some refinements and new semiotic directions

1. Calibration

Though the notion of “Digital Humanities” has not been generally complemented with a parallel notion of “Analogue Humanities,” it is however true that the digital-analogue distinction is becoming more of a mainstay in humanist inquiry even at some remove from areas traditionally more concerned with media theory, due to the increasing interest in and scholarly productions of computation oriented research. The distinction between analogue and digital is simultaneously broadly and variously mis/understood, depending on its importance to a particular argument, and/or the expertise of the researcher. For an example of the “casually drawn” distinction, Hayles offers the following:

Let me make a claim that, in the interest of space, I will assert rather than substantiate: the world as we sense it on a human scale is basically analog. Over millennia, humans have developed biological modifications and technological prostheses to impose digitization on these analog processes, from the physiological evolution needed to produce speech to sophisticated digital computers. From a continuous stream of breath, speech introduces the discreteness of phonemes; writing carries digitization farther by adding artefacts to this physiological process, developing inscription technologies that represent phonemes with alphabetic letters. At every point, analogue processes interpenetrate and cooperate with these digitizations. (56)

Here, the only notion as to what “analogue” means is to be found in the phrase “continuous stream,” and indeed most of this passage is devoted to describing discretizing digitization, which is here understood as the process of making discrete units out of the continuous stream. While Hayles does not go so far as to define the analogic world as “undifferentiated flux,” she approaches the idea that language that imposes differences on the undifferentiated or continuous. This is a common trope in considerations of differentiation in general. From Merleau-Ponty’s Signs:

[Speech] tears out or tears apart meanings in the undivided whole of the nameable, as our gestures do in the that of the sensible. To make of language a means or a code for thought is to break it. (332)

What is continuous with Hayles’ thinking of the “continuous stream” is the notion of the “undivided whole of the nameable” which is the interface of the digitization of language with analogue experience. The second sentence is more mysterious, but appears to understand “thought” in this context as the apprehension of analogue experience, which can then be broken up by language as “means or a code.” Thus, the notion of “thought” here is not only limited to language but also inclusive of analogic experience, or what Hayles describes as “the world as we sense it.”

The tendency in both formulations above is the same – to posit the analogue as a continuity that is then “torn” or “broken” – discretized – by the differentiating power of language and from this initial baseline, digital prostheses. It is as if language has always already been the Will to Power to usurp all capacities of differentiation from the discretizing powers of the senses themselves. As though it is language that has Spoken and said – “Eyes, you shall now have rods and cones” or, “Ears, you shall now have cilia” or “Nose, you shall now have receptors” and so on. The Analogue is conceived as a continuous unbroken stream to be rendered, torn, and broken by speech, language, and codes.

Leaving aside what one may be tempted to name as a general fallacy, let us here attempt to break the long habit of this thought-tendency or conceptual meme via an easily comprehensible example: a footprint in the sand. The reader will note that a footprint in the sand is perfectly discreet AND fully analog, being in the Peircean modalities both iconic and indexical. I will have more to say later in this essay about this icon-index simultaneity, since it is also the same semiotic state as photography and analog media generally. But let’s return to calibrating the analogue-digital distinction.

The remainder of this section will analyse John Lavagnino’s chapter “Digital and Analog Texts” from Blackwell’s A Companion of Digital Literary Studies (Web), since this text purports to offer a more materially grounded distinction – i.e. perhaps less susceptible to Platonic Echoes – or as he states, “As I will show, the origin of the analogue/digital distinction is in the practicalities of building machinery rather than in the fundamental nature of things.” Thus a gauntlet is seemingly thrown down against all possible misuses of these terms. The “truth” of this distinction is to be found in engineering, in the practices of making machines. Whereas Hayles’ traced the analog/digital distinction by applying the principle of historicity all the way back to the bodily and cognitive mutations that afford speech, Lavagnino’s historicist approach localizes the terms to mid-20th century technical design considerations. Google NGram of course supports this latter understanding:

graph 1
Figure 1

While Lavagnino does not in his text fully explore the important Macy Conferences that have had decisive and formative effects on the analogue-digital conceptual binary, he does cite Macy participants such as Gregory Bateson, John von Neumann, Ross Ashby and Norbert Wiener. The excerpts below, culled from an online summary of the major themes of the Macy Conferences, are drawn from the American Society for Cybernetics website, and will give a sense of the manner in which these terms were contested and elaborated in multi-disciplinary exchanges:

The conference’s opening session had von Neumann and Lorente de Nó presenting detailed overviews of the state of the art in digital computers and neurophysiology, respectively.

This establishes a dichotomy between ‘analogical’ and ‘digital’ which would become a recurrent topic of debate throughout the conferences. Some (especially the mathematicians like von Neumann) would be emphasizing ‘digital’ perspectives, while others (especially the psychologists) would be emphasizing a more ‘analogical’ orientation.

Long argumentation over the distinctions between the continuous or ‘analogue’ character of Köhler’s Gestalt model and the discretely-coded or ‘digital’ orientation adopted by (e.g.) McCulloch and Pitts.

Bateson calls for clarification of distinction between ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’. He hearkens back to the arguments over Köhler’s presentation at the 4th conference and suggested it would be wise to remove any ambiguities.

It is interesting to note that the old debate concerning ‘analogical versus digital’ remained a pesky item of ‘old business unresolved’. Gerard’s points are essentially the same that he’d made years earlier. Bateson’s allusions to Köhler’s presentation only remind us that the prior attempt to invoke and understand Köhler led only to dissension and hurt feelings and not any progress toward understanding with respect to Gerard’s distinction.

Gerard had served as a recurrent gadfly during the conferences (cf. his repeated observations on the ‘analogical versus digital’ distinction). This marked the first time anyone had pointed to the manner in which these conferences’ subject matter and participants were being externally viewed and treated as a cohesive group with a coherent agenda. His remarks were motivated in large part by articles in the popular press (e.g., Time) that were characterizing this ‘cybernetics group’ as the vanguard of an imminent fusion of man and machine. His remarks about mathematical modelling and empiricism are also interesting, because they mark the first recognition of the risks inherent in relying only on abstract models as the entirety of their methodology.

Gerard starts conference with presentation on ‘analog’ versus ‘digital’ interpretations of mind. He states the mind is more toward the ‘analog’, calling into question the ‘digital’ logic-based model of Pitts and McCulloch. This sets off an animated debate that proves frustrating to many of the participants.

Psychologist Klüver criticizes both Köhler’s ‘field theory’ and McCulloch’s ‘digital’ models with respect to perception. He suggests both are too abstract to constructively analyse (e.g.) the functionality of the visual system in the course of ‘seeing’. (ASC Web)

While I cannot of course make any claims as to Lavagnino’s personal familiarity with the Macy Conference proceedings, his claim that the analog-digital distinction is to be found and understood only “in the practicalities of building machinery rather than in the fundamental nature of things” is not substantiated by even a cursory familiarity with the conference topics. At least five distinct disciplines are identified in the summative statements above: neuroscience, computer science, mathematics, psychology and anthropology. The Wikipedia entry on the Macy conferences finds these other disciplines represented: linguistics, semiotics, engineering, psychopharmacology, information theory, sociology, psychoanalysis, genetics, statistics, philosophy (logic), psychiatry, cybernetics, amongst yet even more disciplines that I will omit in the interests of brevity. Clearly the analogue-digital distinctions are meta-conceptual or – theoretic and of multi-disciplinary concern and application and cannot be reduced to only having foundation and relevance with respect to building technical systems. So Lavagnino both represents Macy – by citing some of its participants – yet does not represent Macy, in his disciplinary reduction of what is at stake with these important terms. To be sure, Lavagnino notes that cybernetics was a multi-disciplinary field, but the larger point is that the terms are not limited to cybernetics. Moreover, Lavagnino seems to have a limited notion of the contemporary manifestations and significance of cybernetics. He writes: “Cybernetics, today, is a field that lingers on in small pockets of activity but does not matter.” Strange, then, that IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics should have such a high SCImago Journal Rank score (SJR, Web). It’s Computer Science SJR ranking is #2 under Human Computer Interaction (SJR score = 2755), #9 under Artificial Intelligence (also 2755), #14 under Computational Theory and Mathematics ( SJR = 1976), and #16 under Computer Science Applications (SJR= 1718). In short, Lavagnino is unjustifiably dismissive of cybernetics in contemporary research.

Additional attention to the Macy Conferences would help shore up Lavagnino’s discussion of more prosaic technologies (e.g. clock and abacus) in relation to the analogue-digital distinction. As Julien Bigelow stated at the 8th Macy Conference on Cybernetics:

I think that somebody ought to make the very platitudinous remark that it is impossible to conceive of a digital notion unless you have as a reference the notion of a continuous process by which you are defining your digit; that is to say, the slide rule has continuous length and it has on it numbers which are digital.(Wilder 244)

This notion of the dependency of the digital on the analogue is missing in Lavagnino’s account, though of course is latent in Hayles above. What both authors under-articulate is the process whereby the analogue is both converted into the digital and then re-converted back into the analog:

Analog Digital Conversion
Figure 2 (Analogue Digital Conversion)

In the case of a waveform of CD audio quality, for example, snapshots or “samples” at discrete time intervals (over 44,000/sec) are taken of an analog waveform in order to obtain discrete data in digital form. However, digital media cannot be presented to the human senses in any direct way. As a discrete format for data, digital files can be stored on a hard drive, or made available to various software applications, etc. In order to be heard, digitized sound needs to be re-converted back into an analog format, in order to address audio speakers and from there, human ears.

Hayles’ notion that “analogue processes interpenetrate and cooperate with these digitizations” somewhat misses this straightforward linear chain of AD/DA (analogue-to-digital, digital-to-analogue) conversion, as her text makes it seem more like an ambient, radiant or intersecting process than it actually is, and thus she somewhat mystifies the AD/DA conversion process. Elsewhere I have described this process as “the digital as analogic detour”(2007) to describe this notion that the digital is best understood as a detour between analog modes. The digital is part of a temporal process that necessitates analogue modalities at either end of the time chain. Moreover, there is a sense in the Hayles citation that analog to digital conversion is a one-way flow, from analogue experience of the world to linguistic and technical encoding. But in telling a story, for example, we certainly hope to conjure up analogic imagery, mood, forces and so on and not simply put forth a stream of discrete alphabetic sequences. This lack of a sense of conversion-reconversion is also apparent in Lavagnino, who tends to inscribe the analogue-digital distinction as a binary rather than this processual detour that actually occurs in digital mediation. What is missing in Lavagnino’s characterization is this sense of digital dependence on the analogue:

A famous example due to Nelson Goodman is the clock dial: this looks like an analog system, because you can read off the time to any degree of precision in measuring the position of the hands. In actual practice, we often treat this as a digital device, and only read it to full minutes. The clock might have a digital or an analogue mechanism, which affects whether the information is really there to be measured at arbitrary precision. But in any case, this stage of interpretation of something outside the system is an occasion when information often changes from digital to analogue or vice versa.

Both approaches were embodied in machinery long before the rise of digital computers: the abacus is digital, the slide rule is analog.

Lavagnino cites examples similar to the slide rule described by Bigelow, only in missing the thrust of Bigelow’s “platitudinous remark” – that the digital depends on the analog – he ends up inscribing more of an oscillation between dual analog and digital modes – as how one reads a clock dial – or a binary of different choices to be made, as two different types of systems one may design.

Lavagnino’s analysis does not have a distinct concept of “code” or “encoding” as he applies this term equally to both analogue and digital media, which is both a technical and conceptual error. By not providing even a provisional definition of code, an awkwardness is produced in the text, given the preponderance of the use of this term in connection with digitization rather than with analogue storage in media discourses. His use of “encoding” appears to mean something like “technologically inscripted” or even “made by gear” etc. Here another simple example will illustrate the important difference that is missed – when one holds a film strip up to a light source, one can see little images of recognizable scenes, albeit with some colour inversions. This is not encoding, because if it were encoded – meaning, subject to a code for reconstitution of percepts, in this case – there should be nothing recognizable to “the naked eye.” A better term in this instance would be ‘embodied’ rather than ‘encoded’, when considering the manner in which analog media is stored. There may be other terms that one could employ, but Walter Murch’s distinction of encoded vs. embodied, which he developed in connection to theorizing the elements of a soundtrack – encoded for dialogue, embodied for music, and half-way between this spectrum for sound effects – is itself a reformulation of the differences between analogue and digital technology but here applied to organizing the layers of a sound mix:

Figure 3
Figure 3

Murch literalized the notion of a spectrum in his assigning of various colours to his scheme (as well, he went so far as to connect prevalent notions of left vs. right brain as well to this schema). However, keeping the example of little people and landscapes that are visible in a film negative, the notion of “embodied” as the mode of analogue storage is useful as a distinction relative to encoding, since the latter notion requires submission to a rule of interpretation (in Peirce’s terms again, referencing his notion of the symbolic) to be reconstituted into meaning. The little scenes of a film negative are iconic as well, which suggests that the analogue and digital distinction may be profitably connected to Peirce’s iconic-symbolic distinctions. To connect analogue media with an embodied mode of storage is not to suggest that digital information is somehow dematerialised or disembodied, but only to call attention to the fact that embodied storage – for example, heat collected in water tanks for ambient night heating in some environmental housing designs – does not require a subsequent encoding/decoding process for reconstitution. In analogue media, “continuity” refers not only to the form of the data itself, but also to the processes between original phenomenon and the form of the data. This continuity between phenomena and data storage is clearly illustrated in the difference between a film strip that affords iconicity to the unaided eye, relative to a flash card of encoded bits that needs to be reassembled through software codes in order to produce an image. Thus we can call analogue media embodied storage because there is continuity in the form between the phenomenon and the medium, and likewise we could characterize digital media as introducing discontinuity in the form of embodied media, and we would then switch to the term ‘encoded’ rather than ‘embodied’ to mark this formal discontinuity. What is perhaps needed in general theory is a better notion of transduction vs. inscription, but regrettably transduction hasn’t been aptly brought into media discourses, which tend to apply notions around inscription to any kind of marking in general. Here is Lavagnino on analog encoding:

Both analog and digital systems require some stage of choice and reduction to turn phenomena from the world into data that can be processed. The most common error about digital systems is to think that the data is effortlessly stable and unchanging; the most common error about analog systems is to think they’re natural and simple, not really encoded.

We see here this general conflation of encoding to any technical process. Analog media is imagined as encoded because, well, a machine made it, so it’s not “natural.” But the use of encoding here elides the important difference of continuity in form that is precisely what encoding disrupts.
Incidentally, what is illustrated by the example of the film negative is equally true of audio stored as analog media. While soundwaves are not visible, technically-extended perception can bring these percepts into our field of view. Sound as magnetized particles on analog tape maintains the same continuity of form as a film negative:

Earth Portal
Figure 4 (Earth Portal)

I have introduced these examples of the film negative and analogue tape to counter a claim repeated in Lavagnino’s text:

The common habit is to refer to data as being digital or analogue; but it is only as a matter of whole systems that the terms are meaningful. A body of data in either form means nothing outside the system that is engineered to perform operations on it.

The difference between digital and analog systems, then, is best understood as an engineering difference in how we choose to build systems, and not as resulting from an intrinsic property of data that somehow precedes those systems.

Yet what these examples of the film negative and magnetic tape show is precisely that we do not need to reference “the whole system” in order to understand the digital and analog distinction. We can rather easily displace any particular media from the system that produced it in order to determine whether we should understand it as embodied media – exhibiting continuity of form with phenomena – or as encoded media, exhibiting a discontinuity of form, in a four plane two-dimensional array of values between 0-255 to be reconstituted as Red, Green, Blue and Alpha channels in a raster-based image:

FIgure 5 (Jitter)

While it is of course true that digital systems produce digital media, and analog systems analog media, Lavagnino’s claim that we can only understand the difference as system properties is unconvincing, if only because inaccurate and unempirical. These are fundamental distinctions: embodied vs. encoded, continuity vs. discontinuity in form, transduced vs. inscripted. Moreover, we can understand the analog and digital distinctions in relatively straightforward Peircean terms: characteristic of the symbolic order, digital media must be subject to a “rule of interpretation” in order to generate meaning, whereas analog media exhibits iconic properties. Perhaps this iconic dimension of analog media has escaped the notice of some writers due to the fact that the media are inscribed in forms that aren’t always as obviously iconic as film negatives, or because looking at magnetized particles on tape isn’t the same as hearing a sound. However, the continuity in form is there nonetheless, and readily links to iconicity.

Throughout his text, Lavagnino is relying heavily on others to cover the analog-digital distinction for him: “John Haugeland’s definitions of digital and analogue devices remain the best, and are those I will follow.” We are not told why Haugeland’s text is the best, but for Lavagnino there is an evident interest in the fact that digital processes are better at making perfect copies, or at least make more reliable copies than analogue processes, which exhibit forms of lossiness and noise that are well-known. I will not follow the remaining portions of Lavagnino’s text – which go on to general considerations about the metaphor of mind and computer, the copying texts, and the efficacy of computers for creating texts – as my concern in engaging with his article has been to pursue some refinements of the analogue-digital distinction within a literary theoretic field. In the next section I will take up the semiotic themes that have suggested themselves as having relevance beyond the engineering paradigms in which Lavagnino had attempted to restrict the analogue-digital distinction.

2. Modifications

Above it was noted that there tends to be a particular simultaneity between icon and index in the case of analog media, such as a photo negative. In this section I will attempt a small modification of Peirce’s categories to account for this necessary simultaneity, and on the same basis suggest a better definitional footing for the analogue-digital distinction. Keeping in mind that “Peirce himself did not complete work on the classification, and a fair amount of what he does say is conjecture” (Zeman, Web), the modifications suggested below can be understood as possible elaborations of an unfinished project, and may be of general use for the application of Peircean semiotics to digital humanist inquiry.

An analogue medium can be considered any technology in which iconicity is produced through indexical means. In this definition painting, for example, could be an indexical medium, recording the force of applying paint to a canvas, or an iconic medium, should techniques of mimesis be applied. But an analogue medium, as analysed above, produces iconicity through indexicality. A portrait painting with some exceptionally strong brush strokes would be iconic toward the subject being painted, but indexical with respect to the painter’s gesture. But what about the notion that analogue media record “continuous information.” Is not a brush stroke continuous? A single brush stroke perhaps, of course, but a painting as a whole can be assembled over weeks or months, and is in fact an accumulation of discrete materials and gestures applied in non-uniform sequences. The “information” of a painting, in other words, is not continuous at a constitutive level, though can of course present an icon of continuity. However it also doesn’t make sense to describe a painting as digital media either, on similar grounds, since discrete digitalization breaks iconicity. In these considerations we are close to according with Lavagnino’s desire to restrict the analog and digital distinction to contemporary technologies, say from mid-19th century, i.e. the photograph, onward. In this respect, it is worth recalling that the NGram in Figure 1 shows a small flurry of activity around the word “digital” between 1860 and 1920, which is no doubt worth reviewing in another project. Also implicated in these determinations of how best to characterize pre-digital and – analog media is Hayles’ notion that, in a sense, discretization proceeds from speech onwards (through inscriptive technologies, prostheses etc.). With respect to older or traditional media, given that these are typically not referred to as either digital or analog media, using the general Peircean terms – e.g. symbolic, indexical, or symbolic media – can be clarifying as alternate descriptors, as well of course the regular nomenclature, such as the printing press as a “mechanical” medium, and so forth.

These reflections suggest a modification of Lavignino’s argument, to include as analog media any technical processes that produce data exhibiting iconicity through indexical means, with a notable “taking off” period of historical import with the development of photography, rather than with mid-20th century developments around cybernetics. Lavigino’s focus on stored data is important, because it allows one to exclude other forms that do not produce stable storage or indeed “media” in the sense of something that can circulate. A camera obscura is a fixed locale, a physical space that cannot circulate and that operates so long as the hole is open, the sun is out and so on. Likewise, musical performances in which instrumental effects are mined for mimetic effects (e.g. crashing waves, singing birds, etc.), while also showing this “fusion” of indexicality and iconicity, do not store these performances as data, and so can be likewise excluded from this notion of analogue media. However, musical notation of such mimetic effects might be an interesting border case, since while apparently of the “symbolic” register, for Peirce formal notation systems were actually icons:

The reasoning of mathematicians will be found to turn chiefly upon the use of likenesses, which are the very hinges of the gates of their science. The utility of likenesses to mathematicians consists in their suggesting in a very precise way, new aspects of supposed states of things. (qtd. in Zeman, Web)

In my view musical notations, as well as mathematical and formal logic are clearly symbolic systems, to use Peirce’s own categories against him. Here I believe Peirce is letting the transparency of an understood code impede his understanding of his own theory! He himself “sees through” the window of the code onto the actual thought processes which in his understanding are analogic in nature, i.e. related to likeness. Here the notion of embodied vs. encoded meaning in helpful, since clearly music, math and logic require knowing the code in order to hear the music, or see the likenesses, etc. which is exactly what is not required of, for example, recognizing a cat video on YouTube as a video about cats in the manner of general iconicity.

This leaves us to refine the notion of the digital by taking into account this dependence on the analog that we previously uncovered in the processes of analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue conversion. Digitization is an encoding of analogue-embodied index-icons, in which the index-icon is subject to a process whereby iconicity is mapped directly to a symbolic register through an indexical process. Digital media, in other words, is actually to be better understood as “(analogue)->digital->(analogue)” media, with AD/DA conversion as the two openings of the digitization process. The dependency of digital media on analog media is thus captured again as an indexical relation, albeit one that produces a discontinuous symbolic form rather than a continuous iconic form. In order to meet up again with human perception, the discrete-discontinous-symbolic media is remapped through another indexical relation to an analogue medium, which now produces what one may call a “symbol-icon” since digitization has in fact “severed” the existential connection between the original analog source and the new analog destination. However, all of the abstraction layers, from machine code to firmware, assembly language, operating system and human user interface are designed to reconstruct the final analogue percept according to the scheme that is the same-but-reversed process of the mapping of the index-icon to digital symbols. So, with regards to the final percept of digital media we could conceptualize it semiotically as an (indexed)symbol-icon. The final percept is still an icon because it resembles its analog “original,” being reconstituted from the original mapping. In other words, what comes out of the DA process should be a lot like what went into the AD conversion. I should be clear that the digital processes I am referring to are related to digitally recorded sound or images. I am not, for example, including digitally synthesized or processed media at this point, but only the “baseline” forms of analog and digital media and representations as data storage, though below even these digitally generated forms will be adequately covered by the analysis.

In “Looking back at 30 years of Cognitive Linguistics,” Dirven and Ibáñez note:

From a historical point of view, CL belongs to the functionalist tradition in linguistics. Although Saussure (1916) saw linguistics as part of semiology or semiotics, he mainly emphasized one of the three main modes of semiotic reference, i.e. symbolicity, as the organizing principle of linguistic structure. In the more balanced semiotic view of language, taken by Haiman (1985b), the other two main semiotic principles, i.e. iconicity and indexicality, are shown to be highly relevant, too. They are, moreover, more perceptually and experimentally based, and as such fully in line with the cognitive view of language. (15-16) [emphases in original]

Notably, in a retrospective of the highly interdisciplinary field of cognitive linguistics- an interdisciplinarity in fact originally charted in the Macy Conferences on cybernetics,- the Peircean scheme is taken axiomatically, similar in manner to the way Saussurian concepts are almost a kind of default for post-structuralist and new historicist discourses. Historically, cognitive linguistics and post-structuralism are roughly parallel discursive formations, the former starting to form a field in the early 1970s, the latter in the late 1960s. Unlike post-structuralism, which has somewhat waned in its overall influence, CL is an ongoing and even thriving research concern. Saussure is a touchstone for Hayles in the text cited above, whereas Lavagnino addresses semiotic concerns through references to Edmund Leach’s structuralist anthropology and Nelson Goodman’s aesthetics. My focus has been on digital and analog media of a specifically representation kind, namely sound and image as analog and digital media. It is worth briefly considering another form of digital media, coding in a programming language, to round out the Peircean engagement by providing a complementary semiotic conception of digitization. Digital encoding can be understood as a mapping from the symbolic to the indexical. One starts with a knowledge of some code (e.g JavaScript or Python) and in the course of writing a program, causes the computer to behave in a certain manner. Coding is commanding, and the commands only work- assuming the program runs- by instantiating a causal chain. Causal chains are existential connections, so in terms of the schema described above, computer programs are symbol-to-index mappings. The various abstraction layers of a computer (application, kernel, assembly, firmware, hardware) serve to map the syntax, keywords and arguments of a program at the symbolic register into the indexically commanded actions at the causal level of a hardware chain. The digital space “itself” is thus best understood as a zone of index-symbols. This understanding thus pairs the previous notion of analog media as index-icons with a linked notion of digital media as index-symbols. However, here “digital media” refers to the state of digital media as stored and worked upon, or digital media “itself,” not as perceived, since perception requires analog embodied reconstituting.

It has been almost a century since the publication date of Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics, yet the Saussurian framework continues to enjoy an almost hegemonic position as a primary source of linguistic notions in humanist inquiry, which has not only sidelined Peirce’s concepts as a minoritarian or even contrarian position- indeed odd since Peirce published his ideas long before Saussure, by up to half a century- but the status of Peirce in the humanities causes one to wonder how many decades it will require for cognitive linguistic perspectives to “properly” (meaning, proportionally, or as due to any significant contribution to knowledge) be utilized by or make inroads into humanist inquiry. Peirce’s most prominent influence in humanities appears to be in art and media discourses, where of course “the text” is not as word-oriented as in literary studies. In perhaps the most entertaining moment of Lavagnino’s “Digital and Analog Texts,” this citation of Edmund Leach comes very near to calling the Peircean perspective “primitive”:

Incidentally it is of interest that the internationally accepted symbolism of mathematics represents this binary opposition either as 0/1 or as −/+. The second of these couplets is really very similar to the first since it consists of a base couplet −/− with the addition of a vertical stroke to the second half of the couplet. But if a student of primitive art, who could free himself from our assumptions about the notations of arithmetic, were to encounter paired symbols 0/1 he would immediately conclude that the opposition represented “vagina”/“penis” and was metonymic of female/male. A structuralist might argue that this fits very well with his assumptions about the deep structure algebra of human thought.(1972: 334, cited in Lavagnino)

The vagina/penis binary is of course an iconic perception, that would perhaps require a Peircean perspective rather than merely a “primitive art” one. Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that notions around the “binary” are far from absent in analog media. Sound media, of course, depends upon + and – to indicate the patterns of compression and rarefaction that produce changes in air pressure undergoing wavefront propagation, which in turn delineate peaks and troughs of waveforms that can themselves be phase reversed relative to each other in mixing boards. Again, even if we understand these binaries as linguistically “digital,” they are causally dependent on analog phenomena.

The arguments presented here add up to a new semiotic concept of analog and digital media- as the data forms of index-icons and index-symbols- that, aside from clarifying the analog-digital distinction for literary-theoretic and media discourses, can potentially yield new interdisciplinary research possibilities for the long-overdue waves of scholarship inspired by cognitive linguistic perspectives, which in themselves appear to have already assimilated Peircean insights. Thus this essay charts an alternative path, beginning with the same initial premise- clarification of key concepts- but radically expanding both the notion of “text” followed by Lavagnino, and its discursive neighborhood. The analog-digital distinction is liberated from the tightly restricted field of engineering considerations and restored to a status commensurate with the interdisciplinary spirit of inquiry of the Macy Conferences. At the same time, what is also resisted is the longue durée of Hayles’ grounding of these distinctions in evolutionary terms, preferring instead an expanded historical horizon that need not necessarily find its limit in the 19th Century but in any forms of mediation where either icons or symbols are produced in causal, existential chains of the phenomena that are their object.

Works Cited:
  • Analog Digital Conversion
  • ASC
  • Dirven, René and Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez. “Looking Back at 30 Years of Cognitive Linguistics.” Cognitive Linguistics in Action: from Theory to Application and Back. Ed. by Michal Choinski, Lukasz Wiraszka and Elzbieta Tabakowska. De Gruyter 2010
  • Earth Portal
  • Filimowicz, Michael. “The Noise of the World.” Janus Head: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology, and Art, Vol. 10 #1. 2007.
  • Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, The Belknap Press. 1963.
  • Hayles, Katherine. My Mother was a Computer. University of Chicago Press. 2005.
  • Jitter
  • Lavagnino, John. “Digital and Analog Texts” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
  • Leach, Edmund (1972). “The Influence of Cultural Context on Non-verbal Communication in Man.” In R. A. Hinde (Ed.). Non-Verbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 315-44.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Preface to Signs,” The Merleau-Ponty Reader, ed. by Ted Toadvine and Leonard Lawlor. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, 2007.
  • SJR
  • Wilder, Carol. “Being Analog.” The Postmodern Presence. Berger, Arthur (ed.). Altamira Press. 2005.
  • Zeman


Michael Filimowicz is a multi-disciplinary artist and researcher working at the overlapping boundaries of media forms. He is founder of the Cinesonika International Film Festival and Conference of Sound Design, and Editor of The Soundtrack academic journal. His research area can be broadly construed as the phenomenology of mediation and informational semiotics. He is also Faculty Director of Interdisciplinary Programs in Simon Frazer university’s Lifelong Learning unit.