A Smile is a Bite That Isn’t
Analogical and digital communication, pt 1
When I was about seven, my parents, my brother, and I drove to a farm area outside Los Angeles and came home with a Shetland Sheepdog we named (not very creatively), “Shep.” A couple of years later, we stopped again in farm country, adjacent to a herd of sheep, and the four of us and Shep got out of the car. Shep had never seen sheep before, but in moments, he began to run around and herd them into a cluster. It was fun to watch. And while we never had serious doubts, it was nice to be assured Shep wasn’t a dachshund in a sheepdog costume.
Shep was untrained but would come when called, except for when he spotted a cat. He would dash after the cat and refused to be called off, with one exception. If my father was around, one “Shep!” and Shep would execute an action-movie U-turn.
My mother fed him, my brother and I played with him, but Shep’s master was the one who paid the least attention to him. When my father returned from work, Shep would go nuts. He’d run around my father’s legs, barking and carrying on, until my father put down his briefcase and lifted the twenty-one pound fur ball to his chest for a quick man-to-dog hug. The weirdest part of the pre-lift frenzy was Shep would bare his teeth in what we humans would call a smile. That smile was a growl that wasn’t.1
The two modes of communication
Using broad categories, there are two modes of communication: analogical and digital.2 Analogical is communication found throughout the animal kingdom and the natural environment. Digital is communication invented by humans. For example, an analog watch (the kind with a face and rotating “hands”) is an analogy to the sundial. A digital watch uses a stepped (ordinal) number system. There are no numbers found in nature. Body language, a communication mode that humans share with other animals, is analogical. Verbal languages are human-made, a digital mode of communication.
Humans mix analog and digital modes, either naturally, as when conversing, or artificially, as when creating a graph from a spreadsheet. Because analogical communication is more primitive (not meant as an insult), it’s more easily accessible. A quick glance at a graph gives you the lay of the land.3 Digital is more precise, as when you hone in on individual numbers in your spreadsheet. In discourse, a sweeping gesture relates a generality, such as spreading your hands to denote “huge.” Verbal language (though you’d never know it by its use by politicians, academics, and marketers), can create relative precision. Mathematics, another digital language, is even better at precision.
Both analogical and digital communication can cause misunderstandings. Analogical: you’re on a date with someone new, and you laugh, nervously; your date takes it as being laughed at. Digital: you make a verbal tease, intended as affectionate; it’s taken as an insult.
Far easier to spot is when the mixing of analogical and digital language is contradictory, such as when your discourse and body language don’t match. But even then, the complaint is usually not “despite what you said, your body was saying no,” it’s “but you said.”
There is no negation in the unconscious
Sigmund Freud’s precocious teenage daughter, Anna, put down her iPhone for a minute and was said to have heard her father mention the above and ask, “What does that even mean?”
Papa Freud explained: “You have a new patient and you’re filling out the intake form with the standard questions, one of which is (Freud blushes, faintly), ’Do you collect women’s shoes?’ Assume your patient is not a fashion-obsessed character from Sex and the City, but a blushing man. He states assertively, ‘I do not collect women’s shoes.’ Later, during a session, this patient relates an erotic dream that features women’s feet. In psychoanalytic theory, dreams are a message from the unconscious—you can’t have the dream and contend you’re not having the dream. There is no negation in the unconscious.
Whether you’re dreaming, or a creative idea wells up in your mind from who-knows-where, you have no ability to deny that dream or the spontaneous creation. So if your nightly dreams or free association on the couch includes erotic references to feet, you don’t get to deny your unconscious: that’s the premise that there’s no negation in the unconscious.
There’s no negation in the unconscious because the unconscious4 is analogical. Dreams and arts are sourced from the subconscious. And there is no negation, no way of saying I am not thinking this, I am not dreaming this, I am not creating this art.
Dogs that show their teeth are not-biting. Pay attention to the hyphen. The only way they can tell you they’re smiling is to propose they’re biting while simultaneously not biting. Smiles in humans, primates, and dogs, as with Shep when greeting my father, are probably (nothing in animal behavior can ever be proved)5 messages of not-biting—the analogical messages of what we humans call smiles. There’s no “no” in an analogical message, which makes sense. Until verbal languages were created by humans, and subsequently, civilizations, there wasn’t the need for the precision of “no.
Technically, this dog-smile is a sign of submission. A dog baring its teeth in a slightly different manner, while accompanied by aggressive body language, is a threatening gesture.
I know I said at the outset, there’s no such thing as communication. I meant, what you intend to get across is filtered to an extent that the recipient doesn’t receive the intended message. Here, I mean the intended communication.
Analogical because graphs are based on the visual perspectives learned in nature. “Lay of the land,” see what I did there?
I don’t speak German, but I assume Freud used “unconscious” the way we commonly use “subconscious.” In either case, it refers to emotions and motivations beyond our awareness. From now on, I’ll use “subconscious.”
We can never know when some new data, or theoretical upheaval that interprets data in a new way, will arise that will contradict an accepted theory—even ten-thousands years from now. Nothing in science is ever “proved” as we understand the word. “Proof” is shorthand for conclusions within the current accepted scientific methodology. A famous example is the Theory of Relativity, which upended Newtonian physics.