Sign Theory & the Mickey Mouse T-shirt

mickeyThe everyday activity of washing dishes in the communal kitchen at the Caravan Park created an emergent space for a story about death to be shared and heard and absorbed.

Up to the wrists in suds and the sound of melamine crockery clashing against metallic cutlery, I commented on the blue t-shirt with a Mickey Mouse on the front, worn by a women entering the kitchen. I had the exact same t-shirt in that blue and also another in grey. They are my mainstay most comfortable go-anywhere t-shirts at the moment so I couldn’t help but comment with excitement: “Great taste in t-shirts!”

She stopped me in my tracks when she said she wore that t-shirt on the 13th of each month to remember the day her 17 month old Grandson died of Meningococcal. Today was Friday the 13th.

Her words changed my meaning of the t-shirt. Saussure’s sign theory at play. The signifier is the t-shirt and the signified is the meaning where the two are relational not fixed. We both had the same t-shirt but they signified different meanings for us. I was reminded of the post: Poststructuralism explained with Hipster Beards; Part 1 and Part 2. I had just spent the morning reading and summarising Chapter 2 of Chris Weedon’s seminal book: Feminist Practice and Poststructural Theory, grappling with the theory of language and its relationship with subjectivity and power relations. This meeting seemed to not only touch me deeply based on my subjectivity but be a blinding example of sign theory at play.

I asked her his name. “Andrew” (not his real name). I asked how her daughter was doing – the Mother of Andrew. “It’s my son”. She explained that her son and his partner were both in their early 20s – both young – and this was their first child and her first grandson. I asked how long it was from diagnosis to death. She said Andrew was unwell on the Saturday morning and by the afternoon they took him to the hospital. They sent him home not finding anything. The next morning they noticed two spots on his tummy and thought Chicken Pox. Then more spots appeared on his chest. By the time they arrived at the hospital his little body was covered in spots, the rash. They put him in a coma to help his body repair as his organs were shutting down. They said he would have to have both legs amputated to the knee and both hands cut off. They did a brain scan and he had brain damage. So they made the hard decision to let him go, turning off the machines.

The lady left me to finish my dishes, my thoughts now with Andrew. On my way out she appeared again at the door with her phone. She came back to show me photos of Andrew. He is beautiful – chubby, happy, smiling – perfect. She told me he was walking and talking – could say her name.

I didn’t share my story about Robbie but was amazed to hear her say: “We are just grateful for the time we had with him.” Exactly the words I use about my 22 years with Robbie.

Whenever I wear my Mickey Mouse t-shirts I will now remember Andrew’s story and how the signifier (t-shirt) and the signified (my meaning and her meaning about the same t-shirt) are relational, how the meaning can change in an instant depending on the context and how language socially produces our lives.






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