Cognitive Semiotics Seminar: Communicating simple and complex narratives in pantomime: an experimental-semiotic study (Jordan Zlatev & Marta Sibierska)
We re-start the CogSem seminar on January 20, with an updated presentation of the talk that I gave with Marta and Przemek at the Torun Symposium on pantomime last November. All are welcome from 15:00, so that we can say hello an do some quick planning for the coming weeks!
On one possible understanding of the famously ambiguous notion, narration is the expression layer of the composite phenomenon of narrative, which also includes two underlying layers: the story, organized as beginning, middle and end (but not necessarily in the order), and the underlying fabula, the chronological sequence of events (Bal 1997; Li & Zlatev 2021). The first question then is: what semiotic systems are capable of serving as the basis for narration? To answer this, we need to distinguish between primary narrativity (understanding the story/fabula on the basis of the narration) and secondary narrativity (understanding the narration on the basis of the story/fabula) (Stampoulidis 2019). Single pictures and music are arguably only capable of the latter, while language and sequences of pictures also of the former. The question then is: is pantomime, a polysemiotic system, dominated by iconic gestures (Zlatev, Żywiczyński, & Wacewicz 2020), capable of primary narrativity? Given that pantomime was the dominant communicative system of the evolutionary stage of (bodily) mimesis (Donald 1991; Zlatev 2008), answering this question in the positive would imply that narrative potentially evolved prior to the evolution of language. But once again, we need to distinguish between two kinds of narratives: (a) simple narratives, where the mapping between the order of events in the fabula/story and narration is iconic, and (b) complex ones, where this is not the case. We can predict that pantomime is capable of the former, but much less in the latter, since it lacks signs corresponding to “grammatical” markers of temporality and causality like “before” and “because”. To test this, we conducted an experimental semiotic study based on the design of an interactive “guessing game” (Fay et al. 2010), in which participants took turns in translating simple narratives (event order: beginning, middle, end). and complex narratives (event order: end, beginning, middle, end) from language to pantomime. Interpreters tried to match their partner’s pantomimes to pictorial representations of the same stories. We predicted that (1) that success rate will be higher in the simpler than in the complex narratives, and (2) that participants would develop markers of event order (MEOs) that eventually become conventionalized and go beyond pantomime, and that these will be more frequent in the complex narrative condition. Both predictions appear to be confirmed according to the preliminary results that we report and discuss.