Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin


Bodies within Semiology

   Cutting through a pool of bodies, I was trying to make my way out of Al Hussain area in Cairo after spending most of the night celebrating the birthday of the grandson of the prophet. People from almost each and every spot in Egypt pilgrimage to Al Hussain at the beginning of the eighth month of the Islamic calendar to celebrate his birthday by chanting and swerving along songs and poems of remembrance. Among the crowd, I noticed a young man who I later knew to be from Aswan. Holding a small aluminum tray covered with a piece of velvet cloth, he was selling handmade jewelry, mostly rings made of brass. The rings looked different from those flooding the Mawlid, with big chunky stones. I stopped him and asked him to look through the tray. They all looked like they had already aged not so well, except two or three of them. It sounded like a good deal, especially since they were less than 20 Egyptian pounds each. I picked a striped one whose shine hadn't completely died off and put it on my right hand's index finger.

   Almost a month later, on a weekday evening, I was walking alone down Nobar Street in downtown Cairo to be stopped by a short full man in a leather jacket asking for my national ID. I asked why should I, for him to reply with one word, "police." I presented it to him as he went on asking random questions. He then arrived at the question he had been eager to ask. He pointed at the ring on my index finger and asked, "Are you a socialist?" It was funny at first; then I took a second look at the ring to try and figure out what in a cheap brass ring would have implied affiliation with socialism. He then saved me from dwelling in self-questioning by elaborating that he had seen a similar ring on one of their detainees whom he called "communist-socialist." I laughed and told him the story of how I got this ring. On my way home I couldn't help but keep laughing.

   On a different continent, far into the north, I was invited to a gallery opening in the south of London. I was introduced to many artists and art enthusiasts. One of them noticed the ring on my finger after we shook hands. She made some Jewesh references that I wasn't able to pick up. She then asked if I was married. I said no. After pointing at the ring, she explained to me how there is a dying Jewish tradition where married people wear a gold or brass ring on their right-hand index finger. I smiled and told her the story of the "communist-socialist."

   For Saussere, a sign is made up of a signifier, which is a sound/image that stands in for something in the world or in the mind, and a signified, which is the thing in the world or the mind (de Saussure 1916 (1959), p.65). According to Pierce, a sign is something that stands in for something to someone in some respect or capacity (Pierce 1902, p.99). He classified the sign into three different types: the first is the icon, a sign of physical resemblance; the second is the index, a sign of physical connection; the third is a symbol, which is a sign perpetuated through law or convention (Pierce 1894, p.4). He explained how these signs function through a triad structure, where a sign comprises three elements: the representamen, or the first sign, which represents something to someone in some respect; the interpretant, which is the meaning altered in the mind of someone by the first sign; and the object in reference, which is the thing in the world that is in reference, in which they all are built upon a ground of common interpretation (Pierce 1902, p.100). In the case of the "communist-socialist" ring, the representamen, which in my case was nothing more than to look cool, altered a completely different interpretant in the mind of the police informant. This interaction was formed upon an improper ground of interpretation. Common ground was mainly absent, but still, a meaning was transferred. In the case of me being a married Jew, the same representamen altered a totally different interpretant. This relates to Lacan's concept of the signifying chain, where a word, for instance, on it is own can signify something that is different from what it signifies in a sentence, which is different from what it would signify being part of a sentence in a paragraph, which is also different from what it would signify if this paragraph were part of a book (Lacan 1957, p. 502). My ring signified two totally different things in relation to two different assumed signifying chains, one in which I was vulnerable and at risk, and the other ascribed to me an identity that was not mine.

   Signs are the foundational elements of language. Almost each and every linguistic system is constructed upon a set of semiotic conventions that allows the formation of a common ground of interpretation. But languages are not only comprised of a set of signs; they can also become a sign in their entirety. In Jean Hill's "Language, Race, and White Public Space," she examines how utterances and language mixing can operate within and reproduce racialized spaces. She does so by examining what Page and Thomas (1994, p. 109) have called "White public space": a morally significant set of contexts that are the most important sites of the practices of a racializing hegemony, in which Whites are invisibly normal, and in which racialized populations are visibly marginal and the objects of monitoring ranging from individual judgment to Official English legislation" (Hill 1998, p.682). Here, the mere speech of racialized populations was heavily monitored for signs of linguistic disorders. Still, on the contrary, the utterance of the Whites was already ascribed as incapacitated of the same signs of linguistic disorders, reproducing Whites and Whitness as normative and invisible (Hill 1998, p.684). This is a demonstration of how semiotics create, reproduce, and sustain racialized spaces where violence can be perpetuated.

   In Egypt last year, particularly in June, a young woman was slaughtered by her ex-fiancee in public before her university because she refused to marry him. It quickly turned into a case of public concern, and lots of public commentary emerged from this tragic incident. Some of that commentary was concerned with the victim's appearance portrayed in her photos on social media. The details of her appearance are totally irrelevant to this paper and totally irrelevant for revoking any of those commentaries, for appearance should never be in the same domain when discussing or even refuting the arguments of murder apologists. The only relevant element here is a symbolic one, which is the absence of the hijab in her photographs, an absence that was central to many of these commentaries, redeeming her blood permissible to be shed. The absence of a head scarf, a symbol of modesty for women in Islam, made her vulnerable, even after being murdered, to questionings about her ethics and morals. This adds another layer to our understanding of semiotics and its relation to performativity. Butler has delineated in her book Gender Trouble the dynamics of these performatives and how they work within a semiotic structure. She famously argued that gender identity is formed and maintained through a set of performatives (Butler 1999, p.173). These performatives semiotically signal to our social surroundings our identity, and our social surroundings, in turn, have certain interpretants triggered in their mind, which would either redeem us as worthy of protection or expose us to vulnerability.

   In the tragedy mentioned above, accusations play a huge role in reaction to a set of performatives. The accusations and questioning of her morality were coming from no place near interest in justice. But rather, they were coming from an interest in finding the truth. This interest in truth, that is, in most cases of accusations, is instructed by speech acts of the community. This dynamic is similar to the one described by James Seigel in Naming the Witch. He writes, "If the judges are skeptical, it is not because they want the sort of truth that pertains in our courts. It is not a question of evidence or facts. It is a matter of showing that there actually is a certain power. The answer to the judge's refusal of his confession is not to make it more plausible (and certainly not to say that he was completely uninvolved or that sorcery is implausible) but to invent more power (Seigel 1937, p. 39). Here, the accusations were statements that assert and invent more power to the speech acts of the community, it is not of any interest of the truth or morality of the young woman, but it is to perform a kind of power that speech acts have through accusation.

   Semiotics is deeply entrenched in our bodily experiences and vice versa. Another semiotic order that takes the body as its realm of subjugation is torture. It sears onto the body statements of power and domination that are then propagated through the collective memory of the entire population. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry gives a detailed account of how torture performs as a semiotic tool to inscribe on the body evidence of subjugation. She describes the process of torture in interrogations as first an infliction of pain, the pain is then intensified, and through this intensification, it becomes objectified in the form of screams and begging, and after the confession is acquired, the pain is denied, and the ruminants of the objectified pain translates into evidence of the power of the interrogator (Scarry 1985, p.28). The process of torture would be regarded as unsuccessful if any of these stages did not materialize. That is because the concept of torture relies heavily on the idea of 'the public secret,' that is that everyone knows that pain and torture are often part of the interrogation process, but no one can or has the power to confirm it. When the public secret goes out and is identified by the community, then the entire process of torture will be signified and brought up in each and every encounter with the power, even if not materially, but at least the extent to which power can be performed on the body is signified within the mere encounter with power.

   It is hard to imagine a world where our experiences are not dictated by a set of semiotic events and structures, that is because it is also even more difficult to imagine a world that is not mediated. But to understand the power of this mediation, we have to continuously examine these processes of mediation and how they are making and unmaking worlds, how they put lives at risk, and how they provide others with protection.


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Butler, J. (1999). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

de Saussure, F. ., In Bally, C., In Sechehaye, A., In Riedlinger, A., & Baskin, W. (1959). Course in general linguistics.

Hill, Jane H. “Language, Race, and White Public Space.” American Anthropologist 100, no. 3 (1998): 680–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/682046.

Lacan, Jacques. (1957) “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” in Ecrits.

Page, Helan E., and Brooke Thomas. (1994) “White Public Space and the Construction of White Privilege” in U.S. Health Care: Fresh Concepts and a New Model of Analysis. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 8: 109-1 1 6

Peirce, Charles S. (1894)  “What is a Sign?” (4-10)

Peirce, Charles S. (1902) “Logic of Semiotics: The Theory of Signs.” in  (98-118).

Siegel, James (1937)  “The Truth of Sorcery.” in Naming the Witch. (29-53).
Scarry, Elaine. (1985). The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

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