The Terministic Screen of Socio-cultural Heritage

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A semiotic analysis of linguistic communication as a subjective system of signs.



    Charles Stephen Craun

    It has been established that words are the symbolic representations of subjective interpretation, built from experiences in the natural world, which are given substance through the way in which the subjective system of internalized signification evaluates and interprets personal experience. The interpretation of personal experience is also moderated in relation to the interpretation of related experiences of others, which is communicated through the language they

    use. The meaning determined to be within words, and subsequently in the greater sign system of language, is determined by the manner in which an individuals internalized system of signification functions in respect to the conditions and conventions of a subjectively perceived reality. The similarities among perceived conditions of existence in a particular society or sphere of influence encourage the development of different forms of socio-cultural systems through which a sense of

    individual and collective identify is both built and constructed in a constantly shifting network of actions and reactions. In this analysis it will be observed that the influence of socio-cultural heritage may act as a form of terministic screen which influences the interpretation of language, and by extension reality as a whole, by altering the processes of the systems of internalized signification through which subjective meaning is provided for words as symbolic representations of reality

    within the collective sign system of language. Through this analysis it will be demonstrated how the influence of socio-cultural heritage acts as a terministic screen to mediate the use and interpretation of language through developing institutionally enforced systems of classification, which function upon principles of selection, exclusion and identification to mold the constraints within which the systems of subjective internalized signification are limited to interpret and represent reality through


    In order to understand how the subjective meaning interpreted within language is altered through the over-arching terministic screen produced by the influence of socio-cultural identity, it is first necessary to understand how this system of conventions of which shift the attention(burke) is

    formed and functions through and within a collective and individualistic sense of identity. Burke frames his theory of terministic screens upon the principle of language as a form of symbolic action which represents perceived realities from and through the use of language as a tool of communication. Burke proposes the theory of the terministic screen as a fundamental principle to outline the ways in which the systems of internalized signification through which language is given

    variable meanings and connotations are influenced through exposure to variable conditions of existence and forms of interior and exterior influence. The theory of a form of archetypal terministic screen of which I am attempting to illustrate through the influence of socio-cultural heritage may be more adequately illustrated to represent the dynamic impact of which it exerts upon the perception of reality by slightly altering Burkes notion of shifting the attention to shifting the perspective,

    to reflect how the perception of reality itself is moderated through these systems of signification. If any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as terminology it must be a selection of reality, and to this extent it must also function as a deflection of reality (Burke). These systems of reflecting and deflecting reality operate through observing varying structures of classification, which have been conditioned into existence through variable exposure of the members

    of a cultural or national identity to variable conditions of existence in the natural world.

  • Burke describes words within language as being symbolic actions which are formed to represent selections and deflections of reality, but it also important to understand how images and actions themselves are granted different shades of context and symbolic value determined through the socio-cultural context of perception in which the observer exists. Behavior must be observed through one or another kind of terministic screen that directs the attention in keeping with its nature (Burke).

    Burke illustrates this idea to demonstrate how the cultural heritage of socio-political relationships within a particular sphere of influence function to ascribe internalized cultural and moral values and connotations which produce varying interpretations of the action or image which is observed. An example of how this variation in socio-cultural value system attributes to the variation in the interpretation of an action or image, and can be witnessed to act upon and through both the

    microcosmic scale of personal interaction and the macrocosmic scale of the global community, would be to observe variations in the interpretation of globally influential images or actions. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 20011 provide a perfect example through which we may witness how the variations in value systems produce variations of value based interpretations, and this can demonstrated by selecting a particular image from this event and observing the ways in which the

    response to or critique of the image varies. In the instance of Satan in the Smoke, an image bearing similarities to a face which was captured in the smoke of the world trade center and considered to be one of the most widely circulated images from the 9/11 tradedegy, the varying ways in which the face in the smoke was interpreted indicate the influence of various different socio-cultural value systems working to mediate and construct meaning within a symbolic image. The face seen in the smoke was

    interpreted in a multitude of ways which were described by different Individuals as being representative of anything from Satan or a businessman to that of That Afghan Whacko, which may serve as a testament to how the subjective interpretation of various forms of socio-cultural screens produce a myriad of differing meanings within the interpretation and use of language as a tool of communication. Language both mediates the existence of reality through conditioned forms of

    symbolic representation and attempts to communicate the constraints of its communicative capability by the nature of the language used. Many of the observations are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations were made (Burke). but The differences within the interpretation of this image reflects the influence of which subjective value systems have on the interpretation of reality through demonstrating the manners in which these subjective value

    systems have formed judgments of the actions themselves.

    The theory of the terministic screen provides the structure through which the influences mediating the interpretation of meaning within language, and as an extension mediating the interpretation of reality itself, can be observed to function as symbolic representations of a perceived

    reality of similar conditions. However, if language is considered to be a symbolic representation of a subjective interpretation of reality, which is constantly modified through the selections and deflection of certain elements of the natural world, then it seems logical to assume that there is a system which acts to moderate the nature of the selection and deflection and to establish constraints of use and interpretation of language within a particular sphere of existence. The linguistic theorist Michael

    Foucault illustrates this point In every society, the discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures which serve to moderate the extent to which language can be employed within a certain socio-cultural sphere of influence. This system of classification, through which language is granted meaning within a certain socio-cultural frame of context, is constituted primarily through the process of active exclusion, which is institutionally

    developed and supported to encourage a limited comprehension of the true nature of reality. In appearance, speech may well be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power (Foucault) These systems of prohibition and exclusion are institutionally inbred as tools of control and include the systems which prohibit the use of language, the systems which establish the perceived distinction between reason and madness, and the systems which define the

  • limits of knowledge. The prohibition of language has already been mentioned as operating through allowing only certain words or forms of language to be seen or used in legitimate or socially effective ways by certain individuals who are considered to have the authority to speak with prohibited language, such as priests in ritualistic practice, and the remaining two elements of this system of exclusion further serve to mediate the meaning within language by determining the finite constraining

    forms that language must assume to be granted value in socio-cultural discourse, and by adhering to the historically conditioned systematic construction of definite and measurable substance within language. A will to knowledge emerged which, anticipating its present content, sketched out a schema of possible, observable, measurable and classifiable objects(Foucault) and this schema has prescribed the technological level at which knowledge could be employed in order to be verifiable and


    Of these systems of exclusion and prohibition which govern the form and function of language accordance with the particular socio-cultural environment in which is employed, Foucault believes that the will to truth to be the most influential due to its ability to influence the alternating relationship

    between the prohibition of language and accepted forms of discourse. Foucault describes the relationship between the will to truth and reality as being A will to knowledge imposed upon the knowing subject, in some ways taking precedence over all experience, a certain viewpoint and a certain function(Foucault)The will truth not only restricts the use of language to a system of prescribed definitions, it also limits the observation of reality by limiting the way in which reality may be observed

    to exist through imposing an established base of criteria within which the natural world must be observed and understood.

    Perhaps the best way that the influences of this socio-cultural terministic screen may be observed to influence the interpretation of language is through observing how the systems of

    identification and exclusion can be used in conjunction with each other to remediate the process of subjective internalized signification of language on a socio-cultural level. The ways in which this remediated process of signification operates to remediate the perceptions of reality can be observed to have an ultimate and dynamic effect in such cases as Burkes The Rhetoric of Hitlers Battle. In his article, Burke describes how Hitler rose to prominence as an orator because of his ability to manipulate

    socio-cultural values through directed distortions of symbolic language, and through these distortions he was able to encourage unity among the German society while providing a means by which to justify the monstrous acts he would soon encourage. An example of how Hitler was effectively able to alter the process of signification to produce distorted interpretations of socio-cultural values which redefined the nature of socio-cultural relationships is easily observed in the ways in which the international

    devil of the Jewish character was established in Hitlers ideology as the antithesis of the German men who can unite on nothing else can unite on the basis of a common enemy (Burke). Hitler constructed the common enemy of the Jew as a material manifestation of every aspect of German society which was considered to be faulty or fundamentally opposed to the progress of Germany, and therefore he was able to project the perceptions of the secular uncertainties of the German public upon the single

    persona of the Jewish character as medicine for then Aryan in the projective device of scapegoat(Burke) It is also described how Hitler possessed a mastery of both concealing and justifying the true intentions within the words he used by using tricks of association and identification to express a plurality of meaning within socio-cultural words of symbolic value, or through appealing to a commonly acknowledged symbol of virtue, such as his appeal to the Christian value structures in his

    claim I am acting in the sense of the almighty creator.(Burke) Such conflicting forms of meaning within words were constructed to align the socio-cultural identities and beliefs of the German public with the ideology of a delusional tyrant to ensure unity among his conception society As a whole, and at all times, the efficiency of the truly national leader consists primarily in the division of attention of a people, and almost always in concentrating it on a single enemy(Burke) Hitler manipulated the

  • interpretation of language to a point in which a distinct plurality between the interpretation of language and the world it was constructed to represent produced a fragmented sense of reality which allowed language to mediate the orientation to and relationship between the context of socio-cultural experience, Although the extent of the influence to which our interpretation of language through a particular terministic screen of socio-cultural heritage isnt as extreme as the gravity of influence of

    which Hitler exercised in his dominion over German society, it is still absolutely necessary to consider the possibility of such extremes when regarding our own muddled interpretation of language.

    Beyond the monstrosities committed by Nazi Germany, and motivated by the distortions of meaning and substitutions of value within Hitlers use of symbolic language, it is absolutely necessary

    to recognize the presence of similar forms of socio-culturally mediated and manipulated connotations of value within the symbolic element of language. We use and observe forms of socio-culturally mediated symbolic speech on a daily basis to form and represent a sense of socio-cultural or moral identity, based on...


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