Semiotics in the Time of a Plague

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Feeling like I have been unwillingly dropped into a Camus novel (The Plague) or famous diary (Pepys's will do), I find writing this blog to be a very strange experience. The thing is, in spite of multiple reasons to be particularly concerned about it all (the governor of California has both spelled out and operationalized those reasons), I have a duty to stick to the script here and limit myself to a semiotically-relevant topic. And since I was already thinking about the analysis to follow before the pandemic came down, I'll simply stay with it, because, as it turns out, there are significant connections between the plague and what I was already planning to say.

So, here goes. What I've been thinking about concerns the clear generational divide that has emerged through the course of the Democratic primary season, with Joe Biden sweeping the late-middle-aged and seniors vote and Bernie Sanders attracting practically all younger voters. In the "OK, Boomer" era, this was only to be expected, being yet another indicator that the split between the old and young in America, which was destined to emerge anyway as the huge Baby Boom generation ages in place, is now gaping asunder at increasing speed.

There is an irony about all this, however, for it was my generation (yes, I'm a Boomer) that invented the "generation gap" in the first place. We also were largely responsible for the transformation of America into a consumerist-driven youth culture, having enjoyed a pampered childhood lavished upon us by parents who had survived the Depression and the War and who wanted their children to have the kinds of things that they had lacked. So, we got Disneyland, TV, and a consumer culture that was capable of commodifying anything—including, paradoxically enough, our own brief rebellion against consumerism in the 1960s. And to complete the irony of it all, we were the ones who rallied around the slogan "never trust anyone over thirty."

So, um, well, there is something distinctly karmic in the air as we encounter a new generation of voters who, let us say, aren't conspicuously fond of us, as is plangently evident in the observation by a politically disaffected Sanders supporter that “to win us back, the Democratic Party needs to actually listen to us and serve us. Or else they need to die and we will create a new party ourselves.”

With a lot of us Boomers now under official orders to "self-isolate" in order to save our lives (I'm good with that), such rhetoric can't help but have a chilling ring to it, but it doesn't really worry me. For one thing, it was spoken before the plague erupted and would almost certainly not be uttered today. But more importantly, we are all, one way or another, in the same boat now, with all of our lives at risk—if not biologically, then economically and psychologically. This whole thing is a mess of historic proportions, and we are all simply going to have to pull together to get through it.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 4087018 by geralt, used under Pixabay License

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.