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Network: Gareth

by | London, UK

Thursday, 18 August 2011

tags: europe, experts & agencies, making sense, network

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I am in my bedroom which is on the eleventh floor of a block of flats on the Brighton seafront. My room looks out over the city and the sun is on its way down. I’ve just finished watching a programme about baleen whales and am about to sit down and write for a bit. My bedroom walls are covered with Post-Its because I’m researching and writing a novel. It’s a technique I nicked from Will Self whose own writing room looks a bit like the nest made by Eugene Victor Tooms in the X-Files. A photographer called Phil Grey has exhaustively documented that room, and I have an unhealthy fascination with those photographs. You could say I am building a shrine to them. 

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time? 

I was in a pub with an ex-girlfriend. She mentioned her brother was involved with something called commercial semiotics and I thought it sounded interesting. I looked it up on the internet later that evening and sent some emails. Rob Thomas at Practical Semiotics was the first person who took me on. I worked for Rob for about two years. We’re still good friends.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to the point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in English literature and philosophy. I have a masters in sociology and cultural theory. In other words I’m academically indecisive and habitually plump for the combo options. I started full time with Space Doctors in 2010, and work alongside people with backgrounds in illustration, bio-chemistry, design, literary theory, marketing and some Narnian mixtures of the lot. I'm rather glad I didn't over-specialise in the end.

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

I don’t believe commercial semiotics is about treating the architecture of a cough sweet in the same way that you’d think about narrative structure in The Good Soldier. Not yet, anyway. The commercial world is certainly evolving in the right direction from a communications point of view. That’s partly as a result of insights gleaned from semiotics (also expanding its horizons, I should add). But I think at this stage we’re still talking about multiple genres of meaning making. I also don’t think it hurts to have an opinion. Commercial semioticians are basically in the business of explaining why one thing is obsolete and uninteresting and another fresh and compelling. I’d say there’s a healthy degree of snobbery involved in that process.

Tell us about your novel.

It’s about a chess player and an automata engineer. They unwittingly get involved in a corrupt chess tournament that takes place in a spooky church in Prague. I’m hoping reading it will be like watching an episode of Scooby Doo backwards. I'm planning a predictable reveal right at the off. The whole thing is inspired by the Shipping Forecast.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

This sculpture is called The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age, and it was made by Raoul Hausmann in 1920. The image adorns the cover of a recent book by Lydia Liu called The Freudian Robot, which uses literary, information and psychoanalytic theory to argue how and why we’ve made machines in our own image. Liu heads up the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, and TFR is the best work of non-fiction I've read this year. Comparative Literature seems to me to be doing away with conventional academic distinctions altogether. I find this kind of cross-disciplinary approach to research and comprehension genuinely exciting. I also think this method bears some resemblance to the way commercial semioticians typically approach, filter and cluster cultural information. Blue whales, according to the programme I just watched, do a similar sort of thing with krill. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?  What role will semiotics be playing in your life?

That depends a lot on what the world of semiotics looks like ten years from now. I see it heading in some really interesting directions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be a part of that.

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