Peirce and Girard and the semiotics of desire

There is a big ice storm in Georgia (where I am) and the power is out — so writing anything substantive is fairly difficult. So I can only hint for now at one of the themes of my projected paper, “Mimesis and the Mediation of Meaning,” beginning with a comparison of the central ideas of Rene Girard and Charles Sanders Peirce that I find so enticing.

Here is Rene Girard on mimetic desire:

“In all the rivalries examined by us, we have encountered not only a subject and an object but a third presence as well: the rival…Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires upon a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires.” — Violence and the Sacred, p. 145.

Here is Peirce on the definition of a sign. I will give two versions:

“A Sign…is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume a triadic relation to its Object in which it stands to the same Object.” — Collected Papers, 2.242

“A Sign may be defined as something (not necessarily existent) which is so determined by a second something called its Object that it will tend in its turn to determine a third something called its Interpretant in such a way that in respect to the accomplishment of some end consisting in an effect made upon the interpretant the action of the sign is (more or less) equivalent to what that of the object might have been had the circumstances been different. (MS 292. “Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism.”)

Do you see the homology? Two triads: a Girardian version with subject, object and rival; and a Peircean version with interpretant, object and sign. A few pointers:

— If you read “sign” as “rival” and “interpretant” as “subject,” then Peirce’s definitions can be superimposed over Girard’s with no loss.
— Peirce claims that all meaning is triadic, mediated by signs; Girard claims that all desire is mediated desire.
— Both would claim that relationship between subject-interpretant and object without mediation (like appetites) is not yet meaningful, that human meaning (as in desire) requires the presence of the the third as sign. Girard distinguishes animal appetite and human desire; Peirce distinguishes between relations of “secondness” and relations of “thirdness.”
— Peirce says that meaning is “irreducibly triadic”; Girard that desire is always mediated desire requiring a third.
— Peirce says we have no power of thinking without signs; Girard that we have no desire without mediators.
— Girard claims that there desire of the rival is duplicated in the subject through mimesis; Peirce says that the sign (e.g. the rival/mediator) stands to its object in the same way that the interpretant (e.g. the subject) stands to the object because of the presence of the sign. Mimesis for Girard induces the subject to take the same posture toward the object as the rival takes toward the object. This is the same relationship established in Peirce.
— Peirce’s analysis is of greater generality; Girard’s application is the most salient concrete example I know to illustrate Peirce’s prime contention. Each can illuminate each.

The triangularity of the two notions is not at all accidental, I think, but each is an independently developed account of the role of essentially triadic mediation always present in fully human meaning. Interestingly, Girard’s major works, if they reference semiotics at all, are written against a backdrop of a deficiently dyadic Saussurean semiotic, with its founding distinction between signified and signifier. (The lack of a reality principle in postmodern philosophy, of which Girard often complains, stems I think from the omission of the object as an essential element in human signification, reducing an essential triadicity to a deficient dyad. Such “waving away” of objects, an act of abstraction that makes language ultimately meaningless and traps its proponents in a nest of performative contradiction, begins at least with Descartes.) Girard was mostly unaware of the more adequate Peircean version as far as I can tell. I do know however that he read and admired Terrence Deacon’s 1997 book, The Symbolic Species, which made good use of Peircean distinctions. By the time he participated in the interviews that became Evolution and Conversion, he understood the importance of the symbol as the marker of specifically human intelligence. His prior discovery of an inherent thirdness in human affairs demonstrates well his intellectual independence from the French academic milieu out of which he came.

My plan is use both Peirce and Girard to develop an account of the semiotic distinctiveness of human being. Such a development will necessarily entail an account of emergence of the triadic symbol in human language and culture.


2 thoughts on “Peirce and Girard and the semiotics of desire

  1. I would be very interested in whether you ever completed any article I could read regarding this topic. Please come back to me if you read this.

  2. Wihelm,
    Thanks for asking. I intended to prepare and present such a paper at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, the annual gathering of those interested in the work of Girard. I vetted some of the ideas to some Girardian friends but found that bringing them up to speed on the subtleties of Peircean semeiotics was too technical for them. As a result, I scratched the idea. (I ended up presenting a paper on the Platonic/Aristotelian notion of “homonoia” in relation to Girardian ideas.) I would have had an easier time explaining Girard’s ideas to Peirceans, but I was already committed to attending the COV&R meeting and moved on to a different topic to present there. Is this a topic you are interested in?

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