Look around you and describe what you see. Since many of us are stuck in our homes right now (re: pandemic), you are likely to respond: "Nothing exciting. Walls, ceiling, table, computer, curtains... Everyday boring stuff." Now my next question would be: How do you understand what these things are?
"Ok, a case of lockdown madness," you may think to yourself. If you are very patient (or a friend of mine who wants to indulge me), you will say something like: "Well, it's kind of obvious. Walls are walls, and a ceiling is a ceiling. So, that's why I understand."
We live in the world of objects that mean something to us. Not because they are special, but just because we know what they are. So it seems kind of stupid and a waste of time to wonder why table is a table. But according to semiotics, nothing should be obvious. Semiotics is a science that studies meanings: what they are, where they come from, how they influence us.
What do you mean? This is a question we hear and use a lot. We talk about something being meaningless in a negative sense. Yet we seldom wonder why we are so preoccupied by meanings and what those are supposed to be. Our language is of little help, perhaps because we are not used to questioning the obvious. So when we start asking ourselves what we mean by questioning meanings, the lack of appropriate terms that would help our brain to dig into this mess becomes obvious.
Meanings are... ideas, associations, interpretations, definitions, values. All that stuff that exists in our heads yet gets expressed through objects we produce and surround ourselves with. It is the stuff that cultures are made of. And it's not just physical objects, as a matter of fact. It would be more correct to say that meanings are attached to any aspect of our reality. After all, we also know that the sky is the sky, money is money, and teachers are teachers.
Same as you can easily describe your room, you will also be able to say who you are: your gender, race, sexuality, age, profession, physical characteristics, place of origin, political affiliation, religious beliefs and so on. But what do all of these things really mean to you, and what do you think they mean to others? Again, nothing obvious here. Of equal importance is to ask ourselves why other people mean what we think they mean to us, according all these characteristics I mentioned. I won't break a new ground by saying that questioning the ideas we attach to ourselves and others have been helpful for understanding intergroup conflicts.
Finally, you may also think it is obvious how you understand your own feelings and sensations: pain and pleasure, love and hate. If you are stressed, this means something is stressful, which is not fun, and you need to figure out what's wrong. Yet, according to mindfulness meditation practitioners, saying that "stress is stress" is not helpful. Stress is actually experienced as sensations in our body that are very difficult to describe with words (tension? tingling? burning? pressure?) that we don't even pay attention to as soon as we put a simple label on them. And because being stressed is not considered to be something good, we start analyzing what's wrong or feeling bad about being stressed. Both are really unhelpful strategies, as it would be way better to just pause and experience these hard-to-describe sensations without not giving them any names.
I don't expect to have been able to explain these extremely complicated ideas in just a few paragraphs. Also, it would be wrong to say that this is something only semiotics is concerned with. Symbolic interactionism and the social construction of reality theory explore similar puzzling issues, just from slightly different angles. And these are just some examples of scholarly frameworks that can help us understand this.
To wrap this post up, I just want to say that, in my opinion, wondering why different aspects of our reality mean certain things to us can be really exciting and useful. The more obvious an association or interpretation is, the more it should be analyzed. If we notice how meanings that appear absolute and absolutely commonsensical are actually not, this may help us lead more fulfilling and peaceful lives. If you are wondering what I mean, stay tuned for more posts on this topic!