Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Written City

"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun"2

I run my fingers over the broad ripples of a tooth and read “deer” as clearly as if the ridges were Braille. Rain is written in the darkness of the oncoming clouds, the sun’s late position adding an urgent exclamation point of punctuation, subtle shifts in temperature with the coming of evening a footnote referencing hail. In the mountains of New Mexico, days can pass without so much as a stop sign, and so one reads other signs instead—the language of the landscape, the passing of time, the allofacts1 of artifacts. One of the myriad adjustments I had to make upon returning from archaeological fieldwork to New York City this fall was in the way I see signs, mainly in exchanging sensory input for the here-ubiquitous use of the written word.  

Written language is one of the most overtly used semiotic systems in our culture.  The city is saturated with it, from the neatly labeled vertices of each street to the storefronts of bodegas barely visible through a wall of prices, advertisements, fliers, and graffiti.  However, while its volume never varies from Harlem to the Village, the language in which signs are written reflects individual neighborhoods within Manhattan, creating a sense of community, and conversely otherness, depending on whether one can understand the locally-used language.

Such a distinction between being a member or outsider in relation to a certain cultural pocket of the city is not felt so strongly when indicated by other signs, such as changes in audition (music), smell (foods), sight (architecture and fashion), or even spoken language. This is because written language carries the most authority of all these indicators, and is the least adaptable—one can appreciate foreign music or food without recognizing the instruments or spices, but it is impossible to appreciate the essence of a foreign language (that is, its nature as a form of communication and not just pretty sounds and symbols) without deeper understanding.  

Whenever we cannot interpret the primary signs we encounter, we inevitably rely on secondary signs. In archaeology, an example would be to depend on size, shape, and proximity to other artifacts to hypothesize the origin and function of a piece of pottery whose distinguishing markings had worn away. On the streets of New York, one can rely on the sight of an apple and a numerical price in lieu of being able to read “Apples—on sale.” This is analogous to how, when people who use different spoken languages try to communicate, they each have to forfeit their primary verbal method in exchange for a secondary means—such as a shared third language, or the use of gestures.

In a city as literate and regulated as New York, the written word is the most accessible and reliable medium of information. Written signs overpower most natural signs, images, and speech because they convey authority—any loon in the subway can predict the end of days; a NO PARKING sign represents the legislation and local government responsible for its existence—written words show greater intent, and therefore greater validity (on a sliding scale, from this to home-made signs in a bakery).

In signs we can also see snapshots of our language’s progression. “Donuts” and “THRUWAY” are considered acceptable, though they still make this logophile wince, and the current trend in signs is away from language entirely. Because of written language’s exclusive nature, many public messages have transitioned to using symbols. Examples of this include how the pedestrian WALK signs at intersections now often communicate pictorially (which is fine with me, since the written signs couldn’t fit an apostrophe in their DONT WALK, again, wince), and the recent anti-smoking campaign whose posters feature images of cancerous lungs in greater prominence than their textual warnings.

Rose Matzkin

Sings in Chinatown cater to the linguistic diversity of the area 
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An art installment illustrates different WALK symbols from around the world
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An anti-smoking advertisement typical of those currently seen around the city
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1. Deetz, James. Invitation to Archaeology. New York: The Natural History Press, 1967. 
2. Preucel, Robert W. Archaeological Semiotics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 


1 comment:

Rose said...

A couple other things to think about...

Even signs that rely on pictures and symbols in an effort to be universal can be difficult to interpret if one is not from the native culture. A funny example of this from my own life is an experience I had with the road toll sign in Israel. The sign shows a symbol for a shekel (the local currency--here's an image: but I hadn't been in Israel long enough to be familiar with this symbol. The only context I had for a symbol on the road using lines like this was as a representation of what the road was about to do--the shekel symbol looking alarmingly like two roads which were suddenly about to crash into one another. But when the primary sign couldn't be interpreted, I relied on other signs--in this case, what everybody else was doing (paying a toll). Experience led to me assign meaning to this symbol in the future.

On a different note, usually we can distinguish signs from art or advertisements because a sign has only one thing to say, while the others have many. Art and adverts (usually) specifically try to engage the perceiver on as many levels as possible, evoking emotions--desire--essentially, a reaction--along with their message; signs are messages that don't seek a reaction on our part.