Fiction: Hermeneutics Between Consenting Adults
By Ben Nardolilli
The existence of a sign implies a kind of desire. I’m not just talking about things hung on a wall or attached to a post, the signs which signs use, what actually makes them signs. Signs are not mere images or copies of things. The less realistic they are, the better. Signs make use of an image that represents not only an item in the world, but a whole set of actions and processes behind it. Consider a simple pedestrian crossing sign. That figure doesn't imitate a person walking at all. Do you know anyone who looks like that? Of course not. You also do not know anyone who walks in that fashion either. Yet you understand its meaning just as much as I do: here people cross. It also serves as a warning of what not to do. Do not drive in such a way that you put the said pedestrians in danger.
What I find most amusing about that figure is that it does more than cross the road, I guess just like the chicken in those jokes. Presumably it can also lay eggs, peck, or cock-a-doodle-doo. But as to our dear pedestrian, maybe you have not noticed, but it can be seen standing guard in front of multiple bathrooms, throwing garbage out in the proper receptacles, and ignoring warnings about voltage and getting shocked by live wires. But regardless of where it is or what it is doing, it is being put to use as an example of what some power wants us to do or not do.
That want is the desire from which signs emanate. Without it signs rarely come into being. After all, why bother with the work of symbols and such? Sure, some people may play around and create new kinds of signs for their own sake, a version of arts gratia artis. But who will pay for them to be placed around in public? Not that signs always need money behind them. The whole system of hobo signs meant to warn fellow travelers about aggressive cops or alert them to nearby vittles was produced and reproduced without any need for permission or grants. There is a kind of purity in those signs now, a naivety as well. Yet there is also a desire behind each one too.
And you can see a desire at work in the no smoking sign. There is the obvious pressure of the state, and a supposed concern for the health of customers and employees. We also cannot ignore the aesthetic issues at play too. Cigarettes leaves ashes and butts behind that have to be cleaned up. Over several years, their smoke stains walls yellow and leaves a lingering smell that seems to hide in any available crack. Out of a desire to avoid all of this, we now have the particular sign which stands for any and all tobacco smoking, whether allowed or not.
One wonders how long it took to settle on this representation. It has a certain dynamism in it. Notice, the ban is not on the cigarette itself. It is on the cigarette that the user is consigning to the flames. A pack is fine as long as it is hidden. The cloud is the key here. It stands for the act of smoking, even if there is no mouth on display to inhale. Thanks to the reproduction of the sign, that puff is now a set thing. It is a cloud meant to stand for a cloud, in this case of smoke, but also losing the properties of a cloud. It does not waft, spread, sink, fly, or give rise to rain or lightning. It also does not take on shapes that can be said to stand for things. The cloud in this sign is robbed of the power of becoming a sign for something else, e.g. a bunny rabbit.
No one today looking at the sign is confused by what it condemns. The red line and circle turn it into an interdict. So when I claim it is actually fine for me to vape here at New Imperial Palace while waiting for my mu shu pork, this is where I am coming from. My concern is for the integrity of signs, a way of preserving meaning itself. Compare and contrast the two signs on the wall and you will understand. The fine detail and useful information of the sign saying not to smoke cigarettes is clear. The message of what you claim implies a ban on vaping is not. I implore you. Look at what you keep pointing too. Really look at it. I understand that the need for this sign may be new, and the kinks have to be worked out. But that is no excuse for shoddy semiology.
I mean, really Mr. Zheng, what is that supposed to be? What desire does it express, which I’m supposed to follow? In what world is that a vape? It looks like a VCR or a cassette tape, thoroughly obsolete materials. And what is that supposed to be coming off the end? That squiggly line? Is that supposed to be smoke? Because it looks nothing like the smoke from the no smoking sign, which is the way society has decided to depict fumes. What you have there is no smoke. It is not the fire that creates smoke either. Mr. Zheng, that is the sign for electricity. What is it doing there? You know what it says to me? It does not imply a desire for me not to vape. It tells me you do not want me to go around tasing people. Giving them a shock. And that is fine with me. I have refrained from doing tonight and all the previous times I have come to New Imperial Palace to indulge in a late night desire for your mu shu pork.
Ben Nardolilli is currently an MFA candidate at Long Island University. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Danse Macabre, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, The Northampton Review, Local Train Magazine, The Minetta Review, and Yes Poetry.