Project WAMEDAC - Of Arrows, Emoticons, & Plural-Logos: Unseeing, Negative Creation, and Re-Cognition

            Ever notice how you can't "unsee" some things? I'm not talking about terrifying imagery like a particularly stomach-churning horror movie scene or a roommate or relative with a strong dispreference for pants when lounging around the house. That's a different, but highly related, kind of unseeing I might write a little about later. But right now, I'm talking more like text emoticons, the arrow in that FedEx logo, or any other of the variety of multi-message logos. The people (fewer and fewer, these days) that haven't seen some of the most basic emoticons would be quite confused as to what a letter-writer might mean if they pen "=P", or how "equals 'P'" is at all sequitor to the letter's content, nevermind that it could have a meaning more complex than just a representation of a facial expression. However, once you're in on the secret, it's practically impossible to not see that dumb little face with a tongue sticking out, and to similarly read a tone, or a twist in meaning, to interpret said letter in.

            Of course, this kind of visual form of polysemy is present in plenty of forms outside of text and logos: there are a variety of optical illusions that function on this premise, and pretty entertaining games like "FindFaces in Things."

            There's an auditory or aural version of this phenomenon as well. I can't hunt down the name for it right now, but it's a sort of expectation-observation effect, or confirmation bias. You know how you've not been able to understand what's said in one or two spots in some of your favorite songs? The singer slurred it a little too much, or their track was turned too low, and you just couldn't tell. Then, someone tells you what is being said there, and you listen again. Suddenly, that's what you hear. Now, that's all you can hear there. It fits so well with the themes and other verses of the song, completing it in such a great way that you have a renewed love for it. For weeks, you get a little rush when you listen to the song again, because now you can sing along to the whole thing! Then, you find out what that someone told you was dead wrong, and something else is actually said there. That something else makes so much more sense, and now that's all you can hear. While it fits in the song even better, maybe you don't enjoy it as much because now you feel kind of stupid about it all. But still, if you try real hard, and think about it, you can still hear that first interpretation you were told, and you smile a bit, thinking about, I don't know, youthful indiscretions or some shit.

            Well, you accidentally stumbled into the always-expanding world of semiotics, the study of signs. "Unseeing" is an interesting concept from that perspective. Traditionally, it is an adjective, understood as "not-seeing," but common usage amongst younger people these days approaches the term as a verb, from the concept of "to-no-longer-see-what-has-been-seen" or "reversing-a-prior-act-of-seeing." This shift changes the concept from a passive description to an active prescription of something, from experiencing to creating, or reading to writing. (If you want to get really esoteric: from science to magic.) No longer is it about a sensing organ failing in its function, but rather it's about an agent, an experiencer, disliking their observation (or the meaning they gather from it) and hoping to reverse it without any actual, direct action. How does someone unsee something? It's certainly not a physical action you carry out with your body. So then how might someone unsee something? It involves re-encoding how their mind reads that something, that sign. They have to re-assign a different meaning to it than the one they found they didn't like. (This paragraph could be barely rephrased into a description of ironic youth counter-culture, if you try hard enough.)

            Everything above is a very small slice of the process of meaning-making, a semiotic process constituted by negotiations, both social and with one's own cognitive reasoning. It's what we do to learn, modify, or gain new understandings of the meanings of all words, symbols, gestures, or any other type of sign we generate a meaning from interacting with. Said meaning-making is always a process with multiple inputs, it necessitates interaction between previous information and new stimuli, on some level. Those interactions can come from inputs as basic and immediate as your understanding of terms, dialects, and sub-cultural norms in your particular region or circle or the medium in or tone with which certain lyrics are presented, or as complex and particular as one's interpretation of centuries of history or whether cysteine HCl acidification sufficiently increases calcium/phosphate solubility in hyperalimentation solutions enough to be an avenue for cost-savings. They can be as singular and internally sourced as your level and style of media literacy and concepts of ownership and copyright or your own inner monologue's pep talks in certain stressful situations, or as collective and externally sourced as someone's demonstrative drawings of someone else's lecture or how certain writers, producers, directors, cinematographers, lighting technicians, editors, other crew, and audiences reimagine stories.

            So what are the role and function of the modern usage of unseeing or unhearing within the frame of meaning-making? If someone says, "I wish I could unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo," they're expressing a desire to not have the sign and concept of "arrow" recalled by their cognitive processes when it observes the sign of "the FedEx Logo," particularly when they could easily notice how closely the negative space between the "E" and "x" resembles an arrow sign. Unseeing is a semantic construct and operation that, when faced with a plurality of legitimate meanings evoked by a sign, is utilized by an experiencer as an attempt to not only remove themselves entirely from any interaction with that meaning, but to undo what little interaction with it was previously suffered. Un-seeing takes that step beyond no-longer-seeing, hoping to re-write the sign that triggered the meaning we wish was un-seen. Go ahead and look back at the W in the WAMEDAC logo, trying to NOT see the arrows (that are there), instead seeing just the negative space around the W (that is also there). You can do it, but it takes effort. It's also probably harder when you're consciously trying to do it, because your brain's more aware of the patterns it's trying to not associate (because it has to recollect them somewhat in order to guard against their recognition). To unsee those arrows would be to re-code how your brain processes certain signs and their associated patterns of meaning, to have a certain stimulus NOT interact with the existing information in your mind.

            With the vast reach and commonality of the Seeing is Knowing metaphor in our communications and cognitions ("I see." "Can you show me how?," "They left me in the dark." "That really illuminated things!" "[as instruments fail] I'm flying blind!" "I just didn't see all the possibilities."), the base goal of unseeing is clear: to un-know, to un-think, to divorce from cognition, to take away from the realm that constitutes our reality. This seems like a pretty reasonable solution to the immediate problem, if achievable. Unfortunately, it's fraught with the paradox that to un-cognitize something, one must re-cognitize/recognize it. In other words, there must be or must have been a presence for there to be an absence. Ask most Canadians what makes up their national culture, and one of their first three features will probably have to do with how they are not American. A substantial part of Canadian culture, and even more so of outsiders' perceptions of Canadian culture, is definition by negation. Similarly, ask an American what a Western nation is, and they'll quickly bring in what an Eastern nation is. (This is not in the least unique to areas determined to be "culture," but a very common feature of relative spectrums that people try to understand as either-or binaries. [Gender, sexuality, skin color, adherence to, and granularity or specificity of religious beliefs, etc.] The binary essential treats the two extreme ends of a spectrum as the only conceivable options, while in reality, most of the time, neither of those extremes can be defined in their own terms, divorced from any comparative reference to the other extreme, for the simple reason that it doesn't exist outside of socio-semantic construction. It's the simplest way to provide the appearance of substance to your position in an argument: contrast it with another position your audience already assumes has substance or legitimacy. But I digress...)

            Some of the risks inherent to attempting to deny a concept legitimacy, to obliterate a meaning, or try to perform an act of "negative semantics" of a sort, quickly become obvious: not only is the "what-is" that must be invoked to create the "what-is-not" different for every person, since we all have our own complex understandings of what it is to, say, be American or Western, but also, and more impactfully, meaning "cannot be destroyed, only forgotten – more precisely, the last carrier may be lost, be it a book or a human memory" (Sec 5.3). Meaning, as remembered and instanced sets of cognitive pattern-associations, can only be created, added-to (some may say "modified"), and lost. The brain isn't a closed, well-monitored system that selectively takes certain things in and can selectively spit certain things back out. It's a very open system that almost constantly uses all the senses available to it to harness and categorize as much input as it can, in accordance with how it's categorized previous inputs, and tag it for short-or-long-term memory (reservation or preservation) or not at all.

            The info and ideas that get inputted and combined, opposed, or otherwise associated, will eventually disappear if not refreshed enough, but that process is a very ambiguous one that we have pretty much no acceptably objective perspective on. We don't know when we've forgotten something, or no longer make a certain association in our heads. That is, of course, until we remember it, refreshing it, then we can resume defining what we don't do by what we used to do. One may ask, "Well, if a code, a meaning, an association, is completely forgotten, all of its carriers are completely lost, is that not, then, completely destroyed? Or, at least, close enough to not matter?" The question then becomes one of recreation versus recognition. There is no individual object that no longer exists, even if an imitation or recreation could be newly fashioned, but rather there is a pattern of attributive meaning that could be fully, independently re-invented simply by recognizing it. "But does not the re-cognition of the pattern or association necessitate a new entity, in a new carrier, with its own particulars of meaning and interpretation different from the original? Inferring the previous is gone?" The previous was never a concrete object that could be "gone" to begin with, but a process of interpretation engaged with by the carriers of the code, of the association. An independent re-invention/recognition is a proposition of associations between pieces of information, between stimuli, that are more-or-less completely congruent to the associations proposed in the original meaning.

            It's like the difference between a wood board being a single object that can be destroyed and the uses for said board being an indefinite plurality that, once conceived, exist for all intents and purposes. When all the uses for a board are forgotten, it's not that the uses all no longer exist, but the associations between the board and problems that can be solved with it are no longer carried by people or text or any other expressions. Likewise, if the board is destroyed, all those potential uses for said board no longer exist in relation to that board, but they certainly do persist in relation to any other board, or the concept of a "board of wood" in general. If the uses are forgotten, the associations lost, they have infinite possibility to still exist, as long as there are wooden boards that someone could find a use for. There is no particular singular instance of a use for a general wooden board that you can prove (or evidence) does not exist. That's reserved for the physical object of the particular piece of wooden board being observed which, if you burned, you could say, "It no longer exists in its original board shape."

            The particulars are that the uses for a wooden board, the associated meanings one can generate from it, only exist as instances when we enact them in physical action of some sort, whether it be burning it for heat, using it to build a shelter, carving a stake out of it, identifying the type of wood it is, counting the rings to figure out the tree's age, etc. Otherwise, all the uses, once they're conceived, simply do and will continue to exist within the semantic realm. Once created, they don't have to continually maintain a constant physical presence to continue to exist. The uses are a part of the realm of possibility, they are understandings and associations that can potentially be "read" from that physical stimulus to generate a meaning somewhat congruent to that use. As long as the signs can be expressed, understood, and communicated, the forgotten associations, the forgotten meanings can be recalled or brought back. If you don't see a FedEx truck or this blog's header graphic for years and years, then catch a glimpse of one, you could still generate the same meaning. And that remains true even if you forgot about it so completely that you would forever swear that the second time you noticed it was the first. If an understanding of fire is completely lost by humanity, a future specimen could see what happens to wood when wildfire hits it and start to experiment with wood in relationship to fire, setting them on, eventually, roughly, retracing the path. Certainly the specifics and nuances of a recalled meaning would be different, but the original was never a static entity to begin with, altered, tweaked, and blended every time it was instanced in thought or expression. All of semiotics is dynamic, fluid, and different for all, unlike physical objects, but not unlike physical objects' interpretations (see: art and/or sentimentality and/or nostalgia and/or etc.).

            Since meaning, pattern associations, and (I would assume) information can't be destroyed, unseeing or unthinking appear to be impossible tasks. As such, they're good demonstrative examples of the additive and ever-constructive nature of semantic processes. Once stimuli are received, and once associations are made, they exist, eternally, even when forgotten. They pass from their perpetuity in the realm of the possible to that of the actual in the synaptic flicker of a millisecond of cognition, or into the physical with a manifestation via expression; then they reinstate their place, and their authority, with each moment of observation and recognition. Once something is sensed or thought, it takes incredible mental energy, or very particular and taxing cognitive structuring, to ignore it as legitimate on some level and in some (maybe bizarre) fragment of reality. That's the (unsurprising) nature of a neurological processing center that evolved as a survival mechanism. A brain can't afford to completely and utterly destroy information it observes (even if it were possible) because, in the end-game, that would only lower its survival chances, however minimally, just by being less informed. Whether or not other possibilities existed in the earliest moments of evolution or abiogenesis for a different structure of meaning-making than what we have now, I think we can all agree that the brain that doesn't destroy information or meaning, but instead only generates and releases them, re-actualizing them when needed and observable, would likely imbue life with both better problem-solving, more possibilities, and a greater capacity for understanding.

            The most important thing to take away from this approach to recognition, in my opinion, is that our minds, the mediators and governors of all our thoughts and experiences, are built upon an inclusive structure. Our cognitive reasoning is constructed to take the new and incorporate it into our perspective, our worldview, by finding whatever relationship or association with which it makes sense to what already exists in our world. If it can't find a way in which it meshes, it will categorize it as "nonsensical," but not as "illegitimate" or "nonexistent" as a construct. Once observed or thought, it's near impossible to qualify an opinion, a viewpoint, an interpretation, an object, or an event as not conceptually valid. One may disagree with it completely, be 100% certain it does not represent reality, not at all believe it would ever be a possibility, or anything along those lines, but it is a different story to try and say it's not conceivable or an actual, existing concept. Even the unimaginable, like "an unseen color," has conceptual legitimacy. How do I know? Well how the hell did you know what I meant with those words? You may not be able to imagine it, visually represent it in a mental space of your own construction, but you generate a meaning from those signs that's fairly congruent with what I intended to mean.

            The congruities between the above understandings of the structure of inclusive cognition and conceptual legitimacy and those of the structure of progressive and humanistic solidarity-seekers' ("solidarians'"?) ideas of communal inclusion and human rights legitimacy are many and, in my opinion, can be quite powerful or even poetic. They're similarities I'll be returning to pretty routinely here. Think on them awhile, and do more reading and viewing elsewhere. Maybe the similarities will start to wash over you, and hopefully one day, the meaning of concepts like "social inclusion," "collaboration," and "providing" will be undivorcible from concepts like "humanity," thought," or "reality" for you. Maybe you'll forever see the plurality of one and the other within the same sign, unified and inseparable, like the "We" in "WAMEDAC" or that god damned FedEx Arrow™.  =P