Excremental Semiotics

No, I’m not referring to the kind of theory that exasperates plain, sensible readers.

Most days, I walk Beatrice first thing, before I head off for morning chapel. We follow a very predictable path, which (I find) helps prompt her to accomplish the purpose for the promenade. When the time arrives for her to produce the material component of our morning exercise, she slows down and begins sniffing a particular patch of earth with even greater intensity than is usual for her. She circles several times, and frequently adjusts her position several times; I gather that the precise location of her deposit makes a big difference to her (it doesn’t seem to matter that I will, in a matter of seconds, scoop that ephemeral monument up in a plastic bag). Within the highly limited sense in which one can discuss any matter of cognition with regard to a dog who has fluff for brains, the location of her morning donation seems meaningful.

Now, if that premise be in any sense true, this seems to present a case in which the meaning truly is in the text. Her text constitutes as it were a natural sign of Bea’s existence and digestive activity (“Natural signs are those which, apart from any intention or desire of using them as signs, do yet lead to the knowledge of something else, as, for example, smoke when it indicates fire”; On Christian Doctrine II.i.2).

The reason I first started thinking about this topic involves the odd disjunction between the amount of effort that Bea devotes to the endeavor of finding exactly the right spot for her product, and the margin of error between her final sniffs and the ultimate location of her text. She made me think of the ardent but incompetent poet who agonizes over each syllable, but whose weak grasp of the language dooms the poem itself to failure.

On the other hand, the “meaning” in this interaction isn’t an ingredient of the text. Other dogs may infer Bea’s identity and salient characteristics on the basis of the textual deposit, but those remain inferences — not the extraction of a meaning-constituent within the text she leaves. An Animal Enforcement officer might construe her text as a “dog nuisance” punishable to the full extent of the law, but not based on any ingredient therein. To the extent that Bea has done something expressive, something meaningful, the expression and meaning depend on a system of instinctual (?) expectations and conventional interactions. Even considering this quite material example, I don’t see how we can ascribe intrinsic “meaning” to the text.

Micah said,

This post should really be a podcast. Seriously. “The material component of our morning exercise,” should be heard in your own dulcet tones.

What Jerome is ignorant of, no man has ever known. — St. Augustine

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