Of Semiotics, Blogging, Popular Culture, and Henry David Thoreau

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As I write my first entry into my first Web 2.0 blog, I find myself thinking of Henry David Thoreau, who essentially wrote America’s first blog when he self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers over a century and a half ago. Virtually unknown at the time, Thoreau wanted the world to know what he was thinking, and, without being able to persuade a publisher that this was worth publishing, he went ahead and published it himself, whether anyone was listening or not. The next time out he was luckier and found a publisher, but with its very poor sales, Walden wasn’t a great deal different, in effect. Thoreau had an apology to make the second time around, however, and made it straight off: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained . . . We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Thus, blogging’s patron saint begins, with his tongue, one thinks, planted firmly in his cheek. I begin my own blog with a reference to Thoreau in order to at once explain and to demonstrate what I am doing here. In the tradition of Thoreau, I will be writing first person impressions and interpretations of various things in a kind of self-published format (though unlike Thoreau, I will not be writing about myself). That is, I will be writing about the semiotic interpretation of popular culture in order to help others perform such interpretations themselves and to teach their students how to do so. Since one of the principles of semiotic interpretation is that one must determine a system of associations and differences, frequently involving history, into which the topic to be interpreted can be inserted and contextualized, I am treating blogging itself, for the moment, as a sign that can be interpreted, a sign whose systematic context can be said to predate Web 2.0 technology to include those unofficial writers of the past who found a way to communicate their thoughts through channels other than mainstream publishing. I think that many a blogger can be associated with Thoreau in this sense. There are other things to consider when interpreting blogging, for example the traditions of American individualism, self-reliance, and of populist democracy (yes, Emerson is behind Thoreau, and behind Emerson, and the modern blogger, is America). These traditions can be called “cultural mythologies,” and cultural mythologies will be a frequent part of my blogs here. There are, of course, a number of critical differences that set Thoreau apart from the contemporary blogger. Web 2.0 technology is one of the crucial differences, a difference that allows anyone, instantly, to publish him or herself on the World Wide Web. So while there is something shared between Thoreau and today’s blogger, a sameness, there are also differences, and the meaning, the cultural significance, of blogging (or of any cultural signifier) lies in a dynamic relation between sameness and difference. For the moment, I’ll leave it at that. At a later time, I may come back to blogging (which is a prominent feature of contemporary popular culture) as a sign for further semiotic consideration, but will not produce a full interpretation now. Arriving at an interpretation is the fun part of semiotics, what your students will most enjoy; but knowing how that interpretation is constructed is what we really have to teach. So I will content myself with this partial, semiotically self-reflective, glance at what I am doing right now, knowing that I can pick up the thread, at any point and any time, in another entry. Till then.
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.