Catwalk hats

As with yesterday, today has been a Wikipedia day. Less editing this time, however: more engagement in trying to work out what on earth semiotics actually is. I’m reading a collection of Umberto Eco‘s essays on fakes, hyperreality, signs and denotata, and it’s a consistently interesting read. Looking on the wiki says that semiotics is a branch of human geography and aha! my interest is again piqued.

But I think my interest in geography is along different lines. For while there’s much of interest in the critical discourse analysis, postmodernist theory and the other abstractions of the discipline, I tend to look for a practical application to all that I do – whether I am always successful is another matter, and whether I’m right to do so, another matter again.

To me, postmodernism, for example, is something of a synecdoche of something much larger, the tendencies of the learned to display their learning via ever more abstract, complex and arguably reality-challenged routes. The argument for is something of a catwalk hat theory – begin with something so out-of-touch it’s almost ludicrous, then it filters and filters, bounces off one thing and squeezes past another like a giant game of Kerplunk, until finally a usable, sensible version of the original theory finds a practical home in day to day living. The idea is that these grandiose theories will at some point in the future have a practical application, and therefore it’s worthwhile studying them. I’m all for this; after all, how does anything progress without those willing to stick their necks out a bit.

But for me, I like it when there’s an immediate point and purpose to something I do. It’s why I enjoy the music of Four Tet, say, or Mogwai: these are artists who can pull together disparate strands of otherwise unrelated noise and blend them into a cohesive whole. There’s a purpose behind them: not for Keiran Hebden the icily-detached nature of other glitchy electronica; instead a warmth, a structure and an entire discourse in three minutes. It’s the same in literature – I admire Eco for his literary skill as much as his philosophical talents: I’m carried away by Foucault’s Pendulum, with it’s vast, sweeping gathering together of hopelessly huge sets of information and speculation.

Eco’s semiotics seems to fall into that category (like postmodernism) where there’s so much going on, but no-one would ever be able to give you a decent, straightforward definition. Certainly, what breaks down from semiotics is much more approachable (see Roland Barthes’ social semiotics, or musical semiology), just like postmodernism has practical outlets (architecture, music, anti-racist maths…), so there’s hope for me yet. I’ve been looking again into what I’ll be studying next year: it’s pretty exciting.


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