academic · writing

Signs and Symbols

Revisiting some old notes from a presentation on signs, symbols, semiotics I gave in grad school. I don’t know if I even had the definition of semiotics correct! But I was as enraptured then as I am now with the idea of making meaning.

Frequently I play a mental game with myself: I try to imagine explaining my daily life in 2020 to my grand father, or his father, or a more distant ancestor. (For some reason it’s always the men! Probably because I have their texts…) I think I could do a reasonable job introducing my Grandpa Frank to the world of smartphones, quarantine, and animal crossing. I also think I could introduce Grandpa Henry (3x great) to things like cars and refrigerators. Eventually, though, if I was really hosting this time-traveling family reunion, I would meet someone I could not connect with with my known lexicon of objects and processes. Our worlds would be so different that I would be unable to come up with metaphors that would allow us to sing the same song and understand the sames story. And yet we would be human, related by virtue of species and family, related by virtue of genes. We share everything on a microscopic level, we share the same drives and desires. But are we so far apart we can’t share symbol?

I know, as I sit here, that I am conflating object andsymbol – this is on purpose. This is how I would explain the startling intimacy we have with objects. Take the computer for instance. This is a tool that is every bit as close to my heart as a spindle or distaff would have been in previous ages. I make my living using it, I create using it, I keep it close to me, my body, my family just like those common womens’ tools. Objects like these mean a lot. The laptop I am typing on is decorated to my taste, it holds notes, photos, recordings of things I hold dear. It’s a workshop and a book of hours. It’s also a village well. It really takes the place of that village. That is it’s symbolism to me: this means connection, creation, work, and recreation. The object, temporary and falliable as it is (and not nearly as elegant as the spindle or distaff, sorry to it!) is important because of what it lets me do. A tool can be as much a symbol of freedom and industry as it can be oppression. Depends who’s holding it and what it’s designed to do.

Freedom, that most American of words. Freedom? I’m not very free from my work on this object. In ages past, the spindle and distaff may well have meant drudgery and oppression to me as well, as this sometimes does. I toss off the word “freedom” so easily, being a child of America, being immersed in the state of mind that is America. Much like my harping on “semiotics” a decade ago, I wonder if I’m invoking the concept while truly understanding it.

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