The Inquiry Is the Instigation

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In my seminars on popular culture, my students make a class presentation on a popular cultural topic of their choice that forms the basis for their research papers. One requirement for their presentations is to explain both what their topic is and why they chose it. Over the years, this apparently basic task has proven to be more challenging than it appears, so I now offer to students my own reasons for choosing the topics that I write about as a cultural semiotician. The first point I raise is that selecting a topic for a researched semiotic interpretation should not be a random act. As in a scientific research program, the choice of the topic begins with a need to answer a significant question. The researcher does not yet know the answer, but may have some educated guesses that the project is intended to test. Thus, the choice of a topic represents not only an interest in a question or problem but also a general sense of where to go with it. It's particularly important to choose a topic not simply because a student "likes" it. In the semiotic interpretation of popular culture this is a particular hazard, because affection for one's topic can result in an inability to maintain the objective stance necessary to conduct an analysis. It is possible, of course, to have a fondness for one's topic and be able to think critically about it (I have a lifelong affection for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, but that does not prevent me from seeing the rather serious political problems with that lovely fantasy), but it's not easy for those who are first learning about popular cultural semiotics to be able to do so. What often results is a paper that is more like a press release or puff piece. As a reason for choosing certain topics for my own semiotic analysis, I point out the following: why I have returned, on a number of occasions here in my Bits blog, to the popular culture of the 1960s and its historical aftermath? I can assure you that it is not out of an affection for the events of the sixties—quite the contrary. Rather, as I look at the increasingly corporatist/hypercapitalist trajectory of American society (a trajectory that has been uninterrupted no matter which political party holds the White House), I ask myself, quite simply, "what happened?" How did a generation (the largest of its kind in American history) whose cultural ethos profoundly challenged the corporate/capitalist "Establishment" end up participating in the construction of an America that is now making the 1950s look progressive? As I have stated before, there is no single answer to such a question, but the pursuit of answers, I believe, is crucial to any attempt to reverse the trend. You can't stop something if you do not understand what you are trying to stop. So, I will be returning here to what I regard to be one of the most important cultural questions of our time, the question of how a mass cultural challenge to one sort of society became an embrace, of how a decade of sociocultural exploration and experimentation rapidly transitioned to four decades of corporatist entrenchment whereby universities became "brands," students became "consumers," and scholars became "entrepreneurs."  Four decades in which the collectivist spirit of sixties youth culture has retreated before a wave of libertarianism. Four decades in which the grandest social accomplishments of the thirties and forties (Social Security, Medicare, unionization) are being unraveled by the children and grandchildren of the generations that fashioned them. My thinking so far about this historical conundrum has taken me to many places. There is always something more to consider and some of it is very sensitive stuff. But it is the road that I am now traveling in my popular cultural analyses, simply because I think it is the most significant social phenomenon of our times.
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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.