Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Semiotic Apocalypse, or: Everything is Salad

I was told today by a very smart friend that she and another friend had developed a theory (really more of a belief, but that’s neither here nor there) that everything in the world can be divided into one of three categories: salad, sandwich, or omelet. When I asked what gave birth to this theory, I was gleefully regaled with a tale of semantic openness—that the word salad was so expansive as to contain within it the definition of almost any foodstuff. Surely this could not be so! The definitions of words have boundaries precisely in order to stop this runaway semiosis. Edge-cases may be hard to categorize, but we can surely construct a central finite curve of meaning. I went at once to that trusty resource we all know and love, Google.
            A cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing, and sometimes accompanied by meat, fish, or other ingredients.” There, then, was your salad. The limiting words were “cold,” “dish,” and “vegetables.” While that definition is vast in its scope, it certainly has hard edges. She pushed at it. “Caprese salad is a salad.” And so is tuna salad, and chicken salad. And these things aren’t just salads by metaphor, like word salad. They have salad in their very names.
            What are we to do then? This kind of endless semiosis threatens to devour the language. Yet no one is alarmed at the presence of this semantic serpent lurking just around the corner. Why? Human beings don’t seem particularly prone to this kind of bug. In most cases, if you were to tell most people about something like this, they would likely dismiss it as not worthy of their time. Like pornography, you know a salad when you see one. No need to address the logical underpinnings of salads.
            But when you do, things start to unravel. The primary reason for this, of course, is that the universe is a simple continuous undifferentiated mass of vomitous chaos. The world has no inherent definitions, because definitions don’t exist. Plato’s universe of forms is sadly missing in our everyday experience. Universal categories are abstracted from non-universal types. The forms of table, of person, of cat, are made up of the common experience of a multitude of real, instantiated, individual tables, people, and cats.
            This flies in the face of most modern Western theology. Attributes can’t be an abstract human invention, they must be grounded in some moral absolute: the godhead. But the Mind of God doesn’t hold absolutes, moral or otherwise. The ultimate nihilistic apopheosis, Eco’s reversal of the ontological argument, deprives the universe of all absolute standing. That is, unlike poor Anselm, Eco said that all existing things are imperfect. Therefore, in order to be perfect, a thing must actually enter existence at all; the only perfect things are those which are ensconced in non-existence. God, as the most perfect being, as a necessary corollary of this ontology, cannot exist. Without the Platonic world of forms or its neo-Platonic interpretations through the vessels of the early Church, there can be no ontological argument for the existence of Divinty.
            Because we exist in this world where we are feebly attempting to map universal definitions onto a constantly shifting and amorphous khaos, our definitions are fuzzy around the edges. Push on some of them enough, and you’ll find the chaos lurking beneath. It’s easy to deny the semiotic abyss by simply erecting arbitrary barriers and clinging to them. And that’s not to say that some of our definitions haven’t taken on a new, secondary life of their own. Indeed, because we operate on the very top level of the semiological pyramid we’ve constructed, the base semiosis actually disguises the material world of chaos most of the time, and the concepts we’ve built over generations to deal with that material world can take on an actuality all their own.
            Take the concept of race, for example. It’s a useless, non-scientific, imperialist, western construct. It serves no purpose in describing the state of the world in an objective, scientific, manner. Race is not real. But the existence of the concept of race is very real, and the resulting baggage that comes with it is unfortunately something that we have to deal with. This is because we do not have access to the material chaos underlying the semantic grid; the only portion we have access to is the language itself. Our ability to experience the world is mediated by linguistics.
            Being denied access to this more basic material world means that we tend to treat our semantic constructs as actual existential objects. We manipulate them mentally, and use them as proxies and stand-ins for real, existing, objects. All of our mental processes must be performed on semantic and phantasmic objects, rather than the real things. I cannot take a table, or a cat, from the physical world and somehow place it in my mind; I must craft a system of related signs, an imprint, a phantasm, of that cat inside of myself. Nothing passes this impermeable mind/world barrier. All experience is experience of phantasmic information.
            This is what my friend meant when she said everything in the world could be divided into one of those categories. The categories themselves are ciphers, devoid of actual meaning, because they are layered on top of a meaningless substrate. We don’t have to fear the semiotic apocalypse because we have been living in it for our entire lives. Our own ability to comprehend is far inferior to the complexity of the world around us. This is something neuroscientists have been agreeing on for a long time. Cognitive biases exist as shortcuts to comprehending the complexity of the world. Why re-learn everything when you can simply use a shortcut each time?
            Why build a definition when everything is already salad?


  1. Academics should get out of their ivory towers every now and then. If nothing else to have lunch at a nice restaurant.