What follows on this blog is a longish essay, presented in several parts, reading the semiotics of the Crucifix. The essay was originally written experimentally – I really didn’t know what would be discovered before undertaking the analysis, and indeed found myself surprised a number of times.

But first, a note on the relations between semiotic and more common forms of language-centered analyses.

A grammatical analysis of a linguistic expression can tell us what assumptions we are to accept if we are to understand it. A rhetorical analysis of the same expression can tell us what attitude we are expected to take in regards to the expression, and what response it asks of us. Hermeneutic analysis and semantic analysis can get us what the expression means. A logical analysis can determine whether the expression is coherent, whether it has validity, whether it is true.

Semiotic analysis partakes of all of these efforts, without subsuming them (i.e., it involves these other analyses, but is not superior to them, and cannot claim to override them in any way).

But signs are not just linguistic. Images, gestures, contextual limits (e.g., social interaction), and even brute objects, all also signify. Therefore, the extension of semiotic analysis is far broader than the language oriented analyses.

In what follows, one thing to bear in mind is the way language interacts with non-linguistic signs. The essay begins by considering images, remarks what are really socio-cultural issues, arrives at an analysis of a prayer. Yet its primary consideration remains one through-out: the significance of the Crucifix as Christian icon.

Primarily, what semiotic analysis of a cultural signifier seeks to surface is not simply what it conveys to us, but what we want it to convey; i.e., what are we looking for, from the signifier, in order to grant it any significance at all?

We are surrounded by signs; but signs only signify to us when we attend to them, when we have an interest in them. There’s a cup of coffee on my desk as I write, but it only achieved signification when I felt a desire to drink from it. And if it hadn’t been there at the moment I desired to drink from it, then the absence of it would have signified that I would need to get up and make a cup of coffee if I really wanted one. And if I had no coffee in the house, then the further signification would be that I would have to go to the store and buy some coffee, or simply do without (etc.).

If we feel uncomfortable with this, that’s understandable. The historical bias, in theories of communication, express a common predilection. What we want is a fairly uncomplicated means of sending and receiving messages about the world.

Teacher: “What is the sum of 2+2?”
Student: “4.”
Teacher: “Very good!”
Teacher: “What is the sum of 2+2?”
Student: “5.”
Teacher: “Wrong! Do the addition again, and remember what I said about even numbers.”

The exchange of knowledge should be very clear here. The teacher’s support or disapproval should be clear. Even the teacher’s demand for further addition should be clear. Certainly the numbers are clear.

But in fact there are a host of questions one can raise here, concerning the socio-historical context of the exchanges and the motivations involved, not only of the participants, but of the community in which such exchanges occur. Assuming a normative social context with which most of us are familiar (signified with the words “teacher” and “student”), we may have reason to inquire what it is the student expects from such an exchange, what the teacher might want, what the school system might want, what the society that sanctions the school system might want, and so forth. While nobody could rightfully question that ‘2+2=4,’ it is certainly of historic significance that we have any such knowledge at all. What use did it serve when first determined. And what does such knowledge serve now? We can see that this latter question concerns a great many people, in the discourse concerning the benefits of education, in assertions that we might want the student in question to at least be able to count change in a sales transaction; or in weightier assertions that we want students to have a knowledge base in arithmetic so that they may later learn mathematics and the sciences (etc.).

So the communications in these two examples may be relatively uncomplicated; the significance of these communications are not.

This might better be demonstrated if we consider an alternative teaching situation:

“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?”“Yes,” said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended. “How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”
“And if the Party says that it is not four but five—then how many?”
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out an over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
The needle went up to sixty. “How many fingers, Winston?”…
“Five! Five! Fivel”
“No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?”
“Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!”
Abruptly he was sitting up with O’Brien’s arm round his shoulders. He had perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds…. He felt very cold, he was shaking uncontrollably…. For a moment he clung to O’Brien like a baby, curiously comforted by the heavy arm round his shoulders. He had the feeling that O’Brien was his protector, that the pain was something that came from outside, from some other source, and that it was O’Brien who would save him from it.
– George Orwell, 1984

What is it that Christians really want from Jesus on the cross? Is it the salvation they claim? Salvation from what? An ‘original sin’ they did not themselves commit? Or is it from some existential angst, the fear that life is just so much suffering, and then we die? Or is it, on the contrary, a desire for the validation of suffering itself, a sense that suffering itself must have some value, a re-enforcement of our will to challenge death in the grossest, yet subtlest way possible, through some quasi-human sacrifice.

But why do they think some divinity nailed to a cross can get them this? Or do they contemplate such an image, because they just don’t want to be on that cross themselves….
These are the kinds of questions we will be asking over the next few posts. This will not be a complete analysis; but I want it cover enough so that we can learn something of what it might really mean to worship a crucified god.


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