The Pleasure of Semiotics

When he was young and worrying about the continued existence of humankind and his part in that continuation, my father had a hard time sleeping. His job did not allow for his being groggy in the morning, so sleeping pills weren’t an option, and he wasn’t the kind to take pills anyway. Somehow, he struck on a simple solution to insomnia, and for years after-- long after “the Sovs” had become history-- an old, beat up Latin grammar book always lay on his bedside table.

            During the hot part of the Cold War, and for years and years afterward, my father studied Latin in the middle of the night. As the rest of us slept, he declined nouns. As the night wore on, he conjugated verbs. He did not talk about Latin in the daytime,  nor did he regale us with details. Latin was his private comfort: He studied it for the studying’s sake. The highly regular nature of a dead language relaxed him because it was so completely different from the complexities of real human interaction with which he was involved.

            Years ago now, I read Charles Peirce’s “Theory of Signs,” for the first time, and though it does not lie upon my bedside table, it serves a similar purpose in my life. Semiotics is a branch of the study of logic. It’s a speculation on the ways the universe makes meaning. Peirce’s belief that meaning can be charted and graphed is a wonderfully calming belief. It’s an antidote to the fear that life is essentially meaninglessness-- a fear that living in our mechanized, human-centric world can induce.

There's no great book about semiotics for normal people. There are a number of interesting books that are difficult, and there are a number filled with arcane talk and difficult notions made harder by the free use of academic-speak. A few books about semiotics have been written for designers. These mold semiotics into a simple, streamlined way to deconstruct and reconstruct the making of communication design. But these books fall flat to me, because they bend semiotics into being a tool. They use it in a way it was never intended to be used. The study of semiotics was not conceived not a method for design production. The Euclidean beauty of Peirce's logic is lost in these texts, rather in the same way that the beauty of mathematics is obscured for me by the pounding headache that is algebra.  

Semiotics has informed my daytime thinking, made my ideas about communication clearer. It has taught me tricks, like being able to model systems of communication in my head. But I study it for the sheer pleasure of studying it, and not just so that I can tell people why the symbols and signs in their ads seem to be working or not. There's math for engineering and math for math's sake. Same with semiotics.


In Defense of Fruitcake

In our era of political correctness, when racial, sexual and stereotyping “jokes” have finally been swept from the public conversation because of their being disgusting, mean, crass, unenlightened and just plain boring, I find that I must bring to my reader’s attention a small nook of said public conversation that has not yet been tidied: the totally acceptable public humiliation and shaming of those who love what amounts to a small pile of dried and glaceed fruits held together by a winsome batter of butter, flour, eggs and spice. It is time for a new maturity on the part of the pokers and prodders. It is time to stop sending those blasted cards. It is time for the thoughtless, painful, embarrassing jokes to end. I urge you to join me in the ushering in of a renewed era: an era during which fruitcake can take once again its honored place upon the pantry shelf.

Fruitcake. Most Americans today have never tasted a real one. If your idea of fruitcake is something that you can order from a boxed fruit company or buy in a Dollar Store redolent of cheap candy and caramel-corn, well. What can I tell you. Your world is very small. Anything that is more sickly-sweet “cake” than fruit, anything that has small, unidentifiable green things in it, anything that is made by a machine and comes wrapped in plastic is, by definition, not a fruitcake. It’s a pathetic blob of sugars and preservatives aimed at separating the consumer from his dollar by imitating and commodifying That For Which Real Fruitcake Stands.

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