Semiotic visions

by | Boston, USA

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

tags: americas, contributions from, disciplines, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense, semiotics

"My religion was semiotics," National Public radio host Ira Glass ("This American Life") told an interviewer in 2004. "Before semiotics I was, like, a middle-class kid who didn't know what he believed …. Semiotics, basically, was exactly the way I defined myself."

Glass was referring to his experience earning a degree from Brown University's one-of-a-kind semiotics degree program. When I was an editor at The Boston Globe's IDEAS section in the early 2000s, we published a story about the lasting influence of Brown's program. It read, in part: "From its founding as a fledgling program in 1974 to its morphing into a full Department of Modern Culture and Media in 1996, Brown semiotics produced a crop of creators that, if they don't exactly dominate the cultural mainstream, certainly have grown famous sparring with it. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, Academy Award-nominated director Todd Haynes and legendary indie producer Christine Vachon, "Ice Storm" author Rick Moody, pop-science writer Steven Johnson — all walked the slanting corridors of Adams House, a sad cottage at the fringe of Brown's Providence campus."

Here's how writer Paul Greenberg explained semiotics in that essay: "[S]emiotics is about how we derive meaning from context. … Ferdinand de Saussure… posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a 'signifier,' i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the 'signified,' or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued 'sign.' Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts. But a working semiotician doesn't go home after splitting a few signs. Signs operate within 'codes' (a.k.a. languages) which are themselves building blocks of larger structures, like narratives." I have cut the snarky bits; click on the link above to read them.

"Semiotics … was like a conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories," Ira Glass told Greenberg. "It wasn't just that authority figures of various sorts did things that were questionable…. It's that language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place, which when, you know, you're 19 or 20 is pretty much exactly what you're ready to hear…. Oh my God, what are we going to do with this powerful information?" "It was as if you had these, like, magic lenses that you could put on," agreed Steven Johnson. "It really had the feeling of `We've cracked the code, other people don't know.'"

Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel, The Marriage Plot, takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s — and in it, the semiotics program is depicted as encouraging pretentious, obscurantist thinking and writing. “When Madeleine asked what the book [Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology] was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things."Also: “Going to college in the moneymaking ’80s lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism — with sex and power.”

This past Sunday, in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the lead review of which is dedicated to Eugenides' The Merriage Plot, Steven Johnson recounts his own Brown story. He is less harsh than Eugenides. Though Johnson acknowledges that Brown's semiotics program did encourage pretentious, obscurantist thinking and writing, he mostly recalls that "it left many of us with an intoxicating sense that the everyday world — particularly the world of media — contained a secret layer of meaning that could be deciphered with the right key."

Here's how Johnson explains semiotics: "Greek for the 'science of signs,' semiotics as a field dates back to fin de siècle philosophers and linguists like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in modern times it is most commonly associated with Umberto Eco. The general thrust of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if language shapes our thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to make sense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of language itself: signs, symbols, metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools as readily as you could a Nike ad."

Though he eventually started writing books whose "sentences were shorter and the arguments less prone to putting themselves under erasure," Johnson concludes, "what animated my work was the sense that computer interfaces or video games had a subtle social meaning to them that was not always visible at first glance. That perspective was also the legacy of my semiotics years, and it turned out to be much more durable than the prose style. … Semiotics, for all its needless complications, still taught us to look for new possibilities in the ordinary, turning signs into new wonders."

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