Everything is code

“He doesn’t give you questions. He doesn’t give you orders. He speaks in a code. I understand the code because I’ve been around him for a decade” said convicted ex-lawyer Michael Cohen about his ex-boss (Trump) before the US House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

As any student of semiotics knows, speaking in code is what we do — when we communicate. It’s normal. To speak directly is the exception rather than the rule. In the kind of work I’m involved in getting others to do what you think you want them to do is primarily an exercise in subtle influence, persuasion and suggestion, perhaps delivered as a “nudge” rather than an order. It’s the same in advertising. Only crude advertisers direct you to buy Weetabix — obviously, overtly, as a command.

Messaging is generally covert, and it works because of context, and familiarity with context. As Cohen said, “I understand the code. I’ve been around him for a decade.”

Direct, overt messages are in the company of commands, rules, instructions and orders, which work in some contexts, but also work against independent minded citizens’ built-in tendencies to plough their own furrows, follow their usual habits, and resist authority. In any case, you already have to be receptive and sensitive to the context for any messaging, direct or indirect, to take effect. “Please fasten your seat belts” makes sense on an aeroplane or fairground ride, but not in a restaurant. Context is everything.

Code city

I’m interested in ways that the city is saturated with codes. Many city features are hidden within code, or at least covert messaging. Navigation provides an obvious example. There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon by James Stevenson of a policeman giving directions to a town visitor. The thought balloon above the policeman shows a conventional map, with arrows charting the route to the visitor’s destination. That’s what this knowledgable local understands.

But the thought balloon above the visitor shows a confused jumble of arbitrary map bits and a tangle of arrows. Navigational instructions require a degree of familiarity to be of use. To encounter a city for the first time is to encounter a series of coded messages. In time, seasoned residents can say “I understand the code because I’ve been around it for a decade.”

These tacit dimensions of language and social interaction are obvious. Here’s what’s interesting: under a coded system, what gets communicated is opaque to others in the room. Only the supposed recipient knows what the message is, or that there even is a message. Cities are full of it: layers of messaging intended or customised each for their respective constituencies. But then messages get intercepted, relayed, retranslated, recoded, diverted, distorted — and that’s when the fun begins.


  • Barthes, Roland. 1973. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Paladin
  • Polanyi, M. 1967. The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
  • Thaler, Richard H., and Sunstein Cass R. 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. London: Penguin


  • See MSNBC youtube clip for a record of Cohen’s statement about code: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eqntws2NXQY
  • Image above is a view towards “The Shard” building over the Thames from 20 Fenchurch Street, London.


  1. Daniel Bridgman says:

    Not unlike the legendary Nixon tapes from the 70’s, Michael Cohen’s testimony lights up a peculiar family-centered, mobster pidgin (a transactional dialect) amongst Trump’s loyal retinue. The codes undergirding Trump’s business operations, unethical machinations underscore, for an incredulous Congressional Oversight Committee, a covert and nefarious code-talking privy chamber. What inflects the “codedness” of this particular patois–which trades heavily on dissimulation–is how, as you’ve demonstrated above, its contexts, subtexts, use opacity, asymmetry, feigns, while driving home definitive action messages. It’s illustrative of how twisty–outside text-book examples–discourse plays. Noise assumes its sovereign place, as it does across the wider semiotic horizon. And so one gleans how tacit understandings osmose into looks, nods, gestures, while otherwise unrecordable nuances of intent, prohibition, permission, assist from backstage. Cohen’s gloss on Trump’s code-talking is a noxious gift to all semiotic apprentices.

    1. Elegantly put, Daniel. There’s nothing shocking or unethical about communicating in code. In the Trump-Cohen case, we would have to say it’s the actual messages, covert or otherwise, that are under suspicion. Furthermore, cunning operatives avoid explicit messaging that ends up in documents or contracts to be used as evidence of “dirty deeds”. To me so much of this mafioso-style exchange translates and distorts the ethos of the family to the world of business and politics. In families much doesn’t need to be messaged overtly. Vito Corleone is “godfather” to an extended pseudo-family of debtors and keepers of secrets.

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