A recurring nightmare

On the dissociation of object, act, word and meaning

I am tormented by a recurring nightmare. I have this nagging fear that one day all words, all signs, symbols and actions would lose their meaning and significance. Words would cease to impart meaning and each person would be free to interpret whatever he or she perceives in an arbitrary way. In this meaning-deficient world, each person would fall out of the human community, whose binding factor is language, and would be engulfed by a lonesome, deafening silence.

This is an obvious exaggeration of what we are currently experiencing, a caricature of the present situation drawn to the extreme. Yet there is some truth in the image I have just presented. As time passes, object, act, meaning and word seem to be drifting further apart.

Let us take an individual as an example. Take me for instance. Before the advent of social media, I was myself, my body. We would get to know each other by introducing ourselves personally. Alternatively, perhaps you might have heard or read something about me. In all of these cases, there is a strong nexus between my name and who I am and what I look like. You would get to know me through my relationships with others, my work, my hobbies.

Social media has changed all of this. On the web – itself a very fluid medium – I project an image, a ‘profile’ of myself, which is not fixed to a physical reality, namely myself. No matter how faithful my social media profile is to who I am, and no matter how detailed it is, it is still a projected image of myself, easily editable (think open-source) and whose existence depends on the internet medium or whether or not we are connected by the same social network. Hence I now have another existence; I am no longer the physical person of once upon a time. I have now become a virtual person, determined by the social medium.

Take the begetting of offspring as another example. Up to some decades ago, childbearing was practically synonymous with making love. With the wide availability of contraceptives and, more recently, in vitro fertilization, all of this has changed. Making love is one thing, and begetting offspring is another, and both can be completely independent of each other.

Sex too is now considered as being a mere biological label, and we prefer to speak, rather, of the social construct ‘gender’, independent of one’s genital organs or hormones.

As for family, the actual meaning of family is becoming more and more blurred as various forms of relationships claim this title, while structures similar to what we would have once labelled as families take on a different name.

It seems as though meaning is accessed from a ‘cloud’ somewhere ‘up there’ (incidentally, cloud data storage is another example), which is constantly changing and which bears little or no connection to the physical object which is said to be signified.

The good news is that the objects continue to exist in their own right, and retain their meaning independently of whether we accede or whether we choose to impart our own. We can keep the meaning cloud low and dense to strengthen the nexus between meaning and the object, thus strengthening the human community. Alternatively we can vaporise everything into a cloud of dubious meaning which risks drifting further from the truth. The choice lies, as always, with you and me.

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