Wittgenstein, Semiotics, Proposition 8

The thing about travel is that you pass in and out of what Wittgenstein called “language games” – hermetic zones of meaning that make sense only to the people who inhabit that domain. The meaning of a red light, a set of chopsticks, a woman running for president carry the power to resonate in a brain or else mystify. For those who exist and enter from outside the language game, the image of a man in a sequined jacket hiding a sword behind a red cape as a bull charges with brio, might have little significance . . . other than, say, impending danger – one way or the other.

To varying degrees this is the point I am always reminded of on my peripatetic journeys. Passing in and out of spaces to which I am not a permanent party I encounter scores of symbols, acts, interactions, objects, dramas about which I often have to scratch my head and ask: “so, what does that mean?”

Which is what I had to do, passing through California a couple of months ago. It was Olympic season and it seemed that I couldn’t turn on the tube without running into this advertisement:

Having no idea what was going on, and after watching it any number of times, I remained at a loss. Then a newspaper article in the L.A. Times mentioned the ad and linked it to Proposition 8, which I then learned was an initiative concerning gay marriage. (A brief pause to observe that concepts like “initiatives” or “gay” or “gay marriage” are all elements of separate language games for many cultural voyagers).

Two months later and many politically-attuned readers (at least in California) now know that this particular proposition will either overturn or affirm the State Supreme Court decision to allow same sex couples to join in civil union. According to Nate over at Five-thirty-eight, the fate of Prop 8 could, at this point, go either way. Ironically, it might possibly pick up some support because people who don’t know much about an issue tend to vote “no” and, in this case, a “no” vote would actually support the Supreme Court ruling (and hence gay marriage).

Luck of the draw. And, more evidence that one has to be inside the language game – here deep in the depths of the political game – in order to be able to participate fully (or at least with complete, autonomy and ostensible efficacy).

Okay so there is all that political stuff — from the legislation of morality to the heavy duty, nuts and bolts number crunching by opponents and proponents — that will determine if and what morals will get legislated. But now that I am (more) fully up to speed about the issue (and also because I am a media analyst who generally swims in the deeper, congealed waters of communication theory), I am more interested in talking about what struck me about that ad of my first encounter. Because prior to gaining entry into the local language game (that is, prior to having read about the issue and understanding what the proposition was about), I couldn’t really get what all the action on the screen was for. What were the makers trying to communicate? Who did they want to think (and what?). And this wasn’t a one-off kind of confusion – a condition common to peripatetics such as me, who witness the red cape waved in front of the bull and know “hey, this means something . . . but what is it?”

To be honest, the first time or two my reaction was more like a resounding “HUH?!” Here was a bride prepping for her big wedding day. Her father is proud, she is happy, a healthy audience waits in anticipation. But then every possible obstacle arises to block her progress:

  • the doorknob comes off the locked door, trapping her inside her dressing room;

  • cars are parked too close together to allow her comfortable passage to the wedding area;

  • the aluminum cans tied to the back of the cars, and supposedly signaling felicity, end up entangling her feet;

  • now with one pump spikeless, she has to limp as she approaches the gathering;

  • a low vine ensnares her veil as she passes beneath the awning;

  • her youthful bridesmaid seeks to obstruct her progress;

  • an elderly woman trips her with a cane:

  • an elderly gent holds her gown against the ground, depriving her of the chance to rise;

  • and when the groom seeks to rush to her aid, he is restrained by his best men.

The ad ends with the bride crumpled in a heap, plaintively appealing to the camera. Fade to text that reads: “what if you couldn’t marry the person you love?”

In the ad the woman is dark-complected; her partner of choice, light skinned. So, my initial pass at an interpretation was that this was an ad about racial intolerance. At least, the first few times I encountered the ad, these “obstacles to tolerance” symbols were what I thought to be the coin of this language game realm. On the other hand, those inside America’s political language game understand that the U.S. may once have had legal barriers to unions between racial groups, but they have now been eliminated by law. So, what was the real message at work here?

Falling back on media theory — and specifically advertising — I could remind myself that targeted communications work by signification – by marshalling symbols that stand in for other things. A bride is obstructed from being united with her groom. The obstructions – locked doors, parked cars, discarded cans, low-lying vines, a intentionally-outstretched cane – are obstacles, yes, but surrogates for other kinds of obstructions: laws, prejudice, social disapproval, ostracism. They are the metaphoric text that helps deliver the message: “how can we allow such unfairness to overrule the heart? Is it fair to deprive the will of two people who only wish to be together?”

Which, in fact, was the message. Only, it wasn’t about ethnicity; it was about gender. Times change; and so, too, do the targets.

Well, I don’t think I was the only one confused. Because in later versions, text was tagged on to the close of this ad — about the need for gays and lesbians to be able to live equal to others under the law. About the need to vote against Prop 8. Thereby removing more of the guesswork from the semiotic equation; inviting more people inside this particular language game.

Now, I can already hear the critical chorus: those of you who often write to tell me that I am “in the tank for the left”. Well, little debate there; guilty as charged. On the other hand, you should know that I picked this ad not so much because I support the position, but more because I find its mode of communication so much more fascinating than, say, the one articulated in the following ad (which supports Proposition 8):

This ad is far less interesting to me than the first — but less due to the political position it espouses (truly) than for its perfunctory, by-the-numbers rhetorical tactic: of fear-mongering to induce consumer (here voter) response.

Or, put another way, this ad is much easier for any peripatetic peripheral to the particular language game to decode. Easier to comprehend translates into far less interesting a cultural object to encounter and grapple with.

Applying this logic, in sampling a smattering of videos — both for and against Prop 8 — prior to penning this entry, I found that the semiotic processes at work appear to be more interesting on the “No” side of this issue. And parentetically (though associatively, I would surmise), it seems that the tactics between the opposing sides are not only stark in their difference, but also generally mirror the communication dynamic transpiring on the national stage between Barack Obama and John McCain. Specifically, the proponents of same-sex civil unions try to keep their message positive — “selling” love and seeking to humanize the message — while their opponents have adopted a negative tone — seeking to sew the seeds of doubt and, especially, fear among voters.

Thus, as an example of the former, we encounter Itzak Perlman declaring his deep love for his wife, daughters and grandchildren, then explaining that one of his daughters is a happily married lesbian; he ends, by directly addressing the camera, asserting: “Proposition 8 harms one of my children, and my entire family.” leaving the viewer to ask themselves the question: “do I really wish to hurt the daughter of Itzak Perlman?”

Another ad is equally affective. (Ironically) bathed in the diffuse, warm light that we associate with Ronald Reagan’s It’s Morning in America, the camera slowly pans through the rooms of a cozy home; it lingers over photographs on display, a tasteful flower arrangement, a crossword puzzle open on the kitchen table. A dog barks in the background. Then a man prepares to exit, but turns in the foyer to address a figure we can’t fully make out, but the contours help us decipher him to be a man; he is seated in the living room. The man at the door simply utters: “I love you” and then departs. The concluding text reads: “losing will change us all”, leaving the audience to think: “yeah, that warm, happy home that we have just been invited into and witnessed first-hand will be expunged.”

Of course it won’t be. But that is not what the proponents of the ballot measure tell us. Instead, they go for the jarring, direct approach, offering ads like this one that threaten a very scary kind of change; a boogy-man sort of alteration of life as we currently live it. Thus, in this ad we encounter a mother preparing dinner in the kitchen as her young daughter rushes up to her gushing: “Mom, guess what I learned in school today . . . I learned how a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess!” After this, a law professor enters the picture to explain why, by law, such a scenario could unfold with the defeat of Prop 8.

It turns out — according to the State Superintendant of Schools — that this claim is false: that no such mandate is on the books; and that, too — that point about the how of this communication campaign — corresponds to the way the national presidential campaign has been run, most particularly on the conservative side.

Of course, political communication and travel are not identical pursuits. One seeks to minimize intellectual uncertainty; the other — whether by design or simply by its nature — often maximizes it. It is that point that makes traveling so rewarding.

As for the political communication that is Proposition 8, both proponents and critics end up making their point, succeeding in delivering message recipients to the heart of the language game (the early wedding ad, discussed above, notwithtanding). At this point in the campaign, very little is left up to viewer interpretation.

For what it is worth (and if I might add an editorial opinion): as a peripatetic, I have always found that the journey is more intriguing — if not rewarding — when it aims at inclusiveness; when it seeks to provide the clues that will welcome the voyager inside the local language game. At the same time, though, a little intrigue, some intellectual work, and a helping of positivity generally makes for a more valuable experience. It isn’t enough to be invited into the language game. Feeling good about oneself and one’s fellow participants as they all engage with one another matters in the final outcome, as well.

Which is why in the case of Prop 8 — ironically — the road to “no” can be said to have been a greater “yes”: a more extensive experience; a more meaningful and validating peripatetic path.