I taught a course in media studies last academic year (2008-2009) where we looked into semiotics. In a very basic way semiotics is the study of the relationship between signifier and signified, that is, between the pointer and that which is pointed at. The basis of the “modern” study of semiotics is that there is no necessary relationship between the signifier and the signified.
That is to say, there is only an arbitrary relationship between the word “food” and the substance that we eat. This model where dissociation is at the heart of language reflects well the status given to the associative mechanism that Gurdjieff called the “formatory apparatus”. The formatory apparatus is that living switchboard within us that is not really in touch with the essential substance of food, but knows that it is a four-letter word that rhymes with “rude”.
By a different level of association we can note that Juliet says,“that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”. And in this perhaps we also hear the man who is called Shakespeare agree, through Juliet, with modern semiotics – that signifiers are arbitrary. Yet, I also hear in this that it is the experience conveyed by language that is the essential substance of language. Firstly, I need to “smell” and furthermore the instrument of smelling in me must have a being-experience that is distinct when encountering a “rose”.
Nowadays, an increasing number are concerned that through the “black magic” of manipulating the formatory apparatus as occurs on a large scale through the mass media (plural of medium, “person who conveys spiritual messages”) that the formatory apparatus is being programmed to increasingly accept an associative simulacrum as being-experience itself. When we are out of contact with the underlying essential nature of our experience, then the “evil” plot is close at hand.
When I say, “I am sitting here”, do I mean, “Of course I am sitting here. Where else could I be sitting.” Or do I mean something closer to, “I have the essential experience of sitting here. I sense the wind on my skin. I sense the bug crawling up my leg. I sense the tension in my spine.” What’s the difference? I must be an idiot to be concerned with such obvious things, after all the world is falling apart in front of us, isn’t it?
Gurdjieff saw through his extensive being-research and observation that something occurred deep within the human soul-stuff at the end of the Babylonian period of history whereby there was a split between the personality (signifier) and the essence (signified). The personality, the external means through which we enact some functional role in life, became an automatically operating entity and that education became from that point forward increasingly aimed at producing personalitites. Essence, that which we are born with and that which is the real container of our experience, became hidden from the indoctrinated personality. Previous to this split, it was a much more widely understood and taught amongst everyday people that the being-impressions underlying language were to be much more deeply cultivated than the facility to use language as an autonomous modality. Gurdjieff referred to beings of “new format” as those who had been indoctrinated through their upbringing and indoctrination (education) to fall out of touch with themselves and, furthermore once “educated”, to encourage this dissociation as normal.
Nowadays, it is widely held in the halls of higher learning, that because the “signified” is itself a “signifier” within the construct of whatever language we happen to be looking at, that we are all awash in the sea of arbitrary reference. Even where research looks into the sense modalities as the “signified”, a similarly functional mask is applied to essential experience in that uniqueness of experience is often dismissed as an outlier that is irrelevant to gaining a sensible picture of the statistical “whole”. Besides, verifying such experiences presents its own challenges.
As a result of the split, it became more much acceptable to “wiseacre” (to lie) for the sake of keeping appearances. After all, one might offend the power-possessing to the point where the conditions of one’s existence might be better accommodated in the prevailing view in a comfortable seat of penance-making such a prison or a bread-line or other similar institution of re-training.
At any rate, the point to me is not so much sociological as transformational. That is, for a being who is striving to be more consciously embodied relative to his/her previous experience of this, the conditions that s/he is being faced with in life are the conditions that s/he has to work with. I do not feel that this is a credo that justifies the status quo. But rather, that the hidden value of our essence is greater than the outward conundrums of our functional conditions. The only real kind of change is by way of essence. The Sufi master Jalal-al-Din Rumi says that, “Suffering is a gift. It is a hidden mercy.” This sounds terrifying to that portion of me that is afraid of knowing myself more deeply. Yet, I also hear the voice of my former suffering now transformed into something more stable for having digested more fully this food of existing as a created being.