[lit-ideas] Re: The Seamy Side of Semiotics

  • From: wokshevs@xxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, Julie Krueger <juliereneb@xxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 27 May 2008 19:03:05 -0230

Every once in awhile, a student will ask a question in class the answer to which
I don't have at the time, or perhaps at any other time, given my ignorance in
the areas of rationality and moral deliberation. My silence in response to the
question is often quite uncomfortable for many students in the class. They are,
after all, accustomed to powerpoint classes. 'Nuff said. 

Why is silence so uncomfortable in a philosophy class? I pace back and forth,
mulling over the question and my possible answers, while the students think:

"Oh my god! He doesn't know the answer!!! Should he be teaching this philosophy
class? ..... Btw, what IS the right answer anyway?"

How do YOU deal with such silences in YOUR classrooms? 

Walter O.
Midwife @ MUN

Quoting Julie Krueger <juliereneb@xxxxxxxxx>:

> Emoticons
> The seamy side of semiotics.
> When was the last time you saw a person stop and think on television?
> Thinking in public is just not done. When asked a question or given some
> other verbal or visual cue, a panelist or interviewee will bark out an
> instantaneous answer. Talking points will march out smartly, often backed up
> by a fact or a figure to display a certain certitude.
> But in a subjunctive mood, we can ask: What if a candidate, expert or pundit
> were to lean back in the hot seat, look up at the ceiling, wrinkle the brow,
> steeple the fingers ? and say nothing for four or five seconds?
> Unprepared! the audience expecting instant profundity would cry. The alien
> thinker would be adjudged to be frozen stiff, startled into silence, exposed
> as ignorant. Vast legions of impatient viewers would stab frantically at
> their clickers; others listening on iPods or squinting at tiny hand-held
> screens would frown and check their batteries. As eyeballs came unstuck and
> ratings collapsed, advertisers would demand rebates, and the production's
> booker would be fired. The sought-after savant caught momentarily marshaling
> thoughts on camera would be transformed from a get to a geddoutahere.
> Language is in its third phase of compression. Three centuries ago, we were
> fed the short'nin' bread of contraction; won't, don't, I'm, you're made the
> apostrophe the king of cant, which caused a 19th-century lexicographer to
> denounce writers "carrying contraction to such an excess as to make their
> writings unintelligible to all but the initiated."
> Then came the period of portmanteau terms, named after the French suitcase
> with hinged compartments: chuckle and snort blended into chortle;
> breakfastand
> lunch fused into brunch; and, in our time, broadcast and the World
> Wide Webmorphed into
> webcast (still capitalized as "Webcast" by the New York Times copy czar).
> Electronic communication has whisked us into a third phase of compression:
> the Age of Shortspeak. As we listen and watch replays of multicasts to suit
> our scheduling convenience, those above-mentioned interminable, bor-r-ing
> four-second pauses are edited out. Humanizing uh, er, ah, um moments of
> meaningless vamping are pitilessly erased; even the dramatist's "pregnant
> pause" has been digitally aborted.
> Why? Time is credit (formerly "Time is money"), and the drawl is dead. If
> the panelist or debater cannot promptly hit the spittoon with a preconceived
> reply unencumbered by grunts, an engineer posting the transmission that the
> television couch potatoes and the Internet mash potatoes watch will squeeze
> the speaker's speech down to fit. As a result, "live" talk ? conversation
> between warm-bodied humans in real time ? seems ponderous, awkward, in need
> of the smoothing talcum of speed.
> The acceleration of shortspeak forces us to confront the seamy side of
> semiotics, which is the study of nonverbal signs and symbols in semantics
> and syntactics. I have no objection to time- and space-saving signals that
> convey instant instruction: red and green lights are better than the words
> "stop" and "go"; a skull and crossbones is a visual reminder not to drink
> the iodine; a simple arrow beats "this way to the egress." (An icon of a
> pair of pants on a lavatory door, however, is confusing to both slacks-clad
> women and slack-jawed men.)
> The trouble is that the stylized drawings of iconography (rooted in the
> Greek eikenai, "to seem like," and graphein, "to write") are threatening to
> take over the precise communication of words. Our computer "desktops" ? a
> word coined by Dashiell
> 1929 to mean "working surface of a desk," on which a private eye could
> plonk his feet ? changed in the '80s to describe the size of a computer. Now
> a desktop is a computer's opening screen that displays icons representing
> paths to actions like filing (a tiny file cabinet) and ejecting (a trash
> pail) or access to a source of news (a Roman letter "T" for "Times"). The
> symbolic picture takes up no less space than the descriptive word, but it's
> lively to look at as it shortcuts the function of language.
> Nowhere is this cheerful shortcutting better illustrated than in the
> meteoric rise of the emoticon. (Meteors fall as well as rise, as politicians
> know; put not all your faith in language's metaphoric pictures.) Though
> Merriam-Webster has a 1987 citation by Jim Greenlee using the word to
> discourage "emotional conversation," the coinage came to mean "the use of
> keyboard symbols to draw pictures," as in Kevin Mackenzie's 1979 combination
> ? a dash followed by a closing parenthesis, like -), to stand for "tongue in
> cheek." In 1982, Prof. Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon
> up with what he called a "joke marker": this combination of colon for
> eyes, dash for nose and closing parenthesis for mouth viewed sideways to
> form :) that was the smiley; for millions, it replaced the language sentence
> "I'm only kidding." ("Language sentence" is a retronym, like "biological
> father.") Substitute a semicolon for the colon and open the parenthesis,
> like ;-(, and you have a frownie with a raised eyebrow.
> I have been nibbling around the edge of a big subject today. Those concerned
> about the compression of our sped-up language are directed to "Linguistic
> Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language," by Sali Tagliamonte and
> Derek Denis, an article in the spring 2008 quarterly "American Speech" (
> dukeupress.edu). My choice for most influential and seminal language book of
> the year is "Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World," by Naomi S.
> Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in D.C. (Oxford
> University Press, $30). She's a scholar who can write in real time with real
> words.

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