Zero sign duality in visual semiotics
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Zero sign duality in visual semiotics


Semiotica 210 (2016), 209-214.


In this paper, the dyadic concept of zero sign in general linguistics is transformed into a triadic concept of zero sign in visual semiotics. A formal duality relation is defined between two types of visual zero sign. It is argued that the common experience of failure to perceive visual zero signs may be due to either inattention of the interpreter or camouflage of the object of the sign. We conclude that dual zero signs act as detectors in visual semiotics.

Keywords: zero sign; visual semiotics; visual detection; duality principle

1. Introduction

In a series of studies (2000-2012), this author developed a semiotic model of Roentgen diagnosis. Roentgen diagnosis is defined as visual diagnosis based upon the interpretation of signs perceived in Roentgen images. In these studies, the initial stage in the process of diagnosis was assumed to be the detection of visual abnormalities, where ‘abnormality’ refers to that which is unexpected in a familiar visual context. Specifically, detection refers to the perception of an unexpected presence or an unexpected absence. Early on, we observed a duality relation between two fundamental types of visual signs that act as detectors of abnormality in Roentgen images (Cantor 2000). In the course of these studies, it became clear that the semiotic principles that govern the interpretation of Roentgen images are derived from general principles that govern the interpretation of retinal images, i.e. principles of visual perception (Cantor 2014). Much earlier, the great Russian linguist, Roman Jakobson, had recognized the fundamental role of semiotic principles in linguistic studies. In an early paper, Jakobson elaborated on the concept of a linguistic zero sign, which was originally conceived by Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of general linguistics (Jakobson 1984[1939]). In this paper, we shall adapt the linguistic concept of zero sign for use in visual semiotics. We then demonstrate that the concept of a visual zero sign has an intrinsic dual nature. We shall conclude with the observation that dual zero signs act as detectors in visual semiotics. The argument begins with the definition of a concept of duality that is readily applied to visual semiotics.

2. Duality principles

An early example of the unifying power of a duality principle is provided by 2-dimentional Projective Geometry. In this domain, “... every statement about points and lines (in a plane) can be replaced by a dual statement about lines and points” (Coxeter 1987: 4). We propose to generalize this geometric concept of duality to form a logical concept of duality that may be used in visual semiotics. The duality principle of plane Projective Geometry suggests that:

In this way, a duality relation involves a transformation (an interchange of two terms between two statements) and a valuation (the attribution of a truth value to each statement). Hence, a duality relation may be thought of as a logical symmetry relation. In this sense, duality relations have been defined in all formal domains of thought, e.g. logic, mathematics, physics. We conjecture that the universality of this thought process is based upon the concept of bilateral symmetry which is embodied in the human form (cf. Weyl 1962, on bilateral symmetry; Cantor, in press, on the visual embodiment of abstract concepts).

3. Linguistic zero signs

The concept of a zero sign originated in the general linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (1959). Saussure regarded language as a coherent system of binary oppositions that form linguistic signs (Jakobson 1984: 151). Specifically, a linguistic sign was conceived as having two parts, where a sound signifies a meaning, i.e. where a sound is a signifier and a meaning is that which is signified (Jakobson 1984: 50). Following Saussure, Jakobson regarded language as a system of signs and linguistics as “... belonging to the science of signs or semiotics” (Jakobson 1990 [1949]: 50). Saussure defined a zero sign in linguistic phonology as “the opposition of something to nothing” (Jakobson 1984: 151, on the early history of the concept of ‘zero sign’). In a more specific formulation, the signifier of a zero sign ‘ not a simple nothing, but it is a phonic absence that is opposed to a phonic presence’ to paraphrase Jakobson (1984: 158). In a later formulation , “ ... the signifier of a zero sign is by no means a perceptible phonetic pause—it is strictly the absence of a particular signifier in a particular position where such signifiers must be expected” (Melchuk 1999). As early as 1921, Jakobson proposed a generalized concept of zero sign, which applies to signs with ‘zero’ meaning. He observed that “...language can tolerate the ‘opposition between something and nothing’ not only at the level of the signifier but also on the level of the signified” (Jakobson 1984: 152). According to Jakobson, when a zero value is attached to the signified of a linguistic sign, it represents an “undifferentiated” or nonspecific meaning (Jakobson 1984: 153). In section 5, we shall define a dual pair of visual zero signs in analogy with linguistic zero signs. Such zero signs play a fundamental role in visual semiotics.

4  Visual signs

In this study, we employ a triadic concept of sign that is derived from the semiotic principles of Charles S. Peirce. Peirce proposed many definitions of the ‘sign’ concept that he expressed with different degrees of complexity (cf. Deely 2015). In this study, we shall employ an intuitive concept of ‘sign’ that is easily applied in visual semiotics. We define a visual sign to be a triadic relation consisting of a binary opposition between a perception and a recollection that are related by an interpretation, i.e. in Peircean terminology, a visual sign is a relation between a perceived representamen and a recalled object that is mediated by an expressed interpretant (cf. Cantor, in press). Note that for triadic visual signs, what is signified is distinct from the meaning of the sign while for dyadic linguistic signs, what is signified is the meaning of the sign. This distinction between triadic and dyadic signs provides triadic signs with a greater conceptual clarity in applications to visual semiotics.

5. Visual zero signs

In this study, a visual zero sign is characterized by either

In a visual zero sign, the sense of reference is completely determined by collateral knowledge in the mind of the interpreter. However, in conventional Peircean signs, the signified object physically determines the representamen, which, in turn, evokes the interpretant in the mind of the interpreter (cf. EP2: 492-494). Since memory determines expectation, a dual pair of zero signs may be characterized phenomenologically as absence of the expected or presence of the unexpected, in a familiar context (cf. Cantor 2000). Note that in this duplex definition, a pair of zero signs is defined by the parallel interchange of opponent terms, i.e. absence/presence and expected/unexpected, in two statements. Also, note that the perception of a representamen depends upon both the selective attention of the interpreter and the visual context of the object. One might suppose that expectation always facilitates veridical perception. However, we shall see in the next section that this is not always true. We note an analogy between the definitions of visual and linguistic zero signs. Following Jakobson (cf. section 3), linguistic zero signs may be defined in a given linguistic context by either

These two statements define a dual pair of linguistic zero signs where one defining statement yields the other when the opponent terms absence/presence and specific/nonspecific are interchanged in parallel (cf. section 2). We note that Jakobson, in his paper of 1939, did not examine the mental conditions under which there may be a failure to perceive linguistic zero signs.

6. Perception of zero signs

From a semiotic perspective, visual attention refers to our ability to selectively perceive signs within a visual scene (cf. Palmer 1999: 532). Charles S. Peirce observed that “...all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusive of signs” (EP2: 394, 1906). An ordinary visual scene presents to the viewer/interpreter a vast number of visual signs, any one of which must be perceived selectively due to the focusing action of our ocular system and our limited capacity for simultaneously processing visual information (cf. Palmer 1999: 532; Cantor 2014). To be effective under these conditions, selective attention must be directed toward those signs that are most important to the interpreter (cf. Palmer 1999: 533). Selective attention may occur on either conscious or unconscious levels (Palmer 1999: 532). Overt attention involves a conscious selection of parts of a visual scene by means of voluntary movements of the eyes and body. Covert attention involves an unconscious selection of parts of a visual scene by means that are not yet understood. The perceived presence or absence of a sign depends upon the expectations and intentions of its interpreter, both of which are based upon memories of past visual experience (cf. Palmer 1999: 533; Cantor 2006). In visual semiotics, the primary function of zero signs is the detection of unexpected changes in the attributes or states of objects or events. However, an interpreter may fail to perceive clearly visible zero signs due to an attentional insufficiency. At least three types of attentional insufficiency have been described that may account for such failures of perception or memory. These have been termed ‘inattentional blindness,’ ‘change blindness’ and ‘inattentional amnesia.’ In inattentional blindness, there is an absence of visual perception due to a lack of overt attention (cf. Palmer 1999: 536). In change blindness, there is an absence of visual perception due to the capture or diversion of overt attention (cf. Palmer 1999: 538). In inattentional amnesia, there is an absence of visual memory due to a prior absence of covert attention (cf. Palmer 1999: 539). In section 5, we demonstrated a duality relation between representaminal and objectival zero signs. In representaminal zero signs, there is an absence of conscious visual perception, which is in opposition to a visual memory. This may be due to inattentional blindness or change blindness of the interpreter. In objectival zero signs, a conscious visual perception is in opposition to an absence of visual memory, which may be due to inattentional amnesia.

7. Zero signs as detectors

In previous studies, the author examined three basic mental processes that are involved in visual diagnosis: the visual detection, localization and identification of objects or events in a familiar context (cf. Cantor, in press). Each stage in the process of visual diagnosis depends upon the interpretation of visual signs. We note that the literal meaning of ‘detection’ is ‘the act of revealing what is hidden.’ It follows that visual diagnosis must begin with the detection of an unexpected presence or an unexpected absence in a familiar context, where detection of the unexpected is marked by the emotion of surprise. In contrast, perception of the expected in a familiar context is not marked by surprise. It is memory of a visual context that determines what is or is not to be expected. In section 5, we have seen that a dual pair of zero signs may be characterized by the perception of an unexpected presence or an unexpected absence. Hence, from a semiotic perspective, visual detection involves the interpretation of zero signs, i.e. zero signs serve as detectors in familiar visual contexts. However, zero signs may also be used to hide a presence or an absence, i.e. they may be used for deception. A process of visual deception is commonly referred to as camouflage. Camouflage may be a result of natural or intentional processes (cf. Cantor 2014, on camouflage). Natural camouflage is a product of Natural Selection in biological evolution. Intentional camouflage is a tactical measure used in situations such as human warfare. Both modes of visual deception may facilitate either defense or offense in conflict situations. In these cases, zero signs serve to mislead, i.e. act as false detectors of a presence or an absence.

8. Conclusion

In this study, we have adapted the linguistic concept of zero sign for use in visual semiotics. Based upon an insight of Roman Jakobson, we have identified a duality principle for visual zero signs. We have found that dual zero signs act as detectors in visual semiotics. However, dual zero signs also act as ‘deceptors' in visual camouflage. It is suggested that the common experience of failure to perceive visual zero signs may be due to either overt or covert attentional insufficiency



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