Friday, October 25, 2013

Empire State of Mind

       I’m from a tiny town in northern Vermont (to give you an idea, we’re about 40 minutes from the Canadian border). Before coming to Columbia, I had been to the city a few times, but I had absolutely no concept of the layout of the city, and it very much existed as an abstract concept in my mind. What I knew about New York City I gained from popular music (Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z being a personal favorite - feel free to play the link at the bottom of this blog to listen while reading), the New York Times (which my parents usually only got on Sundays), and various TV shows and movies (Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, Friends…I’m starting to regret admitting these things). I had a vague concept of the boroughs, but I will admit I probably could only name Brooklyn and Manhattan before moving here. My first week, I made the mistake of asking a friend if Queens was in Brooklyn. Needless to say, her uncontrollable laughter answered my question.

            I’ve been here now for almost three months, and my concept of the city, and ideas about what it means to “be a New Yorker” have drastically changed. I’d like to explore my personal relationship to this space, and how my conceptions of it have changed, and why, and what it signified/symbolized to me before and after living here. Marcel Danesi talks about spaces as “signifying systems” in his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things. He writes that spaces are constructed by people in a way that gives them meaning – buildings are seen to be a “library”, “office”, etc., not just a pile of brick or stone. He also discusses how societies are perceived as “communal bodies”: for example, a society can be “healthy, sick, vibrant” etc. The city itself seems to be a living entity when we refer to the “heart” of the city or if it feels welcoming or “cold”. It is interesting to consider Danesi’s spatial theory when people stereotype or try to understand cities they’ve never visited, or are new to.
 For me, and many others, New York City is a place of opportunity, of nightlife, of lights, and of life. The skyscrapers themselves appear cold on the outside, but they promise greatness and potential as they literally touch the sky. Times Square itself (though some would argue against this being the “heart” of New York) literally pulses with movement, noise, and almost a life of its own. A friend of mine had a T-shirt with an interesting design on it. When I asked what it was, she responded: “It’s the New York City skyline!! How do you not know that?!”. In New York, simply the outline of the buildings themselves says something about the city, and, to New Yorkers, is a piece of their identity and connection with the communal body of the city’s society.

        Before moving, New York was an idea, a feeling that I couldn’t quite describe – almost comparable to how Charles Peirce would describe an icon: something intangible, that loses meaning when people try to break it down, or discuss what it is. After moving here, I’ve learned the boroughs, and found that the idea of the city has less agency on me than I originally anticipated. I’d bought certain clothes, shoes, even bags, that I thought would help me fit in to this idea of New York I’d used media and anecdotes to construct. Now, living here, I realize that while my initial perceptions of the city haven’t necessarily died, not everyone lives like Jay-Z, or Carrie Bradshaw, or Ross Geller. The signs that give New York it’s impressive, intangible identity are all still around - the skyscrapers, the noise, the lights, the life – but I have come to know the individual people that make up the communal body, and they are not so different from me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Running the Race

I sat down in the subway a few weeks ago, looked up, and I saw it. An advertisement on the subway wall reading "26.2 MILES MAKE IT A RACE. YOU MAKE IT THE MARATHON." Oh man, I thought. It's getting close now. The advertisement spoke to me because for five months I've been training to become one of the "you"s who transform a winding 26.2 mile path through urban streets into The New York City Marathon.

Talk about non human agency. A marathon isn't even a thing, really, it's an idea, a concept. And yet it has profound agency in the lives of people identifying themselves as marathoners. It forces me out of bed at 5am. It influences my day-to-day footwear. It is a rock in the current of my social life. Since June, the marathon-- as a concept, as a future event, as an idea-- has influenced nearly every type of choice I make. And the subway advertisement has the right of it: it's not just a race, it's a marathon. It's a specific marathon: the New York City marathon! It is, in and of itself, a dynamic and (slowly) moving symbol of the city's spirit. Beyond that, though, the marathon is interpreted by every runner as a sign of something very individual to each person. For Peirce and his semiotics, the marathon is an excellent example of how fluid and interconnected signs are.

When I ran 20 miles last week by myself, it was a long run. My mom said good job, I ate a sandwich, and I took a nap. When I run a mere 6 miles more than that in 13 days, hundreds of thousands of people will say good job, I will get a medal, I will run past TV cameras, people will say "man, let's go celebrate with some sandwiches!" and I will take a nap. It will be the marathon.For me (and the friends with whom I huff and puff through training runs), the marathon is motivational for us precisely because of its symbolic power, because of its semiosis.

The marathon is openly discussed in this way. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York right before the marathon and there was a great deal of debate about whether the marathon should go on. Mayor Bloomberg, for one, directly appealed to the marathon as a symbol of the city's strength, character, and perseverance. To cancel, he said, would cause an enormous loss of morale within the city. It's not just the runners who are in relation to the marathon, but also city citizens. On the other side, many people claimed that the marathon would be a symbol to the city: of excess, of waste, of misplaced priorities, of capitalistic interests. There were many angry grumbles about there being several high-capacity generators at the marathon's finish line while, at the same time, most of Staten Island was without power. It was a disagreement of sign interpretations.

One thing is for sure: on November 3rd, I will run 26.2 miles through New York City and it will be a marathon. It will not just be my tired feet chasing down miles, it will be a trek through meaning. And after it's done and I've eaten my sandwich and taken my nap, my memories of the marathon and training for it will shift its agency and its sign relation. Semiosis will move on!

(photo credit: first and third, second)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

At the Bottom of It All, or the Pool

image from a second your head is under water, exhaling intensely until there it goes bobbing back up. The clarity of chlorinated, fluorescent-blue water and the bathing suit of the person in front is exchanged for a total blur of surfacing with goggles on. You are surrounded by strange creatures, covered largely, but often not nearly enough, in stretchy, tight materials, heads appearing undeniably egg-like and small, while the goggles add an insect-like dimension to the overall look. In the next lane might be a banker, while that lady ahead works at your deli. Up ahead vigorously waving her arms before jumping in is your professor. And at the same time, these aren't the same people you know. Within the semiotic system of the swimming pool, the usual lines of communication are gone, and energetic interpretants rule the world.  Peirce defines the energetic interpretant at one point, in the following way: "If a sign produces any further proper significate effect, it will do so through the mediation of the emotional interpretant, and such further effect will always involve an effort. I call it the energetic interpretant. The effort may be a muscular one, as it is in the case of the command to ground arms; but it is much more usually an exertion upon the Inner World, a mental effort." ('Pragmatism', CP 5.475, 1907). And so it is our muscles that react first, respond as they might, while our minds are focused on them. 
You don't look for much beyond speed, stroke, potential hazard, move almost mindlessly next to people from all walks of life as you would on the street, yet in a strangely more deliberate and intimate setting. Peirce speaks of three categories of being: "The first," he says in "A Guess at the Riddle", "is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything nor lying behind anything. The second is that which is what it is by force of something to which it is second. The third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation to each other." In a sense, everyone turns into cars, moving on our bellies and backs, trying to pass the slow people doing belly-flops in the medium lane: you give them disapproving looks through the goggles, fail at that, but speaking is out of the question for fear of messing up the breathing rhythm -- and besides who's going to hear you anyway, the pool renders everyone equally deaf: the pool etiquette relies on indices almost exclusively -- you race past only to encounter another swimmer just turning about face and heading straight at you. 
image from
A head-on collision is nearly inevitable: the reverie created by the speed of your leaps, the perfect sync of your body's movement in the position reserved in our lives largely for rest, and if not that, certainly not transporting oneself -- the firstness one might call it (I've ruined it of course by describing it) of flying through this world is quite literally terminated. And yet, that perception of the other swimmer quickly results in a dive underneath him, and the clash stays only in the mind, and here we enter thirdness -- a natural law makes it possible in water to simply go underneath someone -- not so on the street. Smaller instances of these states of being occur with each individual stroke. The underwater-back-to -surface process is in itself a constant return to secondness, but it is also a matter of habit -- and habit-formation happens in thirdness. 
It is interesting, too, that no physical trace (perhaps a chemical one does, but not perceivably sans an advanced chemistry kit) of me having been in the water exists in that water, yet the smell of chlorine sticks to my body and hair despite the shower. Most people would easily detect, without being Sherlock Holmes (or Peirce), where I'd just been. And there, in the shower, suddenly everyone turns back into people you might see on the street,  New Yorkers, except nude. We, who don't talk in the subway, walk fast through our city's busy intersections, are entirely vulnerable and uncovered in front of each other. We're all strangers, or friends even, suddenly disrobing and washing ourselves, slowly assuming our usual shapes, re-learning to talk, hear, stay upright, ready to return to the outside world, where we'll run into each other time and again, and despite having been in the same shower, not acknowledge each other, but keep moving past, in the usual way. 

~Marina Kaganova

Monday, October 14, 2013

(New York) City-ness?

        Having grown up with New York City as my only city, it has been the basis upon which I have judged all other cities.  Thus, when I presume ‘city-ness,’ through my own biases I assume ‘New York City-ness.’  Furthermore, when I presume ‘New York City-ness,’ it is really my individual experiences of New York City being reflected.  This, I have realized, is vastly different than the standard definition of the word ‘city,’ which Webster’s Dictionary defines as merely “a large or important town.”  If only I knew that when traveling to other cities as a child…
       I remember when growing up, my first time in London or Los Angeles, I was disappointed by those cities by not meeting my predetermined standards of what was expected from a city.  To me a city meant adjacent skyscrapers, in a relatively condensed area, or a grid of streets that go on in a straight line until they hit water or park.  Granted, much of New York City does not even fit this definition, but my New York City did.  

The issue at hand relates back to the Peircean notion of firstness, which he defines as “‘an instance of that kind of consciousness which involves no analysis, comparison or any process whatsoever…’” (Zeman quoting Peirce [1.306]).  My first experiences of New York City, being the city, were the establishing moments that created my eventual conception of city-ness.  Those ‘feelings’ of being in New York City were the same feelings I expected to experience from other cities, but to no avail.  My notion of city-ness generally was at that point confused with and dependent upon New York City-ness.  

  The firstness of city being marred as such, ultimately so was the secondness in this situation, the Peircean term that Zeman summarizes as “the category of the actual existent.”  The issue was that my presupposed evocations of a city led to the assumption that all cities had the grid, the subway system, the sounds of horns honking, the sporadic scents of sewage and crisp autumn air intertwined, and the sights of never ending park amidst tall high-rises in the distance that were encountered in my personal experiences.

         What I did not understand at the time was that these essences evoked by New York City-ness were not necessarily contiguous with the general notion of city-ness.  Consequentially, the thirdness, or reality, that is a city, in actuality became my personal conception of New York City.  I expected to encounter those same signs that I witnessed in New York in other cities as well.

         No city is like New York City insofar as it is unlike any other city.  Thus, city-ness must be determined upon more general terms than what would be deemed as New York City-ness.  The issue with determining such a quality is the same with determining any other realm of ‘firstness’: “...when we recognize that something is grasped as a first, its firstness as firstness effectively evanesces” (Zeman).  Thus, city-ness is “prereflexive,” which causes several conflicts in discussing the matter.  Being that as a child I only had New York City to encounter city-ness, New York City-ness was mistaken for city-ness in general.  The ground for which I determine a city has changed through experience and contact with “other” cities, defined as such by Webster, as well as a quality that makes New York City distinctive, for they are certainly--as I now reluctantly acknowledge against my NY pride--two very different ideas.  

[by Jacob Kayen]

Zeman, J. 1977. Peirce’s Theory of Signs. 22-39 in T. Sebeok (ed) A Perfusion of Signs. Bloomington: Indiana. 
The Restored Wetlands on Randall’s Island 

   Flanked by Harlem River and East River, Randall’s island is now a place for sports, recreation and natural restoration. Before we begin to learn about the restored wetlands on the Island, let’s have a look at its history first.

   For more than two hundreds years, the island was used as a place for public facilities. A boys’ home, a hospital and a home for civil war veterans can be found there. Since 1930s, people began to fill the little Hell Gate Channel with debris from construction projects in Manhattan, which joined Randall’s Island, Wards Island, and Sunken Meadow into a single island. The year of 1999 witnessed people’s efforts to preserve the Island’s natural area. As we can see, Randall’s Island has long been a place where human activities unfold. People, as a powerful agent, have hugely influenced the configuration of the three formerly separated islands. The anthropogenic forces can never be denied on this planet. 
                                                                             photo from

   However, in this ongoing drama there are other players of the same importance - the nonhuman. The physical surroundings like water, rocks, and air, as well as a variety of living organisms are also agents that actively participate in the process of the history-making.

   We all know that wetland is a unique ecosystems which can filter waters and provide habitat, and healthy wetlands are crucial for the earth’s ecosystem as a whole. But how does it work and why does it work this way? Although disciplines like biology and ecology are useful tools to tackle these questions, semiotics, the study of signs, with its capacity to encompass the faculty of other disciplines, can provide us with another powerful methodology.
   In the eyes of Thomas Sebeok, linguist and semiotician, a wetland should be a “semiotic web” (Sagan, 5) in which parts are connected and interaction explains everything. It is the continuous searching for meaning by different agents that determines the operation of the world. To describe this complex process, Hoffmeyer provides a concept - “ecosemiotic interaction structures”(195). He suggests that it is “an open-ended and nonsettled exploration of relationships between systems at many levels of complexity”(197).

   Inspired by the insights of those semioticians, we can examine a wetland from at least three roughly cut but interrelated levels - the biochemical, the biological and the sociocultural. I will explain the working of signs on biochemical level as an example.

                  photo from randallsecology
   Nutrient cycle is one of the important aspects to explore on biochemical level. For example, nitrogen is an important source of nutrients for organisms. However, nitrogen, in its most common form - N2 (dinitrogen), can not be directly used by most organisms. Only a few bacteria, with their capacity to break the bond of nitrogen atoms in N2, can capture it and convert it into biological usable form NH3 and NO3, which can be absorbed by phytoplanktons and plants. As we can see, several sign processes, or “functional cycle” (Uexkull, 49) involve in this nutrient cycle: The presence of N2 set off the “perceptive sign” in certain bacteria, which response, as an “effect mark”, by capturing these N2 gas. The bacteria convert N2 to NH3 (a sign process on another lower level) and release them. The presence of these biologically usable gas then triggers the “perceptive sign” in certain plants. The absorption is an effect mark.

                                                                                      photo by Chris Haight

                                                                               photo from randallsecology

   The same thing - functional cycles - occur on other levels of complexity, too. The sociocultural level of the sign relation is the most complex one because deeper meanings are weaved into the semiotic web. In the case of wetland, people developed cognition of ecosystem and decided to put the idea of sustainability into action, and then began the restoration project and encouraged the whole society to engage into the stewardship. This process involves multiple, interrelated sign relations that need patience to be broken down and analyzed. 
by Mingyun Zhang
Hoffmeyer, Jesper
 N.d.    Biosemiotics. Scranton : University of Scranton Press, 2008.

        “Some Semiotic Aspects of the Psycho-Physical Relation: The Endo-Exosemiotic Boundary.” Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. T. A. Sebeok and J. Umiker-Sebeok, Eds., Berline, Mouton de Gruyter: 101-23. 1992.

Uexküll, Jakob von
 c2010. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans : with A Theory of Meaning /. 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. Minneapolis :: University of Minnesota Press,.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pedicures: Interesting Things

Admittedly, I wasn’t all that interested in pedicures until I moved to New York City. Why are manicure-pedicures so extremely popular here? Why is it commonplace to get them done instead of taking care of your feet yourself?

Fish Pedicure
There are easily a few practical answers to these questions. First, wearing sandals around the City makes your feet downright filthy. (I can attest to this from personal experience.) Second, they are surprisingly affordable here! While there are more expensive and luxurious options, a 15$-25$ dollar manicure-pedicure is commonplace. Lastly, this city is geographically littered with nail salons. In conclusion, they are affordable, convenient, and they almost always take walk-ins.

Still, why do people do it? Why do we put paint on our nails at all? It doesn’t seem to make our nails function any better. So, what does it mean? I think that Danesi would agree that the practice of nail painting is a matter of Selfhood and that nail polish, itself, is part of our “material culture, namely, the system of objects that, as signs, convey specific types of meaning in our cultural context.” (61)
Detailed Manicure Designs

I am not the most savvy nail salon participant by any means, but the different body images signified by different nail coloring choices can be relatively straight forward and easy to process. Say you saw someone with a French manicure design on their toes, what would you think? Maybe that could signify that they are wealthy, classy, or organized? What about someone with bright hot pink toenails? Could they be feminine, young, outgoing, and/or flamboyant? What about someone with his or her toes and fingers painted black? What if they had extremely long acrylic extensions and colorful rhinestones glued on?

Whether or not you frequent a nail salon you probably have some thoughts about what those different stylized choices would say to you as the observer. Here is where semiotics can help us discuss this strange yet familiar phenomenon. According to Danesi, “The semiotic study of nonverbal behavior is a study of how people experience and define themselves through their bodies and objects. In most cultures, self-image is carved out and conveyed primarily as body image.” (65-66).
Example of French Manicure

By utilizing some terminology provided by Danesi, I would like to say that I think polished nails signal a gendered status and usually a feminine one. The iconicity of the French tipped manicure as “classy” is undeniable. The nature of the colors, shapes and styles of mani-pedis symbolize the identities that women (usually not always, of course) want to present to the world.

The semiotics of nail care is not only useful for unpacking individuals and their personal image. The industry of nail care is also extremely symbolic of New York’s political and social structure. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder why your nail-tech is usually Korean. It seems that nail salons are primarily (at least in popular culture) associated with Korean women and in return, Korean women with nail salons.

View from Pedicure Chair from Yelp post
Miliann Kang delves deeply into the meaning and social ramifications of the hunger for nail care that she believes women (primarily of New York) demonstrate. “While domination by Koreans of the nail salon niche in New York City is unusual in some ways, in other ways it reveals similar experiences among Asian immigrant women throughout the United States.” (3) She begs us to look beyond our familiar pop culture references of nail salons and see the true dynamics at play that influence a greater image of Korean immigrants.

In conclusion, the structures of meaning, body image and social structure associated with New York’s nail salons is a rich field for study even if it doesn’t seem to be at first glance.

[By Becky Fisher]


Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Kang, Miliann. The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California, 2010. Print.

Buildings and Spaces as Signs

In his book Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things (2008), Marcel Danesi discusses how buildings and public spaces embody meaning.  Aspects of buildings and spaces such as their location, name, height, and design can all influence their role as signs.  The combined meanings of these aspects will influence how people think about and behave in specific buildings and spaces (Danesi 2008:150).  As Danesi points out, one will dress and behave differently in a church than they will in a restaurant (2008:151). 

Butler Library
Changes in behavior will occur in different spaces within a building as well.  For example, a person in Butler library will most likely keep conversation to a minimum, silence their cell phone, and refrain from eating or drinking if they are in a section of the library where these activities are prohibited.  If one is studying in the café downstairs, however, the person will probably be more likely to eat, drink, talk to others, and keep their cell phone on.  This difference in behavior is due to the features of both areas; one has bookshelves and desks, while the other has café style seating and sells coffee.  These differences in behavior, however, are also due to the rules that the library staff has placed on eating, drinking, and noise levels throughout the library.

National 9/11 Memorial
Throughout the book, Danesi shows how the history of particular objects, like cigarettes and high heels, will influence their meaning.  This can also be applied to buildings and spaces.  In NYC, Ellis Island and Ground Zero are both places where history has heavily impacted their meaning as symbols.  Interestingly, both sites now have museums and attract tourists due to their significance in United States history.

Statue of Liberty
In addition, Danesi also states that buildings and spaces can operate as signs for specific groups (2008:151).  Buildings and public spaces located in NYC operate at different levels as communal signs.  The Statue of Liberty, for example, is not only a sign of NYC, but is also a sign of the United States of America.  While its design is less familiar globally, the Freedom Tower could likely become a national symbol like the Statue of Liberty.  Buildings and spaces that are specific symbols of the city include the Empire State Building, Central Park, and Times Square.  

Low Library
It could be said that Low Library is a symbol of the Columbia community since it is located in the main area of campus, and has a distinctive design with columns, steps, and a domed roof.  It is also home to the university’s visitor center, shares the name of a former university president, and is on the New York City Register of Historic Places (Columbia University 2013).  As previously noted, such characteristics impact the meaning of a building.

Buildings and public spaces thus demonstrate many of the overarching themes of Danesi’s book.  We attribute larger meanings to them from their characteristics and histories, which in turn influences how people think about and act within them.


Columbia University
2013 A Brief History of Columbia. <>.

Danesi, Marcel
            2008 Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to 
            Semiotics. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.