Meaning as a nonlinear effect
The birth of cool
Saussurean and Chomskyan “conduit” views of meaning in communication, dominant in much of expert and lay linguistic semantics, presuppose a simple, closed and linear system in which outcomes can be predicted and explained in terms of finite sets of rules. Summarizing critical traditions of scholarship, notably those driven by Bateson’s view of systems infused with more recent linguistic-anthropological insights into the ideologically mediated and indexically organized “total linguistic fact”, this paper argues for a view of meaning in terms of complex open systems in which complex units of analysis invite more precise distinctions within “meaning”. Using online viral memes and the metapragmatic qualifier of “cool” as cases in point, we see that the meaning of such memes is better described as a range of “effects”, most of them nonlinear and not predictable on the basis of the features of the sign itself. Such effects suggest a revised and broader notion of nonlinear “perlocution”.
Keywords: social media, complexity, memes, meaning, semiotics, indeterminacy, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology
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