The Semiotic Method

Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon

from Signs of Life in the USA. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994. 4-9.

To interpret and write effectively about the signs of popular culture, you need a method, and it is part of the purpose of this book to introduce such a method to you. Without a methodology for interpreting signs, writing about them could become little more than producing descriptive reviews or opinion pieces. There is nothing wrong with writing descriptions and opinions, but one of your tasks in your writing class is to learn how to write academic essays, that is, analytical essays that are well supported by evidence. The method we are drawing upon in this book--a method that is known as "semiotics"--is especially designed for the analysis of popular culture. Whether or not you're familiar with this word, you are already practicing sophisticated semiotic analyses every day of your life. Reading this page is an act of semiotic decoding (words and even letters are signs that must be interpreted), but so is figuring out just what your classmate means by wearing a particular shirt or dress. For a semiotician (one who practices semiotic analysis), a shirt, a haircut, a television image, anything at all, can be taken as a sign, as a message to be decoded and analyzed to discover its meaning. Every cultural activity for the semiotician leaves a trace of meaning, a kind of blip on the semiotic Richter scale, that remains for us to read, just as a geologist "reads" the earth for signs of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other geological phenomena.

Many who hear the word "semiotics" for the first time assume that it is the name of a new, and forbidding, subject. But in truth, the study of signs is neither very new nor forbidding. Its modern form took shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the writings and lectures of two men. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was an Amencan philosopher and physicist who first coined the word "semiotics," while Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguist whose lectures became the foundation for what he called "semiology." Without knowing of each other's work, Peirce and Saussure established the fundamental principles that modern semioticians or semiologists--the terms are essentially interchangeable--have developed into the contemporary study of semiotics.

The application of semiotics to the interpretation of popular culture was pioneered in the 1950s by the French semiologist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) in a book entitled Mythologies. The basic principles of semiotics had already been explored by linguists and anthropologists, but Barthes took the matter to the heart of his own contemporary France, analyzing the cultural significance of everything from professional wrestling to striptease, from toys to plastics.

It was Barthes, too, who established the political dimensions of semiotic analysis. In our society (especially in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal), "politics" has become something of a dirty word, and to "politicize" something seems somehow to contaminate it. But Barthes's point--and the point of semiotics in general--is that all social behavior is political in the sense that it reflects some kind of personal or group interest. Such interests are encoded in what are called "ideologies," which are essentially world views that express the values and opinions of those who hold them. Politics, then, is just another name for the clash of ideologies that takes place in any complex society where the interests of all those who belong to it are constantly in competition with each other.

But often the ideological interests that guide our social behavior remain concealed behind images that don't look political at all. Consider, for example, the depiction of the "typical" American family in the classic TV sitcoms of the fifties and sixties, particularly all those images of happy, docile housewives. To most contemporary viewers, those images looked "normal" or natural at the time that they were first broadcast--the way families and women were supposed to be. The shows didn't seem at all ideological. To the contrary, they seemed a retreat from political rancor to domestic harmony. But to a feminist semiotician, the old sitcoms were in fact highly political, because the happy housewives they presented were really images designed to convince women that their place is in the home, not in the workplace competing with men. Such images--or signs--did not reflect reality; they reflected, rather, the interests of a patriarchal, male-centered society. If you think not, then ask yourself why there were shows called Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, and My Three Sons, but no My Three Daughters? And why did few of the women in the shows have jobs or ever seem to leave the house! Of course, there was always I Love Lucy, but wasn't Lucy the screwball character that her husband Ricky had to rescue from one crisis after another?

These are the kinds of questions that semiotics invites us to ask. They may be put more generally. When analyzing any popular cultural phenomenon, always ask yourself questions like these: Why does this thing look the way it does? Why are they saying this? Why am I doing this? What are they really saying? What am I really doing? In short, take nothing for granted when analyzing any image or activity.

Take, for instance, the reason you may have joined a health club (or decided not to). Did you happen to respond to a photo ad that showed you a gorgeous girl or guy (with a nice-looking guy or girl in the background)? On the surface of the ad, you simply see an image showing--or denoting--a patron of the club. You may think: "I want to look like that." But there's probably another dimension to the ad's appeal. The ad may show you someone with a nice body, but what it is suggesting--or connoting--is that this club is a good place to pick up a hot date. That's why there's that other figure in the background. That's supposed to be you. The one in the foreground is the sort of person you are being promised you'll find at the club. The ad doesn't say this, of course, but that's what it wants you to think because that's a more effective way to get you to join. Suggestion, or connotation, is a much more powerful stimulant than denotation, but it is often deliberately masked in the signs you are presented with every day. Semiotics, one might say, reveals the denotative smokescreens around you.

Health club membership drives, you may be thinking, aren't especially political (though actually they are when you think of the kinds of bodies that they are telling you are desirable to have), but the powerful effect of a concealed suggestion is used all the time in actual political campaigns. The now infamous "Willie Horton" episode during the 1988 presidential campaign provides a classic instance. What happened was this: Some Republican supporters of George Bush's candidacy ran a series of TV ads featuring the photographic image of one Willie Horton, a convicted rapist from Massachusetts who murdered someone while on parole. On the surface, the ads simply showed, or denoted, this fact. But what they connoted was racial hatred and fear (Willie Horton is black), and they were very effective in prompting white voters to mistrust Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and to vote instead for George Bush.

Signs, in short, often conceal some interest or other, whether political, or commercial, or whatever. And the proliferation of signs and images in an era of electronic technology has simply made it all the more important that we learn to decode the interests behind them.

Semiotics, accordingly, is not just about signs and symbols: It is equally about ideology and power. This makes semiotics sound rather serious, and often the seriousness of a semiotic analysis is quite real. But reading the text of modern life can also be fun, for it is a text that is at once popular and accessible, a "book" that is intimately in touch with the pulse of American life. As such, it is constantly changing. The same sign can change meaning if something else comes along to change the environment in which it originally appeared. Take the way shoelaces have changed their meaning in recent years.

Image ... Is Everything, or, the Semiotics of Shoelaces

A few years ago (fashion systems move quickly), American high school students began wearing hightop basketball sneakers (preferably Nike or Reebok) with the laces unlaced. At the time, our students explained why they did this: "Because it's more convenient," they told us, "keeping them unlaced makes it easier to put them on and take them off." A functional answer. One that appears "natural" and therefore politically neutral. But then, if mere function were behind it all, why were kids lacing their sneakers the year before and why are they lacing them again now? Or why weren't they wearing loafers? To answer such questions, we first must look at the difference between a laced and an unlaced sneaker.

In itself, the difference between lacing and unlacing a sneaker means nothing. But consider it as part of the teen fashion system of the late 1980s. That is, compare it to the other accessories and ways of wearing those accessories that were in fashion then among American teens. Consider baseball caps. If you were to wear one, would you put it on bill forward or bill backward? Or take overalls. Would you wear them with the straps hanging or buckled? Now, how would you interpret a young man wearing a baseball cap bill forward, with buckled overalls and laced Keds hightops? How would he differ from one wearing his cap backward, dangling both straps of his overalls, and wearing unlaced Nike Air Jordans? The differences are everything here, for in the last few years, an observer of fashion example number one who knew the code would interpret him as an unfashionable hick, while example number two would have registered as dressing in the height of teen fashion.

But why was it fashionable to wear one's baseball cap backward, shoelaces untied, and overall straps unbuckled? To answer these questions, we must take our fashion statement and associate it with related popular trends from the period, including music, television, and the movies. In short, we have to look at the whole spectrum of pop culture to see what was going on and whether any of it relates to our fashion sign.

So, what music was hot when unlaced Nikes came into fashion? Heavy metal? Yes, but metal fans wore motorcycle boots with chains on them. Black leather. Stuff like that. Meanwhile, the post-punk scene was getting into Doc Martens. So what else was important at the time? Rap, of course. "Straight outta Compton." And what did rap fans wear at the time? Baseball caps worn bill backward, unlaced hightops (preferably Nikes and Reeboks), and happing overalls (or, perhaps, baggy trousers). Now, who else dressed this way? Who, in fact, started it in the first place?

If you answered that question "black street gangs and rap stars," you are on to the system through which we may interpret such things as shoelaces and baseball caps. In semiotic terms, a system is a kind of field of related things, and their meaning comes from how they relate to each other. Unlaced shoelaces may mean nothing when taken by themselves, for example, but when viewed withinthe system of teen fashion in the late eighties, a system that included the growing popularity of the imagery of the urban street gang, they may mean a lot, projecting an image that anyone who knew the system could quickly pick up. To those in the know, the system even had a name: hip-hop.

At this point in our analysis (which we have slowed down, so to speak, to show how it happens), we can ask some simple questions whose answers may be quite complex. Why, for example, was it so important to wear Nikes or Reeboks? Why did some kids literally kill for a certain brand of shoe? What images did these brand lines project that Keds did not? And why, finally, did a fashion sign once associated with street gangs, and thus with a racial and economic underclass, become such a popular fashion sign among middle- and upper-class kids? To answer such questions, you must first make a distinction between what a fashion sign might mean to you personally and what it signifies to society at large. You may have some very private reasons for dressing as you do, for example, and many of the signs in your life may have deeply personal meanings (your favorite blue jeans, for instance, may remind you of your first date). But in a cultural interpretation, you want to focus on the social meaning of things, what they mean to others. To discover the social dimensions of the signs in your life, you will want to explore as much of the American cultural spectrum as you can. In the case of unlaced sneakers, you may want to look at what was popular at the time in teen television programming. Do you remember, for example, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a sitcom featuring a kid from Compton (a code word for the black ghetto) who moves to Bel Air (code for extreme white affluence)? Or In Living Color, a teen-audience variety show that featured, among other regulars, Homey the Clown, a white-middle-class-bashing street parody of Bozo the Clown (that icon of the lily-white suburban sixties) whose appeal crossed over (like the Fresh Prince) from Compton to Bel Air? Such popular shows belonged to the same system of teen fashion that shoes and caps belonged to and can help you to decode what was going on among America's teens at the time they appeared.

Rather than pursuing this interpretation, we will stop to let you draw your own conclusions. Try to recall what you yourself thought. Did you reverse your cap because everyone else was doing it, or because you wanted to identify with your favorite rapper? Did you feel that your way of dressing conveyed a political message, or were you just being fashionable? If fashion was all there was to it, ask yourself why the styles of an urban underclass became fashionable to suburban kids?

In practice, the interpretational process we are inviting you to begin may occur in the blink of an eye, as you quickly size up the meaning of the innumerable signs that present themselves to you in an average day. Some signs may even look rather "obvious" to you, but that's because you've already made the interpretation. Ordinarily, however, our interpretations stop at the threshold of the more probing questions--just as we have paused here--at the questions that ask not only whether something is fashionable but what it means that the thing is fashionable in the first place. That's what cultural semiotics is all about: going beyond what a sign is to explain what it means.