This time I’m sharing something I’ve written for the monthly church writing group. This month the prompt is “Trees.” Here’s my take on that simple word:
Trees, Semiotics and Reader Response Theory, Oh My!
When I think of trees my mind naturally turns to semiotics and I can’t help but also ponder reader-response criticism. Now let me just clarify that I’m talking about Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories that he referred to as semiology and not Charles Peirce’s semiotic model which uses signs, object, and interpretant.
Of course this means that I am also thinking of my favorite literary theory, reader-response criticism. I know, I know, many of you are thinking that if I prefer Saussure that I surely must be an advocate of Derrida and practitioner of deconstructionism. No, while I understand the importance of the work and its importance in a post-structural world, I find that Derrida’s deconstructionism just leads into nihilism, despair, and excessive wine drinking.
But I digress …
The story really begins in fall 2005 when I was sitting in a class on literary theory at San Jose State. The class room was on the second floor of Sweeney Hall and looked out over the campus and a large clump of tall trees. It was mid afternoon and our professor asked us to think about a tree and make a small drawing of a tree. I drew a badly shaped redwood tree. Our professor then went around the room asking the eleven of us who were still awake what tree we’d drawn and why we drew that tree. Turns out the each of us had drawn a different kind of tree – some were conifers, some deciduous, some tall, some short, and all with a special memory. One woman described a tree from Poland where she grew up and how that tree was part of her special childhood memories. I love to hike in redwood forests and have many memories of trails along the forest floor.
It should have been obvious, but at that moment it dawned on me that the word, “tree,” has many different meanings, implications and emotional impacts on people based on past experience, culture, and language.
This is where our professor started her lecture on semiotics. Simply put semiotics is the study of sign processes and meaning making. It is a study that can get complex, but in its simplest form we talk about the signified and the signifier. Take our word “tree,” that is a signifier, it has a written form and a spoken form. The sound, “tree” invokes a memory in our heads that is referred to as the signified.
If I say tree, you form a picture of a tree in your head. This is how language works for humans. There is a signifier that corresponds to a signified. There’s no real logic here, it just a set of agreed upon sounds, signs (written words or pictures) that mean something to other people. Of course, different languages and cultural groups have different sets of signifiers and signified pairs. For example, Spanish language speakers decided that the word for tree is, “el arbol.” In the UK “chips” is what American’s call “fries” and American “chips” are call “crisps” in the UK. I think the French refer to fries as just weird.
Here today, we’ll hear many stories about trees and one each different. Each varies, each is different as each of us has had different life experiences and have encountered trees differently. If you grew up in the desert a tree might mean shade on a hot day, while someone from the Pacific Northwest might think of logging or firewood. Saying the word tree, requires more words, more signifiers, to fully explain your idea of a tree to me.
That’s reader-response criticism. It’s just a theory that says that a meaning of a text, whether it be a book, story, essay, poem, … is largely created in the mind of the reader. I can write, “tree,” but is the reader who forms a picture of a tree in their mind – a picture based on the reader’s knowledge, teaching and experience with trees. Sure a writer can narrow down what is meant by “tree,” by adding more words that both the reader and writer have the same understanding of. This is where misunderstanding enters the world. If we truly want to be understood, we need to work to find a common ground between us and them, me and you. It is in our shared experiences where true mutual understanding begins.
Many years ago I was interviewing for a job as a software release engineer at a video game company. The basic job was to take the work of a large group of engineers, designers, and artists and combine all of these pieces into a single product that our customers could download to their game consoles and enjoy an adventure. Part of the interview was with a panel of three engineers. They asked technical questions, asked how I’d solve certain problems and finally one engineer asked me what I thought was the hardest part of my job.
I replied, “Communication. The job is technically easy, but all the parts must work together and be ready at the same time. This requires that I have to clearly communicate deadlines, expectations, and when things go wrong, I have to approach teams and individuals to get things fixed. There are hundreds of people here, and I have to make sure that all understand me.”
This answer confused them a little so I gave them my professor’s exercise of drawing trees. They humored me and drew trees.
The Japanese engineer drew a bonsai tree. The American engineer drew a pine tree. The British engineer was the last to answer and seemed reluctant to show his drawing. I gently pressed to see and assured him there was no right answer.
His answer: A computer file directory tree. Nothing to do with the living thing we call a tree, but rather an scientific term that refers to how data is organized like a tree with branches and off shoots. That I said is why my job can be difficult and why people can misunderstand even simple requests – not everyone sees things the same.
And I got the software engineering job because I had a degree in English and understood how language worked.
Think of a tree. That thought might lead to somewhere unexpected.