Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reverse Signification

So here's a weird one.  Today we're going to talk about something that I think is the mechanism behind certain manifestations of schizophrenia (delusions of reference) as well as behind some artistic and religious perspectives, though it also plays a role in science and magic.  Let it be clear that I am not denigrating these disciplines by pointing out how this process plays a role in them, because I personally believe there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this way of experiencing the world.  It can be just as debilitating in some contexts as the 'normal' way of perceiving things can be.

I'll call it 'reverse signification' because it resembles an inversion of the process well-documented by semiotics, but again, I emphasize, that does not mean that people who perceive this way 'have it all backwards.'  To understand reverse signification, let's first take a look at the signification process ordinary semiotics deals with.

In semiotics, a sign is something that somebody interprets as representing something, either itself or something else.  An easy example of this is money - a silver certificate represents a certain amount of silver held in the treasury of the issuer, while a note of fiat money represents itself.  In semiotic parlance, this relationship or process is called 'signification.'

So when I say to you, "It's raining," you hear or read the signs I have sent and interpret that, where and when I created the signs, rain was in the process of falling.  In this particular relationship of signification, we have two things: what is signified (the experiential reality of precipitation) and what signifies (the words quoted in the previous sentence).  You already knew this, but breaking it down into terminology makes it easier to see how the less familiar process of reverse signification mirrors it.

Now with reverse signification, we also have the signified and the signifier, and we also have reality as it is experienced, but in this case reality is coupled with the signifier rather than the signified.  That sounds weird, I know.  Rather than (as we would per ordinary signification) reading a myth and then interpreting it in terms of real life, so that the Tortoise and the Hare comes to mean that we should work steadily towards our goals rather than approaching them haphazardly, we work things the other way around, so that our experience of reality is taken as a lesson about and within a greater reality.  The signified (coupled with the reality greater than our own) can be something that we might ordinarily interpret as a signifier, or it might be something beyond the grasp of ordinary signification.

An instance where signification is perfectly reversed can be found by comparing the way many people in the West read classical mythology with the way they read the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Now, surely, there are a few people who would have Edith Hamilton's Mythology burnt as advocating the worship of 'pagan' gods, but most people would treat the book as a collection of stories ancient peoples used to teach lessons about how the world works.  On the other hand, a far greater number of people, looking for instance at the gospel of John, are willing to interpret it as more true than the illusions empiricism presents.

You might even say that John's writing urges the reader to treat it this way: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1, various translations).  Now there are many other interpretations of the phrase 'the Word' (one of my personal favorites is under the section entitled "De Mercurio" in the Book of Thoth), but the Word which is most readily at hand is the word which one is currently reading.  This interpretation is readily found in some Kabbalistic schools, where it is taught that God encoded all that was, is, and shall be in the five books whose writing is attributed to Moses (a.k.a. the Torah).  Taking this interpretation a step further, we come to the idea that our existence is a consequence of YHVH creating the world via the Word.  And there we have reverse signification.  It will probably sound utterly wrongheaded at this point to some of the people reading this, particularly atheists, but please bear with me.

When we look at classical mythology again, we find two interpretations that basically amount to the same thing - the first, the one mentioned above: that these stories were used as signifiers to convey knowledge and moral lessons.  The second is that these stories were explanations.  In other words, instead of saying that you shouldn't be so vain because you'll lose everything as your beauty fades, this interpretations holds that the vain are inevitably bound to eventual decay and ugliness because of the scorn of Aphrodite.  

It probably seems that what we have here are two different ways of interpretation, one metaphorical and one literal.  In the former, myths are used as ways of conveying knowledge; in the latter, they are treated as explanations of why things happen.  Just as easily, though, we could see one interpretation as addressing 'how' and the other as addressing 'why'.  

Interestingly, this same tendency to say at least a bit more than can be fully justified appears when we try to use science to answer 'why' questions rather than merely 'how' ones.  Notice how "random chance and self-selection via feedback loops" is a satisfying answer to the question "How did we come to exist?" much more than it satisfyingly answers "Why do we exist?"  This parallel is no coincidence, for the questions 'how' and 'why' are as intimately tangled with ordinary and reversed signification as they are, respectively, with the desire to know what happens and the desire for true (as opposed to merely correct) explanations.  

Now, that's not to say that reverse signification is purely futile or always misleading.  In some magical practices, such as those of Aleister Crowley, an entity you might call the 'higher self' or 'true soul' is postulated.  It's called the 'Holy Guardian Angel,' a deliberately silly name intended to prevent one from building a needlessly elaborate belief system that would ultimately prevent contact with it.  Initiates take an oath of reverse signification in the aim of coming to know this entity: "I swear to interpret each experience and encounter with the world as a message from my Holy Guardian Angel."  

Before you think this sounds insane, consider the Jungian mechanism of projection.  Briefly, by projection, our psyche processes those aspects of us which we are not willing to accept in ourselves onto others.  Of course, we still exude those qualities we reject in ourselves, but given that we're not aware of them, they can more easily get out of control, with us all the while blaming others for what we, too, are doing.  What better way to get around this problem than by the partial solipsism the oath above entails?  When we accept all facets of our experience as our own responsibility, we are that much closer to being truly free, and reverse signification is the most efficient way of doing this.