Rosa Alice Branco

Pragmatic dimension of linguistic deictics [EN]

Pragmatic dimension of linguistic deictics in capturing the affordances of objects


This approach begins by focusing on the relationship between the near and the distant. These relationships are actually fundamental as far as design is concerned, considering their unequivocal and immediate link to the sphere of seduction and desire. As one knows, all desire is an instinct of proximity regarding its object. As far as I am concerned, this instinct is an irresistible attraction between the subject and the object and is excellently shown in Ray Bradbury’s The Fantastic City. Douglas must make others understand that his last summer’s tennis shoes are dead, while in the shop window a pair of “Lifefoot” tennis shoes would desperately cling onto his feet. In Douglas’ heart however, nothing made any sense without those “Lifefoot” tennis shoes, regarding which he already felt as if he was not walking, but rather flying, flying through the fantastic city.

Design uses actual limitations of the perceptive process in a strategic manner, which means that we only capture the ambient optic array of things that present the most relevance to us, disregarding everything else. We can thus say that Design deliberately steers towards sectarianism of our perception by trying to relate to the meaning of our inclinations and by unleashing within us a desire for the object, knowing that all desire is translated spatially and temporally in an attempt to shorten distances, to bring closer, and to end up making contact with what is distant. This is the same as saying that the strategy of seduction achieves an orientation towards the product. To be either close, in contact, or even inside us, concerns sense organs through which the object will be in relation to us after it has been acquired, namely through sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste, where the object looses its identity and becomes a part of us.

We know then, that all desire for the object tends to make it move:
1. spatially, from over there, or there, to here,
2. temporally, from a day later, to today, now, right now,
3. from the anonymity of not-mine, to ownership reflected in the term, “mine”.
The law of desire for the object therefore makes it tend to incorporate the subject’s spatial-temporal coordinates which flaunts this, mine, here, now.
From the register of dialogue, where the subject’s voices and the environment engage in resonance, one must extract the requirements a good design should include to show its instructions regarding use on the surface of the skin, so that the design achieves its purpose, which is to give meaning to objects. To equate this, mine, here, now is not sufficient in order to achieve this but essentially requires the deictic, as follows.


In Gibson’s theory of ecological vision, the concept of «affordance» is directly inspired by Berkeley for whom the primordial purpose of vision is «to foresee» either the benefit or the harm which distant bodies may cause our own. Gibson submits that, «whatever the philosopher named as «foresight» is what I call perception of «affordance» . The difference between the two concepts lies in the perception of the latter, regarding which information is codified in ambient light, which is light modified by reflection. It carries information concerning the surfaces of the environment.

Our sight captures how thing are and this is accomplished through the illuminated surfaces of things since these reveal information on objects regarding what they are able to afford in terms of their usage. The object’s illuminated surface transforms the invisible into visible and hence into intelligible.

Visually speaking, we only obtain information on objects and surroundings from surfaces exposed to light. What type of information is this? This information concerns what objects and the environment may offer us as affordances. James Gibson states precisely that, if we are able to know from sighting surfaces of objects what these may provide us, then this is because the layout of the surface expresses exactly what offerings those same objects may offer .

We may therefore state that objects engage in a dialogue with us and reveal both their affordances and their performative capacity. One may well imagine what this dialogue must have represented to men many years ago when a highly exploratory conduct was expected from them in terms of survival. Even today, however, if we were not aware that fire burns, that we should stand away from a projectile’s pathway, and cover and shelter ourselves in order to protect ourselves from the cold, etc., it would be equally impossible for us to survive.

Hence, thanks to the wealth of codified information present in ambient light as these are revealed, things also exhibit their affordances and guide us in relation to them. What is established then is:
1. A relationship which is normally associated with a valuing experience of benefit, pleasure, and attraction; in its broadest sense of the word «attraction», this type of experience induces proximity;
2. On the other hand, the feeling of pain and hurt drives us to repel whatever is causing the pain, whose term, namely repel, is understood as distancing.

Every experience has, as one may see, an affective tonality. This behaviour for orientation concerns the sight of objects flaunting their affordances on the surface of the skin. Some natural occurrences require adequate behaviour, but certain signals attracting us already relate to a less primitive record requiring exploratory and learning behaviours such as for example, the distinction between edible and poisonous mushrooms. Senses considered as perceptive systems allow extraction of ever growing information from objects, besides being a qualitatively more subtle and elaborate information. Dialogue between subject and object becomes progressively more intimate.

In order for «affordances to achieve their role as effective guides for action, organisms therefore need to be syntonized with «affordances» and only later will they be able to develop actions. The example of a musical piece transposed from the most grave to the most sharp, while maintaining musical intervals may be cited. A deaf person captures neither the piece nor its identity regarding this transposition nor for that matter someone who has neither any aptitude nor any syntony towards music.

Rigid material provides us therefore with support at the same time as it warns us that it can hurt us, sand gives way slightly with our footsteps and encourages us to run, play and throw ourselves upon it. A path is adequate to walk along while an obstacle is a source either of collision or injury, a cave provides shelter, and steps permit climbing and descending and a precipice may give rise to either injury or even death.


The non-dissolvable relationship between the organism and its environment becomes evident, just as one also confirms the required syntony between organisms and the environment in order that they may be effective guides for action. Although one can see through water, only birds that feed themselves on fish are able to immediately see where a submerged part of a stick is to be found from the perception of the visible part of the stick outside the water, i.e., according to Snell’s law, they are able to immediately see.

We may consider that, as affordance, ground is put into perspective while it can provide support for locomotion. As far as objects are concerned, an object that is connected may permit climbing and depending on its dimensions, weight, material etc., a disconnected object may be transported. In the same manner one may specify, namely that a plant is edible, a river is navigable, a mug is transportable, water is drinkable, a bridge is crossable, a missile is fireable and air is breathable, etc. The suffixes able and ible impart to language the idea of affordance, as either a possible or a feasible update from either something, or somebody to some other person.

Commensurability of the environment with the body operates on perception, and in this instance, on vision, seeing that at the same time as the observer captures information from the environment, he also captures information about himself.

In Gibson’s theory, namely in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, particular relevance is given to the fact that vision is not only exterioceptive but also proprioceptive. This means that sight includes information about who sees. Other senses are also equally informative about us, and according to Gibson, there is an ego-reception and a sensibility towards self.

For this reason, the fundamental relationship in this pact between the body and the world and the orientation relationship normally condensed in the tri-axial structure of the human body, namely tall-short, left-right and front-back, therefore specifies living space. For example, we are guided in a city whenever we sense the invariants regarding the structure of houses, the paths sketched by these, and the automatic way we choose the shortest path. We perceive the place where we are as the centre of possible paths along roads and avenues. We never get lost from ourselves by virtue of the fact that we are always endowed with ego-reception. This is what Gibson means on observing that when we get lost, we should not ask, “where are we?” but rather “where is the rest of the world?”

The fact that we never get lost from ourselves may be well illustrated through two typical situations, which have always interested me, even before I knew how to answer these. One of the two concerns when someone rings the doorbell and is asked via the intercom (not endowed with a video) – who is it?

There is an irresistible tendency to automatically answer – it is me. If on occasion we are expected, and our voice is recognised, often the other end answers with the question – me, who? The moment when the person realises that «it is me», is something that the person actually acknowledges and cannot but acknowledge. Nevertheless, this «me» is not an identifier. “It is me” becomes then “me-or-anyone-else-in-my-place”. It is also common on non-recognition for the person to insist a little irritated and perplexed:
– It is me, who else should it be?
It is also interesting to note that even in a big house, if we are asked where we are, we usually answer – I am here – even if we are on the other side of the house. It is evident that this attitude also assumes localisation through the voice, but it is highly fallible. In this instance, the “here” is not sharable just as in the previous case “me” is not.

There is relevance in knowing why under these circumstances we answer in this manner, simultaneous having at times a vague notion of the inadequacy of the answer.


The co-perception commensurate of self for what has been agreed to be referred as proprioceptive information has moreover as a result, the fact that I cannot get lost from myself. Under conditions considered as normal, there is always some evidence about my attachment to my skin, an egocentrism that automatically surfaces in language. Whenever I either answer, “it is me”, or “I am here”, I am either providing from my own perspective my identification or my location. In other words, it is as if I were speaking from me to me, and as if I had forgotten that, by vocation, this kind of deictic, such as either “me”, or “here”, is as much a part of me as the feeling about me. Nevertheless, the deictic “here” is neither identifiable nor able to be located outside the field of vision without having recourse to any sharable reference, i.e., which by its immobility may acquire a name, have an identity and a location free from the point of view.

Considering the pairs tall-short, left-right and near-far, we accept our active position in perceiving environment space. In the first place, this is because sight precedes the identification of objects through a network of operations, which at first levels has an affective tonality since it is entirely associated to the body’s experience, and may be referenced to deictics, namely I, here, now. The image of the vector illustrating perception has the initial point on us and it directs itself towards objects, whose intensity depends on the pregnancy of these with respect to our lives.

If we substitute these pairs with the following pairs, namely, length, breadth and width, then according to Gibson we have only a vague form of presence. Simple consideration of the x, y, and z-axis, expels from the system both the observer and the point of observation, since even the point of origin is arbitrarily chosen.
Going onto what we might call a theory of evaporation. Gibson encourages us to imagine the situation where we move around a stationary object. It seems that we merely see successively the perspective projections of the object, but in fact, we see it entirely and simultaneously from all sides, since the movement allows obtaining from the object the invariants specifying it.

It is worthy of note that during this experience the momentary perspectives practically evaporate; since if the object was seen from all points of view, then it is as if it had not been seen from no point of view in particular, and therefore the visual ego has evaporated as well. Since this is not perceived at a particular point in space, it is also not perceived at any particular moment in time. The experience of here and now has hence evaporated.

We may consider that the first case of perception with an observer and a point of observation (kinaesthetic) is found within the same deixis register (linguistics), where there is information relating to the location of enunciation. In other words, the observer’s position determines the position and temporality of objects as a correlative, namely, here, this one, that, near to, etc.

On the other hand, the limit of this tendency towards evaporation is what Gibson calls “visualisation”, where momentary experiences regarding here, are absolutely transcended, reaching total absence of the point of observation where only the invariants of objects are captured. Within this space, the observer is like a god who is everywhere, without however being anywhere since that space is non-living and does allow us to have neither high-and-low nor permits orientation. These two ways of seeing, namely kinaesthetic and visualisation are complementary in daily perception.

We can therefore see that the deixis register mobilises I (whom it reveals), you (either a witness or spectator), as well as it (the object shown). Nevertheless, as Guy Bourquin observes “perhaps there is some interest in postulating an anthropological deixis regarding a single and generic subject, which every enunciator brings along with him, whom is also universally cleaved” . One of the components of the “I-who-speaks-to-you” is therefore the “I-or-another-in-my-place (since I am simultaneously both the same person and another) “at-this-moment-or-at-any-other-moment”.


We may therefore consider that there are linguistic forms able to connect language with perception. These forms must be sufficiently stable and easily identifiable in order to achieve the functions they are supposed to carry out. Nevertheless, if one of the functions to which these are particularly intended concerns localisation, and if these particles are in fact characterised by their extreme mobility, then why use them instead of proceeding with a location which is definitely stable, using precise spatial-temporal references?

This is precisely because these are forms endowed with mobility. If these were not mobile, they would not be able to either locate a mobile subject or object, the dynamics of an occurrence and the ways of doing. These particles provide us with a guided time and space, and for this reason, it is relative, namely an actancial time and space of doing. In this manner, deixis may be conceived as a flaunting strategy in the words of something belonging to a non-verbal register, such as for example, the gesture. In addition, a gesture summons another sense, namely touch, since a hand’s vocation is con(-)tact. It is evident that these are not just any gestures, but these bond words to the performative dimension of acting.

Focused in this manner, Gibson’s affordances theory allows us to handle the dialogue that manmade objects have with us. If objects are exposed to light, then the light reflected by the surfaces of the objects is charged with information about these and this information always concerns affordances, that is, the meaning the object has for us.

It must become quite clearly that we are well aware that the relationship we have with objects is not restricted to a functional relationship with them. Furthermore, it is healthy for objects to catch us off guard even at a functional level, by remaining beautiful, enigmatic, contradictory and capricious, preserving their dimension of amusement and continuing their game between subject and object, seeing that the aim of the design is attained through crisscrossing various parameters regarding the functional, aesthetic, social, economic, etc.

Nevertheless, this approach however contemplates the perspective of affordances as operators of intelligibility, as guides for action. Consequently, the thought urged from here is how information on objects’ affordances can help us think about the features that an object should be endowed with in order to be easily handled and used.

Let us begin with harmful affordances. For example, in Psychology of daily Objects, Donald Norman demonstrates how a large amount out of the vast array of objects we use daily can cause damages, be these either on a physical level, or on the level of hampering the deciphering of the operation of things. In Gibson’s language, harmful or insufficient affordances determine an under utilisation of operating capacities of a product on which we invest time, money and emotion. Let us just recollect the number of more expensive gadgets we have bought because these allowed a vast multiplicity of performances. Subsequently, so much time is consumed studying the instructions manual and attempting to understand everything, which is so difficult and we immediately end up forgetting anyway, that we start using the gadget in its most simplified manner, setting aside what was after all our motivation regarding the purchasing act.

Consequently, we need to know as far as possible how to eliminate our daily frustrations arising from tricky use of objects. The question must now be placed on how to improve the dialogue objects have with us, to continue as if psychoanalysing objects, where hidden facts tend to surface and be revealed. This objective meets up with the obstacle of us having inherited the hysteria of trying at all costs to remove the condition of familiar things from familiar and recognisable things. According to Jacques Dewitte, we are trying to make everything that we consider far too banal, escape its own identity. He therefore states that, above all else, a table cannot seem to be a table! It can seem to be either a shell or a lamp; it does not really matter what, but above all else, not to a table. What a disaster if a table would resemble a table.

If there are instances where this game can be amusing, then in some instances this incorrect product usage may actually become a security risk for the user, showing how Gibson’s theory may be applied by putting in perspective the surface of objects as informative, and in this manner allowing visualization of the objects’ affordances.

For example, glass and other transparent materials do not exist from the visibility point of view, seeing that light almost passes totally through these. If these objects do not exist, however, from the visibility point of view, they also do not disclose their affordances. Design of certain transparent objects must thus be worked in such a manner so that these may disclose their affordances. In order to achieve this we need to endow them with a certain amount of visibility, while at the same time maintaining them transparent, since the lack of affordances implies dangers of collision. Transforming the invisible into visible is to display precisely their affordances. Examples are glass doors and some shop windows, where the lack of affordances causes us to walk into these. Donald Norman reveals the diversity of non-dangerous unpleasant facts arising on handling a poorly designed door. Besides the danger of collision, we often perform silly acts because we do not become aware quickly enough as to whether the door either opens forwards, backwards, to the left or to the right.


If we concur with Donald Norman that as far as interactive objects are concerned, the best design relates to the object requiring the least instructions regarding its use, we will be sensibly using the elegant principle of economy scientists regard so highly. By applying the principle of economy to transparent doors, it tells us that these must be endowed with either affordances or instructions on use on the surface of the skin, revealing either I am, or I exist, and I am as follows:
1. I am: relates to endowing the glass door with visibility;
2. As follows: relates to making visible an actual instruction on how to open the door.

In this manner, just as things in nature tell us what they mean to us in action terms, certain products reveal their affordances on the surface of the skin. In addition, to reveal affordances is to reveal the “as follows” of objects in their doing. It is worthy of note that to say “it is done as follows”, as if we were showing how to prune a tree, how to bake a cake and how to dance a tango, always assumes communication is in syntony between at least two interveners. By engaging in a dialogue with us the object tells us, namely, my affordances must be used “as follows”. We may, therefore, deem that there are linguistics forms able to connect with the language of objects, that is, the functional dimension of their design with perception, such as deictics, where there is information regarding the place of enunciation. In other words, the observer’s position determines the position of the objects as a correlative, namely here, this, that, close to, etc. Relative information regarding temporality is also included, namely, now, yesterday, and just now. These forms therefore relate to time, manner and space actancials of doing, whose examples are, namely, mine, here, now, and as follows. In this manner, and by means of the deictics I just itemised, design also has a strategy to flaunt the words of something that belongs to the non-verbal register of the gesture, namely, as follows is the narrative of a gesture. It is evident, that these are not just any gestures, but they bond the words to the performative dimension of acting, when spatial-temporal coordinates of doing incorporated in saying exist.

In a world where we are forced to daily dialogue with an almost infinite number of objects, some automatisms regarding use are required. To prevent generation of excessive daily frustrations, objects that have no obvious use, forcing us to memorize, such as the interactive objects, must make their modus faciendi as evident as possible. One of the most productive ways to achieve this is to resort as much possible to the natural topographies as instructions incorporated in actual design. The great efficacy of natural topographies result from discarding the tiresomeness of memorising since it is based on analogy and we know from our own experience, how analogy is intuitive, automatic, allowing speedy reading and easy identification and as a consequence an acting in conformity, and without tiring, allowing performances which give merit to the capacities of the product.

As we have seen, the object only entirely achieves its function if conditions for a topical relation between the body and object are created.
Nevertheless, in order to achieve this purpose one must learn to see and to question, not only the object’s function regarding its “what use does it have?” but also the “as follows” regarding objects. If we do not learn their “as follows” we will never understand anything, we will never be able to recognize a successful design, we will have no criteria on use and purchase, nor will we be able to create objects that are within the parameters regarding which we are syntonized with our surroundings.

If the modus faciendi has been integrated in the Design, then we cannot forget that we are beginning to approach the object as a detonator of instincts, inducing different relationships of proximity and distance according to the type of pregnancy that it holds in our lives, and according to the conviction of desire it is capable of instilling.
Only in this manner is both the narration of the modus faciendi, illustrated as the “as follows”, and the dimension of desire transposed to the spatial-temporal relationship of the object with the subject included in design, namely, the object that is the object of my desire will attempt to be mine, here, now, so that I can enjoy as follows.

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