Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sea of Poppies

Just through with reading "Sea of Poppies," the eighth novel by Indian-American writer Amitav Ghosh. I can't think of the last time I read a contemporary book; but my interest was well piqued after hearing about "Sea of Poppies" twice on NPR, here and here.

Specifically what interested me was the book's multicultural and multilinguistic texture.

This is best and most delightfully captured in the dialog of James Doughty, an English river pilot who's absorbed and adapted some native verbiage into his speech:
Now there was a lordly nigger if ever you saw one! Best kind of native -- kept himself busy with his shrub and his nautch-girls and his tumashers. Wasn't a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazig with shammers and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars. Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced simkin. And the karibat! In the old days the Rascally bobachee-connah was the best in the city. No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table. The dumbpokes and pillaus were good enough, but we old hands, we'd wait for the curry of cockup and the chitchky of pollock-saug. Oh he sat a rankin table I can tell you -- and mind you, supper was just the start: the real tumasher came later, in the nautch-connah. Now there was another chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Chunchunees whirling and tickytaw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!
Where for Doughty Hindusthani seems to take the place of every noun and adjective, for the much higher-stationed Mrs Burnham the language becomes a sidestreet for the discussion of things taboo to English tongues. Convinced a girl in her charge is pregnant, she reformulates the "bun in the oven" metaphor: "Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn't a rootie in the choola, is there?"

Writing a bit of postcolonial literature, Ghosh is able to evoke jaw-dropping expressions of imperialism that today ring absurd; yet these scenes never teeter over into something like satire or comedy. One gets the sense that British sahibs did in fact utter such nonsense circa 1838. Take for example this paraphrase of Justice Kendalbushe as he sentences Raja Neel Rattan Halder for forgery:
... since it was said, and rightly, that a parent who failed to chasten a child was thereby guilty of shirking the responsibilities of guardianship, then might it not also be said, in the same spirit, that in the affairs of men, there was a similar obligation, imposed by the Almighty himself, on those whom he had chosen to burden with the welfare of such races as were still in the infancy of civilisation? Could it not equally be said that the nations that had been appointed to this divine mission would be guilty of neglecting their sacred trust, were they to be insufficiently rigorous in the chastisement of such people as were incapable of the proper conduct of their own affairs?
Another delight of the book: At the very end of the book is a glossary, useful especially for parsing Doughty's cant. It is not called a glossary, though, but rather a "chrestomathy" (from the Greek khrestos, useful, and mathein, to know).

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hateful names

There's a father in New Jersey who is apparently having a laugh with the media.

Reporters have no doubt descended like locusts upon Heath Campbell of Holland Township, ever since word got out that a supermarket wouldn't make a birthday cake for his son, named Adolph Hitler Campbell.

Ancillary to the furor (or should I say F├╝hrer?) over the cake is Heath Campbell's yarn that Nazism is water under the bridge and how he's not really a bigot.

The Express-Times of Easton, Pa., seems to have the most thorough story so far (NYT hasn't touched it). The paper's reporter got a tour of the homestead, which has a swastika in every room. Heath and his wife, Deborah Campbell, both opine about how the symbol -- like the names of their 3-year-old son and two younger girls, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell -- doesn't mean what everyone thinks it means.
"It doesn't mean hatred to me," he said. Deborah Campbell said a swastika "doesn't really have a meaning. It's just a symbol."
Indeed the bent cross has its own long semantic chain that certainly doesn't always stand for slaughter. See Wikipedia.

But seriously. Do the Campbells really expect reporters and their readers to believe they named their children after Hitler and Himmler simply because the names were interesting? In diligent fairness, the reporters take down their quotes and call it a day, leaving it to the editorial writers to cut through the bullshit.

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Monday, December 08, 2008


Bruce Sterling sez:
Since we need a new word for neologism, I've decided to make one up. A word like "Eamespunk" is a "chronologism." It's not exactly cant, lingo or jargon, but it was designed with a short semiotic shelf-life. Some neologisms survive, most rapidly become archaeologisms, but a "chronologism" is *recyclable, 100% organic* neologism meant to decay gracefully and enrich the cultural compost.
We need a new word for neologism? e.g. a neologism for "neologism"? News to me.

The use of "semiotic" above is a bit imprecise; Bruce, God bless him, means either connotative or denotative. Eamespunk is the hipsterization of the work of 1950s kitsch furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, btw.

"Archeologism" doesn't mean what the author means either; rather, it is the exhuming of past practices, antiquarianism, even reversion to primitivism.

But I am intrigued by the idea of "chronologism."


Thursday, December 04, 2008

Voices for radio

The disembodied voices we hear on the radio sometimes take on, in our minds, bodies of their own. Or if not bodies, then at least some sort of aura that either coalesces or blows away when we see a photograph of the speaker in question.

Long ago and much to my chagrin I learned that Terry Gross, despite her intriguing voice, is not at all sexy looking. Diane Rehm, believe it or not, is way hotter.

About the time of the Sichuan earthquake, I logged on to npr.org to keep up with "All Things Considered," whose anchors happened to be right there. Somehow, Robert Siegel and Melissa Block looked exactly how I thought they should look.

The other day I found the directory of NPR personalities and clicked on the names of each host or reporter whose voice stands out for me. I can't say I had clear pictures of what I thought or wanted these people to look like; but each in real life is not what I expected.

Read the names, recall the voices, then click through. It's kind of a fun game. On the other hand, it's a little disappointing to have these larger-than-life voices suddenly embodied.

Tom Ashbrook (On Point): I like him more for his nimble thinking/summarizing/moderating style than for the quality or distinctiveness of his voice, but nonetheless...

Corey Flintoff (Iraq correspondent): He's got this unintentionally arrogant voice. Years ago whenever my dad and I would be listening in the car, we'd hear the signoff, "I'm Corey Flintoff," and my dad would add: "and you're not."

Michel Martin (Tell Me More): She's usually the first voice I hear when I get up, go about my morning routine, and head to work.

Michele Norris (All Things Considered): I would say she has the sexiest voice. The day after Thanksgiving she had the show all to herself, and the broadcast coincided for me with a long drive home. I was in heaven.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton (Africa correspondent): Amazing name and amazing accent, especially when she says "Dakar."

Kai Ryssdal (Marketplace): He sounds so slick I simultaneously hate him and want him to be my friend.

To conclude, here's the Dresden Dolls with a pained paean to a former NPR idol.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's the message?

Neal Conan on "Talk of the Nation" yesterday kept asking what message terrorists were trying to send by attacking Mumbai.

That's the type of question to prick up my ears, but thinking back on it hours later, I can't seem to recall any of the answers guests and callers may have supplied. And I can't supply a good answer myself.

The semiotician in me has always understood terrorism as a form of communication. An extreme one. A political tract or philosophical renunciation that is compressed and enunciated in unexpected, forceful action.

The thing about "26/11" (as some Indian media seem to be calling the attacks, which began Nov. 26 -- not as catchy or multilayered at 9/11) is that it just went on and on. As in the rambling babble of the radio program, whatever message there could have been lost cohesion.

The lasting imagery and resonance of 9/11, I think, is thanks to the abruptness of everything that happened that day. A plane hit a tower, then another plane hit another tower, then a plane hit the Pentagon, then one tower fell, then a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, then the other tower fell. Six distinct events that fit together like the wedges in a Trivial Pursuit game to form a single statement.

Of course, that statement is still being interpreted. But we can be assured it is singular and brief.

The one Mumbai terrorist captured by police reportedly said his aim was simply to kill as many people as possible. The 10 attackers focused their efforts on the multicultural city's tourist traps and international institutions.

The knee-jerk reaction to terror is to call it senseless violence. This ignores, for better or worse, the semiotic value of such extreme communication, attempts to render invalid, not worth discussing, the message the terrorist tries to convey. But here I'm hard pressed the suss out that message, or to believe in fact that there was one. I'll have to keep thinking on it.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Inside my accordion

My sweet squeezebox has a chromatic right-hand manual and a standard Stradello left-hand bass system. Nothing too fancy: just one register switch on each side. It's a Moreschi, made in Italy, serial No. 7701.

No idea when it was made or what it's worth. My only clue is in the maroon velvet-lined case, which has a tag indicating a 1931 patent. I bought it for $20 at a Salvation Army in 2003.

The high C# key hasn't been working properly, so Sunday I opened it up to see if I could fix the problem. I undid a number of screws that I didn't need to, losing track of one in the end. Turns out all I needed to do to check out the reeds was pull out six pins connecting the keyboard to the bellows.

The culprit seems to have been a tiny piece of cotton fluff, which I pulled out with tweezers. Certain reeds activate when you pull on the bellows, others work when you push. Thus, the key sounded in one direction but not the other.

After I'd closed everything up, one of the others keys started doing the same thing. Opening it again was no trouble. There was no fluff, but the reed seemed to be caught somewhat in its housing, so I just massaged it a little.

After closing up, it happened a third time to a third key. This time I just pulled real hard on the bellows, and that was that.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Cockney neck

The latest series of my favorite Britcom, The IT Crowd, is off to a brilliant start. Episode two riffed on the linguistics and the friendship effect of football fandom (though fandom of any type has its own vocabulary and brio, which comrades and poseurs inevitably must enunciate).

Watch from 1:09 to 1:59, and from 3:45 to 7:03.

The gag confirms something I've long suspected, that people become well-versed in the statistics and other minutiae of sport specifically for the purpose of making conversation. It's just one of many pathetic defenses against loneliness, one variation on something we all do, in various contexts.

Here I especially like that the heroes are working from a script, which is provided for them by a website tailored to people looking to bluff their way into a football coterie. Even those who haven't read the script follow it unknowingly.

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