Semiotics are the signs and symbols of communication.
Words, images, sounds, gestures, phrases, whole sentences, books, fields of study, and so on are all semiotics.
Within any one mind, semiotics are interconnected in a network. I am pretty sure we can speak of a single network in most, if not all, individual minds, but if you want to think of there being several distinct networks in a single mind, that would be fine.
Of course, the semiotic network within any one mind will have sub-networks and, most assuredly, many weird connections among its parts, its semiotic units and/or sub-networks.
When humans conceptualize space-time, we often use the notion of “gravity wells” or “gravitational wells.” Our sun sits in the center of and causes a gravitational well that is a description of the “bending” of space-time.
I want to borrow that sense of “gravitational wells” and use it to describe something called “semiotic wells.”
A semiotic well is like a solar system or galaxy in that it constitutes a system of semiotic elements that are all held together by the “weight” of some of its members. A “semiotic well” is a gravitational bending within a semiotic network.
For example, a trained botanist will have a semiotic well about plants and another well within that well about their particular specialty within the field of botany. To that botanist, many perceptions and events will circle in and around that semiotic well. They will know things about plants and see things in the world that those of us who are not trained in botany will not see.
The same can be said for any profession.Doctors, lawyers, therapists, translators, carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and so on; each will have a semiotic well, or wells, associated with their profession. All of us also have semiotic wells associated with our hobbies and main interests, and many other things.
One of my best friends is a janitor and he knows and see things about human messes and how to clean them that I would never have appreciated without his input. He also has a good sense of humor about his work.
And sadly, he also feels bad about his work sometimes. Though his friends and I know he is a sterling character and have great respect for him, he can’t escape knowing that he is working a low-status job and that very few people appreciate him for what he does.
This brings in another semiotic well, or an aspect of his basic janitorial semiotic well, that is emotional. My wonderful friend sometimes feels bad about what he is doing and finds it very hard to climb out of those feelings. It really is as if he has fallen into a well and can’t get out; he can’t escape the “gravitational well,” the semiotic well, of how he thinks most people in society see him.
He is caught at the same time in both a cultural semiotic well and a subjective semiotic well. His subjective well is very complex but a big part of it is his view of what others think of him.
Now, I think the same is true for all of us. Our professions create one kind of semiotic well, while the way we think society perceives our profession creates another well. Many of the semiotic elements of these wells are highly subjective and depend greatly on idiosyncratic perceptions and assessments.
What I want to do now is largely replace the concept of “personality” with that of semiotic wells.
The advantage of doing this is that we replace an ambiguous term with one that has discrete elements that can be discovered, changed, and moved around.
The gravitational “sun” at the center of my friend’s occasional depression is not his “personality” but his job, the drudgery of it, and, probably most importantly, how he thinks others see him as someone doing that job.
This describes a semiotic well that sometimes is so strong it pulls in his perceptions of many other things not connected to his work at all. And then all of that creates more wells that involve his wife, children, and friends. He can become a semiotic well to them.
But it is not just janitors who can feel that way. Doctors can get depressed because everyone they see feels bad. All day long, they have to deal with people at their worst. And sometimes they make mistakes that cause terrible feelings of guilt or helplessness.
The examples above are clear, I hope, because they are concrete and involve things we all know about.
Some other examples of semiotic wells are our fears, doubts, neuroses, memories, conceits, shame, pride, intentions, and so on. If we conceive of these sorts of subjective items as being aspects of our “personalities,” we won’t analyze them, or we won’t analyze them profitably. We will dwell on them instead.
If we think of them as semiotic wells, we will be more likely to see that they are networks of meaning that are made up of real things—the signs and symbols of communication. Communication happens within the mind as well as between minds.
My friend’s mind is infected with the signs and symbols of having a low-status job. In much the same way, but less concretely, all of us are infected by the signs and symbols of our semiotic wells, both subjective and external semiotic wells.
Our memories, fears, doubts, biases, and much more can become semiotic wells. And what we think others think of our jobs and our “selves” and deeds can also become semiotic wells. And what others really do think can become semiotic wells.
The terrible thing about this is we cannot discuss it with most people. But we can discuss it with some people and, given the right circumstances, we can analyze any semiotic well you can think of. We can discover what their parts are, how they interconnect, and which elements are “heaviest” and why.
Through analyses like that, we can reconfigure our semiotic networks and wells. By calling them into consciousness, especially with the help of a partner, we can fully understand them as we recontextualize or reconfigure them. Oftentimes, we will discover that an element that seems to have great weight, need not have so much weight. We might discover that some elements are false, especially if those elements are how we imagine what others are thinking.
If my friend, for example, could see what I really think of him—and not confuse my mind with what he thinks society sees—he would probably be amazed because I think he is a very clever and dignified person who does difficult work selflessly, mostly for the good of others. I have taken him as a model of human behavior at its best in many things. I have told him this, but he doesn’t seem to believe me because the force of his semiotic well about it is too strong.
Forming semiotic wells seems to me to be a primitive aspect of thought and communication. Transforming them through analysis seems to be a way to generate the escape velocity needed to free ourselves from them.
Not all semiotic wells are bad, but many of them tend to become bad even if they started out good. This happens because they can quickly ossify, or become static. Once you see yourself as “having such-and-such personality,” you will tend to turn the rich network of your mind into a simple semiotic well. Or once you see your friend as having this-or-that trait, you will tend to turn the rich network of their mind into a semiotic well.
Worst of all, most of us do this to each other constantly. Members of small groups, companies, work stations, towns, or churches tend to nickle-and-dime each other to death over static semiotic wells that can be generated from even the shallowest of ambiguities.
3 thoughts on “Semiotic networks and semiotic wells”
“Oftentimes, we will discover that an element that seems to have great weight, need not have so much weight.”
If it is true what you say in your “Semiotic Valence” essay, that “most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies”, then the above is probably a good point to really emphasize.
The idea that you can assign different weights or percentages to things and not have to accept or reject them wholesale is something of a novel concept.
Or if not exactly a novel concept then at least something most of us don’t practice nearly often enough.
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