Category Archives: writing

A brief introduction to the Peircean semiotic, Part 1

Some more academic work, but rather basic. There are a lot of introductions to Charles S. Peirce’s sign theory out there, but I had to do one of my own in order to have some raw material to support points I’m making elsewhere. So you get the benefit of it if you so desire! Peircean semiotic has been a very important theoretical undergirding for my approach to composition, and in particular my approach to teaching science and nature writing, but I haven’t had much opportunity until recently to start demonstrating where and how. It was very trendy in the academy not that long ago, and still may be, but I no longer pay any attention to what is or isn’t. In any case, the engagement then was rather superficial, and the usefulness of his theory has hardly been scratched.

Let’s begin.

Semiotic, or semiotics, or even semiology, is the study of signs in communication. The differences in the name indicate the different inheritances and legacies of theoretical traditions, the later two deriving from the major Francophone legacies, those represented by Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure. I’ll be describing the basics of Peirce’s model of how signs function, and so prefer his term, semiotic.

I am chiefly indebted for my understanding and application of the sign theory specifically to the following two works:

John K. Sheriff. The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Floyd Merrell. Pierce, Signs, and Meaning. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

Also, in many respects this one:

Karl-Otto Apel. Charles Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. John Michael Krois, trans. Highland, NJ: Humanities, 1996.

The key thing in the Peircean model is to remember to think of things in threes. Peirce was a Kantian at heart, and a formal architectonic system that would use some basic formal relations to describe all human experience was always his goal. Through introspection, systematic analysis, and extensive reworking and revision of his basic model, he arrived at three irreducible formal categories for the functions of the sign and three corresponding phenomenological categories for the process and experience of signification.

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Writing as a Naturalist

This post is rather academic, and also covers stuff I’ve already thrown up here. So I apologize in advance for being pedantic and repetitive. But I need to get this stuff consolidated and thrown up here as part of my process for getting some pedagogical concerns distilled into a longer article. I have some poetry and some field reports coming to leaven the atmosphere when I can get more time to write.

Introduction:

Every fall I teach an advanced composition class called “Writing as a Naturalist” that asks students to write from their direct, personal observation of natural phenomena. Broadly defined, a naturalist acquires experience and expertise in some facet of the natural world in order to educate and enlighten others about it, and while the title can apply to a specific position, say in the education department of a non-profit or governmental science or environmental organization, we use it quite loosely in the class to describe anyone with an interest or attachment in the natural world willing to make a case to a general readership for the importance and meaningfulness of that world. The basic requirement of the class is that the students each week spend a couple hours outside writing about what they observe. Certainly most of the students whom the class attracts enjoy being out-of-doors, and most are pursuing degrees in the natural or environmental sciences, but many of those who would not consider themselves outdoorsy, I think, find the basic requirement of the class at the least refreshingly different. The formal writing assignments are few and relatively simple in scope. The primary piece of work as a culmination of the personal observation of nature is a long essay, twelve to fifteen pages, on some specific aspect of the natural world that the student has observed over the course of the semester. In addition, the students produce two shorter essays, the first discussing some exemplary readings in nature writing and the second connecting the issues raised in those readings to the students’ own initial experiences in direct observation. The students do the writing component of the observations as a journal, and that field journal accounts for a relatively large percentage of the course grade, reflecting its practical centrality to the other writing assignments. The journal entries as a record of each student’s individual encounters with the natural phenomena in which they immerse themselves forms the raw material for the final long essay and much of the second shorter essay, and if the student has not spent a long time looking at and reflecting on something, that student will find little to write about.

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Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

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Summer notes

I picked up a yellow flesh watermelon from the farm as part of our share yesterday. I’m the only one here who eats melon (is there a genetic mutation that makes melons unpalatable? – otherwise I can’t explain it). So I had myself a snack.

yellow watermelonIn the midst of basil season, I’m not making pesto this summer. Pine nuts are just too expensive, for one. Are there any substitutions for them? I seem to remember coming across a recipe for a pistachio-arugula pesto that I filed away in my mental to-try folder, but that’s not answering the need. Walnuts won’t do for the other reason I’m not making pesto: the wife isn’t majorly into nuts to begin with.

So I’m making pistou instead. Which is to say, I making pesto without pine nuts. Pistou is apparently a Provencal basil sauce of garlic, cheese, and olive oil, so pesto without the pine nuts, but it seems a bit extravagant to invoke a whole alternate heritage for what amounts to eliminating the pine nuts and amping up the garlic. Here‘s the recipe that I started with, but it’s no rocket science. And when I say amping up the garlic, I mean I’m using a hell of a lot more garlic than this recipe called for. It’s like a garlic bomb it’s so awesome when you do it like that – just give it a little while for the sharpness to mellow. And, you know, put it in soups and on roasted new potatoes. And of course toss it into pasta. Salad dressings, too.

That, and I’m looking forward to my first basil gimlet of the season.

And, finally, another butterfly, a Gray Hairstreak. This one is small and easy to miss. Think of that and their considerable and broad distribution from Colombia to Canada. A massive invisible nation dwarfing all others, hovering only eighteen inches above the ground of the contiguous land masses of North and Central America.

In the last post I compared my new interest in identifying butterflies with love, and in a few upcoming posts, I’d like to explore a broader, and a bit more technical, philosophical and naturalist background to the comparison. But for the moment, I’ll just say that what turns my head to pursue a flash of color fluttering above the grass is very much like the experience of love. And then to patiently pursue the butterfly until it comes to a rest – which can be at times fifty to a hundred yards, man; to peer intently at it to identify as many characteristics as my inexperienced eye can before it flies away; and then patiently to differentiate and situate it amongst a variety of potential beloved. This one was a tiny pale flake, and without the desire to know butterflies a bit more intimately, I would have simply pegged it the ubiquitous Cabbage White and moved on. Now not only do I know the Hairstreak, I’m also aware of its similarity to the Eastern Tailed Blue, and the Summer and Spring Azures. A world in which to place it, and in which to attempt to place myself. And my eyes thereby acquire experience.

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Hey there, wild strawberry.

When I say that all we could see were catbirds, butterflies, and a warbler, how many robins, cardinals, finches, and sparrows am I leaving out? How many of the fattest fat, reckless bumblebees? There were two today that buzzed across my path inches from my chest, but they’re not usually remarkable in both senses of that term. Certainly if we’re going on evidence that is not simply sight, this time of year any walk must take into account the overwhelming presence of cicadas. The ebb and flow of their chatter is a constant drone, coming from all places all at once, almost too loud to ever quite fade into the background of our attention. I saw a dying cicada today – the first I’ve actually laid eyes on one this summer. It buzzed and lay still; buzzed and lay still. I wanted to grab it and look more closely at it, but it was well lodged in some brambles and poison ivy. I shook the branches some trying to get at it, and it buzzed in alarm, fell a bit into the bramble, and was silent.

But it seems to be butterflies that I’m in love with this summer; that’s what I look for and what I notice. So like any lover, I’m trying to get a name. Today I saw a Delaware Skipper, so orange in that setting that it seemed that there was an orange world more real than our own pressing up against the green one. Incidentally, this is a great page for New Jersey butterflies – a field guide that is developed on an experiential rather than a taxonomic basis, and so very interesting at a number of levels.

This guy has also been catching my eye nearly every day as I walk along the stream back toward my street: an ebony jewelwing. But what I really wanted to put up here today were some thoughts about berries from an earlier point this summer:

Hey there, red sunburst of seed. You’re a wild strawberry.
I could eat you, but to say that you have almost no flavor
Would be generous. You have that to give, that there are other things
I might pick up from the ground, bush, or elsewhere that would be
Too bitter to eat – fit only for some other metabolism or constitution.
There is some value in that, in having some small benefit
To offer while giving no harm or no offense. Well, there are some
That are allergic and shouldn’t eat you at all. But they’re not missing much.

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Field report

The boy and I took the dogs into the town park late in the morning. Today is supposed to be the last day of a rather brutal heat wave, so none of us has been getting much exercise.

Other than the catbirds rustling in the bush, the only visible fauna out on the paths in the sun were tiger swallowtail and red-spotted purple butterflies. I did see a male black swallowtail and another that I was never able to get a look at because it never came to a rest. It had an unusual flying technique that seemed more concentrated and deliberate than the random, jerky, open-air glides of the other butterflies, always remaining only inches above the leaves and branches it was flying over, but too fast and chaotic to let the eye fix on it.

Passing by some likely high, dense bushes, I told the boy that I’d see if anyone would come out to visit, and I played a yellow warbler song. A common yellowthroat hopped out on a limb a few feet above and six or so feet down the path and sang to us for a while. It was about then that we realized that we had not seen the dogs for a while. I called for them, and the puppy came. I followed her back to the older dog, which was nosing around the carcass of a yearling deer folded up a few feet into the bushes at the edge of the path.

We were at that time coming out of the back trails in the fields that are cut through the brush and mowed despite being rarely used. This was clearly to our advantage, as the blackberries are just coming into season. Only a few at each branch were ripe, but the bushes were untouched. The berries we picked were still a little tart, but already soft, sweet, and flavorful. At least they were to me. The boy found them still too tart to be fully enjoyed.

Myself, I’d been experiencing some diverticulitis lately which I had suspected was from getting blueberry seeds lodged in my colon – I’ve been eating blueberries by the handful the last few weeks, and who wouldn’t. So I was a little apprehensive about the seeds from the blackberries, which are larger and harder. I tried to chew them down as much as possible, or even spit them out when I could. Growing old is not going to be a picnic.

I reflected that my age metaphorically is not that unlike the current point of the season with some good bit of heat remaining before the fall. Past the peak and full force youth. I am feeling a little bit dried-out and bug-eaten like the leaves are now, and slowed down a a little too as I might be from the heat and humidity. But that is about as far as I’m going to carry it.

We can expect only one point of comparison from our analogies, the one that allows us to make them. If we gain a second by the act of making it, that might be considered unexpected wisdom and we should be grateful for it. But we never learn anything by actively seeking additional points of comparison.

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There’s only one space after a period.

I think Farhad Manjoo is right about a number of things in this essay, one of them being how strongly and perversely people who insist on placing two spaces after a period before beginning the next sentence continue to cling to this misconception. The need to do so is a rule from the age of typewriters – a rule from the old age of typewriters, as Manjoo points out: typewriters have been working with proportional type from the 70s on, and it is, of course, the existence of proportional type that not only obviates the necessity to use additional white space to indicate the division between sentences, but also means that the old typewriter rule is now plainly wrong. Your wordprocessing client, whichever one you use, and your fonts – except possibly Courier, but why would you be using Courier – are all designed to produce text that is most legible and most pleasing to the eye when there is only one space between a period and the sentence that follows. That is, the rule is only one space after a period.

Am I back? God, I hope so.

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