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Teaching Popular Cultural Semiotics

posted: 7.15.08 by Jack Solomon

The purpose of this blog is to provide tips and assistance to anyone who happens to be teaching popular culture. My approach will be that of semiotics—which can be a rather broadly defined term and one of my tasks will be to define it more precisely as this blog develops. But before I get to that, I’d like to set down just what I think we are doing when we are teaching popular culture in our classrooms.

To put it succinctly, we are teaching our students to understand the significance of everyday life. When I say “significance,” I do not mean some secret meaning that takes a special training to uncover. There is nothing esoteric about the matter at all. It simply comes down to paying close attention to what we are doing in everyday life and seeing what that can tell us about ourselves.

For example, let’s take the subject I brought up in my first entry to this blog: the subject of blogging itself. You could spend an entire class period just going into the grammar of the whole matter, and what that says about us. You might be surprised at just how much material for consideration there is to be found there.

Start with the noun form: ”blog.” Of course, it is a contraction of “web log,” the name given to those personal web pages from the Web 1.0 era that began to go beyond merely presenting personal information to presenting a day-by-day commentary in diary or personal journal form.

But here we have to step away from the grammar for a moment to consider the traditions behind such diaries, traditions that embrace the chap I called the patron saint of blogging in my first entry to this blog: Henry David Thoreau. His writing was almost entirely in the tradition of the personal journals of the Puritan-Calvinist founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, though he secularized the tradition considerably. Today’s bloggers are more secular still, but the general tradition of ordinary people keeping a daily log of their thoughts and experiences goes deep into the grain of the American experience, and it would be a useful lesson in itself to tell your students about that as you consider this most curious word.

So back to the word. Here we can associate the contraction “blog” with a great many other contractions—”Internet” to “net”; “World Wide Web” to “web”; “electronic mail” to “email”; “personal computer” to “PC”; “television” to “TV”; “hi fidelity” (as an adjective for a recording) to “hi fi” (as a noun for a record player); “moving picture” to “movie”; “compact disc” to “CD”; “to use the search engine designed by Google Inc.” to “to google”; “to use the photocopying machine designed by the Xerox corporation” to “to xerox” . . . Do you see the pattern?

In short, Americans have a tendency to simplify their language use in the vernacular, to shorten and condense. It’s easy to take this for granted, but then, we’ve never had an Academy, as the French do, to try to keep a lid on this sort of thing. The American vernacular reflects democratic traditions that allow language change that begins from the bottom up, and which accordingly works very quickly, making American slang among the most, if not the most, rapidly evolving in the world.

This tendency to shorten and contract can also be associated with American advertising—a discourse that thrives on catch phrases and easily remembered, simple verbal formulas—and suddenly the mythology of commercial capitalism begs to be considered as a part of the semiotic mix.

And that’s only at the level of the noun. How about the verb? “I blog.” “You blog.” “He, she, it blogs.” As Bill Waterson (the genius behind “Calvin and Hobbes”) put it, we love to “verb” nouns. This tendency is related to our proclivity for contractions: it simplifies everyday speech, reducing effort, making language use easier—a linguistic labor saving device. “Texting” anyone?

I’ll leave it to you to consider the implications of this need to reduce effort in everyday speech, and the profounder implications for those of us who are employed to teach critical thinking and writing skills. (Hint: please do reread George Orwell’s ”The Politics of the English Language.”)

You see how much there is to think about, and we’re probably still only scratching the surface. Nothing secret or arcane. It’s all right there on the surface of our everyday lives and history. Teaching everyday life is simply getting people to look.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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