Jack Solomon

What We're Talking About When We Talk About Cultural Semiotics

Blog Post created by Jack Solomon Expert on Oct 31, 2019

When Sonia and I began working on the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. in 1992, semiotics was still regarded as a rather obscure scholarly discipline generally associated with literary theory and linguistics. It also was quite literally unheard of to attempt to employ semiotics as a model for critical thinking in first-year composition classes, and Chuck Christensen, the Publisher and Founder of Bedford Books, was rather sticking his neck out when he offered us a contract. To help everyone at Bedford along in the development process of this unusual textbook, he asked me to provide a one-page explanation of what semiotics actually is, and I responded with a semiotic analysis of the then-popular teen fashion of wearing athletic shoes—preferably Nikes—with their shoelaces untied. That did the trick and Sonia and I were on our way.

 

As you may note, the focus of my semiotic explanation for the Bedford folks was on an object (athletic shoes), with the intent of demonstrating how ordinary consumer products could be taken as signs bearing a larger cultural significance. This was quite consistent with semiotic practice at the time in the field of popular cultural studies, which frequently analyzed cultural objects and images. But even then I knew that the real focus of cultural semiotics in Signs of Life was human behavior as mediated by such things as fashion preferences, and with each new edition of the book, I have been further refining just what that means.

 

And so, as I work on the tenth edition of the book, I have come to realize that the semiotic analysis of cultural behavior bears a close relationship to the science of artificial intelligence. For just like AI, the semiotics of human behavior works with aggregated patterns based upon what people actually do rather than what they say. Consider how the ALEKS mathematics adaptive learning courseware works. Aggregating masses of data acquired by tracking students as they do their math homework on an LMS, ALEKS algorithmically anticipates common errors and prompts students to correct them step-by-step as they complete their assignments. This is basically the same principle behind the kind of algorithms created by Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which are designed to anticipate consumer behavior, and it's also the principle behind Alexa and Siri.

 

Now, semioticians don't spy on people, and they don't construct algorithms, and they don't profit by their analyses the way the corporate titans do, but they do take note of what people do and look for patterns by creating historically informed systems of association and difference in order to provide an abductive basis for the most likely, or probable, interpretation of the behavior that they are analyzing—as when in my last blog I looked at the many decades in which the character of the Joker has remained popular in order to interpret that popularity.

 

Now, to take another fundamental principle of cultural semiotics—that of the role of cultural mythologies in shaping social behavior—one can anticipate a good deal of resistance (especially from students) to the notion that individual human behavior can be so categorically interpreted in this way, for the mythology of individualism runs deep in the American grain. We like to think that our behavior is entirely free and unconstrained by any sort of mathematically-related probabilities. But it wouldn't bother a probability theorist, especially one like Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician, who has noted that “Just as vast numbers of randomly moving molecules, when put together, produce completely predictable behavior in a gas, so do vast numbers of human possibilities, each totally unpredictable in itself, when aggregated, produce an amazing predictability”.

 

So, when we perform a semiotic interpretation of popular culture, we are on the lookout for that probability curve, even as we anticipate individual outriders and exceptions (which can themselves point to different patterns that may be equally significant in what is, after all, an overdetermined interpretation). But our goal as semioticians is to reveal the significance of the patterns that we find, not to exploit them, and thus, perhaps, modify those behaviors that, all unawares, are doing harm.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2587756 by Stock Snap, used under Pixabay License

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