The Semiotics of Critical Thinking

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When Sonia Maasik and I proposed the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. to Bedford Books back in 1992, our intention, as we put it in the preface to the first edition, was to address the challenge presented to writing instructors by the "transformation from a text-centered to an image-centered culture." Our choice of the semiotic method was designed to help writing instructors teach critical thinking and writing by guiding their students in the analysis of popular cultural images with which they are already familiar and for which they have a certain affection. The last two decades have shown that what might be called our "imagistic turn" for composition instruction has been a successful one. But with so many thematic composition readers now making use of images, and a growing numbers of writing instructors encouraging their students to compose with a video camera, a certain fundamental semiotic principle may need clarifying. This principle involves the distinction between what Charles Sanders Peirce called an "iconic sign" and what he termed a "symbolic sign." An iconic sign is a sign, like a photograph, that resembles its meaning or referent. A symbolic sign, on the other hand, is a sign, like a word written in alphabetic letters, that has a purely conventional and abstract relation to its meaning. The former, of course, includes images; the latter does not. And since each kind of sign involves a different kind of mental activity, it is worth considering their differences further. Let's begin with the iconic sign. As a picture or image, it is fundamentally a right-brain-processed phenomenon, insofar as the right brain dominates in the processing of spatial pattern recognition. The right brain is also identified with emotion. The symbolic sign, on the other hand, is concerned with analytic thinking, with language and logic. Is is associated with the left brain, and the left brain is identified with reason. Of course, no one ever thinks purely in a right-brained or a left-brained manner, and both sides of the brain are always at work together, but I think that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that images appeal more to one's emotions than words do, while concepts, as expressed in words, are better suited for rational analysis. Thus, the purpose of our use of semiotics in Signs of Life in the U.S.A. is precisely to take advantage of the emotional appeal of popular cultural imagery in order to guide students to analyze those images rationally through critical thinking and writing. By exploring the conceptual mythologies behind images, the semiotic method moves from right-brain intensive to left-brain intensive analysis—something different from the actual creation of images. Images are emotionally powerful signs, no doubt about it. But at a time of political schism in our country dominated by emotion rather than reason, the need to be certain that we are teaching left-brain-intensive critical-thinking skills appears to me to be of the utmost importance.
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.