Semiotics Begins at Home

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The practice of popular cultural semiotics has much in common with both anthropology and sociology: after all, cultural semiotics, too, analyzes human behavior.  But it is important to point out that there are a number of methodological differences that distinguish the semiotic from the sociological or anthropological approaches, one of which I wish to explain here. The key distinction, I believe, is that the methodologies of sociology and anthropology prescribe a kind of clinical neutrality on the part of the analyst: that is, the observer strives for scientific objectivity with respect to the subject of observation.  This is not quite the case with the semiotic method, for while objectivity is most certainly a valuable component of cultural semiotics, it need not be taken as an absolute.  In fact, taking into account one’s own experience of popular culture can reveal important insights into its broader significance.  This is because as an expression of mass culture, popular culture includes the analyst, who cannot really be separated from it.  The perspective here is quite similar to that of the New Historicism, which also posits the inclusion of the socially and historically situated interpreter within the topic being interpreted. To better explain what I mean, let’s take the example of the extraordinary popularity of social media.  While a sociologist and an anthropologist would focus entirely on the behavior of carefully selected and scientifically surveyed subjects (producing data that are most certainly relevant to the semiotician), the semiotician can also usefully explore his or her own experiences with social media.  I ask myself, for instance, what are my exact emotions as I check my email, or, in the days when I was once quite active on a hobby-related web forum, what were my emotions when I posted to the site and when my posts were responded to?  By looking at my own behavior and emotions, I am much better able to grasp what is going on with others.  For much as I prize my individuality, I can find many common patterns in the behavior of others that I find in myself, and, recognizing them, I can better explore what they signify. In the case of email, I recognize a certain state of suspense and excitement—almost a sense of adventure.  Why?  Because, as we all know in the Internet age, there is always the possibility that someone will emerge from the fog of time past and time passing to reestablish contact.  This actually does happen with email, and, it is, of course, one of the main draws of Facebook and LinkedIn (you won’t find me there because I am not happy with their data mining practices).  Recognizing such emotions in myself, and finding them displayed by others, points me towards a wide range of interpretive possibilities that includes what it is to be a human being.  Situating my digital self-observations into a larger system that includes the effects of living in a highly mobile society that separates us from our past associations (something that did not commonly happen before the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of mass society), I can understand better the extraordinary pull of social media. So, I do not shy away from including myself in my analyses.  I do try to keep my own personal opinions (ideological, aesthetic, political, or otherwise) out of the analysis (this, of course, is never entirely possible), but analyzing myself as a human subject among human subjects, and being objective about myself as well as about others (that may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t: it is part of the ancient tradition of “knowing thyself”) is a very useful component of my semiotic analyses, and I recommend it to others.
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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.