Repost: Semiotic valence

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

Edit 3/4/15: This essay was first posted 3/20/14 and references to Syria date from that time. Notice how it seems we will be getting war with Syria now for other reasons. Last year it was gas. This year it is ISIS atrocities. 3/5/15: This just in today: ​‘Military pressure’ may be needed to oust Syrian President – John Kerry

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