Looking for the Signs
June 12, 2020

The epithets developed exponentially. These are unpredictable, scary, turbulent, tormenting times calling for extraordinary measures. Uncertainty has fuelled a genuine citizen desire for information, often online, on platforms where fake news surf on people’s fears. Confronted with the magnitude and pace at which the pandemic shook the world, one first stands in disbelief. In a reversal of representation, men have become as tiny and fragile as a microscopic organism facing a fluid Leviathan.

To grasp the contours of a situation larger than the common lens, we naturally turn to signs for trends, answers, warnings, and opportunities. For our ancestors, and still today in surviving traditional societies, certain life milestones and activities must be undertaken under favourable auspices. Similarly, dooms have called for other-worldly inquisitions to understand the origins of wrath and extend appeasing offerings. Signs are a language of their own.

To grasp the contours of a situation larger than the common lens, we naturally turn to signs for trends, answers, warnings, and opportunities.

Semiotics explains the importance of signs in the societal and individual construction. Their signification, communication, and transmission all play a role in adding a meaning. Decoding them often requires the presence of interpreters, intermediary “knowers” such as priests and/or shamans, figures rendered authoritative by access to knowledge that they possess and that regular folks do not have.

To the surprise of some, the (crypto)divinatory lingers in post-modern societies, and a pandemic outbreak awakens primary instincts. We, individually and collectively, sit in front of countless signs. We, thanks to technology and a deluge of information have (un)knowingly embraced both the spectator and contributor roles. Let’s examine a few of these signs.

Daily, casualty counts form the cornerstone of ceremonial press conferences. One repeats a litany of truisms and aspirations, doctors become both prophets and temple keepers. We turn to science as we had once exclusively turned to religion during historical outbreaks in darker ages.

Daily, casualty counts form the cornerstone of ceremonial press conferences.

Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other government officials deliver their lines. The rhetoric is alpha male, combative, and warmongering. It’s a battle! No, a crusade. The defeat must be crushing, absolute, annihilating. We need an arsenal against the enemy. Millions of people analyse their entire set of verbal and non-verbal cues — if Dr. Fauci touches his chin behind Donald Trump, it must mean something. He can’t just be itchy.

Pandemic curves at the logarithmic scale have invaded our screens. If it goes up, it’s bad. If it stagnates or reverses, it’s good. Right? Except, it may go up before it goes down, and it can lower before a sudden increase. What about the assumptions, the granularity? What about tomorrow?

Comparative death tolls adorn the impregnable mystery of numerology — why so high there, and not here? What do numbers conceal? A rumour relates that people’s dreams are expressing themselves more vividly during the pandemic. Gasp, people finally remember their dreams. What does it mean? A hermeneutical endeavour ensues.

Animals must have sensed the impending disaster. Yes? No? Visual insert: we relentlessly stare at a dog… talk to me, we beg. It is whispered that an obscure novel predicted a Wuhan virus decades ago, see, it was all bound to happen, see.

In many COVID19-stricken countries in Western Europe and North America, people have taken up to clap at a certain hour of the day to demonstrate solidarity with healthcare personnel.

In many COVID19-stricken countries in Western Europe and North America, people have taken up to clap at a certain hour of the day to demonstrate solidarity with healthcare personnel. They (or is it still we?) go to balconies, for urban areas have been disproportionately more affected than the lesser dense countryside. They clap, together. Is it gratitude or the contentment at a well-executed performance? In the digital era where we become objects and subjects of our own exhibitionist and egomaniac entertainment; recorded clapping theatrics posted on various social media may appear like an obscene communion to a dark spectacle. We are on the same boat, it is said. We are in the same show, one could add, and it goes on. Yesterday, people brought their pots and pans out, amplifying the ritualistic clap into a musical orgy of assertive survival. Spirits and ghosts run away. We take stock of the noise, for silence could only foreshadow one thing: The dreaded D-word. Every evening, they claim, I am alive!

Public monuments, national landmarks, participate in that representation. The Empire State Building dressed in red imitates the flashing light of an ambulance beacon in a nod to first responders. Sirens resonate, always more disturbingly than their regular pre-pandemic occurrence, annunciating a wave of fresh martyrs. They used to howl eerily before too, but who remembers that? Six feet apart or six feet under. It is a new era, the age of COVID-19. March 2020 marks a start, of confinement, of social distancing, of the exegesis of scientific discourse, political and economic commentators. The elusive dream of a post-disaster tabula rasa. Of course, everything will be different when this is all over.

Outside, one carefully adjusts masks, gloves, and other makeshift personal protection equipment to brave the unknown. An armor and a shield, they embody a military uniform, with a clinical kick. Healthcare personnel are heroes, wielding respirators to repel the attack like Spartans brandishing their javelins. Are we infantry? Besieged in our homes for the privileged who can self-isolate, we remain alert to any Trojan horse which could dissimulate the perfidious presence of the virus.

The Empire State Building dressed in red imitates the flashing light of an ambulance beacon in a nod to first responders.

We express shock to know that people fall sick and die, confused as to whether this is the first time in the history of mankind. Suddenly, the inevitable becomes unbearable, intolerable. Decay isn’t permissible. Not so long ago, transhumanism and pushing the boundaries of a traditional lifespan were all the rage. How could we become so vulnerable? This disease carries vulgarity; it insults one’s intelligence. Not me, not the people I know. I won’t succumb. How can a virus dare to derail bigger and augmented plans?

Objects become concepts in a variation of the signified-signifier relation (i.e. the form of a sign vs its idea) which, together, encapsulate a sign. Baudrillard introduced that concepts can also overrun objects. We currently observe this familiar pattern in a hyperrealist environment where medical tents deployed in Central Park evoke imminent apocalypse rather than proactive healthcare management under acute stress. Since the concept navigates around danger and a personal, yet indiscernible, threat, objects — the signified — follow. We obsess over the uncanny resemblance between life and Edward Hopper’s paintings. Stimulations induce and reinforce pavlovian unease.

What is the effect of the sign on the person who interprets it? According to Peirce, we must take note of the sign-vehicle (its form), the interpretant (its acquired effect/meaning), and the object. Interpretants can carry general qualities, i.e. the colour red suggests peril in the Western culture, thus transforming in what Peirce calls rhemes. Objects, as well as interpretants, can fall under several categories. While it leans on the technical side, one can keep in mind that objects and their signification can be dynamic or immediate and are linked to our cognitive process. Stress often places a magnifying glass in our minds.

How could we become so vulnerable? This disease carries vulgarity; it insults one’s intelligence. Not me, not the people I know. I won’t succumb.

What then of deception? Signs, “representamen,” and derived interpretants can lie and manipulate. Can the interpretant be avoided? How could one remain sign-neutral? Should one sign-distance, to keep sanity amidst a hyperrealist umwelt?

In a tragedy, tension is artfully kept between dionysian and apollonian forces and influences. An intoxicating outpour of emotions, chaos, and debauchery try to reconcile with a composed call for calm and harmony.

Success depends on the weaker link. Countries and healthcare systems must reveal their faults for the greater good, in an embarrassing public confession to contain the spreading evil and avoid the condemnation of extreme-unction. Meanwhile, we can’t resist but look for signs, in our borderless Darwinian experiment. In the space where pathos-filled clouds float above clapping participants, Eros and Thanatos. They dance, I think.


Photo by Two Dreamers from Pexels

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