Friday, January 18, 2013
Richard Peet in "A Sign Taken for History" considers a plaque, erected in 1927 in the town Petersham, Massechusetts commemorating Shays' Rebllion from a perspective that seems to follow Erwin Panofsky's structure of interpretation as set out in the "Introduction" to his Studies in Iconology. There is what Panofsky called the "secondary" or "conventional" interpretation of this plaque in terms of the linguistic categories by which we understand what it says, that it commemorates the daring, hardships, and success of General Benjamin Lincoln in suppressing Shays' Rebellion in 1787. We could also include the implication that his deed had some bearing on the writing of US Constitution and the general assertion that "OBEDIENCE TO LAW IS TRUE LIBERTY" within this conventional understanding of the plaque. And, this conventional understanding would seem to correspond to what Peirce thought of as an interpretant.
But Peet goes on to consider what Panofsky called the "intrinsic meaning" of this plaque, the actors producing the plaque — the New England Society of Brooklyn, the Petersham Historical Society, and Petersham's elite — within the historical context of its production — America in the late 1920's and their concerns with politics, immigration, and economics at that time. This provides a much deeper understanding of the plaque, resolving, if nothing else, my own surprise at reading there was a plaque commemorating Shays' rebellion and then seeing that it actually commemorated the suppression of that rebellion. Peet also notes a second plaque, more in line with my expectations, commemorating Captain Daniel Shays and asserting more generally that "TRUE LIBERTY AND JUSTICE MAY REQUIRE RESISTANCE TO LAW" that was erected in 1987. But the intrinsic meaning in this case revolving around 1987 America would be just as enlightening as the original set in 1927. Are these intrinsic meanings another form of interpretant in Peirce's terminology? Doesn't Shays' Rebellion remain the object to both of these signs and their interpretants?
But if we were to characterize Shays' Rebellion as an object, I think it would look a lot like the intrinsic meanings associated with these plaques. There would be the various actors in the historical context of 1787 America with its different influences and their different responses to those influences. While objects within that context could be understood in terms of a single diagram, such an object taken in context, or the situation as a whole as an object in its own right, would have to be understood in terms of interacting diagrams in a much more complex and intricate kind of evolution.