Teaching Popular Cultural Semiotics

Jack SolomonJack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature and critical theory. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers and is author of The Signs of Our Time and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age.

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.

Thus the fact that the Cinderella story (and don’t forget Pretty Woman) has been told with popular success again and again in post-feudal, bourgeois America, is significant.  As I noted in my blog on Frozen, what makes the reprise of such stories meaningful is the way in which they contradict the bourgeois mythology that links social status with hard work—something that sociologist Max Weber called the “Protestant Work Ethic”—while simultaneously contradicting the American mythology of social egalitarianism.

In effect, we find a striking contradiction here between ideology and desire.  Most Americans, I believe, would still claim a powerful allegiance to the ideologies of hard work and of social equality: those mythologies are very much alive.  But at the level of desire, Americans flock with their children, again and again, to feudal Cinderella stories that neither challenge a world of princes and paupers nor question a happy ending of social status achieved through .  .   .  small feet.

Widening the cultural-semiotic system in which the Cinderella story functions, we can see that America has a lot of high cultural literary productions that openly challenge the ideology of the work ethic, but from a very different angle.  From The Rise of Silas Lapham to The Great Gatsby, The Rise of David Levinsky to An American Tragedy, we find tales of the corruptive effect of social success achieved through effort.  The pursuit and possession of wealth in these stories is presented as spoilers of what America should be about.

So, we have a tradition of high cultural questioning of a crucial American mythology (an “American Dream” achieved through hard work), and a string of highly profitable low cultural appeals to glamorized feudalism (and don’t get me started on The Lord of the Rings, a story that I adore but which is, nonetheless, one long paean to the divine right of kings).

But it gets even more complicated when we bring gender codes into the analysis.  Because it is no accident that the feudal fantasies involved in the Cinderella story invariably involve girls and women as the rising protagonists, while the literary critiques of the money-corrupted capitalist always involve men.  So from a gendered point of view, all these Cinderella narratives are telling the little girls who are taken to see them that what they should work on is their personal beauty and personality, and some “prince charming” will take care of the rest.

Little boys, on the other hand, are being told, in effect, to ignore the warnings of Fitzgerald and Dreiser, because what matters for men is to achieve princely (meaning moneyed) status.  In short, the most conservative of gender coded behaviors are being promoted through the endless reprising of the Cinderella story, and this matters a lot at a time when the most probable real-world avenues to economic success in America involve hard study and hard work in technical disciplines that are traditionally coded as male.

It’s the same old story.

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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.

Indeed, I’m really beginning to wonder whether the GoDaddy ad team read my analysis of last year’s Budweiser puppy ad, because I also discussed there how Budweiser’s puppy narrative fit into a system that includes the movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and, sure enough, the GoDaddy ad is packed with Hachi-like music and imagery.

But that’s not the point of this blog.  I’m much more interested in noting how the GoDaddy debacle illustrates a fundamental principle of conducting semiotic analyses of advertising.

That principle is that advertisements characteristically try to associate some unrelated emotion with a product in order to move consumers towards purchasing it.  The 2014 Budweiser puppy ad does this by appealing to its intended audience’s affection for cute animals (horses as well as dogs) to sell beer.  The emotions stimulated in the GoDaddy ad are a great deal more complex, however.  Audience affection for puppies is anticipated, but it is undercut by the pratfall-like reversal at the end of the ad, which turns upon a doubly humorous revelation: first, that the ad is a parody of the famous Budweiser ad; and second, that it is a satire of the sort of person who breeds dogs for profit.

Now, as an ad that plays upon viewer awareness of the prior ads that are being parodied, the GoDaddy ad joins the tradition of such campaigns as the Energizer Bunny series.  Ads of this kind play upon their intended audiences’ disgust with advertising itself, and thus make viewers feel good about the product because the ad that is pitching it is also ridiculing advertising.  Given the track record of such advertisements, the GoDaddy ad should have been a success.

But the strikingly unsympathetic character of the dog breeder in the GoDaddy ad is much more ambiguous.  We are clearly not supposed to like her (an emotion that can be anticipated in an audience full of dog lovers).  But, strangely enough, the dog breeder is also the one who is identified with GoDaddy, when she happily exclaims that it was her GoDaddy-hosted web site that enabled her to sell the puppy in the first place as she packs it off again into exile.

Um, what were they thinking?  No wonder they pulled the ad—but the damage had already been done.

Moral of story: if you are going to advertise a product on the basis of unrelated emotions rather than on the objective facts of the product itself, you’d better get your emotions straight.  Satirical humor can be a very effective way of moving the goods, but there are some things you mess with at your peril—puppies come to mind.

 

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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.

Here’s what not to do:  a semiotic analysis should not begin with the presumption of an ideological “right answer.”  Whether you, or more importantly your students, are ideologically inclined against or in favor of the film must be set aside because a semiotic analysis decodes its topic rather than celebrates or condemns it, and while that decoding involves the analysis of ideological and mythological signifiers, it must be open to all possibilities.  Thus, an analysis of American Sniper would consider the signifiers both within the film and outside it in order to describe why it is controversial and what is at stake.  Such an analysis must take nothing for granted, objectively considering, for example, just why the names “Clint Eastwood,” “Michael Moore,” and “Seth Rogen” signify a lot more than the mere referents of three proper nouns.  It must not simply dismiss one side of the controversy or the other, because the primary purpose of a cultural semiotic analysis is to reveal cultural significance, not present uncritically assumed ideological conclusions.

In short, when placed within the systematic context of contemporary American culture and politics, American Sniper is a sign—a sign of just how divided America is these days.  When restaurant owners feel the need to “ban” Michael Moore and Seth Rogen from their premises because of a few tweets about the film, you can see just how emotional people are getting over the matter—and that emotion is a semiotic component of the larger system.

What is true for the analysis of American Sniper is true for the analysis of any popular cultural phenomenon.  While it is true that one can always move from a semiotic analysis to a political or ethical argument within an essay, the semiotic analysis itself must not presuppose a right or wrong answer or position.

But one thing certainly is true: in the current social environment, hardly anything in America is without political significance.  There is very little entertainment that is “merely entertainment.”  Semiotics uncovers the politics behind the often trivial looking surface of popular culture, and given the investment that so many people have in taking their own positions for granted, that uncovering can be the most controversial—but, I think, useful—politics of all.

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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.

With the publication of the eighth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I thought I’d describe an insider’s view of some book covers.  I have fifteen now, beginning with a book published in 1988 called Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age.  It’s the only cover I had much of a role in designing.  The book jacket is a deep blue, with large block serif lettering on the front, presenting the title in a kind of gold/brass color, and my name in white.  I was driving for a “classic” effect: restrained but (I hope) elegant.

I had no say whatsoever in the covers of my next book.  Also first published in 1988, The Signs of Our Time has three different covers: the first for the hardcover edition, the second for the paperback reprint, and the third for a Japanese translation.  The hardcover’s dust jacket is an eye-catching magenta, with large white block letters for the title.  A band of square images bisects the cover about two thirds of the way down, containing artist’s renderings of the Eifel Tower, Andy Warhol, a teddy bear, an apple, and a “no littering” sign.  Each of these images is a visual allusion to a semiotic topic taken up in the book, thus indirectly conveying something of its contents.  While a lot blander in blue with yellow lettering, and featuring a circle of images surrounding a human eye looking out at them, the paperback cover attempts something like that of the hardcover jacket, though I do not like it much.

The Japanese translation, for its part, is rather unusual to American eyes.  A pocket-sized paperback with a dust jacket, it presents a white cover with Japanese characters in black, while across the bottom are the images of three yellow cheetahs in running stride.  The characters present a new title for the book (The True Face of America: The Mosaic Pattern Which Can Be Seen in the Culture)—clearly something for Japanese readers curious about America—but I don’t know what the cheetahs signify.  I rather like the cover as a whole, but it really doesn’t convey much at all about the book’s contents.

This takes me to the covers for Signs of Life in the U.S.A.  Finding good covers for each edition of this book has always been a lot harder than Sonia and I expected.  We’ve never cottoned to covers with celebrity faces on them, and have always wanted something artistic but not garish.  A book on popular culture would seem to demand a Pop Art cover, of course, but a lot of Pop Art is either garish or rather obscene.  Our editor for the first two editions, Steve Scipione, twice hit pay dirt in the Pop Art vein, however, by finding two different paintings by Tom Wesselmann.  The first edition was represented by Still Life #31, which features an image of everyday life that includes a television set, a mountain landscape as seen through a kitchen window, a still-life table setting, and a portrait of George Washington hanging on the kitchen wall. The second edition sported Wessselmann’s Still Life no. 28, which substitutes an image of Abraham Lincoln for Washington, and a green color theme for the grey-blue theme of Still Life #31, but which is otherwise quite similar to #31.  We thought we were in business for the life of the book until we discovered that there are only two Wesselmann paintings in this vein, and that while there are plenty of other Wesselmanns out there, they aren’t for us.

We’ve never been able to find any other Pop Art that works for us, so every cover of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has taken a lot of work.  The art department at Bedford/St. Martin’s introduced a square block, reminiscent of a Rubic’s Cube, filled with square images of common items from everyday life for the fourth edition.  And ever since then, the basic design theme for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has been one including squarish rows of ordinary objects intended to evoke the world of everyday life.  While I shudder to use the word, that appears to be the “brand” image that now identifies the book, and that, too, is part of its significance.

Simon Evans, an artist based in England but born in America, has provided the cover for the eighth edition of the book.  An artwork called “Everything I Have,” containing some 34 horizontal rows of tiny images of the artist’s personal possessions (everyday items like blue jeans and kitchen ware, for instance) on an off-white background, takes up the entire book cover, with the exception of blocks for the book title and authors’ names.  Expressing a kind of understated grunge aesthetic, it appeals to us both thematically and aesthetically.

And this, perhaps, takes me to the final semiotic significance of book covers.  A printed book can also be something of an objet d’art, with each element, beginning with the cover, designed for aesthetic effect.  I’ve always valued that, but should the e-text ever completely replace the printed book, I won’t complain.  As the Lorax would say, the digital book is better for the trees.

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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.

The key distinction, I believe, is that the methodologies of sociology and anthropology prescribe a kind of clinical neutrality on the part of the analyst: that is, the observer strives for scientific objectivity with respect to the subject of observation.  This is not quite the case with the semiotic method, for while objectivity is most certainly a valuable component of cultural semiotics, it need not be taken as an absolute.  In fact, taking into account one’s own experience of popular culture can reveal important insights into its broader significance.  This is because as an expression of mass culture, popular culture includes the analyst, who cannot really be separated from it.  The perspective here is quite similar to that of the New Historicism, which also posits the inclusion of the socially and historically situated interpreter within the topic being interpreted.

To better explain what I mean, let’s take the example of the extraordinary popularity of social media.  While a sociologist and an anthropologist would focus entirely on the behavior of carefully selected and scientifically surveyed subjects (producing data that are most certainly relevant to the semiotician), the semiotician can also usefully explore his or her own experiences with social media.  I ask myself, for instance, what are my exact emotions as I check my email, or, in the days when I was once quite active on a hobby-related web forum, what were my emotions when I posted to the site and when my posts were responded to?  By looking at my own behavior and emotions, I am much better able to grasp what is going on with others.  For much as I prize my individuality, I can find many common patterns in the behavior of others that I find in myself, and, recognizing them, I can better explore what they signify.

In the case of email, I recognize a certain state of suspense and excitement—almost a sense of adventure.  Why?  Because, as we all know in the Internet age, there is always the possibility that someone will emerge from the fog of time past and time passing to reestablish contact.  This actually does happen with email, and, it is, of course, one of the main draws of Facebook and LinkedIn (you won’t find me there because I am not happy with their data mining practices).  Recognizing such emotions in myself, and finding them displayed by others, points me towards a wide range of interpretive possibilities that includes what it is to be a human being.  Situating my digital self-observations into a larger system that includes the effects of living in a highly mobile society that separates us from our past associations (something that did not commonly happen before the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass society), I can understand better the extraordinary pull of social media.

So, I do not shy away from including myself in my analyses.  I do try to keep my own personal opinions (ideological, aesthetic, political, or otherwise) out of the analysis (this, of course, is never entirely possible), but analyzing myself as a human subject among human subjects, and being objective about myself as well as about others (that may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t: it is part of the ancient tradition of “knowing thyself”) is a very useful component of my semiotic analyses, and I recommend it to others.

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Transfer: or, Without Which Nothing

posted: 11.16.14 by Jack Solomon

My topic this time should be a familiar one to anyone involved in composition instruction:  this is the concept of “transfer,” the notion that students should take what they have learned in their composition classes about writing and make full use of it in their subsequent university career, and beyond.  Applicable, of course, to all learning in a formal educational setting, transfer is (or at least ought to be) a fundamental concern, and goal, of all educators.

The fact that transfer is a subject of intense research at such places as Elon University in North Carolina reveals, however, something that most of us, I suspect, have experienced—which is that transfer is not something that happens often enough in student learning.  Students who master writing skills and conventions in their composition courses all too often do not apply those skills in their written work in their other coursework, leading to the common complaint (which I hear all the time now that I am my university’s director of academic assessment) that “our students can’t write.”  A major question (if not the major question) for researchers of transfer, then, is how to achieve it in the educational process.

So what does this have to do with teaching popular cultural semiotics?

Actually, a whole lot.  Because the whole point of teaching popular cultural semiotics as part of composition instruction is to instill in students a habit of critical thinking, one that they will take beyond their analysis of particular popular cultural artifacts into the realm of their entire experience, scholastic and otherwise.  Focusing on popular culture provides not only a familiar platform for developing such habits but also crosses, by definition, from the curricular to the extra-curricular experience of our students.  Students are always experiencing popular culture: by studying it critically in a classroom, they are breaking down the barriers between their “learning” and their “lives.”  All too often students, and society at large, assume that there is some sort of profound difference between the campus (too often called the “ivory tower”) and the “real world.”  Assuming such a distinction, more or less unconsciously, students thus create impediments to the fundamental necessity of transfer: the carrying into the totality of their lives what they have learned in school.

So I am always very happy when students tell me that, after taking a popular cultural semiotics class with me, they cannot look at pop culture in the same way any more.  Because not only have they learned the particular skills the course is untended for, they are transferring it all into their lives.  It is appropriate that the General Education credit that they earn in the class is classified under the category of Lifelong Learning, and one might say that lifelong learning is what transfer is all about to being with.

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Ebola: or the Anatomy of a Semiotic Analysis

posted: 10.30.14 by Jack Solomon

A few days ago, a piece of fan mail flooded in.

So OK, it was really an email from a former student hoping that I would address the reaction to the Ebola epidemic.  At first I was reluctant to go anywhere near the topic (for reasons that will emerge presently), but I’ve come to the conclusion that this could be a very good “teaching moment” about semiotic analyses (besides, I can hardly afford to disappoint my few readers here), so here goes.

The first thing is to review exactly what a cultural semiotic analysis does.  It moves from the denotation of a sign or semiotic topic (that is, what it is or what its primary significance is) to its connotation (that is, to what it suggests or signifies at a broader cultural level).  This movement proceeds by way of a placement of the denotative sign into a system of relevant historical and contemporary associations and differences.

A lot of different people have already essentially done this with respect to the Ebola epidemic.  Some are arguing, in effect, that the epidemic signifies (connotatively) a failure on the part of the presidential administration.  Such an interpretation implicitly (or explicitly) accordingly situates the sign within a system that includes the upcoming November elections, the current unpopularity of the president, and a general (or, at least, widely reported) sense that things are not quite under control in this country at present.  Of course, this interpretation is politically motivated and is usually presented for partisan electoral purposes.

The converse interpretation, which also often has political overtones, interprets the reaction to the Ebola epidemic as an act of mass “hysteria,” and (at least implicitly) decries those who are using it either to bash the president.

Then there is the way that the mass media are using the epidemic as click bait and for other audience-generating purposes. With my local CBS news radio affiliate now including regular “Ebola Updates,” even though the disease has not appeared in Los Angeles, I can readily see how the mass media have more or less construed the sign of Ebola as something looking like this ($).

But underlying the political and the commercial significations of the sign “Ebola” lies something more fundamental, which is, quite simply, fear.  It is this fear that makes Ebola something that can be exploited for political or profit making purposes, and it too needs analyzing.

Ebola fear stems from a number of unknowns.  First, there is the unknown involving just what, denotatively, Ebola is.  How infectious is it?  Is it the “coming plague” that we have been warned about?  Will it mutate into something more infectious?  Could it spiral out of control?

To these questions no one can offer confident answers.  This is why we see some pretty strong reactions to the epidemic that are not partisan nor a reflection of media greed.  Such reactions come from nations like Jamaica (which has banned in-flights from affected west African nations), individuals like Los Angeles’s Congresswoman Maxine Waters (who has called for Ebola preparedness at Los Angeles International Airport—  ), from Mexico (which blocked the docking of a Carnival cruise ship on Ebola worries) and from colleges that have discontinued student admissions from Ebola-affected countries (like Navarro Community College in Texas).

And then there are the nurses, who have been asking for better equipment and training for a long time in the wake of the epidemic.  Some of the new protocols that are now appearing (including medical hazmat suits that leave no portion of the skin uncovered, and which also call for trained observers to watch medical personnel as they take their suits off after patient care exposure) are not reassuring.

When we take such things into consideration, we can see that the Ebola epidemic fits into yet another system.  This system includes all the signs that potentially fatal infectious diseases (which have been on the run ever since modern medicine began to develop both vaccines and the antibiotic treatments that floored such one-time killers as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the casual infections that we now hardly notice thanks to antibiotics) are making a comeback.  AIDS is a signifier in this system, and so is the very real problem of antibiotic overuse that is already undermining the effectiveness of the “silver bullets” we have come to take for granted.  Within this system, Ebola can be very scary indeed.

For this reason, I am inclined to withhold judgment.  I simply am not certain what Ebola is—what, that is, its full denotation will prove to be.  The sources of my information (the public mass media), give me not only sensationalized reports but also fumbling misstatements from the CDC (a lawsuit against the CDC seems to be brewing in Dallas on the part of the second Ebola-infected nurse whose actions in the wake of her initial fever her lawyer claims to have been misrepresented).  Since I do know that the Ebola virus is a really nasty killer, and that it is infectious (much more infectious than AIDS), I am not inclined to interpret Ebola fear as mere “hysteria.”  Basically, I think it is better to wait until we know more about the denotation here before moving towards connotation.

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A Digital Canary in the Coal Mine?

posted: 10.16.14 by Jack Solomon

Recently I received a student journalist’s request to comment on a phenomenon that she identified as a decline in traditional dating practices among millennials.  More specifically, she wanted to know what I think about certain “practice dating” groups that are forming to guide young people in how to behave during actual face-to-face dates.  “Why,” she asked me, “is there a growing need for practice dates, and why are millennials finding it harder to communicate face to face?”

Wow.  Sometimes the signifiers just leap out at you.

After all, one of the more nagging questions that have emerged in the age of digital communication is just what might happen to human interpersonal skills when so much socializing is conducted via virtual social networks.  The notorious prevalence of vile (and even violent) commentary on the Net is one indicator that digital communication may not be conducive to the development of basic social skills, but that alone is not sufficient evidence from which to draw any conclusions.  One could always persuasively argue, for example, that Internet bile is simply the expression of bad feeling that was always prevalent anyway but now is far easier to express to a far wider audience.  But this practice dating thing opens up whole new vistas of semiotic possibility.

Consider: have you ever observed a group of people (or simply a couple) sitting together and obviously associated, but rather than looking at or addressing each other everyone is staring into a smart phone?  The scene is so common that it is difficult not to have observed it.

Now, try that sort of behavior on a date.

But, wait a minute, that must be exactly what is happening in today’s dating scene, or else why would young people be forming “practice date” events to help each other learn how to interact with someone face-to-face without constantly diving back into the social network?  Somehow, millennials themselves are becoming aware that their social instincts are being reshaped by technology (throw in the growing phenomenon of “sexting” and you can see how even Eros is being affected), and they are struggling to do something about it.  I can imagine sessions devoted to learning how to stare into someone’s eyes, rather than into your iPhone, or learning how just to talk with someone without tweeting or posting Instagram selfies.

Now, interpreting such a cultural signifier as the practice date scene is not the same thing as criticizing anyone.  After all, my generation, the Baby Boomers, are accused of having had our attention spans shortened by another technological intervention—TV—and I believe that it is altogether likely that it is perfectly true.  The effects of technology on psychological, and perhaps even biological, evolution are profound, and as the world is swept by the digital revolution, it behooves us to pay attention to the canaries twittering around us.  And when young folks need self-help sessions in dealing face-to-face with young folks, that is a very profound tweet.

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It Ain’t Over When the Hashtag Sings

posted: 10.2.14 by Jack Solomon

Well, the two-year long campaign is over, the votes have been counted, and the Scots have voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The vote was both decisive, and a bit of a surprise in light of the eve-of-election polls—which predicted a much closer outcome—so close that many who campaigned for independence appear to have been genuinely confident of victory.

If one had been going by the trending analytics of the #YesScotland movement, which led the #BetterTogether movement by a good three-to-one margin, according to the BBC, the outcome of the referendum would have been even more surprising. And if social media analytics were the means by which democracies make their decisions, Scotland would probably be an independent nation today.

Which takes me to the point of my analysis. From reading a lot of online commentary, even at supposedly staid sites like Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education, I often get the impression that a lot of participants in the “comments” sections believe that if they can get the most posts in on their side of any particularly controversial topic, then, somehow, they have won something.  Similarly, if your “side” can get in more tweets with the right hashtags than the other side, then, for many people, you’ve won.  I can’t help but think that this sort of thing has been encouraged by the cultures of Facebook and Twitter, whereby one accumulates “likes,” “friends” and “followers” that are taken as genuine signifiers of popularity and/or importance.  RTV shows like American Idol, with their mass media simulacra of actual election-based voting, have also had a probable influence on this phenomenon.

But as the Scottish vote can remind us, when all is said and done and the actual (not virtual) votes are counted, social media are still just that: social media, not voting platforms.  For all the glamor, money, and attention that social media enjoy in the world today (indeed, it could be argued with little difficulty that social media are the most dominant expressions of popular culture in our time), we are not at the point where democratic decision making is going to be a matter of winning the hashtag wars.  While it is not impossible to imagine a time when social media platforms may actually become venues for real-world voting outcomes, we’re not there yet.

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The Ice Bucket Challenge

posted: 9.18.14 by Jack Solomon

No, I’m not going to post a You-Tube video of myself getting doused in ice water, and, indeed, by the time this posts, the ice bucket challenge will have probably morphed into something else anyway—most likely a series of parodies.  Rather, I wish to submit this latest of virally-initiated fads to a semiotic analysis, seeking what it says about the culture that has so enthusiastically embraced it.

As always in a semiotic analysis, we begin with a system of associations and differences, and with some history.  The actual act—dousing someone with a large bucket of ice water—of course, refers back to a once spontaneous, and then institutionalized, end-of-Super Bowl ritual by which the winning coach is sloshed with the melted remains of the Gatorade barrel.  That is part of the system in which we can locate the current fad, but already we find a significant difference.  That difference lies in the fact that the Super Bowl related ice bucket prank is not only an act of celebration but one celebrated by a highly elite masculine club (in fact there is a faint aura of hazing about it), while the ice bucket challenge is an act of pure populism.  Not only can anyone participate, but it is, by definition, a mass activity through which individuals are “called out” to participate (indeed, there is a certain whiff of coercion about the matter, a trick-or-treat vibe that caused even Barack Obama to say “no thank you, I’ll just make a monetary contribution”).  Thus, the ice bucket challenge can be associated with such medical research fund raising activities as wearing yellow Live Strong bracelets or participating in walkathons, but it is also a reflection of a hetero-directed society whereby (in this case benignly and for a good cause) individual behavior is dictated by group pressure.

America, which prides itself on its tradition of individualism (this is one of our chief mythologies), has a hetero-directed tradition as well that goes all the way back to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  For the people that we know as the “Puritans” (their own name for themselves was the Congregationalists) had a very group-oriented worldview, one that compelled every individual member in the Congregation to demonstrate to his or her co-religionists the signs of salvation, or face expulsion.

The tug-of-war between staunch individualism and hetero-directedness is one of the most enduring contradictions in American history and culture.  In some decades (the fifties are notorious for this), hetero-directedness weighs more heavily (it isn’t called “hetero-directedness”, of course: we know it as “conformity”); in other decades, anti-conformist individualism is dominant (the sixties generation at least viewed itself as anti-conformist).

The tug-of-war at present is especially complex.  On the one hand, digital communications technology has been a tremendous nurturer of hetero-directedness.  From the sudden viral explosions that produce flash mobs, zombie walks, and, yes, the ice bucket challenge, to the constant sharing of individual experience on the world wide web, digitality has created a global hive that is always abuzz with Netizens caught up in a network of constant group behavior.  But on the other hand, we are also living in an era of intense libertarianism, a hyper-individualism often expressed, paradoxically enough, by way of the same social media behind the global hive.

It is this sort of non-dialectical mixture of individualism and hetero-directedness that makes America such a culturally complicated, and, well, paradoxical place.  While revealing such paradoxes does not resolve them, it at least helps us to understand ourselves as a society a bit better.

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