The Goal of Cultural Semiotics

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As I begin a new semester of teaching popular cultural semiotics, I'd like to succinctly sum up here—both for any of my students who may drop in to read this and, of course, for anyone else who may be interested—what the goal of cultural semiotics is.  The first thing to note is the qualifier "cultural":  that is, while cultural semiotics most certainly includes semiotics, as such, there can be a crucial difference between what a cultural-semiotic analysis is looking for and what other sorts of things semiotic analyses do.  For example, a semiotic analysis can be entirely formalistic in nature, seeking to decode the particular signs and symbols within one's subject—as, for instance, the sort of thing that I have seen in an online interpretation of Breaking Bad that focuses on the way colors were used in the show to signify character traits.  Such analyses can be quite similar to a New Critical reading of a text, and they are very useful indeed in the performance of a cultural-semiotic analysis; but a cultural-semiotic analysis goes beyond this to cultural signifiers that transcend such formal particulars. Taking as axiomatic that nothing in our commercialized popular culture would exist if there was not some expectation that it would find a market or audience, cultural semiotics, that is to say, analyzes the consumption of popular culture, and what that may say about its consumers.  Since the consumption of entertainments and many (if not most) consumer goods is voluntary (e.g., no one is forced to watch TV or the movies), we can assume that something in a popular cultural topic is attractive to its consuming audience.  To put this another way, to say that something is "only an entertainment" or is "only fashionable" is to miss the point: cultural semiotics begins with the presumption that the artifacts of popular cultural are intended to be entertaining or fashionable, and then asks what is the significance of the fact that large numbers of people are entertained or attracted by this? Saying that a movie or TV series, for instance, is entertaining because it is "distracting," however, isn't saying enough.  Yes, entertainments are distractions, but audiences are distracted by different kinds of entertainments at different times in history, so a cultural-semiotic analysis situates its topics not only in the present but also in relation to the past to see what differences may distinguish current popular cultural artifacts from past ones, and these differences guide the way to their interpretation. Thus, unlike a formalistic semiotic analysis, which can focus on a single topic as if it was frozen in time, a cultural-semiotic analysis has to contextualize its topics historically.  Often the same object of analysis means something different at different times, and those differences in meaning reflect differences in cultural consciousness. It is also important to note that a cultural-semiotic analysis is not an expression of esthetic taste or preference: that is, it is not a “review” or an opinion of whether something is entertaining or not.  At the same time, a cultural-semiotic analysis is not a moral judgment.  One may have moral opinions about the significance of one’s topic, but those opinions are not a part of the analysis, which is concerned with what is, not with what ought to be.  Similarly, while a cultural-semiotic analysis commonly involves politics, its politics is descriptive, not prescriptive.  Of course, the analyst will inevitably have political opinions with respect to the politics of a topic, but the expression of those opinions, while they may form part of the conclusion of an argumentative essay, is not what the analysis seeks—which is to be, as far as possible, an objective assessment of social meaning. In this regard, cultural semiotics, while pioneered by Roland Barthes, tries to avoid the kind of political self-privileging that Barthes explicitly claims in his book Mythologies when he identifies “myth” with the bourgeois Right and (rather laboriously) seeks to exempt the Left from “mythic” discourse.  For a cultural-semiotic analysis in the sense I am describing here, mythology—the coded systems of signs within which cultures live and communicate—can be found everywhere, and can be decoded accordingly. So, whether you are looking at Lady Gaga or Duck Dynasty, the goal is the same: a cultural analysis of what their popularity signifies.  You can be a fan, or not, of their esthetics and/or politics, but your cultural-semiotic analysis isn’t concerned with that.  It is concerned with social significance.
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.