08 December 2008

Signifiers, chemical and lexical

Serendipitously, I am left opportunity for a continuity link between my “straight record” post, of November 27, and this one.

The idea of a “straight record” is a fallacious but, I argued, a culturally necessary one. It must, in my opinion, have existed in human minds for as long those human minds have had the concepts of record or representation at all. Unfortunately, I cannot (as Unreal Nature would like me to) prove this.

In support of the argument, but not in proof of it, I can offer various bits and pieces of stuff. For instance, the word “portrait” predates the invention of photography by a considerable margin and means “portray” – in other words, to represent – and that indicates to me (but perhaps only because I am already persuaded) that a portrait was, ideally, perceived to be a straight record of the person portrayed. A drawing or painting was often referred to as “a likeness” – which, again, suggests a perception that it could, even if it didn't always, record the original scene with veracity.

In relation to my forensic evidence illustration ("Photographs of bruises and wounds, presented as forensic evidence, are a clear example. Prosecution and defence my disagree on the meaning of such images but do not, generally speaking, dispute their status as straight record."), Ray Girvan points me to "An example of such a dispute, however: Menezes picture 'manipulated' to look like bomber." I would still argue, however, that the dispute arises from violation of, and thereby confirms existence of, the "intended/accepted straight record" consensus.

There is also this. Scientific enquiry seeks the simplest explanation of facts. Imagine the moment when the first representation was made (it must have been considerably earlier than the highly sophisticated paintings at Lascaux): what is the simplest explanation for one of our ancestors deciding to do this new thing? It seems to me that an intent to create a straight record of something as communication is the simplest explanation in both practical and psychological terms.

However ... whatever the truth or otherwise (equally unprovable) of that speculation, let's move on.

Communication, which is what all drawings, paintings, photographs, poems, etc, are, usually requires an unimaginably complex web of referents and assumptions. It is possible to posit communication without recourse to that web, but neither the reason nor the skills to actually attempt it normally exist.

In "Persuasion, Diversity and Bystander Molecules", Unreal Nature picks up one of my most overused quotations (revealing to the world, in the process, that I reside at an address on Growlery Green), taken from Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice. That novel is, as it happens, a dissertation in fictional form on the nature and essence of communication, on failure and shortcomings in communication, and on human beings as imperfectly communication creatures. It is a theme explored in many of Lem's novels and short stories – Fiasco being another prominent example. Unlike Fiasco and most of the other fictions, however, it has a particular resonance in relation the chemical messages with which Unreal Nature is concerned.

Because the particular message in His Master's Voice is a message from space, encoded in a neutrino stream, and it appears to be a "recipe" message. The message is, by definition, free of human referents and the sender may not even be an intelligence – in fact there may not even be a sender. After throwing at the message all the financial and intellectual resources of a superpower, the team attempting translation produce three, and only three, concrete results.

The first concrete result is: a living, carbon/silicon based granular colloid, drawing its sustenance from micropile nuclear energy, which it uses to sustain itself – and does nothing else whatsoever. The second is an effect which annoys and destabilises house flies ... but no other insect or, for that matter, any other living thing. The third is an ultimate weapon, delivering total conversion on any required scale from pinprick destruction of a single human being to erasure of an entire continent or world ... but completely impossible to aim.

It's an intellectually and psychologically intriguing exploration.

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