October 13, 2006

Representation and its interpretation

So 1907, I almost hear you sigh. In that fateful year, Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of linguistics, announced to a throng of admirers that there are two sides to a linguistic sign: its signifier (representation) and its signified (interpretation). A string is a sign that, under the watchful eye of the control, acts as signifier when data and as signified when a program.
Saussure's intellectual progeny is a breed of scholars known as semioticians. Funny that linguists, of all people, would choose for themselves a name that rhymes with mortician. Funny or not, semiotics mavens will point out the imperfect symmetry between program and data. The latter is inviolate. Signifiers must be treated with the utmost reverence: they could be passwords, hip-hop rhymes, or newfound biblical commandments. Mess with them at your own peril.
Programs are different. The encoding of the signified is wholly conventional. Take the program “Print this”, for example. A francophonic control would have no problem with “Imprimer ceci ” or, for that matter, with the obsequious “O, control highly esteemed, may you, noblest of cuckoos, indulge my impudent wish to see this humble string printed out, before my cup runneth over and your battery runneth out.” The plethora of programming languages exposes how so many ways there are of signifying the same thing. (Just as the plethora of political speeches exposes how so many ways there are of signifying nothing.)

Sensing the comic, artistic, and scholarly potential of the duality between program and data, great minds went to work. Abbott and Costello's “Who's on First?” routine is built around the confusion between a baseball player's nickname (the signifier) and the pronoun “who” (the signified). Magritte's celebrated painting “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) plays on the distinction between the picture of a pipe (the signifier) and a pipe one smokes (the signified). The great painter might as well have scribbled on a blank canvas: “Le signifiant n'est pas le signifié ” (the signifier is not the signified). But he didn't, and for that we're all grateful.
English scholars are not spared the slings and arrows of duality either. How more dual can it get than the question that keeps Elizabethan lit gurus awake at night: “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” And pity the dually tormented soul that would dream up such wacky folderol: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.” The Algorithm: Idiom of Modern Science by Bernard Chazelle

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