Holes in the Earth and in the Photos: Of Signs, Signifieds, and Signifiers

By Vassallo, Philip | et Cetera, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Holes in the Earth and in the Photos: Of Signs, Signifieds, and Signifiers


Vassallo, Philip, et Cetera


[we] grew so used to them

often we didn't see them, and now,

not seeing mem, we see them.

Excerpt from the poem "When the Towers Fell"

by Galway Kinnell

IN THE EPIGRAPH OF THIS ESSAY, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Galway Kinnell, a resident of New York City, refers to the World Trade Center after September 11, 2001, and he describes precisely how I have felt about the Twin Towers ever since mat date. When the towers stood, they were obtrusive, unattractive structures that deprived passersby of sunlight and views of the Hudson River; thus, I consciously blocked them from my sight, unimpressed by their majestic presence, unlike my visiting relatives from Malta who were awestruck by their magnitude.

Now mat they are gone, however, I cannot help but see mem. What visitors to the site see as a hole in die ground is for me two towering monuments mat rise far beyond the height to which they actually ascended. Seven years later, I see in mat vacant construction pit what was once mere: thousands of morning commuters emerging from the PATH or IRT train and rushing to nearby offices. I see me World Trade Center's vast subterranean mall with Borders Books, Victoria's Secret, The Gap, Starbucks, and dozens of other shops. I see the knee-weakening observation deck where I once did not see it when it was mere; I see it now when it is not. The remembered image supersedes the actual one.

General semanticista concern themselves with how we use language to convey ideas and, more specifically, me distance between what we say and what we mean. Clearly, my many experiences of commuting to the World Trade Center, of working, shopping, and dining in its confines, and of escorting my vacationing relatives there have shaped what the words World Trade Center mean to me. The meaning is far less intense for those without a personal connection, who have only read about or seen images of it, and it is far more intense for those who have survived the death of a loved one from the terrorist incident that took down the center and nearly three thousand victims. Imagine the communication barriers between two such people talking about the World Trade Center. The contrasting meanings that we bring to our discussions of any topic imaginable can clearly lead to misunderstandings. For at least this reason, general semanticists have committed themselves to clarifying language and fostering open communication, which in turn engender positive relationships. General semantics, with its parabola representing the structural differential and its aphorism, the map is not the territory, has an abiding interest in promoting understandable, accurate expression-using language that comes as close as our limited intellectual capacities will allow to represent what we really mean.

A Semiotics Approach

The general semantics term abstraction at its core complements the semiotic principle of arbitrariness. The signs we use (i.e., for the purpose of this essay, the words we use), are completely arbitrary from what they represent. The English word person, for instance, is not a person. Compound this arbitrary usage by the arbitrary words we might use before and after person in a sentence, words such as contract, commitment, agreement, and so on, and we have a web of abstraction from which we may never reach clarity in a negotiation.

Semiotics, the study of signs, proposes a systematic approach to understanding ideas and the symbols we use to describe them. In his highly instructive and richly illustrative work, Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler renders a concise study of signs, which he defines as anything that stands for something other than itself. Chandler begins his primer with a review of the landmark work done by the fathers of semiotics, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussere (he called his systematic analysis of language semiology) and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (he coined the word semiotics).

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Holes in the Earth and in the Photos: Of Signs, Signifieds, and Signifiers
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