Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sign language

AMONG the things I have to get used to while traveling is understanding how cold and hot water taps work.

Not all bathrooms in the country are Filipinized. By this, I mean there is a plastic pail and dipper for those who think bath tubs, shower stalls and bidets are not the only necessities in life.

I usually have to solve a riddle of three to get a bath. The middle knob controls the faucet. But which of the outer ones ensures I don’t perish from a shower of fire or ice?

What confounds me is when the symbols don’t follow logic: when “H” and “C” knobs release anything but hot and cold water, or a choice of red and blue handle indicates no shift in the shower’s moods.

I realize that it’s easier to adjust to the peculiarities of hotel plumbing than to the vagaries of symbols. Signs have to work. These are roadmaps that cut short the trip that our mind has to travel from reading and understanding.

Signs also condition us for certain responses. In emergencies, I’ve entered the men’s comfort room because I spontaneously relate more to the symbol of the human silhouette in pants than the one with the skirt. Since I lose precious time apologizing to affronted males, backing out and darting inside the toilet nature and society designated for me, I’ve learned to seek and accept the female sign with the old-fashioned A-line skirt.

Some symbols, though, are hardwired and non-negotiable in their associations. After pop icon Madonna recently opened her concert in Denver, Colorado with a spectacle featuring guns and a blood-spattered screen, concert-goers called local radio stations to protest the star’s glorification of violence.

The backlash came even though Madonna, before her concert, issued a statement that she did not believe in violence. The guns symbolize “intolerance and the pain I have felt from having my heart broken,” Madonna was quoted in an AP report carried by last Oct. 20, 2012.

A report described the controversial second act of the Oct. 18, 2012 concert, where Madonna shoots a masked man with a fake gun and the giant screen behind the stage is splattered with blood. Concert-goers dancing to the song, “Gang Bang,” which includes the lyrics, “shot my lover in the head,” stopped, looked around and murmured. A few walked out.

Last July 20, during a special sold-out midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Returns,” James Eagan Holmes, wearing armor and a gas mask that could not hide hair tinted a shocking orange like the Batman villain, the Joker, entered through the emergency exit of the Aurora Theater in Colorado. Holmes shot dead 12 people and maimed 58 others, with some probably disabled for life.

The press agent of Madonna said that the scene with the shooting was also shown in other cities visited by the concert tour and could not be excised. “It’s like taking out the third act of Hamlet,” the agent was quoted in

In her pre-concert statement at Colorado, Madonna said she does not condone the use of guns. "Rather they are symbols of wanting to appear strong and wanting to find a way to stop feelings that I find hurtful or damaging.”

Semiotics, or the study of signs, covers semantics (the relation between signs and their denotation or literal meanings) and pragmatics (the relation between signs and their effects on the people using the signs). While semiotics seems to be a branch of knowledge that interests only academics, it’s a key to unlocking not just the different levels of meanings of symbols but also hidden agenda in mass media.

In the hands of hotel management cutting on costs, mismatched shower knobs mean only an irksome but short-lived inconvenience. In the hands of an influential artist with the power to make hundreds gyrate and let loose to the sounds and images of destruction and death, what can signs and symbols not do?

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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 21, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column

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