Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

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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]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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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]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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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]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Girls Behaving Badly

posted: 6.30.11 by Jack Solomon

One of the most important concepts in teaching cultural semiotics is that of the gender code. Gender codes consist of those often unwritten rules that govern the conduct of males and females within a society, and they customarily unfold as a list of binary oppositions—for example, men should be aggressive and powerful/women should be passive and nurturing; men should work outside the home/women should stay at home with the children; and so on and so forth. It was through the work of feminist cultural analysts that the socially constructed foundations of such codes were revealed, challenging the common presentation of them as dictated by nature and biology. Feminists also pointed out the patriarchal privileging that is inscribed in the traditional gender codes as well.

But how one approaches gender codes can depend upon one’s own theoretical positions.  The “American” style of feminist analysis, for instance, takes an equalitarian approach, challenging not only the privileging within a patriarchal gender code but also the treatment of men and women as different. From such a perspective, women should have equal access to male-coded characteristics. The “French” style, as espoused by such theorists as Helene Cixous, Lucy Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, celebrates rather than challenges gender difference and explores the characteristics that distinguish women from men. A Queer Theory approach to gender codes, for its part, deconstructs the entire structure, undermining any basis for making an unambiguous distinction between the categories of male and female. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Of Myths and Memes

posted: 5.19.11 by Jack Solomon

As I have noted here before, one of the key concepts involved in cultural semiotics is that of cultural mythologies.  A mythology is a worldview, ideology, or value that shapes a society’s apprehension and understanding of reality.  As such, of course, a mythology is an element in what is commonly called the “social construction of reality.”

The idea that reality is socially constructed has been a popular one since the advent of structuralism approximately a century ago, having been much enhanced through the writings of such poststructural writers as Michel Foucault.  So popular has the concept been within the Humanities that reality itself often vanishes as a topic of theoretical inquiry.  Many years ago I published a book (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age) that attempted to restore reality to the semiotic equation through the exploration of what I called a “potentialist realism,” but while this is no place to reiterate the argument of that book, what I would like to do briefly in this blog is to show that even when making use of such socially constructive concepts as cultural mythologies, one need not lose sight of the reality beyond mythology, and how that reality can make itself felt in spite of our constructions.

I’ll begin with a brief description of an attempt over the past few decades to bring semiotic theory in line with modern biology and evolutionary theory.  This was the introduction into semiotics of the concept, first formulated by Richard Dawkins, of the meme (not to be confused with the more recent Internet-related usage of the word).  A meme is a cultural unit of information that is analogous to a gene; that is, just as genes pass on genetic information that is shaped by the evolutionary process of natural selection, so too, in theory,do memes pass on cultural information by way of socially selective processes. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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The Middle Class Goes to the Movies

posted: 4.21.11 by Jack Solomon

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Due to a long history of painful racial conflict, Americans are well aware of the racial dynamics of their culture. Thanks to efforts of feminism many, if not most, Americans are now aware of the dynamics of gender within their culture. But because of a fundamental ideology grounded in individualism and social mobility, Americans can get quite fuzzy-minded when it comes to the class dynamics in their culture, and so educating students about the complex operations of social class is one of our most important tasks in the teaching of cultural studies.

It isn’t that Americans don’t know that there are different social classes in this country; the problem is that they are generally unable to analyze how social class functions here. Generally lacking the traditional signifiers of social class that still apply in the Old World (certain accents, tastes, postures, and even physical features), Americans tend to equate personal wealth with social status. While socioeconomically it is indeed true that one’s bank account determines ones social caste, when it comes to culture things get more complicated.

This complication is particularly evident within popular culture. That is, in an America that is increasingly run by a socioeconomic upper class (many of whose members got there through their success in the entertainment industry), it is still the point of view of the middle class that dominates popular cultural story telling. From this middle-class perspective, working-class characters are either condescended to (they are commonly depicted in popular culture as unattractive, uncouth, comic, criminal, dependent, or some combination thereof) or celebrated for rising out of the class of their birth. The idea that a working-class person might be proud of his or her social status rarely, if ever, appears in the story. Cinderella can sweep out the cinders, but she’s supposed to want to get that prince. Imagine a retelling of the story in which the Cinderella figure in, say, Pretty Woman denounces the society that enables the prince to be a prince and demands a new tax structure that would even things out. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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What’s a Bieber?

posted: 2.24.11 by Jack Solomon

Like The Simpsons, Super Bowl commercials like to be quotational—that is, make allusions to current trends in popular culture.

So Super Bowl 45’s Best Buy commercial featuring an obsolescent Ozzy Osbourne and an up-and-coming Justin Bieber is pretty much par for the course. Indeed, Osbourne has been making hay of his stature as Satanic Metal’s permanently wired patriarch for years now, and he is no stranger to Super Bowl commercials.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Finding the Forest Among the Trees

posted: 11.18.10 by Jack Solomon

Years of teaching popular cultural semiotics have made one thing clear to me: the single most difficult critical-thinking skill to teach students is the ability to contextualize individual bits of data in a way that allows students to interpret their significance. In this information age, students are able to find atomized pieces of information, but often are unable to put it into context.

For example, in an assignment to determine the cultural significance of recent Old Spice advertising campaigns, students were able to locate and describe the Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews advertisements:

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics, Uncategorized
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Hypercapitalism, or the More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

posted: 11.4.10 by Jack Solomon

As I write these words, Jackass 3D is sitting on top of the cinematic box-office heap, reminding me of a semiotic analysis I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in February of 2001.  I am including an excerpt of that analysis here to make a point.

News item: Hannibal, the cinematic story of a captivating cannibal, is setting records by earning $100 million faster than any other R-rated movie in history.

Meanwhile, a kind of stunt-variety show called Jackass is emerging as the breakaway hit of the current cable TV season, offering its 2 million or so weekly viewers the priceless opportunity to watch its performers perform such daring stunts as being thrust headfirst into an unflushed, and septically active, toilet.

And if that isn’t enough, the XFL season is in full swing.

Oh why, why, is American popular culture so seemingly intent on proving Sigmund Freud right?

Because that is what anyone who is familiar with Freud’s two masterworks, Totem and Taboo and Civilization and Its Discontents, is virtually obliged to conclude when surveying the current pop culture scene.

Everywhere, it seems, atavistic eruptions of the kind of deeply repressed instincts that Freud described in these books are being offered up for sale in the increasingly unbuttoned entertainment marketplace. [read more]

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Dueling Mythologies

posted: 11.10.09 by Jack Solomon

One of the key concepts to master for conducting semiotic analyses of popular culture is that of the cultural “mythology.”  Derived from Roland Barthes’s now classic work Mythologies,  the term refers to a culture’s fundamental world views or ideologies.  Cultural mythologies are so basic to our understanding and experience of the world that we do not realize that they are mythologies—that is, filters through which we experience the world.  Instead we experience them as universal and inevitable realities.

Some prominent American mythologies include our individualism, our belief in social mobility (the American dream), and our tendency to measure success in financial terms.  There are many others, often conflicting with each other and producing fundamental cultural contradictions that roil just beneath the surface of social life, but it is this last one—our tendency to measure all things in dollar signs—that I want to make particular use of here as a way of understanding how mythologies work and how they can be revealed during a semiotic analysis of popular cultural signs.

The cultural sign that I have in mind involves the recent calamity that occurred during a spiritual retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Centre outside Sedona, Arizona.  There two people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by James Arthur Ray, a prominent figure in the New Age self-help movement.  Our semiotic concern here is not with the personal tragedies of those involved, nor with the investigations that are now being conducted into the matter.  Our interest lies in the way that the ceremony transformed a ritual that was born in a very different sort of culture with a very different cultural mythology into a strikingly American ritual.

The ceremony here is that of the sweat lodge ritual, orginally a Native American practice which was a part of male initiation rites and male bonding rituals.  Grounded in cultures that were not based in monetary exchange systems, the sweat lodge ceremony, along with the vision quest that was also a part of Ray’s Angel Valley retreat program, was a test of the physical and spiritual strength of hunters and warriors.  Its whole significance was tied to the kind of culture in which it appeared.

The fact that Ray’s program offered financial as well as spiritual rewards to its participants offers a striking example of what happens when one mythology is adapted to another very different from it.  With capitalism, and its tendency to measure all things in monetary terms, as a dominant mythology in American culture, it is hardly surprising that a ceremony born in a non-capitalist society should be transmogrified into a financial self-help ritual.   Just as in an earlier era the Protestant Work Ethic was transformed from a way of signalling to one’s fellow Puritan Congregationalists that God had chosen one for a predetermined salvation into a simple expression of the wholly materialistic rewards of hard work, Ray’s retreat mixed spiritual accomplishment with financial prosperity in a particularly American compound.

This happens all the time in America, wherein the spiritual and the material components of our culture join together into a conflation whose most potent symbol is the American Christmas, which, while often denounced as having become too commercial in spirit, is annually relied upon to produce a major percentage of the American retail economy.

This is the power of cultural mythology, making what is contingent to our culture appear inevitable and universal.  But as the originators of the sweat lodge ceremony could tell us, there are other measures of the human spirit.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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