Everyday Semiotics

Friday, December 29, 2006

To hang by the neck until dead

So they hanged Saddam Hussein.

Some first impressions: I was in the newsroom when word came in that the first uncomfirmed reports from Arab newsorgans had made their way to Western media about 10 p.m. Space was quickly found on the next morning's front page. But what, I ask somewhat rhetorically, makes the actual event more newsworthy than the fact that he was sentenced to hang, and that an appeal to the sentence had been denied? (Neither story made the front page, at my newspaper at least.)

On television, the hint and then the confirmation that the deed had been done was mainly an excuse to let talking heads do their thing and to play back video of Saddam's greatest hits: firing a rifle off a balcony wearing a fedora, unsheathing a sword given to him as a gift as he stood in front of the stunningly pink curtains of his palace, and finally getting his teeth inspected by a US Army medic.

Online, in at least two places, graphics showed Saddam in noble stances while type gave us the year of his birth and the year of his death. These images most struck my fancy tonight, because they reminded me so much fo the lionizing, deifying, iconizing posters of Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, et alii that follow the same design. In one photo, Hussein is solemn yet defiant: this is how we remember him from his trial -- questioning the very basis of the authority by which he was being tried. In the other he is a happy man, a satisfied politician hailing the masses as they hail him back. This is the antithesis of how we remember him, but the thesis of how he saw himself and the basis of how he conducted himself before the court.

What are we to make of these images? No doubt they were made hours ago by the graphics departments of CNN and the NYT in anticipation of the event. But in seeking to create an illustration that on both Web sites would be the portal onto retrospectives of the dictator's career, why would both chose to mimic the memorial merchandice of America's fallen artistic and cultural heroes?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Next 25 nonresolutions

Books to read that are already on my shelves
(in no particular order)

26. Bronte, Wuthering Heights
27. Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
28. Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
29. Derrida, Limited Ink
30. Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge
31. Delany, Dhalgren (again)
32. Dostoyevski, Devils (again)
33. Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
34. Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
35. Ellmann, James Joyce
36. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future
37. bin Laden, Messages to the World
38. Stapeldon, Last and First Men/Starmaker
39. Milton, Paradise Regained
40. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz
41. Tolsoy, Anna Karennina
42. Twain, Huckleberry Finn (never actually finished it in high school)
43. Deleuze/Guatarri, Anti-Oedipus
44. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
45. LeGuinn, The Left Hand of Darkness (again)
46. one of the Bruce Sterlings
47. Goethe, Faust
48. Gaiman, Neverwhere
49. Schooler, The Blue Bear
50. Finnegans Wake (yeah right)


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Disposessed

Just finished reading the extraordinary novel The Disposessed by Ursula K. LeGuinn: a love story that happens to center on the journey of a brilliant physicist from his anarchosyndicalist homeworld (Anarres) to a very thinly-veiled Earth (Urras).

Although I imagine older readers might differ with this assessment, it seems to me the book is absolutely nondated despite its being very communist in subject matter (it was written in 1974).

It managed, despite its deliberate colliding of communist and capitalist worlds, not to be preachy, not to try to puff up one ideology and make the other look foolish. Both worlds were complicated, both were depicted with warts and all.

(Having read it, I'm now finally ready to begin Jameson's newish Archaeologies of the Future, which, just to show you how lazy I've been about reading fiction and criticism, I got LAST Christmas [I had to read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and Delany's Trouble on Triton first, naturally].)

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Writing (well, intensively proofreading) obituaries has been my stock and trade for the last five months; and soon that will no longer be the case. I thought I ought to blog about them before it's too late. (You can expect a blog, or several, in the coming months on the crime story as a thing.)

First, etymology. Lacking access to the OED, I've had to resort to EtymOnline, which is nonetheless a good resource.
1706, "register of deaths," from M.L. obituarius "a record of the death of a person," lit. "pertaining to death," from L. obitus "departure, a going to meet, encounter" (a euphemism for "death"), from stem of obire "go to meet" (as in mortem obire "meet death"), from ob "to, toward" + ire "go." Meaning "record or announcement of a death, esp. in a newspaper, and including a brief biographical sketch" is from 1738. A similar euphemism is in O.E. cognate forðfaran "to die," lit. "to go forth."
So we see that from the very first, the obituary was rooted in euphamism. Why? Because mortality is deeply scary. Like Adam tells a gang a vampires at the beginning of Buffy season 4, "You fear death. Being immortal, you fear it more than those to whom it comes naturally."

Thankfully, most of the obits that cross my desk daily say "died" in their first sentence. Only a few every week use the tollerable "passed on." Once in a blue moon I'll get an "entered into eternal rest"; and a "was received into the arms of the Lord" comes even less often.

Regrattably, I didn't get the now-famous "With trumpets blaring, Zeus, god of gods, called Daniel Reed Porter III to His Heavenly Pantheon on Nov. 21, 2006" that caused such a stir in my fair city and its environs. That one came in on my day off.

The death taboo has had its claws in me all this time. The paper has a policy, which I dutifully uphold, of verifying every obituary with a legitimate funeral home of crematory, so as to ensure that we don't publish any prank or pet obituaries unwittingly. Whenever I ask the family members delivering or emailing obituaries to tell me what funeral home has the body, I adopt the obituary jargon: "Which funeral home is handling the arrangements?" To ask, "Where is the body," seems as unutterable in this circumstance as saying something like, "So where's the stiff at, anyway?"

Yet I'm always struck by how undistraught people are when I call them up to check spellings of siblings' names and go through all the other tedia of the obit vetting process. Or when I'm called on to develop a full-fledged story out of a noteworthy obit. I was stunned when, less than 24 hours after her 19-year-old daughter had died of osteosarcoma, a local parent was able to describe to me, in painstaking detail, her daughter's movement from diagnosis to treatment to death, all while giving me a remarkable portrait of her daughter's remarkable character.

The obituary is an odd thing indeed. It is the only thing in a newspaper, aside from advertising, that is not investigated and converted into a narative by a disinterested reporter. Its authorship is always interested. This often allows wonderful things -- Mr. Porter's obit is the classic example of that. But it also allows the sort of truth-tampering that, while not on the same plane as a biased or fabricated news article, nonetheless makes me cringe. Not long before we printed the blaring trumpets of Zues, we accepted a heavily redacted photocopy of an obit that appeared in a west coast paper. The east coast relatives wanted us to remove the "ex" part of the deceased's ex-wife's title and delete altogether the mention of his "companion."

Katharsis came in the form of a NYT article about memorial websites, which employ massive editorial staffs to keep their pages clear of obit trolls -- people who, justifiably or otherwise, attach negative comments debunking declarations of the deceased's having been a "devoted father," for example. My paper's website, so far as I know, has never gotten any comments, good or bad, on any obit other than Mr. Porter's.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

First 25 non resolutions

1. get a futon
2. buy more socks and underwear
3. get an ironing board and iron (done)
4. increase wardrobe selection, especially in the area of pants and sweaters
5. iron shirts regularly
6. be a better reporter
7. break diet less frequently than in 2006
8. maybe get a new laptop, one with an "n" key and working CD writer and that doesn't sound like a 747 getting ready to take off.
9. attain competency level of French
10. go to france
11. read _Le Plaisir du texte_ in the original
12. become a morning person
13. clean the cat box every day
14. get more and bigger plants
15. play bass again
16. undertake less night driving
17. finish the sunday Times by the end of Monday at the latest every week
18. blog daily
19. finish ulysses paper by march (still not done 4/21)
20. finish transmet paper
21. publish aforementioned papers.
22. get a new paper idea
23. sustain fewer shaving injuries
24. floss
25. get more frequent haircuts, so as to avoid sudden beast/man transformations that confuse and frighten friends and co-workers


Sunday, December 17, 2006


To resolve oneself to a task, or a programme of tasks, is the easiest of tasks. It doesn't take a semiotician to point out that fulfilling all of one's New Year's resolutions is easier said than done.

As a social phenomenon, New Year's resolutions function as a locus of reciprocal praise and encouragement. Mechanically, they are rather like diets (see below) in that they require self enforcement but also allow temporary lapses and, subsequently, collective comiseration. No wonder so many New Year's resolutions are to begin a diet, or to be more conscientious about dieting.

While the paradigm of resolutions seems to be the regimen, the sustained activity, this needn't be the only route. On the other hand there are achievable goals, achievable in the short run if only one would stop procrastinating or finally rearrange one's schedule to accomodate them. They can be a finite as reading a book or climbing a mountain or as infinite as learning a new language (though in the infinite register one is precariously close to the systematic, the regimented, and therefore most in danger of failing to fulfill the goal).

Recently I came across on a friend's blog a list of 100 nonresolutions; a list, rather, of goals to be accomplished over the course of the next year. The writer indicted whether or not (or to what degree) the goals had been fulfilled. One could easily apply to this list all the critiques that have been rolled into the antimaterial/Christian-lite ideology of New Year's resolutions. This ideology has an imperative of self improvement, at least so far as self improvement is construed as meaning altering one's life in toto for some good effect: donating more to charity, quitting smoking, cooling one's temper, &c. But to remove these value judgements for a moment and peer in at the obstacles to personal contentment, we find them numbering two: procrastination and forgetfulness.

Write a list, so your goals are not forgotten. Enumerate as many or as few goals as you can think of; in fact, add to the list throughout the year, and cross off those goals that have been met. The pleasure of illiminating tasks, of accomplishing something great or small is nonetheless impetus for further movement. It's the antidote for stagnation and a propellor away from ideology.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006


The giving of gifts is perhaps an apter illustration of Wimsatt & Beardsley's intentional fallacy than anything in literature.

One chooses and ultimately delivers a gift based on one's own (inevitably limited) knowledge of what the other desires, or perhaps simply needs. The giver's estimation may be slightly off kilter, it may miss the mark completely, or it may be a bulls eye.

But in any case, on the receiving end there must always be dissimulation, however ecstatic the initial, unadulterated reaction to the unwrapping of the gift may be. Following this must come a narrative, the receiver's own, which may or may not resemble the giver's: "It's what I've always wanted," "How did you know?" and so forth.


Friday, December 15, 2006

A diet to end them all

I'm going to try something new. Rather than make really long entries occasionally, I'm going to make really short entries regularly. To accomplish this, I'll turn to seemingly random topics and quickly puzzle through their apparatuses and ranges of meaning.

Today: Diet

There is perhaps nothing so simultaneoulsy self-effacing and self-loathing than placing oneself on a diet. To be on a diet is to forbid oneself certain foods; and since eating is so often a social activity, it is very often the public refusal of certain foods. To diet is therefore at least in part to perform, to make an act of a goal (better health, lower cholesterol, a slimmer figure) as well as to demonstrate one's self-control in (selectively) not giving in to the desire to break this pact with the self.

The boundaries meted out by any diet are necessarily permeable, especially during that nebulous time called "the holidays" during which any number of factors can be cited as contributing to the permissible (at least tacitly permissible, or permitted under protest) breaking of the diet.

Unlike religious devotion, a sort of discipline that has an extensive societal support for prohibitions and lifestyle choices, dieting's support mechanism is narrow. Its tenets can only be upheld by the dieter (and possibly his or her dietician or physician). Beyond that, the imperative to diet is scarcely reflected, much less enforced. Friends on similar diets may band together, and may just as easily agree upon excuses to break the diet for a special occasion, and then, to complete the cycle, offer commiseration and mutual support in re-initiating the diet. For a non-dieter to insist a dieter maintain his or her diet would be to step out of bounds. Politeness and considerateness dictate that this is the dieter's business and no one else's.

Of course there is a tremendous social force that makes obesity, extra padding and round bellies taboo or undesirable; and yet this societal pressure does not include a directive toward dieting. It is rather assumed that leanness is the natural state, and fatness is the transgression. This is almost to suppose that the desired state is maintained through inactivity, where activity (e.g. overeating) yields the undesirable state, where of course the opposite is often more true.


Kitten chaser


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How porn means

[The topic of pornography will be once more heatedly hashed over later this week in my fair city, which fact reminded me of a "treatise" (or so I called it then) I assembled on the form more than a year ago. Below is an abridged version of the document, which is organized into seven compartments that describe the elementary semiotic functions carried out in any piece of hardcore porn. -- Ed.]

The woman or women are usually in full view, sometimes dismembered, but almost never decapitated. Men, on the other hand, are frequently decapitated, often dismembered and only sometimes in full view.

Almost never is the man allowed to make eye contact with the camera. Most often his gaze is averted elsewhere or his eyes are closed.
Series of stills or films tend to have a unity of the gaze where the woman is concerned. She either focuses solely on her partner(s) or on the camera, which is to say the viewer.

Even when a condom is used for the vaginal or anal intercourse portion of the sequence, it is inevitably removed before orgasm so that the semen can be allowed to make contact with the woman’s body (and so much the better if the condom can be made to break prior to that point).
Rarely is the woman allowed to spit out semen after she has received it in her mouth. She may gargle it, some of it may be permitted to ooze onto her chin, but she is not to deliberatively reject it. She is required to accept it, even appear to enjoy its taste.
It seems that for whatever arbitrarily, socially coded reasons, the emission of any bodily fluid onto another’s body is demeaning and disrespectful. Is it always necessarily contemptuous? Spitting on someone’s face apparently is. Spitting on the ground at someone’s feet is meant to convey dislike, as though that person leaves a bad taste in the spitter’s mouth. Spitting on someone’s face is less obviously meaningful in the metaphorical sense. To defecate or urinate on someone would be the utmost expression of disrespect. But unlike urine and feces, saliva can be swallowed by its producer without repugnance or ill effect. Men never spit on women in porn, though they may slobber on them. Women, on the other hand, sometimes spit on the man’s penis and use the saliva as lubricant. It appears that saliva, among all bodily fluids, has the widest semiotic range and therefore the most unstable series of connotations. How it relates to the transmission of semen onto the female body is uncertain, though the connection is apparent, intuitively at least.

In general terms, porn straddles the line between drama and reality TV. In most cases readily available through the Internet, there is no clear distinction between whether the woman is acting or whether she actually enjoys the acts (perhaps this explains part of the appeal of “amateur” porn). In higher-budget, higher-production value porn, with those actresses most readily identified as “porn stars,” the performance is at its most apparent -- this is none of the fumbling, false starts, irregular tempi, and most importantly none of the verbal communication that are the hallmarks of actual, private, sexual intercourse.
But beneath this blurred distinction there is always an assurance of the actors’ performance. Even if they are not following a script per se, they have undoubtedly been given directions prior to filming or are given directions as the scene progresses. The woman is told to emphasize her pleasure, to look at the camera or at her partner; the man is told to be inexpressive and never to look at the camera. The reasons for this are simple -- the viewer (assuming his is heterosexual and male) is allowed to achieve the highest satisfaction when he becomes the object of the woman’s desire, but can do this only when the man is passive enough, removed enough from the frame, as to allow the viewer to superimpose himself onto the scene. Here, it comes down to a question of taste in where the woman’s gaze is directed. The viewer may be able to enter the scene only if she is looking at him directly -- that is, into the camera. But it may also be possible for the viewer to superimpose himself so thoroughly that the woman’s gaze, directed at her on-screen partner, is satisfying.
But perhaps the (hetero male) viewer doesn’t so much superimpose his own body over that of the male player’s as inject himself into it. The male player’s body, in other words, is a receptacle for the viewer’s subjectivity, a sort of avatar or virtual body. This is why it matters what the male looks like, at least below the chin. He must be lean and muscular. He must, in fact, adhere to certain ancient Greek standards of masculinity. His mind is of no concern to the viewer, but he must be of corpore sano.
Could we then draw a connection between the ancient Greek ideal and the modern Greek -- which is to say fraternal, the societies of Greek letters -- ideal? When we think of frat-boys, naturally we think of men who spend a lot of time at the gym pumping iron. The male body ideal, in other words, is highly similar from antiquity to modern fraternity. Now perhaps the connections and parallels come too quickly, and need to be explored less superficially, but nonetheless -- Fraternities have their own underbelly of homoeroticism, concealed beneath their homosociality, typified by their hazing rituals.
The dynamic of fraternity initiation parallels that of the more primal sort of sexuality, in which power relationships are most apparent. And isn’t it true that, like primitive sexuality, fraternity initiations are first and foremost a mode of reproduction? Cavemen mated out of an instinctive need to preserve their race, frat-boys initiate new frat-boys out of a need to maintain the house past their own graduation. Cavemen dragged their mates by the hair, while frat-boys paddle pledges’ rear ends. In both cases the reproductive act is coupled with domination and humiliation.

More often than anything else, the woman’s shoes are the only article of clothing she is permitted to leave on throughout a sequence. And in the majority of these cases, they are high-heeled shoes, sometimes with platforms. The phallic connotation of stiletto heels is the most obvious (and boring). There is a saying that partial nudity is usually more exciting than complete nudity, because so long as some article of clothing remains in place there still exists the possibility of removing it. And so desire is perpetuated -- the final removal comes only in the spectator’s imagination, but is therefore never complete.

It is usually the case that the woman must appear to be in the absolute throes of passion from the moment of genital contact (even from the moment the male genitals are exposed, in some cases) until after the man has come to orgasm. But it is only the male’s orgasm that is empirically provable -- since it is always accompanied by the transmission of semen. The female orgasm remains "the great mystery," at least in this context. In porn, the mystery need only stay in circulation until the time of the male orgasm. It is necessary for the woman to appear to be enjoying herself only until the male’s orgasm has subsided. So much the better if she screams and appears to have an orgasm or two of her own. The gratification of the male from his pleasing the female exists as a necessary support to his own pleasure (and by extension that of the viewer). But once orgasm is achieved, the floor has already dropped away and that support is no longer necessary.
Occasionally the woman’s range of expression includes pain -- for in some instances it may be gratifying to inflict pain on one’s partner by the sheer force of one’s thrusts or length and caliber of one’s penis. This undoubtedly has some relation to the fascination with claiming female virginity.
Certainly it is possible to reduce the infliction of various demeaning acts upon the woman in porn to simple gratification. But what is the quality of this particular gratification? Surely it is different from the type of gratification yielded by making a woman (at least appear to) have an orgasm. Could it be more akin to the type of gratification present in fraternity hazing, in which the hazer derives satisfaction from hearing the hazee say “Thank you, may I have another?”

A chart of genres will at some point be useful, though never comprehensive enough. Suffice it that there are many and that their number is increasing all the time (remember how Foucault writes about the production of new perversions), but they are nonetheless extremely specific.
Notably, the names that have stuck to the major genres are never specific and even less accurate as labels or identifying tags. The genre called “lesbian” porn is almost certainly directed at heterosexual males. It never includes the stereotypical body types of lesbianism, which is to say it never features butchies or bull dykes (perhaps it features what might be called femmes). What it does feature is females easily transposable to “hardcore” porn. Often in “lesbian” porn there is a dildo allowed to enter the sequence (a sort of synecdoche, perhaps, for the male viewer).
“MFF” and “MMF” porn tends to be oriented at hetero males also, and seems to leave the boundaries of heterosexuality for men intact while, in empirical terms, it smears them. Meanwhile it assumes an unproblematic bisexuality for women. Whether it is MFF or MMF, the woman or women are the only ones getting fucked while only the male(s) are doing the fucking. The two females are permitted to fuck each other, but their fucking is always subordinate to the man’s. The introduction of two males into porn with an ostensibly heterosexual male audience is already problematic, hence the necessity of maintaining the two males’ (performative) heterosexuality. Part and parcel to this is the fact that, even beyond the fact their bodies do not touch unless the touching is absolutely unavoidable, they never look at each other.

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Talking to the walls

As an adendum to my last post, I'll mention Frank Rich's comments in last Sunday's New York Times opinion page. While he's a little too doggedly insistent on a direct relationship between language and reality for the tastes of this semiotician, he does make a good point.
The newest hollowed-out word to mask the endgame in Iraq is "phase," as if the increasing violence were as transitional as the growing pains of a surly teenager. "Phase" is meant to drown out all the unsettling debate about two words the president doesn't want to hear, "civil war."
The incredible thing here is that propaganda seems to have collapsed to its weakest form, euphamism. Rich is right when he draws the connexion between "phase" as Bush uses it and the transitory manifestations of teen angst. It's the shortest distance between the word and all available association in the mind of the average American I think; just as the shortest line between the meme "civil war" and all available associations is the war between North and South.

(Kofi Anan joined the "civil war" bandwagon Monday, BTW.)

And on the sanctioning of "civil war" by NBC, Rich had this to say:
In the case of civil war, it fell to a morning television anchor, Matt Lauer, to officially bless the term before the "Today" show moved on to such regular fare as an update on the Olsen twins. That juxtaposition of Iraq and the post-pubescent eroticism was only too accurate a gauge of how much the word "war" itself has been drained of its meaning in America after years of waging a war that required no shared sacrifice. Whatever you want to label what's happening in Iraq, it has never impeded our freedom to dote on the Olsen twins.
This is one of those things that now goes without saying to the point where it becomes profound once said. The majority of readers and writers in the blogosphere have never experienced a war whose immediate, local manifestation was shared sacrifice: the rationing of aluminum, the donation of pantyhose, &c. No doubt Rich will have already received irate emails saying our shared sacrifice is the absense and occasional death of our boys overseas; and while maybe we should all be a little more in tune with the fact that many of our fellow countrymenandwomen are shedding blood over there, most of us aren't. And while most of us (I sincerely hope) aren't actually doting on Mary-Kate and Ashley, we certainly do have other concerns.

To a great many of us, I suspect, it matters not whether the situation in Iraq is civil war, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, insurgency, tribulations, quagmire, boondoggle, farce, tragedy, travesty, or otherwise. For many of us, the volume may as well be muted: the reports all sound the same, and are all accompanied by similar footage of mangled humvees and Arabs brandishing AK47s.