Bill Readings introduced me to semiotics in my undergraduate days at Syracuse University. His class was Contemporary Literary Theory, a 200 level course, so nowhere near enough knowledge to rest a proper degree upon, which was fine—Bill held space for us to focus for a few hours a week, learning how to both listen and think.
He had a wonderful way of illustrating his teachings, placing our 19 year-old minds into comfortable arenas where we could casually move towards comprehension and eventually grasp the core concepts of deconstructionism and linguistics that he tossed about with ease.
Aside from choosing Blade Runner as an explicit assignment to understand subtext, or his pointed call-outs of us “numbskulls” to apply a “bit more apperception to your day-to-day existence,” the most visceral lesson of Bill’s that stuck with me was one centered around the English word “tree” and the Spanish word “arbol.”
Language Is As Dynamic As We Are Unique
Until he found the words signifier and signified, however, sign remained ambiguous, for it tended to become identified with the signifier only, which Saussure wanted at all costs to avoid; after having hesitated between some and seme, form and idea, image and concept, Saussure settled upon signifier and signified, the union of which forms the sign.
When English speakers are first exposed to the authority of the Spanish translation : arbol, we might assume that the two terms have an explicit relationship and representation across languages. Bill informed us as to why such an assumption was incorrect; while tree and arbol translate into one another, as a written word they are only signifiers, whereas the actual physical objects that these words signify are called the signified and will undoubtedly be very different in nature depending on who is uttering the term.
Yes, that was hard to understand.
Saussure’s point in meticulously separating intrinsic elements of the sign was to ensure that a word and its recalled notion are understood as not having an inherent natural relationship. Edifying this by defining the study of language with such relational flexibility makes way for infinite variants of our personal mental model of the sign icon, where tree might equate with:
Flip the notion of a picture being worth a thousand words and imagine that an explicit term will be viscerally perceived millions of ways—when I hear the word tree spoken aloud, in my minds eye I see the 100+ year-old Oak from the yard of my childhood home.
Our individual experiences are far too unique to defer to commonly determined, explicitly signified representations when communicating.
Head deeper into the realm of the post-modern, and consider how the breadth of curated culture nudges us towards silos of explicitly defined perspective, relationships, even manners of behavior—hoisting upon us accepted paradigms of world views, ranging from the innocuous to the impactful. These have been refined over the ages, some stretching back thousands of years, all with language as the fuel propelling such edification.
In polite society, many presuppose that assimilation to constructs of our surroundings (e.g. religion, political parties, etc.) leads to a success, happiness, even meaning by serving us with shared cultural experiences. We believe the notion of normality exists because we assume that an aggregate expectation for how individuals cognitively process and navigate our surroundings exists.
But why would we believe that normality truly exists when the representation of a tree differs so greatly between us?
Shared language is powerful—it adorns the walls of town centers, fills the cultural coffers within national borders and establishes international truisms, all influencing the inhabitants of this planet by varying degrees. Language is the vehicle for delivering moral values as immediately as an arrow puncturing the skin, or over time as a potter might spin clay into a bowl. Language shapes how we understand the world, even as our unique experiences shapes language itself.
Into The Forest We Go
Whenever I stumble upon a conversation about knowledge and structure, such as Are trees natural? over at David Weinberger’s blog, the Bill Readings inspired information architect within me smiles.
One could posit that as a metaphor, we are each a tree with years of experience and branches sprouting outwards in unique directions with depth of purpose. When we enter any relationship, we overlap one another to form meshed nests of position, which ultimately reflect the state of our relationship with one another—healthy, in conflict or otherwise.
As no two trees are exactly alike, when in relationship we continuously nurture our positions to coexist. When we process novel information from one another, we negotiate our differences of opinion; we navigate our particular understanding of the world with one another, and as we find overlap and develop trust, we move relationships forward, finding a path to civility within this complex ecosystem we’ve created for ourselves.
On a societal level, technology now empowers us to assign associative signifiers (#) to information objects (video, images, sound, etc.), delivering additional context to the interfaces made available that evolve our understanding of the world around us.
The degree of context that an individual can capture on the receiving end of such intent is determined by the degree of ones immediate understanding of shared (#) signifiers and a desire for exploratory investigation. In this alternative scenario of information retrieval—where the query is set in stone and the returned objects evolve based on the participation of the masses adding the same # to new objects—we more rapidly find signal online, leading to increased activism; from egalitarian to capitalistic to creative to disruptive intent.
High volume, serendipitous opportunities to reconsider and advance position through signifier infused objects will become the fabric of how we all experience online domains and traditional media.
When considering the trajectory of these times, this quote of Ferdinad de Saussure seems fitting:
In the lives of individuals and of societies, language is a factor of greater importance than any other. For the study of language to remain solely the business of a handful of specialists would be a quite unacceptable state of affairs. In practice, the study of language is of some degree or other the concern of everyone.
Everyone; Saussure would be blown away by how true that statement reads in today’s connected world of folksonomies and the effort of those in power to control not only language, but the underlying message.
A Tip Of The Cap
If Bill hadn’t stepped into the wrong plane at the wrong time in the fall of 1994, he would’ve witnessed exponential advancements of the web—specifically the participatory meshing of topics, interests, desires, and perspectives via social tagging through citizen blogging, vlogging, podcasting, etc. His post-modern, deconstructive, subversive personality that sought change would be beaming right about now; almost as brightly as his multinational, cricket playing, pub perusing, molder of youth persona.
In the name of language, relationships, connectivity and change, I dedicate this essay to my passed mentor. In Bill’s name, I’ll be busy late into the evening this October 30th, making a bit of a mess in someone else’s front yard, with someone else’s tree.