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Denotation, Denotation, Denotation

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In the teaching of popular cultural semiotics, one of the key concepts that must be explained and applied is that of denotation.  It seems to be an obvious point, but it turns out that for students it is a rather difficult concept to master. In the semiotic sense, the denotation of a sign can be an actual object (as, for example, an automobile), whereby its connotation is the image associated with it through a marketing campaign or through consumer use.  Thus, the denotation of the Volkswagon New Beetle was a compact car introduced in the late 1990s, whose connotation was intended to invoke a retro-revival of the free-spirited VWs of the 1960s, but which ended up with a feminine connotative image due to its popularity among women consumers (and which is why the latest Beetle has been more “aggressively” styled to attract male consumers). Denotation is a bit trickier when considering a television show or movie as a sign because there is no objective “thing” as with a consumer product.  Here one can begin with the fundamental concept of the show.  For example, in the television series “The Walking Dead,” the fundamental concept (which we can equate with the denotation of the show) is that of a group of American survivors of a global pandemic that has transformed most of the population into flesh eating zombies.  Living a nomadic existence, these survivors must carry weapons and be prepared at any moment to defend themselves against zombie attacks from former humans who may even include their own friends and family.  What all this connotes (that is, what such a basic story line says about the audience that is entertained by it) is a matter for semiotic interpretation—something I will not go into here. Now, given the popularity of “The Walking Dead,” my students often choose it as a topic for their research papers, and I encourage that choice because this program is such a rich source of cultural signifiers.  But where my students most often struggle with their interpretations is in neglecting to clarify what the fundamental concept of the show is all about, its basic denotation.  They commonly pick up on an individual plot element or particular character, but without establishing the denotative context in which plot elements unfold and characters act, their interpretations may miss the most significant parts of the show as a cultural signifier. The same sort of thing happened with my student papers back in the hey day of “Heroes.”  Students would write that the characters in “Heroes” were all out “to save the world,” but without establishing the fundamental concept of the series (that is, the presentation of a group of otherwise ordinary people who discover that they each have extraordinary super powers), their papers could just as well have been describing a World War II story.  Indeed, my most common comment on many such papers was “what are they saving the world from?” The denotation is crucial because it enables the semiotician to construct the most applicable system in which to situate the sign.  Thus, while there are romantic elements in “The Walking Dead,” a primary association of that series with, say, “Cheers” isn’t going to be very fruitful, even though that show had a central romantic relationship too.  On the other hand, associating “The Walking Dead” with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is much more fruitful because here the romantic element in each case is contextualized by a basic situation involving a constant violent struggle against dead/alive monsters. Similarly, interpreting any Batman story without mentioning the denotative fact that the hero is a rich vigilante who dresses up as a bat is going to miss a crucial part of the cultural connotation, or significance, of the whole franchise. So, getting to the essence of just what it is that you are interpreting, before actually interpreting it, is a critical part of the semiotic procedure.  It requires the ability to produce a concise descriptive summary of your topic—getting a sense of the forest, so to speak, before moving on to the trees.  It sounds easier than it actually is, but especially in this era of mass decontextualized information, teaching your students to describe the denotative essence of popular cultural phenomena is one of the first lessons that you will want to undertake.
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.