Guest Column

Popular Cultural Semiotics, and Why It Matters

By Jack Solomon

Applying the techniques of semiotics, or semiology, to the artifacts of popular culture and everyday life is not in itself a terribly recent phenomenon. With roots in Roland Barthes' semiological experiments in MYTHOLOGIES and Umberto Eco's semiotic takes on everything from Superman to James Bond, as well as Stuart Hall's, Richard Hoggart's, and Raymond Williams' pioneering efforts in cultural studies, popular cultural semiotics as a field of inquiry can be said to be at least a half century old. Add to that the sociological semiology of Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel de Certeau, alo ng with a steady stream of books from Arthur Asa Berger since the 1960s (when almost no one in the United State was analyzing popular culture semiotically), and you have plenty of progenitors to choose from. In short, cultural semiotics has a disting uished history.

That last statement may appear somewhat paradoxical, however. How, it might be asked, can the analysis of things like television programs, advertisements, movies, and consumer goods be a distinguished activity? And indeed, for m any years, such participants in the creation of "high culture" as university scholars in the Humanities regarded any attention paid to "low," "mass," or "popular" culture as not only unworthy of a scholar but as a betrayal of the mission of the academ y to nurture and disseminate high culture. But that opinion has pretty much vanished, at least in the United States, in the aftermath of America's so-called "culture wars" of the 1980s, which revealed, after the dust had settled, an academy ready and willing to open itself up to serious study of what, on the surface, appear to be trivial things.

There is a profound historical reason for why the culture wars should have turned out as they did. Briefly put, with the decline, and near collaps e, of what Pierre Bourdieu has called "cultural capital" (roughly, the social valuation of high cultural knowledge), American (and, increasingly, global) society has been transformed into what I call an "entertainment society." An entertainment society is one that has gone a step further than the traditional high culture/low (or popular) culture dichotomy to, in effect, erase it, leaving a more or less unified culture in which almost everything is designed, or required, to be entertaining ”after all, even the world's greatest operatic tenors have found it prudent to perform rock-style stadium concerts, while operatic sopranos are being told to lose weight to more closely resemble their pop star sisters. Indeed, the phenomenon transcends the traditional boundaries of entertainment to engulf the religious and political realms as well, as fundamentalist religion takes to the air and radio waves, and Hollywood superstars from both sides of the political spectrum in America become major players in electoral politics.

In such a social state, we must analyze our entertainment culture if we are to understand ourselves, and self understanding remains one of the primary goals of the Humanities. Here semiotics once again offers scholars an opportunity, for having already demonstrated its utility in a manifold of fields, including linguistics, anthropology, literature, law, art, business communications, and ethnology, it is a natural choice of methodology for a Humanistic approach to an entertainment culture.

It is somewhat ironic, however, that America, which has taken the lead in the creation of contemporary popular culture, has lagged somewhat behind England, Italy and France in the semiotic analysis of popular culture. I imagine that Professor Berger had his moments of loneliness when he began applying semiotic insights to popular culture so many years before his compatriots, and I know that when I myself began to apply semiotics to popular culture in the 1980s, wit h my book THE SIGNS OF OUR TIME, my university officially informed me that it did not "count" as a scholarly publication. Even the Semiotic Society of America has lagged in its response to the semiotic challenges of an entertainment culture.

But where semioticians have most held back is in directing their cultural insights to the broader audience that is most in need of semiotic literacy. Again, with Arthur Asa Berger as the primary exception, those semioticians and semiologists who have ad dressed popular culture have tended to do so in an academic discourse that is impenetrable to a lay readership. Even Umberto Eco, the author of international best-sellers, is not for the faint of heart. One can't blame anyone for this” after all, the fact that THE SIGNS OF OUR TIME was addressed to a broad readership is what caused it to be dismissed by my university ”and university scholars do have to conform to the discourses that lead to promotion and tenure. But, let's say, once those hurdles have been overcome, it would be well for semioticians not only to analyze popular culture but to do so in a way that can educate the general public. It is important for them to do so because of the hegemonic ability (in Antonio Gramsci's sense of t he term) of popular culture today to inculcate the political values of an increasingly hypercapitalistic global society (to use Jeremy Rifkin's useful term). There are no depths too low for the culture industry to exploit, no taboos or cultural values too sacrosanct to be exploited in the name of the profit motive. My own experience in teaching popular culture to undergraduates and graduates is that while they are absolute experts in the products of a hypercapitalistic culture industry, able to provide the most arcane details about this or that celebrity, movie, or television show, they are absolutely unaware of the social and cultural significance of the entertainments that they so enjoy. And if we wish to foster a global culture in which there is more to life than money and profit making, we need to show our students ”to empower them, actually” how to "read" the vast array of popular culture that they are so invested in.

It is not at all difficult to do this, and in my own teaching and writing I employ an easily learnable formula that I have adopted, and adapted, from the work of Saussure, Peirce, and Barthes. That formula states that in analyzing any popular cultural phenomenon as a sign, you must situate it in a system of re lated phenomena (just as Saussurean linguistics situates its signs in systems of related signs); and that system must include an historical (or diachronic) as well as a synchronic dimension (thus incorporating Peirce's temporal sense of the growth and shifting of sign systems). Having situated the popular cultural sign in its system, one must simultaneously associate it with similar signs and also search for the crucial differences that often signal the meaning of the sign. This meaning is usually ideological, so, in Roland Barthes' sense of the term, the system in which a popular sign appears may be regarded as a "mythology."

What can be taught to students can be taught to a wider audience as well if we adopt the appropriate discourse. That discourse must stress clarity and accessibility over any need to satisfy academic competitors and peers. Indeed, by writing to ourselves for so long, by abandoning the realm of genuine public discourse, academic semioticians have marginalized t hemselves, cutting themselves off from the scrum of actual cultural politics at a time when they really have something to contribute. It can be done, however, and I would suggest, as the Humanities become more and more marginalized in a world governed more and more by what Thomas Carlyle called the "cash nexus," that it had better be done soon.