© 2019 Shawn Becker 

Foregrounding the Real

          A street, a car, a piece of art, are meaning-objects manufactured for use in a meaning-field. They are to be read as objects of utility, contemplation, identity production or status attainment, etc. Woody Woodpecker is constructed with the purpose of being read as a particular cagey trixter character creating mischief and avoiding its consequences. He is a Technicolor representation of possible behavioural relations between human and human, human and animal, etc. At the time Woody first appeared, maybe we were to also read his Technicolor ecology as “newness,” “advancing and enhancing” human experience through the vibrancy and omnipresence of color television and animation. Today, the “Technicolor” technology no longer signifies “newness.” Woody Woodpecker "in technicolor" is permitted in the here-and-now to exist as "nastalgia" but not as "wonderment and awe." Meanings shift. Meanings are replaced. Meanings exist only in the present gaze of other meanings.  Meaning does not have an autonomous existence outside meaning.


          The pinecone does not exist for the sign. The pinecone is not subject to nostalgia. Its form and inner workings have stabilized over a longer time span, seeming to transcend "fad." A pinecone is an autonomous life form existing for-itself-as-itself.  This too, is also a sign. To exist, to become, the pinecone needs the gaze of the sign. The field of biology gives it the signs of “reproduction” “conifer” etc. Economics gives it the sign of "natural resource." Societal systems give it the sign of "park." The sign Woody Woodpecker, Bullwinkle the Moose, Daffy Duck, etc. are not considered "real" when they do not exist in the ecology of their original form, as animation. A print of Bugs Bunny on a shirt can be read as the equivelant of a photograph of a "real" person. The "original" existence of Bugs Bunny is the cartoon as a cartoon. The more Bugs Bunny on t-shirts, skateboards, etc. are read as "representations" the more they help establish the cartoon as "real." 


          The cartoon image "Woody Woodpecker" fails to embody the reality of the material relationships enabling it to exist. His "body" is made of celluloid (chemicals, plastics, etc.), light projector (metal gears, plastic spindles, electricity, etc.), television or computer (cathode rays, vacuum tubes, silicon, copper, rare earth minerals, electricity, etc.). What anonymity works in the factories? What effluence what toxicity what natural geography was displaced? Certainty is in the image. Uncertainty, its unfelt presence, goes something like: how do we know what we do not know? Where is the clue to these "other" realities in the stuttering bombast of Woody's jackhammer knock-knock jokes? Attempting to orient to another culture, for instance, can bring this severity of the unkown sharply into focus.   


           In Grenada, Spain, a plethora of shops have graffiti on their metal roll-up doors. Many of these are Wile Coyotes, Tweeties and Sylvesters, etc. Graffiti artists abide by the "honor code" of not overwriting other artist’s work. Maybe they understand all too well the zeitgeist of social inclusion. To become is to be embedded in the many-places-many-times capacity of the sign. Businesses hire artists to graffiti their doors that would best signify their business. A non-signed door, however, gleaming in its metallic bareness, is fair game. To the "street youth's" system of signs, the door is read as a BLANK, as having no meaning, by which they fill with their own. To the business owner, as "a business" in an economic field of meaning, maybe her / his bare metal door can be read as an "immaculate professional establishment" or a tabula rasa for "consumers" to project their desires onto. With Graffiti in Grenada, economic and societal fields of meaning shake hands over the "exposure opportunity" of the door. 


          A walk through a forest devoid of physical "manufactured" signs is subject to the mental gaze of the sign by the traveller. Is the forest experienced as a BLANK? Can it be experienced as itself for itself? The mountain-biker orients for speed and balance. Her sign system reads the topography and traction of the ground; the jut of branches. The developer assesses proximity to amenities and future infrastructure. The ornithologist counts nest sites. Passing through the trees, each system of signs grabs out like a hand touching its own gaze. To foreground the reality of the forest, to attempt to be absent of the gaze of the sign, we make a nest out of signs to hold all other signs and call it statistics, linguistics, semiology, post-modernism, sociology, media studies, history, etc. 


          The city could be said to be an amusement park of signs. Everywhere, our desires are reduced to the sign. Differing ideologies vie for material space to maximize their presence. Sentimental notions exist as if “nature” being “out there” beyond the signs of the city are of the signs of the city, as “tranquility” as “innocent” as “natural resource.” The system of signs is like a security blanket, protecting us from the dark, the unknown, the absences, the trauma of the real. Ebola, the smallest of realities, threatens to disrupt the power and protection of our signs. Even microbiology’s system of signs, trying to account for complexities of the real, reveals its unreality in the face of a new and present unknown. This unknown operates on its own, beyond language. When the sign is the predominant mode of experience, there is a notion that it is real, that its relationships are real, that its system of signs sustain the real.