Semiology: An academic discipline devoted almost entirely to the study of dichotomies. More specifically, the dichotomies between what you mean and what you say, what the significance of a signifier is and what its aesthetic is, what the form of a phrase is verses its function, et cetera, et cetera. In all honesty, I wrote one essay on this topic in my senior year of high school and expected to never again address the subject. At first glance, semiology (a more common term is semiotics, but I prefer the former because it sounds cooler, which is an interesting semiological implication in and of itself) embodies everything wrong with academia. It is a discipline for the Jean Baudrillards and Roland Barthes’ of the world: Stuffy, white sexagenarians sitting in ivory towers deciding–with an almost comical sense of self-importance–what the words of the plebeian class mean.
This cynical view of semiology is one towards which I am personally fairly partial. I believe that the things that we do and the things that we say almost always carry some implicit meaning into which further study is generally redundant, pointless, or a combination of the two. However, last Tuesday’s presentation did help shine some light on a couple of rather topical implications of semiotic analyses.
I distinctly remember the how Professor Colangelo talked about a man who went from country to country without the knowledge of even two words in the local languages. Though this isn’t even close to being a good idea, a desire to hear things without knowing what they mean–in essence, a desire to observe an aesthetic but not its significance–embodies the postmodern idea that meaning can actually be harmful to language. Baudrillard, a semiologist whom I mentioned earlier, wrote thousands upon thousands of pages across multiple books and articles (ironically, each page with explicitly signified arguments and conclusions) about how meaning–the abstract concept of being able to attach a signification to a signifier–is, in large quantities, harmful to society and to the individual.
It’s this postmodern idea to which Professor Colangelo alluded that is so interesting to me. Why bother to observe a signifier if you haven’t the slightest clue as to what it’s actually signifying? Not wanting the natural sounds of a language to be corrupted by knowing how they relate to other sounds is all fine and dandy, but why bother? Couldn’t you just stay home and take a walk down to the railyard and listen to trains all day? It’s essentially the same principle: Hear everything, but derive meaning from nothing.
As it pertains to this question, I think that the key thing to note ties right back into my earlier discussion of semiology. Train horns don’t have much signification on which to miss out (aside from maybe, “get out of the way!”), but Moroccan Arabic, for example, does. Therefore, making the conscious decision to not get any sort of meaning out of what can be heard is just that–a conscious decision. It’s a conscious decision to understand the aesthetics of your surroundings as opposed to merely listening for meaning. In a world with too much meaning already (That’s basically Baudrillard’s central argument, in case you were wondering), it’s not a puzzling choice to take extreme measures so as to try and focus solely on the form of language as opposed to function.