This blog was originally posted on March 19th, 2015.
A few weeks ago the Internet was lit up by one of the most earth shaking questions of our times: Was a widely disseminated photograph of a woman’s dress an image of a blue- and-black or of a white-and-gold garment? A lot of A-list celebrities weighed in on this weighty matter and the outcome was a lot of clicks on a lot of story links that certainly resulted in a lot of successful data mining.
But while a semiotic analysis of the power of celebrity Tweeters could ensue from this story, (you may find the beginning of such an analysis here) that’s not what I want to explore. What I want to look at is a far, far deeper problem that this amusing little episode points to. I will call this problem the question of “whatness.”
“Whatness” refers, if I may use a fancy term, to the fundamental ontology of something: what, basically, something is. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But as I contemplate the problem of defining, and teaching, the nature of critical thinking, I am increasingly coming to realize that it is precisely the difficulty in defining, much less agreeing upon, what something is that poses the greatest challenge to critical thinking, and to anything resembling social harmony.
Let me try to put it in semiotic terms. A semiotic analysis characteristically moves from the denotation of a sign to its connotation—that is, from a description of the sign (or its referent) as an object to an interpretation of the sign as a subjectively constituted cultural signifier. This movement, which involves the situating of the sign into a system of associations and differences, is what semiotic analysis is all about. But as the blue/black or white/gold controversy trivially indicates, deciding exactly what we are talking about can involve an act of critical thinking prior to that which takes us from denotation to connotation. If this sounds unnecessary, consider the recent kerfluffle over whether or not Governor Rick Scott did or did not order state workers in Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection never to refer to “global warming” or “climate change,” whereby both thewhatness of the prohibition and the whatness of global warming and climate change are both put into question. In other words, determining denotation gets us caught up in connotation as facts get tangled up in values so badly that it can be very difficult to decide just what one is talking about.
I realize that we are looking here at a potential deconstructive mise en abyme—that is to say, an endless series of prior interpretations before we can get to the interpretation we wish to conduct. But I do not want to counsel such despair. Rather, I simply want to point out the need to think critically and carefully about the whatness of a cultural semiotic topic as an essential part of its analysis. It would be nice to take facts for granted, but that, in this profoundly divided world, is something that we cannot do.