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.

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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A Sign of the Times

posted: 8.14.14 by Jack Solomon

One wouldn’t ordinarily consider an opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson—The Washington Post‘s top economics columnist—as a candidate for semiotic analysis.  But a recent column of Samuelson’s reveals so much about the current state of American consciousness that it is quite useful for illuminating an important part of the background needed for the construction of any system being constructed for the purpose of cultural analysis.  So I will be looking at it here.

Samuelson’s brief essay is entitled “The (millennial) parent trap,” and in it he bemoans (this is not too strong a term for it) the precarious economic prospects not only for his own three “20-something” children, but also for all of the parents like him. The opening sentences of his op-ed piece pretty much sums it all up: “You could hear the tension in his voice. His 20-something daughter was living at home. She had a graduate degree from a good university that, in times past, would have led to a solid job. But she had no job and no prospect of one. He worried and wondered how long this would last.  He has plenty of company.”

What is most striking about Samuelson’s piece is not the raft of economic statistics that he brings to bear upon the well-known economic woes of millenials in the wake of the Great Recession, but the emotion that he displays over the matter.  Samuelson is usually a pretty low-key writer, an economist more at home with the logic of numerical analysis than with emotive expression.  But when such a man writes words like “The unwritten social contract of .  .  .  [our] .  .  .  era presumed that the economy would be strong enough so that when children reached a certain age, they could be ‘launched’ into the adult world and would not crash. It’s this contract that has now broken down,” you know that something is really happening.  A famous economist and journalist who presumably belongs to the upper-middle class, Samuelson would seem to be immune from such worries about his children.  The fact that he is demonstrably not immune shows just how deep the problem is.

And here is my semiotic point.  The impact of the Great Recession just may be the great game changer in American history, disrupting America’s fondest mythology, the one we call “the American dream.”  Signals of this disruption appear throughout popular culture (especially in the hit HBO series Girls), but as Samuelson’s lament indicates, it is not simply a matter for story lines.  The story line of America itself is being rewritten, and if we want to understand much of what is going on in the country today (especially its intractable divisiveness and ideological polarization), we need to take into consideration the fact that more and more Americans are seeing their country as a land of “betrayal,” not “opportunity.”

A final disclaimer: having no children of my own, and having survived the economic turmoil in perfectly good shape, my analysis is not a reflection of my own worries or emotions.  But when an unemotional fellow like Robert J. Samuelson lets his hair down in The Washington Post in this way, you can be pretty confident that the times they are a’ changin’.

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Back to Critical Thinking

posted: 7.31.14 by Jack Solomon

One of the most common demands made upon colleges and universities today is that they must teach “critical thinking.”  As a great believer in the teaching of critical thinking, I feel that it is incumbent upon all of us who teach it to be very clear about just what we think critical thinking is, however.  I have offered my own semiotics-based take on the matter in this blog before and will not repeat it now.  My focus this time will be on the sorts of standardized multiple-choice tests that have been offered on critical thinking for assessment purposes.  For having looked at some of these tests, I can conclude that while they do contain some of the elements of critical thinking (specifically, the ability to distinguish logical fallacies from sound logic, and pseudo-argument from valid argument), they are still very incomplete in their approach to the subject and need to be supplemented by what I will call the empirical side of critical reasoning.

Here’s why.  It is perfectly possible to construct a logically valid argument on the basis of false information.  For example, if it were true that there is no global warming going on in the world, no climate change, and no increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, then it would be logical to argue that nothing needs to be done about the problem because it doesn’t exist.  This argument is being made right now and I presume that my readers will see what’s wrong with it, but I’ll spell it out: the empirical facts as determined by virtually every reputable climate scientist on earth dispute its grounding premise. In other words, to think critically about global climate change, one has to study the science of the matter, and only then can a valid and logical argument be made.  (It is worth pointing out that when one of the last holdouts among prominent climate scientists finally conceded that the scientific evidence indeed pointed to anthropogenetically induced climate change, he was denounced on personal grounds by climate change deniers, not logical or scientific ones.  See how the Christian Science Monitor reported the story in 2012 here.

To generalize: critical thinking includes logical and rhetorical skills (they are necessary), but such skills are not sufficient.  Every problem in critical thinking requires knowledge of the relevant facts.  These facts can be scientific, or historical, or mathematical, or based in any number of other knowledge disciplines, but without knowledge of the facts (call it “content”), there cannot be adequate reasoning.  This is why “reasoning skills” cannot be disassociated from content-based education in science, history, and so on and so forth.

I am perfectly aware of the postmodern and/or poststructural objection to my position, an objection based in both a deconstruction of reason itself and of the existence of any facts apart from values.  Having written an entire book contesting this point of view (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, 1988), I am not going to attempt to refute it here.  I’ll only say this (echoing something Bruno Latour has written):  if you don’t accept scientific (or other forms of) factuality, then you have no basis on which to challenge climate change denial.  And, more to the point: while you may have a basis for “critique,” you do not have a firm basis for critical thinking.

This is why the critical thinking apparatus of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. is grounded in Peircean rather than structuralist or poststructuralist semiotics.  Charles Peirce was a philosophical and scientific realist.  He acknowledged the mediational role of signs, but wrote that semiotic systems are grounded in reality.  I will concede that no one can finally prove the truth of this perspective, but from a Pragmatistic point of view it offers a far more effective basis for the teaching of critical thinking than one that offers no answer to those whose arguments are founded in made-up “facts,” or in no facts at all.

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The Whirled Cup

posted: 7.17.14 by Jack Solomon

With the World Cup standing as the globe’s most prominent popular cultural event of the moment, I think it is appropriate for me to take a cultural semiotic look at it, especially in the wake of all the commentary that has followed Brazil’s rather epic loss to Germany in the semi-finals.  As I write this blog, Holland is playing Argentina in the second semi-final, but since neither the outcome of that game nor the final to follow is of any significance from a semiotic point of view, I will not concern myself here with the ultimate outcome of the games but will focus instead on the non-player reactions to the entire phenomenon.

Let me first observe that while I am myself not a fan of the game that the rest of the world calls football (I’m not a fan of the game that Americans call football either), I am fully aware that to much of that world the prestige of the World Cup is roughly equaled by the value to us Americans of the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, the NBA finals, and the BCS championship combined. I have also been surprised to learn that the Olympic gold medal for football has hardly a fraction of the significance of the World Cup for the rest of the world, as signified by Argentina’s attitude towards Lionel Messi (currently the world’s greatest scorer, but perhaps the greatest of all time), who brought home Olympic gold in 2008 but is still regarded as a lesser man than Diego Maradona, who, in spite of a controversial career that boasts no Olympic gold medals, did bring home the Cup in 1986.  (Perhaps lesser “man” is the wrong term:  Argentines simply regard Maradona as “God”).

So I get the point that football is a very big deal in the rest of the world, so big that it may not be possible for most Americans to grasp just how big a deal it is.

Which takes me to the semiotic question: why is football such a big deal?  What is going on when a reporter from Brazilian newspaper O Tempo can remark, in the wake of the 1-7 defeat at the hands (or feet) of Germany:  ”It is the worst fail in Brazil’s history. No-one thought this possible. Not here. Not in Brazil.  People are already angry and embarrassed. In a moment like this, when so desperate, people can do anything because football means so much to people in Brazil”?

To answer this question I should perhaps begin by clearing the decks in noting that I don’t think that Ann Coulter has the answer.  I mean, American football, basketball, and baseball (our most passionately followed sports) are team sports too (Coulter appears to think that soccer-football is morally inferior because it is too team oriented and insufficiently individualistic, which is odd when one considers that names like Maradona, Pele, Bobby Charlton—and let’s throw in Georgie Best for good measure—are names in Argentina, Brazil, and Great Britain that are at least as magical as Babe Ruth, Joe Montana, and LeBron James are in America, and probably a lot more so).

So how can it be explained?  As always there is no single explanation: this question is highly overdetermined.  But let’s start with the sheer variety of sporting choices in America.  The list of easily available spectator and participant sports here is so long there really isn’t much point in trying to list them.  America has them all, and so the appeal of any given sport must always be taken in the context of a lot of other sports competing for attention (which is why Los Angeles, the second largest metropolitan market in America, can get along perfectly well year after year without an NFL franchise).  On the other hand, in much of the rest of the world while football isn’t precisely the only game in town, it is often practically so (let me except those African nations wherein long distance running is practically the only game in town: which is why Africans—in men’s competitions, not women’s—win most of the important marathons).  A game that doesn’t require much in the way of expensive equipment, football can be played by all classes, and of course offers a fantasy pathway to fame, glory, and riches for impoverished football dreamers.  In other words, for the rest of the world, football is the big basket into which nations put most of their sports eggs.

But who cares anyway?  Whether someone is carrying a ball over a line, kicking a ball into a net, throwing a ball into a basket, or hitting a ball onto the grass or into the bleachers (and so on and so forth), what difference does it make?  Why is Brazil in despair?  Why do people die at soccer-football games?  What gives with British soccer hooligans?

Here things get complicated.  Perhaps the most important point to raise is that sporting events have served as sublimated alternatives to war since ancient times.  The original Olympics, for example, featured events that were explicitly battle oriented—today’s javelin event at the modern Olympics recalls the days of spear throwing and a foot race run while carrying a shield—and the role of international sport in modern times continues to be that of a symbolic substitute for more lethal conflict (consider the passionate competitions between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War, with the 1972 Olympic basketball final and the 1980 hockey “miracle on ice” looming especially large in memory).  While I could go on much further here, suffice it to say that the significance of the World Cup is intimately tied up with nationalism and international conflict.  So when the Brazilian “side” fails to kick as many balls into a net as the German side, the emotional feel is akin to having lost a war.  This is not rational, but human beings are not invariably rational animals.  Signs and symbols can be quite as important as substantial things.

Americans right now are trying to get into the game when it comes to the passions of global football, but in spite of decades of youth football competition and legions of soccer moms, it really hasn’t happened yet.  All in all, American sport is still rather isolationist (I do not say this as a criticism): though we call the World Series, well, the World Series, only American teams play in that game, and the Super Bowl is only super on our shores.  But while there may be something parochial about our sporting attitude, at least it isn’t a matter for a national crisis if “our” team loses.  That’s not a bad thing.

Personally (and not semiotically), I believe that people should only get passionate about their own exercise programs (I feel awful if I miss a day of running), but, consistent with the mores of a consumer society, sport in America is increasingly a spectator affair, something to watch others do for us as a form of entertainment.  It isn’t good for the national waistline, but at least we aren’t in a state of existential angst because a handful of guys with tricky feet just lost in the semi-finals.

By the way: Argentina just went into the final.  Maybe Messi will be God.

(Alas.)

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The Beat Goes Off

posted: 7.3.14 by Jack Solomon

I confess to a certain fascination for the Beat generation.  Not because I belonged to it, mind you (I’m getting old but I’m not that old: the Beats belonged to my parents’ generation), but because of their profound influence on America’s cultural revolution, a revolution that continues to roil, and divide, Americans to this day.  In other words, if you want to understand what is happening in our society now, knowing something about the history of the Beats is a good place to start.

Please understand that when I say this, my purpose is semiotic, not celebratory.  In fact, as far as I am concerned, the Beats, and their Boomer descendants, all too often equated personal freedom with hedonistic pleasure, leading America not away from materialism (as the counterculture originally claimed to do) but to today’s brand-obsessed hyper-capitalistic consumerism.  What the Frankfurt School called “commodity fetishism” has morphed into what Thomas Frank has called the “commodification of dissent” (you can find his essay on the phenomenon in Chapter 1 of Signs of Life in the USA), wherein even anti-consumerist gestures are sold as fashionable commodities, while money and what it can buy dominate our social agenda and consciousness.

But what interests me for the purposes of this blog is the fate of three recent movies that brought the Beats to the big screen.  The first is Walter Salles’ production of Jack Kerouac’s signature Beat novel, On the Road (2012), a story that had been awaiting a cinematic treatment ever since Marlon Brando expressed an interest in it in 1957.  Another is John Krokides’ Kill Your Darlings (2013), a treatment of the real-life killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr—a seminal figure in the early days of the Beats and close friend of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.  And the third is Big Sur (2013), a dramatization of Kerouac’s novel of the same title.

What is most interesting about these movies is their box office: though On the Road enjoyed a great deal of pre-release publicity and starred such high profile talent as Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Garrett Hedlund, its U.S. gross was $717,753, on an estimated budget of $25,000,000 (according to IMDb).  International proceeds were somewhat better (about eight and a half million dollars), but all in all, this was a major flop.

Kill Your Darlings did even worse.  Starring the likes of Daniel Radcliffe (as Allen Ginsberg?!) and Michael C. Hall, it grossed just $1,029,949, total (IMBd).

Big Sur, for its part, grossed .  .  .  wait for it .  .  . $33,621 (IMDb).  Even Kate Bosworth couldn’t save this one.

Can you spell “epic fail”?

As I ponder these high profile commercial failures, I am reminded of another recent literary-historical movie set in a similar era, which, in spite of an even higher level of star appeal, flopped at the box office: Steven Zaillian’s 2006 version of Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men.  Resituating the action from the 1930s to the 1950s, and boasting an all-star cast including such luminaries as Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and the late James Gandolfini, the movie grossed $7,221,458 on an estimated $55,000,000 budget (IMBd).

Now, it is always possible to explain commercial failures like these on aesthetics: that is, they simply could be badly executed movies.  And it is true that All the King’s Men got bad reviews, while On the Road‘s reception was somewhat mixed (Wikipedia).  Kill Your Darlings, on the other hand, actually did pretty well with the reviewers and won a few awards (again according to Wikipedia).  But the key statistic for me is the fact that Jackass Number Two was released in the same weekend as All the King’s Men and grossed $28.1 million dollars (Wikipedia), four times as much King’s, twenty-eight times as much as Darlings, and about forty times (US box office) as much as Road.  I don’t even want to calculate its relation to Big Sur.  So I don’t think that aesthetics explains these failures entirely.

Especially when one considers how just about any movie featuring superheroes, princesses, pirates, pandorans, malificents, and minions (not to mention zombies and vampires), draws in the real crowds.  Such movies have an appeal that goes well beyond the parents-with-children market and include a large number of the sort of viewers that one would expect to be interested in films starring Kristen Stewart, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jude Law.  But unlike the literary-historical dramas that failed, these successful films share not only a lot of special effects and spectacle but fantasy as well; and this, I think is the key to the picture.

Indeed, you have to go back to the 1970s to find an era when fantasy was not the dominant film genre at the American box office, and since the turn of the millennium fantasy has ruled virtually supreme.  While it is not impossible to attain commercial success with a serious drama (literary-historical or otherwise), it is very difficult.

The success of movies like Glory, The Butler, and The Help demonstrates that movies that tackle racial-historical themes resonate with American audiences, so I do not think that the failure of these Beat films can be attributed simply to America’s notorious disinterest in history.  And, after all, The Great Gatsby (2013 version) did well enough.  Perhaps it is nothing more than a disinterest in movies that are made by directors who are so personally enamored with their material that they forget that they have to work hard to make it just as attractive to audiences (I get this impression from some Amazon reviews of the DVD of Kill Your Darlings).  Artistic types tend to identify with the Beats (the original hipsters), but apparently today’s hipsters aren’t interested in hipster history.  Given the failure of On the Road, Kill Your Darlings and Big Sur (not to mention All the King’s Men), I would be surprised to see any future efforts in this direction, however.  If nothing else, today’s youth generation appears to be uninterested in the youthful experiences of their grandparents—spiritual and actual.  In all fairness, I suppose that one cannot blame them.

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Girls

posted: 5.22.14 by Jack Solomon

Having just read two large classes worth of student papers whose purpose is to semiotically analyze the HBO hit series Girls, I am learning a great deal about this popular program.  There are many striking things about the show that I could write about, but for the purposes of this brief blog I will choose only one:  the notoriously high level of nudity in Girls Indeed, as my students tell me, it appears that Hannah “gets naked” about twice per episode, and that this phenomenon is a much discussed feature of the show.  So, if you will, I will join the discussion here.

The debate over Hannah’s nudity seems to hinge on the physical appearance of the actress/writer who both portrays her and created her in the first place.  Similarly to the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, defenders of Lena Dunham’s nakedness celebrate this display of an ordinary female body, countering complaints about it with the retort that no one seems to be complaining about all of the nudity in Game of Thrones—another highly popular show among Millenials featuring more conventionally beautiful actresses.  And so, from this perspective, Hannah’s nudity strikes a blow for women’s liberation.

I don’t think that this is all there is to the matter, however; for when we situate Girls in the system of contemporary television, we can see that there is a whole lot of such nudity and sexuality to be found—in Mad Men, for instance, wherein sexual threesomes (two women to a man, not the other way around)—as well as a lot of rape in shows like Sons of Anarchy, and, notoriously, Game of Thrones.  Indeed, reading my student papers is a bit of a jolting experience as I see the way they seem to take it for granted that of course television is going to be filled with rape scenes and not-so-soft porn.

The explanation (or excuse) for all this nudity, sexuality, and rape is often that it makes contemporary television more “realistic,” and, in an era where campus sexual assault has become a matter of national concern all the way up to the White House, this explanation is certainly true enough.  But there is a difference between a story that tells of such things and one that graphically shows it, and there, for me, lies the crux of the matter.

Let’s get back to Hannah’s nudity.  It generally occurs during decidedly unpleasant sex scenes, scenes in which Hannah is not only not experiencing much pleasure but is being humiliated in one way or another.  Marnie (another Girls regular) is also willing to humiliate herself sexually to hold on to her “boyfriend” Charlie.  Indeed, sex in Girls seems to bring almost nothing but humiliation, or worse.

This is quite different from shows like Friends, which bears a number of similarities to Girls.  In Friends, too, young people struggled to make it in New York during a down economy, and there was plenty of sexuality in that show too.  But the sex in Friends (while often rather puerile) was neither so explicit nor so painful as it so often is in Girls.  No, something has changed.  The sky has darkened.

Thus, I am unable to accept the Third Wave feminist argument that the sex and nudity in Girls (and contemporary television in general) is an expression of female empowerment, and that what counts is that women can choose what to do with their bodies.  There is simply too much of an appearance that such “choices” are really responses to what is expected of them.  Instead, I see something of a vicious circle: television shows that depict young women being sexually humiliated in order to satisfy their viewers’ demands for “realism,” while young women, seeing such humiliation on so many of their favorite programs, come to expect that in their lives and behave accordingly.  Art here doesn’t only reflect reality; it helps shape it.

Perhaps that is the most striking sign of all here: that it is a dismal time to be young in America, and the young know it.  Whether economically or romantically, the world, shows like Girls are saying, is off kilter.  Whether or not things are really that bad, the responses to Girls indicate that people think that they are, and enjoy the dark humor that the program delivers.  There are worse things than laughing at the darkness, however, and Girls, after all, is a comedy, sort of.

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