Saturday, April 3, 2010

A World of Signs

Yuri M. Lotman.  Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture.  Translated by Ann Shukman.  Introduced by Umberto Eco.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.  ISBN 025321405X.

Jakob von Uexkull.  "The Theory of Meaning."  Semiotica 42 (1982): 25-87.  ISSN 0037-1998.

During my last year of coursework in graduate school, I decided to take an accelerated course in Russian language.  In addition to providing an introduction to Russian language and culture, the course incorporated some general references to semiotic theory (named from the Greek word sema, meaning "sign"), which intrigued me greatly.  In answer to my inquiries, the instructor provided a wealth of material, including Lotman's book and a reprint of von Uexkull's work.  Both were a revelation to me, helping me to systematize and streamline my understanding of the world to a greater extent than I had imagined possible.

I grew up studying first one thing, then another.  When I was nine years old, I was determined to be a paleontologist, and eagerly devoured books by authors like Gregory S. Paul and Robert Bakker.  Then, a year or two later, I became enamored of history; eventually this led me all the way through Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Meanwhile, I read the Standard Works of the LDS church, starting with the Book of Mormon and getting through the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and all of the King James Bible (several times).  As a university student, I wandered from religious studies into classics (Greek and Latin antiquity), where I eventually took an undergraduate degree and (in a fit of naivete) went to graduate school.  Until I encountered semiotics, I had no way of consciously (or convincingly) relating the individual fields of inquiry whose fruit I had tasted: each was something of an island unto itself, connected to the rest by artificial intellectual bridges that needed only a little introspection to dismantle.  The insularity of my "knowledge" of each field made me largely an abject pupil to "experts" whose "knowledge" was similarly insular, superior to mine only in that it was much more detailed.  Negotiating this early period in my intellectual development required a lot of faith in teachers, then, and a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance, since my teachers did not always agree where their relatively narrow fields converged.  Semiotics gave me the tools I needed to understand what unites all the various fields of human inquiry.

From Lotman, I learned that all human culture is composed of signs (or signals).  These take the form of images, gestures, words, numbers, texts, equations, and artifacts.  In some contexts, the information content of these signals is relatively fixed: written law and common usage converge to make the meaning of red "stop" signs on American roads pretty clear, and pretty similar to all cultured people.  In other contexts, however, the information content of signals is fundamentally unfixed.  When used by the Spanish band Estopa (to give one example), the red "stop" sign means much more than just "stop."  You could write volumes trying to explain its significance as a musical or political symbol without exhausting its capacity to generate new meaning every time you or someone else looks at it.  Systems of signs work like individual signs: the farther removed they get from very specific contexts, and the more information they attempt to convey, the more capacity to generate unexpected (and unpredictable) meaning they acquire.  So attempts to definitively fix the meaning of a complex literary text (like the US Constitution) inevitably fail.  This is because terms like "interstate commerce" are too unspecific to be read the same way by all readers.  So all human culture entails a necessary burden of ambiguity: the signs we use to communicate with one another inevitably say more or less than we mean, because we cannot control meaning.  It escapes us, no matter how much institutional power we may bring to bear upon it.  So it becomes impossible to conceive of an absolute truth accessible to the community in definite form.  If it can be thought, it cannot be spoken or shared in any medium.  Instead, we spend our time sharing signs whose information content varies infinitely over time as contexts come and go, evolving and and devolving with an ebb and flow that escapes our power to predict or control definitively.

Von Uexkull takes a semiotic approach to biology, interpreting all life as the interchange of signals (in the form of chemical and physical reactions embodying the transmission of information).  A very simple example of his approach is the tick.  Imagine a field full of bright flowers and tall grass on a warm summer's day: the sun shines, the wind blows, birds and bees flit to and fro.  But the tick perceives none of this.  Instead, it feels the presence of mammals approaching and receding in whiffs of butyric acid carried by the wind.  Eventually, one whiff approaches near enough to stimulate a move, and the tick's perception shifts to notice thick, mammalian hair under and around it.  Moving through the hair, the tick looks for a specific temperature unique to the skin-surface temperature of warm-blooded mammals.  When it finds this temperature, it inserts its snout and begins feeding.  Like the tick, all living organisms are bundles of sense-organs oriented towards stimuli in their unique environments; each conceives (and constructs) the world as its organs permit.  This new (and beautiful) way of looking at the universe left me with a great dilemma.  What becomes of absolute truth, even as an idea, when the tick has one view of life and I have another so radically different?  Why should my view be any more true (in any way) than the tick's?  Why is my viewpoint worth more than the tick's?  I can find no answer to these questions that does not come from myself, no answer that comes from some source of information independent of me and the tick.  Lotman made all men equal in my eyes as imperfect (the semiotic term is "asymmetrical") interpreters of signs; von Uexkull used a similar methodology to make all life equal.

One result of my encounter with Lotman and von Uexkull is that I have lost the ability to take seriously the idea that an anthropomorphic god might be the absolute ruler of earth.  In practice, the word "god" is a sign whose information content is completely unfixed: we use it to mark the unknown source of life that none of us is really, definitively sure about.  If we are going to mark that uncertainty with a constructed persona, should not our persona be large enough to encompass all life (not just the human)?  At issue here is our human orientation towards the world.  Do we want to see the world as a definite thing that we control (through the great man-in-the-sky who has set us up as lords of creation), or as an indefinite community in which we have a significant interest (not necessarily a controlling one, since we do not see all the factors incorporated into its existence)?  I tried for several years to live with the first perspective, but in my personal experience it has never mapped onto reality: god the man never appeared to me.  So I am thrust back on the latter, which is truer to my own experience and the science of semiotics: the word "god" marks a fundamentally indefinite mystery.  Attempts to curb or control its opacity are just as futile as your high-school English teacher's efforts to eradicate the split infinitive.


  1. Um... gross! Thanks for the creepy-crawly imagery, Joseph! Dinner is officially ruined for me! Why do you have to bring up ticks? More to the point, why do you have to think of the world through a tick's eyes (or whatever its equivalent organs would be) in order to see women as equals, too? (Since before this rather disgusting idea you only saw men as equals in the sign-interpreting field of life.)

    On a more serious note, I would not claim that your point of view is worth more than the tick's, but that it certainly is more pertinent to your life.

    On the other hand, I think we come to be closer to "God" -- however your experience chooses to relate to that particular sign -- the more we develop our respective points of view to understand those that diverge from our own. In other words, those who are raised to communicate according to the signs unique to a specific community (such as, say, a specific Mormon ward) ultimately understand less about God and the universe than those who have attempted, at however minute a level, to understand the signs and world-views of a different community. Whether or not they ultimately agree.

  2. Your point about visiting other communities is well taken, I think. I feel like the LDS church tries too hard to be insular, to shut out impinging communities. Instead of viewing those communities as sources of some mysterious evil force that is destroying the world ("these are dark times, brothers and sisters..."), I want to engage them and learn what good they have (even the ticks, if possible!). I also want a tradition that marks ignorance rather than knowledge, valuing humility over pride, and the individual over the leadership (this is could be misconstrued as valuing the individual over the community: in fact, I think the community is better served by vibrant, different individuals who share their viewpoint without expecting it to be accepted without question).