Everyday Semiotics

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen

While still mired in heterosexism (a misogynistic heterosexism at that), "The Decameron" (1353) includes a fair amount of gender bending

Turning first to the recurring character Calandrino, who in IX.3 is convinced by his mischievous friends that he is pregnant. The metanarrative of course is that men do not get pregnant; Calandrino, however, is a dunce and superstitious too, and never guesses any of the jokes played on him, least of all this one. The punchline of the tale is a little inscrutable:
"Alas! It's your fault, Tessa. You always lie on top. I told you how it would be."
I say inscrutable because Calandrino ostensibly refers to a superstition about sexual positions. The question is whether in 12th century Florence such a superstition obtained, or whether Calandrino is inventing his own superstition.

If, in the primitive worldview, femininity is tantamount to homosexuality, then we have a clever tale in II.3. The daughter of the King of England travels in disguise as an Abbot of the church -- for reasons not altogether very clear -- seducing a young Florentine along his/her way to Rome.
the Abbot laid a hand on his chest and began to touch him as girls touch their lovers. This greatly astounded Alessandro, and he began to think the Abbot was a person of unnatural tastes.
Alessandro laid his hand on the Abbot's chest, and found two round, firm, delicate woman's breasts, as if carved out of ivory. When he touched them and realized the Abbot was a woman, he stayed for no further invitation
Zinerva passes as a man to regain her husband's trust and restore her own honor in II.9, ultimately bearing her breasts to end the charade.

The bearing of breasts as a declaratory statement has a third counterpoint in II.8 where a lady tears open her dress and accuses the Count of Antwerp of trying to rape her.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Effective dreaming

Science fiction at its best deals with new possibilities and their attendant ethical dilemmas. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” (1971) makes the former its focus, and sagely avoids providing answers to the latter.

George Orr’s unconscious mind has the ability to change the world. Dr. William Haber attempts through hypnotic suggestion to harness this power and make the world a better place: one free of war, pollution, overpopulation.

But Orr is a reluctant instrument. He knows when something’s been changed, and remembers the way things used to be. And moreover he is at heart a fairly negative person. Remedying overpopulation for him means letting loose a decimating plague; ending war among the nations means pitting Earth against hostile aliens.

The ethical dilemma raised is, naturally: If a human were to have the power to change reality, should he?

The best analogy Orr can come up with is on pages 140-1, when he asks whether a person with the ability to save someone from a poisonous snakebite should do so if it’s possible that someone could go on to commit murder. Take this to its logical extent -- factor in the butterfly effect -- and the conclusion must be that it is better for everyone not to act at all, in any situation.

As a fictional character, Orr is of course himself the analogy for the unforeseen consequences of everyday decisions. He is also a cipher (something I’ll be very interested in in the next few posts).

In his own description and in Heather Lalache’s, he is a walking, talking tabula rasa. For Lalache, that’s a good thing: “It was more than dignity. Integrity? Wholeness? Like a block of wood not carved. The infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being, of the uncommitted, the nonacting, the uncarved” (130).

For Orr, though, this is not so good: “He could be born into any world. He had no character. He was a lump of clay, a block of uncarved wood” (96).

“The Lathe of Heaven” suffers technical problems despite, or because of, a brilliant premise. Orr is a pretty dull guy. Lelache, who is more complex, changes based on Orr’s dreams, even disappears and reappears. Character, in this uncommon novel’s pages, is impossible to maintain.

But that I suppose is an interesting answer to the snakebite question. For people are not merely actors: they are also acted upon, changing constantly as much as a result of their own actions as the actions of others. Character, as conceived in fiction, is itself a fiction predicated on constancy, with change in fixed quantity.

For Spider-Man, great responsibility goes hand in hand with great power. For George Orr? Maybe not. His ability for creating change is undoubtedly greater than most mortals, but scale is all that is different. We are all out of control.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

The golden semiotoscope

Hadn’t been planning to, but recently plowed through Philip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” trilogy and was intrigued by the semiotic device that makes for the title of the first book, “The Golden Compass” (1995).

Lyra Belacqua’s alethiometer (from the Greek aletheia, “truth”), is marked with 36 symbols and has an interface of three dials, through which an adept user may enter queries and get back answers. Sort of like a steampunk Google.

The symbols include: “an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a chameleon, a bull, a beehive” (“Golden Compass,” 78) and “a baby, that a puppet … a loaf of bread” (“The Amber Spyglass,” 17).

What can the symbols be but an alphabet? And who can their augur be but a reader?

The wise Gyptian Farder Coram gives a pretty good description of the semantic chain, though he thinks he’s talking about divination:

“All these pictures round the rim,” said Farder Coram, holding it delicately toward John Faa’s blunt strong gaze, “they’re symbols, and each one stands for a whole series of things. Take the anchor, there. The first meaning of that is hope, because hope holds you fast like an anchor so you don’t give way. The second meaning is steadfastness. The third meaning is snag, or prevention, The fourth meaning is the sea. And so on, down to ten, twelve, maybe a never-ending series of meanings.”


“But how does it know what level you’re thinking of when you set the question?” said John Faa.

“Ah, by itself it don’t. It only works if the questioner holds the levels in their mind. You got to know all the meanings first, and there must be a thousand or more. Then you got to be able to hold them in your mind without fretting at it or pushing for an answer, and just watch while the needle wanders. When it’s gone round its full range, you’ll know what the answer is….”

(GC 126)