Semiotics of Power

A lot of scholars in my field (technical communication) have tried to locate and describe the relationship between different types of symbolism and action. Many point towards sociohistorical research like Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari (among others) and their different tracings and descriptions of how symbolic systems emerge and change the possibilities of action. I borrow a lot of these particular techniques of geneaology, archaeology, and cultural criticism (especially the "cultural circuit") in order to describe how semiotic shifts and emergences distort not just a particular symbol, but what Derrida called "trace" (the sort of "ground" inherent in the "figure" of any sign--the entire "not" that is supposedly occluded in any meaning-making act). Where this resonates with my scholarship is problematizing the notion of "power," a sort of god-term in most social analyses of language. Barbara Mirel, at an earlier WIDE event discussed some of her research on medicine and language and talked about what "dye" she used to study the communication "circulation" in a larger hospital communication ecology. In other words, how do you trace deformations of symbolic practices? For example, how can you tell if a new hospital charting practice is effecting new patient-nurse relationships? You can certainly game a situation and ask nurses to do something different and then ask them if they notice a change. That carries the very real risk of not only bias (the intervention is already different than situated and naturalized practice), but the impossibility of a completely objective distance from embedded subjective experience. Tracing phonemes, morphemes, or any other linguistic unit seems iffy as well. The complexity of representation quickly sends you way past X-bar linguistics and into Beautiful Mind territory.

What do some tech comm folks do? Some call it "power" and throw up their hands. Others try to "mark" particular images, peculiar discursive characteristics, distinct practices--or assemblages of two or three of these--and observe how things travel through the system. Complex assemblages of meaning, like Barak Obama's Lincolnesque greatcoat and the podium that requires a photography perspective to cast Obama as a Lincolnesque figure in conjunction with very overt references to Abraham Lincoln's rhetoric, are places where one can test the "dye" of semiotic power. Who carries this particular iconic arrangement? FOX News? No (notice how the image crops away most of the coat, does away with the perspective, and uses the most unflattering pose)--they are unapologetically aligned with Republican interests and frequently invite discussion about how the GOP is the still "Party of Lincoln." I found this picture at the New York Times, which is not a surprise, because of the historical alignment of the paper with "Yankee" interests (the shift of the Democratic party over to what was the Republican north has been well documented). Even my use of the traditional "Democratic" descriptor of the party has been called into question by the Republican use of the foreshortened "Democrat" moniker as a way to conducting their own "friend or foe" marking and semiotic power experiment. The networks that were forged in a civil war almost 150 years ago persist, and one can trace them in the narratives that coarse through the "body politic," corporate networks, social electrate networks, etc.

What do Barak Obama's semiotic strategies have to do with tech comm? Quite a bit, actually. While many in our field are slicing and dicing texts and practices into constituent parts for XML-enabled efficiency practices like single-sourcing, etc., the users that we (and our university and corporate benefactors) are trying to advocate for (supposedly) are busy trying to reassemble these things into the the context of a life. It is tough to integrate the macro narratological aspects of communication with the micro techniques of producing communication, to be sure. Seeing how politicians launch campaigns (or mislaunch them with echoes of racial hygiene rhetoric) can illuminate the broader symbolic landscape that technical writers negotiate--not just the legal and formal topography, but the very complex human topos that limit and enable action in particular and shifting contexts.

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