Paul Bouissac

Can signs be toxic? Can there be killer signs, either because of their inherent properties or because of their sheer number?   Notwithstanding the claims of the modern avatars of Doctor Angelicus and Doctor Pangloss, signs might not be the benign and useful entities which perfuse the universe as utopian semiotics and its assumption of rational and functional harmony suggest. Obviously, in some circumstances, signs are adaptive through enabling the sharing of relevant information, whether by chance or by design, but they can also be tools of deceit and destruction in the context of biological and cultural competitive processes. The neat communication diagrams and reassuring metaphors which are at the root of the current semiotic discourse may account for only a very small part of the massive interface between information and organisms, a daunting entanglement from which life and society emerge and into which they eventually collapse.

Many enlightened observers have noted with puzzled anxiety how prone signs are to break free from their would-be masters’ intentions and wreck havoc among the social groups they often perniciously invade and manipulate to their own benefits. Actually, signs seem to know no master at all and run their own lives in complex combinations such as languages and ideologies variously and indifferently useful or deleterious to humans as well as to other organisms. In the form of vicious metaphors, ideas can destroy their ecological niches and blindly drive themselves and their environments to extinction.

The most insightful thinkers, who adumbrated possible theories of signs which were not predetermined by the constraints of their ideology or theology, pointed out this propensity of signs to follow their own obscure logic. Peirce endowed them with dynamic autonomy which he called semiosis, an unstoppable process that only death can terminate; Saussure inconclusively puzzled over the irrational and unpredictable changes in languages and other sign systems; the young Piaget claimed in a juvenile, mystical text, The Mission of the Idea (1915): “The Idea leads the world. Action is the servant of the Idea.” And he forcefully asserted, lest the reader would think that this was a metaphor: “The Idea is an organism, is born, grows, and dies like organisms, renews itself ceaselessly.” Some four decades ago this anxiety was articulated in the evolutionist idiom under a neologism (meme) which quickly gave rise to the would-be science of memetics whose credibility was quickly lost in the sensationalist discourse of best-selling philosophers. Many noted the uncanny conceptual kinship of memes and signs, viz. Terrence Deacon’s piece in The Semiotic Review of Books (1999, Vol. 10.3).

In the meantime, memes have gained currency in the popular press and in some professional spheres. Marketers devise “viral” strategies which consist of the stealth planting of ideas ahead of promotional campaigns. In the film industry, a movie like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) exploited the idea of inseminating a mind (or a brain) with a program of action designed to control the behaviour of an individual toward a desirable goal. By contrast, the metaphor of “brain washing” involved earlier crude methods based on conditioning rather than the more subtle hypothetical science of memes. Conceived as algorithms, that is, finite sequences of formal instructions that when followed will terminate after a finite numbers of steps (see e.g., C.L. Foster’s Algorithms, Abstraction, and Implementation, 1992) and can replicate indefinitely with the possibility of errors and subsequent changes, both memes and signs are indifferent to the human notions of good and evil.

But irrespective of whether a behavioral algorithm is adaptive or not, excesses can be lethal. In spite of its astronomical number of connections, the multitasking brain is a finite organ that cannot be loaded without limits. It is adaptively selective and filters relevant information. When such relevant information is exponentially increased through artificial means or when its flow runs wild, semiosis can become the name of a terminal disease. Which individual human brain could absorb and functionally process the manifold petabytes of Wikileak-type assaults? Even specially designed hyper-organizations find it difficult to cope with uncontrolled swarms of signs. A title in The New York Times of January 17, 2011, reads: “In New Military, data overload can be deadly: raw information helps determine what targets to hit and what to avoid, but sometimes the data is overwhelming.”

Knowledge always advances through probing the status quo and raising scandalous questions. All too often semioticians of any hue have come through as utopian dreamers of an outdated pastoralist vision of life and thought. Perhaps this is why they have not been taken quite seriously by the disciplines which seriously confront our horizon of ignorance.

The SemiotiX mascot Hapax wishes you a Happy New Year (both solar and lunar)! Photo Credit: William Worhall

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