Monday, May 21, 2007

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I had to stop about every paragraph and decide whether I agree with the conclusion presented. I’m currently on page 26 (out of the 200 page Semiotics: The Basics, by Daniel Chandler) , and it has been a long time since I’ve read any sort of literary theory. I am finding the intellectual challenge quite interesting, and although I haven’t discovered anything to directly influence my writing yet. Still, nothing learned is wasted.

I will admit that I picked up Semiotics for two reasons, one much more significant than the other. The first is Umberto Eco. Eco’s novels are interesting and different enough from the mainstream that I’m interested in his literary theories. The second is Mark Danielewski. House of Leaves was described as a semiotic ghost story in a review, and I love House of Leaves.

Anyway, it’s moderately thick going, and I seem to disagree with seminal semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure’s conclusion that signs and meaning are primarily negative in nature, that the concept of tree is composed of dozens of elements such as “Not a bush”. At least partially because defining by negative is a laborious process. To think of a tree as “not a bush, not grass, not a car, not a house, not a book, not a person, not an animal, not a rock, not a road, not a mountain, not a star, not darkness, not light, not water, not a sound, not an act” is simply too cumbersome a definition for any mental process to go through every time we think ‘tree’. Yes, there must be differentiation–a tree is not a bush because a bush is shorter than a tree–but a tree is still a tall, woody stem with branches and leaves that is neither a vine nor a bush. And imagine if we had to define both of the objects in that last definition in the negative. We’d be here all night just listing the things the vine isn’t, and the bush isn’t.

Of course, we don’t think of definitions when we think of trees. Most of us either think of a word or an abstract symbol of a tree, rather than a specific tree. Really. Picture a tree–what’s the first image that comes to your mind? Is it a tree you have known, or is it something like a child’s drawing, a conceptual tree? This is where semiotics comes from–the human mind seems to work better with symbols, possibly for ease of storage, rather than

We also react very well to signs. Think of any cartoon character: Do they really look human? With human-like proportions, a face like someone you know? Not really. I mean, they have two arms and a head, but if you ever saw someone with a head like a paper bag like Bart Simpson, they would appear to be strange and grotesque. But we understand Bart Simpson as not a person, but a symbol representing a person. And this, apparently, is what semiotics are about–how the human mind understands and interprets signs.

Language is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Few other species have developed something as finely detailed and versatile as language, ands yet all human cultures seem to have it. Now that there is a tribe of chimps that make and travel with spears, humanity cannot be distinguished as the unique tool-using animal. We are, however, the creature with the most complex communication. So what better way to understand humans than through the study of our greatest achievement (according to Madeline L’Engle)?

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