semantics and simulacrum

October 16, 2009

So I actually read something cool in my communications book today which demonstrates just how easy it is to fall into our own tangled traps.

General semantics, who came about in the 1920s as a response to the communications field focusing on little more than public speaking, decided that the real thing to study in communications was how language creates misunderstanding. First they went to the very most basic communication theory, which is that words have no inherent meaning. In written language, C-A-T doesn’t mean anything until we decide that it refers to that fuzzy little meowing thing that drinks milk as a kitten and likes to claw your head in your sleep. Our alphabet consists of 26 letters which all have absolutely no meaning before they are given meaning. Really, they’re just lines until you learn that B is for Bee and such. The Western world stopped being representational centuries ago. Spoken language, too, has no natural meaning. Cah-at still doesn’t mean anything until we tell it what to mean. And people have to learn language, they don’t come with it installed. Language the thing is in no way inherent and natural.

So, since language is not natural (just had to mention it again, so that we al stay focused), it’s a pretty safe bet that there is a large amount of room for miscommunication found in language itself. I mean, we all pretty well agree what a cat is, so I’m not going to beat that example to death (even though we all KNOW how much I love kitties), so I’ll use something else. How about red? What is red (a question that has driven modern art for decades)? How do I know that what I see as red is what you see as red? Well, I say “This is red,” and see if you agree. Sometimes you might not. You might tel me “No, this is orange.” Neither of us is probably wrong. I see red and you see orange and based upon each of our perceptions, we are respectively correct. (An important note to this rant: the main point is about communication and miscommunication, not about objective reality versus subjective reality, and which is actually correct. So I’m going gloss over some stuff that would otherwise get me even more bogged down that I already am in leading up to why I think this is important today.) Thus it is safe to say that language and communication is all contextual.

Not just contextual in the sense that in our conversation about this red/orange object, we are calling the same color differnt things, but in the sense that there is some experience in the past that is informing our perception of this color. Maybe in My Crayola Box of 12 colors, the wrappers of the orange and the red were switched, and I’ve never been corrected. Okay, I know this is getting far-fetched now, but work with me here. We’re talking about entire lifetimes informing context all the time, never bein able to remove yourself completely from events in the past, because the rest of the events are built upon them. Hell, events from even further back inform our current contexts through a little thing I like to call (un)necessary social norms and standards. So since we all are automatically going to have unique contexts, there is always room for miscommunication.

And people don’t help matters at all in the way that they use language. I might call myself a liberal, but what I’m actually trying to covey is the fact that I am against Reganomics. I am saying one term when I am trying to convey something more spacific. I am creating a larger opening for the possibility of miscommunication. Sometimes this is done on purpose to misinform or trick people. Causing miscommuication: helping douche bags become public officials since always. So General Semantics proposed all of these ridiculously impractical measures to be taken in everyday speech to make sure we are being as specific as possible, such as always adding “etc.” to the end of every sentence to always note that what we said in and of itself doesn’t hold all of the meaning we want, nor does it mean everything it could (which really just sounds like an annoying rule in Kings) or indexing everything by adding little side comments to every single thing we say to make sure we are talking about something in the proper temporal and situational context (like saying ‘Tasia (1992) wanted to throw her sister out a window, but Tasia(2009) couldn’t live without her’), which is an idea decent is spirit and obnoxious in practice.

So the crux of the General Semantic argument is “the map is not the territory.” Which means that language is not the object that it represents. C-A-T is not a cat, it is the written/verbal manifestation used to refer to the concrete object that is a cat. What I find to be most awesome about this little theory here is that it’s clearly all about language as a simulacrum, and since that’s a fancy word, I like using it. What’s fun about this theory, even though general semantics in general have tons of holes you can blast in their arguements (especially if you write out the rest of them, which I’m not going to do right now, because I clearly have enough trouble staying on topic and focused today), is that it is a really useful tool in the whole “how am I going to simply, effectively identify myself so that I am not miscommunicating who I am to those outside of myself.” Also, it is useful in the “is it okay to call myself a [insert slur here] if I mean this when I say it, but it sounds like I mean that other thing to people who don’t know I view it this way/identify with it this way?”

While I usually have this topic on my mind, as evident in my other posts about what to call myself/how to present myself, it was this post from Dear Diaspora that really got me into this line of thought today. And then I read my little communications book, and sifted through the information that makes me discard general semantics as a branch of theory that I could really get behind, leaving only the nuggets that I’m adopting for my personal thought process. And they seem to fit so well together in terms of breaking down stereotypes.

One of the problems that we have with language is that it is far to easy to forget that words actually mean things. As in, the word itself represents something, even if it’s just an idea. A lot of the time, it seems like people are taking a word, applying it to something concrete, and getting weirded out when the two don’t seem to mesh perfectly. Maybe like when you see someone of male body, and apply the word “man” to him, but then see he’s wearing make-up, and get upset, because he isn’t fitting together with the word that you’ve given him. But he is real, and the word is his representation.

There seems to be two solutions to this problem to me. The first is to just keep on deconstructing and deconstructing, making more and more and more terms so that everyone has one that they feel like they can fit comfortably under. You know, just get more and more specific, like the general semantics propose. But, as we’ve already seen, that’s super duper impractical. Option two seems to be that we make words fluid. That we become aware and stay aware of the fact that language is an imperfect communications process, and just own it. So instead of trying to force real things into our notion of what should fall under a certain word, we force the word itself to change with the new real things we encounter. This also gets messy, however, because language does need an amount of structure to remain useful to us. If the definitions of words get too loose, miscommunication will be hugely increased, thus defeating the purpose.

But I think this is a good place to start. Awareness is generally the first step towards solving any problem, so I think that it’s pretty necessary that we realize that words are representations, not that which they represent.



  1. I like. I like very much. Especially since one of my tutorials this term is on the Philosophy of Logic and Language, and this week’s reading was Frege’s “Uber Sinn und Bedeutung” which literally deals with the sense of words and the concepts they’re actually referencing.

    Also, http://xkcd.com/231/

  2. Whaaaa….soooo cute. I wanna take a language philosophy class. It sounds tedious, frustrating, and all around delightful =]

  3. Yay Tasia! Also, in so far as the “my red is not your red” thing, Hegel has some ballin’ stuff to say about that. Does this mean we can start having discussions on semantic theory now?

    Also, I highly recommend you read some more about the idea of the simulacrum. The play between map and territory is quite often used by Baudrillard, as well as others, and if this interests you then I think you will appreciate an intense study.

    • Jimmy…you just used the word ballin. I’m a bit concerned about you. Also, sure, we can start having discussions about it. I’m slowly becoming a real philo-kid! Also, can you point me in the direction of what Baudrillard to read? The library here actually has some of his works, which surprised me, since it’s such a small place.

      • I honestly cannot for the life of me remember writing the word “ballin'”. Maybe I was temporarily possessed?
        “Simulation and Simulacrum” is a good place to start for Baudrillard.

  4. I knew you were going to go there… that whole “is your red my red” thing…
    i think someone told me they knew a person whose dad lied to them about colors and shapes when they were very young… i don’t know if that actually happened or not, but i’m sure they probably had that conversation and were very serious about it.
    I very much appreciate the cat example… especially when you said you weren’t going to beat it to death. I could not picture you beating a kitteh to death, no matter how much it would prove your point >^ ^<

    I MISS YOU and I am sorry that I still suck major cock when it comes to writing letters to people.

    maow! shmaow maow shmaow.

  5. Cave men used words.Mark Twain just used them more colorfully.His name is just a unit of measurment used by river navigators,but his WORDS evokes so much more.

    Put a bag of SHIT on your professors desk and you’ll , bring his whole world and house of cards down on him. There will be no doubt in the class, what he meant by the word SHIT! He will want to know who put this bag of Shit on his desk.(SHIT i’m GOOD)

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