FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Paul Cobley| London, UK
Tuesday, 22 March 2011
tags: culture, europe, experts & agencies, making sense, network, semiotics
Where are you and what are you doing?
I’m at London Metropolitan University, the university with the highest number of working-class students in the UK. I teach Communications and Media.
What makes your students want to study semiotics and what do they go on to do with what they learn? Are there any patterns you see recurring in that respect?
Very few want to study semiotics, but very many want to study ‘meaning’, culture and techniques of human communication. Students go on to jobs in the media conceived in the broadest sense: production, sales, marketing, market research and related jobs, as well as more general work for charities and in the public sector. I think that most of them grasp the idea that there is very little chance in the world of occupations that anyone can avoid the imperative to read and analyse media products of one sort or another rather than just consuming them.
Are there any short courses for people who have encountered semiotics in the marketing or media world and want to learn more about theory and application?
No, there aren’t, really. I’m in the very early stages of thinking up some initiatives in that area because I think the changes that have taken place in semiotics in the last 20 years have not really spread as I might have liked in academia, let alone in the world of commerce and industry.
Some of our readers will have first encountered you through your 'graphic novel' style introduction to semiotics with Litza Jansz. How did that come about, what's its history since publication, and how do you feel about it now?
Ha. That’s a good question to get me to open up about this field because, rather than being commissioned to do the book I had to (typically) approach the publishers to consider a book on semiotics for their series. Luckily, my approach was welcomed by Richard Appignanesi who originated the ‘comic book encyclopedia’ concept some decades earlier. Richard’s a visionary and as well as dreaming up the idea he edited the books and managed the series so that I was teamed with a great illustrator.
I’m happy with the book in that it nods at the whole of semiotics. At the time that I published it, I think a lot of people in Britain thought that semiotics was somehow synonymous with ‘structuralism’ and that meant mugging up on what Roland Barthes thought about Saussure, getting a grip on Lacan, going on to Derrida and then being able to write off semiotics by talking about poststructuralism and postmodernism (both of which latter were themselves pretty much written off by the time I was writing the book). That stuff is in the book and there was still a market for it; but I’m most pleased that there’s stuff about Peirce, Sebeok, Uexküll and Morris who were quite far from structuralism and Lotman (who was a bit closer). I’m unhappy with small parts of the book because I’ve made a couple of mistakes of detail; it’s not the mistakes per se, it’s the fact that they they simply perpetuate a view of how semiology was generally understood.
One sad fact about the history of that publication is that the whole comic book Beginners/Introducing series was launched by Richard with Writers and Readers publishing in a scenario which, I understand, went sour. Richard rescued the concept for re-launch with Icon in the early 1990s. However, he no longer works with what now exists of Icon and I have not seen any royalties on the book for many years.
You have described some applied commercial semioticians as people who actually do semiology not semiotics. What do you mean by this distinction and why is it important?
A great deal of applied commercial semiotics is really sophisticated analysis of language and anthropological reading of contemporary society. My feeling is, though, that we could go further. More focus on issues to do with nonverbality, emotion and cognition could yield amazing results. International academic semiotics nowadays is, in the main, orientated towards a vision of semiosis embedded within its evolutionary heritage – that’s the wider picture. But within that picture is facilitated an approach to human communication which is not just fixated on what can and cannot be communicated in linguistic terms – recurring tropes, figures of speech, ideological representations and the like – but also what is beyond speech: emotional dispositions, feelings, responses to qualities, nonverbal interaction with other humans, the environment and other species, by way of body distance/proximity, gestures, movement and vocal nonverbal communication.
How do you think semiotics can help us address the big socioeconomic and political challenges that are emerging?
Some people think semiotics can’t do that, but I think such a view is short-sighted. Semiotics is very political. In short, it always has the potential of a great bullshit detector – if you can see how a message has been constructed, then you have some grip on power. This is the kind of thing that Barthes and Eco and their generation recognized and it’s still largely true. But there are other points in semiotics’ relation to politics. It studies all signification, so nothing that signifies escapes politicization. Also, in its acute scepticism it exposes how some semiosis is repressed because of either certain interests or certain biological or social developments. Possibly most important is that contemporary semiotics is concerned with the continuity between humans and other species, drawing out differences and similarities, particularly with respect to agency, and sometimes implying the responsibility humans have as constituents of a variegated environment.
Tell us about the image you selected to accompany this interview.
It’s a picture of Clever Hans, the ‘intelligent’ horse whose arithmetic feats amazed the public in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. In fact, the horse was revealed not to be calculating or operating in language but, instead, responding to a number of nonverbal cues emitted by his ‘interlocutor’. These were perceived by the horse but unseen by spectators who were taken in by his performances.
Is there a soundbite you can invent (or plagiarise) from Confucius or anywhere else that sums up semiotics (or the importance of semiotics) today?
No, there isn’t. I’m an academic, so I can’t do soundbites very well. I could probably do something verbose and alienating if you fancied it.