Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (2015)
Canceling the Semiotic Square
The lines that end the preceding chapter were generated when I tried closing the chapter with three consecutive number signs (###), the mark a press release uses to signify the end of the document. The multi-lined graphic Microsoft Word translates them into, like the # signs, also indicates the text has come to a finish. The altered inscription, not what I intended, seems a fitting reminder of how punctuation both signifies on its own and also takes on a command function in digital media contexts — when a specific combination of keys is entered, the computer will turn it into a typographical symbol, lead us to a webpage, or in some other way make a series of complex machinic operations readable for humans.
Upon a first, broad consideration of the semiotics of such inscriptions and transformations, it might seem that we ultimately rearrive at Peirce’s basic semiotic rule of the symbol’s arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified. Especially in looking at the number sign’s iterations across media technologies, a striking theme of the previous chapter but indeed of the ones before it as well is that computers are agnostic about which tokens are used to perform which functions. They just need to have functions programmed. One might ask, for example, if the dot in web addresses could have been a comma instead. Yet the same could be asked of natural languages as well — one need only consider that French and English use different marks to signify quotation to see that marks in a sense are pure symbols — unlike the index and the icon, bearing no trace to their referents. Finally, however, this agnosticism reasserts the importance of the ambiguities and anxieties that humans bring to encounters with technology: the # symbol becomes pure reflection of ideology, from the pervasiveness of hashtags in popular culture to worried reactions about the spread of Global English, from the gendered discourses about the symbol’s introduction to telephones to its serving as a visual allegory for the datafication of our lives.
The number sign’s function might ultimately be best distilled in an older media history of an inscription the previous chapter did not examine and that is probably less familiar. When a legal document in Ancient Rome was “canceled,” one would draw a lattice, crisscrossing lines over the document, effectively and officially deleting the file upon which the mark was superimposed. In her book Files, Cornelia Vismann offers a theoretical reading of legal documents as a genre of writing and focuses her first two chapters on canceling, which she argues is a conceptually revealing and sociohistorically constitutive process of writing the law. She explains,
[T]here is another, far more literal link between barriers and tabelliones [Roman notaries]. In the most literal way possible, the latter determine the letter of the law when they use lines and strokes to cross out a draft that has been copied. Because of the “latticed” appearance of the deletions, this act is referred to as “canceling.” Derived from Latin cancelli grating or lattice, from which are also derived “chancel” and “chancellor” — the word means “to cross out, from crossed lattice lines drawn across a legal document, to annul it, hence destroy or delete it.” After they have been copied, drafts must be crossed out so that the clean copy can become the unmistakable original. The act of copying, then, is followed by the act of canceling. Latticed lines or bars exclude the draft from further copying. The lattice covering the writing literally bars textual production; it puts an end to the chancery’s babble of voices arising from dictation and public reading, and releases the clean copy, the written law, into a “zone of silence.”1
Figure 27. “Scripsi.” Adriano Capelli, Lexicon Abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine et Italiane (Milan, 1994), 411
Vissman argues that this process of deleting “rather than writing establishes the symbolic order of the law.”2 She quotes Derrida, who makes the same point more generally, writing that it is “obliteration that, paradoxically, constitutes the originary legibility of the very thing it erases.”3 Chancery, the term for the site where such official documents were written, etymologically comes from chancel or cancel, “to cross out with lines.” The mark’s ultimate irony, by extension, is that if the lattice works properly, it obliterates itself. The canceled document disappears. Indeed, in reviewing the various historical trajectories of the # symbol, one could consider how it in effect writes over itself, renamed and reprogrammed again and again. In turn, the cancel figures as a useful metaphor to think about the # symbol’s forgotten histories and semiotic circulations — and indeed of the neglected but constitutive legacies and inscriptions of punctuation and typographical symbols more broadly.
This book has staged a series of readings, pausing on moving and still images, revisiting theoretical concepts, and mobilizing them in new directions as inspired by a series of punctuation marks. Rather than following a prescribed path or selectively forcing examples into a predetermined master argument, I have attempted to let the representation and logic of such inscriptions guide our thought to ultimately better make sense of digital media and contemporary culture.
As they move into digital contexts, punctuation marks reveal themselves to be both continuous and discontinuous: each individual mark has a set of relatively dependable qualities and textual functions within its context of use that carries with it an opportunity to reflect on particular cultural protocols, while each mark also adapts to new conditions of meaning. As such, punctuation’s cultural histories and aesthetic practices both direct us to and problematize the categories of “new media” and the “digital”: from older moments of new media represented by the number sign’s introduction to the touch-tone telephone to the visual culture of dotcommania at the turn of the millennium to the everyday exchanging of emoticons made of punctuation marks in the 2010s. Such textual shifts across contemporary media cultures have largely been critically overlooked, while the little attention that has been paid to various punctuation marks is generally disdainful or at best whimsical. Backlash against the popularity of the hashtag might be the most obvious and recent illustration of this tendency, which itself must be interpreted as having a discursive history rooted in anxieties about language and literacy. Yet the ways in which punctuation marks elicit larger questions about patterns of and within culture, society, art, and knowledge production, I hope to have demonstrated, are suggestive of the ongoing values of critical theories. Theory is needed more than ever at this moment of information overload in our media fields when we are witnessing profound epistemological restructurings that coincide in contemporary scholarly discourses with what often feels like the short-sighted embrace of digital technologies in the hopes that they will solve complicated problems.
On this note, I have in mind a previous remark, written twenty years ago in relation to media theory. W. J. T. Mitchell claimed in 1994, in his introduction to Picture Theory: “Knowing what pictures are doing, understanding them, doesn’t seem necessary to give us power over them. I’m far from sanguine that this book, or any book, can change the situation. Perhaps its principal function is disillusionment, the opening of a negative critical space that would reveal how little we understand about pictures and how little difference mere ‘understanding’ alone is likely to make.”4
Mitchell’s “negative critical space” invokes a Nietzschean turn to the dark as forging a path of inquiry, aligning theoretical work with the lucid description of the structures that guide social and cultural practices, so as to cast them in a new light and to reveal the limits of our knowledge, perspectives, and experiences. It is worth understanding various hesitations to confront the abstract claims of theory in scholarly discourses and research initiatives at the moment in the context of facing what seem to be strikingly “material” problems across the economy and the environment. The more “concrete” nature of digital technologies tempt us with tangible solutions that would seem outside theory’s domain. Yet such hope in technology masks conditions whose limits need to be confronted in their own terms. Aren’t many “material” problems facing us fundamentally ideological? Haven’t the great philosophers compellingly shown how ideological and material conditions, base and superstructure, are mutually constitutive?
I am aligned with efforts by a handful of media scholars, from Wendy Chun to Alexander Galloway to Mark Hansen, who have turned to rather than away from theory to make more complete sense of the cultural implications of digital media, mobilizing concepts that allow us to think through and understand the stakes of the digital within long and deep, or even scattered, philosophical trajectories. I share a realist skepticism with Mitchell, however, about the limits of theoretical work’s potentials for enacting substantive change upon its areas of study.
Nonetheless, I hope this book has demonstrated some potentials for renewing rich traditions of theoretical inquiry for digital contexts — specifically, in this case, those associated with semiotics —that have largely been abandoned but are needed for making sense of contemporary textual mobility and visual culture. Punctuation marks are more present than ever in our visual field, engaging in contradictory but nevertheless structuring processes of making meaning.
Pronouncing an even more direct engagement with semiotic theory, this book originally began with an illustration of a semiotic square, which would map out the conceptual relations among the primary symbols that each chapter would proceed to examine. The logic of the semiotic square relies on its most fundamental level on a term and its opposite. As Paul Bouissac explains, the first phase in the “generation of the categorical terms that articulate semantic categories” in the Greimasian square is a “set of relations between a term and its contrary and between these two terms and their contradictories.”5 Though there have of course been a fair share of very complex semiotic squares drawn by sophisticated thinkers, punctuation marks did not seem to map onto one appropriately. As we have seen, punctuation tends to fall outside the logic of binary suppositions, perhaps most obviously of image/language and of number/letter. Punctuation’s ability to flirt with and escape such traditional categories, as implied by Flusser and Barthes, is precisely one of its most alluring features.
It was not until considering how the # symbol leaves us alongside the history of the lattice mark, as Vissman documents it, that, rather than opening the book with a semiotic square, it made sense to instead close the book by “canceling” the semiotic square. How might this ancient hash’s tic-tac-toe structure, like the semiotic square, invite us to map conceptual relations by filling in its various coordinates? Reappropriating the Roman lattice as a form in lieu of the square offers the conceptual advantage that it need not be restricted to the binary divisions that so often structure the logic of the square into oppositions. The form of the lattice nevertheless offers a similarly gridded structure, which, like the square, could be used to map out relations with categories, if only as provocations for critical reflection. From the dot to the hash, punctuation today is continually redefined and put to new uses to help navigate and manage textual expression and proliferation. Thus I close with a playful gesture that once again puts a loose punctuational mark to a new use, here becoming a metamark for visualizing conceptual relations among other punctuation marks.
The perfect lattice would, ontologically, never be seen or written in. I will embrace this book’s many inevitable imperfections and let the square’s cancel remain imperfect by actually drawing a lattice. In other words, I offer a cancel in the form of a semiotic lattice for my readers. Like Me and You and Everyone We Know’s parenthetical expression that turns punctuation inside out to allow its young character to charmingly visualize his perverse idea, the following lattice deforms the traditional semiotic square, spilling out into its environment rather than closing itself off from it. I invite you, the reader, to draw in it and use it to visualize the dynamics of punctuation marks — those that this book has explored and/or those it has left out.
Figure 28. Semiotic lattice
Will you place the marks all in one corner? Will you fill in each grid with a different mark? Do those marks that use the computer’s shift key for their inscription go at the top and those that are “unshifted” belong at the bottom? Will “loose” punctuation marks like the hash be separated from “strict” marks like the period? Perhaps one column is for letters, one for numbers, and one for punctuation? Or is the grid itself punctuation, mapping out nonsemantic relations of thought? Does every mark inscribe its own history of erasure? The lattice, in the end, stands as a summary of where this book’s winding path into the digital present has taken us.