Emot-iconoclasm: Deconstruction and the Devolution of Language

Art & Literature, Culture, Media, Pop Semiotics, Technology — By on August 28, 2009 at 12:43 am

I suppose this begins with my mother. She has recently tasked herself with learning how to more effectively communicate via text messaging. A recent advance in her acumen is the adept manipulation of those quirky combinations of punctuation marks known as emoticons. The advent of these symbols coincides with a large scale return to text-based communication with text messaging via cell-phones and the internet. A tendency I have observed in my mother and others, however, is an over-confidence in the capacity of these symbols to convey a certain meaning. The symbol of the emoticon is strained as it tries to accurately redirect the recipient to the concept intended by the sender. The best way to explore this concept is with an illustration:

: )

Literally, this is a colon followed by an end-parenthesis mark. It is designed to redirect a reader’s thoughts to the picture of a smiley face, which is then intended to convey the concept of a happy mood. In terms of efficiency, it is more convenient to use two punctuation marks than to employ modifying words in an effort to convey mood and tone. It is convenient, perhaps, but things get complicated when faced with such symbols as the following:

; )

The alteration of the colon to be a semi-colon is intended to depict a winking face, but to what effect? Whatever communicative ability the first emoticon possessed is suddenly effaced. From observation, this symbol can mean anything from sarcasm to flirtatiousness, endearment to mischief. The eventual effect is the production of a symbol that has no readily available interpretation, no recognizable redirection to a concept. In short, no one really knows what it means.

In the opening chapter of Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida explores the peculiar relationship between concepts, spoken language, and the written word. The act of expressing a concept using phonetic sounds creates a verbal image of it. In this sense, it helps to think of the term ‘image’ less like a picture per se, and more like a sign or place holder used to redirect someone to the idea itself. In other words, a spoken word is a representation of a concept. Text, consequently, is a grammatical image of that verbal image using phonetic symbols. Derrida clarifies that this principle may not apply to languages that use non-phonetic symbols in writing, such as Chinese calligraphy or Egyptian hieroglyphics. In English, though, the written word acts as a signpost that points one to the spoken word. When one reads, he or she experiences a redirection to a redirection to a concept.

The evolution of language is inevitable as people find new modes of expression; nevertheless, unexamined progress is perilous. Language is the component of civilization that allows people to comprehend and express experiences of reality. It empowers a person to make nuanced observations, categorizations, and subsequent descriptions. In light of such a purpose, words gain traction insofar as they have the nuance that permits these functions. As such, developments in language can narrow one’s horizon of expression just as easily as they can expand it.   For example, say that the only word one has to express the idea of anger is the term “anger.” Say also that one day one experiences an emotion that is akin to anger, but is modified by being of a greater magnitude. One could continue using the word ‘anger,’ or one could make a development of language so as to be more exact, and invent the term ‘rage.’ In this case, development of language works toward sophistication and nuance. One’s repertoire expands so that one can express reality more accurately.

Now let us consider how emoticons function. A textual word contains a double redirection—text to verbal image to concept—whereas an emoticon possesses at least a fourfold process: symbol to picture to word to verbal image to concept. Further, an emoticon borders on disallowing any signification, that process of redirection to meaning. Derrida points out that texts have a degree of ‘play’ in them, a slippage in the ability of a word to reveal its meaning. Words, he says, resist interpretation. Emoticons seem to offer a hyper-resistance, as was the case with the winking face symbol. It is a unit of communication whose corresponding concept is so obscure, no one can know what is being expressed.

History is happy to provide the often embarrassing narratives of curmudgeons who naysay the advance of progress, linguistic and otherwise. That is not the purpose here. The unexamined decrying of development is as foolish as unexamined acceptance. That said, emoticons seem to inculcate a trend of non-communication in everyday practice. The persistent use of symbols that convey no meaning is a way to ensure a narrowness of expression among those who are habituated to the reliance upon them for expression. Since language empowers people to comprehend and express reality, this dangerous habit hints at the advent of a narrow language and a consequently narrow-minded populace. Culture will not long survive an un-nuanced epoch where ‘love’ for family and God is uttered in the same breath as ‘love’ for tacos.

In short, when language starts to fail, civilization is soon to follow.



  • http://evangelicaloutpost.com/ Amy Cannon

    Great article, Hayden, and an enjoyable application of post-modern deconstruction to post-modern behavior. A couple of questions I have are
    1) Derrida argues that placement imbues meaning to otherwise abstruse symbols — although still infinitely deferring, our symbols make sense to us because of their context. Wouldn’t this be true of a winking emoticon, and whether it bespeaks sarcasm, flirtation, mischief, etc?
    2) I’m not quite clear on why an emoticon, which is a symbolic picture of a sort, needs to have a longer interpretive process than words, which aren’t symbolic pictures (at least in English characters). Why wouldn’t emoticons have less intervening interpretation than that used for words? Especially since, at least in Derrida’s mind, words are translated into images.
    3) Do you think common recourse to images is better, worse, or the same as a common recourse to the same few vocabulary words? And do you think the “non-communication” of emoticons is only thanks to there being so few?

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    At least how I use it, the smiley emoticon works as a “that’s a joke” symbol. A period means end of thought, a semicolon means a related thought is coming and a exclamation mark means the sentence is to be taken with a higher emphasis.

    In spoken English, tone and volume can be used to express excitement or irony; that is missing in straight text. Just as an exclamation mark will denote excitement, a smiley emoticon denotes humor. “Hold your cards, we have a winner” reads differently than “Hold your cards, we have a winner ;-)” when I’m giving a thumbs up to a good answer in an on-line tutoring session.

  • Hayden Butler

    Mark,
    It seems that context is something upon which we must so often rely when it comes to interpretation. In the phrase you provided, for example, the added emoticon–understood outside of a wider context–could connote anything from mirth and encouragement to downright sarcasm. Whereas emoticons have the capacity to connote, it does not seem that they have the quality of doing so with stability. The reason your phrase works with your students seems more to do with the wider context of your conversation than it does with the expressive ability of the emoticon symbol. Again, context is often key. Where emoticons must suffer our scrutiny is in their seeming destabilization of phrases (like your given example) rather than their lending of precision in expression. Good thoughts, though. A question I have concerns how those punctuation marks are related to emoticons, because intuitively, they seem to have starkly different properties. Thoughts?

  • Hayden Butler

    Amy,
    Thoroughly thought-provoking questions!
    I think that the principle of deferral makes things difficult even for Derrida. The idea that words have no necessary link between signifier and signified obfuscates the interpretive effort no matter how much context is given. That aside for a moment, an issue with emoticons is that they seem to work contrary to other advancements in language. It seems that when language acquires greater expressive ability, it arises out of a concurrent increase in the nuance of categorization, manifesting in the creation of distinct words and phrases. As our understanding of the world becomes more sophisticated, it is appropriate that our descriptors mature with it. Emoticons, however, seem to work against that sophistication; it is as though we create big boxes that can somehow signify (even if only by way of context) conflicting signifiers (as with the winking face). As such, it seems difficult even with the lens of context (Derrida cites cultural memory as one such lens if I recall correctly) to interpret a symbol with a range of contradictory potential meanings. Thoughts on that?

  • http://criticalnoise.blogspot.com/ Terry

    Make no mistake we live in age of design, so it should come as no surprise (or signal the decline of culture) that we’re all suddenly thinking visually –regardless of whether we’re artists, musicians, writers, managers or anything else. In a sense, we’ve become a culture of designers. So, why not communicate with hieroglyphics, as long as the symbols we choose are understood by both parties to a conversation? Far from conveying no meaning, emoticons actually do work to clarify text, which can sometimes fall short of communicating a persons tone. And if one can’t understand the code, perhaps consider that the only resistance in question is one’s one. http://tiny.cc/ujnzh

  • Leonard Dickey

    >:( Are you suggesting that emoticons are indicative of a general decline in civilization? That is an incredible claim that might in fact be more indicative of some general decline in human adaptability per yourself. I question your understanding of Derrida. ;-)

     In your “argument,” you cite the first chapter of Derrida’s Grammatology… a disciplined reader is forced to wonder if you made it past those first few pages. XDDo you really believe that an emoticon causes a four-fold redirection, ie. “symbol to picture to word to verbal image to concept”? I would argue that typically people forego turning a symbol into a word… How would this be possible as you have stated that its meaning is indeterminate… ??

     Much of Derrida’s project is to reveal the ultimately indeterminate nature of language, so perhaps symbols such as these are a more “free” language.
    :-) 
    They don’t make any claims to have an absolute meaning–if anything they are authoritatively “symbolic.” One could imagine a situation where an emoticon discloses more than a word could–it not only suggests an inadequate vocabularly, but forces (I imagine) a mental conception of the writer, thereby adding a self-aware narrative to the text. :D

     I could really someone arguing something reverse to your views using your own provisional logic… I guess that’s what Deconstruction is really about, eh?
    Thanks for allowing me to engage in your unique interpretation of emoticons,
    Leon (.)(.) Dickey 

  • http://petercast.net Peterson Silva

    Thanks for posting this, I was about to question whether the author really read Derrida past those few pages. I have read one chapter further and I already knew this is not really what Derrida meant. In the fourth paragraph of this post the guy is not really citing Derrida, he is citing Derrida’s account of the history of everything he is about to destroy in the same book. Hayden might as well have quoted Saussure :)