the life of signs in social life

The title of this post is a translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of semiology as a science that studies “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale.” The phrase itself is not very clear in the native French, let alone translated and disfigured into English; how do signs have life (vie) and why must we study them through the logical systems which found scientific study? How can we study the lives of signs within (au sein de) social life (vie sociale) and why must, according to Saussure, we study them this way? Does signs have meaning beyond the social realms/lives which they inhabit?

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a blog post. Yet, it wasn’t without trying. I’ve written two blog posts since my last one although I never uploaded them. The first was just a general set of updates, written at the end of my first month of graduate school. I really don’t have much of a reason as to why I never published it, so I won’t even lie to you by generating some excuse or blaming it on ‘being anxious.’ The second post was far more experimental, the result of a day marked by residual anxiety (‘background noise,’ I call it). I tried to channel that foul energy into something, and it took a meandering route, heavily influenced by the critical theory work I’ve been reading this semester. Here’s an excerpt of it:

I am beginning to rely  once again on obfuscating language. Even that word, obfuscate, renders itself on the page as if covered in accents (öbfûßçátè) seems weirdly foreign, a diversion. I find I am falling back into the old familiar traps of language (inasmuch, insofar, regardless, nevertheless, nonetheless, furthermore — these words reveal in their deployment an essential fear in my life; unintelligibility, nonsensicality, madness) trying to hide behind language, use it to divert the reader away from the self. How can someone be expected to speak outside of themselves in writing? How is it possible to hide behind, within, outside of language?

The piece was too personal and too unmediated for publication, and so it’ll stay on my hard drive until I can find some use for it, in some heavily remediated and deconstructed way. Nevertheless, this semester has had a lot of trials with what it means to write, and how writing is itself a fallacy. I suppose I went into the semester with these questions, given that I wrote “why read” and “why write” for these very reasons. My course on critical theory has only added fuel to a personal question on the efficacy of language in general, and writing in particular, and all of my final papers deal with the essential failing which makes language flawed and therefore meaningful.

Words (or better yet, verbal signs) point us in a direction. They do not convey meaning in themselves, for that would assume that the intention behind them is somewhere in the word itself, in its composition, in its deployment. Yet, whatever is intended by a word is overwritten by whatever the reader interprets. Interpretation is ultimately the key, not writing, not speaking. I can say something, you can interpret it as something else, and your interpretation isn’t wrong, nor did I misspeak. My adviser described this view of human language and meaning-making (what academics call semiotics [the study of signs and meaning-making] and hermeneutics [the general study of interpretation]) as deeply nihilistic and troubling because she believed that it made it impossible for human beings to truly communicate with one another. While I understood that she was saying this in order to inform me of some of the hesitations many readers may have in reading any work containing or alluding to these kinds of ideas, the undertext of her statement nevertheless corroborates my theorizations of language: we read what we want to see in words. We try to make the world make sense through texts, through interpreted information. That means essentially that we are not interacting with one another, but with ourselves, and with illusions of the self which we project onto and into the world. We do not interact with objects, but the images which objects represent (Baudrillardian simulacra). When we listen to each other, we make meaning based on what it is we want to know. All meaningless information (insofar that the subconscious mind deems it meaningless, or unmeaningful) is skimmed from the surface. This is, in fact, deeply nihilistic, I do not deny it, but perhaps the optimistic ways of looking at language which have marked much of 20th century political thought (discourses about political correctness, for example) do not do enough to really understand the psychological, affective and social systems which fire before the word leaves the mouth, which fire before the word is interpreted as meaning, between hearing and listening, between seeing and reading. That delay, the ‘lacuna,’ has become the center of my focus this semester.

Because I think it’s important to show you what I’m working on, because my academic and my professional life are, now, one in the same, I’ll post an excerpt of the paper for my critical theory class (the professor of which is the advisor who said my ideas are profoundly nihilistic). The paper responds in part to reader-response theory, and tries to situate reading as an inherently intimate process of meaning-making which resists totalization (being made general and applicable to everyone):

I am drawn to believe in a fetishistic ur-pactice of reading in order to explain my own experience reading critical theory texts over the past few years. My formation as a scholar of Black Transatlantic literature is indebted just as much to French Marxists scholars and philosophers such as Guy Debord, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze as it is to Black theorists of race and gender like Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and Frantz Fanon. The cogency of each of these corpuses differs as it relates to my research questions of identity, ethnicity, space and belonging, and many of my colleagues, I have found, do not believe that these corpuses (the universalist camp of Marxist cultural studies and the strategic essentialist camp of Africana literary criticism) can be usefully put in conversation with one another based on their own ways of reading and understanding these texts both individually and relationally. While the same ideas of history, post-imperial dissolution/disillusionment and identity embodiment sing harmoniously throughout these corpuses to me, the same sound may seem a din to one ear, and completely inaudible to another; no single interpretation is wrong, though. The inability to see a liaison between texts whose authors do not expressly invoke one another does not translate to an interpretive or theoretical failure (the myth of the misreading) for reading itself is an intimate act. Two people cannot read the same text and arrive at the same conclusions about its significance, and this is the power behind our subject positions as both scholars and members of world communities. Each reader brings with them a set of experiences which situate the decoded meaning within an object of study, and therefore it is impossible to establish the same hermeneutical processes in two different bodies. Each ear is fine-tuned to a certain pitch and key, and is therefore biased towards that particular frequency, likely to disregard or unhear all other sounds. Yet, it is the role of critics to at least be aware of the human fallibility of their interpretative processes, to realize that what is not heard or regarded is not nonexistent, that what is intangible is not unreal or insignificant, even if we are prone to read the world as such.

This paper if anything is me beginning to approach a general idea of ‘embodiment’ which figures in bits and pieces in a lot of my work. Embodiment here means the self, the body, the mind, and soul; human subjects as historical entities, as bound to the histories in which they figure, and the bodies which encase the incorporeal realities of mind and spirit. It’s an undeveloped idea as of yet, but I definitely see embodiment as central to the way I interact with the world. Perhaps this is due to my anxiety disorder, perhaps my subject position as a person with XYZ politicized identities, but nevertheless these things are not filters to our reading practices. They do not hide an essential depoliticized entity; otherness is not just a mask. Women are not castrated and marked men, black women are not just blackened, castrated, doubly marked white men. (At the same time, the myth of the default human being being a white person is logical fallacy. White Americans are not without ethnicity, nor are they without race; their race, however, is not a stigma; it is not read as socially meaningful information insofar that that information can be deployed to dominate them. This information operates differently from a stigma; stigma and privilege do not annihilate one another.) The nature of the ‘stigma’ does not cloud the critical gaze, but fundamentally reorients and reconfigures it. In literary studies, I am noticing, it is necessary that we begin to consider the significance of this critical difference in the ways that human beings interact with the world, and how critics approach literature. I don’t think it’s something revolutionary, and I’m sure it’s not, to posit these things, although my classmates often seem disturbed by my comments in class, bringing attention to these slippages produced by the propensity for universalism in humanities discourse and research.

All of these ideas about the ‘lacuna’ between social engagement and embodied interpretation have been swimming around in my head all semester, and it’s a little weird, considering that I have taken a job as a writing tutor. If anything, I have learned in taking this job what it means to be a teacher, and what undergraduate professors expect from their students. The way undergraduates are trained to write papers seems very impersonal and unartistic, and it’s kind of hard for me to channel that information and regurgitate it for my mentees, primarily because I don’t think I agree with what I have been taught to teach them. I feel at times dishonest for telling them these tidbits of knowledge, like ‘writing a good, strong thesis statement is essential to all academic papers’ when quite honestly, I don’t think many academics write using thesis statements. I think the idea of a paper having the same kind of form is not the same as embracing the genre-like nature of academic writing. I don’t think about thesis statements when I approach a paper, so I don’t think it’s wise to tell a student that should be a paramount part of writing. If anything, I try to coax my mentees towards writing something they’re passionate about, or finding something enjoyable in their writing. The genre conventions and methodological bits about writing take memorization and practice, but the essential part of the practice, the enjoyment one gets from writing, is not something you can be trained to have.

I found, during undergrad, that this enjoyment originally came from getting good grades and reading positive feedback on my writing.  I’m afraid that many undergraduates operate this way: students only know their writing is good because a professor approves of it with a positive, desirable grade. A student who gets Ds is probably less likely to have much confidence in their writing, and therefore less likely to find enjoyment in writing. Yet, as I began to write papers with better deftness and master the genre conventions of the academic paper, I began to experiment more with my writing, trying to emulate the authors I was citing, and pushing the boundaries of how literary criticism work can look (I didn’t really push the boundary so much as I reoriented my understanding of literary criticism; the iron cage did not grow in size, it simply moved). This ultimately made writing enjoyable for me; not the consistent approval of professors, but the idea that I was actually contributing in some way to the scholarship and general thought about a text in a way which was also beautiful and meaningful. I’m not entirely sure how to make students want to write, to see a paper not as an assignment to be done, but as an idea to be explored. It’s for this very reason that I am hesitant about working with first-year students in the future: I’m not really sure how to make people see writing as anything more than a chore.

It’s ironic, then, that I’m working with first-year students on their writing. I’m doing my best to respond to my training in ways I think are both honest and productive, and pushing my students to find some kind of enjoyment in their work, although I am doubtful they will, at least this year, see it as anything enjoyable. And that’s fine, for not everyone lives to write like I do, I guess.

To wrap up, I’ll talk about other things going on in my life that aren’t related to writing. I’ve made friends, finally! It was difficult, and the months of October and September were slow for the very reason of feeling untethered. Now I have a cohort of friends who seem to enjoy my company and actively want me in their lives, which has made grad school much less daunting. I still, at times, want more engagement, but I’m learning to balance everything. Also I have begun my inevitable withdrawal from social media. I haven’t used Snapchat in a couple of weeks, and am focusing primarily on Instagram as my primary outlet, although Instagram also annoys me a bit. I find I use it too often now and people don’t post on Instagram as much as they do on Snapchat. Nevertheless, I found Snapchat occupied too much of a presence in my life, and made me far more performative than I’d like. I also removed Twitter from my life for this very reason. Something about the cultures of these apps tends to lend itself to a kind of exhibitionism which I don’t like seeing in myself. Perhaps I should interrogate that feeling of disquiet, but I’m somewhat content without them in my life. I hope one day to withdraw from Facebook, but it seems that Facebook is the most distanced way of allowing people into your life without really letting them walk around unattended, if that makes sense. Instagram allows for more intimacy, insofar that it’s a smaller coterie of people (at least on mine) and my family doesn’t follow me on Instagram. Yet, Facebook is just…so public. At the same time, I think Facebook does not create an environment for healthy discourse and dialogue, primarily because my group of friends seem to use it primarily as a pedestal from which they can shout their opinions on the world without the expectation of a response. A lot of the thinkpieces and reposts I see on Facebook are really toxic, and tinged with deleterious, othering rhetoric, even if they seem to be thoroughly couched in the liberal albeit neoliberal discourses to which my friends ascribe. At the same time, the intense bipartisanism of the current age makes any sort of critique of these superficial and dangerous political practices (soapbox preaching) seem inherently tinged with some sort of conservative rhetoric, as if conservatives are the only people who can critique liberals, and vice versa. I prefer to not participate in a shouting competition, and therefore I keep my opinions to myself, and allow people to have their space (because Facebook is very necessary to the people who soapbox preach, this I will not deny or qualify, even if the things they preach are othering in more ways than one).

I’m excited for winter break so I can read some books! I’ve been reading so much this semester, but I have so many novels that I need to get through, and some critical texts I’d like to tackle, too. Hopefully I won’t be too book-tired.

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