(From the book “The Semiotics of Theater” by Erika Fischer-Lichte)
Theater is played in the widest range of different cultures: in the agrarian cultures or so-called primitive cultures based on hunting or fishing; in the sophisticated ancient Middle and Far Eastern civilizations, such as those of Persia, Turkey, India, Malaysia, Japan, and China; and in all of Western culture. Wherever there is culture there are forms of theater.
Research into other, unknown cultures has repeatedly confirmed just how widespread theater is as a cultural phenomenon, and its high profile has prompted a wide range of different attempts to interpret it. The existence of theater has been explained, for example, anthropologically, sociologically, and psychologically. Viewed from the standpoint of the cultural sciences, theater appears initially to be one of many possible cultural systems. Theater can, like farming, hunting, housebuilding, tool manufacture, weapons, crockery and clothing, commerce, table manners, rules on clothing, the system of social relations, religious customs, language, law, myths, literary traditions, etc., form a constitutive part of that which, as the sum total of all such systems, we call culture. Yet, cultural studies must provide an explanation for the striking fact that theater is one of the unique constituent subsystems in almost all cultures known to us – especially striking because it is not one of the cultural systems that function to satisfy primary physical needs.
Theater is, on the one hand, a cultural system among others, i.e., it exhibits the same general feature as all the others, by virtue of which it can be defined as a cultural system sui generis, one that is significantly different from other cultural systems because of the special functions which it alone fulfills.
Culture is understood here in quite a broad sense as something created by humans as opposed to nature, which has originated without human activity. Everything which humans produce is “significant” for themselves and each other, because humans in principle live “in a signifying world”, that is, in a world where everything that is perceived is perceived as a signifier which must be judged to have a signified, i.e., a meaning. Every sound, action, object, or custom produced simultaneously involves the production of a meaning. The generation of meaning can therefore be regarded as the general function of all cultural systems; it is this function which allows them to be defined as cultural systems in the first place. In other words, theater, understood as one cultural system among others, has the general function of generating meaning.
Cultural systems do not produce meaning per se – this would be a contradiction in terms – but always generate something that can be perceived with the senses as sounds, actions, objects to which a particular meaning is attached in the context of the culture in which they are produced. The production of meaning thus ensues via the creation of signs.
According to Charles Morris, a sign fundamentally consists of three nonreductible constituent elements: the sign-vehicle, something that denotes what is designated, and the interpretant. Morris derives three two-sided relations from these three elements: first, the sign’s syntactic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to other sign-vehicles; second, the semantic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to the objects it designates; and third, the pragmatic dimension, namely, the relation of the sign to the user of the sign. Semiosis, the process by which a sign is accorded a meaning, occurs in all three dimensions; its product, meaning, can therefore only be adequately described and understood within this three-dimensional structure. Meaning arises when a sign is related by its user to something within a context of signs; the meaning can change if the sign is (a) inserted into a different semiotic context; (b) related to something else; or (c) used by another user. In other words, the meaning of the sign changes if one of the three dimensions changes. For meaning is a semiotic category.
This three-dimensionality provides an explanation for why it is that different people, and this is a well-known fact, can attribute different meanings to the same sign – whether it is a word, a drawing, a tool, or a building.
It can be assumed that within a culture the users of the signs of that culture attribute a meaning to them which contains a common, binding, relatively stable semantic component, i.e., the denotations and, furthermore, possible additional components of meaning, the connotations. The latter can be commonly used by classes or social strata; by a particular political, ideological, or religious group; by a group with a certain world-view; by other groupings; by the different subcultures; by individual families or other small groups. Indeed they may be valid solely for one individual, and they are, in general, subject to faster and more far-reaching changes than are the denotations. Meaning is, in other words, always to be grasped as a complex composed of an “objective” element that is intersubjectively valid in the culture in question and of “subjective” elements that may differ greatly.
Both the denotative and connotative elements of meaning have their respective history: they are the product of what the members of the culture have experienced in the different roles they occupy – as members of the culture, of a social stratum, of a certain group, of a family, or as an individual. Meaning is always shaped by history and the course of people’s lives – and this is naturally true above all of the connotations.
The meanings generated by the different cultural systems will exhibit a high degree of stability and homogeneity in a culture which, on one hand, fixes and restricts the possibilities of experience within quite clear bounds for the different groups (e.g., children and adults, adults and old people, men and women, tribe and tribal chief, shaman and the non-initiated) and, on the other hand, successfully occludes outside influences. By contrast, a culture which either does not have strict regulations governing the possibilities of experience by the single persons and individual groups or permits – indeed even induces – frequent contact with other cultures, will be characterized by instability and heterogeneity in the meanings constituted in it. On the one hand, this latter culture will encourage the division of the complex of meaning to denotation and connotation, given that even it cannot get by without a minimum of mutually-accepted meanings. (This division is irrelevant in cultures with stable and homogenous meanings, for the sign produced by a cultural system always signifies the whole complex of meaning.) Therefore, the culture will set off those situations in which in principle only the denotation and/or the denotation linked with certain connotations is to be granted validity from all conceivable situations. On the other hand, a certain number of meanings (understood here as a complex of denotations and connotations) will be selected that mean the same to everyone and are binding for them, for these are judged to be the pillars bearing the basic values of this culture.
Both types of cultures – and all the “admixtures” which exist between the two – are characterized both by the meanings generated by their respective subsystems and by the degree of their stability and bindingness. Both these features are historically specific.
The meanings generated by a cultural system are not isolated, i.e., are not independent of one another, but rather form interrelated complexes; these are comprised either of various meanings taken together or, frequently, of combinations with meanings produced by other cultural subsystems. For these meanings are not produced arbitrarily, but according to certain rules, on the basis of a code. A “code” is understood here to mean quite generally a system of rules for producing and interpreting signs or complexes of signs. A culture always exhibits meanings shared by more than one person if its members all refer to the same code when constituting meaning; divergent meanings arise if different groups use different codes with regard to one and the same sign.
A distinction must be made between so-called internal and external codes. Internal codes are the basis of one respectively specific cultural system; indeed in extreme cases, such as autonomous artworks, they are the basis of a product of that system; external codes are the foundation of several, and in extreme cases of all, cultural systems within a culture.