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.

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.

But beyond the kudos, which we will be hearing a lot of as the series winds down, and the possible speculation as to whether Jon Hamm (Don Draper) will go the way of such hopelessly typecast television stars as Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright), Richard Thomas (John-Boy), and Henry Winkler (the Fonz), there lies the story-telling genre in which Mad Men firmly belongs: that of literary realism—which would not be remarkable except for the fact that realism, in this era of superhero blockbusters and fantasy favorites (from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen and a mess of Starks and Lannisters), has not exactly been on the upswing in our popular culture.  And therein lies a semiotic tale.

Oh, you might point to the enormous success of such shows as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and, more currently, House of Cards, while the entire category of Reality Television (RTV) would seem to indicate that realism has been all the rage for quite some time.  But, as literary theorist György Lukács put it, realism depicts the lives of typical human beings in typical circumstances, and there is nothing typical about being a mob leader, a meth king, and the President of the United States; RTV manages to take the typical and turn it into game show, soap opera, or farce.  And though a case could be made that the continuing tradition of the family sitcom belongs to the category of realism, the need to tell the story in the form of contrived situations, punctuated with one-liners and laugh tracks, substantially undermines any reality that might be found there.

Not that Mad Men doesn’t have its own rather soapy moments, but that is a result of a challenge that literary realism has faced from its beginnings, as authors have struggled with the problem of depicting the typical lives of ordinary people while somehow making it all entertaining enough for readers to want to read.  And even An American Family, that early pioneer of reality TV, lapsed into soap opera after a valiant attempt to capture life as it is really (that is, typically) lived.

So, I’ll refrain from nit picking and concentrate on what Mad Men accomplished.  By focusing on Americans at work in what is probably America’s second most iconic industry (the entertainment industry comes first, I suppose, but advertising is what America runs on), Matthew Weiner and his writers held the sort of mirror up to reality that can make us think about who we really are.  And by setting his series in the 1960s, Weiner took the additional step of causing his viewers to think about a critical threshold in American history that saw the transformation of the country in ways that we are still coping with today.

That is the fundamental value of realism: rather than distracting us from reality (as fantasy, in its myriad of forms, does), realism makes us think about ourselves.  That can make realism uncomfortable, but it also makes it a more mature venue for entertainment than fantasy can ever be.  That Matthew Weiner managed to hold onto his audience for eight years (albeit on cable, with Nielsen numbers that are only a small fraction of the top network programs, not to mention its AMC colleague, the fantasy series Walking Dead) is therefore quite an accomplishment.

And while I do rather wish that fans of the show would focus more on what it can tell us about how we got to where we are today as a country than on its clothing fashions and steamy affairs, that, I suppose, is part of the price that realistic entertainment has to pay in order to get anyone to pay any attention at all.

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What . . . So What Then?

posted: 4.2.15 by Jack Solomon

In my last blog I discussed the importance in critical thinking of precisely establishing what, exactly, one is thinking critically about.  As I continue to ponder the essence of critical thinking—both as co-author of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and in my current role as assessment director for my university—I am experimenting with ways of conveying, to both professors and students alike, what, exactly, critical thinking itself is.

My task is not made easier by the fact that a lot of what passes for critical thinking is really critical reading—as when a critical “thinking” assignment is to unpack the argument in an assigned reading.  Critical reading, of course, is an essential skill for college students, who must master it both for their collegiate careers and for their lives beyond, and it does bear a close relation to critical thinking, but it is not the same thing.  Critical reading, one might say, is the equivalent to establishing the whatness of someone else’s text; critical thinking goes beyond that—often to the expression of one’s own argument, but before getting to that argument (which is a rhetorical act) one has to do some critical thinking.

I put it this way: critical thinking is a movement from what  to  . . .   so what then?  It enlarges upon the recognition of something (an argument, a phenomenon, a problem) and reflectively seeks a further significance, or, in the case of a problem, a solution.

Let me take a simple example from the business world (I choose a business example because that is the world towards which most of our students are destined, and because business surveys consistently complain that new employees can’t think critically).  So, imagine that you are in the soft drink business, with an emphasis on selling sweetened sodas, but your sales are falling.  The reduction in sales, in this case, is your what, which is also a problem demanding a solution.  To solve the problem you need to do some critical thinking, and the first thing is to find the cause for your drop in sales.  This can involve testing hypotheses—for example, “Is it because our product doesn’t taste good anymore?”  Some research is likely to show that sweetened soda sales are down across the board, so taste probably isn’t the cause of the problem.

So, a second critical question would be “Is there something wrong with sweetened sodas?”  Here, you can situate sweetened sodas into a larger system involving public health, wherein sweetened sodas are receiving a lot of blame for America’s obesity problems.  You might jump at this point to a solution: “OK, we’ll crank out some new diet soda products”—which is exactly the sort of thing that has happened a number of times in the history of soft drinks.

Except this time, further critical research will show that diet soda sales aren’t doing so well either due to a growing concern about health implications of artificial sweeteners.  So maybe another diet product isn’t the solution to your problem.

But what about naturally flavored soda waters?

I think you can now see what I’m doing here: essentially, I’ve reverse engineered something that has clearly taken place in a lot of soft drink manufacturing boardrooms recently, because America is currently awash in naturally enhanced flavored soda waters, with more varieties appearing practically every day.  That didn’t happen by accident.  It happened because a lot of business people went through a what to so what then? critical thinking process.

In an era of information overload, when just about everyone is accustomed to receiving enormous amounts of information without thinking much about it beyond tweeting it here, or pinning it there, this simple, yet profound, movement from what to so what then?

needs to be pointed out.  As I play with the idea (writing this blog is a form of playing with it) I am hoping to solve a problematic what that especially afflicts assessment: the fact that while just about everyone agrees that “critical thinking” is an essential university skill, no one can agree on what, exactly, critical thinking is.  Will I solve my problem with a what .  .  .  so what then? explanation?  I don’t know yet, but I have arranged a test of my hypothesis to see what happens.

I just hope that it doesn’t end in .  .  .  you know, whatever.

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What Color is This Dress?

posted: 3.19.15 by Jack Solomon

A few weeks ago the Internet was lit up by one of the most earth shaking questions of our times:  Was a widely disseminated photograph of a woman’s dress an image of a blue- and-black or of a white-and-gold garment?  A lot of A-list celebrities weighed in on this weighty matter and the outcome was a lot of clicks on a lot of story links that certainly resulted in a lot of successful data mining.

But while a semiotic analysis of the power of celebrity Tweeters could ensue from this story, (you may find the beginning of such an analysis here) that’s not what I want to explore.  What I want to look at is a far, far deeper problem that this amusing little episode points to.  I will call this problem the question of “whatness.”

“Whatness” refers, if I may use a fancy term, to the fundamental ontology of something: what, basically, something is.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  But as I contemplate the problem of defining, and teaching, the nature of critical thinking, I am increasingly coming to realize that it is precisely the difficulty in defining, much less agreeing upon, what something is that poses the greatest challenge to critical thinking, and to anything resembling social harmony.

Let me try to put it in semiotic terms.  A semiotic analysis characteristically moves from the denotation of a sign to its connotation—that is, from a description of the sign (or its referent) as an object to an interpretation of the sign as a subjectively constituted cultural signifier.  This movement, which involves the situating of the sign into a system of associations and differences, is what semiotic analysis is all about.  But as the blue/black or white/gold controversy trivially indicates, deciding exactly what we are talking about can involve an act of critical thinking prior to that which takes us from denotation to connotation.  If this sounds unnecessary, consider the recent kerfluffle over whether or not Governor Rick Scott did or did not order state workers in Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection never to refer to “global warming” or “climate change,” whereby both the whatness of the prohibition and the whatness of global warming and climate change are both put into question.  In other words, determining denotation gets us caught up in connotation as facts get tangled up in values so badly that it can be very difficult to decide just what one is talking about.

I realize that we are looking here at a potential deconstructive mise en abyme—that is to say, an endless series of prior interpretations before we can get to the interpretation we wish to conduct.  But I do not want to counsel such despair.  Rather, I simply want to point out the need to think critically and carefully about the whatness of a cultural semiotic topic as an essential part of its analysis.  It would be nice to take facts for granted, but that, in this profoundly divided world, is something that we cannot do.

[Image source: http://swiked.tumblr.com/post/112174461490/officialunitedstates-unclefather]

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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.

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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