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FEATURE


ONE CURIOUS WRITER
TRAVELS THE UNIVERSITY IN SEARCH OF SIGNS.



SIGN
LANGUAGE

WRITTEN BY TOMMY EHRBAR


Two rivers flow into a third. A city is born. A sign is formed. The sign is a triangle of land pointing westward. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the sign sends explorers westward, to fill up a continent. In the twentieth century the sign conjures a spirit of enterprise at the heart of the city. Pittsburgh is not one but many signs, built of mills and trolley cars, of church steeples and bridges that take your breath away, of the subtle line of hills and valleys, front porches in real use, stained glass and red brick. If we can read these signs, we can learn the point of Pittsburgh.

A tower is built in Oakland. A Cathedral is born. A sign is formed. It blends the medieval and the modern, ascending 42 stories, heralding the University of Pittsburgh. In the midst of the Great Depression a good hope rises. Certain rooms of the Cathedral honor the nationalities of the world, make the world present. Archetypes abound. A Commons Room. Wrought-iron welcoming gates. The Earl of Chatham's shield. If we can read these signs, we can learn the meaning of the University of Pittsburgh.

This is a story about learning to grasp for signs.

Signs are ubiquitous in our culture, both visible and invisible, subtle and clear. Most are not affixed to poles along highways. Most we are oblivious to--and that can be an impediment to wisdom. So say the savants of signs, the semioticians, those blessed with the knack for discovering the underlying message in things. They see the world essentially as a semiosphere. Others appreciate signs, but within limits. Then there's me; I am not particularly attuned to the nuances of semiotics. But I am eager to see if I can see a sign being formed.

Semioticians turn up in the most surprising of places, even as Sherlock Holmes scholars. Thomas Sebeok, in The Sign of the Times, has penned a famous essay comparing the epistemological methods of the great mythical detective with the thoughts of Charles Sanders Peirce, "father" of modern semiotics.

Both were masters, Sebeok argues, of a type of reasoning known as abduction, a method "which depends on our hope, sooner or later, to guess at the conditions under which a given kind of phenomenon will present itself." Both Peirce and Holmes were geniuses at this kind of creative inference, although Holmes was not much of a theorist. In one story, he does tell Watson his thinking on signs: "I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace."

The University of Pittsburgh is alive with interpreters of signs: historians, anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, physicians, religious studies scholars. Not surprisingly, "sign" means different things to different scholars. Many University faculty interpret the evidence of unknown terrains, be they filled with quarks or ancient gods or fragments of a sonnet, (much as semioticians attempt to break the codes of signs) to discover the mystique and mystery, the arcana and art of what nature signals itself to be.

One of the wonderful interdisciplinary strengths of the University of Pittsburgh is the study of ritual--the timeless drama of signs and symbols. Professor Fred Clothey of the Department of Religious Studies states with no equivocation that the University of Pittsburgh's intellectual resources for the study of ritual are unsurpassed by any American college or university, secular or religious. Clothey and Andrew Strathern of Pitt's anthropology department, with Donald Sulton, a CMU historian, are the co-editors of Journal of Ritual Studies, a superlative publication in the field.

Two academic departments--the Department of Philosophy and the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science--represent an extraordinary confluence of philosophic thought, if not in the more narrow branch of semiotics itself than in the quest for understanding basic principles.

Both departments were recently ranked in the top five nationally, according to the National Research Foundation--an intellectual perfecta. The University also encompasses a world-renowned medical center. Medicine, curiously enough, is where semiotics formally begins.

Sign deciphering is not a novel quest; semiotics is old. The word itself can be traced to the ancient Greeks. The fascination with signs, however, goes back even further.

We Homo sapiens have existed on earth for half a million years. But not until recent geologic time, the Upper Paleolithic era, did we concoct signs of living beings that have survived in western Europe. Deep in the recesses of a French cave named Chauvet, scientists last year discovered dazzling drawings of rhinoceroses and other animals dating back 30,000 years.

As with similar caves, man and woman are rarely depicted. The signs all point to human quarry. Were the animals seen as danger, or as something far subtler, part of a mystical communion of life? We will never know. But these drawings touch us deeply with their haunting mystery.

For many thousands of years humankind lived by hunting. In the course of endless pursuits, hunters learned to reconstruct the appearance and movement of unseen game through their tracks--prints in soft ground, snapped twigs, droppings, snared hair or feathers, smells, threads of saliva. From the silent signs left by their prey, trackers knew how to read a coherent sequence of events. Some speculate that such a reading of signs led to the invention of narration, the telling of a story.

On the 10th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, the University's signature building, James Lennox resides as chair of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science. When I visit him there, his thoughts take me to ancient Greek culture, dwelling in particular on the Greek word semeion, meaning sign, mark, or token.

In the writings of such classical authors as Sophocles, Plato, and Herodotus, Lennox explains, signs were emblems for something not present.

For Herodotus, they were signals to act, to do something.

The historian Thucydides linked signs and reasoning; signs were evidence to be used in argumentation.

Lennox then introduces an ur-sign: the human body in pain, the intellectual domain of the legendary physician Hippocrates, the world's first formal semiotician.

Lennox observes: "A fever was a sign of a disease. A fever lasting three days was a sign of a particular kind of disease. And a seizure meant the 'sacred disease,' epilepsy."

The art and craft of semiotics were born as diagnosis.

Here is how it is described in the Hippocratic Corpus's "Prognosis": "It seems to be highly desirable that a physician should pay much attention to prognosis. If he is able to tell patients when he visits them not only about their past and present symptoms, but also to tell them what is going to happen, as well as to fill in the details they have omitted, he will increase his reputation as a medical practitioner and people will have no qualms in putting themselves under his care. Moreover, he will the better be able to effect a cure if he can foretell, from the present symptoms, the future course of the disease."

From the fifth to the third century BC, the Hippocratic Corpus, compiled by many authors and containing 60 treatises, expanded medical lore into questions of environment and diet. More theoretically, the fluids of the body were linked to the four elements--earth, air, fire, and water. The signs of the Greeks always remained part of the natural world. Language, conversely, was part of rhetoric and logic.

Ever curious, the Greeks turned their eyes skyward to observe stellar signs: the stars and astronomical objects in the sky. They charted the points of light moving across the heavens and made logical, reasonable inferences, culminating in Ptolemy's model of the universe, a workable model lasting centuries. Lennox agrees in principle, if not in vocabulary, with Peirce's concept of abduction: Logical inference of the highest order requires a breathtaking leap in creativity. An authority in biology, Lennox names three of science's sublime surmisers, those uncanny interpreters of signs:

First, William Harvey, the seventeenth-century British anatomist. In his classic text, On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, he revealed how the heart functions and how the vast array of arteries and veins in the body are all connected in one unified network: the circulatory system. Even more remarkably, without the aid of a microscope, he predicted the existence of capillary circulation, explaining the way blood in the arteries passes over to the veins.

Second, Gregor Mendel, Austrian botanist and Roman Catholic monk. Cultivating peas in a monastic garden, he conducted experiments in hybridization, crossbreeding the peas and chronicling how characteristics are inherited. Mendel's law became the bedrock of the modern theory of heredity.

Third, Charles Darwin, the famous author of On the Origin of the Species, genius interpreter of nature's evolutionary signs.

Fred Clothey, chairman of religious studies, sees signs in a different light. "A usual sign," he says, "sends an agreed-upon meaning, a single denotation." A symbol, he adds, "is more ambiguous, open- ended, connoting multiple meanings"--many names of the rose. Overlap occurs. "A wedding ring," he says, "is both sign (of marriage) and symbol (of love, loyalty, commitment)."

A sign may be iconic--expressing similarity to the object for which it stands. Portraiture. A map.

A sign may be indexical--pointing to a less direct relationship. Smoke connoting fire.

Signs and symbols, Clothey says, are often embedded in the drama of ritual--the ashes of an Ash Wednesday ritual evoking the concept of sin and purification. God is spoken of in signs-for instance, as the Good Shepherd. But signs can also conjure forces of evil, Satanic images, humanity's dark side.

Certain signs are fundamental, "root metaphors." For Christians, the cross is such a metaphor. In earlier centuries it was the sign of the fish, Icthus. For Jewish people the Torah or menorah are root metaphors. A delightful sign of the Hindu religion is the offering of a coconut--hard on the outside, tender on the inside--celebrating the human being.

Numbers are signs. Geometric figures are signs--circles, mandalas, squares, triangles. So too are pulpits, altars, domes.

In our contemporary world, totemic objects are no longer animals. They are often machines, such as cars, named after animals.

America is a sign of speed. Quicker and quicker, we change our cars, we change our ideas, we change our spouses, we change our friends. We are forever increasing the speed of amortization of ideas, signs, and goods.

Says Clothey, "In this country we may be losing the capacity to respect those who appear to be different. We misread or don't even bother to read, to interpret, to value their rituals."

He continues, "In ritual, the whole person is immersed in signs and symbols, often with all five senses involved. Ritual works through a community, engendering a sense of identity, an opportunity for transformation."

Clothey pauses, warming to the topic. "We have to learn to understand. Without signs and symbols we cannot express ourselves. This is one of the things I teach here at the University. This is what being human is all about.

"A human being is the animal that symbolizes, that creates and interprets signs. Unlike other animals we can reflect on existence, on our inevitable death. We can weave a context of meaning. In reading a sign, one becomes a kind of pilgrim, moving to another world."

On the door of the philosophy department I read a sign which gives me short pause: "Please enter. If you like." Chairman here is Robert Brandom. He agrees that Charles Sanders Peirce was a towering figure in semiotics. In the late 1800s, this American polymath--philosopher, mathematician, scientist--"lived alone for 20 years in an isolated Pennsylvania farmhouse developing semiotics as an aspect of logic," Brandom tells me.

After World War II, continental intellectuals widened the spectrum of semiotics more systematically to embrace anthropology, linguistics, and literature, including the popular tales of Sherlock Holmes. In the United States and Britain it was another story. The preference for semioticians here is the analysis of the language of science and mathematics.

"Our department, like most American philosophy departments, is not a hotbed for semiotics," says Brandom. "We believe the great philosophical center of the twentieth century is the nature of language-- advancing the breakthrough work of Wittgenstein and, in my case, moving toward a new language of artificial intelligence." The Washington Post, in reviewing Brandom's new book, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, predicted, "It will keep jealous philosophers in debate for decades."

Meanwhile, alongside that debate, the semiologists continue to probe nonlinguistic codes found in food, clothing, and material possessions to convey social status. Society and everything in it, from novels to tablecloths to skyscrapers, becomes a text bristling with the embedded signs and codes. This work is linked to deconstruction--the tweaking of a text into its constituent nuts and bolts, whether a president's speech or the wallpaper pattern.

The point is to destabilize the message so that the codes no longer master us. Nothing, it appears, is as simple as it seems.

The upshot of all this, for advocates of semiotics, is that all humans possess implicit knowledge, innately or by learning, of the workings of physical objects and signs in the world. As Fred Clothey says, "A human being is the animal that symbolizes, that creates and interprets signs." Yes, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Madame Curie, Gauguin, Picasso, Duchamp, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson. But on a lesser scale: all of us.

Signs encompass our lives, if only we know how to read them.

This is not to imply that upon enlarging our senses and looking at the big wide world out there we can finally get things right once and for all, making the implicit explicit. During ancient times, bird wings were the iconic sign of flying machines. It was long assumed that since all birds flap their wings, flapping wings must be essential for any flying machine.

To the question of what birds do to remain aloft, Leonardo da Vinci proposed that they bring their wings down so swiftly that the air is compressed, offering increased resistance, and the wings are buoyed upward. Later Newton's law of force demolished this theory.

But not for long. With the study of hydrodynamics, the possibility of flight took on new meaning. The wing need not flap at all; it can remain stationary. The key is the overall pattern of flying machine and wing and wind, whether a flapping wing, a stationary wing, or a rotating helicopter blade. And so, airplanes were built, a sign was reformed. In the words of ritual, a sign survives by a wing and a prayer, and it sends our imaginations soaring.

In his office, Robert Brandom points his hand toward an object. It is a human brain. Not a model brain. A real brain, preserved in formaldehyde. With a touch of wonderment, he tells me, "That chunk of matter. That's the master of meaning. It's not magic. It's the way the signs work with one another." As I ready myself to leave, a small child, Brandom's son, appears seemingly from nowhere. For a long moment he contemplates the brain, using his intelligence to gaze upon the seat of intelligence.

It appears to me a good sign.


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