Excursus on Signage and Signals

Brandon Joyce

It can dishearten a man at times to look around at all the publicly visible language in our world—all of the big glowing words that, eyed from street level, fall mainly into one of three columns: names, advertisements, and municipal signage. Which is to say: labels, lies, and commands. Of all the things we speaking animals could be saying to each other, this is what we choose. Labels, lies, and commands.

Henri Lefebvre groaned about this in Everyday Life in the Modern World (Continuum). Here he wrote:

Remarkable changes have taken place in the semantic field considered as a whole (that is, the whole of society as the theatre where meaning is enacted in various specific contexts). Symbols had been prominent in this field for many centuries, symbols derived from nature but containing definite social implications. However, in the early stages of our civilization there was a perceptible shift from symbols to signs as the authority of the written word increased, and especially after the invention of the printing press. Today a further shift—from signs to signals, is taking place, if it has not already happened…

The signal commands, controls behaviour and consists of contrasts chosen precisely for their contradiction (such as, for instance, red and green). Furthermore, signals can be grouped in codes (the highway code is a simple and familiar example), thus forming systems of compulsion. This shift to signals in the semantic field involves the subjection of the senses to compulsions and a general conditioning of everyday life, reduced now to a single dimension (re-assembled fragments) by the elimination of all other dimensions of language and meaning such as symbols and significant contrasts. Signals and codes provide practical systems for the manipulation of people and things, though they do not exclude more subtle means. (62)

Notice that this doesn’t just go for words and language. The whole semantic field, the semiological—all meaning—is slipping into jeopardy. Everywhere in modern life, meaning’s getting taken up into and flattened by systems. And though systems aren’t devoid of meaning, they tend to whittle it down to the level of pure indication—that is, to however those things might serve its systematicity, its system-ness. The red and green of stoplights is unlike the red and green of apples. Apples are permitted thicker, richer meanings, and plumper symbolisms. Their colors can range anywhere from red to green, each with its own flavor and freshness and origins. Meanwhile, the less a stoplight means, the better. Go, slow, stop—and that’s about it. Anything else only gums up the works, or causes people to dawdle even longer after the light turns green. No nuance, no back-meanings, no distraction. When shooting for systematicity in code, in our calculations, or in getting large messy things better organized, we don’t mind sacrificing the richness and thickness of meaning in order to get things done.

But Lefebvre worried that, in our systematizing OCD, this becomes the fate of all meaning, or at least that it’s impinging on and thinning out every kind of meaning we do have. Meaning slides from symbol to sign to signal, and we’re left malnourished though exceptionally well-organized. Even the most ornate and long-winded of ads are—do I even have to say it?—push-button imperatives, as thin as anything else. Meaning—as well as what we could call “meaningfulness,” the ways signs hook into human desires—work by way of connectivity, by the way that things latch onto or lead into everything else. Sometimes, things and events attain a kind of “hypermeaning” when they seem to have something to do with everything else, including their own parts. Meaning gurgles through, overruns, and rubs up against everything, promiscuously and inexhaustibly. Whereas with the signal, we drop into a state like “hypomeaning,” in which all other connections and linkages are severed and the thing or event becomes nothing but a node or relay in a larger order that serves but one purpose. This is a plus in terms of expediency or logistics, but spells starvation for the meaning-making that I need and expect from “culture,” “philosophy,” and from Lefebvre.

As far as signage goes, an argument could be made that this is its nature: to signal. It’s made for the passing glance and, after all, how much meaning can possibly travel on a glance? But I disgree. The economy of language in signage is comparable to that of poetry—especially whenever it’s reinforced with images. So for instance, when architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown sniff out the “system behind flamboyance” in Las Vegas’ signage, or Ed Ruscha creates “autoscapes” of Sunset Boulevard billboardage with a camera strapped to his truck, I never assume that they are praising the sign’s use as a signal, but foreseeing its possibility as a symbol… As something that has or could have more meaning than its commercial intent or systematic use. As if to ask: why would we scorn the idea of our landscape really speaking to us?

I’m trying to imagine what this would look like exactly, a world of earnest signage. Where buildings got to express their true happy and sad feelings. Where objects explained themselves and chatted with each other like Furbies. Where signs might ask us genuine questions and wait for the answers. Figuratively, there’s always been the Book of Nature, but that’s different. I have no real feeling for Nature, but I imagine that, for those who do, looking out over natural landscapes does offer a feeling of relief at a panorama unburdened by labels, lies, and commands. But it’s similar to the relief of seeing a gleaming blank billboard in the sky or beside the highway. It makes no demands on us; it tells us no lies—but only because it’s no longer talking to us—not quite what I had in mind. Instead, I’d like to see a visual environment in real, relatively undistorted communication with itself, a fully legible Book of Culture. It seems pretty unlikely though.

The larger question is: why is this so? What are the forces and conditions that bring this so ineluctably about? Is visual real estate just too scarce or contested to remain unsystematized? Power is involved, definitely, but not necessarily in the centralized way you may think. What Lefebvre was sensitive to was the ways in which, as we all play along with and gain power for ourselves within a system, the system itself gains power until we are then dominated, scammed, and flim-flammed abstractly, by it and by ourselves.

A better place to see this dynamic playing out is in that infinite new annex to the semantic field, the internet. On the internet, on social media, etc., we are permitted to communicate freely and openly, and say and post whatever we please. On the face of things, the internet is or could have been that “visual environment in real, relatively undistorted communication with itself.” Only, something’s off. The frontier phase has ended, and system is quickly gaining the upper hand. Of course, some of our communication is being willfully distorted (“filtered,” “personalized”) by companies and organizations, but the important thing is to see how, by simply trying to work or game the system in our own communications—by trying to communicate and gain visibility all too systematically—we end up doing most of the distortion and meaning-thinning ourselves. No hidden or outside forces necessary. We say, post, and design things merely on the criterion of their success within a system—their virality, likeability, searchability, clickability, quotability—and the results will dead-end in the same scamminess and cynicism we’ve long seen from the sidewalks.

For this reason, I want to take a second and praise those who are “bad” at social media, “bad” at the internet. Not the just annoying, self-indulgent, or unsavvy, but anyone unhurried by its compulsions and rewards, unconcerned with exploiting it as a system. Look to them for our salvation. Likewise, back in the streets, in the pre-post-physical visual environment, I get a real kick out of seeing kooks entering the fray. The scrawlers. The fanatical church marquees and religious tracts littering the sidewalk. The bridge-burners that paint “I Hate Bank of America” on the side of their house. This isn’t that much better—the visual environment as a screaming match—but it breaks up my dismay a little. I get to see real feeling, however misplaced. I guess a better, or best case, scenario for the systems of public language would be something more like a 3-D Wikipedia: still systematic, still contested, but readily editable enough to overcome the lies, the commands, and even the bad poetry that likes to imagine itself as the antidote.