21.Oct.2015 A Strip Mall Semeiotic
American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (pronounced “purse”) was an enigmatic figure. On the one hand, his contemporaries acknowledged that he was a brilliant scholar. Peirce not only created new schools of thought — he created entire disciplines. But Peirce never achieved the type of success one would expect given his brilliance. Instead, he spent most of his life unemployed in a Pennsylvania hinterland, mired in debt and fighting off bankruptcy — but still intellectually active, churning out volumes of largely unpublished manuscripts. Joseph Brent, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (1998). Scholars have posited that his professional failures were likely the result of his unconventional morality, his extravagances, his sometimes difficult personality (possibly the result of a painful neurological condition called trigeminal neuralgia), his divorce from his first wife, or his scandalous premarital connection with his second wife (who held herself out to be an Austrian princess). Id. When Peirce passed away, his (second) wife gave Harvard several trunks of uncollated drafts and scholars are still trying to piece them together.
Peirce’s theory of signs–his semeiotic–is perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments. According to Peirce, “it has never been in my power to study anything,—mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, gravitation, thermodynamics, optics, chemistry, comparative anatomy, astronomy, psychology, phonetics, economics, the history of science, whist, men and women, wine, metrology, except as a study of semiotic.” SS 85-86. In its most elaborate form, Peirce contemplated at least sixty-six classes of signs.
Many have considered Peirce’s semiotic in the context of the built environment. For example, Krampen provided a thorough explanation of Peirce’s semiotic theory in Meaning in the Urban Environment, but ultimately offered a lukewarm endorsement of its utility, concluding, “there could be some merit in suing the three relational sign dimensions as one option among others for classifying planning data or for generating research questions.” Krampen, Meaning in the Urban Environment 50 (1979). Offering more a more positive endorsement, M. Gottdiener explained that Peircean semiotics offered a number of advantages, including that it “acknowledges the existence of the object world,” it could deal with “all of culture, not just language or systems of communication,” and that there is “no clearly defined signified correlated specifically to a signifier” allowing for meaning to be “always a volatile process of interpretation.” Gottdiener, Postmodern Semiotics 14 (1995).
However, Gottdiener acknowledged that Peirce’s classificatory scheme is “so complex that it hasn’t been used by subsequent logicians or even Peircean semioticians.” Gottdiener at 13. Thus, while Gottdiener offers a series of very insightful readings of vernacular structures, such as shopping malls and subdivision names, he does not expressly analyze them using Peirce’s framework. In this essay, I attempt to rigorously apply Peirce’s semeiotic to understand the built environment and in particular, the Pizza Hut roof. In this way, I hope to provide a metaphysics of — or perhaps more accurately — a phenomenology of, the Pizza Hut roof.