Emot-iconoclasm: Deconstruction and the Devolution of Language

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.

Vexatious Versification: Why Reading Poetry is Worth the Effort

Recently, I participated in a discussion of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Amid our close reading, hesitant commentary, and prolonged silences, one of my peers interjected, “This is ridiculous. I don’t see any point to studying this!” Although such a statement struck the soul of this student of literature, it is nevertheless understandable. Despite the difficulty, however, poetry edifies our lives without our knowing such minutia as the difference between metaphor and metonymy. Even for the amateur reader, poetry bestows at least three palpable benefits.

First, poetry breaks us out of our linguistic ruts. This last term I had the chance to assist in a Shakespeare seminar. I was fascinated by the ways in which the students’ writing and speech changed over the course of the semester. It did not necessarily become better or worse, but there was a palpable difference. This is important because in a world wherein functionality and efficiency often dictate our actions, it helps to encounter new ways of thinking and speaking about ideas. For example, instead of asking the pressing question, “why do emo kids wear black?” ask, “wherefore this nighted color?” The latter is clearly an exaggeration; nevertheless, yet enhancing the expression expands our perspective.

In addition, poetry can make us speak more precisely. The ability to express complex ideas with elegance and exactitude is a mark of good poetry. In doing so, we become more intentional. For example, there is Eliot’s commentary on the Christian life, “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” Good poetry like this is possessed of inevitability, wherein every element seems to fit exactly the way it should. In reading it, we can learn be intentional with our words as well. Language is a gift, words have real meaning and power, and we who speak should learn to use them well. By reading poetry’s novel expressions, its nuance and concern for precision, we cultivate the habit of carefully considering our words. The benefits of such a habit seem obvious if we consider the outcome of being able to more perfectly communicate in areas of life like prayer, relationships, and work environments.

 Finally, poetry shows us that we can create beauty in our speech. With something as regular as speaking, we have an opportunity to frequently experience something lovely if we but learn the skill. We should learn from Vaughan, who saw eternity “like a great ring of pure and endless light,” stand with Frost in woods “lovely, dark, and deep,” or contemplate with Dante “the love that moves the sun and the furthest stars.” Reading and hearing poetry teaches us how different sequences of words produce an effect, and how to wield the unique gift of language to create beauty.

Poetry provides us proximity with something sublime, a loveliness of language that cannot help but make us lovelier, if only we have the temerity to be transformed.

LOLCat Comm:
Cat Macros as Communication

[Note: I’m on semi-hiatus this week so original blogging will be light. I’m reposting stale old material that I hoped you missed, so that it will appear fresh and new.] 

Not long after Al Gore invented the internet, his wife Tipper uploaded a picture of the family cat launching one of the most ubiquitous trends in web culture. But over the past year, a strange subgenre called “lolcats” or “cat macros” has developed, turning a meme into a form of folk art.

As the Wikipedia entry explains, lolcats— a portmanteau of “lol” and “cat”–are photos of cats with comedic captions created for the purpose of sharing with others on imageboards and other internet forums. The caption is characteristically formatted in a sans serif font such as Impact or Arial Black, usually in white letters with a black outline. (In fact, this type of lettering has come to define the genre, so much so that the use of other fonts and colors seem like a violation of an unwritten aesthetic code.) The caption is intentionally written with deviations from standard English spelling and syntax featuring strangely-conjugated verbs. Despite the odd construction, the syntax has, as Anil Dash notes in a post on the topic, a “fairly consistent grammar.”

The cats not only speak in a form of pidgin English (which makes the captions funnier) but they also tend to use “leetspeek”, a written form of slang used primarily on the internet and online video games. David McRaney explains how this peculiar brand of folk art works as communication:

[A] fusion of sorts between learned, direct language and rapid, practical digital missives takes place with Leetspeak and macros. Both relay a great deal of information in a small burst of code. Each depends on the receiver of the information having working knowledge of the culture and its references. In a sense, these serve as argots, and help identify both sides of the information transfer as belonging to the subculture where they appear. The in-joke is part of the communication. The separation of ingroup and outgroup helps drive the rapid evolution of both leetspeak and macros.

The appeal of cat macros is that they can be enjoyed as folk art, even by those who are in the “outgroup.” Listed below are a few of the various sub-genres:

Continue reading LOLCat Comm:
Cat Macros as Communication

Pop Semiotics (v. 10):
Obama and the Post-Authentic Condition

Jasper John's White Flag Hanging on the walls of my office at work are several variations of Jasper Johns’s paintings of the American flag. Few people ever comment, but I’m always curious how my colleagues perceive the paintings Do they think they’re intended to be ironic, hyper-patriotic, merely decorative?
I also have no idea what Johns thought about the works or what he intended by the paintings. In fact, I’ve actively avoided finding out so that his artistic intent doesn’t interfere with my own personal, peculiar interpretation. For me, seeing the Flags helps me to better see the Flag.
Normally when I look at an American flag I see — an American flag. Although not consciously recognized, there is a certain semiotic understanding that the flag (a cloth with stars and stripes) is merely the signifier (the form the symbol takes) while the signified (the concept it represents) is America. Of course this leads to another level of recursion since “America” is also a sign that stands in for a variety of signified concepts, both tangible (our homeland) and intangible (our ideals).
Jasper Johns' Green FlagWhen I look at Johns’s Flags, though, I see something different: an abstract representation of an abstract symbol that itself represents abstract concepts. In looking at the paintings I no longer see “American Flag” but see past the symbol to what it represents. The paintings help me to “see” the authenticity of the flag in a way that I often miss when I encounter it flying on a flagpole.
Without Johns’s painting to keep me focused, it would be easy for me to see the American Flag in a clichéd manner. This is why I was initially sympathetic to Barack Obama’s claim that he doesn’t wear the American flag lapel pin anymore because it has become a substitute for “true patriotism” since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Someone noticed I wasn’t wearing a flag lapel pin but I am less concerned with what you are wearing on your lapel than what’s in your heart… We have to lead on our values and our ideals.

He is absolutely right that the pins can be used as a substitute for a concept (patriotism) that has lost its meaning. But then I heard his explanation, and I realized there was something else going on. According to ABC News (via Marc Ambinder), Obama said:

Continue reading Pop Semiotics (v. 10):
Obama and the Post-Authentic Condition

Pop Semiotics:
Cat Macros as Communication

Not long after Al Gore invented the internet, his wife Tipper uploaded a picture of the family cat launching one of the most ubiquitous trends in web culture. But over the past year, a strange subgenre called “lolcats” or “cat macros” has developed, turning a meme into a form of folk art.
As the Wikipedia entry explains, lolcats— a portmanteau of “lol” and “cat”–are photos of cats with comedic captions created for the purpose of sharing with others on imageboards and other internet forums. The caption is characteristically formatted in a sans serif font such as Impact or Arial Black, usually in white letters with a black outline. (In fact, this type of lettering has come to define the genre, so much so that the use of other fonts and colors seem like a violation of an unwritten aesthetic code.) The caption is intentionally written with deviations from standard English spelling and syntax featuring strangely-conjugated verbs. Despite the odd construction, the syntax has, as Anil Dash notes in a post on the topic, a “fairly consistent grammar.”
The cats not only speak in a form of pidgin English (which makes the captions funnier) but they also tend to use “leetspeek”, a written form of slang used primarily on the internet and online video games. David McRaney explains how this peculiar brand of folk art works as communication:

[A] fusion of sorts between learned, direct language and rapid, practical digital missives takes place with Leetspeak and macros. Both relay a great deal of information in a small burst of code. Each depends on the receiver of the information having working knowledge of the culture and its references. In a sense, these serve as argots, and help identify both sides of the information transfer as belonging to the subculture where they appear. The in-joke is part of the communication. The separation of ingroup and outgroup helps drive the rapid evolution of both leetspeak and macros.

The appeal of cat macros is that they can be enjoyed as folk art, even by those who are in the “outgroup.” Listed below are a few of the various sub-genres:

Continue reading Pop Semiotics:
Cat Macros as Communication

Pop Semiotics:
Conservatism’s Most Influential Media

What media has had the most influence on the conservative movement over the past forty years?
Various factions within conservatism will give widely differing responses. The old school intellectuals will have a short list that includes National Review, Bill Buckley’s “Firing Line”, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and George Will’s columns. The populist and paleocon wings will name Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Human Events, and CNN’s Crossfire (Pat Buchanan-era). The more gullible (or cynical) might list books by Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly.
But the truth is that the vast majority of conservatives have never read Chamber’s Witness or puzzled over what it means to “Immanentize the Eschaton.” They don’t subscribe to The Weekly Standard or The American Conservative. They didn’t read the book that Goldwater didn’t write (The Conscience of a Conservative) and never saw Buckley cuss out Gore Vidal on national TV.
So what media has influenced them the most? I offer three candidates for consideration: a book, a magazine, and a radio show. All three of which I believe have impacted American conservatism more than any other media.

°°°°°°

Continue reading Pop Semiotics:
Conservatism’s Most Influential Media

Pop Semiotics:
An Inconvenient Truth About the Unchained Goddess

You might assume that An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning PowerPoint presentation, was the first alarmist documentary on global warming by a celebrity. But that distinction actually goes to The Unchained Goddess (1958), a video produced by Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) and narrated by Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Barney Rubble, et al.). The video was first produced for Bell Labs for their television program “The Bell Telephone Hour.”


Gore’s apocalyptic claims are rather tame compared to those made by Dr. Frank Baxter. In an early scene Dr. Baxter–an English professor playing a scientist–explains the dangers that we face:

“It’s been calculated that a few degrees rise in temperature would melt the polar ice caps. And if this happens, an inland sea would fill a good portion of the Mississippi valley. Tourists in glass-bottomed boats viewing the ground towers of Miami through one hundred and fifty feet of tropical water.

The animated map showing several states (including Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas) completely covered in water is the height of campy alarmist brilliance.
Like other Bell science films, The Unchained Goddess was shown in middle school science classes throughout the sixties. (Is it possible that Gore saw this film and had an eco-epiphany?) Hundreds of thousands of students were therefore made aware of the dangers of C02 emissions and melting icecaps. So why didn’t they do anything about it? If the threat of Walt Disney World becoming Waterworld wasn’t enough to scare the Baby Boom generation, why does Gore think we’ll care now?
Other posts in this series:

Continue reading Pop Semiotics:
An Inconvenient Truth About the Unchained Goddess