The Vanishing Cup of Coffee: a semiotic mystery

[Although many of the remarks about language I’ve posted here were informed by my studies in semiotics, I haven’t actually posted much in direct consideration of that study, and I would like to do so. However, where to begin? Well, perhaps here: I wrote a rough draft of what follows to explain to a friend just what the foundation of semiotics really meant in actual practice, and why semiotic interpretation is important, and yet why it is somewhat variable and changeable, depending on the context in which it occurs. (Consider the crucifix; if found in a Catholic church we interpret it one way, in a vampire movie another, and hanging around the neck of a Hell’s Angel motorcyclist something else altogether, depending on what we know of the particular motorcyclist.) Along the way, I also indicate why semiotics – despite C. S. Peirce’s own hopes for it – could not ground a Realist epistemology in the way that he hoped; but full discussion of that requires greater consideration. For now, let us simply consider a common experience in our culture – and why, semiotically, it may not be what quite it appears to be.]

There seems to be little doubt that there is a residual sensibility of the innocence of our formative infancy, to be found in a nostalgia that the material universe should be somehow available to us directly, without mediation; that god or some principle of biology defining the ‘rational animal’ should equip us with some epistemological mechanism so we can perceive things-as-they-are. Unfortunately, this cannot possibly be the case. Biology itself indicates one major reason why: No living being appears to perceive any phenomenon (event or other being) except insofar as the phenomenon interests the perceiving being as concerning its own survival. We know many plants bend towards sunlight. This doesn’t suggest any aesthetic appreciation of sunlight per se. Sunlight is a necessary resource to the process of photosynthesis keeping the plant alive. The plant can be said (figuratively) to be ‘perceiving’ sunlight only insofar as it is of use to it.

Now, it is the case that a thing cannot be perceived except that it is also always perceived as a sign. As a sign, it can only signify something other than itself. The plant isn’t bending towards the sunlight for the sake of sunlight, but because chemical reactions in the plant sense the sunlight as trigger for the process of photosynthesis. That the mechanism involved is ‘an energy wave of a given frequency’ – the sunlight itself – is accidental to the plant’s response.

But before we get into some weird discussion of a possible ‘vegetable consciousness,’ let me remark again that much of what can be said of life forms engaging in sign-response remains somewhat figurative and always tentative. All living beings do seem to respond to their environment as though responding to signs in the environment, but only in a gross way. We can’t know what ‘consciousness’ might mean for a chimp, let alone for a rose bush.

The point then is that signification and sign response, for humans, remains behavior extrapolitively derived from tendencies of response developed in the process of evolution. We are born to sign, and to respond to signs. However, the matter gets a little complicated after birth, and probably very quickly.

With this in mind, let’s begin again, within the realm of the human.

The principle lesson of the above discussion has been that the reading of signs, derived through biological development, closes off the possibility of direct knowledge of any entity, since the entity is always read as a sign; and a sign cannot signify itself (except perhaps in the most trivial manner). But let us consider an example of this.

Here in America, there is a standing tradition involving the use of a certain object usually made from ceramic. Of a given height, width, depth, with a certain cylindrical design often wider at one end than the other, and having a loop to the side of it, the object is said to be a ‘coffee cup.’ This is because, the tradition surrounding the use of this cup, has it used, as prosthesis of the hand, to convey measured portions of the boiled juice of the coffee bean to the mouth for drinking. It is generally considered the most appropriate instrument for this purpose, although I doubt few could immediately explain why when asked. After all, the coffee beverage could be served in a glass jar. Having been boiled, it would lose heat more rapidly served in a wide-brimmed bowl, thus becoming less painful to the mucosal membranes of the mouth when consumed. It is certainly possible to sip the coffee directly out of the pot, perhaps with a straw. The use of foam cups available in several sizes for coffee-containers, is actually more frequent now in the US than the traditional ceramic cup. Yet most Americans, of otherwise very different backgrounds, would find it easy to differentiate between a ‘coffee cup’ and a ‘beer-mug,’ if they were asked to fetch one. And if they found someone drinking beer from a coffee cup, they may very well ask, ‘why drink beer from a coffee cup?’ and no one would think the question problematic. (But they might not be as quick to query the drinking of coffee from a beer mug these days, due to the recent popularity of drinking coffee from so-called ‘coffee mugs’.)

From the time I could first discern these distinctions, I have always been amused by the effort of the socially well-educated to differentiate between a ‘coffee cup’ and a ‘tea cup.’ Tea cups are slightly narrower than than the coffee cup, nowadays not nearly as much as depicted in illustrations for manuals for ‘proper table manners’ I remember from my youth; yet the difference was important enough to make the matter worthy of comment in such texts, and in some families, that tradition continues today. (There may be a historical basis for this importance; in the 18th century, the British believed coffee to be as strong an intoxicant as alcohol. By the end of that century, ‘drinking tea’ had become an identifier of British ‘propriety’ and sociability.)

At any rate, the coffee cup we are discussing now is an American cultural signifier. Restaurants, especially those specializing in providing breakfast, lunch, or pastry items, will frequently be found to have an illustration of a coffee cup in their advertisements. There have been instances in the past of restaurants actually built in the shape of of a coffee cup, as a moment of what architecture critics would call ‘kitsch.’ To see this sign, however displayed, the representation of the coffee cup, is to allow one’s self to believe that coffee is either present, or will be, or can be made so, in the given restaurant, upon request, and with the appropriate exchange of money in a sale.

The advertised coffee cup is not of course an absolutely certain sign. The restaurant owner may have gone on a health kick recently, and now only serves herbal tea. Or the coffee supply has been used up, ‘come back tomorrow.’ Or another customer may be surreptitiously pouring something from a pint bottle into his/her cup, with or without coffee in it, so we won’t know exactly what he/she is drinking until we exam the bottle. No law, in any book, human or scientific, strictly prohibits any of this.

And, as noted, over the past few decades, the phenomenon of the coffee mug has enjoyed increasing popularity, such that there are fewer people now, especially among the young, who relate expectations that coffee will be presented via the sign of the coffee cup, rather than the coffee mug – or even some cardboard cup with a restaurant’s particular brand imprinted on it. Cultural signs do linger – but they also change value over time.

Well, but what of that? After all, what we want is the coffee, isn’t it? its container is mere vehicle for the actual substance we want.

Perhaps; but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know precisely what ‘substance’ we think want.

So, let’s consider the coffee in the cup.

It is a brown fluid. It may be so strongly brewed as to appear black, but if the light strikes it properly, we will se the brown fluid. It may have some cream, milk, or other ‘lightener’ in it, turning it a light muddy brown, slightly reddish in tone. If presented hot, the warmth will radiate from it, and we may see steam rising from its surface. The odor will be slightly bitter; if sugar or another ‘sweetener’ has been added in quantity, the odor may be ‘bitter sweet.’ There may also be overtones of flavoring, if any has been added to it, such as vanilla extract.

Yes, here apparently is coffee, for our enjoyment. But what are we enjoying?

According to Charles Sanders Peirce, who first attempted to codify modern semiotics, response to a sign requires the sign itself, the thing signified, and what he calls the interpretant, which is basically the conceptual whole of the experience which guides our response to it. And unfortunately, the interpretant actually alters the reading of the sign to the extent that the signified itself becomes signifier to another signified. This is one way it works out:

First of all, it is not possible to want a ‘cup of coffee,’ because without further signification, such is nothing of significance. It only acquires such significance if it also signifies something of value. And this can only be found in its interpretant. This may sound circular, but this is a dynamic process, not a set relationship. The reading of a sign, the recognition of further significance, the readjustment of the interpretant to include new information, and new readings of new values in the available signs, is contingent and changeable. And such changes can happen very quickly.

So what of the thing in the coffee cup. Well, we will never know the ‘thing in itself;’ and I’m not sure we want to. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to drink ‘hot brown bitter fluid’ just as such; this sign is a little incoherent, since it relates to three different and unconjoined sense impressions, and a conceptual term from the physical sciences. If one wants this, let one drink it – only let’s hear no complaints if the drinker finds he or she is drinking a steaming hot cup of brown enamel paint. We will toss in some chemical to alter the paint’s scent to something like that of coffee, if this makes it more palatable.

No, nobody just wants a cup of ‘hot brown bitter fluid’ when they order coffee; and nobody would drink it on the basis of mere quantities of energy, light, or chemical composition. People drink coffee because they read it as ‘coffee.’ But what this means depends on the signification it has for them.

Again, that is to be found in its interpretant. Possible interpretants of coffee will vary from person to person, and even with a given person, change over time.

Let’s consider some of these possible interpretants in this culture at this time of writing, to see how tricky this can get.

The interpretant of coffee can include (not exhaustively):

– fluid to quench thirst
– hot fluid on cold day
– fluid on hot day (iced coffee)
– beverage in hand at social gathering
– beverage appropriate to drink with or after meal
– beverage to drink while relaxing
– beverage to drink among other people while relaxing
– beverage to purchase for another’s consumption, as show of 1)affection, ii) disposable wealth, iii) one’s own good taste, iv) one’s adherence to social decorum (& etc.)
good taste in culinary habits (coffee ‘appropriately’ brewed, sweetened, etc, – and don’t forget that ‘coffee cup’)
– warm taste
– bitter taste, bittersweet taste
– potential stain on clothing fabrics
– caffeine
– sense of renewed energy
– wisdom in not over-indulging in stimulants (decaffeinated coffee)
– daring (allowing one’s self to be over-indulging in stimulants, despite warnings from health care professionals)
– exploring new psychological experiences (over-use with consequent ‘coffee-rush’)
– ritual consumption upon awakening
– something that will boil over (or boil down) if left cooking too long
– what the waitress brings more of, in hopes of a larger tip
– what the waiter with-holds if he doesn’t like one and doesn’t care about the tip
– what the restaurant limits in quantity of distribution because its management pays the waiting staff too much – or too little – to be concerned about the tip

– Well, that should be adequate for now, else-ways we would need to get into protracted discussions on ethical issues. For instance, it is note worthy that one significance rarely enters the perception of American consumers, although it is clearly part of coffee’s possible interpretant: That for which, in order to produce, South American peasants work hard, receiving low wages, living in poverty and probably dying young. But that’s another problem.

For now let us admit: whatever it is in that cup, it cannot be simply the entity we call ‘coffee’ – a sign in a system of signs, which is all we have to respond to.

Well, what a disappointment!

‘Where’s the coffee?! What happened to the coffee?!’

It was never there. Every time we are thinking of a thing, we cannot help but read it as a sign; thus what we are really thinking about is its interpretant, or some sign or set of signs subset to the set of signs that form the interpretant. (Which is why we began with a description of the ‘coffee cup,’ which is in the subset of signs informing the interpretant of ‘coffee,’ as we cannot really think of coffee, at least the kind we drink, without also thinking of an appropriate container for it.)

So, no perceiver, receiver, or interpreter of the sign ‘coffee’ has ever tasted concrete, thing-in-itself coffee – and none ever shall.

What does it signify? That is what we get.

(And if we do not get this, then problems arise. But we can consider the issue another day.)


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