Even the Trifles Have Significance

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Just to take a break from politics for a moment—deep breath now—I thought I'd return to a popular cultural subject that looks to be completely meaningless, but isn't. And if the subject isn't particularly compelling, the point is that in teaching popular cultural semiotics, it behooves us to show just how significant the most trivial things can be.

So without more ado, let me return to a subject I tackled a few years ago on the Bits blog site: running shoes.

At that time I focused on what was then a new fad in the industry: the minimalist running shoe. Minimalist shoes sought to recreate the sensation of running barefoot, the attraction of which was that barefoot running forces a runner to land on his or her forefoot when running, rather than heel striking. The idea was that with less material (especially less cushioning) built into the shoe, a runner would avoid landing on that unprotected heel and toe strike instead. The advantage of this is that toe striking puts much less strain on the knee than heel striking does, and thus can help avoid the almost inevitable knee injuries that not only hobble runners but eventually become so serious that they have to quit running for good. On top of this, the minimalist shoes were celebrated for the fine feel of the ground they afforded, thus helping avoid falls and promoting trail running stability.

What struck me at the time was that I was already a toe striker and I certainly didn't need to buy a special product to get myself to run in a biomechanically sensible manner. Minimalist shoes were not only unnecessary, they were a bad buy because they not only do not provide the kind of protection that a middle-aged runner really needs, they also wear out very quickly due to their rather flimsy construction. This mattered because, as the latest sneeze in running technology, minimalist shoes were very expensive.

Thinking as a semiotician, however, rather than as a runner, I realized that the minimalist running shoe fad is a signifier of a consumer society, a sign of the way that rather than disciplining themselves, Americans tend to choose consumer goods to perform the discipline for them. Consumption über alles.

But that was then, as they say, and this is now. And I am looking at the brand new Spring 2016 edition of the RoadRunner Sports catalog. And guess what? There is page after page of shoes promising to "Crank your cushion way up!" And "Attack daily runs in plush support." And "Get effortless, cruise control, cushion and support." And "Get out the door more in awesome cushion!" And "Get hooked on cutting-edge cushion!"

Get the picture?

1012619-DBTB_2.jpg?sw=432&sh=350&sm=fitClearly running shoes have done a 180, going from minimalist to maximalist. The minimalist shoes are now mostly all on clearance, making way for the running shoe equivalent of a trampoline. The game changer here is the Hoka One One ™ line of running shoes. Originally designed for older runners, the Hoka shoes are massively cushioned, providing the kind of support that aging legs need. All the major brands are making them now, and they look like just the sort of thing for me. Except that there's a hitch.

Because when I "test drove" a pair of Hokas I found that while they have a lot of cushioning all right, they have so much, and in all the wrong places, that I can't toe strike with such contraptions at all. Rocking my feet backward towards the heel, they at once force heel striking while perching me so far off the ground on a mound of "plush" that they practically guarantee that I will twist my ankles on rocky mountain trails. So if I bought a pair, it would only be a question of which injury struck first: a disastrous ankle sprain, or wrecked knees from heel striking.

OK, enough with the running shoe review and on to the semiotics. What has happened here is once again a signifier of a consumer society. The whole thing is like planned obsolescence, or the annual changes in the fashion industry: the new product is designed to make consumers think that what they have isn't good enough and they must run out and buy the new fashion. So you get these pendulum swings—in this case from minimalist to maximalist running shoes. But wait, it's not just running shoes. Haute couture's glamorous runways this year are filled with baggy, even tent-like replacements for the skinny jeans of not-so-yore, a pendulum swing that has already reached the masses by way of such Spring fashions as J. Jill's new line of "Chino Full Leg" pants. Goodbye skinny, hello baggy . . .once again.

The solution to the situation is simple: ignore the fads and go with what works for you.

And buy it on sale.

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.