2 March 2011

Scenes from the Semiotic Abyss

Who decides who is offended?

During my time in University, I was taught the rather unlikely theory that words did not actually mean anything.  Words were mere signs which signified, rather than meant.  A literary work, whenever we actually got around to studying one, rather than reading thick, fat tomes expounding the theory that words never could mean, was, by this theory, a play of signification, in which meaning was always modified and deferred, but never final and never actually present. Texts were now the locus of an almost endless interplay between signs and signification and the reader of those signs.  I say "texts", because the signs were not restricted to books.  Anything at all could be construed as a text and subjected to a reading.

One of the first casualties of this theory and its predecessors was the notion of authorial intentions.  A book did not mean what the author meant it to mean, as his intentions were no longer present to the reader.  The author's intentions were only one possibility in the endless possibility of interplay between the signs and the reader.  We were told that there was no final, definitive meaning of any text, and lacking this ultimate, ideal understanding, any understanding would be, at least in part, a misunderstanding.  This idea, that any valid reading would be, at least in part, a misreading, was turned on its head, and theorists declared that a misreading was a valid reading. 

Strangely enough, and perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, it was after this idea gained wide acceptance that charges of sexism and harassment exploded in number and severity in academia.  This theory in part robbed the accused of the defence that they did not mean what they were accused of meaning and saying.  It was sufficient that they had uttered something that could be construed, or misconstrued in the new construction.  Humpty Dumpty in the Alice stories once declared that his words meant what he wanted them to mean. when challenged by Alice if that was possible, he responded "The question is, who is master.  that is all." The modern academic could say: "Your words mean what I want them to mean.  It is the listener and the reader who is master now."

Offence could be taken anywhere and at anything.  Benjamin Hoff, author of the Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet, once noted feminists declared certain terms to be insulting and offensive to women, and had them replaced with terms which were offensive to everyone.  Take the old word: chairman.  Deemed to be sexist, it was replaced by the ungainly "chairperson".  This was used for some time, until it dawned on people that this was an awkward and stupid construction, so the word was then changed to "chair"  "You know what a chair is," Hoff wrote.  "You sit in it."

I was thinking of this at my job at the bookstore, when I was doing a round in the clothing section of the store.  I thought I was thinking of this at my job at the bookstore, in the clothing department.  The signs which I read were literally signs which I read, in this case, the signs over the clothes.  Instead of "Men's" and "Women's" clothing, our signs said "Ladies" and "Adults."  How can one read this?  First, men have been erased from this store.  Men, literally, do not exist. Why have men been excised from the store?  What offence had been committed that their existence cannot be acknowledged openly? What evil lies within the phallus that Lilith must be called forth with her shears to equalize us all, leaving men eunuchs but women untouched? Is it a denial of female equality, to say that men have a separate existence from women, whereas it is an affirmation of female equality to say that women have an existence apart from men?  Is our simple existence an affront?  Is acknowledging the existence of men an affront to women?  Are men now like Voldemort, unnameable?

But it can go the other way, too. How is that women are separate from the adults?  Are women forever to be immature, never fully human, never fully realized?  'Adult' is obviously a synonym for male, so are men once again the standard for all humanity, as in years of old "man" was the word for human? 

Lacking a final, definitive meaning here?  Is there an offence here, and, if so, who is the offended party?  The erased male, or the denigrated female?  If I could appeal to intentions, I would say the intentions here was to not offend anyone, and to avoid offence.  How, then did they possibly offend everyone?  A choice was made here, to not use the word "men".  The very theory which mandated the decision so as not to offend cannot defend that decision from being read as offensive.  It is offense over nothing, and it is offense over everything.  That it is at the time when words have been theoretically shown as meaningless that more people than ever take offense at them, n action which by definition requires words to be meaningful.  They men what the hearer wants them to mean, and when.  In our time, people want to be offended.  Living in  semiotic abyss makes this more possible than ever, while removing all defense from the offenders.

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