Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

Horizontal divider

That Was 'The Week' that Was

posted: 12.8.11 by Jack Solomon

In the Opinion section of the Yahoo! News page on November 21, there is a piece of writing entitled “Should Obama decline to run for re-election?” It is signed by “The Week’s Editorial staff.” So why do I refer to it as a “piece of writing” instead of an “op-ed?”

My choice of a vague descriptor was deliberate, because my purpose here is not to offer an opinion about the upcoming presidential election but to provide a semiotic analysis of a peculiar trend within popular journalism. This is the tendency, in online publications like The Week, to present what is in actuality an aggregate of existing op-ed pieces (duly linked) within a text that takes no stand of its own. In this case, The Week links to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen that calls for President Obama to step aside and let Hillary Clinton run in 2012. But rather than take a position, in the next three paragraphs the text links to consecutive opinions by Andrew Malcolm, Bryan Preston, and Andrew Sullivan, each with its own take on the matter, and leaves it at that.

This is a fairly typical format for The Week’s op-ed manques. It can be quite disconcerting to read if one is not accustomed to this sort of thing; it can take the reader a minute or two to realize that the text is simply providing a roundup of opinions and not actually presenting an opinion of its own. That this is an example of a new kind of “aggregative” journalism that is appearing in the popular media (especially online media) is clear enough. What isn’t clear is what that signifies. [read more]

Comments Off on That Was 'The Week' that Was
Categories: Popular Culture
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

The Politics of Popular Culture

posted: 11.17.11 by Jack Solomon

Given the affinity that the current Occupy Wall Street (or Wherever) movement has with many of the protest movements of the 1960s, I am minded to take a semiotic look here at the legacy of the counterculture and, more relevantly for this blog, the connections between popular culture and the New Left.

It is a virtual truism to note the at least superficial leftist tendencies of popular music since the 1960s. We’re talking rock-and-roll here, not country/western. With the exception of such performers as that gun-slinging guitar slinger Ted Nugent, the pose, if not the actual politics, of the rock star is that of the “street-fighting man” (or woman: anyone for 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”?). Having evolved from the countercultural positioning of the Beats (whose music of choice was jazz), the sound track of the 1960s and since has often expressed the voice of an American youth in dissent against the Establishment.

Given the growth in importance of popular music over the past five decades, one might expect a concurrent political effect, a leaning to the left. But that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the country has shifted so far to the right that centrist Democrats like Clinton and Obama are regarded as left-wing radicals in many quarters. So the big question is, what happened on the way to the revolution?

A key to answering this question lies in noting one of the fundamental contradictions around which American society has always been structured: the contradiction between our Puritan tradition of social conformism and sexual repression, on the one hand, and our secular tradition of individual liberty and personal expression, on the other. These two cultural tendencies have coexisted in an uneasy tension throughout our history, with one side or the other achieving dominance at various times. What we call “the Sixties,” for example, was in effect a rebellion against the strikingly Puritanical upswing in American culture during the 1950s, representing a youth-led swing of the pendulum toward a free-wheeling individualism that included a hedonistic celebration of pleasure and entertainment (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll) as a major component in its development. [read more]

Comments: (2)
Categories: Popular Culture
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Pre-Owned or Preposterous?

posted: 11.3.11 by Jack Solomon

Jay Dolmage’s recent Bits post on double-speak happens to overlap with a popular cultural phenomenon that I have long pondered: namely, the widespread cultural tendency to engage in evasive and euphemistic language.  This tendency is not limited to politicians and celebrities; it is well-nigh universal. When used car dealers find that they have a better chance of selling “pre-owned” cars than the “used” kind, and mass market grocery items are called “Private Selection,” something highly significant is going on.  And that’s yet another place where semiotics comes in.

The range of euphemism in America is vast. Painful subjects, like death and racial conflict, are euphemistically glossed over. No one dies anymore; people “pass.” And rather than refer to race, our common discourse prefers the more comfortable, but much different word, “culture” (I explain to my students that people of different race can share a culture, and that while “race” is a highly contested and problematic demographic category, to argue that it is determinative of cultural consciousness is to trod some very thin ice indeed). At the very least, this tendency to euphemism impedes sound critical thinking (we can hardly think clearly about something when we are unable to clearly identify what we are thinking about: I’m with Orwell). At the worst, it can backfire into backlash and nasty accusations of “political correctness.”

The cultural significance of these sorts of euphemism (there are many more, but the topic is so sensitive that it isn’t wise even to point them out) is fairly straightforward: a fundamentally optimistic people (please read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America), Americans are so ill-equipped to face the painful realities of their history and fundamental existence that they turn to euphemistic evasions that solve nothing but do make people feel better. [read more]

Comments: (2)
Categories: Popular Culture
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

What’s in a Walnut?

posted: 10.20.11 by Jack Solomon

Google “walnuts + FDA.”  Now google “Gibson guitars + export.” You may be surprised by what you find, because on either search, the very first page, not to mention many to follow, will turn up hits on numerous self-identified conservative and libertarian blogs and Web sites erupting with fury, often with misleading or distorted claims about governmental action. So what’s the big deal about walnuts and Gibson guitars?

This is a textbook case of how apparently trivial and meaningless events can become signs whose significance is revealed by the semiotic situating of their relevant contexts or systems. Here’s what happened: the FDA recently ordered a major walnut producer to remove certain health claims from its Web site and its packaging because these claims would entail the reclassification of walnuts as a drug; they would then have to be regulated accordingly. As for the other story, it concerns an enforcement of the Lacey Act (an old law to protect endangered species) with respect to Gibson guitars, which may contain protected materials (like ivory) in their construction.

Both stories went viral, and can be found on sites that have nothing to do with either food or guitars. The walnut story has been distorted into the claim that “walnuts are now an illegal drug” (which is not at all what the FDA said), while the Gibson story has morphed into an attack on Obama and a claim that he is trying to “export jobs to Madagascar” (which was not the point of this Lacey Act enforcement). When such small events make such a big splash and produce such distortions, it is a strong indicator that something else is going on. What, then, is causing all the passion? [read more]

Comments Off on What’s in a Walnut?
Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Play It Again, Sam

posted: 10.7.11 by Jack Solomon

As true fans of Casablanca know, no one in the film ever actually uttered these words.   Rick says “Play it,” and Ilsa says “Play it, Sam,” but it was Woody Allen who put “Play it again, Sam” in our heads. No matter, it is the principle of repetition I’m after here, for this is a blog about a song well sung, or rather, too often sung.

That song is the ongoing Hollywood tendency to rehash former programs and films, or remix them. This season’s return of Charlie’s Angels is an example of the former, and the premier of Terre Nova, of the latter.

Let’s begin with Charlie’s Angels. The show that turned a one-time shampoo model into one of America’s favorite sex symbols, the original Charlie’s Angels was a signifier of how the sexual revolution of the 1960s had become mainstreamed for middle America by the 1970s. When the television program was reprised in 2000 as a feature film (Charlie’s Angels), and in 2003 as a feature film sequel (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), that significance had long since vanished. By then it was simply a convenient vehicle for a new generation of sex symbols in a film industry that preferred already tested entertainment formulae to the risk of genuine innovation (though the casting of Lucy Liu did at least signify the maturing of Hollywood’s depiction of Asian American women). The current televised rehash of Charlie’s Angels entirely repeats what the films signified: a vehicle for a new generation of actresses, a testimony to the risk-aversiveness of the entertainment industry, and a case of yet another insertion of a nonwhite lead while preserving the status quo racial ratio at two-to-one.

In Hollywood as in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new (or at least very little) under the sun. [read more]

Comments: (1)
Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Help

posted: 9.22.11 by Jack Solomon

What’s not to like about the current box-office and best-selling success story, The Help?  An indictment of the last years of the Jim Crow South with a lot of uplift about what people can do to resist oppression, the novel and movie would seem to be something that only the most unreconstructed movie watcher could dislike. But as is so often the case in American popular culture, the situation is a lot more complicated, and a many liberal viewers are raising their concerns, making The Help a good topic for classroom semiotic analysis.

The main complaint is that, as is so often the case with popular stories of this kind, The Help features an attractive white protagonist who leads a cast of nonwhite characters to a kind of victory over their white oppressors. “What’s wrong with that?” a student may well ask. Here’s where the construction of a system of signs into which The Help can be situated can be especially useful.

For example, The Help can be classified with such films as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and other successful, liberal, well-meaning films that made audiences—white audiences, that is—feel good by showing them good white folk allying themselves with oppressed nonwhite folk against bad white folk. One could argue that the films provide nice role models, especially for younger white viewers, but the problem for many critics is that it implies that nonwhites can’t advocate for their own interests without benign white heroes to lead them. Good-hearted condescension is still condescension. [read more]

Comments Off on Help
Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Reading Raymond Chandler

posted: 9.8.11 by Jack Solomon

I teach popular cultural semiotics because I believe that we can best understand ourselves as a society through the study of everyday life, which, in a society like ours, is heavily invested in popular culture. We can discover important lessons about ourselves in the most surprising places, even when we are not looking for them. Some recent pleasure reading I’ve been doing provides me with yet another example of how culturally significant the most apparently insignificant entertainment can be.

I always enjoy rereading Raymond Chandler. His plots are atrocious and the dialog impossible, but they’re still a lot of fun to read. Beyond the fun, however, are some interesting glimpses into the American past. Of course, the casual (and not so casual) racism and sexism of the stories are so blatant that they can almost go without saying. Reading such stories is not unlike watching Mad Men: as we encounter the awful past we can take some comfort in the fact that things are not quite that bad anymore.

Much more subtle, however, is what we see of working-class life in Chandler’s stories. This is a world of gas station attendants, doormen, elevator operators, bellhops, telephone operators, parking garage attendants, chauffeurs, and servants, lots of house servants. The stories depict a world full of low-paid and demeaning jobs, in which a great number of people must wear uniforms to work that identify their menial status. [read more]

Comments Off on Reading Raymond Chandler
Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

The Semiotics of Disaster

posted: 8.25.11 by Jack Solomon

Semiotics is the study of codes: how signs get their meanings from their placement within larger systems of signs. I have been providing demonstrations of how this works in a number of my posts on popular culture, but this time I want to examine a particular political code that is currently having an enormous—and in my opinion, disastrous—effect on American life: the codes governing the current debate on government spending.

The key sign here is a word: entitlements. Technically, an entitlement is any governmental benefit that a citizen, or entity, is entitled to by law. Entitlements include Social Security and Medicare, and also Medicaid, food stamps, and other welfare-related programs. Note how when Republicans say they want to cut spending, they now refer to “reforming entitlements.”  They don’t say, “we want to slash the Medicare and Social Security benefits that you have been paying for through your payroll taxes all of your working life.” They actually tried that once through Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan but got stomped for it. Shifting the discourse to entitlements is safer. Why? Because in the code of conservative politics the word entitlements connotes “welfare” alone, and welfare opens up a whole new can of semiotic worms. [read more]

Comments Off on The Semiotics of Disaster
Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Popular Culture and Common Knowledge

posted: 8.11.11 by Jack Solomon

The question of what constitutes common knowledge, for purposes of documentation, has come up here on the Bits blog, so I thought that a particular look at common knowledge and popular culture might be in order. Indeed, since one of the fundamental premises of Signs of Life in the USA is that our students’ existing knowledge of popular culture makes that topic especially useful for teaching critical thinking and writing skills, the question of how to document that knowledge is an important one.

The distinction between common knowledge and knowledge that needs documentation is often rather relative. It is common knowledge, for example, that Family Guy is a popular animated situation comedy. Any statement in a paper to that effect does not require documentation in any popular culture class that I teach. But in order to analyze such a program semiotically, students must be able to situate it in a generic and historical context, and here things get tricky. Any analysis of my own, for instance, will involve years of accumulated knowledge and viewing experience—what might be called “cumulative common knowledge”—that cannot and need not be documented. I watched The Flintstones as a child, for example, and so can immediately bring it to bear upon an analysis of later animated family sitcoms without needing documentation (indeed, how could I document it?). But my students do not, and cannot, have that sort of experience, so must conduct research to find the kinds of TV shows that may be relevant to their analyses, and I require them to document their sources for any information that they find. [read more]

Comments Off on Popular Culture and Common Knowledge
Categories: Citing Sources, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology
Read All Jack Solomon

Horizontal divider

Paying the Piper

posted: 7.28.11 by Jack Solomon

When teaching popular cultural semiotics—especially with respect to the mass media—perhaps the most crucial point to impart to your students is that the way mass media is financed determines the nature of its content. That is, the mass media in themselves (from the Hearst newspapers to the Internet) are only conveyors of information, and therefore ideologically neutral technologies, but their content is not neutral and is determined by the motivations of those who control them.

It is easy to presume that all mass media follow the American model, which is a commercial one financed by advertising and marketing, but that is not always the case. British radio and television, for example, were at first financed by a governmental agency that we know as the BBC. Programming was determined by public servants, who happened to believe that radio and television should be employed to inform and culturally educate the British public. Broadcasting costs were paid by the government, and funded by the licensing fees paid by purchasers of radios and televisions.

From the start, American radio and television were funded quite differently. One only had to purchase a radio or TV and the rest was free. Broadcasting costs were paid by the commercial sponsors who bought advertising time. This apparently trivial fact is of profound significance: with the motive of reaching the largest possible audience/market, commercial American media content was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This is why, scarcely a decade into the television era, American TV was already being referred to as a “vast wasteland.” [read more]

Comments: (1)
Categories: Popular Culture
Read All Jack Solomon