Friday, February 09, 2007

The Super Sign

Damn Magniloquence, making me think in the morning. It strikes me that perhaps a healthy discussion of what these words, like equality, diversity, and equal opportunity mean. Recently I read The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making by Lydia Liu. Some ideas from there resurfaced when I was thinking about equality, and now again when Magniloquence and her link bring up diversity. Liu brings up the concept of the super-sign "a linguistic monstrosity that thrives on the excess of its presumed meanings by virtue of being exposed to, or thrown together with, foreign entymologies and foreign languages."

Equality and diversity don't necessarily fall under a strict definition of a super sign since this is an English language term, being used in relation to the English language. However I think Liu's discussion of the super-sign could be useful in a discussion of what equality has come to signify to various parties, as well as the discussion of what diversity means to the academic establishment.

"What is a supersign? Properly speaking, a super-sign is not a word but a hetero-cultural signifying chain that crisscrosses the semantic fields of two or more languages simultaneously and makes an impact on the meaning of any other discrete verbal phenomena that linguists can identify within particular languages or among them. The super-sign emerges out of the interstices of existing languages across the abyss of phonetic and ideographic differences." (Liu,
The Clash of Empires, 13.)

Again, equality and diversity, these complex terms don't fully qualify as super-signs under Liu's definition because they exist in one language. However, I think Liu's term does articulate, to some extent, the questions of ownership and the struggle for mastery of a word.

She mentions as the struggle between the British who sought to ban the Chinese word 夷 from use, because they identified as "barbarian." The two words then became lumped together, although historically,
夷 did not have the same derogatory meaning as "barbarian." In this case, the Chinese word came to be identified by its English "translation" and banned.

In terms of equality and diversity, people may be talking about entirely different concepts or values which are just lumped under the same word. When I talk about the need for more diversity, does this mean the same thing as some college administrator talking about "diversity"? And also, more importantly, whose interpretation of diversity is ultimately winning out?

I'll leave the question of what I think diversity means myself for another time.

1 comment:

magniloquence said...

*grins* Turnabout is fair play!

Glad it made you think, though. Yaay for having productive conversations online and things.