by the “iron horse”, the railroad in the late 1800s of the United States of America. The corporation known as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (moving people, livestock, and commodities West from Atchison, Kansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico) is simply a technology version of the previous Anglo-Spanish encounter in Santa Fe. The existential addendum to my embodiment of the city, however, is the fact that all my grandparents were emigrant laborers from Ireland and they built the railroad line and later staffed it stations. For generations, the extended family name “Lanigan” became synonymous with “railroad” and the cities it connected. I should like to note, with some irony of tradition, that on 19 April 1996 I gave the 1896-1996 Centennial Distinguished Lecture at Southwest (Tangshan) Jiaotong (Railroad) University in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province of the People’s Republic of China.

The third book of influence was read during my Freshman college days. Lewis Mumford’s The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961) has forever guided my understanding of how the eidetic comes to constitute the empirical, in the present case how the person comes to embody a city. The essence of Mumford’s analysis is fondly summed up in the closing paragraph of his book, to which I shall return at the close of my paper.

Let me now turn to the main analysis of my paper which is to say a discussion of five main points: (1) The HomeWorld Model of Communication; (2) The nature of human groups of people and the proxemic code distinction between “place community” and “non-place community”; (3) The cultural paradigm of Egocentric culture; (4) the cultural paradigm of Sociocentric culture; and finally, (5) the essence of the City as human embodiment. All that I have to say may be foreshadowed and summarized by employing Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of hexis and habitus. This is to say:

habitus, [is] a system of schemes of perception and thought which cannot give what it does give to be thought and perceived without ipso facto producing an unthinkable and unnameable [hexis]. Insofar as it is an outsider oriented discourse it tends to exclude all direct reference to particular cases (that is, virtually all information directly attached to proper names evoking and summarizing a whole system of previous information). … it is understandable that anthropologists should so often forget the distance between learned recognition of the native world and the native experience of that world, an experience which finds expression only in the silences, ellipses, and lacunae of the language of familiarity. (1977: 18)

In my view then, the City is a paradigm case of habitus (and its consciousness as hexis) that can be explicated by a semiotic phenomenology of embodiment (mimesis). Bourdieu’s own cultural analysis offer a confirmation of the appropriateness of a “semiotic phenomenology” approach to human communicology (Bourdieu 1980: 25-26).


2. The HomeWorld Model of Communication

The discipline of semiotics is emerging progressively as a focal point of analysis within the cognate discipline of Communicology. This is especially true in the subdiscipline known as intercultural communicology. Interesting enough, the discipline of semiotics has taken up the specific question of whether or not a person can create culture. This is to ask if the embodied person in his or her engagement, motility, and speaking constructs a shared world with others through the mediation of the body. One of the more explicit accounts of this possibility is the communication theory of Roman Jakobson as extrapolated by Juri Lotman to apply to cultural constitution. Equally intriguing is the interpolation offered by Jürgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson (1951) to the effect that the body mediates the “communication center” (mind) in the body to the effect that embodiment is the founding or endowing (Edmund Husserl’s Stiftung) of the Self in a World of Others. In this context, the original model of Larry S. Harms (1972) called the “homeworld model” has become a focal point of analysis. In brief, this model suggests that the “local” embodied consciousness of persons (hexis) is the dominant code for the “universal” embodied group consciousness (habitus) that is culture. The “cultural transmission model” of Margaret Mead (1970) is also relevant here as the habitus that is autocommunicated as hexis among generations of a specific culture.

Thus in my discussion of the HomeWorld model of semiotic communication, I propose to explore the convergences and divergences among the semiotic and phenomenological approaches to persons constituting cultures and, reflexively, cultures that code the expression/perception possibilities of persons born (or emigrated) into them.

2.1. Harm’s HomeWorld Model

The HomeWorld Model of human communicology was first proposed in one of the early textbook on intercultural communication written by Larry S. Harms (1973). This model has a relatively simple concept with far reaching consequences including a correction of the mistaken idea, used by many early urban planners, that human interaction could be reduced to a binary probability as part of “information theory” (Meier 1962) and (Gottdiener 1986). While Meier (1962: 114 and 121) is aware of the behavioral semiotics put forward by Charles Morris and the application limits of Claude Shannon’s informatics, Meier badly misunderstands the place of informatics in urban social systems theory (Wilden 1972).

The Harms model takes note of the close connection between the embodied notion of home (Alapack and Alapack 1984; Buckley 1971; Eckartsberg 1986) and its extension as habitus, namely: systems of durable, transposable dispositions. The home codes are predisposed to function as structuring codes, that is, principles of the generation and control of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way (1) being the product of obedience to rules, (2) objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends, or (3) without an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, (4) being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor (Bourdieu 1972: 72). In less technical terms, the home habitus is simply the experience of the “local” as represented in the communication and conduct of “local people”. Locals are psychological and sociological “insiders” who are readily distinguished from “outsiders” by their comportment (use of tropic logic), i.e., the recognition of intended behavior. Wilden (1987) captures this complexity with the simple aphorism that “the rules are no game”, meaning that constitutive knowledge (Game as a Whole) is not a precondition for regulative understanding (Action Rules for Parts). This is the fertile ground for confronting the stranger or alien world notion where alternative cultural logics are possible new behaviors.

In my adaptation and expansion of Harm’s model (Fig. 1), the local or Home Community is counterpoised to the World Community. Here, the concept of community is the Gemeinschaft [community] and Gesellschaft [association; society]of standard sociological thought since Tönnies (1887). This is to say, the home community is a group of people who are collected together on the basis of affinity, common purpose, shared goals, and a sense of location that suggests both space-binding and time-binding in their communication, kinship, and exchange systems with others, i.e., choice associations (hexis) that form social practice (habitus). We shall sort out the cultural types of groups in due course. Let me say for the moment that space-binding is Harm’s conception of the Transportation Communication Network [TRANSCOMENT] centered on the exchange of commodities (empirical) by people and time-binding is the Telecommunications Network [TELCOMNET] centered in tun on the exchange of services (eidetic) for people. In addition now, there is the complexity of services which are commodities (tropic logic of metaphor) present in culture as the Internet Communication Network [INTERCOMNET] metaphorically nominated as the World-Wide-Web.

Fig. 1. The HomeWorld Cross-Cultural Communicology Model
(based on Larry S. Harms 1973) © 2010, R. L. Lanigan

The HomeWorld model allows both (1) a person’s self-perception as same-reference perspective, anchored in the Home Community by reason of birth into a family in a given village, town, or city, and (2) the alterity of a stranger’s other-perception as different-reference perspective anchored in the World Community by reason of threat (death) from an unknown (alien) group in an unknown (foreign) place. Given this context, the model describes the analogue progression from a Self situated (by linguistic, rhetoric, and logic codes) in the known Local time and space moving toward the unknown Future time and space of the Other. As we see in Figure 2, the vertical column indicates that at the Local level, a person relies almost exclusively on Home Community knowledge and understanding present in the semiotics codes of proxemics (space), kinesics (action, movement), olfactorics (taste, smell), and vocalics (aural, oral sound characteristics, such as accent). The proxemic field is an analogue measure of distance from or to the residence House: Close-to-home; Far-from-home.

By contrast, World Community information for this person is distant and lacking in relevance—as recorded in the conceptual abstractions (mathematics code) of chronemics (time), ocularics (visual perception), and haptics (touch, the sense of contact with another). The Chinese embody this view with the aphorism: “Heaven is high, and, the Emperor far away” (a version of the Western saying that “all politics is local”). As a person’s comportment involves progressively greater social activity and contact, the analogue scale balance between Local and World Community begins to shift. At the Regional level there is less Local concern and more Regional influence. The same phenomenon moves the person to a National sense of community which becomes a functionally perfect balance between the Local and the World views. Nationalism in every country is an example wherein the idea of “neighborhood” (or “mainstreet” or “home village”) is generalized to the whole country.

When events occur that bring the nation into contact with another nation, the International level of community gives greater weight to the the World influence and diminished concern for the National cum Regional/Local levels. Next, there is the projection of international relations to the level of Worldwide concern. In most cases, this Global level is a an extrapolation in which the World is made Local, somewhat along the lines of Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” metaphor. Simply put, the largely spatial condition of the Home Community is transferred to the largely temporal condition of the World Community. The result is a Local personal concern for the Future of people, since the Local seems to offer little guidance about the unforeseen arriving from some other place! This problematic is intensified by technology. This is to say the advent of the world-wide-web INTERCOMNET destroys our normal concept of social space and time such that the embodiment of the person per se is the only referent point (Dreyfus 2001: 3, et passim; Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986). Embodiment , not digital presence, is the foundation of social stability. As Ruesch (1972:36) reminds us,

The precarious balance between individual identity (image of self when considered alone) and group membership (image of self when with others) can be achieved through control of the perceived social differences that exist between the self and others. Perceived social differences can be increased or decreased through three fundamental processes of communication: understanding, acknowledging, and agreeing. … With these three processes, people regulate their social encounters and the tensions that these encounters produce.

The best example of the over all HomeWorld Model is to think in terms of political economy and the role of government. People are most concerned with Local governance of their lives. Yet, people progress in their concerns as outside influences come to bear, regionally, nationally, internationally, and globally causing an adjustment in their definition of place (World) and time (Future). A typical example on the INTERCOMNET is YouTube or Facebook where the Local is indistinguishable from the Global. By contrast, an unfortunate case in point is the advent of the cell phone and its use by a suicide bomber in an act of terrorism which collapses the World to the Local and the Future to the Present. On a more positive note, there are two excellent accounts of the developmental process of understanding, acknowledging, and agreeing in human communication that accounts for the Home-World Cross-Cultural Communicology Model, those of the anthropologists Tom McFeat and Margaret Mead. Their anthroposemiotic contribution to the explication of group autocommunication in the formation and generational transformation of culture can be depicted in Figure 2. A detailed account of the tropic logic inherent in this helix model is presented in Lanigan (1988: 58; 1992: 16, 92, 110). Also, recall the discussion of Jakobson’s use, and Lotman’s extension, of tropic logic discussed above.

Lanigan Semiosphere Helix Model of Communicology

Fig. 2. Lanigan Semiosphere Helix Model of Communicology


2.2. Tom McFeat’s Small-Group Cultural Transformation Model

Culture can be viewed from a small group perspective in which groups form and interact to create settlements and eventually cities. Using a phenomenological experiment, McFeat (1974) demonstrates that the history of human settlements is confirmed by the habitus and hexis dispositions of several experimental groups that he simulated in different years. His qualitative research demonstrates that human groups develop a culture in a three step sequence of (1) Content-Ordering as a diffusion of innovation by a logic of metaphor, (2) Task-Ordering as a definition of activity function by a logic of metonymy, and (3) Group-Ordering as a function of communication by a logic of simile (irony) and synecdoche.

Small-group cultures not only are spatial, interactive, and structural, as indicated; but principally they are communicative media. They introduce and store and retrieve, and transmit information by converting or translating it into nonverbal and verbal codes. As task groups, their members’ activities focus on goal-directed activities. In order to pursue activities, small-group members communicate on the basis of certain prevailing types of message-exchange systems, as those involving them in eidetic discourse formation: opinion, orientation, suggestion, and agreement-disagreement. These are the message systems which allow group members to articulate the group as an entity with incoming or stored information; they represent the group’s external system where opinion, orientation, and suggestion are concerned, whereas agreement and disagreement may encourage or discourage the ongoing formation of relationships among members. (McFeat 1974: 82)

First, there is Content-Ordering. Group culture begins as an organization in space (proxemic code), i.e., the usual process of organizing shelter, food and water, and protection from outside threats. As a result, the group initially concentrates on forms of interaction in time (chronemic code). The birth of group history, the place memory of actions taken, creates a stability of information that is embodied in the members of the group individually as collective agents of the group. Such a a group is unaffected by the inflow of new information, since new experience is assimilated into past practice and the existing structures of interaction accommodate all change as an extension of the status quo forms of communication. Thus, “as a moving complex, culture diffuses, content moves from space-time coordinate of innovation in all directions at an ideally constant rate, describing what we might call an isometric [all outcomes are equal] pattern. Once innovated, the content transmission (i.e., diffusion) is assumed to stop only at some boundary” (McFeat 1974: 42; my insertion). McFeat’s content-ordering is the same as Margaret Mead’s Postfigurative Culture.

Second, there is Task-Ordering. Group culture moves to a second stage of development in which the organization of space has already been accomplished. The group now concentrates on the interaction in time because group action per se begins to make information unstable. The result is a change in environment in which there is enormous pressure to change customs and practices and the choices they represent. Time begins to alter space because a change in space becomes a change in time. Jakobson’s notion of human communication redundancy features occurs in which every new repetition of a message is different in kind from its previous use (Lotman’s autocommunication). In short, “we look for the information generated by a task: this is what makes the phenomenon cultural in natural task-ordered small-group cultures”. That is, “task-ordering in culture works toward or approximates an isomorphic outcome [similarity of outcomes by convergence of different inputs], that is, an outcome relevant to an internal correspondence with an externally patterned reality: the environment” (McFeat 1974: 48; my insertion). McFeat’s task-ordering is the same as Mead’s Cofigurative Culture.

Third, there is Group-Ordering. This third stage of group development builds upon the content and task ordering already achieved. Culture is organized in space and has adjusted to an environment that anticipates interaction in time. As Margaret Mead will summarize, “The Future is Now!”. The focus here and now is on information as shared meaning in the group as a concrete medium of communication choice and practice. The group is fundamentally affected by the inflow and outflow of information. There is an actual and ongoing structuring of the group as an embodied habitus and hexis. “Thus, by medium [not channel], we refer to specific group or institutional arrangements in space which provide the environment for the introduction, storage, retrieval, and transmission of messages. The concrete media of special interest in this book are small-groups”. As such, “the group is seen to ‘explain the group to itself’, thus providing contexts that are intensely local. Outcomes tend then to be group-specific; we also use the word neomorphic [new and different outcomes] (McFeat 1974:61; my insertions and bold emphasis).” McFeat’s group-ordering is the same as Margaret Mead’s Prefigurative Culture. By way of further illustration, let me point to the communicological research study by Peterson (1987) which confirms the way in which the development of small group culture by generations creates an embodied instantiation of habitus and hexis as the group itself. The group per se embodies as a medium all the eidetic codes of linguistics, mathematics, and logics (tropes of speech).


3. Human Community

A typical definition of a community immediately gives us the sense in which embodiment and discourse are key ingredients (Anderson, Carter, and Lowe 1999: 76, 97).

Community is a population whose members:

  1. Consciously identify with each other;
  2. May occupy common territory;
  3. Engage in common activities;
  4. Have some form of organization that provides for differentiation of functions, which allows the community to adapt to its environment, thereby meeting the needs of its components.
  5. To find or keep a place for themselves in a “postmodern world”, persons and groups of persons seek to create or maintain communities in many ways, including the use of electronic media.

Such a list of defining characteristics specifies the major distinction put forth by Ferdinand Tönnies as between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

When and where a group is connected by “blood”, that is to say, by birth into a family, we have a classic Gemeinschaft grouping. The common bond (in communis) of the group is embodied location and embodied time is the common norm (in proprium), the primary ingredients of the Local as a worldview. The minimum three generations for cultural transmission have a biological communication link thus forming the family group simultaneously as a content (Who we are), task (What we do), and socialization unit (How we are) in the development of the group. The rule for family inclusion is kinship and its tropic discourse includes “uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters”, even for persons who are not technically biological members of the group. The operation of the post-, co-, and pre-figurative developmental discourse creates implicit bonds that relate all community members to one another in a group. “These bonds include common values and beliefs, mutual interdependence, respect, and a shared sense of status hierarchy. Rules regarding relationships are not formalized, but rest in cultural traditions and complementary social expectations rather than written codes or contracts” (Anderson, Carter, and Lowe 1999: 73). In short, the group discourse is affective and has the purpose creating group member affiliation and affinity.

When and where the group is held together in a formal relationship of code and contract, the grouping is Gesellschaft. “Community members relate to each other through formally structured relations within community institutions such as work organization, professions, and civic organizations” (1999: 73). Such a grouping is a direct contrast to the family experience of affection by discourse and practice. The formal environment of the Gesellschaft is cognitive in orientation, i.e., a focus on areas that lead to functional actions and practical outcomes. One’s feelings are secondary. The primary goal to the objective operation of the group. In short, the group discourse is instrumental and has the goal of task fulfillment.

3.1. The Place Community

Tönnies goes on to further distinguish community groups on the basis of the tropic discourse function just distinguished. This is to say, the discourse of member affiliation and that of task fulfillment can be seen to operate in two other local domains: (1) the Place Community, and (2) the Non-Place Community.

The Place Community is pure locality, as we have described it thus far in our analysis. The community is located in a place defined by it geography and other spatial locaters as a proxemic code. The common examples that we use are the sociological divisions of such naturally occurring groupings, i.e., the neighborhood, the village, the reservation, the town, and, the city. Persons embody these places with certain kinetic fields, kinesis being the study of body movement and action in (proxemic) space. In simple terms, the kinetic field model divides up the space of cities by a spatial size measurement. The measurement is taken by how far you can walk (ride) in a given period of time. In semiotic terms, the (proxemic) space covered in a (chronemic) period of time generates the kinetic field as a given locale. James Miller (1972: 117-118; see 1978) gives us a typical summary of the Kinetic Field Model for the evolution of place communities that we designate as the City.

A-level organization: The city encompasses 2 by 2 kilometers and has a population of no more than 50,000. No more than ten minutes are required to walk from the center to the periphery.
B-level organization: The city encompasses 6 by 6 kilometers and has a population of more than 50,000. Examples are capital cities of empires such as Rome, Constantinople, and Beijing. Walking time in these cities at this stage of development was no more than half an hour; paved roads and horse-drawn carts moved people (and in Beijing still do). Such cities were difficult to govern, slums grew, and mobs frequently controlled the city.
C-level organization: These cities depend upon subways or elevated trains to extend the “kinetic field”. This is satisfactory only briefly, as cities evolve and freeways are built to accommodate automobile traffic. It is entirely possible, of course, that cities may return to this mode of transportation, but if so, the largest cities would probably use high-speed subways to compensate for distance.
D-level organization: This is the “modern” metropolitan city, beset by the myriad urban problems with which we are all too familiar. The urban population exceeds the capacity of freeways, resulting in the now ubiquitous gridlock and air contamination. Modes of public transportation must be augmented or new ones developed, such as the Light Rail system in Portland, Oregon. Examples include Mexico City (soon the world’s largest city), Beijing, Bombay, and Los Angeles. [For a detailed analysis and example, see Lanigan 2011]
E-level organization: This is the megalopolis, the modern urban complex that comprises several cities with a total population of several millions. In the United States, the so-called ”BosWash” (Boston to Washington) megalopolis is almost a single, continuous urban area. This urban level is marked by the pathology that remains from having failed to solve problems at the D-level.
[F-level organization]: The [future] “universal city” or “ecumenopolis” would be the ultimate city and would require highly centralized planing. Presumably, technology would solve the problems of transportation, distribution of energy supplies, and waste disposal, although many are not convinced. (my insertions)

It is fairly clear that the Place Community is a group that measures it environment by movement, by transportation (kinesic code). Motility is the embodied sense of how far the body can move and the time consumed in doing so: the capacity to exchange space. As we all know, most conversations about going somewhere have this fixed sequence: “How far is it? About fifteen minutes? By car? No, by foot”. The discourse measures a future possibility of embodiment, and, group formation depends upon accepting and acting on the information, or not. At this juncture in conscious experience, we are on the verge of having to choose between (1) the boundary markers set by the place community in the group affiliation order of space-to-time as embodiment, or (2), the non-place community of group task fulfillment order moving from time-to-space as embodiment. We also need to recall that a place community is largely a postfigurative process of tropic discourse aimed at content-ordering, while the non-place community is a shift to the prefigurative tropic discourse process directed at group-ordering.

3.2. The Non-Place Community

The Non-Place Community is a chronemic code temporality. It is a community in concept, an eidetic place in the mind: the date, the meeting, the nation, the people, the government, the university, the cultural values, and so on that constitute an example of metamind (a name coined by Daina Teters). This community “implies only cooperation and coordinated action for a common goal” without reference to place (Hillery 1968: 77-78).

Non-place communities generate certain discourse characteristics that define and delineate the management of embodied time in the Task Group as a social semiotics with formal and precise codes of embodiment. These include (1) boundaries of action, (2) institutions of practice, (3) social class and caste, (4) behavioral control of socialization and communication, and (5) the designation of “professions” for in proprium (best) practices. Examples here are professional standards set by a legal code, i.e., obtaining a university degree or professional license.

We need only think of one non-place example, the public primary school classroom in any city. Even before you set foot in the school building the non-place location is defined, i.e., you receive formal notices for future action, e.g., when and where to register, what legal and medical certifications to bring. You have some initial difficulties because you do not know the institutional practices (eidetic dimensions of place), i.e., how the superintendent and school principal have organized the school buildings, policies, teachers, students, etc. You come to experience the school as a micro-prototype of the culture at large. There are classes of systems for teachers and administrators, for parents and support staff, and so on. The very grade levels of the school are a caste system for students. Control of outsider access to the building, discipline for students, instructional rules for teachers, and bus schedules are but a few of the behavioral controls placed on socialization and communication as ideas. Last and most critical, teaching is a licensed profession; parenting is a licensed profession; administration is a licensed profession. The professions divide up the world of the child into categories of embodiment that are surely learned in order to avoid a code violation which usually means a shift of embodiment from the Non-Place Community to the Place Community. That is, students can be sent home, parents can be called to school, teachers can be called to the office, administrators can be fired or retired (sent to “no place”). Nobody, no body (in both senses of the name) wants to change places!

Julia Kristeva provides us with a concise summary of the Place and Non-Place community in the rule of differentiation that separates self from other, same from different, domestic from foreign:

Qui est étranger?
Celui qui ne fait pas partie du groupe, celui qui n’“en est” pas, l’autre.
De l’étranger, on l’a souvent noté, il n’y a de définition que négative.
Négatif de quoi? Autre de quel groupe?
Si l’on remonte le temps et les structures sociales, l’étranger est l’autre de la famille, du clan, de la tribu. Il se confond d’abord avec l’ennemi. Extérieur à ma religion aussi, il a pu être le mécréant, l’hérétique. N’ayant pas fait allégeance à mon seigneur, il est natif d’une autre terre, étranger au royaume ou à l’empire.
L’étranger se définit principalement selon deux régimes juridiques: jus solis et jus sanguinis, le droit selon la terre et le droit selon le sang. (1988: 139-140)

[Who is a [stranger]?
The one who does not belong to the group, who is not “one of them”, the other.
The [stranger], as it has often been noted, can only be defined in negative fashion.
Negative with respect to what? The other of what group?
If one goes back through time and social structures, the [stranger] is the other of the family, the clan, the tribe. At first, he blends with the enemy. External to my religion, too, he could have been the heathen, the heretic. Not having made an oath of fealty to my lord, he was born [in] another land, foreign to the kingdom or the empire.
The [stranger] was defined mainly according to two legal systems: jus soli and jus sanguinis, the law according to soil and the law according to blood”.] (1991: 95; my translation corrections in brackets)

It is important to point out here that Kristeva is relying on the tout Paris understanding that le même et l’autre aphorism (Lanigan 1992: 142-154; Kristeva 1981) carries a discourse understanding of good ambiguity (Merleau-Ponty) in which the “self and same” are conflated in apposition (not opposition) to “different and other” (Foucault). For Kristeva, the “same versus different” differentiation operates to separate out the other in my consciousness (alter ego; similar to my ego/self) from the Other person (id; different from my ego/self) of whom I am conscious. The dysfunction of this tropic apposition is clinical and is Kristeva’s concern, i.e., the confusion of other with Other is clinical and can only be resolved by understanding that strangeness is a normal embodiment as étrangers à nous-mêmes [strangers to our self], not an opposition where the Other is a rejected self [foreigner to my ego, id, super-ego]. The point is important because the consciousness which is embodied in the City is a positive condition of strangeness, hence the City does not know foreigners [e.g., your language is not on any of the directional signs] any more than strangers know the City!


4. Urban Cultural Paradigms of Social Semiotics

As we move even closer to the City as a Non-Place Community, it becomes helpful to briefly explore the anthropological and communicological distinction between egocentric and sociocentric cultures. The cultural logics that define and constitute the distinction are complex and many faceted, certainly beyond the scope of our present discussion. A full analysis and interpretation is offered in Lanigan (2010a). These logics are group formation constituents and consequently change in a fundamental way the manner in which we interpret Content-Ordering and Task-Ordering as a tropic discourse function of social semiotics. A brief review will suffice for our present analysis.

4.1. Egocentric Culture and Its Cities

Egocentric cultures are distinguished by the fact that they are person centered. Each person is viewed as a unique individual with distinguishing personal characteristics, the most notable of which is the belief in a Non-Place Community. Western, occidental cultures are for the most part egocentric in nature. Note, however, that sociocentric groups form and function within the larger egocentric culture, but with a single purpose that is bound by displaced-point time. The egocentric cultural cosmology is one of infinite world resources available to the local community. If one person uses up a share of the whole, another person assumes an equal share is available in this whole or in another whole to be found somewhere else at some other time.

The metaphor for an Egocentric Culture that I like to use is a bag of marbles. Culture is the bag and it contains persons, marbles. Each marble is a unique, self-contained individual who functions as a a stand alone object in reality. You can play the marble any way you want, it just stays a marble. You can easily gather up a group of marbles and put them in the bag together. You now have a bag of marbles. I hope that you can anticipate that the bag will become a city and the marbles its inhabitants—a local HomeWorld.

How can we characterize these egocentric people when they are in the bag together? First, they are discrete individuals, they never get confused by others who come into contact and communication with them. Second, these folks are an aggregate group, i.e., a collection of individuals who are members in the group. They are “in” (but not “of”) the group. Third, a marble can fall out of the bag and the bag is forever changed into something new, e.g., a member of the family dies and the family is different. The group is diminished by one. The network of relations is fundamentally altered. The bag tends toward emptiness, the system runs down. We are in a condition of communicological system entropy and decay is rampant. The City is dying. Typical cultural solution: Put more marbles in the bag (“urban renewal”) and hope for stability and growth change in order to make the City live.

4.1.1. The Positive Example

I take the example of New York City, USA as a successful egocentric urban HomeWorld. Successful urbanization is measured by the positive ability of individuals to interact as free agents determining their own “action chains” of behavior and movement. A good way to illustrate city kinesic fields is their street plan as a matrix representation of cultural choice and practice. New York City is arranged with a typical matrix grid in which streets cross streets at right angles. When considered as a control mechanism, the grids (each city block) have larger contextual grids (several city blocks forming a larger square unit) usually named as a “district” or “borough” rendering the city equivalent of an extended “neighborhood”.

The grid allows a continuing prefigurative development of discourse and practice. The new is constantly being built in place of the old, but always within the domain of the grid. The grid insures negentropy (stability) in the system of interaction for individuals. The proxemics code rules the environment of kinesics; chronemics is recorded in the evolution of proxemics, e.g., time is measured by the number of stops on the metro subway system. The City becomes an embodied tropic logic as a prefigurative way of life for the individual: The New Yorker is recognized by his and her comportment.

4.1.2.The Negative Example

Paris, France exemplifies a failed egocentric city. While in ideal theory, the individuals living in the City of Paris have the same interaction possibilities as those in New York, the reality is quite different. The city has a matrix pattern, yet it is not a grid of symmetrical proportion. Rather, the city is the product of a postfigurative history of interaction in which streets have maintained their forms according to activities long since abandoned. The streets are a rhizome pattern, unique and individual, asymmetrical, and incapable of change. The size of streets is better suited to medieval hand-carts supplying the guilds with goods and services, than cars belonging to the apartment dwellers who live there now. Subway stations connect famous historical spots in the past historical matrix no longer lived by the current inhabitants. The Paris Underground refers not to the transit system, but to the ancient and damp catacombs that one can still walk through under the middle of the city.

Paris does have major boulevards cutting through the city and giving one more of a sense of quasi-grid street patterns, but these were not sociological changes. The boulevards were created by tearing down buildings and neighborhoods in the Nineteenth Century as means of giving government troops the ability to fire cannon in the city without destroying the city. Paris boulevards were the first riot control measures in a big city.

4.1.3. The Western Kinetic-Chronemic Metaphor: The River Becomes Main Street

Cultural paradigms of space and time instantiated in the physical city represent a sociocultural logic that is both internal as hexis and external as habitus. The logic is a complex relation of linear and curvilinear causality, but each culture has a preference (Lanigan 1988). The preference is best explained with the assistance of a favored visual metaphor, either a “river” or a “pond”.

Continuing the previous egocentric cultural metaphor of a “bag of marbles”, imagine opening the bag and pouring out the marbles as if they were a stream of water. The flow of marbles can be imaged as a flowing River streaming downhill in one direction. The river is a metaphor for a model of linear causality favored by Western thinkers (Nisbett 2003; Lanigan 2010). Figure 3 illustrates this favored logic.

Western Space-Time Linear Causality
Fig. 3: Western Space-Time Linear Causality


Simply pick a time/place (A, B, C, D, E, or F) and you have the Present/Local. Let’s take “C” and we immediately have a causality for the Past/Back There (A, B) and the Future/Up There (D, E, F). This approach to the chronemic and proxemic codes of culture is called “displaced point pattern time” by Hall (1959: 155). Simply put, time is measured by choosing a specific time point (e.g. 9:00 AM) and measuring by displacement from that point to another point (e.g. 9:15 AM—the cultural boundary of being “late” in the USA). All the above words in italics are called deictic expressions in Linguistics, because they are directional time/place markers unique to the culture recorded in the words. In egocentric cultures, it is typical priority to measure space by time: “I must be there by 9:00 AM”.

In most Western cultures the logic is made concrete in the street patterns of a village, town, or city eventually becoming a complex linear matrix of right-angled intersecting streets. One of those original, historic streets (frequently the street next to the River or the Railway line) is the Main Street. Typically the socially most important buildings (courthouse, bank, church, grocery store, etc.) line both sides of that street as depicted in Figure 4. In most urban settings, a principal cross-road intersecting Main Street will mark the City Center causally dividing North-South from East-West.

Buildings on Main Street with Typical Postal Delivery Numbering

Fig. 4: Buildings on Main Street with Typical Postal Delivery Numbering


4.2. Sociocentric Culture and Its Cities

Sociocentric cultures are marked by the fact that they are group centered. The culture as a whole considers each persona as a unit in the system, a part of the whole identified closely with a Place community. In cosmology terms, the sociocentric culture believes in finite resources available to the local community within the world community as a finite whole. There is a fixed amount of everything. If one person uses up a share, the other person has just lost an equal share of the resource. Sociocentric cultures are Eastern, oriental for the most part. Recall, however, that egocentric groups live within the larger sociocentric culture.

The metaphor that I prefer in the case of sociocentric cultures is a pile of salt. Culture is the pile and and it contains persons, grains of salt. Each grain of salt is indistinguishable from the other grains in the pile. Each grain is completely dependent on every other grain to maintain the stability and structural integrity of the pile—otherwise it will collapse. There is no way for a grain of salt to be unique. To do anything that will individualize the grain is to start a revolution, to suggest the impossible, namely, that an alternative pile is possible.

How can we characterize these sociocentric people when they are in the pile together? First, they are a group when you come into contact with them. To meet one person is to meet the group. For example, you cannot meet a Chinese person. You meet the Han (the embodied group, recall McFeat), i.e., a person who speaks the Han dialect which is the group embodiment. Second, the people that you meet are an organic group, i.e., a discrete collection of parts constituting an explicit whole. They are parts of the whole, they are members of the group (they are not “in” a group, but are “the” group). Third, if you remove a part, the whole is diminished, but unchanged. You can take a pinch of salt from the pile, but the pile remains just as it was in content, task, and structure. The network of relation is not altered. The pile tends toward completeness, the system remains stable and displays negentropy. However, grains sometimes fall off the pile and become the start of new piles. Competing piles are entropy and decay of the original pile. The city is dying again. Solution: Eliminate the small piles and hope for stability and growth of the original big pile to make the city live.

4.2.1. The Positive Example

The city of Beijing, PRC can serve as a successful example of the sociocentric organization of cultural communication and practice. The city is patterned as a series of ring roads (currently at 5 rings) intersected by major straight line boulevard roads projecting from the center outwards like spokes in a wagon wheel. These ring roads are must like the circular ring interstate highways in the USA that connected other interstate highways converging on a city center. Unlike the USA, Beijing’s ring roads continue to emerge with four rings and a fifth under construction, Keep in mind that these rings are approximately ten miles apart.

Like the typical structure for power control in any organization, the proxemics recorded in Beijing’s space is what is, in fact, a Place community. Power is downtown at the city center. The buildings of power are there ranging from the postfigurative Forbidden City to the cofigurative space of Tiananmen Square to the postfigurative Great Hall of the People which initiates Tiananmen Square as the core of a matrix grid plan for the center of the city as its political and commercial center.

4.2.2.The Negative Example

The example of Washington, DC, USA gives us a failed sociocentric city plan. The original design of the city was purely sociocentric with blocks built on a ring design. The city blocks were a series of circle streets like ripples on a pond after a stone has been thrown into it. The mismatch between an egocentric culture and a sociocentric circular grid has proved to be a complete failure. Intersecting grids pattern streets have cut straight streets through the circles leaving the city as a patch work of streets that do not have any historical anchor and are geometrically incoherent—so much so that every car driver carries a city street plan in the car or else installs a GPS (Global Satellite Positioning) device on the car dash board. Unlike Paris, the constructed rhizome has no referent in temporal practice. There is little connection to function, except a sense that the original design should be preserved in some fashion for the Future. This “sense” is made concrete in the physical construction of the “beltway” as it is called locally (but the name is also a national political metaphor meaning the “federal government” that is literally within Interstate Highway 495 that encircles the urban federal government District of Columbia named “Washington”).

4.2.3. The Eastern Kinetic-Chronemic Metaphor: The Pond Becomes a Traffic Circle

Continuing the previous sociocentric cultural metaphor of a “pile of salt”, imagine that pile completely collapsing to the ground forming an enormous circle of salt. Now further image this circle, not as a glistening circle of crystal, but the shimmering surface of a water Pond. Toss a rock into the middle of the pond and watch the water ripple in many symmetrical circles from the center to the shore. The pond is a metaphor for a model of curvilinear causality favored by Eastern thinkers (Nisbett 2003; Lewis 2006: 58; Lanigan 2010). Figures 5 and 6 illustrates this favored correlation logic of analogy (where analogical comparison is the definition of causality).

Fig. 5: Eastern Space-Time Curvilinear Causality (Horizontal Projection)


Fig. 6: Eastern Space-Time Curvilinear Causality (Vertical Projection)

Please note that Figs. 6 and 7 are linear diagrams that we need to correct with a Helix Model (see Figs. 3 and 8), but it is a necessary step for Western readers accustomed to a linear form of perception. Imagine yourself on the shore of the pond (Starting Point) and you see fish (A, B, C, D, E, F) surfacing for air causing ripples on the water surface. You surmise that points A, F, and D are large fish breaking the water surface (solid line circle). Your friend suggests points B, C, and E are the real location of the fish, but you dismiss your friend’s view as not accurate (he is known to be near sighted even with his glasses!). The dashed line circle for Group B-C-E indicate “not relevant = do not cause ripples”. The solid line for Group A-F-D indicate “relevant = cause ripples”. The dotted line circle for Group G indicates “not yet known”. Then you and your friend see a Fish break the surface at point G causing many ripples. You both decide that your previous judgments (both Group A-F-D and Group B-C-E) are less relevant! Not only that, but the incorrectness of both your initial judgment proves the causal correctness of a third group of possible choices to which G belongs! To reinforce this Eastern thinking, recall the the Chinese proverb: A Cart plus a Horse makes a Cart and Horse [1 + 1 = new 1!]. The curvilinear causality is 1 + 1 + 1 experiences for a total of 3 group experiences which is history. The logic is a pure semiotic phenomenology in which the “order of analysis” matches the “order of experience” (Lanigan 1988: 179; 1992: 20).

However, it is critical to remember the Eastern cultural perspective, the point of view that is the boundary condition. Take for example the interaction of one person buying something from another person. There is only one transaction (experience 1), but the apposition of two equal perspectives, i.e., the seller’s perception of the deal (experience 2) and the buyer’s perception of the purchase (experience 3). Thus in Figs. 6 and 8, there are three group experiences to consider: Group 1 (B, C, E), Group 2 (A, D, F), and Group 3 (G plus unknown possibilities—including the potential for another emergent Group 4). These groups are compared by a “correlation-logic” where the logic of analogy is at work and the comparison is on a combinatory analogue scale of opposition values such as “outgoing” [centrifugal] and “incoming” [centripetal], “order” or “disorder”, etc. (Tung-Sun 1938: 121-122). It is impossible to force this logic into a linear model where it could be illustrated with something like a Venn diagram because Chinese is not a predicate based language (1938: 119). Hence, the importance of not confusing Fig. 6 (correct) with Fig. 7 (incorrect) as Nisbett (2003: 33) has done.

In this context, recall Hjelmslev’s (1943: 38) definition: “Now in modern linguistic science it has been a widespread practice to call the function between members of a paradigm a correlation. This term seems to be particularly well adapted for either-or functions. And as a serviceable designation for the both-and function we settle on the word relation. We shall adopt this word in a narrower meaning than it has in logic, where relation is used essentially in the same sense in which we use the word function.” Hence, the logic base for communication theory is a “binary analogue logic that constitutes possibility differentiation (i.e., certainty) by combination; simply formulated as “a choice of context”; strictly formulated as “the choice of a context by relation which entails a choice by correlation”; formalized as: {Both [Both/And] And [Either/Or]}” (Lanigan 1992: 210).

An example of Tung-Sun’s correlation logic is the example of a single “swinging door” that has “Exit” on one side and “Enter” on the other; there are three possible door experiences: Open, Closed, at Rest. We can use Lotman’s autocommunication model to demonstrate that this Eastern logic is a case of secondary modeling where the individual act of phenomenological judgment is a dynamic cultural change of code as illustrated formally:

{Both Rest1 [Both Open and Closed] And Rest2 [Either Open or Closed]}

In this example, Rest1 is a traditional, first meaning and Rest2 is a culturally new, second meaning. Thus, the autocommunication is a confirmation of Jakobson’s principle of redundancy features in which the redundant item is a new creation (not a mere repetition). Now it should be apparent why, for example, Chinese cultural is dominated by its three-plus generation reverence for its postfigurative structure even as it absorbs the technological pressure of globalization and foreign prefigurative values.

By contrast for Western observers, the operative cultural judgment of positivistic logic can be illustrated in this formalization:

{Either Rest1 [Both Open and Closed] Or Rest2 [Either Open or Closed]}

This use of cultural logic gives linear precedence (illogically!) to the “either/or” judgment in which Rest2 is a mere repetition of Rest1 which is a function of mechanical Information Theory. Meaning remains static wherein redundancy is just repetition (Lanigan 1992: 210).

The Eastern curvilinear causality is easier to understand as a three dimensional projection (axonometric perspective where the diagonal projection constitutes the vertical and horizontal matrix) favored by Eastern thinkers. Western perspective is the reverse process wherein vertical and horizontal projection creates the diagonal (depth). A useful review of this perspective difference as logic in science is Monastersky (2002). Figure 7 helps Westerners follow the Eastern logic in arriving at G, the source of the ripples (the last thing noticed—the source—creates the causality in a circle back to the first thing experienced as its explanation! = “back to the future”). Please be cautioned that Nisbett (2003) incorrectly makes Fig. 6 (rather than Fig. 7) his illustration of Eastern logic illustrated in Fig. 6.

Fig. 7: The Helix Model of Orthogonal Curvilinear Causality

The Helix Model (Figs. 3 and 8), technically known as the orthogonal dynamic communication process, is explained in detail at Lanigan (1988: 58). This model is best known in its presentation by Roman Jakobson as the Rhetorical Model of Communication in which metaphor (paradigmatic axis of selection, substitution, similarity) and metonymy (syntagmatic axis of combination, contexture, contiguity) constitute the functioning process of communicology (Wilden 1972: 47; Holenstein 1976: 138-139; Lotman 1990: 36-53; Lanigan 1992: 81). In this context, it is important not to confuse figures of language (a linguistic function of message signification, e.g. Mead’s use of “figuration”) with tropes of speech (a rhetorical function of code meaning, e.g. Lotman’s use of “autocommunication”). Another prominent version of the Helix Model is that by Ruesch and Bateson (1951: 275) badly illustrated as “cone” shapes within a larger cone; contemporary graphic design allows a proper depiction as an analogue helix like that pictured in Fig. 2 above.


5. The Essence of the City

At the beginning of my analysis, I suggested that the embodiment of the person is a condition of conscious experience that is constituted as a concrete medium of communication in human groups. That medium of communication and cultural practice begins as preconscious understanding in the person and comes to be constituted as an experience of consciousness in objective environment of the City. In short, the City is a cultural embodiment in which the person, whether egocentric or sociocentric in cultural preference, comes to be the essence of a place and time as lived. Whether a marble in a bag or a grain of salt on the pile, the person embodies a combinatory habitus and hexis that is uniquely socio-cultural, i.e., the person is a discourse on the City.

Louis Mumford (1961: 576) summarizes with pointed eloquence the communicology of the City that I have tried to explain at length. He says simply, but clearly, that

[t]he final mission of the city is to further man’s conscious participation in the cosmic and the historic process. Through his own complex and enduring structure, the city vastly augments man’s ability to interpret these processes and take an active, formative part in them, so that every phase of the drama it stages shall have, to the highest degree possible, the illumination of consciousness, the stamp of purpose, the color of love. That magnification of all the dimensions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, technological mastery, and above all, dramatic representation, has been the supreme office of the city in history. And it remains the chief reason for the city’s continued existence.



The present paper is a substantially revised and updated version of Richard L. Lanigan (2008), „The Cultural Semiotics of the City as a Homeworld“ in: Global Signs. Proceedings from the ISI Summer Congresses at Imatra in 2003–2006, edited by Eero Tarasti, Acta Semiotica Fennica XXIX (The Finish Network University of Semiotics, Imatra; International Semiotics Institute at Imatra, Imatra; Semiotic Society of Finland, Helsinki), pp. 64-72. In particular, the cultural logic of China detailed in Lanigan (2010a) is expanded and updated here. A longer version of the present paper is forthcoming in Teters, Daina and Zdzisław Wąsik (eds.) 2011, Unfolding the Semiotic Web in Urban Discourse (Frankfurt am Main et. al. Peter Lang: Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften), in press.



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  • Miller, James G. (1972). “Living Systems: The Organization”, Behavioral Science 17.1.
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  • Wilden, Anthony (1972). System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (2nd. Ed.; London, UK: Tavistock Publications Ltd., 1980).
  • ______. (1987). The Rules Are No Game: The Strategy of Communication (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Internet References


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Richard L. Lanigan: Communicology as a Human Paradigm For Urban Semiotics –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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