“Towards a Perfect Definition of the Term ‘Sign’ ”
by Louis Capet
From The Journal of the Linguistic Society
of South-Central New Caledonia I.3,
Better Words and Morphemes, May 1991
Reviewed by Mongo Yalbag
Teaching Assistant and Departmental Grader
Department of Automotive Collision Repair Technology
University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton
or, Towards a More Perfect Union of the Signifier and the Signified: A Review of Capet
Louis Capet’s article is so non plus ultra as to leave the reader nonplussed while musing whether to be amused or bemused. Is this by design, or is it nowhere near the sign at all? For this, we must approach this topic from first principles and ask Capet, “What’s your sign?” The Bureau of Motor Vehicles determines the sign at the intersection of two streets so as best to prevent the precipitous union of vehicles. George Steiner1 wrote a lot about signs. Poets remind us that only doggerel is printed on sequential signs.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘sign’ as: “I.1.d. Any of the gestures used as a means of communication with or between people who are deaf and dumb... 8. A mere semblance; an imperfect or inferior version... II.9.c. An indication of the presence or course of a disease or injury...” However, the Urban Dictionary defines “sign” as: “The huge thing on the side of the road that says stuff; That nasty feeling in your stomach right before diarrhea; Something stating who is cooler; Showin [sic] off to a hot girl; and [to paraphrase] something involving sex that the Louis Capet in question has never managed to do,” and the Oxford-Monsudar English-Mongolian Dictionary defines “sign” as, inter alia: “тэмдэглэгээ; тэмдэг, самбар, пайз; дохио, зангаа,” which B. Bazylkhan’s Mongolian-Kazakh Dictionary in turn defines as: “[omitted]; белгі, тақта, пәйзі; ишара, [omitted],” respectively, and things don’t get any more authoritative than that, alas. As with Louis Capet himself, there is a sort of flaccidity here, a lack of a rigid designator, a tedium and world-weariness of a 53-year-old janitor in an outlet mall in rural Kentucky that’s about to be foreclosed.
Disregarding his fevered daydreams of worldly success and power, however, Capet does nothing to bring us closer to any definition of sign, as we can see in considering the following statements:
- Signs, like phlegm, are not something most people want upside their heads.
- Having one’s broken middle finger in a cast can be seen alternatively as disabling communication or as better facilitating it; such is the dual nature of the sign in deconstruction.
- Sign on the dotted line, I’ll cosign with that tanned gent over there, and remember Mary? Have’er cosign too.
This last statement allows us to go far beyond Capet’s putative definition of “sign”—which makes us more royalist than the king, as it were. (Alternatively, it can be seen as signifying the accession of Charles X in 1824.) To define the sign, we must start with Saussure’s view of the sign as the signified over the signifier. Now, the basic nature of the sign is to associate some part of the world with a symbol for the same, that is, to cut up the parts of the world into mouth-sized chunks suitable for chewing and either swallowing or spewing across the room, as the case may be. Now, the mind should not be seen as a passive receptacle for sensory input, but instead as actively classifying this input by dumping it in the appropriate pot on the uppermost level of mental processing, whereupon it sifts through a sieve at the bottom of the pot into lower-level pots (narrower categories) with finer sieves above even smaller pots, rather like the stacked sieves used to determine the distribution of the sizes of the grains of sand in a sample, only applied instead to classify igneous rocks in a mining sample—that is, the sign is obtained by putting the ore, dunite, above the high pot in use.
Alternatively, note that the process of mentally cutting up the world is not learned consciously, however; it is a gut-level process refined by continual practice, much like the crunches used to tone one’s abs. The set of exercises and the corresponding mental act upon the evidence of the senses, what epistemologists and fitness trainers call the abs scissor, is used to cut off a given portion of reality, whereupon it drops into the appropriate highest-level mental pot. That is, viewed from a complementary angle, the sign is defined as the result of the abs scissor above the high pot in use.
An equivalent definition of the sign can be derived by considering it from a communicative point of view. A true sign matches what it names, a process that is easily upset by the exaggerations of the mass media, which can only be fought by maintaining a critical stance to all one reads—that is, by always putting the question “Or di’n’it?” over the hype of the news.
Capet’s article is most significant simply by the fact that because it stumbled so badly onto its hands and knees, it provides a valuable step up towards the truth. Above all, Capet’s article reminds us of the truth of Freud’s amplification of Kipling’s (a.k.a. God’s Own) Truth, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a good cig’n’a fire’s a smoke.”
1 In much the same way as there’s the birth and then the after-birth, so there is the Wittgenstein and then Steiner’s After Babble.