The Semiotics of Building Repair

When the average person viewing a building (who was me until all too recently) sees a problem, that's that: there is a problem. Let's fix it. The door is crooked? Straighten the door. The seals on the windows are broken? Re-seal them. There is a crack in the fireplace? Mortar it! A sloped porch? Level it!

Successfully repairing a building, however, requires seeing problems not as (merely) problems, but as symptoms, or signs. (The earliest semioticians were often physicians, and the theory of the sign developed in the context of medical symptoms.) They are, as medieval semioticians would say, aliquid stat pro aliquo: something present standing for something not present.

So a crooked door, a cracked fireplace, a broken window seal, a sloped porch? They a problems, true. But they may also be read as symptoms, perhaps as symptoms that, say, the floor underneath the fireplace was not supported when the fireplace was added, and is now collapsing.

Not that any bloggers we know have recently been taking expensive lessons in construction semiotics.

7 comments:

  1. I hear that word used mostly by postmodernists.

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  2. "(The earliest semioticians were often physicians, and the theory of the sign developed in the context of medical symptoms.)" Could you elaborate on this? I had been under the impression that semiotics was only about communication. I'm not familiar with semiotics in other contexts like the "signs" of the body and the like.

    On a side note, I think this post may provide a useful analogy for arguments over idealism. You often say that the world constructed by physics cannot be the real world, because it is an abstraction from our concrete experience. But why can't our sensory experiences be "signs" of an underlying reality beyond the mind which we can indirectly infer the existence of, akin to how you used "signs" like a cracked fireplace to indirectly infer the existence of a weak foundation?

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    1. "But why can't our sensory experiences be "signs" of an underlying reality beyond the mind which we can indirectly infer the existence of..."

      Oh, it can be! And the world of physics consists of OTHER signs of an underlying reality.

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    2. The point being, the underlying reality, whatever it might be, is NOT an abstraction!

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    3. Gene, could you please give me a definition of the word abstraction? I'm not asking for an illustration of why you think the world of physics is an abstraction (like you've given in past posts). I just want to know the meaning of the term as you're using it.

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    4. Keshav, why do I have to give you one? You can look it up in any dictionary. I am not using some idiosyncratic definition!

      So: a map is an abstraction of a road system. Now perhaps what we think of as the road system is only a sign of what the real road system is, but then that real road system would *include* everything we see as the roads and go beyond that as something even richer. It cannot possibly be that the real road system is just the map, because then where did all the extra information like the texture of the road and its smell and and the sound of the tires passing over it come from? Nowhere?

      You keep saying something like "Perhaps the world of physics is the real world and our brains / minds just generate all the rest of "our" world. But this very statement MEANS that the world of physics is not exhaustive of reality, because our minds and the sensations we experience are IN REALITY, and you are admitting that physics does not include them!

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