Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Those loaded suits

The hostage crisis that for two weeks threatened to pitch us (earlier than expected) along with Great Britain into war with Iran wrapped up with a surprise happy ending and a completely out-of-the-blue "news of the weird" subject heading.

A third of the Axis of Evil on April 7 returned to the West's embraces 14 British sailors and marines captured after supposedly violating Iranian seaspace March 23 -- all wearing really crummy suits. [The 15th sailor, a woman, received a striped shirt, also crummy, and headscarf.]

At face value, it was a very dignified and dignifying gesture; to surrender the hostages in style, however poor the style may have been, was almost magnanimous on Iran's part.

But one might surmise on the contrary that the makeover was a subtle jab at the West. Cathy Horyn in the Times' Week in Review section April 8 summarizes: "Without their uniforms, the 14 men and one woman were neither military personnel nor, at least not obviously, potical prisoners."

How curious that after such a protracted pissing match over ill-defined national borders and who was where when that President Ahmadinejad should seek to depoliticize these 15 bodies. [Hence, perhaps, the very militaristic press conference that convened once the soldiers were home safe and sound, with only a few speaking and only those by way of a pre-approved statement, with no questions from the press permitted.]

What else might Iran have done (short of executing the hostages or holding them forever)? Suppose the soldiers had had their uniforms returned to them drycleaned and pressed. In this context Iran could easily be said to have acquiesced before stalwart Tony Blair. And to release the soldiers soiled and in tattered pajamas would have been one insult inviting another.

It could be this was all just a deft maneouver on Iran's part to make Britain's dogged insistance that its people never crossed the watery boundary look silly. It could be simply that the Iranians are poor suitmakers and tailors. It could be that these soldiers (particularly that eerily childlike one to the left of Leading Seaman Faye Turney in the image above) just aren't suit people.

I'm compelled to file this one under semiotic terrorism because the meaning of the suits is so thoroughly undigestable, i.e., its interpretations are too diverse for there to be one that "goes down easy." Unresolveable, the suits are therefore much less forgettable than practically any other dress would have been. They are at once a doff of the cap and a thumb bestride the nose. In their exquisite self-contradiction, the suits serve primarily to confound the reader, especially the British reader, in whose craw they must stick. [Whether this was the intent of the soldier's Iranian handlers, it hardly need be said, is not a question for the semiotician.]



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