Food Choice as a Sandwich of Signs

BLT-2Daniel Knudsen on Peircian Semiotics
By: Leigh Bush

For much of the Sawyer Seminar our discussions of choice have been set within three theoretical approaches: cognitive science (Peter Todd), political ecology (Julie Guthman) and practice theory (Alan Warde). We use these models, many of which overlap, to provide schematics that help us to understand how choice plays out on our plates, in our mouths and on our bodies. And while integrating political, historical and cultural contexts is implicit to these models, alternative ways to shed light on the complexities of choice are many. Peircian Sign Theory takes a semiotic approach to signification, representation, reference and meaning, all of which are integral to the choices we make about food.

At its most basic Peircian semiotics are based upon a three-part sign structure including the sign, the object and the interpretant. In this instance, a ‘sign’ refers to the signal given off by an object, or the signifying element that makes the object into a signifier. Let’s start with, say, a sandwich. The object would be the actual sandwich, comprised of a delightful layering of toasted carbohydrate, protein, vegetable, and hopefully, a creamy/spicy slather. Note, that the object may include far more elements than it signals or needs signal to be a sign, i.e., whether or not the sandwich has spicy mustard and pickles it will still signal sandwich. The final piece here is the interpretant, which provides a translation of the sign/object relation. The interpretant varies, bringing its own habits and understandings of that sign to the table (sometimes referred to as collateral information). Because the translation of the object/sign also feeds back into its function as signifier, the sign and interpretant codetermine each other, providing the key to the dynamic relationships between object and sign. For example, a sandwich, as an object may be any manner of layered products between sliced carbohydrates (e.g. reuben, lox bagel, PBJ, egg and sausage McMuffin); in this case the layering effect is the object element that signifies it as sandwich. However, a separate interpretant, with its own distinct collateral information (including both codified and tacit knowledge), may require that sliced bread + layered items signify sandwich: bagel and English muffin need not apply. In these two cases the object may be the same yet the sign has changed because the interpretant has provided a different translation. Note, that the interpretant is the active factor.

In his discussion of the interpretant, Dan Knudsen points out that much of this act of translating is done by habit (as we also find out in the cognitive science approach, see Schwartz) and is based upon collateral information that changes over time. Habits count as practiced actions that become, well, habitual – executed without much thought or reflection. Prior to habit formation, he argues, there is thought, but on a subconscious soon forgotten level—the same process that tells you to lock your door before you leave home, but also leads you to forget you did two minutes later. Furthermore, the process of constructing such habits (and thus identities) happens on many planes at once, including the macro (national and state) level, the mezzo (family and kin group) level and the individual level. For example, the state may portray the sandwich as a national past time, relating it to other countrywide activities, like baseball or summer camp. The family may reify or divert from such meanings (e.g. deli turkey as Dad’s favorite vs. Uncle Tom says shrimp po’ boys aren’t sandwiches). And finally, individual memory, conscious or not, further informs the interpretation of the sign/object: I first learned to make meatloaf, a meatloaf sandwich, therefore, is a reference to an era (national level contextual information), Sunday meals (family level information), and reminds me of my first forays into cooking (individual level information).

Finally, ruptures in the system may influence a registered change in consciousness, and lead to new responses by the interpretant. The stromboli as object may initially be signified by a rolled cheese and Italian meat turnover. However, with frequent evidence to the contrary, one may begin, suddenly, to translate the grinder-like sandwich object as signifying Stromboli. Regional change, influences by my peers and my own experience produce a marked change in interpretant so now Stromboli = sandwich (though by all accounts of my own standards of ‘authenticity’ it shouldn’t). In conclusion, the interpretant is infinitely dynamic (i.e. the ways that a sign/object can be translated and the ensuing signification, representation, reference and meaning are endless). Food as mundane, meaningful, memorable and momentary is suited to a semiotic approach embracing these nuances and with our identity/ies at the crux of so many of our choices, Peircian sign theory provides a dynamic way to approach this complex process.

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