Ian has written an interesting post discussing computer languages. Here he’s riffing on Morton’s post discussing whether or not computer language should be taught in humanities departments. All of this brings to mind Guattari’s idea of “a-signifying semiotics”. Over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly critical of the focus on meaning or signification in the humanities and social and political thought. My point is not that meaning and signification aren’t important components of the social world, but only that they are only components or part of the story. This is the point, in part, that I was trying to convey in my recent post on relation. There the idea was that there are all sorts of entities that bring people together and organize social relations that aren’t directly about meaning. Meaning plays a role, but it isn’t the entire story.

However, within the framework of much social and political thought and humanities, the implicit thesis seems to be that it is meaning that holds society together. The glue of society, as it were, is meaning or signification. Take the example of Zizek. For Zizek, it seems, the social world is held together by ideas (ideology). This is why, in his work, critique of ideology is ground zero of political engagement. There the social relations that exist are the result of the ideas or ideology that holds the social together. If you wish to dissolve or change these relations you must dissolve the ideas. My point is not that things such as ideology aren’t a part of that glue, but that there are many other factors besides and that we need to attend to these factors.

Returning to the discussion of computer languages, Guattari’s concept of a-signifying semiotics would be an example of extra-signifying factors that play a role in forming social relations. If I understand Guattari correctly (and I always find him challenging) when he evokes a-signifying semiotics he is referring to forms of operation that manipulate elements in ways that do not involve signification or meaning. The way in which DNA and RNA interact would be an example of, for Guattari, an a-signifying semiotic. However, of greater interest to those of us engaged in social and political thought would be the role that computers increasingly take in our lives. Take the example of book recommendations on Amazon or personalized radio stations such as Pandora on the iPhone. These things function not through signification or meaning, but through a-signifying semiotics. The way in which they select books that you might be interested in or music that you would probably like is through a computer algorithm that has nothing to do with meaning but which, rather, calculates probabilities based on what others have bought and listened to. Other examples of a-signifying semiotics would be the manner in which grocery store purchases are used if you make your purchases using discount cards, credit card ratings, the way your social security number functions in computer banks, etc.

Meaning and signification, of course, gets imbricated in these a-signifying semiotics when we encounter their results, but these operations do not in and of themselves function according to meaning or signification. In the contemporary world, a-signifying semiotics play a growing role in sorting and structuring the destinies of human lives, in forming communities or groups of individuals (Amazon’s book recommendations play a role in forming something like a community of readers with a shared hermeneutic horizon), in bringing people together in particular ways, and in enabling and preventing certain forms of association (all sorts of things are rendered possible or impossible based on credit card ratings). There is a rich domain of research to be done in how operations that proceed through a-signifying semiotics play a role in organizing social relations. So long, however, as we begin from the implicit premise that meaning is the sole glue of the social, all of this remains invisible.