Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

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Mad Men: The Finale

posted: 5.21.15 by Jack Solomon

I swear that I am not a fan of the now finally concluded television series, Mad Men (indeed, my returning to it provides an example of how popular cultural semiotics is not driven by what one likes but by what one finds significant), and danged if the much-anticipated final episode hasn’t proven to be strikingly significant. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Star Wars Forever

posted: 4.30.15 by Jack Solomon

In my last blog post I wrote about Mad Men, a pop cultural sensation that is now winding down.  This time I want to reflect a bit on the Star Wars franchise, a pop culture phenomenon for which the word “sensation” is wholly inadequate, and which, far from winding down, is instead winding up in preparation for the release of its seventh installment (The Force Awakens), with at least two more “episodes” in the works. [read more]

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Categories: Genre, Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Mad Men, or the Realities of Realism

posted: 4.16.15 by Jack Solomon

So Mad Men is in its final victory lap, and I really have to hand it to Matthew Weiner.  I mean, imagine trying to pitch a television concept about a group of more-or-less middle-aged characters struggling to make it in the advertising business to a bunch of age-averse entertainment industry executives.  And set it in the 1960s—which means that the lead characters will all belong to my parents’ generation.  And don’t even try to frame it as a comedy.

Wow, that took a lot of imagination, not to mention perseverance. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Cinderella . . . Again

posted: 3.5.15 by Jack Solomon

So Disney is returning once again to that old standard, the story of Cinderella, doing it over but with live action this time.  And therein lies a semiotic tale.

Because the Cinderella story provides a very good occasion for teaching your students about cultural mythologies, and the way that America’s mythologies often contradict each other.  In the case of Cinderella, one must begin with the fact that it is a feudal story in essence, one in which a commoner is raised to princess status, not through hard work but through a kind of inheritance: her personal beauty.  Such a narrative very much reflects the values of a time when social status was usually inherited rather than achieved. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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What Were They Thinking?

posted: 2.19.15 by Jack Solomon

My candidate for the hands-down “what were they thinking?” award for Super Bowl XLIX is GoDaddy’s now-notorious “Puppy” ad, which was pulled from the broadcast schedule days before the game.

The ad, of course, was a parody of last year’s Budweiser puppy ad, highlighting something (oddly enough) that I pointed out in my Bits blog analysis of that ad—namely, that for all the heart warm, the Budweiser puppy was, in effect, a commodity for sale.  GoDaddy’s version made this its punch line, with the adorable Golden Retriever pup returning home only to be shipped out again by his breeder, who smugly observes that the sale was made possible by her GoDaddy sponsored web page. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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American Sniper: Or How To, and How Not To, Do Cultural Semiotics

posted: 2.5.15 by Jack Solomon

It is hard not to be aware of the kerfluffle over the many Oscar nominations for the movie American Sniper—especially its nod for Best Picture.  The whole thing was quite predictable: take a controversial book about a controversial topic and have it directed by Hollywood’s successor to John Wayne in the hearts of American conservatives, and you have all the makings of a Twitter Tornado (just ask Seth Rogen and Michael Moore).  Thus, American Sniper is a natural choice for semiotic attention in your popular culture classes.  The only question is how to approach it. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Getting Covered

posted: 1.22.15 by Jack Solomon

Perhaps someday books will no longer have covers, but until then the physical packaging by which a book is presented to the world remains an interesting, if rather specialized, topic for semiotic exploration.

Some book covers are famous—like the original artwork for The Great Gatsby, which actually influenced Fitzgerald’s composition of his novel.  Others are notorious, like those that adorn the covers of Harlequin Romances.  Sometimes covers are designed simply to let the reader know what to expect, but more often they are marketing devices intended to appeal to a reader’s interests, curiosity, aesthetic tastes, or desires. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics, Signs of Life in the U.S.A., Visual Rhetoric
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Semiotics Begins at Home

posted: 12.4.14 by Jack Solomon

The practice of popular cultural semiotics has much in common with both anthropology and sociology: after all, cultural semiotics, too, analyzes human behavior.  But it is important to point out that there are a number of methodological differences that distinguish the semiotic from the sociological or anthropological approaches, one of which I wish to explain here. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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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]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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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]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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