J.L.Lemke On-line Office

 Index to 'Across the Scales of  Time'

Heterochrony and Semiotic Mediation

According to the adiabatic principle, events in the remote past or processes with much longer characteristic timescales should have little impact on normal human activity. There are exceptions, of course. A fast, microscopic event can trigger a cascade, an amplifying avalanche of consequences that grows to a much larger, longer-term scale. A little more or less neurotransmitter or ion concentration in one small part of a neuron, a single ligand molecule binding to a membrane in a millisecond can trigger a action potential spike that propagates itself down a long axon and triggers other neurons to fire, stimulating a large section of the cortex. No doubt there are many intermediate levels of feedback loops designed to buffer accidental events of this kind from disrupting normal brain patterns, but the basic phenomenon is fundamental to the human nervous system. A single brief event at some time in history may have consequences that ramify down the ages and affect us today on a short timescale. Such phenomena as dynamical thresholds and bifurcations are a normal part of our current picture of complex dynamical systems. Normally their effects are filtered out by the self-organizing meta-stability of various intermediate scale-level processes. 

But there is another kind of exception to the relative insulation between non-adjacent timescales. Rather than a short timescale event having long-term consequences, as above, we can have the case of heterochrony, where a long timescale process produces an effect in a much shorter timescale activity. This is a very common phenomenon in human social activity. I believe it is the basis for human social organization across timescales. 

Before illustrating this point in the significant case of the classroom, let’s enjoy a more colorful initial example. In feudal Japan, members of the samurai warrior class had the right, even the duty, of avenging slights to their and their clan’s honor by beheading, on the spot, an offending commoner. Ready-to-hand in such a situation is the storied and sacred family sword, passed down father to son for centuries, lovingly polished and razor sharp. But the samurai reaches instead for a much less ready to hand, common and ordinary battle sword, not nearly so well-balanced or well-kept, to decapitate the offender. A years-long historical process of cumulating meaning and value envelops the heirloom sword, but this long-term process intersects with and determines action in a very short-term event. The material object itself, the sword, functions in these processes, both long-term and short-term, not simply through its material affordances – the heirloom sword will do just as well or better to cut off a head and is already in hand – but also through the meanings and value it bears. The samurai acts in the situation, not just in relation to present events and material relations, but also in relation to his interpretation of the appropriateness of using the sword and his own education in the traditions of his family and culture – a process on a timescale intermediate between that of the sword’s history and the present event. 

Everywhere in human culture we find this type of heterochrony:  longer-term processes and shorter-term events linked by a material object that functions in both cases semiotically as well as materially. The material characteristics of the object also function as signs for an interpreting system of meanings that belong to processes on a very different timescale than that of the event in which the interpreting process is taking place (Peirce 1998; Lemke 1995, in press-b). Leigh Star (e.g. Star & Griesemer 1989) has identified such phenomena for sociotechnical networks as ones in which ‘boundary objects’ circulate through the network, playing different roles in different situations. Typical in these cases are records (e.g. census forms, zoology fieldnotes, ships’ logs) that are created in many short-term events, but then collated in some ‘center of calculation’ (Latour 1987) to create a summary table or a map (which in turn circulates still further in the network), linking these times and places and events both as a material object and as a sign or text. Considered as a whole, the circulation in the network, the completion of a functional cycle of activities (collecting data, summarizing and publishing data) constitutes a longer timescale process, and one that takes place within a more extensive network than does each constituent event. 

In the classroom, we will find student notebooks and class textbooks, but also many other meaning-inscribed material objects that afford heterochrony. In two analyses of science classrooms in recent years I have been impressed by the role of these material-semiotic artifacts. In one (Lemke 1995/97, 1996; see also Roth 1998, Kamen et al. 1997), students are designing and building, in part improvising, towers and bridges built of soda straws, cut with scissors and welded with a glue-gun, while they talk  and their activity spawns emergent practices and goals on several timescales. In the other (Lemke, in press-a), a student in his chemistry and physics classes juggles multiple meaning systems: speech, writing, diagrams, graphs, gestures, mime, numbers and algebraic forms; and their associated artifacts: textbook, notebook, chalkboard, overhead projections, talking and moving bodies, a calculator. 

In this lesson, when a teacher asks a question, several students begin looking through their notebooks. The notes they look at now were written days or weeks ago. The answers they give are influenced in part by what they read and how they interpret it in relation to the question just asked. The notebook, as a material object with semiotic affordances, as a thing that can also be a sign, materially links two events across time and space and so participates in a process on a much longer timescale than either the event of writing or the event of reading that particular note. And in this case so also does the student (see below). At another juncture, the teacher reads aloud from the textbook, writes on the board, and asks a question that would not have been written or asked as it was without the influence of the textbook’s words. Those words, the generic discourse pattern or discourse formation  inscribed in the material object of the textbook has an even longer (cultural) history than does this particular material book, or the unique wording of its text. Not only the processes and activities that produced the textbook, but the processes and activities which produced that standard discourse pattern about chemical reactions and circulated it long ago to the textbook’s authors and editors, are now intersecting through the mediation of the book as a material-semiotic object with the much shorter-term events in the classroom episode. 

But it is not just obviously textual records of past events that can function semiotically to mediate heterochrony and the integration of social activities over very different timescales. What about the architecture of the room? The layout of the seats? The size, weight, shape, color, and heft of the scissors? We know that these also influence events in the classroom on smaller timescales. To the extent that they are simply material constraints, or provide material affordances, they represent a slowly changing constant in accordance with the adiabatic principle. But as ‘texts,’ as signs of the values and habits of a culture, as indexical signs of the work of those who built and designed, they also afford information about the culture of schooling. And there is more. 

What about the student? … who is also a material object, a body on and in which can be inscribed – as clothing, tattoos, neuromuscular habit patterns, verbal memories –meaningful signs. Surely this body is also a material-semiotic artifact, a participant in and a product of longer-term social processes, practices, and activities, and one which circulates as a ‘boundary object’ linking one event and time and place with another? Semiotic mediation and heterochrony as the ground of social integration across time and space did not begin with literate texts, or even most likely with specialized record-keeping. While it may remain a just-so story, it is useful I think to imagine a basic dilemma of our remote ancestors. In small bands they roamed a complex environment. Individuals and smaller groups over time traveled different paths, gained knowledge of dangers and opportunities along their personal trajectories. But what was of value to the band as a whole was the accumulating knowledge that came from integrating individual experiences over geographical journeys, but also over time. The ‘oral tradition’ was not just about myth and legend. It was a cumulative knowledge on a timescale and spatial scale that no individual could match; it was maintained and enhanced by integrating short-term processes of discovering, telling, and re-telling across time. And the mediating artifact was the human organism, circulating in its ecosocial networks.