Fabula and semiotics

Fabula are “the raw material of a story or narrative.”

I want to borrow this term to denote the raw material of a purposive conversation. For example, if I say to my partner that I want to have a salad for dinner, the notion or idea of that salad is a fabula that we can now discuss.

Our discussion of this as yet non-existent salad, this salad fabula, will include particular items, acts, and visualizations. For example, I may want sliced tomatoes in the salad, my partner may mention some olives in the refrigerator. We may both visualize our salad bowl and kitchen while we decide who does what.

Before the salad is made it is a fabula. The particular elements that go into getting the salad made while they are still only in our minds are semiotic elements.

In this sense, semiotics can be defined as the units or parts of a conversational fabula. We use these semiotics to discuss how to make what kind of salad.

We do the same thing with virtually all other conversational subjects. That is, we declare or grope toward determining what our fabula is and use semiotics to further clarify our vision of it. While doing this, ideally, we will remain open to real-time alterations and misunderstandings about both the fabula and the semiotics.

In these terms, most reasonable (and many unreasonable) conversations can be understood as two (or more) people negotiating* the “meanings” of their imperfectly shared fabula and semiotics. The fabula is a sort of context that defines the semiotics used in the discussion of it.

When the conversation is about salads, much of the process of going from a salad fabula to a real salad is straightforward and unproblematical.

When a conversation is about matters that are more ambiguous, subjective, emotional, or existential, there may be more problems because the fabula often will not be as clear as a salad to both parties. Or if it is, it may lead parties to quickly cleave to cliches or obvious explanations, thus limiting fresh responses or creative insights.

FIML practice can fix these problems by getting partners to clarify their fabula while also allowing them to alter it, or even change it entirely, as their discussion progresses.

The same is true at a different level for the semiotics they employ in their discussion—with FIML practice these semiotics often can be adjusted and clarified as soon as diverging understanding is noticed in either person’s mind.

Even if diverging understandings persist for some time, experienced FIML partners will be better prepared notice them when the opportunity arises.

A more complex example of this is an ongoing discussion my partner and I have had for several years. The basic discussion involves a strong reaction I sometimes have to cosmetic surgery. I admit that my reaction can be irrational and I can’t quite explain it. My partner frequently makes the point that I do like cosmetic surgery as long as I don’t notice it and/or like the results. We have gone back and forth on this quite a few times without ever getting a really good resolution, until a few days ago. The core problem had been that I do dislike the idea of cosmetic surgery, period. And also, I do recognize that it can be necessary and that if I like the results, I may be able to accept it even when it is not necessary.

We had never been involved in a simple dichotomy—like versus don’t like—but we both had been speaking as if we were. This was mostly my fault as I sometimes expressed revulsion at some forms of cosmetic surgery, but it was also not true that I actually liked the surgery if I liked the results or didn’t notice it.

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*I mean the word negotiating not so much as making a deal but more as negotiating a narrow foot bride across a stream or negotiating a turn in an automobile. Negotiation in this sense is an effort between two or more people to make many small adjustments to arrive at a mutually satisfying result, the “meaning” of which is understood in roughly the same way by all parties.

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