A Theory of Signs

I’ve mentioned needing good signs in past entries without, I realize, specifying exactly what makes for good signs.

I’ve also been threatening to bring back the philosophy.

I think it’s time to make good on my promises.

Signs are very interesting things. I come from a school of thought heavily influenced by Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Eco—as should surprise none of my three long-term readers, especially given where I got my blog’s title from—in which signs are things that, within a certain context, point to other things, like objects in the world, concepts, transcendent realities, or other signs. Signs always exist against a certain background of culture, language, interpretive traditions, and unquestioned/unquestionable assumptions (what Wittgenstein calls the form of life peculiar to a certain language-game) without which they can have no proper meaning.

Let’s say I pick up a book from Borges’s Library of Babel. Chances are, I’m not going to be able to understand it, or even recognize it as a language—and, given that its text is basically a random collection of letters and punctuation marks, there’s probably a reason for that. There’s always a chance, however, that the text is readable in a language I don’t know, or that nobody knows; if I just knew the right language, any book, or indeed every book, becomes the one out of the infinity that I’m looking for. One reading of the Universal Library is not that one has to find the one book in which all the secrets of the universe are contained; rather, one needs to find the right language in which the book one has can be read with the same result.

To someone who has never seen English, this post is meaningless gibberish, if even recognizable as writing; to someone who knows it, it’s an essay on semiotics and road signs; to someone who knows the right language, it’s a translation of Aristotle’s lost book of the Poetics. The signifiers (the glyphs on the screen) remain the same, but the things signified change completely based on the schemae and rules followed for understanding them.

This is all analogous to a broader point about signs: there’s often a multitude of ways of interpreting them, sometimes with many of the apparent meanings being right at once. Sometimes, it’s possible a sign can have so many interpretations, especially when presented out of context, that it becomes a meaningless and unparseable sign (as in Eco’s title to The Name of the Rose), while (as in Eco’s plot to The Name of the Rose) things that look like signs aren’t.

The problem with road signs, though, is that ones with ambiguous, multiple, or no meanings generally aren’t appreciated by people trying to follow them.

Semiotic complexity and diversity of interpretation is just fine in great literature, but I’m not reading The Waste Land at 25 miles an hour while coming into an intersection. It’s very rare that “make it the opposite of T.S. Eliot” is good advice, but for signs, yes, yes it is.

The goal is to create a sign that indicates a rule needing no interpretation. Rules are followed, and a good sign indicates the rule. Rules indicate the way to continue, with interpretation needed only when the way is unclear.

Our challenge, though, is that indicating the way to continue is really, really tricky.

A road sign has to communicate everything quickly, with no ambiguity, to someone who may or may not be able to get a good look at it. Its meaning must be unmistakable at first glance to everyone.

Part of why this is tricky is that not everybody using the road shares the same cultural and linguistic background. Immigrants and children are only a few of the kinds of people who use the road who don’t share the kind of complex and tacitly understood understandings of ingrained cultural norms gained by living in a certain form of life.

Language-games are learned by playing them, and the rules are learned by experience. If your experience of a game was different, or you don’t have it, you’re going to have trouble playing the game—a problem when the pieces are several thousand pounds of metal hurtling through space.

Not everyone can perform what John Forester describes as a beautiful dance between driver and cyclist, communicating wordlessly with glances and subtle body motion. Forester’s ideas on vehicular cycling only work if you’re embedded in a certain form of life, if you know all the rules of the game with precision, exactly where the limits of the rules are and how far they can be interpreted—in other words, if you’re in a position of privilege. Everyone else? Tough luck. Stay off your bikes.

This, obviously, is a less than ideal solution. If our streets and communities are to be open to all, then their rules and signs should be understandable by all.

There are at least two obstacles to this noble goal of truly universal design: what we are so inculturated to think of as “universal” or immediately obvious to all people may not be in many cases; and semiotic systems like language-games are learned by use, through experience and familiarity—which presents a paradox, if we’re trying to create a system for those who are unfamiliar and haven’t used the system before.

The first problem is one that seems fairly easy to discern and fix; look at signals and signs from around the world, notice how they differ, cut needless words (like “WALK”), insert illustrations or symbols (like an Ampelmann), easy peasy. Of course, things are rarely this simple—for someone with red/green colorblindness, for instance, discerning red from green traffic lights only by their color just isn’t possible. Now, there are good reasons for some things (e.g., red stoplights/taillights that someone might have to be looking at for a long time at night won’t ruin night vision like a differently colored or white light might), but others? That’s less clear. Even when there’s a naturalistic post hoc explanation (green can be associated with life, spring, abundance; red with blood, fire, poisonous creatures, avoidance), it doesn’t necessarily follow that one can move from “there might be a natural inspiration” to “these signs are natural and universifiable.”

Problem two can never be quite completely solved—use teaches how to use—but it can be minimized. The relation between sign and action can be clarified, conflicting interpretations eliminated (a sign should ideally elicit a single response, and do it automatically, without sorting through conflicting meanings or the penumbra of interpretation), and the relationship between symbol and world clarified. The problem is that…well, what exactly is the speed limit when the sign says 35 and everyone’s doing 45? Heck, it’s pretty well-known that, in my part of Maryland, it’s standard practice not to pull people over unless they’re doing more than ten over, or to send them tickets from speed cameras. Similarly, I get a minor kick out of watching cars slow roll through stop signs, given how bad cyclists are supposed to be about stopping. In all cases, the rule that is actually followed, the rule we have learned through use to use, is not the one being called for by the most obvious meanings of the signs. A sign that says “35 MPH,” in an ideal regime, should signal to people that they should not exceed a speed of 35 MPH, and this signal should effect an observable change in people’s behavior.

That there is this common disconnect, a generally understood standard of interpretation that deviates from the literal meaning of the signs used in the language-game, is a curious fact that reflects the actual rules of the game, and how it has evolved, rather than the prescribed rules given in the traffic code. Ideally, the described and prescribed rules should be identical; ideally, this disconnect should be resolved. While Wittgenstein really doesn’t have much tolerance for general linguistic prescriptivism—if the language produces action, if it can be used, it’s “correct,” whatever that means—prescriptivism for particular purposes, circumscribing the use of language for some specific use, saying that some interpretations and ways of proceeding are valid but not others, is a perfectly legitimate option. In those cases where clarity of meaning and communication are important (philosophy, law, traffic signals), the “blurred edges” of our language, the subtleties, ambiguities, and nuances that are often so useful and beautiful, can and should be stripped away. A language-game is to be perscribed, its rules observed by the entire community that uses it, and the actions particular to that form of life and language-game performed.

In other words: either admit that you designed the road for 45 MPH traffic, that everybody using it follows that implicit sign, and you don’t care to use the stick of enforcement enough to make them follow the posted speed limit, or find some way, by design or enforcement, to bring action to reflect the directions.

Okay. I’m going to back away slowly before I start ranting about this Wittgenstein-H.L.A. Hart language/law synthesis I’ve been kicking around since my last semester of grad school (so…longer than IL’s been around). Instead, I think it’s about time we talk about another cool thing signs can do: reference and allude to other signs.

Here in the States, we have certain standards for signs. Green signs are usually used for directions and distances, brown ones for points of interest, red ones for REALLY IMPORTANT, STOP, DON’T GO THIS WAY, signs, and so on. Even though the content of a green sign, or even type—say, mile marker 340 and a sign telling me that Key West is 1,504 miles away—can be different, I know, just because of my knowledge gained through observation and use, that a green sign will have something to do with locating myself and navigation. Of course, I’d probably be able to figure this out even if I hadn’t noticed this “green sign rule (GSR);” the significance of “Brookland—1.9 miles” is pretty obvious. However, what we gain from the GSR is a network of association, allusion, and nuance. Part of the GSR is that I should pay more attention to a red sign than a green one; the green sign will direct me, sure, it’ll keep me from getting lost, but red signs are imperative. Green is helpful, red obliges.

It’s like how I’ll sometimes switch between Philosobabble, with technical jargon and overlong  compound-complex sentences with Latin-influenced clauses and convoluted rhetorical structures, and direct, clear diction. The Philosobabble’s kinda cool I guess if you can follow it, it presents the technical background behind how and why I think something works a certain way, but it’s mostly just that—something that I’m using to provide background for a point, or an argument made for specialists who have also studied Wittgenstein, or sometimes just me making fun of myself. I’m guessing that a fair number of you reading this have heard academics talk using their own discipline-specific patois, and recognize Philosobabble for what it is based on your own experience with something similar. It’s an allusion, something that I mean to sound academic and slightly fusty, because the arguments I’m making are academic and slightly fusty. Yes, there’s a lot of intellectual heavy lifting going on, but it’s not the point.

The Point is usually in the next paragraph, written in what passes for plain English around here.

It’s direct. It’s bold. It’s usually frank and to the point.

It’s a common rhetorical strategy, especially here on IL. Even though it’s not necessary to pick up on the allusions to other writers, writing styles, and rhetorical strategies, it does lend some context to trying to parse what’s going on.

So things like sign color, or shape, or placement, or styles—things shared among a class or set of signs—basically function in the same way: another guide to interpretation and understanding that’s not necessary, but is helpful. It’s something that removes ambiguity and adds another layer of semiotic force. While it could be argued that these might sometimes diminish comprehensibility, just as using legal jargon or Early Modern English might make it hard to understand someone trying to sound official by coopting specific argots and manners of speaking, these signified allusions are part of the broad network of signs and rules used by language-games in our form of life.

So, for the most part, they’re good. Right? Well…they’re easy to do poorly. See, the thing is, ya gotta do it all the same, or else the allusions don’t work. It’s no good having Hyattsville use large green signs with arrows, then North Brentwood using small blue signs with distances listed in blocks, then DC using lettered bike routes on small green signs, and directions to neighborhoods on rectangular green signs underneath every once in a while. The thread gets lost, just like someone trying to follow the signs. Without using the established rules governing allusion and common signs, this tool for clarifying semiotic content not only ceases to function, but can (in the cases of dramatic exceptions from semi-established rules) cause confusion.

That’s no way to proceed. Clarity, ease of understanding, and lack of ambiguity are our goals. Interpretation is only needed in special cases; when the rule is clear, the sign shows the way, and the rule is followed.

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