Project WAMEDAC - Signs, Signifieds, & Contexts: The Stop Sign Introduction and Informing Recognition

Stop signs (Maria Heng)

Stop signs (Maria Heng)

            It would be good, at this early stage, to try and set out a simple, solid foundation for understanding some basics of a semiotic approach, in case readers that aren't familiar with it and don't want to spend more time on Wikipedia don't already want to completely abandon this thing. For such a task, I'll attempt a staple of explanatory semiotic metaphors: the stop sign. In semiotics (made up of semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics,) a sign is a particular instance of an observable input or stimulus that signifies, or triggers in the observer, a meaning of some sort. The meaning or understanding taken from observing a sign is usually called its "signified," and the observable unit of information (an abstract symbol, to a letter, a word, sentence, image, book, lighting in a photo, camera movement in a film scene, color of a character's hat, statistical analysis, anything) that triggered the making of the meaning or understanding taken from its observation is called the "sign." This relationship underlies the concept, and phenomenon, we refer to as significance.

            When you picture a stop sign, why are you picturing one in the streets? Probably at an intersection? (If you didn't, you probably have an atypical experience with an atypical stop sign.) Obviously we're likely to picture stop signs at intersections because that's where we mostly encounter them. (Not that they haven't been recontextualized and plastered all over fliers, brochures, presentation slides, graffiti, other signs, and much more.) Governing intersections was the reason they were invented, so the vast majority of the syntax, the dynamic, plastic, grammatical rules governing how we generate meaning from a stop sign, is heavily focused around streets, intersections, and motorized vehicles (as they certainly should be).

            We learn about stop signs in the context of driving: riding in the back seat when young and seeing how cars or your parents acted with and because of stop signs, the study manual when working towards your driver's license, the coaching and correction of your driving instructor when you moved out of turn order in an intersection, the scolding from a police officer for performing a "rolling stop," etc. These are the specific instances of social interaction that inform you of how most people in society understand the semantic sign of "stop sign," and more importantly, how different institutions or groups of people in society will judge your ability and willingness to understand and abide by that sign. The understanding you glean from those situations will then collectively form your understanding of what a stop sign means: how far from it to stop, how long you're legally required to stop, how long most people seem to think you should stop, how long you think you have to stop to not get pulled over, whether the "stop" command read from the sign applies to pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, etc. None of these many meanings, or understandings, that can be made from the sign of "stop sign" are at all present in the stop sign itself. They're all socially constructed and agreed-upon based on, to borrow a particular jargon, the particulars of the processes of production, distribution, and consumption of the sign. (Am I purposing a commentary on capitalism? Probably not, but the context makes it seem that way.)

            Every stop sign you've come to, or hear other's talk about, and the meaning you took from them, or your past experiences with the sign, collectively, are the context that then inform the meaning you understand from the next sign you come to and the particulars of its placement and surrounding context. The stop sign itself despite its largely pragmatic design, barely communicates anything. Meaning-wise, the stop sign is almost empty. It's just a hexagonal thing on a stick, colored red, with bright, reflective white borders and letters that give a command: STOP. These are all, of course, contextual cues that help you discern what a stop sign means, though. Just as the stop sign doesn't convey the majority of its own meaning, the phrase "stop sign" fails on the same grounds. "That is a stop sign." and I were to ask you to use the same sentence structure, but replace stop sign with what a stop sign means, or what you're supposed to do when you see a stop sign, you couldn't just say "That is a command to stop." Such a sentence fails to convey all the important information about a stop sign except the command to stop. You'd probably have to say something like, "That is where, when you're driving in a motorized vehicle, or some non-motorized vehicles (according to by-laws), you're supposed to come to a complete and full stop at the white line marked on the road, if one is present, and if not, at the stop sign or X feet behind, for X amount of seconds and in order to observe the intersection, whether two, three or four-way, and keep from entering the intersection if others are categorically supposed to proceed through it prior to you, etc. etc."

            Of all that (potential) meaning, how much of it is communicated by the stop sign itself? It's mostly communicated by other things: social things, not material things, like expressions from authority figures of various types. As individuals, as people, these authority figures, the instructors, parents, police, courthouse and DMV staff, etc., will emphasize and forget or ignore different aspects of a stop sign's "meaning" depending on their past experiences with that semiotic sign, again, their context for it. This causes them to inform you of only certain understandings of "stop sign," that vary between different sources. This patchwork reality of, say, safety and legal requirements as in this example, isn't as worrisome as it may seem at first, because if you had no conception at all about what a stop sign was supposed to be, do, or say, but you were familiar with cars, driving, traffic, and the local language, you wouldn't be too bad at your attempt to understand a stop sign by the particulars of how you encounter it: next to the street, facing a certain direction, colored and hyper-reflective to be eye-catching and important, containing an imperative command phrase to engage in a certain action commonly utilized and necessitated by the vehicles that use the street, etc.

            Internally (from our own past experiences) or externally (from the surroundings of a sign "in the wild"), thinking about an expression, making an expression, observing an expression, or understanding an expression, the entire meaning-making process occurs within various contexts, restricting and granting additional information for the process along the way. As an all-inclusive, meaning-making, pattern-working machine, our brain is tuned to heavily influence a sign's meaning with the context in which it appears at every single instance of its appearance. Ask anyone with a massive phobia, anxiety, or even just a single particularly traumatizing memory, and you'll quickly see how important each instance is for a sign's meaning (both in that the context of use for a single instance of a sign may be so powerful as to overwhelm any prior or future contexts one encounters the sign in [immersion therapy], and that a large series of barely variant uses of a sign across many instances can, over time, collectively and gradually lead to majorly significant difference in how the sign is read [cognitive behavioral therapy in general, I believe]). Hell, just study something for awhile (for too long, especially) if you doubt how powerfully each instance of encountering a sign can, singularly or cumulatively, alter how you see it, handle it, and think about it. (Thinking, of course, being a cognitive process, hence, pattern-based, hence input-and-its-relationships-based, and hence, sign-based. [I'm sure that's logically impenetrable.] [Think how different that last sentence would read if I emphasized "sure" instead of "that."] [Guess what? You just cognitively changed the significance of an instance of a sign with contextual information!])

            One of the most complex, and often difficult, parts of understanding the basics of signs and their signifieds is that the terms are largely used relativistically, precisely in relation to the concepts being discussed at the time. Anything can be a sign or signified, as they are categorical terms for concepts. The categories merely explain which is the impetus and which is the result of a process of association and pattern-work, like the negative and positive ends of a battery (the meaning-making process, of course, being the power-bearer in that simile). Since signs are largely most relevant to cognitive and communicative acts, it's important to note that all words are signs, empty of meaning without being informed by context, both of use in an expression and of previous understanding in a receiving. This, of course, isn't limited by hierarchy. Letters are signs as well. So are sentences. Phonemes and genres can be signs. Nor is this limited laterally, as expressions and representations of all forms and in all mediums are signs, meaningless without a signified that's entirely dependant upon context: shapes, brush strokes, colors, titles, frames, angles, dances, positioning, relations, etc. They're all absent of intrinsic meaning, granted significance by how we observe and receive them.

            Therein lies one of the great intrigues of both communication and cognition for me: all of their constituent parts, at whatever level of analysis, are intrinsically empty, meaningless, in effect, useless without being informed by a collection of specifics unique to each instance of their appearance and their specific mode of expression. Yet, cognition drives and communication spreads anything and everything that we could possibly see as important. Those processes are engines that burn fuel tokens, rather than the real thing. (Or is fuel itself the token of the energy contained therein?) Any casual glance around the modern world will demonstrate the power of these referential imitations of meaning. We're all well aware of the impact of thinking and talking, of course, but it all takes a slightly different bend when perceived as thought and speech, not only in, but produced with full reliance on infinitely variable, diverse, and interrelated echo chambers or halls of mirrors (or similarly near-infinitely recursive structure). It's easy to take this "words (concepts or signs) only make sense when we use other words (concepts or signs) to explain them" model of communication and cognition and feel hopeless or exacerbated about the ever-out-of-reach goal of objective definition and truth. I think a big part of the frustration with that conception is that people tend to view it as the conclusion of long lines of serious philosophical thought, one attempt at finally explaining the reality, and more subtly the purpose, of all of our vast and never-too-important efforts in understanding and being understood. And in that attempt, many people can easily construe said results as a failure of some kind, based on what they, say, want the reality and purpose of it all to be. But, while such a finding certainly was reached by concerted, studious work by educated thinkers, in my opinion, it shouldn't be viewed as the result of any process, but rather a description of a naturally occurring conceptual backdrop that all of our meaning-making attempts have occurred in front of, and must occur in front of for us to dynamically and fluidly bend, twist, manipulate, and misunderstand so many of our meanings so often and so easily.

            The idea that we have to always defer meaning to something else, always have to refer to another's words, or our words from another time, is an attempt at describing how cognition creates significance. Nothing would be significant if there weren't a cognitive experiencer to attribute significance to it. (Whether this is a consciousness/no consciousness or a human/animal distinction depends on your perception.) What, then, becomes the significance of things that require cognitive experiencers to attribute them with their own significance? Well that is the basis for the (as far as I can tell) only singularly unifying feature of all cognitive and communicative processes and attempts: they all require recognition (consciously or not) of an external within the internal; every sign, and bit of significance you can give it, requires one to not only bring that sign into their brain, but also to include it within their conceptual experience. Every bit of import that we give something relies on us in order to be important to us, and similarly, every bit of import someone else gives something (maybe our views or maybe, simply, us) relies on them in order to be important to them.

            How is this inter-reliant structure of signification, importance, or gravitas a better conception of the process analyzed than the "words only mean words" conception? The latter sets the conceptual backdrop for our meaning-making as though things without inherent significance are inherently meaningless. I find that idea almost a little offensive, almost as though something must literally possess the qualities that we appreciate in it, otherwise it has no conceivable use. Instead, the acknowledgement that meaning and significance are reliant on the recognition of others brings to the forefront the importance of what we, as social beings, have, hopefully, appreciated all along: connectivity, collective accomplishment, social negotiation, and more. Just as no one succeeds or fails alone, our units of discourse and thought require the input from or use of others' units of discourse and thought to make sense. Semiotics, with its sign-based analyses, grants us (or rather, we grant each other through it) not only the possibility of collaboratively producing something of great weight and import, but the requirement to do so. The signs, and by extension those trying to use them, need us to accept some level of the meaning attributed to them by others for any productive dialog to occur. We, and our thoughts, are only significant when cognitively recognized as such. While some may see that as a depressingly isolating feature of sociability, I actually see it as kind of an elegantly beautiful manifestation of the values and dreams many of us have long-held for society as a whole: a collectively-grounded structure of significance and recognition. Solidarity-seekers, proponents of democracy, free-association anarchists, and many others could have a multitude of field days with that, as long as no one makes them recognize a sign telling them to stop.