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ignworld: The Strange Case of the Disappearance of Reality

(03 November 2007)

Imagine you see a sign for London. It shows an enticing image of the West End, and says the fun is just sixty miles away. You drive those sixty miles in eager anticipation then discover…nothing, except another sign showing another image of another alluring destination and saying it’s only thirty miles away. You drive to the new destination and again there’s nothing, apart from another sign. You drive all over Britain and all you ever encounter are signs but no actual destinations. You’re in Signworld where endless promises are offered by the signs all around you, but they point to nothing that actually exists.

Anyone who’s familiar with semiotics – the study of signs – knows that it’s difficult to provide a satisfactory general definition of ‘sign’. C.S. Peirce offered the suggestion: ‘a sign stands for something else.’ But spots are a sign of measles yet do not stand for measles. If we modify Peirce’s definition to: ‘a sign points to something else’, does that improve matters? Crucially, signs can wrongly point to something. A doctor, because of a child’s spots, may erroneously diagnose measles and embark on an ineffectual course of treatment. The sign, depending on what people think it’s pointing to, causes real things to happen in the real world.

Anything can be a sign, and can point to several things at once, depending on how the sign is interpreted. Two attractive young female friends dancing energetically in a nightclub might be a sign of fun, sex, fertility, laughter, enjoyment, excitement, anticipation, glamour, partying, intoxication, beauty, youth, fashion, seduction etc. The girls will be trying to project alluring signs to the men they are interested in, who, of course, will be trying to project equally attractive signs. Everyone is trying to calculate what signs the others are sending out and what signs will seduce them.

What is body language other than the attempt to read the signs that a body subconsciously reveals? Psychiatry – the study of the signs emanating from a troubled person. Science – the systematic analysis of the signs produced, ultimately, by a quantum ‘reality’ with which we can have no direct contact and which is so counterintuitive that no one has been able to convincingly demonstrate what type of reality it is. What is language except an arrangement of signs? Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions etc – they’re all just signs. What is maths except yet another arrangement of signs, albeit more abstract ones? Everywhere we go we’re exposed to signs of status, wealth, power, sexuality, intelligence, religion, and so on, and we’re constantly evaluating these signs and judging how to modify our behaviour to best accommodate them.

Signs are arguably all there is. The human brain is merely a sign generator and sign interpreter (and just as likely a sign misinterpreter). Evolution may actually favour misinterpretation. There are six and a half billion of us on this planet, and we all think we are important and that our lives have meaning. If we didn’t hold such opinions, life would prove exceptionally difficult. However, any accurate reading of the signs around us seems to suggest that we are insignificant, ephemeral creatures stuck in an unimportant corner of a vast, indifferent universe that has no point whatsoever. How many people choose to read the signs that way? We can impose on signs whatever misinterpretations we find most reassuring. Who cares what the signs are really pointing to? Are we bothered that signs have no necessary link to reality?

Consider Aristotle’s famous syllogism: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Seems straightforward enough until Socrates is replaced with Hamlet. Is Hamlet a mortal man? He seems to be but in fact he’s a non-existent fictional character. If we didn’t know that, we might easily conclude that Hamlet is real. That’s the trouble with signs: real signs and fake signs are hard to separate. (Strictly speaking, all signs are real – it’s what they point to that’s either real or not, but inevitably, the signs become inseparable from what they are allegedly pointing to.) If I create a sign for God, does God then exist or not? Well, sure, he now exists as a sign but does that sign point to anything?

When human beings read or watch fiction, they talk of ‘suspending their disbelief’. But what makes them think they are capable of suspending their suspension of disbelief? When they refer to God, aren’t they simply demonstrating that they’re always suspending their disbelief? In other words, they permanently inhabit the world of fiction. They’re addicted to believing in seductive things that aren’t there: signs that promise reality but don’t deliver.

When G.K. Chesterton said, 'When a man stops believing in God, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes in anything', he was one hundred percent in error. When a man starts believing in God, he demonstrates his willingness to believe in anything. Or nothing, if to believe in a non-existent entity is the ultimate nihilism.

‘God’ is the most powerful sign of all because it points to everything. God is all knowing, all seeing, all powerful, and omnipresent. God is what is produced when we take the human propensity for signs to its logical conclusion. It’s not at all surprising that people worship this ultimate sign since it provides the illusion of furnishing all of the answers. On earth, money is the closest we can get to God. Money, like God, is a sign that points to innumerable things. With money we can buy practically everything life has to offer. It seems to answer so many of our problems. Few people are immune from its blandishments, so, again, it can’t surprise us that so many worship it. God and money are the top two signs, the ones with the widest range and most power. Yet, in each case, the signs really point to nothing. God doesn’t exist, and what is money but useless coloured pieces of paper, and increasingly just sets of numbers in online bank accounts?

The phenomenon of signs being readily capable of pointing to things that don’t exist has dramatic consequences. What’s to prevent more and more signs being created that point nowhere real? We can end up with the hyperreality described by Jean Baudrillard; the world of the more real than real. In hyperreality we surround ourselves with signs that point to a type of perfection that the real world either cannot deliver or delivers in a way that has become absurd (digitally enhanced supermodels; fabulous A-list stars with perfectly scripted lines; computer-generated architecture with fantasy curves; music systems with such good sound reproduction than they convey purer notes than the instruments that generated the sounds in the first place; beautifully cultivated landscape gardens that could never appear in nature; pornographic images that are more sexual than real sex could ever be). Real and fake signs are seamlessly integrated in the human psyche, and as time goes on, more and more fake signs are being created until we’re now surrounded by an overwhelming preponderance of them. So, reality has begun to slip away, silently and unmourned, leaving us in shiny, empty Signworld.

One of the central problems of signs is that they aren’t objective, neutral entities, but are emotionally loaded. Every sign creates an emotional response. In a sense, signs are emotions. The ‘God sign’ produces a hugely positive and comforting emotion in those who believe it points to something real. It would be easier for a junkie to give up crack cocaine than for believers to surrender their faith in this sign. Whether or not the God sign points to reality becomes irrelevant. The emotions connected with the sign are real enough, and that’s why rational argument never wins against such signs.

When you listen to a politician’s speech, it will be full of words such as changenewprogressfuture,bettersecurityprosperityfreedomcommunityharmony. These are all signs that point to positive emotional states, but their content is non-existent. No details are ever provided; they would make the signs specific and therefore less potent. General signs are always far more effective. In The Wild One, a girl asks Marlon Brando what he’s rebelling against. His answer is the classic, ‘What have you got?’ To say a specific thing would destroy the effect.

Because signs have emotional content, an inexorable trend emerges. Insofar as we can select the signs around us, we will choose pleasurable signs and avoid signs that point to pain. Eventually we will exist in a cosy cocoon of signs of pleasure. They will become increasingly extreme, until in every direction we see signs pointing us towards perfect happiness – paradise, no less – but of course these glittering signs never deliver. We are back in Baudrillard’s hyperreality. It’s perhaps as close to hell as we can get. What could be more horrific than being permanently pointed towards pleasure, but never finding it; always being disappointed yet endlessly tantalised.

One of the most intriguing aspects of signs is that they can become one with what they are supposedly pointing to. A statue of the Virgin Mary points, as far as believers are concerned, to the Mother of God in heaven. But when they pray to Mary for help, are they praying to the statue (the sign), or what it points to (Mary in heaven), or doesn’t it matter any longer as the identification between the two has become so close? If an iconoclast smashed the image to pieces as a false idol, a believer would be appalled: it would seem like an attack on Mary herself. Yet isn’t the iconoclast correct? – to worship a sign rather than what it points to is idolatry. But isn’t there an even greater danger? To destroy the sign may also destroy what it points to, or at any rate make it much harder to believe that what was pointed at is still truly there.

Baudrillard talks about the ‘image’ having four successive phases:

1)      It reflects a basic reality

2)      It masks and perverts a basic reality

3)      It masks the absence of a basic reality

4)      It has no relation to any reality whatsoever

‘New Labour’ provides a good illustration. 1) The Labour Party is a real, socialist movement. 2) Clause 4 (the ‘socialism’ clause) is dropped by New Labour, meaning that the whole concept of the Labour Party has been perverted, yet the ‘image’ of Labour is maintained. 3) The relentless use of ‘spin’ seeks to maintain the illusion that New Labour and Labour are both the same, yet paradoxically different. (In fact, New Labour is an entirely separate party from Labour and ought not to be allowed to pretend to be some continuation of the Labour movement, which it certainly isn’t.)  4) Tony Blair, like an unelected dictator, takes Britain to a war in Iraq that only he wants, with the central pretext being WMD (which are non-existent, of course). What reality is New Labour trading in at this point? None at all. It’s a fantasy party, with fantasy members obeying fantasy agendas. The original Labour image is unrecognisable.       

Using ‘sign’ instead of image, we might say that initially a sign seems to point to something real (e.g. ‘God is real’); then it may point erroneously to something (e.g. the Catholic and Islamic God cannot be the same since Catholics and Muslims believe in entirely different things, so one set of signs must be in error, or indeed both); then it may point to something that is not there at all (e.g. the atheist’s opinion of God). Finally, and absurdly, a sign points to itself. Reality has disintegrated; Signworld no longer makes any sense at all. It’s exposed as just smoke and mirrors. In this final stage, we encounter such phenomena as people being famous for being famous (fame doesn’t point to any achievement but simply to itself). Artists are not those who create art but are merely those who are labelled ‘artists’. Anything they do or say is ‘art’. Their unmade bed is art, but the unmade bed of someone who is not labelled an artist is not art. Teachers no longer teach; they train pupils to pass exams that make them appear to have been taught. Politicians do not engage in politics; they practise ‘spin’, the art of not saying what it is that they haven’t achieved. The first rule of a spin-doctor is never to answer a question, while aggressively maintaining that he has in fact answered it and expressing disgust at the sheer cynicism of those who claim he hasn’t. Spin, like all hyperreal signs, points only to itself and can never come into contact with reality.

All around us, we’re being unplugged from the real. The life-support systems of reality are being switched off everywhere.

Philosophy ought to merge with psychology. It’s never Truth that matters to human beings, but the signs that seem to point to Truth, and the feelings these signs engender. We choose some signs over others because they offer us greater contentment. What they don’t offer is anything that gets us closer to Truth. There are those who believe that their opinions are somehow closer to Truth. ‘How much truth can a mind bear, how much truth can a mind dare?’ Nietzsche asked. No one had spoken this way before – making an individual’s relationship with truth based on their courage rather than on their intelligence or faith. Can only the most courageous of us come close to Truth? But which of us is courageous enough?

Another astonishing observation Nietzsche made was: ‘As soon as you feel yourself against me you have ceased to understand my position and consequently my arguments! You have to be the victim of thesame passion!’ Again, he brings the world of reason into the arena of feeling. Our so-called dispassionate rational thoughts are in fact inextricably linked to our emotions, and if unconscious processes drive those what does that tell us about our great edifices of rationality? If reason is subservient to emotion, most of us will construct or adopt an anodyne set of ‘rational’ explanations of the world. We will turn away from any rational arguments that lead us towards nihilism. Only those who are strong enough, who have sufficient will to power as Nietzsche would say, will have the opportunity to contemplate harsh truths. ‘And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ Most of us will refuse to stand anywhere near the abyss, but what if that’s precisely where Truth resides?

Some individuals, like Nietzsche, may indeed have access to a greater range of truths than less daring types, but can they ever really reach Truth? Isn’t it the case that even if they arrive at a sign that points to Truth, they will never know if it points to anything real?

Perhaps some of us would love to escape from Signworld, but one thing’s for sure: we’ll never find the sign pointing us to the exit.