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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Clichés and Empire-Builders: A Semiotic Approach

Mariana Net

Texte intégral

1As is well-known, human communication is mainly achieved by what is called cultural stereotypes, which are a specific kind of clichés. According to the definition given by Eco and Bonfiantini in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (Sebeok, 1988, 386), "Stereotypes are a behavioral habit acquired by acquaintance with the sign." In our view, special emphasis should be laid here on the phrase "acquaintance with the sign", which does not necessarily imply knowledge of the sign. It very seldom does imply it, and this is the very reason why stereotypes, or clichés (no discrimination will be made between these two terms from now on) can be generated. The occurrence of clichés is always a consequence of superficial communication, knowledge, understanding.

2That is why the present paper will deal, among other things, with the way people fall from one cliché into another. It will also study the relation between the cliché, convention and conventionalism, on the one hand, and the cliché and prejudice, on the other hand. The cliché will prove to be a source of misunderstanding, and to lie both at the basis of communication and of miscommunication. For, while the truth and the moral are relative and probable, the cliché is absolute. The relation between the cliché and monotony will also be briefly taken into consideration.

3This paper will deal with some aspects of cliché in E. M. Forster's A passage of India (1936) from a semiotic point of view, and more particularly from the perspective of Peircean semiotics. It is within this framework that our own definition of the cliché and of some of its functions will be put forward. A brief, but nuanced, survey of the main categories Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1904) operates with is necessary to this end.

4Semiosis is the generation and interpretation of signs, whereas any interpretation of signs is a generation of new signs, and the other way round. Peircean semiotics has been chosen as a framework for the analysis of clichés because the author of the present paper shares U. Eco's opinion, expressed in The Role of the Reader:

Peirce's theory of interpretation cannot but lead to a form of meaning analysis which fits both the requirements of an interpretative semantics, and of a generative semantics, and only from Peirce's point of view can many problems of contemporary text theories be satisfactorily solved. (Eco, 1979, 175; my emphasis)

5Peirce's three basic categories are the Representamen, the Object, and the Interpretant. All three are simultaneously present in the sign. The Representamen can be roughly described as a flash-like first impression before it has been processed by the mind. Broadly speaking, the Interpretant is the outcome of the interpretation of the Object represented in the Representamen. Moreover, the relation between the Representamen and its Object is equivalent to the relation established between the Object and the Interpretant.

6This process of generating an Interpretant by a Representamen is called semiosis. It takes place, necessarily, under the control of the Object, because, with Peirce, the Object is the only category that never changes. Also according to Peirce:

We have to distinguish between the Immediate Object, which is the Object as the Sign itself represents it and whose Being is thus dependent upon the Representation of it in the Sign, from the Dynamical Object, which is the Reality which by some means, contrives to determine the Sign its Representation. (4, 536)

7As Lucia Santaella Braga has pointed out:

Peirce introduced the notion of the Immediate Object in order to show the impossibility of direct access to the Dynamic Object of the Sign. The Dynamic Object is inevitably mediated by the Immediate Object. (1988, 55)

8In its turn, the Interpretant is an even more intricate category. It includes three subclasses, placed on different levels:

  1. The Immediate Interpretant, which is the interpretant as "represented or signified in the sign" (8, 343), and which is an emotional interperétant.
  2. The Dynamical Interpretants, or Energetic Interpretants which supply all the necessary information for the interpretation of the signs (and which could therefore hardly occur in cliché-based communication).
  3. The Final Interpretants, or Logical Interpretants, which provide the interpretation system after sufficient development of thought. Final Interpretants could by no means occur in a case where human communication is suffused with clichés. Peirce also specifies that the Final Interpretant presupposes the Dynamical one and the Dynamical Interpretant presupposes the Immediate one. According to Peirce, "it is not all signs that have logical (i. e. final) Interpretants, but only intellectual concepts and the like" (1, 26). Cultural texts — and more specifically, the subcategory of literary texts — are a type of intellectual concept. Consequently, they should have — and do have — logical, final interpretants.

9The cultural stereotype is a Final Interpretant. Final Interpretants account:

  1. For the interrogation of the cultural text in a given class.
  2. For the text's integration into the interpreter's cultural competence.

10The occurrence and functioning of cultural stereotypes is closely related to intertextuality, as this phenomenon has been described by Riffaterre (1979) and Genette (1982).

11Before expanding on this topic it is worth remembering that G. Deledalle (1979) nuanced Peirce's classification and established three Final Interpretants. It is the first Final Interpretant which will prove relevant for the present investigation; namely, the degenerate Final Interpretant, which no longer resorts to any collateral experience at all, which is taken for granted in a community and automatically resorted to, in order to refer to a given Object which the members of that community think they well know, which they no longer question, no longer wonder about. The cliché is identified with this first Final Interpretant. Whenever the process of semiosis reaches this kind of Final Interpretant, it stops. Interpretation also stops, at least temporarily, once stereotypes have been appropriated in a given culture. It stops and it fails. Things, events and phenomena have to be reconsidered.

12Stereotypes may be re-evaluated, provided they are integrated into a different cycle, by what Peirce called a different Quasi-Mind. The American semiotician actually distinguishes between two Quasi-Minds: a Quasi-utterer and a Quasi-interpreter; he also refers to the dialogical nature of thinking (4, 55). It should be emphasized that Peirce's conception of dialogism is, in effect, quite similar to Bakhtine's (1963/1970) and Ducrot's (1984), although no direct, or even indirect, relationship can be established.

13This second Quasi-Mind, which integrates the cultural stereotypes into a novel cycle of semiosis, presumably, is represented by a different interpreter, usually endowed with a broader cultural competence (or by the same interpreter at a different stage of evolution). In this new process of semiosis, the cultural stereotype (i. e. the degenerate Final Interpretant of a previous cycle) stands for the Immediate Object, which Peirce defined, as "the object as such, in the Sign" (4, 536). Only in its capacity of an Immediate Object, namely only provided it is questioned, re-dimensioned, re-discussed, and considered not as absolute, ultimate truth, but just as a mere emblem — the profound significance of which is still to be discovered — can the stereotype be productive in communication.

14What follows is a brief description of the way semiosis is achieved in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. The analysis will dwell on only a few details out of many.

15As the readers of the novel know, A Passage to India begins with Mrs. More and Adela Quested's arrival in India, in order to visit Mrs. More's son, the judge Ronny Heaslop, whom Adela is supposed to marry. The two ladies get aquainted with a handful of "typical" narrow-minded British colonists (Dr. and Mrs. Callender, the Turtons, etc.) who comply with the long-established conventional image of their social category. They are perfectly sure of their superiority, despise the Indians, and do not care to know or understand them. The following two quotations are conclusive to this effect:

But the lady, entirely stupid and friendly, continued:
"What I mean is, I was a nurse before my marriage, and came across them a good deal, so I know. I really do know the truth about Indians. A most unsuitable position for any English woman - I was a nurse in a Native State. One's only hope is to hold sternly aloof." (1979 [1924], 48)

16Some British colonists go as far as classifying their stereotyped perceptions of the natives:

"Do you really want to meet the Aryan brother, Miss Quested? That can be easily fixed up. I didn't realize he'd amuse you." He thought a moment. "You can practically see any type you like. Take your choice. I know the Government people and the landowners, Heaslop here can get hold of the barrister crew, while if you want to specialize on education we can come down on Fielding." (48-49)

17All the clichés of the empire-builders about the Indians are therefore operating in that community. The only exception is Fielding, a teacher at the local college.

18The reverse is equally true; the Indians' prejudices against the members of the British administration are no less strong. The only possible exception is Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian who tries to bridge the gap between his own people and a few broad-minded people from the other camp (Fielding, Adela, Mrs. More). But, just like Mrs. More, Adela "deprecated labels" (109). Therefore, she wanted to avoid such stereotyped, conventional ideas, to go beyond the clichés, and get to know "the true India" which "slid by, unnoticed" (66):

"I'm tired of seeing picturesque figures pass before me as a frieze", the girl explained. "It was wonderful when we landed, but that superficial glamour soon goes." (49)

19Adela wished to have access to the Dynamical Object — "the true India" — and thus to generate a Dynamical Interpretant.

20Notwithstanding a few nuances, the other characters are content with Immediate Objects and therefore with Immediate emotional Interpretants. The term "emotional" is used here in the Peircean sense, as a kind of meeting point between emotion, since it is an Immediate Interpretant — and reason — as it is an Interpretant, nevertheless, and semiosis could not possibly have taken place unless it were controlled by the Object. In this sense, British prejudices, their sticking to former frames of mind, are emotional Interpretants.

21The two ladies decide to go in quest of "the true India". They propose to make a trip to the Marabar caves, accompanied by Dr. Aziz. Once they get there, a rather tragic accident happens. Mrs. More remains down the hill, while Adela goes all the way up to the caves with the Indian. When the latter leaves her for a moment, she enters one of the caves alone and refuses to come out of it until later in the day, when she leaves the place, running half-mad, pretending that Aziz had attempted to rape her. The Indian's trial follows, accompanied by a violent revival of all the worst clichés which both sides involved — the English and the Indians — have about each other. However, at the trial, Adela seems to come to her senses again and admits she may have been mistaken. Aziz is acquitted.

22But, Adela's courageous admission of self-deception does no good to the collective mentality of either side. Both the British and the Indians stick more strongly than ever to their cherished clichés. Though Aziz did not try to rape Adela, the British colonists still see him as the dirty underdog. Though Adela had had the courage to admit her self-deception and is publicly ridiculed, for the Indians she is still the representative of the British empire-builders and is charged with all their stereotyped drawbacks (which, incidentally, Adela herself had never had). A special kind of limited semiosis takes place here. No issue is possible out of an endless chain of clichés. Awareness and self-possession do not seem to help.

23Adela's imagined (symbolic) rape is caused by a commonplace sunstroke, but it is also caused by her frustrated expectations about India, about her social and sexual despondency. Nearly all her preconceived ideas have turned out to be as many stereotypes, violently leading to distorted wishful thinking, i. e. the "rape". Nevertheless, her half-expectation of rape is yet another stereotypical reaction which becomes all the more violent, the thinner its "real" basis is. The violence of the last denial at the trial, which is even more unexpected, leads to a conclusive breach. This ultimate breach engenders still another series of clichés in the collective mentalities of the English, on the one hand, and of the Indians, on the other. Adela's final admission of guilt is appreciated by neither of the parties. The relation with the Other is based on clichés, on a stereotyped image, tacitly accepted by both parties involved. In this way, no interference between them is either possible or wished for. In Forster's novel, the relation between the self and the Other Falls into one of three main classes:

  1. They may remain indefinitely frozen in a superficial convention. More often than not, people automatically resort to clichés in order to deliberately raise a barrier between themselves and the others. In this case, the clichés indicate a strategy of self-defence. It is an Immediate Interpretant, based on an Immediate Object.
  2. When the cliché-generating machinery goes wrong, clichés become violent. The conventional is replaced by the absurd. The absurd is an intermediary stage between convention and violence. The absurd occurs whenever semiosis is artificially arrested before it has reached the final stage.
  3. The passage from convention to violence need not be always fulfilled, however, nor need semiosis be prematurely stopped. Human reactions may also be absorbed into indifference (as is the case of Mrs. More in the latter half of the novel), or into contempt (which was the general reaction of the British towards Aziz before the catastrophe). In this case, a degenerate Final Interpretant is reached.

24The "ideal" case, the ideal outcome of semiosis would be to generate a Dynamical Interpretant, with the help of the Dynamic Object. This happens whenever clichés are re-evaluated, re-invested with significance, but it is hardly the case in the novel under discussion. What actually happens in Foerster's novel is that the cliché-generating machinery is upset (at the trial). As a rule, the outcome of the cliché-generating machinery is an identikit, or a series of identikits:

  1. The identikit of the Indians as viewed by the "empire-builders".
  2. The identikit of the British as viewed by the "underdog".
  3. The British view themselves as the forerunners of civilization, as empire-builders who make sacrifices for the welfare of the British nation.
  4. The Indians consider themselves as the "underdog", unjustly exploited, unjustly despised.

25The logical inference of this series of remarks is that one cannot resort to clichés as far as one's image about the Other is concerned, unless one also views oneself in stereotypical terms. Therefore cliché is also dangerous to oneself. Although the cliché-generating machinery is upset by a character from the side of the empire-builders (Adela Quested), she is unable to foresee the results of her action and consequently unable to protect herself. Instead of mediating the "peaceful transition" from the Immediate Interpretant to the Dynamic Interpretant, her action has led to violently replacing the Immediate Interpretant by a Final Interpretant. As already shown, whenever the Final Interpretant is engendered, semiosis temporarily stops; a dead-end is reached, because semiosis is supposed to be unlimited.

26On the other hand, clichés may be either caricatures of the Other — this is the way the Indians deliberately view the British — or else a faded, although symbolic, image of an idealized dead world, never to be retrieved. An example to this effect is the photograph of Dr. Aziz's dead wife which significantly enough, he once shows to Fielding:

[Fielding] was astonished, as a traveller who suddenly sees, between the stones of the desert, flowers. The flowers have been there all the time, but suddenly he sees them. He tried to look at the photograph, but in itself it was just a woman in a sari, facing the world... (127-128)

27At this point, semiosis might start again, proving its unlimited nature. The two initial sentences indicate the occurrence of a new Representamen, supposed to engender new, different, Interpretants. But the scene of the photograph also demonstrates that for Aziz himself his own world was on the point of fading away, that he was on the brink of integrating into an "ideal", civilized world, which actually does not exist. No communication is therefore possible between the two worlds, stereotyped both as such, and as reflected into each other. For successful communication to be achieved, a third, ideally projected world would be necessarily, a kind of utopia, hinted at in the final pages of the novel: '"No, not yet... 'No, not there'" (316) was the response of all the elements of nature when both Aziz and Fielding had tried, for the last time to be friends.

28Utopias are, however, yet another stereotype. Therefore the cycle of semiosis might begin again once this projected stage is supposed to be reached. Under certain conditions, even stereotypes may bear withness to the unlimited character of semiosis projected into an indefinite future. It is one of the paradoxes of the presence of clichés in a cultural (i. e. literary) text both to be able to stop semiosis, and to be capable of starting it again, of conferring new dimensions upon it.

29The novel also demonstrates that people are so used to resorting to clichés that they feel frustrated by their absence. Such frustration leads to violence. In A Passage to India, after the trial, Aziz returns to unoccupied India, away from British civilization, and despises Adela for her public admission of guilt, instead of admiring her courage, although the girl's testimony had saved him from prison.

30The absence of an expected cliché may also lead to the (unconscious) generation of a semblance of the expected cliché, a "weaker" cliché (the post-factum projection of a possible rape). Here again two possibilities are open theoretically: either the absorption into commonplace, or violence once more. The outcome of both these paths, the next stage, is disintegration, be it "peaceful" (in the former case), or "violent" (in the latter). This does not happen though, in Forster's novel, which does not push the evolution of events as far as that, although its ending does contain a hint to this effect.

31I shall limit my conclusions to pointing out that this analysis of A Passage to India has raised a number of epistemological problems which must be taken into consideration, however briefly:

  1. Clichés are conditioned by education, sex, race, world outlook, and ideologies. In their turn, all these factors can be viewed as as many clichés.
  2. In general, cliché has a double nature:
    1. it has a "noxious" influence on the phenomena it gets in touch with,
    2. but it is also a necessity, in its capacity of revealing the "essence" of those very phenomena.
  3. The complex relationship between clichés and "authenticity", as well as between the cliché and the artificial would be worth exploring.
  4. Human personality is best defined when the individual comes into contact with several (kinds of) cliché. It is only then that one is able to have a detached attitude towards clichés.
  5. The desire to avoid clichés at all costs may lead to exaggeration, and eventually, to ridicule.
  6. Humour cancels out the violent nature of the cliché, but lays stress on its "negative" character.
  7. The presence of a cliché is highly probable whenever a nuanced perspective is absent. The latter is the basic factor able to transform a cliché into a generator of new significances.
  8. Under certain circumstances, violence may be another factor leading to the same effect.



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