March 14, 2006

The perils of semiotic speculation

During the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, it's struck me how many people think that the events are messages of some sort, though they rarely agree about who has been communicating what to whom. The riots and embassy attacks have been characterized as a message from Syria to France, or from Saudi Arabia to the U.S., or from Iran to Europe, or from the Islamic "street" to the west as a whole. And perhaps the cartoons were a message from the Danish establishment to its Muslim residents, or from the European right to the European left, or ...

All of this semiotic speculation reminded me of Michael Dibdin's detective novel Blood Rain, in which Italian detective Aurelio Zen is sent from Rome to Sicily to coordinate with anti-Mafia activites -- or perhaps to spy for his superiors on his colleagues, or perhaps just to get him out of the way. The book's theme is that every event -- every death, in particular, since this is a detective story -- is a message. But for people who think that way, of course, more messages are received than have been sent. [Warning: plot spoilers ahead.]

Zen's daughter happens to be in the same Sicilian city, working as an IT consultant to install and test some new software for the anti-mafia task force. He meets her in a café:

Zen took a sip of the scalding coffee, which jolted his head back briefly, then pulled over the copy of the newspaper which the woman had been reading. DEATH CHAMBER WAGON TRACED TO PALERMO, read the headline. Aurelio Zen tapped the paper three times with the index finger of his left hand.

"So?" he asked, catching his companion's eyes.

The woman made a gesture with both hands, as though weighing a sack of some loose but heavy substance such as flour or salt.

"Not here," she said.

The headline refers to a badly decomposed corpse found in a locked railway car. Zen is perplexed by his daughter's concern with being overheard by strangers.

"If you start thinking like that, you'll go mad."

"And if you don't, you'll get killed."

Zen snorted.

"Don't flatter yourself, Carla. Neither of us is going to get killed. We're not important enough."

"Not to be a threat, no. But we're important enough to be a message."

She pointed to the newpaper.

"Like him."

Coruna Nunziatella is a judge assigned to anti-mafia cases, who strikes up a friendship with Zen's daughter. A bit later in the book, she reads

... the transcript of an interview between a magistrate in Palermo and a pentito, one of the former members of Cosa Nostra who had agreed to collaborate with the authorities in return for them and their families being buried and rebirthed in the government's witness protection programme, safe from the vengence of those they had betrayed.

Sometimes, yes, but normally we just kill them. It's quicker and cheaper. Saves a lot of effort. When you kill someone, you also send a message. Maybe even many messages.

Even contradictionary messages?
Especially those. But it has to be done right. There's an art to the thing. Because there's no such thing as a messageless death, are you with me?

In other words, if a message doesn't exist, someone will invent one.
Exactly. So you have to make sure that some message comes through loud and clear. Otherwise the communication can get fouled up. And when that happens . . .

When the messages start going astray, there's no rhyme or reason any more. No one knows what's going on, so everyone's extra edgy. Mistakes happen, and those mistakes breed others. Before you know where you are, you have another clan war on your hands.

So these executions have to be correctly performed. It's a sort of ritual theatre, in other words, like the priest consecrating the host. What's the matter?
Look, I'm trying to cooperate, all right? We're different men with different objectives, but I respect you just as you respect me.

Of course.
So no more jokes about the holy mass, please.

I apologize. To go back to what we were discussing, can you give me an example of such a message?
There are so many. But I'll mention a recent one.

Just to show that, even though for your own protection you're in solitary confinement down at the Ucciardone prison, you're still in touch.
Why would you take me seriously if you thought you were dealing with someone whose clock stopped when he got picked up? Anyway, the thing I'm thinking of is that body they found in a train near Catania.

The Limina case.
Only it wasn't the Limina kid at all, is what I've heard.

Who, then?
Some sneak thief who was picked up operating on protected turf. He'd been warned before, but he had more balls than brains. They were going to waste him in an alley somewhere, but then someone had a brighter idea. The thief looked quite a bit like Tonino Limina. Same age, same height and build, same colour hair. The Limina clan have been making themselves a bit of a nuisance on this side of the island, so a warning seemed in order. They shut the thief up in a a freight car on a train bound from Palermo to Catania, with a label with 'Limina' scrawled on it. One message delivered and one undesirable disposed of. A perfect solution.

But the Liminas explicitly denied that the murdered man was their son. Obviously they knew that Tonino was still alive. So the message was pointless.
No message is pointless. Maybe in this case it wasn't the young Limina. Next time, who knows?

Ironically, Zen's daughter will later be killed, not to send a message, but instead because she has become a threat. Nunziatella will be blown up in the same car, and everyone assumes that the bomb was meant for the judge, to send a message to the anti-mafia task force.

In fact, this is all backwards. The body in the railroad car really was Tonino Limina, not a thief who looks like him. And all of the murders were done by the Rome-based components of the anti-mafia task force. Why? Zen's daughter was killed because she had stumbled on some potentially incriminating information in the computer system. Tonino Limina and Coruna Nunziatella were killed to stir up trouble among the clans, and thereby to send a message to the Italian government, that the task force is still needed.

In Blood Rain, everyone's elaborate interpretation of the semiotics of events is nearly always completely wrong. As the conventions of the genre dictate, there really is a communicative agent and a communicative intent behind the novel's events, even though the agent and the intent are not what everyone thinks they are. In real life, messages can be received in the absence of any well-defined communicative intent at all -- though I have no idea whether or not this was recently the case in Copenhagen, Damascus and Beruit.

In another cafe scene in Blood Rain, a local cop named Baccio Sinico is explaining one of the fine points of Sicilian communications technology to Zen, who sums the lesson up as follows:

"Fine, so this Spada, whose name isn't Spada, makes a living by passing on messages in a way that is also a message in itself. Am I right?"

"Bravo," said Sinico with a curt nod. "You're starting to understand."

"All I understand is that I don't understand a damn thing."

"You'd be surprised how many people don't even understand that, dottore."

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 14, 2006 02:44 PM