A Semiotic Reading of a Courthouse

Two weeks ago, I traveled to St. Louis with six other English students and Dr. Paku to present a paper at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention. During the last day of our visit we went to a courthouse that had been preserved as a national landmark and turned into a museum. As it turned out, this particular courthouse held the first hearing in the case of Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson in 1846, when Scott sued Emerson for his freedom. The experience was so intense and interesting that I knew I wanted to bring into our blog, but I hadn’t yet the language necessary to make the connections to our course. However, after returning to Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Elements of Style,” I think I am ready to unpack what I saw.

The study of semiotics is the study of signs and sign systems. Semiotics attempts to make sense of words and symbols in terms of other words and symbols; or, it tries to fit grammar and syntax with diction, or word choice. Parks’s take on this comes in the form of a clever chiasmus: “content determines form and form determines content” (7). This statement is both making a claim and providing and example of the claim. Form and content can be extended to tangible things as well, like the courthouse in St. Louis. Its meaning is conferred to the “reader” (me, the tourist, in this instance) through both it formal qualities (size, technical structure, material) and what is contained within it (more signs and symbols, law, history). Their interdependence is also notable, says Parks, “as Louis MacNeice sez: ‘the shape is 1/2 the meaning” (8). Indeed, to only see the courthouse from the outside one might draw inferences of power and authority, and these would be appropriate inferences because we are trained to read courthouses this way. However, this reading would be incomplete in the case of this particular courthouse because of the historical import that is detailed inside. When you walk through it’s halls, the courthouse switches codes from legal to historical. It demands that visitors situate themselves in the context of the exhibits on Dred Scott and famous abolitionist events. This code switching is not only an example of the interplay of form and content, it is a distinct repetition and revision of the old courthouse. Parks calls this “Rep & Rev,” and uses the concept to demonstrate how the accumulation of so much history can both reinforce and dismantle structures. The revision of courthouse into a museum and national landmark demands that the visitor reevaluate the structure.

One of the most interesting facets of this courthouses were the architectural oddities that were left unexplained by the museum. Some doors led to nowhere and there were balconies and floors that simply had no accessibility. It was almost as if much of the building was a facade, decorated only for purpose of boasting power and not for practical use. Parks has similar unanswered questions about why the ghosts of the past choose to appear when they do. “Words” just like the courthouse “have a big connection with the what was” (11). Without a semiotic road-map of sorts to understand the buildings oddities, I could I grasp at what certain things meant. Nevertheless, the history was palpable; I felt immersed in the “what was.” Navigating the exhibits and checking out the rooms, I felt the presence of power and history as I imagine people tried here must have.

That uncanny feeling of past and present at once bubbled up in me when reading about Dred Scott in the exhibits. The complicated legality of the Dred Scott case gets dragged to the foreground and the visitor begins to feel a weird haunting in the courthouse. Scott’s claim to freedom was validated and then invalidated when Irene Emerson moved away from Missouri and Scott was sold Emerson’s brother. He was technically free because of his time spent in the Northwest Territories (Minnesota), but “re-enslaved” when denied his citizenship upon reaching the Supreme Court. The haunting feeling is one of the “this-can’t-happen-here” type of feelings, but that is precisely why it is so haunting. These rulings had taken place right where we were standing. Thus, the history entered into our semiotic reading as the “time that won’t quit” (Parks 15).

It is true that I had Parks’s language already available to me upon visiting the courthouse (it preceded my trip on the syllabus by almost a month). However, the details of the trip were not fully clear until we looped back to Parks on Friday. The trip made sense only after working through it with Parks fresh in mind. In fact, this is quite how language works. We can only be sure of how to read a sentence after reading all of it. Our class made note of this when reading Parks aloud together in class. Neha commented on how “the” could only be distinguished from “thuh” after realizing that both were contained in the same sentence. Similarly, the courthouse only meant one thing on the outside, but my reading changed entirely after going through the whole building (i.e. the museum).

As I have said, it was the act of looping back that made this post possible and pertinent, even if we have already read “Elements of Style.” It was our own “Rep & Rev” (as well as the museum’s “Rep & Rev” on the Dred Scott case) that proved to be so necessary in making these connections. When I came to the words “‘form’ is not a strictly ‘outside’ thing,” it was if they were written in anticipation of the trip to St. Louis (Parks 8). This is not exactly true, but this feeling says something about the meaning-making that we engage in when we read. Now, just as in semiotics, these signs (Parks’s words and the courthouse) make sense with regards to each other. Without each other their meaning changes for me entirely. Be it theater or architecture, the signs are all around us waiting to be read.


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