How everything you do has meaning

Words by Simon Edwards, Comment Online Editor

Where do you sit in the library? Are you a regular in the silent study section, putting others to shame with your diligence and focus? Do you frequent the group work section on the first floor, living for the day you and your friends get a private booth to yourself where you can (pretend to) work? Do you stay on the ground floor, perhaps in the café seating area where refreshments aren’t even a card-swipe away? Do you have a favourite seat, perfectly balanced between your charger cable and a comfortable slouched position at your table of choice?

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of university education, particularly in the humanities, that once you learn about a theory which clicks with you mentally, you start seeing it everywhere. Think of the student who can’t stop pointing at instruments of authority or discipline – like cameras, overly-complex forms or fogged-glass windows – and saying “how Foucauldian”; think also of another who, after learning about neoliberalism for the first time, can’t stop talking about the horrors of the free market whenever it’s their turn to buy a round. The joy of learning about theories is that they inveigle into your mind and make you see the world in a whole new light, until you either go mad, write a thesis, or (most typically) get told to shut up.

One that has grabbed me recently is semiotics, or the idea of signs and signifiers. If you’re not up to speed with these ideas, the most basic gist is that objects of all types can be given a hidden meaning which eventually transcend thought (as Anne Norton put it in A Republic Of Signs). These signs hide in plain sight – you know to stop at a red light and go at a green, because they signify very particular instructions and ideas. Semiotics reflects how vast, complex cultural ideas are represented and reaffirmed by everything around us, and how society structures and maintains itself through, well, everything.

The joy therefore is that university, which is where you probably learn about semiotics for the first time, is so replete with its own particular blends of microcosm societies and signifiers to go along with them! Think about the library again – how does each section of seating signify things about the people who use them? There’s a particular significance when you sit in the quiet section: it suggests that you’re really cracking on with your work, especially in contrast to the group work areas where conversation and distraction flows freely. Do you intend to make your work ethic, your efficiency and your motivation evident when you decide where to sit in the library? Probably not, you’re just sitting where you need to sit. Nonetheless, the semiotics of the library reveal a huge amount of telling information, if you know what to look for.

Every area of university life has these meanings hidden behind them, in a way you don’t always conceive. The social implications of what dorms you stay in in first year? Fairly self-explanatory. How your professors ask you to write emails to them? A whole cornucopia of semiotic material. Lecturers are, in fact, the most interesting areas of semiotic evaluation on campus, in my eyes. What do they wear? How do they hold themselves? Do they crack jokes? How do they speak? How do they write emails, and ask you to write emails? Everything about them can be put under a microscope, if you feel so inclined – if you want to know something about your lecturer, they’ll probably give you a sign.

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