First off, a Roast Beef-esque comment: “I’m the one who sucks.” More accurately, “I’m the one who, in trying to figure out why she couldn’t get her phone to connect to her home wireless network when she should’ve been sleeping, successfully screwed up her wireless internet settings to the point that the only fix was a reset to factory defaults, which she did again when she should’ve been sleeping, and in such a fit of frustrated pique that she didn’t back up her contacts database first.”
Short form of the above, if you gave me your contact information any time in the last year, I don’t have it now. If you’d like me to have it, please send it to me. Next time, I promise I’ll think really hard about waiting until morning before losing my cool at a piece of unfeeling technology next time. =x.x=
Now what am I gonna do about my problems?
With that lovely preliminary out of the way, two recent conversations have been weighing on me of late. These thoughts have been swirling around now for some time, and I’ve made some effort into encapsulating them and making them meaningful, but I’m not really sure that I’ve done a good job of it up until now. I’m not even really sure that I’m going to do any better this time, but I think I’ve dwelt on these concepts long enough internally, and so it’s time to push them out of the nest to see if they fly.
The human brain relies on labels. We name and categorize, because verbal learning is something that we’re good at doing, and because it’s convenient for the transmission of ideas. Semiotically, we depend on signifiers to convey intent and meaning about the signified. I recognize that some branches of Eastern philosophy directly oppose this idea, but ironically I have nothing to say about any belief system that holds that to name something is to destroy it.
Unfortunately, as I’m sure everyone has experienced at some point, the map between signifier and signified is an intensely personal one. I’m convinced that everyone has, at some point or another, attempted to talk to someone else and, despite every attempt to come to common ground, failed to make sense of what the other has said. In this, I see communication as an existential crisis. In order for me to say something to you, whoever you are, I must first encode my thoughts, my signified, into a signifier, which you must then decode. Worse, in order to explain my encoding algorithm, I must use it. I can’t share with you how I translate signified into signifier without… translating signifieds into signifiers and then trusting you to translate them back in the same way. No two people can communicate with each other beyond the extent to which their encoding and decoding routines overlap, and the degree of that overlap is the degree to which people can actually share ideas with each other.
This isn’t to say that we can’t learn to communicate with each other, but the process by which we learn to communicate is an essentially non-verbal method. We come to understand, through exposure and effort, the signifieds to which others refer when they use their signifiers, and we learn how to adjust our own signifiers to refer to the same signifieds when trying to communicate with those people. So, not only is the map personal, but it’s intersubjective as well. When I say something to one person, I may mean something different from when I say the same thing to another person, simply because I’m trying to adjust for the maps that those people use to decode signifier back to signifed.
If all of this seems complex and convoluted, keep in mind that most of this happens at the sub- or semi-conscious level. We don’t, for the most part, think about our language in this way. We simply pick up on these things over time, growing our maps as we interact with people. We identify those people with whom we don’t share enough of a communication grid to try to make headway and we remove them from our social circles. We learn the trigger words and phrases that cause others to go into frothy rants and then talk around them. Very rarely is this a deliberate, conscious effort.
I should note that we do this with non-verbal communication, as well. Arms crossed, leaning forward versus back, hands in the pockets, the slouch, the scissorclip walk. We learn to communicate through our body language, our imagery, our clothing and hair. We project information through a broad set of signifiers, all aiming to convey a certain set of signifieds that we hope others can decode.
I’ll also note that the map between signifier and signified is a many-to-many relationship. I can have multiple ways of saying the same thing, such as a smile, a hug, a handshake, and the word, “hello” said with joy in my voice. I can bundle a great many signifieds into a single signifier, such as when I attempt to convey both the sense of warmth and the fear of being hurt in the statement, “religion is like fire.”
Now, in the past, this would be the point at which I jump in and say that my map is disjoint. However, it would be a very pretty lie. My map’s weird, but it’s got a pretty broad overlap with other folks. When I speak, I like to think that most people get a pretty good idea of what I’m saying. I couldn’t make it as a writer if I couldn’t communicate through my words, and I like to think that I manage fairly decently. So, it’s not really a communication gap.
I think what I’m finding, instead, is that there’s a couple of large but specific discontinuities between my communication map and others’, and I think that these gaps are what’s causing some of the stranger emotional disconnects that I’ve had with people. Before I get too deeply into these, though, I want to temporarily branch off of this topic and launch into more pop-cybernetics and show off my Throbbing Verbal Cortex for a bit.
I think that, when a person identifies with a label, there’s a desire for that association to be an emotionally positive one. I won’t try to claim that this is any sort of universal truth, because I’ve definitely met people who hold onto self-harmful identities. However, I think that those are offset by other identities that are worth the pain that those negative associations inflict. In this, a label or a signifier is really no different from any other association. We want to enjoy the things we have. We want to like ourselves. We want to respect ourselves. We want our identities to be things that we’re proud to be, and we find ways to make those associations positive.
Identification with a label doesn’t have to be direct, but it does have to be impactful. If I think of X as a negative assocation, and I like person Y, finding out that Y identifies with X is likely to change my opinions about one or the other, depending on which is more important to me. It’s this kind of psychological impact that leads people to encourage the genderqueer and the abnormal to come out to their conservative relatives. As long as a given label belongs only to Others, people and things outside our personal contexts, there’s no impact to hold a negative view of all people who claim that particular label. “Lolfurries.”
I could diverge here and launch into an analysis of why people who want to identify with a label will devote such time and energy to destroying others who openly hold it, the politics of shame, and the power of guilt. However, that would be a digression from my point, which is to say lead back to the communications gap I mentioned before. I don’t have any personal association to a lot of the labels which are common to modern society. I was born in the United States, but I don’t consider myself “American,” and looking back at my history, I never have. I was baptized and spent time as an altar boy, but I don’t consider myself “Christian,” and again I don’t think I ever did. I rejected the idea of nation-as-identity from a very young age, and church-as-identity even earlier. I spent twelve years identifying as an “Objectivist,” though, and even now I try to rehabilitate the label despite my objections to the term. The collection of labels that I’ve self-applied doesn’t match the set that most people I know had, and as a result I have very different emotional responses to these signifiers, so much so that it’s caused communication breakdowns with some of my closest friends.
Breaking out my metaphysical soldering iron, here’s where I try to draw together these two concepts and create something new out of them. I’ve heard a lot of talk of late about reclaiming language, of taking terms away from the mainstream and owning them. I’m no stranger to this idea, and in many ways I’m in support of it. The list of terms that I want to reclaim, however, seems to not line up with the ones that others want to salvage. I have no interest in making “American” mean something positive to me. I’ve got no reason to want “Christian” to be anything but a stone around someone else’s neck. I can agree that “religious” needs to be taken away from the fundamentalists and the orthodox, but I’d rather not see it be used in any sort of unmistakably positive context.
Jessie said to me last night that, for the longest time, I defined myself by what I wasn’t. She’s right; I did. I was an activist from an early age, setting myself against the Other and defining myself as a constrast against them. I’m starting, however, to understand that I can’t exist forever as a shadow. I don’t want to be a contrast against someone else’s vision. I’m tired of living in opposition to the mainstream, and yet as long as I try to absorb and adopt the labels of the mainstream to mean what I wish, I’ll forever be someone else’s degenerate interpretation.
The Lapinian Embassy started out as humor, an extension of the joke of international, interplanetary, interstellar, interdimensional diplomatic relations with others who Weren’t From Around Here. What it’s become, however, is something far more. It’s become a label that, at least in my own map, I can own. It’s the identity for which I and those I choose to involve can set the standard. It has as its forebears a myriad of others’ fringe interpretations, but I’m okay with that. Martin Luther was still Catholic when he nailed his thoughts on indulgences to the door of the church in Wittenberg.
Jessie once said that everyone becomes a liberal at the point at which zie realizes that zie’s different from others. It’s in the nature of liberalism to divide, to separate, to evolve and grow and change over time. In this, I embrace these divisions, these separations, in order to evolve, not as a reflection of someone else’s world, but as an embodiment of my own. I step out of the shadow of others, and into my own light.
I am Lapinian… whatever that means. =n.n=
All Clenches must schism.