The Semiotics of Yo-Yo Playing

Three months ago, I wrote about yo-yo playing as a constrained universe of expression. I’m wondering now what semiotics would say about yo-yos. What are the semiotic signs in yo-yo playing? What do they mean?

What bugs me is the “expression” part. Of course, artistic expression doesn’t require words, or even subjects that are expressible in words, so there’s nothing strange about the idea of yo-yo playing as a form of expression. But what is it that is expressed? And what are the signs?

Many yo-yo tricks are obviously figurative signs, such as “Texas Cowboy”, which resembles a lasso trick (see the MPEG movie), “Rock the Baby,” (MPEG movie), or the primitive “Walk the Dog.” But there are also many tricks that are less figurative. For some of the less obviously figurative tricks, knowing the name of them helps a lot—see for instance “Roller Coaster” (MPEG movie), or “Ferris Wheel” (MPEG movie). Other tricks doesn’t seem to resemble anything, and the name gives no further clues (“Buddha’s Revenge,” or “Hydrogen Bomb”; MPEG movies).

One trick I liked was “The Slippery Eel,” where the player lets go of the string and catches the yo-yo in his hand (see the MPEG movie). I like this because it challenges the constraints of the expressive universe: normally, the player never lets go of the string, and once he does, for a moment the yo-yo becomes something else—it’s no longer a yo-yo; it’s like a warp out of the yo-yo universe and back again.

Another thing that’s interesting is that an unexperienced spectator (such as myself) can appreciate the more obviously figurative tricks, and the skillfulness of the less figurative ones, whereas an experienced spectator (and perhaps a player himself) is familiar with the language, the vocabulary; he can identify the tricks that a never seen trick builds upon (or “comments” upon).

This is related to what Lotman, in Semiotics of Cinema, says about how films can be appreciated at different levels. Films can communicate different things, or the same things but “stated differently”, at different levels, depending on the skill level of the viewer. Lotman calls this “semiotic layers” (I’m unsure whether this is the correct English term as I read a Swedish translation; see also my Swedish post, Semiotiska skikt i filmen) and he says that a film can supply the viewers with codes for decoding messages, as well as conveying the message itself.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on October 20, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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