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The Difference Between Milk And Zombies - Why analyze fiction? - (Part 2)

No One Cares About Zombies!

In the first installment of this series on analysis, we noted a deep discrepancy between how important and personal fiction is to us and how distant the subject matters of our stories and games are to us. In other words, from our actions and experiences, fiction seems to be of great every day value, and yet the subjects of our stories don't seem to be related to our lives at all. In fact most popular fictions are about things that might be considered tangential, unrelated, or even antithetical, to our every day lives. Things like serial killers, child wizards, detectives, zombies, and superheroes. The question was raised "How can we care deeply and personally about things that don't seem to relate to our lives at all?"

To make sense of our love of fiction and the strange nature of its subject matter we proposed the seemingly counter-intuitive idea that the content of fiction is not literal, but representative of something else that we do care about. In other words The Walking Dead is not primarily about "zombies" but about something those zombies represent to us. More precisely, something we are using the concept of zombies for. The same with fictional detectives. The same with sword battles, car chases, romantic sunsets, and almost everything fictional in any medium.


The Walking Dead © AMC Networks


At Curiouser llc we believe that fiction is an active internal process and the surface of fiction, a.k.a. "what it is about", is by no means the whole story. Looking at the surface only reveals a partial truth. One that can be very deceiving. The true nature of what fiction is about and what it is doing for us is partly obvious, but also partly encoded, requiring varying degrees of analysis to consciously understand it.

Got Milk?

It sounds unlikely at first, and maybe a strange jump to make, yet this type of representation is actually at the very basis of all human communication. This concept isn't mystical or even artistic, but the way even the most simple human communication works. Like shopping lists for instance.

When I write out a shopping list, I write the word "milk". Now the word "milk" doesn't look like milk, or taste like milk, or have any inherent relationship at all to milk, but when I go to the store, I still come back with a cold carton of creamy white liquid and not another word "milk".

In the field of semiotics, the study of signs, symbols, and meaning, words like milk (and zombie) are called "signs". A “sign” is anything that has a meaning other than itself. A sign signifies something else. Every word you read is technically considered to be a sign, but signs can also take the form of images, sounds, smells, or anything that conveys a signified meaning. Giving a kiss may be a “sign” of affection. A black diamond may signify that a skiing trail is very difficult. A loud bell may be a sign that class is about to begin, or it may signify the danger of a fire, or the joy of a wedding depending on the situation and the meaning(s) we agree to assign to it.

Going a little deeper into how signs work, each sign can be thought of as having two parts; the signifier and the signified.

Signifier and Signified make a Sign

The word “milk” is called the “signifier”, and our experience, knowledge, and associations with the word are called the “signified”. In other words we read the word “milk” (signifier) but we think of the white stuff (signified).

the sign of milk

So what happens if we write the word "zombie" on our shopping list? We can't bring one home from the store (probably). So what does that signifier point to then? Does it work differently than the word milk?

It's All In Your Head

It is tempting to think of the signifier as pointing to a real object "out there". For instance the word "milk" might seem to point to actual physical milk, but it does not. It points instead internally to our experience of milk.

As philosopher Susanne Langer explains,

"Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects... In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean."

This internal association helps us see that the meanings of the signs around are dependent on our experience and our application. For example, to one person "milk" may represent a cold white liquid that comes from a box at a grocery store, and to another, milk may represent a hot white liquid that comes out of a set of animals nearby; or both. If we have never had any experience with milk, it doesn't point to anything and has no meaning to us at all.

Neither the word "milk" nor the word "zombie" points to anything in the real world. They both ONLY link internally to our own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and associations. So it isn't strange that the word "zombie" doesn't point to anything physical or "real" because no words, pictures, or any signs ever point to anything physical directly. This is why we can use the word zombie as easily as the word milk. Or snow or love or courage or electron. We have an internal set of associations and this is what the signifier associates with.

This is the heart of how fiction works. Each symbol, or phrase, connects to us internally via our experiences, memories, thoughts, subconscious, and even our biology.

Every sign has the possibility to trigger a vast amount of associated thoughts, feelings, and remembered events. For instance the word “dog” may bring up an almost infinite array of associations depending on our individual experiences. There are facts, smells, feelings, associated objects, people, places, and thousands of remembered moments. If we were bitten by a dog, there may be painful, fearful associations. If we were dog owners we may have daily memories that stretch from our childhood to the present. When the word "dog" is used it can trigger a vast dog-related universe of associations.


It's not an entirely conscious process either. Anything can be triggered by a sign including many things we are not consciously aware of.

Visual semiotician Daniel Chandler writes

“Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as 'signifying' something referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions."


The Zombie Code

With this understanding of how humans communicate and perceive signs, it is clear that understanding itself is personal, interpreted, unconscious, active, and cultural. So is fiction.

Of course a single work of fiction can have hundreds of thousands of semiotic signs all working together, but the principles may be similar.

With this framework in mind, certain issues about fiction and society become much more clear. For instance the question "Why does the nation care about zombies so much?" can only be truly answered by answering the question "What have we internally associated with zombies that we care about so much?"

The answer to that question in general is an internal set of feelings and associations, that is then manipulated by the plot to some satisfying purpose very far removed from the walking dead. We care about fiction, games, and stories in a much different way than we care about the literal contents of those fictions.

So it's not enough to know that Harry Potter is about child wizards or Twilight is about teenage vampires. That is just the surface, just a kind of signifier for our real emotional attachment. The hard part is teasing out what are we associating with these ideas that is personal and meaningful and why we are doing it.


Zombie reading
The Walking Dead © AMC Networks

Next in the series we look more closely at how we use fiction and what the difference really is between fiction and reality.  It's not as obvious as it seems!