But, Sheriff notes, critics from later in the twentieth century such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco point to the importance of the individuality of the reader in the interpretation of a text. Not only is meaning independent of the intentions of a speaker, writer, composer, and so on; it is also not entirely fixed by the structure of a given text. Instead, says Barthes, every reader interacts with a text using a unique set of interpretive systems. Paul de Man goes a step further by pointing out that each reader is constantly changing, even as he reads a given text. Sheriff summarizes this bleak history by noting that first the author becomes unapproachable, then the text, and finally the experience of the text.
Because of our structuralist assumptions, whatever we wish to study eludes us. Everything that may have seemed objective, given, or having significance in itself is really already a part of a system that we brought to the perception of the thing perceived. What we come up with is exactly what our assumptions allow us to come up with-a sign within a system-and the significance of the sign changes as the system changes.12
Jacques Derrida, then, offers deconstruction, the view that, in Sheriff’s words, “all meaning is supplementarity, an ideality exterior to the process of language.”13 In an infinite chain of deferral, signs only represent other signs; they never point to reality. Madan Sarup characterizes this post-structuralist view as teaching that, “there is a perpetual detour on the way to a truth that has lost any status or finality.”14 As a result, we are left with a choice: we can either hopelessly seek truth or joyously indulge in the play of interpretation, affirming, in Derrida’s words, “a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation.”15
At the end of this historical review, Sheriff points out that the road to radical uncertainty began with the step of accepting Saussure’s model of the arbitrary sign. An alternate view is offered by nineteenth-century American philosopher Charles Peirce. In Peirce’s semiology, a sign is a representamen, a signifier that stands to somebody for some thing, an object. The representamen acts by invoking in the mind a new, more developed sign called an interpretant. Now while Peirce’s interpretant is always a mental image, the representamen and the object are not necessarily mental images, as is the signified in Saussure’s scheme; the assumption is made from the outset that a sign can be a part of external reality and that it can represent something in an external reality. In addition, Peirce, anticipating and arguing against Derrida, understood a pragmatic need for an end to perpetual deferral: all signs pointing only to other signs. W. B. Gallie characterizes Peirce’s thinking in these words: “As Peirce frequently points out, the exigencies of practical life inevitably cut short such potentially endless development. Moreover . . . , any merely random succession of a sign’s potential interpretants . . . would evidently lack what we ordinarily refer to as direction, point, and purpose.”16 Because I believe in absolute reality, share the assumption that signs can represent that reality, and agree with the propriety and the need to avoid the infinite regression of interpretation, I adopt the Peircean semiotic model.
Peirce describes three modes of signs: depending on how the sign relates to its object, it is either an icon, an index, or a symbol.17 In Peirce’s words, the icon “exhibits a similarity or analogy to the object” and “partakes in the character of the object.” Examples include a stick figure to represent a person, and the spoken word “quack” to represent the sound of a duck. The index, says Peirce, “forces the attention to the particular object intended without describing it” by virtue of some natural relationship to what it signifies such as a physical connection or causation. Examples include smoke as a sign of the presence of fire, and the sound of quacking as a signal that ducks are nearby. The symbol, by comparison, cultural and arbitrary, “signifies its object by means of an association of ideas or habitual connection.” Examples include clapping as a sign of approval and almost all words, including the word “quack” as a designator for a fraudulent or incompetent physician. This quick summary points up another reason for a Christian to prefer Peirce’s model over Saussure’s: the recognition that the connection between a sign and its object is not always arbitrary. In Bonaventure’s doctrine, the image of God born by each element of creation relates to God either as an analogy or as an effect; in Peircean terms, they point to God in either the iconic mode or the indexical mode. Signs originating with the all-wise God can never be arbitrary.