The Semiosphere: A Serious Affair of the Mind
Timothy D. Stephen
This is a story of George, his romantic difficulties, and his adventures as a disembodied center of consciousness struggling to preserve his sense of self in the world of pure symbols, a world thrown into chaos by the advent of modernity. If you’re an illustrator and would like to work on this project, please get in touch. Of course, I’d love to hear from you if you have any comments at all.
The numbers refer to explanatory footnotes from the relevant scientific and philosophical literatures from which the story is derived. I’ll upload them in due course.
Here are the first two chapters. More to come …
George and Jane
George Vocable was a crack lexicographer, and sometimes it seemed that had been preordained. As a kid George drove his parents nuts badgering them about word meanings. Barely out of kindergarten, he pelted them with questions like: “If we add “in” to “discreet” to communicate that something is not discreet, how does it make sense that we add “in” to “flammable” to communicate something is highly flammable?”, “Why do we drive on the parkway and park on the driveway?”, “If a vegetarian is someone who eats vegetables, why isn’t a humanitarian someone who eats people?”, and “Why doesn’t locomotive mean crazy reason?” He was incessant. One day in Sunday school, when his teacher opened the Bible to the Gospel of John and solemnly intoned, “In the beginning was the word …”,1 before she could say anything else, little George jumped to his feet, slammed his fist on his desk, and demanded to know just what word that was, and how could the very first word have any meaning since words take their meanings from their association with other words, and if it was the .first word, there weren’t any other words.2 That day the Sunday school teacher decided to change jobs.
But as it happens sometimes, the eccentricities of the child find new possibilities for expression in the adult world. Eventually George went to university and got a degree in historical linguistics that landed him a dream job on the staff. of the Oxford English Dictionary, the world’s great authority on the English language. This was a happy career for George and all the more so because it was at the OED that George met and fell for Jane Herder, a brilliant specialist in early English sociolinguistics.3 They loved to go for walks together. George would point out objects with obscure names which Jane would then historically deconstruct. At the vegetable stand Jane told George how the avocado traced its name to the Aztecs, who thought the fruit looked like large green testicles and named it using their word for the male gonad, “abuakatl”, which the Spanish rendered as “avocado”. This gave them the giggles and led to lots of suggestive talk about fruit snacks and guacamole.
To the average person on the street George and Jane were fantastically boring people, but not to each other. Without being aware of it, through their many conversations they had aligned most of their thoughts. Indeed, they had become so close that they had actually started to generate new words of their own, that only they understood, and to refashion old ones for their own purposes. In fact, they talked so often and so happily about the world and each other, and about all the endless things and ideas and experiences, that before long it was as if they had cocooned themselves together in a chrysalis of private understanding, a sunny one that gave them a deep sense of connection. Their little universe of shared meaning had become so important for them that meeting again after a period away from each other felt like coming home from a long trip through foreign lands. And sometimes they would affectionately celebrate their reunion by purposefully using words that had particular and private significance for them, like “gruts”, a word they’d jokingly made-up which they used to name every sort of food, no matter what it was. They enjoyed asking each other what they’d like for dinner because when the other answered “gruts!” they’d smile at each other and feel at home.4
They rarely disagreed except in jest. But, one day, as they walked along the path next to a charming country stream, after they’d passed a couple going the other way who appeared to be having an argument, George remarked on the culture’s deteriorated understanding of the word marriage, that it had lately become much abused because people no longer understood its historically close association with the practice of ”coverture”, in which a woman on her wedding day yielded up her legal independence to become an extension of her husband, submissive to his authority, her legal identity “covered” by his.5 According to George “marriage” had a particular meaning, which, in it’s being largely lost, family life now suffered. Jane found George’s remarks alarming and quickly interjected. “George,” she said, “the word marriage has always had multiple meanings that differed from culture to culture, and, anyway, all meaning evolves historically. And, moreover, no matter what’s been recorded about people’s understanding of the idea of marriage in former times, you know that language isn’t a catalog of truth; words don’t have fixed meanings. Language is an ever-evolving system for reasoning and building community that necessarily paints the world in different ways as circumstances change. Yesterday’s meanings for words are of little importance against those people construct together in the present, such words becoming the living fabric of their bonds of community. Anyone silly enough to think that words have static meanings would probably think that because the second amendment of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to bear arms, every American is entitled to own a machine gun and a flame thrower. And, at any rate, how could anyone but an insensitive male ass think that any legal arrangement that places one sex in subordination to the other was moral?” “But Jane,” a now red-faced George objected, “a potato is a potato; it cannot be a turnip. Words reflect reality and the carefully determined order of things, they can’t be allowed to change to mean whatever we wish. What if everyone ran around calling things anything they liked? No one would understand each other, all contract law would go out the window, there would be no possibility of meaningful international treaties, every group of nut cases looking to dodge their taxes would declare themselves a religious organization, and the next thing you know, marriage will be permitted to refer to a union between a man and his donkey.” Horrified, Jane took a long cold look at George and said, “You know bubby, you might just do better with a donkey.” and then she shoved past George a little harder than she had intended, so that he lost his balance and had to step backward into the stream as she stomped out of his life.
After that day George was very unhappy. He often thought of calling Jane to try to patch things up but each time he took out his phone he put it back again after reflecting on how wrong she was about language, how her irresponsible views would lead to societal pandemonium and, worse, to him probably having to swallow his dignity to go on with her, living as though he believed in something he didn’t. George was so vexed in his anguish and conflict that he availed himself of almost any activity that would provide escape. And so, one evening, after drinking far too much at a particularly raucous party with fellow lexicographers at the Etymologist’s Club, snockered George teetered through the doorway of his Richmond Street apartment with an ominously queasing knot in his stomach, his vision more than slightly unstable. His head felt like it was rolling on his shoulders, having lost his neck somewhere, and when he closed his eyes, things got dramatically worse. So, allowing himself to fall against the hallway wall for support, George slid himself along the paneling into his bathroom in search of a bromide. Just as he stepped into the room George’s foot caught the edge of the throw rug and, instinctively reaching to catch his fall, his arm whacked the lamp. The bulb spit brightly with a pop and went out, leaving a faint smell of oxidized metal that threatened to push George’s nausea over the tipping point. Now groping in the dark, George grabbed a box from the medicine chest, shook the contents into a half glass of water and threw the fizzing liquid down his throat. He barely made it to his bed.
When George regained consciousness things were unmistakably Not Normal. He seemed to have no arms or legs; in fact, he didn’t appear to have any body at all (and, even more curious, he wasn’t sure he could say what an “arm” or a “leg” or a “body” was). He could hear his thoughts but, like an aphasic, he wasn’t sure with what (or even what a thought was). His analytical mind seemed to be operating at a significant remove, as if he was watching the world through the little black and white monitor of a remote security camera. Near-in, his mental experience wasn’t expressed in words, just in images, urges, and feelings. Visually, he seemed to be suspended in a kind of dense, purple-black liquid, shrouded in fog.6 It was eerily silent and, since there were no visual horizons, he didn’t know where he was. If he could command the words that would have permitted it, he might well have wondered for a moment if he was in some demented psychologist’s sensory deprivation chamber. In time though, he became aware of brief flashes of illumination in a sort of dark blue neon, and of feelings like pain and warmth. But he had no sense of motion, or of left or right, or of up or down (and, of course, he didn’t know what any of those ideas meant). Utterly disoriented, floating in the mirror-like reflectivity of the inky liquid, he couldn’t tell where the sky began and the surface of the liquid ended, or even if there was a sky or a surface (or, for that matter, what a “sky” or a “surface” was). He might be in motion, but he couldn’t know it since there was no point of reference to use to determine his direction of travel or extent of movement. Suspended in this weird new condition of being, he gradually became aware of the strangest part of all: no longer dwelling in his normal human body, his conscious awareness seemed to be centered in a collection of letters, 2 e’s, 2 g’s, an o, and an r, floating in a particular order, which happened to spell out “g e o r g e”. He perceived that this provided a point of focus for his sense of being and possibly signified who he was, but, if it did, he didn’t know what it meant.
Somehow he had been changed into a group of consonants and vowels. Of course this was shocking, but, for George (and here, gentle reader, we have to pause this story to imagine, as some do, that George possessed a built-in capacity for analytical thought operating at some more primitive level than we normally experience,7 because, though George had consciousness, he didn’t have language, and, you see, without language, the full universe of ideas, values, objects, and distinctions that we all effortlessly fly around in just doesn’t exist) … Now, to get back to our narrative, what was especially unnerving was that George had no idea what he signified or his function in the language, or his etymology. What kind of word was g.e.o.r.g.e.? Was he a verb or a noun? If he was a noun, he hoped he stood for something important and beneficial, like “dignity” or “inspiration”. Perhaps he expressed something innovative and unique: a fine idea like ”vaccination”, “democracy”, or “recycling” that could energize others, solve problems, and contribute to the common good. But, he realized, he could just as easily stand for something awful, like “fascism”, “bubonic plague”, “poop”, or even “politician”. There was also the possibility that he might only be something like a passing thought, a slang neologism trendy in the moment but soon forgotten. Then again, he worried that, like a drone bee in a overpopulated hive, he might have such a huge number of synonyms that it would be difficult to make out his own distinction. In a particularly upsetting moment he wondered if perhaps he was just an alphabetic representation of some meaningless sound like “ah choo” or “oink”. The uncertainty of his situation filled him with anxiety.
Without access to any of the words people use to think about time, he was incapable of sensing minutes or hours, or the days of the week, or the past or future. In fact, without language, he had no memory in the normal way that we experience it.8 He could sense when he was near something familiar but without words he had no way of differentiating or indexing experience. Even if he had been looking straight at it, he could not have contemplated a view of the sun in an azure sky setting over a beautiful sandy beach because without language he didn’t have the words that would permit him to distinguish “sun”, “azure”, “sky”, “over”, “beach”, “sand”, or “water” and could not know what the idea of “beautiful” was about. Words carve up the world of experience into meaningful objects.9 No words? No objects. So, like all preverbal children, George was carried along timelessly and thoughtlessly in a seamless flow of largely undifferentiated images and sensations. Without the capacity for analytical memory, he drifted in the mystery of life like a giant untethered question mark, unsure of his definition, purpose, or significance, and utterly alone. He tried to orient to his weird new situation as a sound pattern expressed in letters floating by himself in formless, timeless space. His feelings ping-ponged between a kind of awe, and gnawing anxiety, and his sense of awe was fading while his anxiety was changing to electrified panic. As far as he could tell he was utterly alone and had no meaning.