Finding the Forest Among the Trees

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Years of teaching popular cultural semiotics have made one thing clear to me: the single most difficult critical-thinking skill to teach students is the ability to contextualize individual bits of data in a way that allows students to interpret their significance. In this information age, students are able to find atomized pieces of information, but often are unable to put it into context. For example, in an assignment to determine the cultural significance of recent Old Spice advertising campaigns, students were able to locate and describe the Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews advertisements: However, they had difficulty moving beyond the present into the ads of the 1950s and 1960s (the one below, for example), which reflect such profoundly different race and gender cultural perspectives that the significance of the current campaigns can be quite obvious. Old Spice has attempted to transform itself from a company whose ads sold traditional shaving products to white, middle-class men into a competitor for AXE products, using African American sports stars to position Old Spice products as something little short of aphrodisiacs. Tie this in to the general advertising consensus that if you want to sell anything to young American men you have to appeal to fantasies of sex and/or power, and you have the making of a powerful cultural critique. But to write that critique, it is necessary to put information into meaningful patterns, and, as I tell my students, while the culture we live in today celebrates atomized information, it is actively inimical to critical contextualization.  From news programs that present only sound bites and “infotainmentized” controversy (sorry for that neologism, but it's the only word that works), to politicians who do the same, to "corporate" educators who think that education is a matter of follow-the-dot vocational training to perform job-related tasks rather than learning how to do critical thinking, our entire culture is standing in the way of teaching what it is most important for us to teach. So, I don't blame my students for their difficulties in learning how to contextualize information, and I am careful to tell them that.  After all, only a few years ago, nearly everyone in the financial services industry was making loans they knew were risky while refusing to consider what would happen when all those bad loans failed at the same time, which they were timed to do. Instead, financial services executives treated each loan in a uncontextualized vacuum while ignoring history and preaching the mantra that housing prices could only rise. We are in the economic mess we are in now because no one took the trouble to look at history or to contextualize those loans. I discuss the financial services failure with my students to remind them why critical thinking matters. It seems trivial to worry about an inability to think critically about an advertising campaign, or anything else within popular culture, but it isn't trivial. The semiotics of popular culture leads seamlessly to the semiotics of culture and society, and until Americans learn how to think critically about that, they will continue to repeat the same mistakes.
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.