A “Primary” Semiotic

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What with the sequel to the sequel to the sequel to the cinematic remake of the revival of the original Mission Impossible series currently leading in the American box office sweepstakes, perhaps it would be more profitable to turn to the cultural semiotics of a much larger contest right now: the American presidential primary season, a quadrennial media extravaganza that presents us with a lively combination of the unlikely, the improbable, and the downright preposterous. I am not referring to the political outcomes of the primaries but, rather, to the way they are structured by the mass media. It all begins with the notorious fact that Iowa—a state with around 1 percent of the American population, and that is roughly 92 percent white—is allowed by disproportionate media attention to be, if not the party kingmaker in the primary season, at least the party wanna-be-king-unmaker. And the Iowa primary isn’t even a primary: its caucus votes are nonbinding and elect no delegates. To compound this apparent anomaly in what purports to be a democratic process, it is New Hampshire—a state that has a good deal less than 1 percent of the American population and is around 94 percent white—that is allowed, election after election, to be the first and most influential presidential primary, practically disenfranchising the voters of such states as California and New York. These facts about our primary electoral rituals are very well known. The question is what they signify. While entire volumes could be written on the matter, I’d like to focus on a few fundamental cultural-semiotic principles that are explored much further in the now-published seventh edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. The first is that of cultural mythologies—that is, those underlying beliefs, world views, or ideologies that govern cultural consciousness and behavior. In this case, the relevant mythology is that of an agrarian America whose “heart” lies in its rural regions. This mythology is so well engrained that even years after America’s transformation to an urban/suburban/exurban society (wherein the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian family farmer has long since been driven off the land by corporate agribusiness conglomerates), states like Iowa and New Hampshire (whose image in the American imagination continues to be rural and agricultural) are allowed a grotesquely disproportionate voice in the making and unmaking of presidential candidates. The second relevant cultural semiotic point is that of America’s cultural contradictions—that is, its simultaneous cherishing of diametrically opposing mythologies—that are most prominently signified in the red state/blue state cultural divide that is still very evident in American politics. So hardened has this division become that the three most populous and racially diverse states in the nation—California, New York, and Texas—are disproportionately undervalued in the primary electoral process, and are virtually ignored (except for campaign contribution purposes) by both parties in the actual presidential election—the reason being that everyone knows how they are going to vote anyway (New York and California being firmly in the blue column, and Texas in the red). Beyond mythologies and contradictions, there is the way that the mass media cover the primary season as a kind of combination soap opera/WWE smackdown. This should not be surprising. The American mass media are part of a culture industry whose purpose is not to inform but to sell advertising space (or otherwise profit) through the entertainment of a mass audience. Elections, accordingly, are treated as entertainments, and because having to wait for months for the outcome of something is not entertaining, Iowa and New Hampshire are useful; their elections offer instant gratification by allowing these tiny states to determine, right away in the very beginning of January, who the nominees are going to be. The fact that the eventual nominees are not always the winners in Iowa and New Hampshire has no effect on this media illusion. All that matters is that huge audiences can be attracted by broadcasting the Iowa and New Hampshire caucus/primaries as if they were equivalent to election night in November, complete with live blogging and Twitter feeds, raising plenty of excitement and advertising dollars. And now that the dust has settled on Iowa, we can look forward to New Hampshire, and afterward to the Super Bowl—I mean Super Tuesday. Finally, there is a new element in the game this time around, which is the fact that the election “markets” are now an integral part of campaign reporting. Yes, the American electoral system is now more or less officially joined at the hip to a kind of stock market: gambling. When Las Vegas meets Wall Street in the race to the White House, you really know that you are living in a hypercapitalist society, a world in which the only measure of anything any longer is money.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late 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 also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.