Posts Tagged ‘Popular Culture’

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Vanity Fair

posted: 7.26.12 by Jack Solomon

This summer I’ve been rereading some novels that I haven’t looked at since graduate school.  When I first read them over thirty years ago they were presented to me as literary “classics,” and, while I knew that they were first published as serial entertainment, I read them mostly as examples of high art and responded to them accordingly.

Since then, the rise of cultural studies has deconstructed the lines between “high” and “low” art, and my reading of the quondam classics has taken a decidedly semiotic turn.   Having just finished William Makepeace Thackeray’s most popular novel, Vanity Fair, I thought I’d subject it to a cultural-semiotic reading in order to illuminate certain tendencies in current popular culture.

By the time Vanity Fair came to be written in the mid-1840s, England’s transition from a feudal to a bourgeois society was well underway, and this is signified in the novel wherein such haute bourgeois families as the Dobbins, Osbournes, and Sedleys, whose fortunes derive from retail trade and finance, are leading characters rather than minor ones.  The novel itself, as Wolfgang Iser would say, was written with members of that class in mind as implied readers, and it reflects their point of view.  Typical of that point of view is the way that both upper-class and lower-class characters are portrayed in the novel.  Reflecting the still-existing love/hate attitude that the bourgeoisie hold towards the upper classes, the feudal aristocrats in the story are at once objects of desire (scenes of luxury and “fashion” pervade the novel) and of moral disdain (from Sir Pitt Crawley, Sr. to Lord Steyne, Vanity Fair‘s baronets and peers are usually moral bankrupts and cranks).  Similarly consistent with the bourgeois perspective, the novel’s lower-class characters are condescended to, appearing solely as marginal “furniture,” and often as the butts of snide comedy: two dimensional caricatures who are ridiculed for things (like the servants’ liveries) that they are forced to do and wear.  Significantly, however (I’ll get back to this), what might be called mid-level middle-class characters hardly appear at all. [read more]

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The Living Dead

posted: 6.14.12 by Jack Solomon

One of the unavoidable challenges of creating pop-culture-themed textbooks is the rapid pace of cultural change. For example, when Sonia Maasik and I were preparing the sixth edition of Signs of Life in the USA, MySpace was the space for social networking (especially among the young), while Facebook was a small outfit generally used by northeastern college students and adults. Well that sure changed fast.

Similarly, while we were preparing the seventh edition of Signs of Life, vampires were the hottest living dead characters around, what with the exploding popularity of the Twilight series of books and movies, and TV shows like Vampire Diaries and True Blood. So we included a detailed analysis of the phenomenon in our text.

Well, with the disappointing box office performance of Dark Shadows (how could Johnny Depp as a vampire disappoint?) and Kristen Stewart’s moving on to new fairytale roles, it is clear that vampires are rapidly becoming old hat: yesterday’s monsters. Goodbye Buffy, hello .  .  . zombies.

I expect that by the time we get to work on the eighth edition of Signs of Life, zombies will be getting stale, but right now they seem to have taken over the popular imagination. The phenomenon is so large that I couldn’t begin to tackle it in a single blog, but I’ll say that what matters most in the teaching of popular cultural semiotics is not being able to keep exactly up to date on whatever the current fad, but instead being able to show the significance of the changes that inevitably occur. [read more]

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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]

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Categories: Citing Sources, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology
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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. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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