Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: A Portrait of the Project as a Young Book

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Signs of Life in the USAThe arrival of the authors' copies of the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. prompts me to reflect here on the history of this—at least for Sonia Maasik and myself—life-changing project. So I will do something a little different this week, and return to the original purpose of the web-log, which was to write something along the lines of a traditional journal or diary entry rather than an interpretive essay—a remembrance of things past in this case.

 To begin with, Signs of Life did not begin its life as a textbook. Its origins lie in a book I wrote in the mid-1980s: The Signs of Our Time: Semiotics: The Hidden Messages of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images (1988). That book was a product of pure contingency, even serendipity. I was seated at my departmental Displaywriter (an early word processor that was about the size of a piano and used eight inch truly floppy disks) completing my final draft of Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age (1988)—a technical critique of poststructural semiotics that proposed a new paradigm whose theoretical parameters underlie the applied semiotic lessons to be found in Signs of Life—when my department chair drifted by and casually asked me if I would like to talk to a local publisher whom he had met recently at a party and who was looking for someone to write a  non-academic book on semiotics for a non-academic audience. As a young professor, I was ready to jump at any book-publishing opportunity, and, having found myself doing a lot of spontaneous interpretations of the popular culture of the 1980s (especially of stuffed toys like Paddington Bear and the celebrity Bear series—anyone remember Lauren Bearcall?), I was ready with a book proposal in no time. I soon had a contract, an advance (with which I purchased an early Macintosh computer that didn't even have a hard drive—it still works), and a tight deadline to meet (that's how things work in the trade book world). And that's also how Discourse and Reference and The Signs of Our Time came to be published in the same year.


A few years later, Sonia discovered that composition instructors were using The Signs of Our Time as a classroom text, and I found that chapters from the book were being reprinted in composition readers (the first to do so was Rereading America 2/e). So Sonia had a brainstorm: having worked with Bedford Books on other projects, she suggested that we propose a new composition textbook to Bedford based upon The Signs of Our Time. Looking back, it looks like a pretty obvious thing to have done, but this was the early 1990s, and America was hotly embroiled in the academic version of the "culture wars"; not only was the academic study of popular culture still controversial, but no one had attempted to bring semiotics into a composition classroom before. Still, Chuck Christensen—the founder of Bedford Books—who was always on the lookout for something both daring and new, was interested. He also wanted to know if I could provide a one-page description of what semiotics was all about. So ordered, so done, and we had a contract for a composition reader that would combine a full writing instruction apparatus with an array of readings, alongside unusually long chapter introductions that would both explain and demonstrate the semiotic method as applied to American popular culture.


That part of the matter was unusually smooth. But there were bumps in the road on the way to completion. For instance, there was our editor's initial response to our first chapter submissions. Let's just say that he was not enamored of certain elements in my expository style. But thanks to a long long-distance phone call we managed to clear that up to our mutual satisfaction. And the good news was that Bedford really wanted our book. The bad news was that they wanted it published by January 1994—a good deal less than a year away and we were starting practically from scratch. It was published in January 1994 (just in time for the big Northridge earthquake that knocked my campus to the ground). I still don't know how Sonia and I did it (the fact that we said "yes" to Chuck's invitation to do another book—it became California Dreams and Realities—in that same January, giving us six months to do it this time, simply boggles my mind to this day, but, as I say, we were a lot younger then).


Well, all that was a quarter of a century ago. In that time we have improved upon every prior edition of Signs of Life, listening not only to the many adopters of the text who have reviewed it over the years in the development stage of each new edition, but adding changes based upon our own experiences using it in our own classes. Of these changes, the most important to me are the ongoing refinements of my description of the semiotic method—the unpacking of the often-intuitive mental activity that takes place when one interprets popular cultural phenomena. There is an increasingly meta-cognitive aspect to these descriptions, which break down into their component parts the precise details of a semiotic analysis—details that effectively overlap with any act of critical thinking. And, of course, every new edition responds to popular cultural events and trends with updated readings, updated chapter introductions that introduce fresh models of semiotic analysis, and the introduction of new chapter topics altogether. And in the case of the 9th edition, we have added plenty of material for instructors who may want to use the 2016 presidential election as a course theme or topic. But perhaps the most important refinements for those who adopt the text are those that Sonia brings to each new edition: the expansion and clarification of the writing apparatus in the text that guides students in the writing of their semiotic analyses.


As I draw to an end here, I realize that I could write an entire blog just on the history of the covers for Signs of Life. Maybe I will in my next blog entry.

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.