Originally was published in Semiotica 23:1/2, 1978

Note - original page breaks have been preserved to facilitate citation.

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Man is Not a Bird

Sol Worth

In this paper I should like to continue an exploration into how and what kinds of things pictures mean. In previous publications (Worth and Gross 1974, Worth 1975, Worth 1972) I have discussed some of the ways in which pictorial meaning may be thought of as similar to lexical, verbal, or linguistic meaning. It is, however, hardly necessary to convince anyone that, no matter how closely matched the creation of pictorial meaning may be to the creation of verbal meaning, the ways in which we create meaning in pictures and make meaning from pictures are also vastly different from the ways in which we perform the same functions with verbal materials such as speech, plays, stories, or poems.

What I should like to focus on here is an area of pictorial meaning that seems to be little studied and fundamentally unclear. It concerns how we try to analyze the ways we create, articulate, and interpret meaning in the pictorial mode. I shall suggest that the area of murkiness lies in our failure to distinguish between two differing strategies by which we create-and in Ernst Kris' (1964) sense re-create -pictorial meaning. I shall call them interactional meaning strategies and communicational meaning strategies and will show how people use these strategies to understand pictures of all kinds, but in particular painting, photographs, and film. Describing these two strategies will also allow me to touch upon several old problems, such as the distinction between natural and conventional signs and meanings, and the relation between social and biological processes as they apply to man's ability to deal with pictorial forms.

I recently discussed the problem of pictorial meaning with Gustav Bergmann, with whom I studied logic many years ago. He raised


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what is to me a fundamental question. He said, "No one will successfully argue that how people make meaning with and from pictures are not important questions. But what can a communications framework and a semiotic methodology contribute to the question that good art historians and critics haven't already suggested?"

I do not present this paper as an answer to Professor Bergmann. I should like, however, to think that what I have to say may contribute a small bit to the framework, the scaffolding which art historians, aestheticians, semioticians, and others who analyze pictures may use as support when dealing with what, and in particular how, pictures mean.

It is, of course, obvious that how we, picture makers and viewers, construct pictorial meaning depends fundamentally upon how we see, upon our processes of visual perception. I will not in this paper concentrate upon how we see in this perceptual psychological, neurological sense, but rather upon how we 'know' what to see, what to notice and subsequently to interpret -to treat in such a way as to give meaning to what we see, particularly as it concerns works of art in the visual-pictorial mode.

The framework I will be describing is one that demands a particular use of the term 'communication' end tries to distinguish between attributing meaning to pictures and implying and inferring meaning to and from them. This communication framework differs from perceptual frameworks that examine how we see pictures from cybernetic or psychological stimulus-response frameworks that examine essentially how we-man, animal, or machine-react to pictures.

A recent personal experience may sharpen the issues I wish to develop. It will also, I think, explain the title I chose for this paper as well as make clear some of my biases and prejudices about pictures and how I intend to deal with them.

At a recent conference of filmmakers, film critics, historians, and film theorists, convened to look and talk about current films, we viewed a series of films made, and presented to us for discussion, by the noted French filmmaker Louis Malle. He showed films about India and about an automobile factory assembly line. (2) They were 'documentaries' -films which he presented as depicting aspects of the world which he 'found' and photographed. The editing was played down. That is, the film was edited using filmic conventions and structures that seemed transparent, that did not call attention to the act of organization. In one part of the narration of the films about India, Malle, who acted as his own narrator, actually says that


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this sequence is presented just as shot, without editing, so that the audience can know that this-what we see on the screen - is exactly what happened. Later at the same conference, he presented a film labeled a 'feature, fiction, fantasy' (3) -a film in which the persons, objects, and events shown were made up, acted, created by the filmmaker. The conventions of editing he used in this film were those of fantasy fiction. In the discussions following the screenings there were some disagreement and confusion on the part of the viewers about what these films meant.

In answering questions from the seminar participants, Malle said that the documentaries were his attempt to show what he saw, and should be interpreted by an audience as a record of what he saw, thought, and felt about what was depicted in the film. He also wanted us to like the way he saw, to be fascinated by what fascinated him, and to believe that what we saw was out there-in India as well as in the auto assembly line. In answering questions about what his 'fiction film' meant, or was about, he said that he knew it was a difficult film, that in fact it was a commercial flop. He hoped, however, that we would understand the fantasies and symbols he used. He felt that images of unicorns (in actuality, and recognizably so, a pony with a horn on his forehead), a war between men and women (actual war scenes of male and female armies marching and machine-gunning each other), and other 'dream symbols' or childhood fantasy images would and should be meaningful to all of us.

Some members of the audience responded to the film (and I use the term 'responded' carefully, in the sense of a response to a stimulus) with professions of understanding, enjoyment, arousal, and statements of emotion. Many said they had no difficulty in making interpretations from material they saw. Others, including myself, said that they had no idea how he wanted or meant us to interpret the film, and therefore could not say what it 'meant' other than to free associate to it. Some of us felt that, while our free associations might be interesting from a psychoanalytic or therapeutic point of view, they were irrelevant as an interpretation of his film.

In trying to narrow the issue for myself and the other participants I repeated the following comments by Picasso detailing an argument he had with the poet Paul Valery:

Valery used to say, "I write half the poem. The reader writes the other half." That's all right for him, maybe, but I don't want there to be three or four thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one. ... Otherwise a painting is just an old grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in. I want my paintings to be able to defend


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themselves, to resist the invader, just as though there were razor blades on all the surfaces so no one could touch them without cutting his hands. A painting isn't a market basket or a woman's handbag, full of combs, hairpins, lipstick, old love letters and keys to the garage (italics added) (New York Times, 1973).

I asked Malle whether he felt as Picasso had, or whether the half artist-half audience position of Valery was more to his liking. He replied that he must side with Valery: that there were thousands of possible interpretations of the film that he made, and that he does ask the audience to supply a large portion of the film. Another member of the audience, not liking the way the issue was being presented, reminded us that Picasso had said many things. That he also was reputed to have said, "Do we ask a bird what his song means? Do we ask a bird to interpret and explain his song? Why do you ask this of the artist?" The implication seemed clear. The filmmaker as well as the painter should not only not be asked what his work means, but we the viewers should also not expect that we can know what it means. Our job is to enjoy the song and make of it what we will.

I couldn't help replying somewhat tartly that man is not a bird, and I did not want to treat filmmakers or painters as birds, and that, further, I did not want to be treated as a bird by a picture maker. Somehow the entire argument that supposed that all understanding of symbolic events depended in great part upon whatever we wanted those events to mean could have been made by Pavlov or Skinner. These arguments depended not on the idea that man communicated and made meaning in social ways, but rather that man interacted or reacted to symbolic events and that they were meaningful to him because of his conditioned responses and hidden psychological triggering mechanisms.

Before I begin to discuss the problem of how I think picture makers and viewers should be treated if we examine their interpretive


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behavior through a communications and a semiotic framework, I should like to clarify a distinction I will be making between visual signs and the term 'pictures'.

Art historical, aesthetic, and semiotic literature either largely ignores the concept of the 'picture' (with some few exceptions: Gombrich, Schapiro, Panofsky, Wolfflin) or treats a picture as something called a visual or pictorial sign. Signs, as we know, can occur in a natural state. Wind, and trees bending before it, can become a sign of an impending storm. That is, we can abstract and separate from the natural flow of events a set of units which we call and treat as a sign. Anything may become a sign in that way, provided it fits our particular criteria for the use of signs. Any sunset, or even a particular sunset, may become a sign, but it can never become a picture, much less a painting, a photograph, or a movie, because these are not natural events. A picture in whatever medium is a symbolic event and therefore a created social artifact. In this paper I shall take the position that, before one can understand how people make meaning from such things as paintings, photographs, or movies, one must understand how they do it with pictures generally.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this paper to deal extensively with all the implications of the term 'meaning'. But I should like to briefly distinguish between what might be called behavioral theories of meaning and interpretive theories, and then explain two differing strategies by which we attain interpretive meaning-the interactional and the communicational. A paradigmatic position representing what I call the behavioral theories of meaning would be the work of Charles Morris (1955) who holds that signs 'set-up' in observers some 'response' or 'disposition to respond', and that that response is the meaning of the sign or is closely connected to what the sign means. This is similar to some communication theories that define communication as a situation in which two or more entities are mutually interdependent. Thus, genes, muscles, and atomic particles, as well as people across generations and spaces, 'have meaning' for each other and thus are in communication. It is true that if one object or event causes or is correlated with a corresponding bit of behavior we can say that somehow event X 'has a meaning' in relation to event Y. In this sense every stimulus means its response. However, mutual interdependency, a stimulus-response relationship, or any other form of interaction in which people or even machines merely engage their environment do not seem to me to be cogent dimensions upon which to build an understanding of symbolic behavior, communication, and meaning.


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I shall, therefore, in this paper, be describing interpretive meaning, rather than the effects of a stimulus or the cause of an effect. To do this it will be necessary for me to describe two different kinds of strategies for making meaning, and two different kinds of meaning. The two strategies are those of attribution and implication/inference and the two kinds of meaning are those I call interactional meaning and communicational meaning.

I will, in addition, limit myself to the interpretation of symbolic events in the visual mode: pictures, paintings, photographs, films, and so on. For the moment allow me to make a distinction between how we interpret those symbolic, semiotic, and coded events, and how we interpret things in 'real life'.

The scheme in Figure 1 depicts what I shall suggest happens when we interpret or make meaning from pictures. It can be seen as divided both horizontally and vertically. On the left, viewed from top to bottom, is a representation of hierarchical levels of recognitions- hierarchical in that the levels that proceed downward contain the levels above, just as utterances contain 'words' and words, morphemes, and morphemes may be thought to be composed of phonemes. When we learn to recognize structures, at a complex level of interpretive development, we do not lose our ability to recognize people, objects, or events, and when we learn to make what I shall explain as implications and inferences we do not forget how to make attributions.

I shall not describe the very early stages of human development and the ways in which we learn and are socialized to recognize such things as pictures. I will begin rather at the point of development at which we already know how to categorize and recognize such things as 'mama', 'tree', or a sign of these, or even more complexly, when we learn to recognize a social event such as a football game or a dinner. If asked what a photo of what we have learned to recognize as a doctor means, a person at the earliest stage of the process of interpretive recognition will impose, impute, put into the picture meanings that come from within themselves, from the variety of personal and social stereotypes they have developed, without using as a reference the particular picture being viewed at that time. (4) When one projects one's own idea into pictures in this way, one is employing a strategy of attribution. One assumes the existence of the recognized object or person, but one does not assume that it has a sign value or that one should make communicational meaning from it. One treats a recognized image as just being there.

As one moves downward on this chart, one recognizes what I


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am calling contiguity. The recognition of contiguity-that something is next to something else-is more complex than recognizing a single element but is still not a very complex recognition. One recognizes that a concatenation of things exists: of numbers perhaps (1, 2, 3, 4) or letters (a, b, c, d, e, f, g) or notes (do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do). One recognizes them, but does not yet assume that they belong together for any reason other than that they are there. Moving downward, one may begin to recognize order. This stage represents an important development, a recognition that the numbers are not just there, but were put there in that particular order for a particular reason, perhaps because 2 is more than 1, 4 is twice 2, and so on. People at this stage of interpretive competence also begin to assume that someone put the numbers there. By the time one reaches the stage of development that I call structural recognition, one recognizes such diverse forms as a story, with a beginning, flashbacks, and an ending; metaphors, as in a cartoon drawing by Levine of Samuel Beckett looking somewhat like a vulture; or such sign events as poems, murals, etchings, and representational paintings as well as abstract paintings, documentary films, fiction films, and even porno films.

In order to function at this structural level of recognition one must make an assumption of intention. And at that point one uses a strategy of inference and assumes that the structure one recognizes was articulated by someone who is making an implication. This strategy is the one I am calling a communicational meaning strategy and the other an interactional meaning strategy. I shall try to show that we use both strategies when we interpret pictures, but that the communicational meaning strategy, the implication/inference process, is what we use when we make meaning from pictures.

It might be helpful at this point to exemplify some of the terms I have been using -attribution, implication/inference, assumption of existence, and assumption of intention. In a series of studies (Messaris 1972, Murphy 1973, Pallenik 1973) pictures were shown (both as slides and as photographs) to groups of young people ranging in age from about five to about twenty. In simplified form, the pictures might best be described as a contiguous series starting with what I would describes (5) as a doctor in a white coat going about his business in a medical setting, doing things with test tubes and with a stethoscope and talking to a nurse. He takes off his white coat and puts on his suit jacket and his overcoat and, carrying his little black doctor's bag, walks out of the hospital down a street where, in the foreground, we see a car that has obviously been in an accident


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and that has an arm and a head hanging from a smashed but open front door. The doctor continues to walk and passes right by the 'accident victim'. He continues on his way-the accident receding into the background -and finally walks into an apartment house entrance. He is then seen walking up to and entering an apartment, greeting a smiling woman who offers him a drink, smiling cheerfully in response, accepting, sitting down, and appearing to enjoy the drink with her.

In one of these studies (Murphy 1973) several groups of youngsters were interviewed about the individual pictures and about the series. When one youngster of six was asked about the slide of the man in the white coat, he identified him as a doctor. When asked, "Tell me about the man," he replied:

Child: He's a nice doctor. He helps people.

Interviewer: How do you know that?

Child: He's a doctor.

Interviewer: Oh?

Child: All doctors are nice and help people and my doctor gives me lollipops.

Another child who said the doctor was a "nice man" continued the interview this way:

Interviewer: How can you tell he's a nice man?

Child: Because he helps people get well.

Interviewer: How do you know he helps people get well?

Child: Because he's a doctor.

Interviewer: Did you see him help people get well in the pictures?

Child: I just know.

Interviewer: I see.

Child: We went to the doctor when -my mommy -we went up to the lake, and she went water-skiing, she let go and she hurt her legs-you should have seen it!

This child, as well as many adults, often interprets a single picture or a series of pictures (as in a movie) as meaningful. The meaning, however, most often comes from sociocultural or psychological stereotyping, from things they knew before they ever saw the pictures involved.

In the analysis of the responses to these pictures, which we have called attributional, one finds that a large number of children who said that they liked the doctor nevertheless noticed and commented on the fact that the doctor ignored the accident victim. This is precisely a necessary condition of an attributional interpretation, i.e., one in which prior belief and not the internal structure of the sign code (set


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of pictures, in this case) determines the interpretation.

Personality characteristics, processes, or events are associated with certain pictures, or parts of pictures, based upon shared common cultural conventions or upon a personal experience. Some of our respondents said, "Doctors are nice because my father is a doctor." In cases when previous psychological or personal experience is strong enough to overpower social definitions -a particularly traumatic episode at the doctor's, for example - the doctor in the picture may mean "a bad man". Or, some children may not have had a traumatic experience with a stranger who is a doctor, but may use even more personal experiences of doctors, for example, "Doctors are bad because my father is a doctor. He hits me." The important point here is that when attribution is used as a strategy of interpretation, the meaning is put into the picture from outside.

A picture sequence, such as the one I have described, may in fact show a doctor in a non-helping situation. If, however, attributional meaning strategies are used to make an interpretation, the viewer who attributes 'goodness' to doctors may nevertheless describe the meaning of the picture or pictures as if the non-helping aspects did not count. As a matter of fact, in recent research, not yet reported, just such behaviors did occur.

Let us contrast this interactional meaning strategy with what I call communicational meaning strategy. Remember, as in Figure 1, that, while interactional meaning is characterized by person, object, or event recognition leading to attributional interpretive strategies, communicational meaning is characterized by structural recognition and by a strategy of implication/inference.

It should be clear now that I am suggesting that meaning cannot be inherent within the sign itself, but exists rather in social context, conventions, and rules within, and by which, articulatory and interpretive strategies are invoked by producers and interpreters of symbolic forms. Communication, as I shall use the term here, is defined as a social process, within a specified context, in which signs are articulated and transmitted, perceived and treated as messages, from which meaning can be inferred.

We should also, in the light of this usage of the term communication, understand the idea of social process (Durkheim 1895) as distinguished from biological or psychological processes. In the usage I am suggesting it does not make sense to ask, "Is this (thing) communication?" The 'thing' could be an utterance, a picture, a strip of motion picture film, an axe, a crossbow, a shovel, or any other artifact. Communication is not a thing but an event within some specific process. It is not the utterance or the strip of film that


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comprises the communication event, but rather the fact that the sound or the strip of film is treated in a special way. It is the way we treat signs that makes an event communicative, rather than the signs themselves.

Communication is also social in the sense that the rules for those events exist even if we do not know or obey them. The role of husband and father, the duties of a priest, the meaning of a contract, the way we celebrate a wedding or mourn a death are not personal knowledge only. These conventions existed before we were born and we learn them. It is in that sense-of learning-that social events are contrasted to biological ones. We are born 'knowing' how to breathe, how to suck, and how to make sounds to attract attention. Those are biological events which are independent of ourselves but are biologically determined. We do not learn them in a social sense. Breathing, however, may indeed 'tell' someone that we are alive, but is not, in this usage of the term, a communication event. The breathing is neither produced as a sign not treated as an implication. Breathing is not an articulation, and communication demands an event which can be assumed to be articulated, or implied.

We can also think of the concepts of articulation and interpretation as comparable to the production and transmission of all signs as well as to their perception and subsequent treatment. While the perception and subsequent treatment of symbolic events might be thought of as acts of interpretation, and production and transmission thought of as acts of articulation, they can most fruitfully be considered as parts of a process which here will be termed 'articulation/interpretation'.

We articulate in terms of the subsequent interpretations we expect, just as we imply only in those signs, codes, and terms which we expect others to use when they infer. Conversely, we interpret in a communicational sense, using conventions which we recognize as articulated, and we infer from signs that we assume were intended to have been implied. It is necessary, also, to understand that the roles of implier and inferrer may be and probably must be held simultaneously by people in a communication situation. In such a situation one shifts, in one's mind, back and forth between articulation and interpretation, asking oneself, "If I paint it or sequence it on a film this way, would I make sense of it, given the conventions, rules, and style in which I am working?"

It is important, at this point, to make clear how I wish to use the terms 'assumption' and 'intention' in the phrase 'assumption of intention'. 'Intention' is not used here to refer to some absolute state of a person's desires or wishes. 'Assumption' refers to a suppo-


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sition that interpreters make about the possible strategies they may employ in making meaning from sign events. An assumption of intention is not an assumption that one person makes about another person's inclination to act, believe, or behave in some specific way. It is rather an assumption about what we, as interpreters, may appropriately assume about sign events in certain contexts. We may, in some cases, assume that these sign events were deliberately produced. When we assume deliberateness and purposiveness we have made an assumption of intention. We would, therefore, use certain strategies of interpretation in dealing with them. The assumption of intention is not a concept of a mechanism that leads to a guessing game in which the viewer must guess the correct intentions of the picture maker. What I am dealing with is the social situation in which the viewer makes an assumption - adopts an attitude -that allows him to act, in this case to interpret, as if what he was dealing with was an implication from which inferences can be made.

Only when an interpretive strategy assumes that production and transmission are articulatory and intentional can communicational meaning be inferred. I am using the term 'articulate' here in an attempt to distinguish the social event of communication from other social, but not necessarily communicative, events such as 'indicating', 'venting', 'expressing', or 'displaying'.

G. H. Mead (1922) described animal and infant behavior and comments that:

The hen that pecks at the angleworm is directly, though without intention, indicating it to chicks. The animal in a herd that scents danger, in moving away, indicates to the other members of the herd.... The hunting dog points to the hidden bird. The lost lamb that bleats, and the child that cries points himself out to his mother.... In the behavior of forms lower than man and of infants we find one indicating objects to others but without what we term signification.

The ability to signify or to assume signification is what distinguishes an articulation from a 'sound', a 'color', a 'noise', a 'scribble', or a 'doodle'. It is the assumption that an event conforms to the conventions of music that allows us to treat sounds as music and not noise. It is the assumption that a painting was 'painted' by a 'painter' who conforms to some conventions of painting and is therefore not a doodle or a scribble. When we find, as was the case at the Chicago Art Institute some twenty years ago, that a 'painting' chosen for a show by a distinguished jury was in fact an artifact produced by a chimpanzee, we justly get angry. Our social conventions make it difficult for us to believe that chimps can articulate a 'painting';


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we believe that they cannot imply and that they cannot communicate in that medium.

Articulation, then, stresses the purposive nature of symbolic action. In a communicational sense, therefore, articulation is symbolic, and interpretive strategies are designed within social contexts in order to be able to make inferences from implications.

Any and all interpretations of meaning-consistent with psychocultural processes within the individual-are possible if one uses an interactional meaning strategy. Interpretations of pictures along interactional or attributional lines are bounded only by the creative power of the interpreter rather than by the articulatory power of the creator.

My usage of the term implication/inference is not totally inconsistent with its use in formal logic but is, at least on one important level, not the same. Implication/inference, as I use it in a communications context, is a social process, and the term takes on an ethnographic sense, referring to an intentional use of symbolic material in ways which are shared by a group precisely for the purpose of implying and inferring meaning from signs and sign events. When I use signs this way I structure them and I expect that others know and acknowledge that structure and use it in order to make inferences.

I shall use the term ethnographic semiotic (Worth 1978) to distinguish this use of implication/inference from its older and non-empirical use in logic and philosophy. Briefly, ethnography can be considered a description of how people actually live and do things of a social kind. (6) Semiotics is concerned, as I use the term here, with meaning. An ethnographic semiotic approach, therefore, would lead us to ask how actual people make meaning from specific signs in specific contexts. The study of implication/inference then is not only the study of a logical code, but also the study of how actual people use these codes to make meaning.

The evidence for the use of communicational meaning strategies, however, lies in the reasoning of actual informants that leads them to an interpretation. Data or evidence which would allow us to label a social event as a communications event do not lie in any concept of accuracy or correspondence between inference and implication. (7) We are not dealing here with logical truth, nor can we accept notions of pictures as being veridical or mirror image representations of something called reality. We are dealing with how people actually use, learn, and make strategies for the interpretation of sign events. It is, therefore, not necessary for an informant's interpretation to be 'right' for a communication situation to exist. What we need to observe is how the informant goes about making his interpretation.


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Let us take as an example of communication the same interview situation I used to describe attribution: A ten-year-old is being questioned about the series of slides I previously described that show a 'doctor' who does not help a man in an accident. (8)

Interviewer: Could you tell me something about the pictures you saw?

Child: You mean about the story?

Interviewer: Uh-huh.

Child: That's a story about a lousy doctor.

Interviewer: How do you know?

Child: Well, he didn't help that guy in the accident.

Interviewer: How do you know?

Child: If you had wanted me to think he helped him you would have had a
shot of him with a stethoscope or something bending over the guy in
the car. You would have shown him helping him somehow. You
know how to do it.

Notice the conventions involved in this child's interpretation. First, he refers to the set of pictures as 'a story'-he recognizes story structure. Then he says, "If you had wanted me to think ...", clearly indicating that (1) the 'story' was given to him by the experimenter, (2) that the 'storyteller' may want him (the viewer) to think along certain lines, and (3) that information comes from 'a shot ...' and is purposefully inserted or omitted. He says, "You would have had a shot of ...", indicating a knowledge of the forms used in this mode of communication and a knowledge of the term 'shot', and so on. Further, there is the remark, "You know how to do it." This remark was frequently made, and we think it indicates knowledge of a culturally agreed-upon level of skill in the use of conventions for specific communication modes.

But most importantly the youngster's interpretation of the personality or behavior of the doctor is arrived at through a process that is clearly inferential. That is, the respondent above knows that for his interpretation he may use, only, or mainly, the information given to him in the communication event. Margaret Donaldson (1971) in discussing the preconditions of inference in children defines the problem in this way:

Up to this point when he first encounters a situation of this kind, he has been free, in his ordinary dealings with the world, to make use of any knowledge he possesses, no matter how he came by it.... He now finds himself presented with a limited amount of information and he is asked to use it to determine something ... suspending for the time being whatever else he already knows about the kind of situation in question.


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Communicational implication/inference demands just this kind of behavior in the child or in the adult.

Let us now examine more fully what I have called the assumption of intention as necessary to a communicational event. I am again stressing the notion of the event about which certain assumptions are to be made, because frequently these assumptions are made because of and about things that are outside the actual picture itself; for example, the fact that a picture is hanging in a gallery, that it has a frame, or that it is structured in a way that conforms to larger stylistic or coding units known within a culture or a group to be fashionable, correct, or even wise. In a film we might assume intention because we believe all films are purposive, or, negatively, that in film there are no such things as, for example, scribbles or doodles- without purpose.

Intention, to define my usage a bit further, is not an empirical datum or a perceptual process such as seeing color, hearing sound, or feeling heat and cold. Nor, as I have emphasized earlier, is it verifiable by some result of an interpretation such as making the 'correct' interpretation. I am thinking of intention as a necessary assumption for a communication event, a process in which one produces a set of symbolic forms in some code. The social nature of this process of coding is imbedded in the assumption of intention: that the signs people choose are coded and that the relations between signs or elements are conventional.

This assumption of intention is based upon and supported by a variety of 'knowledges' arising from one's membership in a group. This membership allows us to know that we spear; our group's language, that we know how people 'like us' behave on the street, in classrooms, and over the telephone, as well as how they write books, make movies, and prepare papers for learned journals. It is, therefore, most likely that a first reason for some specific assumption of intention is that the particular symbolic form we choose to interpret is socially coded as being possibly, or certainly, an intentional form. We are all held socially as well as psychologically accountable for certain aspects of our behavior, particularly for our symbolic behavior, and we all know that under certain conditions and contexts other members of our group will expect us to know that they know this and to behave accordingly.

Interpretation consists, in a communicational sense, of a process by which the interpreter treats the picture or sign event in such a way that the assumed intention is a reason rather than a mere cause for an interpretation. Evidence for the assumption of intention is not an isomorphic matching between intended statement and in-


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terpretation-but rather the reason and reasoning given by respondents.

Our usage of intention here is close to that of Grice, but not quite the same, when he says that " 'A meant something by X' is roughly equivalent to 'A uttered X' with the intention of inducing a belief by means of the recognition of this intention ..." and that "not merely must X have been uttered with the intentions of inducing certain belief but also that the utterer must have intended an 'audience' to recognize the intention behind the utteranceÓ. (9)

I should stress that it is not Grice's notion of inducing belief in the listener by means of a recognition of intention that, to me, is important in his formulation. It is rather his introduction of the idea that the listener must recognize the intention behind the utterance in order to assign meaning to it. It is my view that when we recognize certain structures behind an articulation we assume intention. I believe that 'intentions behind utterances' can make sense only if we consider this concept as referring to an ability to recognize structures and codes embedded in 'utterances'. It must be our ability to recognize them that allows us to assume that these structures were put there -were articulated, embedded-by someone. The recognition we make is of certain conventions or codes in our culture, as well as within the picture, that enable us to assume that intention that makes communication possible.

It was in large part, I believe, in response to suppositions of meaninglessness-that there were no codes, conventions, or schemata involved in pictorial meaning - that modern aestheticians developed theories of pictures as expression, emotion, semblances or structures of emotion, and so on. What is important in the context of understanding how pictures mean is the fact that pictures as a class-differentiated from something labeled 'painting' or 'art' - were almost never studied or thought about by art historians, critics, and philosophers of art. Just as the study of language by linguistics rarely and only recently concerned itself with such things as 'poetry' or 'literature', so in the visual realm we studied 'painting' rather than pictures, 'architecture' rather than buildings, and 'sculpture' rather than statues. It seems to me that if we are to begin a study of how pictures mean we must first study pictures rather than painting, movies rather than cinema, drawing (on paper as well as on walls, by children as well as by adults) rather than graphics, and visual structures rather than composition or design.

Pictures frequently seem easier to understand than articulations in other modes or media. It would, of course, be tempting to argue


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that pictorial events -at least those on a 'representational' level- are meaningful because they are signs that have an iconic relation to the 'real world'; that, in contrast to verbal events, which are arbitrary, recognition of pictures is physiologically easier; and that, therefore, assumptions of existence are more reasonably made. Given this tempting argument one can then continue by saying that, when we look at pictures, meaning is developed by attribution-by interaction, by a simple 'natural' process of recognition without codes, conventions, and social schemata.

Gombrich (1971) has forever spoiled this temptation by calling our attention to Alain's brilliant New Yorker cartoon:

But once we are confronted with the 'person' on the modeling stand and the different 'people' doing the drawing, it is difficult to take the position that what we call 'representational' drawing is in fact representational because it is the way the eye sees. What we are concerned with here is an interaction between convention and correspondence.

Pictures, as we understand them in our culture, depict, or picture,


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what is. They are, in a visual mode, somewhat similar to the verb 'to be' in its existential, not veridical, sense. Pictures, unlike verbal language, cannot depict conditionals, counterfactuals, negatives, or past future tenses. Neither can we make passive transformations, ask questions, or do a host of things with pictures that a verbal language is designed to do.

In another paper (Worth 1975) I have argued that pictures can't say "ain't". I tried to show in that paper that pictures not only do not have grammatical rules in the sense that verbal language does, and that saying "ain't" is a very complex conceptualization visually, but also that pictures cannot make negative assertions of the form "It is not the case that" or "This is not a...". The question of whether or how pictures imply a negative by employing certain structuring or stylistic devices has been discussed previously. For example, one can imply 'not representational' by painting in a nonobjective manner. This is, however, not the same as painting an image that implies "This is not a cow". That kind of interpretation is the case only in the trivial logical sense in which we say that any image implies that it is not all other images, or that any particular style implies that it is not all others.

Since pictures do not have the formal capability of expressing propositions of negation, it follows that pictures cannot be treated as meaningful on a dimension of either truth or falsity. If pictures cannot depict the proposition that something is not so, it would hardly be reasonable to suggest that pictures are designed to depict only those things that are so.

What then do pictures depict? It seems that all we can say is that what they depict is. They depict events for whose existence they are the sole evidence. Pictures in and of themselves are not propositions that make true or false statements that we can make truth tables about, or that we can paraphrase in the same medium or translate into another. Pictures, it must be remembered, are not representations of or correspondences with reality. Rather, they constitute a 'reality' of their own.

But if pictures are not propositions, and not even correspondences, and if pictures cannot be dealt with on true-false dimensions, how then are we to deal with them? What is the 'logic' by which meaning is inferred from pictures? Leaving aside attributional strategies from which, as we have seen, any meaning may be made, how do we understand the codes and conventions by which implications are made and inferences drawn? By removing the propositional property from pictures I seem to have removed the possibility of


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'grammar' or 'syntax' as we know it. I seem to be saying that if they depict what is, they therefore depict something resembling the truth. Pictures cannot do that either.

First, truth in pictures usually rests on the argument of correspondence, and correspondence usually means similarity or correctness, or both. The notion of similarity rests to a large extent on the iconic-digital distinction between pictures and speech. Even linguists in recent years have given up the certainty about the arbitrariness of linguistic symbols (Friedrich 1975). Semioticians, art historians, anthropologists, and psychologists have also come to realize that a 'copy' theory of pictures is simplistic, misleading, and probably just plain wrongheaded. A look at Chinese painting, or another look at Figure II, should make the weakness of the copy or similarity theory of picture-making obvious. Truth is not to be found in that direction.

Second, similarity is not and cannot be necessary to correspondence. A conventionalized code (the Morse Code) can make dots and dashes correspond to letters of the alphabet, although their degree of likeness to letters is very small and their degree of similarity to the sounds of speech almost negligible. Third, similarity is an almost impossible criterion of correspondence. Similarity or verisimilitude asks that we match one thing (the picture) against another. How close a match makes a match? Clearly only a picturing convention or schemata can tell us that something is similar.

If we take correctness as our criteria for correspondence, we fall into a set of problems that, similar to what I have argued about evidence of the assumption of intention, confuse rather than clarify the issue. Here we usually mean scientific correctness, or accuracy. As a matter of speech, we refer to 'accuracy' colloquially as 'scientific truth'. Science carries high status and is the closest approximation we have to a method of determining something called empirical truth. But in order to be correct we must have a measure, a standard. We must have something to measure against. 'Reality' is too vague. Do we compare to a standard of our eyes (what we see) or to our cognitive capacities (what we know)? In either case we are again confronted with conventions, rules, and schemata. If we sidestep that problem, we find ourselves back to the problem of non-representational pictures and what they correspond to. Truth, as it concerns pictures, is indeed a digression.

It is clear that, even though a theory of correspondence is not sufficient to deal with truth in pictures, pictures must nonetheless correspond to something; they are not unrelated to what we


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see or, in the case of photographs, to what is in front of the camera. Even the most un-or non-representational painting must refer to something or it would make no sense at all. Although attributional strategies are convenient for the unskilled, no picture maker likes to think his pictures are totally up for grabs.

No work of art should, as Picasso sees it, become a grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in. On an attributional meaning level, however, the listener may indeed be able to do as Valery hopes: write half, three-fourths, seven-eighths, or any and all proportions of any work. He may, if we do not constrain attribution by personality and culture, put anything into a work and happily extract anything out of it. The strategies we employ to interpret meaning from pictures-that is, how pictures mean-are largely responsible for what pictures mean.

If we attribute meaning, pictures can mean almost anything. If we use communicational strategies, a particular set of meanings can be developed for pictures as well as for that which we have often defined as paintings or 'works of art'. In general, what we imply and infer through pictures are (1) an existential awareness of particular objects, persons, and events that are ordered, patterned, sequenced, and structured so as to imply meaning by the use of specific conventions, codes, schemata, and structures; and (2) what we infer from works of art, and what is implied in them, is what Larry Gross (1973) has termed the communication of competence. Paintings more than speech, and perhaps like such codes as a poem, a sonata, or a story, communicate the competence and skill with which their structures have been manipulated by the artist according to a variety of rules, conventions, and contexts.

I have briefly outlined earlier why I think that the notion of matching to the real world is insufficient to explain how pictures mean. Now I can say that I do not believe this is what one matches pictures to at all. Correspondence, if it makes any sense as a concept to be applied to pictures, is not correspondence to 'reality' but rather correspondence to what Gombrich (1971) has called 'schemata': conventions, rules, and forms for structuring the world around us. What we use as a standard for correspondence is our knowledge of how people make pictures or paintings or works of art. What we use as a standard of correspondence is structures of communication as well as artistic structures and canons. We make meaning from pictures not only from their resemblance to other things and other ideas, but from how pictures and works of art were made in the past, how artists make them now, and how we


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think they will continue to make them for various purposes in various contexts. We do not use as our standard of artistic correspondence how the world is made.

Our notions of correspondence, of similarity, and of correctness in the meaning of pictures are evidenced in such statements as, "That's a movie?!" "That's not a mural!" and "I don't even call that a picture". What we mean when we say, "That's not a movie" is that the articulated symbolic event before us does not correspond to our conventionalized and legitimized knowledge of the way signs in movies are manipulated in our society. If we say, "That's a bad movie", what we frequently mean is that the filmmaker has either failed to imply intention by a failure to control his materials so that we can recognize a code and therefore assess competence in his handling of filmic structures, or that, because we are not able to recognize codes or structures that allow us to make an assumption of intention, we attribute clumsiness, lack of skill, or sheer error to his filmmaking attempt.

In effect, pictures are a mode that best communicate a dialogue with the 'real' world that Picasso called "a proposition to the viewer in the form of traditional painting violated". "I want," he continued, "to give my work a form that has some connection with the visible world, even if only to wage war on that world." That dialogue in the form of traditional painting violated is similar to what some painters have meant when they said that painting was about painting, and what we mean when we say that painters do not copy nature: painters copy other painters. Pictures in this sense picture conventions, forms, structures, and so on. Pictures are a way that we structure the world around us. They are not a picture of it.

Although pictures do not have a grammar by which to structure how the world is, pictures are not clearly without forms, genres, styles, conventions, rules, and systems of usage. The concept of the 'language of pictures', the 'grammar of art', the 'syntax of the cinema' must be understood as a metaphor at best.

The pictorial mode (from drawing to motion pictures) does not have a rigorous set of rules employing a lexicon, a grammar, or an ability to construct paraphrases. But we, the viewers, do in general have a faculte de langage (ability to recognize) about all symbolic materials, and most particularly about pictures. So that in motion pictures, for example, where sequence and time become parameters to be manipulated, we can instantly bring to bear some rules of verbal symbolic behavior for implication and inference. In other research (Worth 1972) I have shown that native speakers of Navajo


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will frequently use Navajo syntactic rules as justification for the structuring of films that they themselves have photographed and edited. It is this justification that I reported in previous research that constitutes the reasons and reasoning that I am suggesting can be used as evidence of implication/inference, of the assumption of intention, of communication.

Metz ( 1974) has shown quite convincingly that the acceptability of film content most often depends on its adherence to film convention rather than to its adherence to 'reality'. For example, a shopgirl is depicted in films in a certain way. Everyone 'knows' that real shopgirls do not look or act that way. If a real shopgirl were to be cast in a film, we might recognize her correspondence to life but would reject her because of non-correspondence to film. What we call 'true to life' must be a stereotype to be recognized, and therefore becomes the least rather than the most valued as 'art'.

What is communicated by pictures then is the way picture makers structure their dialogue with the world. What is meant by pictures when we use a communicational strategy of interpretation is: how should we put the pieces together? First, as in Figure I, we recognize some object, person, or event. It may be a tree or a man. In a painting it may be a representational object, or a color, shape, or juxtaposition of elements. In a movie it may be a recognition of a man walking or a baby crying. We can, and many people do, stop right there; they start attributing -putting onto and into the picture. Others, however, are able to go further, both in the articulatory as well as in the interpretative process. They recognize and can articulate structure, assume purposeful manipulation and therefore social behavior, and treat that manipulation as a set of instructions by which meaning may be inferred.

To sum up then, I have tried in this paper to continue an exploration into how pictures attain meaning. I suggested that the interpretations of pictures can take place on both interactional and communicational levels, and that essential to these ways of making interpretations are the strategies of attribution and of implication/inference.

I tried to distinguish between a large class of events called pictures and a smaller class we call paintings or sometimes 'works of art in the visual mode'. This was done so as to include such forms as photography and films. I then introduced the concepts of the assumption of existence arid the assumption of intention as a necessary and a basic, if not sufficient, assumption that we must make before assessing a pictorial event as a sign event-as a communication event and as a work of art.


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I suggested that the concept art in general can be understood, on the level of meaning, as the communication of competence in the structuring of a specific schemata, sign system, or code. I have thus taken sides in an ancient but, I think, still exciting argument. It is important to note that the position I have taken and the view of the communication process I am proposing do not suggest that the viewer of pictures or the interpreters of symbolic events in general are passive creatures. Nor does this view of communication suggest that all I do or that one should do when looking at pictures is to make inferences. I am convinced that it is possible for a viewer of pictures to act as if the picture maker-the artist - could have meant to do what he did, that he deliberately organized and structured a particular event to imply meaning. I think it is now necessary for us to learn to treat symbolic events as if the assumption of intention were possible, as well as to find out more about how people actually learn to do this.

In addition, however, to making inferences and assuming implication I can make attributions. What I am saying is that when I make attributions, and I do make them, I like to think I can tell the difference. I can place alongside-rather than put upon or project into- a work of art some of my private thoughts, feelings, ideas, and attitudes. But I believe it important to assume that I know the difference between what I put alongside and what the artist gave me.

In my role as artist-I have been a painter and a filmmaker-I also chose sides in the debate I described at the beginning of this paper. I struggled to know what would be interpretable to viewers of my work, and I fought to use the forms at my command in such a way that viewers would perceive in my forms instructions as to which aspects of my work to put together into a complete structure. However, there are, of course, parts of my work, or of any work, that are not fully articulated, that are clearly not implied, and to which intention could not be fruitfully assumed. Not only are aspects of pictures, paintings, and films (as of all symbolic events) the results of 'unconscious' or unknown personal processes, but they are also the results of social conventions and schemata that tell us that certain things do not count as signs of a code.

The problems involved in what might be called the mysterious unconscious, or unknown aspects of symbolic life are too complex to tackle at the conclusion of a paper that proposes a beginning rather than an end. I mention these aspects because this is where further research must penetrate. The concept of communication I


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have proposed is not meant to cut us off from the unknown, and in particular from what, since Freud, has been called the unconscious roots of symbolic forms. It is meant to clear our way.

Interactional meaning is where we start. Communicational meaning is where the world of art is. I should like to repeat: Man, no matter how similar, and no matter how beautiful his song, is not a bird.




1 Much of the work on strategies of interpretation which I will be discussing in this paper was done in collaboration with Larry Gross.

2 The film about India is entitled, Phantom India, and was originally shown as seven one-hour episodes on French television. The film about the assembly line is entitled, Human, Too Human (Humain, Trop Humain), and was also made for French television. Both films are distributed by New Yorker Films, New York, New York.

3 This film is entitled, Black Moon, and is distributed by Paramount Pictures, Hollywood, California.

4 The use of social stereotypes in the interpretation of visual events has been investigated in a series of studies. The latest, which deals with television in contexts described as 'staged' and 'real life interview', is reported in Messaris and Pallenik (1977).

5 The actual series of nineteen slides that were used in this study are reported and described in detail in Murphy (1973).

6 For a fuller discussion of the concept and the place of ethnographic semiotics see "Toward an Ethnographic Semiotic" (Worth 1978) and the related comments by Christian Metz.

7 'For a fuller discussion of the concepts of correspondence, True-False, and representational accuracy, see Worth (1975).

8 An order to avoid many lengthy quotations, I have, for illustrative purposes, constructed an interview composed of several interviews which will allow me to point out the different kinds of responses that are involved in structural recognition, assumptions of intention, and implicational/inferential interpretations.

(9) 1 do not subscribe fully to Grice's position, particularly as has been pointed out by Searle (1971), because meaning is not only a matter of intention, it is also a matter of convention as well. For me, of course, the methods of ethnographic semiotics makes the concept of conventions and intentions almost inseparable.


Donaldson, Margaret

1971 "Preconditions of Inference," in J. K. Cole, ed., Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 81-106. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.


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Friedrich, Paul

1975 "The Lexical Symbol and Its Relative Non-Arbitrariness", in Linguistics and Anthropology: In Honor of C. F. Voegelin, ed. by M. Dale Kinkade et al., 199-247. Lisse: The Peter de Ridder Press.

Gombrich, Ernst

1971 Art and Illusion New York: Pantheon Books.

Gross, Larry

1973 "Modes of Communication and the Acquisition of Symbolic Competence fence," in G. Gerbner, L. Gross, and W. Melody, eds., Communications Technology and Social Policy, 189-208. New York: Wiley.

Kris, Ernst

1969 Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: Schocken. Mead, G. H.

1922 "A Behavioristic Account of the Significant Symbol," The Journal of Philosophy XIX.

Messaris, Paul, and Michael Pallenik

1977 "Attribution and Inference in the Interpretation of Candid and Staged Film Events," Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication IV/I (August).

Metz, Christian

1974 Film Language. London: Oxford University Press. Morris, Charles

1955 Signs, Language and Behavior. New York: George Braziller.

Murphy, James P.

1973 "Attributional and Inferential Strategies in the Interpretation of Visual Communications: A Developmental Study." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Searle, J. R.

1971 The Philosophy of Language. London: Oxford University Press.

Worth, Sol

1975 "Pictures Can't Say Ain't," Versus 12.

1972 Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Anthropology and Film Communication, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press.

1978 "Toward an Ethnographic Semiotic," in Proceedings of Conference on Theories and Research in Cinema, Paris 1977. UNESCO (in press)

Worth, Sol, and Larry Gross

1974 "Symbolic Strategies," Journal of Communication, Vol. 24:4, Autumn.

Sol Worth (d. 1977) was Professor of Communication and Chairman, Undergraduate Communications Major at the University of Pennsylvania. His principal research interests were semiotics and the ethnography of visual communication, and more specifically articulation and interpretive strategies in visual codes. He was the Editor of Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication. His recent publications include Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology (1972);."Seeing Metaphor as Caricature" (1975); "The Use of Film in Education and Communication" (1974); and "The Development of a Semiotic of Film" (1969).

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