Saturday, October 22, 2011

Semiotics and Linguistics

The following essay by Steven Johnson (that's Johnson in the photo at right) was published on October 14th, 2011 in the New York Times. It makes an argument for the residual value of semiotics, a science of signs with roots in linguistics.

"It is an occupational hazard of being a writer to be appalled by the prose style you deployed in your youth. Most of the time the flaws reflect unchecked enthusiasm, or literary clich├ęs that have not yet worn away, or a certain inability to settle on a defined voice. But reading my own college juvenilia, I have a strange and almost total sense of disconnection. This is from a paper I wrote at the age of 19:

“The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative always lies in its own effaced and circuitous recourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the rigidity and insistence of its taxonomies and the facility with which it relegates each vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciative formations testifies to a constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or comply with the linguistic form it examines.”

"I was a sophomore in college, and my voice on the page sounded like that of a 60-year-old Sorbonne professor, badly translated from the French.

"But writing those sentences — and there are thousands like them still tracing their vagabond utterances on my hard drive — turned out to be a critical part of my education. I was, you see, a semiotics major at Brown University, during a remarkable spell in the 1980s when semiotics was allegedly the third-most-popular major in the humanities there, despite being a field (and a word) that drew nothing but blank stares at family cocktail parties and job interviews. “Ah, semiotics,” a distant relative once said to me during winter break. “The study of how plants grow in light. Very important field.”

Click here to read the rest of the article.