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

1 comment:

Lucy Gill said...

I really enjoyed this post. When I was completing my scuba certification, I observed a very similar albeit more extreme semiotic shift in response to changing contexts so dramatically. I also had to learn to interact with people in a new way given the replacement of air with water. Because of the safety hazards associated with diving, an extremely important part of the training is learning an entirely new semiotic system of gestures, as speech is obviously impossible with a regulator in your mouth. These signs, while not necessarily arbitrary, are for the most part Peircean symbols and therefore require more rote memorization than the few icons and indices.

Your discussion of the ways in which relations change inside and outside of the water was also quite apt. While diving, grabbing onto a stranger is entirely acceptable to communicate or utilize an alternate air source. However, as soon as we emerge from the water and our safety is no longer a consideration in the same way, this act would be seen as a major violation of privacy (except in a case of emergency, e.g. CPR administration).