Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Shifting Signifiers, or Signs of the Times

Omnis doctrina vel res vel signa est, sed res per signa discuntur.
                        Augustine De Doctrina Christiniana

At the beginning of his brilliant essay on the principles of interpretation Saint Augustine says that “All teaching concerns either things or signs; but we learn about things by means of signs.” Human language is a system of signs essential for social interaction and especially for learning and teaching.

Augustine loves binary distinctions, and he now makes one with regard to signs themselves. There are two kinds, natural signs and conventional signs.  Think of the signs of fire.  If you see a plume of smoke rising on the horizon, you know that there is also fire.  Smoke is a natural sign of fire.  Smoke always “means” fire, and smoke means fire everywhere on earth.  But what about the word f-i-r-e?  The word is also a sign for the thing fire, but not a natural sign.  It is a conventional sign, agreed upon by social compact.  It is a sign that would have meant nothing to Augustine himself.  The sign f-i-r-e did not exist in the year 400, and even its hypothetical primitive Germanic ancestor would never have entered his Mediterranean ear.  To signal the thing fire to Augustine you would have to use Augustine’s conventions rather than those of Hrothgar.  You would have to say ignis.

In a very famous Supreme Court case (Schenck, 1919) Oliver Wendell Holmes opined that “falsely to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” was not constitutionally protected speech--not in the face of a "clear and present danger".  But you could probably shout “ignis!” with relative impunity even at a Senior Citizens’ Matinee at the Classic.  I may think that the decline of Latin is a clear and present danger, but I doubt that the Supreme Court would.

A little Greek lad who hears the word b-e-t-a will see one thing in his mind,  the little Roman boy another.   The disyllable beta does not by laws of nature mean anything.  It is not a natural, but a conventional sign. me...

No conventional sign can mean anything until you sign onto the convention.  Think of the monosyllable g-i-f-t.  A gift is a desirable thing, at least in Anglophone regions.  It is less so in Germany, unless you positively grock on potassium cyanide or Zyklon-B.  What this means is that if somebody gives you a gift, hope that it is in Boston rather than Berlin.

BOSTON         or

Augustine was trying to prepare people to approach the Bible in some other spirit than that of a Rorschach test.  My purpose in this post is very different, though I will in passing commend Augustine’s essay to the alarmingly large number of my fellow Bible-readers who seem to think that the Word of God is English, subspecies Jacobean.

 ...all Greek to me....

What dawned on me was an odd extension or corollary of Augustinian linguistics.  It seems possible that an entire language can become a conventional sign. On Sunday last I went to the University Chapel for the monthly Communion service.  The cornerstone of this mini-Amiens cathedral was laid in 1922, when a buck was still a buck; and cynics almost immediately christened the building “Princeton’s million dollar answer to materialism.”  Well, let them scoff.  The space is magnificent, and the music excellent even when, as on this occasion, many student choristers were still away on Fall Break.

Chapel services are ecumenical Protestant, though the Gothic architecture pushes the envelope well beyond the comfort zone of, say, John Knox.  The Eucharist has the traditional structure, though Catholics, of whom a fair number attend, must face the anomaly of pronouncing the words of consecration themselves, thus practicing if not approving Martin Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers.

But the implications of one odd feature of the service only now struck me with full force.  The old Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin.  We still use Latin words (the Gloria, the Sanctus) to denominate certain parts. One of the principal reforms of the Reformers, adopted by the Catholics themselves after a brief lag of four centuries, was to translate it into the local vernacular.  But here we were in a rather WASPish conclave of central New Jersey singing these parts in Spanish.  Princeton, N.J, is reasonably cosmopolitan, but it is not Miami.  I cannot be sure that there were no native speakers of Spanish in that substantial congregation, but I allow myself to doubt it.  Yet there we all were lustily praising El SeƱor with authentic south-of-the-border (the Massachusetts border, that is) accent.

The explanation of this phenomenon is not so simple as the fact that our musical settings do in fact come from an Argentinian folk mass.  I have never heard this crowd singing “A Mighty Fortress” in the original German.  No.  The explanation is that in a certain American politico-ecclesiastical context the Spanish language itself, quite apart from any of its individual verbal signifiers, is becoming a conventional sign.  What it signals is a vague but benevolent aspiration to catholic fraternity and recognition of that biblical category called “the poor, the fatherless, and the oppressed.”  I rather doubt that it signaled the same thing to Lope de Vega, but then conventions do shift.