Peircean Steamiotics

Technological Metaphors and Pastoral Designs

  • Paul Manning


According to Peirce, the theory of heat depends on the steam-engine, but we might also ask, does semiotics owe a similar metaphoric debt to material technologies? Throughout the Nineteenth Century, metaphoric motors allow novel ideas of work, energy, productivity and progress to be prescinded from intentionality, purpose or goal. Similarly, Peircean secondness, "the experience of effort, prescinded from the idea of a purpose," a concept central to contemporary materialist semiotics, is not only homologous with the new idea of energy or mechanical work, but is illustrated using the same technologies. Peirce frequently deploys the "ear-splitting, soul-bursting locomotive whistle," to illustrate the concept of "secondness," as a pure external force, within a broader triadic structure where the shriek of the steam whistle (secondness) disrupts an idyllic state of feeling of firstness (a daydreamer), provoking a more mediated state of mind (thinking) which he calls thirdness. These technological images are strikingly similar to what Leo Marx has called the American "pastoral design" illustrated by tropes of "the machine in the garden." Across nineteenth century American literature, we encounter a ideology of technology and progress illustrated by images of a pastoral reverie which is interrupted by a counterforce, the machine-age in the form of the steam-engine and attendant steam-whistle, which draws the unwilling daydreamer out of their idyllic reverie and into the material realities of the modern age and leaves them in an agitated state of cogitation. Peirce' s approach to materiality bears the imprint of these ideologies of the age of machinery.

Keywords: Peirce, semiotics, pastoral, Hawthorne, technology, metaphor, secondness

Image: Peirce's steam whistle
Nov 28, 2016
How to Cite
MANNING, Paul. Peircean Steamiotics. Semiotic Review, [S.l.], n. 4, nov. 2016. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 23 july 2024.