This blog was originally posted on February 15th, 2015.
It is hard not to be aware of the kerfluffle over the many Oscar nominations for the movie American Sniper—especially its nod for Best Picture. The whole thing was quite predictable: take a controversial book about a controversial topic and have it directed by Hollywood’s successor to John Wayne in the hearts of American conservatives, and you have all the makings of a Twitter Tornado (just ask Seth Rogen and Michael Moore). Thus, American Sniper is a natural choice for semiotic attention in your popular culture classes. The only question is how to approach it.
Here’s what not to do: a semiotic analysis should not begin with the presumption of an ideological “right answer.” Whether you, or more importantly your students, are ideologically inclined against or in favor of the film must be set aside because a semiotic analysis decodes its topic rather than celebrates or condemns it, and while that decoding involves the analysis of ideological and mythological signifiers, it must be open to all possibilities. Thus, an analysis of American Sniper would consider the signifiers both within the film and outside it in order to describe why it is controversial and what is at stake. Such an analysis must take nothing for granted, objectively considering, for example, just why the names “Clint Eastwood,” “Michael Moore,” and “Seth Rogen” signify a lot more than the mere referents of three proper nouns. It must not simply dismiss one side of the controversy or the other, because the primary purpose of a cultural semiotic analysis is to reveal cultural significance, not present uncritically assumed ideological conclusions.
In short, when placed within the systematic context of contemporary American culture and politics, American Sniper is a sign—a sign of just how divided America is these days. When restaurant owners feel the need to “ban” Michael Moore and Seth Rogen from their premises because of a few tweets about the film, you can see just how emotional people are getting over the matter—and that emotion is a semiotic component of the larger system.
What is true for the analysis of American Sniper is true for the analysis of any popular cultural phenomenon. While it is true that one can always move from a semiotic analysis to a political or ethical argument within an essay, the semiotic analysis itself must not presuppose a right or wrong answer or position.
But one thing certainly is true: in the current social environment, hardly anything in America is without political significance. There is very little entertainment that is “merely entertainment.” Semiotics uncovers the politics behind the often trivial looking surface of popular culture, and given the investment that so many people have in taking their own positions for granted, that uncovering can be the most controversial—but, I think, useful—politics of all.