Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I don't need your civil war

So apparently there's a big to-do over NBC finally exhibiting the sense to call a spade a spade and use the words "civil war" in its reporting on Iraq.

The Associated Press quoted Matthew Felling, a spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs as saying, "[N]ot since Fox News Channel decided to stop saying 'suicide bombers' and start saying 'homicide bombers' has there been a starker linguistic stance taken by a news organization." (Fox adopted that terminology in April 2002 after the White House did, according to AP. And while my gut reaction is to wrinkle my nose at any terminological imprimaturs of either entity, this one gives me pause.)

Seriously though, what's the big deal? Why is the White House so insistent that Iraq is not in a state of civil war, and why aren't more media agencies calling it a civil war?

AP offers a feeble lesson in definitions:

Webster's New World College Dictionary defines it simply as "war between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation."

Some political scientists use a threshold of 1,000 dead, which the current conflict has long since passed.

There are more conservative definitions. The Web site GlobalSecurity.org, which provides information on defense issues, said five criteria must be met: The contestants must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, have identifiable regular armed forces and engage in major military operations.

The Bush administration said Monday that it does not believe Iraq is in a civil war, and that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki does not, either.

"You have notr yet had a situation where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power, but for territory," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

"What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy -- which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy."
The simplest and therefore broadest and therefore truest definition of civil war, it seems to me, is a conflict between individual groups of a single nation. But within this broad and potentially useful definition are, inevitably, broader and less useful definitions to be hashed over.

What constitutes a conflict, what constitutes a group, and most importantly here, what constitutes a nation?

There are those who say Iraq should be broken up into three separate countries, pointing to the fact that the modern country isn't any sort of organic concatenation but rather something cobbled together by the British in 1921.

That being true, then I suppose you could make the case that what's happening in Iraq is a war plain and simple, with nothing civil about it.

But then again, this could actually be closer to a civil war under the first definition cited by AP than most realize. Writes the New York Times:
Many Iraqis and Americans who have tracked the insurgency say it has been strongly shaped by former Baath Party members who want to keep Shiites from taking power. Even the newer jihadist groups have articulated political goals on Web sites -- most notably to establish a Sunni-ruled Islamic caliphate.

"There was a whole regime that ruled this country for 35 years," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish legislator. "Now they've gone underground. This is the main body of the resistance."
As for why the administration and the media are so squeamish about the term civil war, NYT is slightly more thoughtful. Consenting to call it a civil war could be construed as acknowledging the U.S. has failed in Iraq. Also, supporters of the war "worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in any Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal."

I'm not totally satisfied with the connotational analysis here. I, for one, would be just as much in favor of withdrawal if the administration started saying Iraq was in a civil war as I am now. I don't think there's any real tollerance for euphamism of this sort. The Korean conflict was a war, and everybody knows it. That's even more true for Vietnam. I don't think admitting there's a civil war on in Iraq would really shake the foundations of those who support the war. At this point I don't know what would (unless all this hoopla over the Baker commission pans out).

I suggest there's an altogether different connotation that those who dislike "civil war" are mainly worried about, consciously or not. To American ears, civil war brings immediately to mind the war between North and South, a struggle whose symbolics is as active and controversial as ever. While a goodly portion of the U.S. population is made up of Civil War buffs, perhaps our Leaders and Teachers are concerned if "civil war" became attached to Iraq as well as America then there would be an undesirable identification with the combatants there. It would suddenly be too easy to make equations, even moral ones.

(And yet, it seems there's not total agreement that the Civil War should be called a civil war either -- viz. "The War of Northern Aggression.")

Axl Rose, I write with a shudder, put it pretty well:
We got the wall of D.C. to remind us all
That you can't trust freedom
When it's not in your hands
When everybody's fightin'
For their promised land


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Now that's a rose of a different color

For our two-month anniversary I determined to give my darling a bouquet of roses, which possessed me to look into the supposed meanings of their different colors, which in turn possessed me to wonder about how these different colors (and other qualities) came to be imbued with these meanings.

I settled on a mix of red and white roses, because the Internet told me they symbolized unity. Severally, red roses of course mean "I love you," and also stand for respect and courage, while white roses can mean "You’re heavenly," or stand for reverence and humility, innocence and purity, "I’m worthy of you," and even secrecy and silence.

Rosebuds symbolize beauty, youth and a heart innocent of love or: “You are young and beautiful.” Red rosebuds mean “pure and lovely” and white rosebuds signify girlhood or “too young to love.” The moss rosebud stands for confessions of love.
A single rose stands for simplicity. In full bloom, it means “I love you” or “I love you still,” and a bouquet of roses in full bloom signifies gratitude.
Pink roses in general symbolize grace and gentility. For more subtle shades of meaning, choose deep pink to stand for gratitude and appreciation. Light pink conveys admiration and sympathy.
Yellow roses usually stand for joy and gladness, but can also say “try to care.”
Red and yellow blends stand for jovial and happy feelings.
Coral or orange roses denote enthusiasm and desire.
A deep burgundy rose means “unconscious beauty.”
Pale colors convey sociability and friendship.
Hybrid tea roses mean “I’ll remember you always” and sweetheart roses symbolize just what their name implies.
Two roses taped or wired together to form a single stem signal an engagement or coming marriage.
A full blown rose placed over two buds forms a combination that signifies secrecy.
Withered white roses have two meanings: fleeting beauty and “you made no impression.”
A crown made of roses signifies reward or virtue.
Rose leaves are a symbol of hope.
Dark Pink: Appreciation, Gratitude, Thank You
Light Pink: Admiration, Sympathy, Gentleness, Grace, Gladness, Joy, Sweetness
Yellow: Joy, Gladness, Friendship, Delight, Promise of a new beginning, Welcome Back, Remember Me, and Jealousy, "I care"
Yellow with Red Tip: Friendship, Falling in Love
Orange: Desire, Enthusiasm
Red and White: Given together, these signify unity
Red and Yellow: Jovial and Happy Feelings
Peach: Appreciation, Closing of the deal, Let's get together, Sincerity, Gratitude
Pale Peach; Modesty
Coral: Desire
Lavender: Love at first sight, Enchantment
Orange: Enthusiasm, Desire, Fascination
Black*: Death, Farewell
Blue*: The unattainable or impossible
Single in any color: Simplicity, Gratitude
Red Rosebud: Symbolic of purity and loveliness
White Rosebud: Symbolic of girlhood
Thornless Rose: "Love at first sight"
* These roses do not actually exist. [Not so. One was gengeneered in 2004. -- ed.]

from http://www.hugkiss.com/flowermean.shtml and http://www.rkdn.org/roses/colors.asp
The two sites agree on the meanings of the most standard hues (one site claims these meanings have existed "since the dawn of time"); and the concept of giving your love a rose as a symbolic act is more or less universal; but how did this all come to pass?

Perhaps it was initially a bit of that usual suspect, orientalism. Like noodles, roses entered the European tradition by way of China, romanticized as wonders of the East. And in the century before that, King Charles II brought the "language of flowers" to Sweden from Persia. But there existed a symbology and mythology of roses in ancient Greek and other early cultures. The first rose is thought to have been a white one whose color was transformed by one thing or another: for instance, stained by blood or blushing from a kiss. Hence, the white rose stands for purity.

But in fact the white rose stands for a lot of things. It's a regular semantic chain unto itself. From innocence and purity to secrecy (though the sub rosa rose placed on Roman doorsteps wasn't necessarily white) to friendship and reverence to humility, its sanctioned uses are to announce a new love, decorate a wedding or decorate a coffin. (Coincidentally -- or not -- one lays a wild rose on a newsired vampire's grave to prevent him from rising.) This ambiguity, and the proliferation of meanings for all the other colors, makes me wonder if there was a sort of early Hallmarkification of the flower, as its cultivation in many colors became possible, and the titilating code of the Victorian language of flowers circulated.

Proto-Hallmarkicized or no, the act of giving roses is something that can convey almost any meaning. Their pigmentation has been thoroughly and ambiguously codified; and yet as semiotic loci they can nonetheless be constantly reinscribed with new meaning. In plain language, that means they needn't stand for exactly what the florist says they stand for; on the contrary, they stand for whatever they stand for in the context of the giving.

When I gave my darling a bouquet of red and white roses, she understood what it meant.

I'll leave you with a quote from our good friend Roland:

"To love does not exist in the infinitive (except by a metalinguistic artiface): the subject and the object come to the word even as it is uttered" (A Lover's Discourse, 145).

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Monday, November 06, 2006


This report, of the latest metasticization of the information age, is utterly fascinating: Gannett abolishes newsrooms in favor of 'Information Centers'.

In summary, this corporation, which publishes USA Today and 90 other papers, is looking beyond its reporters to gather news, produce features and mount investigations by "crowdsourcing."

The term, coined by the author of the article a bit earlier this year, is doubtless meant to convey the same derogatory and slightly jingoistic or xenophobic undertones that "outsourcing" does. American jobs have been lost to India; now journalists' jobs stand to be lost to John Q. Public.

One thing that's immediately striking about this (at least in the context of that silly essay I'm trying to write) is the complete disruption of the dynamic between Spider Jerusalem, the reporter's reporter, and his readers. It's a relationship in which a singular voice of authority simultaneously draws upon, defends and reviles the population at large.

Not to mention the fact that, more than ever before, this is an incursion of the ancient tradition of narrative, which included no concept of "the author" or of any authority contained within a single body. Instead, it's almost like a movement back toward the oral tradition, where legends are passed from storyteller to storyteller, with no regard for whatever claims of artistic integrity a modern author might make.

Plenty of newspapers have embraced Web sites and now even blogs; but here it's not just a mimicry of format, it's an absorbtion of the means of production of what I'll call the countermedia -- the blogging, newsgathering, muckraking public, as opposed to the (only slightly) more exclusive newsmedia.

Come to think of it, exclusivity remains the hallmark of both milieux. Anyone can publish a blog, just as anyone with access to a photocopier can produce a "journal." But there is still a reliance on authority, an expection that the news is being captured and interpreted and spread by someone or some entity that has some business doing so. This relies entirely on reputation, which is generated by satisfying the expectations of certain readerships. The rule is the same for newspapers as for any blog that aspires to be more than a diary made public. One turns to BoingBoing because its writers have their fingers on all the right pulses. One turns to Language Log because its writers have published a book (a tangible one with paper and ink) and because they're professors (or something).

Crowdsourcing may or may not be an adequate term to describe the model. The "crowd" here is not the man on the street by any means. It is made up of people who (a) have access to computers and the Internet, (b) regularly consume news and (c) feel inclined to contribute to the generation of news. To be sure, we are not yet at the point of Satelite 5 in "The Long Game" (Doctor Who, season 29, episode 7), where human brains are interlinked processors gathering and disseminating news in a bizarre, technoritualistic manner.


Can't resist this one

So there's a cleaner available in Costa Rica called "terror." (I don't speak the language, but at least according to BabelFish, terror in Spanish is terror in English.)

I can't help but be reminded of Barthes' "Soap-powders and Detergents" (Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers; New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), which posits that the story of cleaners has always been one of good versus evil: "[M]atter here is endowed with value-bearing states."
Products based on chlorine and ammonia are without doubt the representatives of a kind of absolute fire, a saviour but a blind one. Powders, on the contrary, are selective, they push, they drive firt through the texture of the object, their function is keeping public order not making war.
I wonder if the marketing department at whatever company produces Terror read Barthes. It seems altogether too coincidental.

But where the naming of the brands Barthes cites is more subtle -- "Lux" for light, "Persil" for (of all things) parsley, and "Omo" for, apparently, a river in Ethiopia -- "Terror" is blatant. It's the sort of directness of communications that deprives the semiotician of doing very much analytical work. Nothing like the mystery in "OMO blows a wind of freshness on your linen and re-examines the drudgery of detergent while bringing a key of gaiety and good mood… And always with the guarantee of the 99 spots! Who says better?" (that's the Google translation of French Wikipedia's entry on Omo's 2006 slogan).

As for "Terror," so writes Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing.net:

Oh, what dark, foreboding poetry lurks in those long-lasting pink suds. Do we use it to cleanse the world of terror, or does the war on terror wash our Constitution away? One wonders what might become of the foolish adventure traveler who attempts to fly back to the US with this stuff in their suitcase.
Granted, this is taking it a bit out of its Costa Rican context and putting it into that of the BoingBoingian critique of the so-called War on Moisture. But the "dark, foreboding poetry" is right on target.