In December of 2013, Russell McCutcheon penned a blog piece about the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service who was caught signing what many regarded as gibberish. McCutcheon’s post made two principle points: First, all signs are arbitrary and rely on agreed upon codes, policing and assumptions between those doing the communicating for any communication or “meaning” to be enacted. Second, the backlash faced by the interpreter demonstrates that “just because something is made up… does not mean that it doesn’t have consequences, doesn’t have effect.”
If you haven’t heard, a few days ago Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges claimed her allegiance to a local area gang. Or so an intensely politically problematic and pedagogically potent news report from KSTP 5 Eyewitness News (out of Saint Paul, MN) declared.
Dissertations could be written on the convergence in this news story of media bias, racial bias, gender bias, class bias, gang bias, and so much more, but what of sign bias, or even “meaning” bias? The news story demonstrates the manner in which meaning is made, and so often made over and against others who might contest the meaning. The police (and even some of the reporters) seem convinced the sign is indeed a “gang” sign, a purported unique signification of some sort of affiliation. But aren’t all signs made possible by, and don’t they all signal outwardly, affiliation? The raced, gendered, and classed consequences seem easy enough to spot in the piece, but I’m left to wonder what gang each of us are claiming when confronted with this news story? Russell is exactly right when he noted in that 2013 blog piece about the arbitrary nature of signs that “…while all signification is arbitrary not all signs are significant” – such significance is certainly not always created equal, and the weight projected onto such mundane activity speaks to the social and political interests at stake in what signs are signs, become signs, and signal some constitution of meaning for this and that group. Might what we see say more about us than the sign itself?
Do we see a gang sign in this story, and if so, might not that (mis)recognition highlight and speak to the camps, groups, parties, politics, etc. to which we hold allegiance and seemingly “make” meaning of? How do such claims signal something of our own interests, stakes and affinities?
What signs do you see?