The good signifier

Innovation almost always comes from individuals who see a chance to make things better. Instead of waiting, they go first.*
(Seth Godin)

As a consequence of the unprecedented appearance of the triad in the Cosmos, there appeared for the first time in fifteen billion years (as far as we know) a creature which is ashamed of itself and which seeks cover in myriad disguises.**
(Walker Percy)

In his faux self help book, Walker Percy explores the difference between signal and sign, between dyadic and triadic creatures:

We may know what we mean when we say there is a difference between my dog’s understanding of the word ball – to go and look for it – and your understanding of the same utterance – you may say “Ball?” What about it?” […] I propose here to use the word signal for the former and […] the word sign for the latter […].**

Your dog is dyadic, you are triadic. It is our ability to see something as sign rather than signal that also makes it possible for us to innovate as Warren Berger imagines:

a designer must be able to see not just what is, but what might be. And seeing is only the beginning. Designers are also makers.^

This uninvited ability comes at a cost, however. I am still pondering the following words from Percy, but, basically, I take him to be saying that we have a dilemma when we seek to be both the signifier and the sign:

The self of the sign-user can never be grasped, because, once the self locates itself at the dead centre of the world, there is no signified to which a signifier may be joined to make a sign.**

If we were ever to encounter extra-terrestrial intelligence, Percy continues, then:

The first question an earthling should ask of an ETI is not: What is the level of your science? but: Did it also happen to you? Do you have a self? If so, how do you handle it? Did you suffer a catastrophe?**

This is both a terrible and a wonderful place to be:

you [the signifier] have to point to an apple [the signified] and name it [the sign] for me before I know there is such a thing – and the existence of the world of apples outside ourselves. […] In a sign, the sign, the signifier and the signified are interpenetrated so that the signifier becomes, in a sense, transformed by the signified.**

We become alive and present to a larger world, rather than a world of signs – What’s that bird in the tree? It’s a chaffinch – to the inner truth and glory of the signified – It’s a chaffinch and these are it’s nesting, mating, song, feeding habits … and let me tell you about the tree it’s in). That we are transformed through our openness makes it possible to become alchemistic creatures – the designers Berger imagines us to be. When we go beyond the sign to the signified we see new possibilities.

Perhaps when we allow others to be our good signifiers, and vice versa, we ease our malady; we are not the centre of the world and that’s okay. When we ask the question: Who am I?, we need more than a sign, a name, a label, a designation, a title. We need for others to help us.

Then, when we ask the question: What is my contribution?, we see how we have a larger world of wonders to design from.

So, who are you good signifiers and who can you be a good signifier to?

(*From Seth Godin’s blog: The bootstrapper creates value.)
(**From Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos.)
(^From Warren Berger’s Glimmer.)

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