U.S. History Since 1876 (GT
U.S. History Since 1876 (GT HIST 151
Popular in Course
Popular in History
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Introduction POPULAR SIGNS Or Everything You Always Knew about American Culture But Nobody Asked It was a year in which the most famous soprano in America was named Tony A year in which reality was a television programming sensation and Collateral Damage a new Schwarzenegger flick just due for release It was a time when alien invaders were held at bay by primetime heroes with names like Buffy and Scully and Mulder and New York City was a giant television set ting famous for its Friends and its really good Sex Then without warn ing September 11quot or simply 911 became a part of American history and nothing almost everyone said would ever be the same As the nation mourned the destruction of the World Trade Center and the deaths of over three thousand innocent people it looked like this might be true With the shock waves from the terrorist attacks washing over the entire country the reverberations were felt everywhere not least in the vast realm of America s popular culture where suddenly our fascination with entertain ment and the men and women who entertain us appeared to be both frivo lous and irrelevant In short order the Emmy award ceremonythat glitter ing testimonial to American celebrity worship was postponed and the Latin Grammys canceled Collateral Damage an abouttobereleased thriller featur ing international terrorism itself became collateral damage and along with Tim Allen s Big Trouble stayed in the can Even the NFL which had played on in spite of the assassination of President john F Kennedy scrapped its week end football schedule INTRODUCTION The Day the Music Didn t Die But even as America geared up for an unconventional and uncertain war on terror and firefighters and police began to emerge as a new class of American hero there were signs of remarkable resilience in America s popular culture With the fires still smoldering in the ruins of the World Trade Center Sir Paul McCartney led an allstar cast of pop legends at Madison Square Garden to raise money for victims of the attacks The NFL pushed back the Super Bowl one week and returned to the gridiron while the World Series went on as scheduled The Mole went under a casualty of a sudden disenchantment with reality programming but Survivor Africa soldiered on Meanwhile two fantasy heroes named Harry and Frodo challenged box office history and after a dis creet fourmonth gap Collateral Damage was released after all And finally with U2 presiding over a star Spangled halftime testimonial to the victims of 911 Super Bowl XXXVI marked a crucial milepost in America s recovery That America returned so quickly to its popular culture indeed relied upon it to help cope with the disaster is itself a sign of just how important that culture is to us and how enduring Far from being a mere frivolity that we could easily do without our popular culture in effect is our culture constitut ing the essential fiber of our everyday lives From the way we entertain our selves to the goods and services we consume we are enveloped in a popular cultural environment that we can no longer do without To see this just try to imagine a world without television or movies or sports or music or shop ping malls or advertising or DVD MTV or MP3 Pop Culture ls Us Given the importance of popular culture to our lives and the life of our coun try it may seem surprising that until recently its study was largely excluded from university curricula Equated with low or mass culture popular cul ture was subordinated to the high culture that academia was charged with preserving and propagating Not until the advent of cultural studies which was first pioneered in English universities and which came to America in the late 19805 did the study of popular culture become a common and ac cepted topic for university study But as the barrier between high and low cul ture privileged and popular continues to erode in a world where the Three Tenors perform Pink Floydlike stadium gigs and Mel Gibson plays Hamlet where Romeo andjuliet is a rap opera and string quartets have been part of the rock scene ever since the Beatles39 Yesterday the study of pop culture is emerging as a mainstay of contemporary education This has been especially true in American composition classrooms which have been taking the lead in incorporating popular culture into academic study both because of the inherent interest value of the subject and because ertain war on s of American pular culture enter Sir Paul ire Garden to e Super Bowl 5 went on as antment with 3 two fantasy 51 after a dis And finally ie victims of ecovery Ideed relied 2v important Jllty that we e constitut itertain our n a popular just try to c or shop our coun 39 excluded ipular cul rged with es which ica in the and ac 1 low cul He Three Hamlet 1 part of ulture is s which ademic necause Popular Signs Tradiiional ex amples of Hhigh and quotlowquot culiure the symphony and the circus of Its profound familiarity to most students Your own expertise in popular culture means not only that you may know more about a given topic than your instructor but that you may use that knowledge as a basis for learning the critical thinking and writing skills that your composition class is charged to teach you This book is designed to show you how to do that how to write about American popular culture as you would write about any other aca demic subject We have prepared Signs ofLife in the USA in other words because we believe that you are already a sophisticated student of American culture Think of all you already know just list all the performers you can name Or television series Or movies Do you always pick the green MampMs especially when in mixed company or know the difference between Tupac and Wu Long Face it you re an expert So isn t that a good place to start learning how to write college essays with what you know already We all write best when we can write from our strengths and this book is intended to let you tap into your own storehouse of information and experience as you learn to write college essays Signs of Life in the USA then is designed to let you exploit your knowl edge of popular culture so that you may grow into a better writer about any subject You can interpret the popularity of programs like The West Wing for example in the same manner as you would interpret say a short story be cause The West Wing too constitutes a kind of sign A sign is something any thing that carries a meaning A stop Sign for instance means exactly what it says Stop when you approach this intersection while carrying the implied message or risk getting a ticketquot Words too are signs You read them to fig ure out what they mean You were trained to read such signs but that training began so long ago that you may well take your ability to read for granted But all your life you have been encountering and interpreting other sorts of signs that you were never formally taught to read You know what they mean any way Take the way you wear your hair When you get your hair cut you are not simply removing hair You are making a statement sending a message about yourself It s the same for both men and women For men think of the different messages you d send if you got a buzzcut to match a goatee or grew your hair out long or shaved your head What does a woman communicate when she chooses beaded braids rather than the sleek Gwyneth Paltrow look Why was your hair short last year and long this year or long last year and short this year Aren t you saying something with the scissors In this way you make your hairstyle into a sign that sends a message about your identity You are surrounded by such signs just look at your classmates The world of signs could be called a kind of text the text of America s popular culture We want you to think of Signs of Life in the USA as a win dow onto that text What you read in this book s essays and introductions should lead you to study and analyze the world around you bet the readings guide you to your own interpretations your own readings of the text of America a in popular topic than for learning is charged at how to y other aca because we tan culture 1 name Or especially ac and Wu lrt learning write best l to let you nu learn to our knowl about any th39ng for story be thing any tly what it ie implied tent to fig at training anted But ts of signs nean any t you are message ink of the a or grew municate quotow look year and this way identity lmerica s as a win lductions readings a text of Popular Signs We have chosen nine windows in this edition of Signs of Life in the USA each of which looks out onto a separate but often interrelated seg ment of the American scene We have put some of the scenery directly into this book as when we include actual ads in our chapter on advertising or car toons that you can interpret directly Where it is impossible to put something directly into a textbook like a TV show or a movie we have included essays that help you think about specific programs and films and assignments that invite you to go out and interpret a TV show or movie of your own choosing Each chapter also includes an introduction written to alert you to the kinds of signs you will find there along with advice on how to go about interpreting them We have designed Signs of Life in the USA to reflect the many ways in which culture shapes our sense of reality and of ourselves from the things that we buy to the ways that culture through such media as television and the movies constructs our ethnic and gender identities This text thus introduces you to both the entertainment and the ideological sides of popular culture and shows how the two sides are mutually interdependent Indeed one of the major lessons you can learn from this book is how to find the ideological INTRODUCTION underpinnings of some of the most apparently innocent entertainments and consumer goods Signs ofLife in the USA accordingly begins with a chapter on Consum ing Passionsquot because America is a consumer culture and so the environ ment within which the galaxy of popular signs functions is more often than not a consumerist one This is true not only for obvious consumer products like blue jeans and sport utility vehicles SUVs but for such traditionally non consumer items as political candidates and college campuses as well both of which are often marketed like any other consumer product It is difficult to find anything in contemporary America that is not affected in one way or an other by our consumerist ethos or by consumerism s leading promoter the advertiser Thus the second chapter Brought to You Buy explores the world of advertising for advertising provides the grease so to speak that lu bricates the engine of America s consumer culture Because television includ ing MTV and film are the sources of many of our most significant cultural products we include a chapter on each Chapters on sports gender race popular icons and public space round out our survey of everyday life Throughout the book invites you to go out and select your own texts for analysis an advertisement a film a fashion fad a political opinion a building and so on Here39s where your own experience is particularly valu able because it has made you familiar with many different kinds of popular signs and their backgrounds with the particular popular cultural system or en vironment to which they belong The nine windows you will find in Signs ofLife in the USA are all in tended to reveal the common intersections of entertainment and ideology that can be found in contemporary American life Often what seems to be simply entertainment like a TV show is actually quite political while what seems purely political like a gender conflict can be cast as entertainment as well as in movies like Thelma and Louise The point is to see that little in American life is merely entertainment indeed just about everything we do has a meaning often a profound one The Semiotic Method To find this meaning to interpret and write effectively about the signs of pop ular 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 descriptive reviews or opinion pieces There is nothing wrong with writing descriptions and opin ions but one of your tasks in your writing class is to learn how to write aca demic essays that is analytical essays that present theses or arguments that are well supported by evidence The method we draw on in this book a method that is known as semiotics is especially well suited for analyzing popular culture Whether or not you39re familiar with this word you are al ready pi ing this that mt means I tices se can be its mea ing a k just as other gi Ma name c ther ve nments and n Consum he environ 3 often than let products ionally non vell both of difficult to a way or an omoter the xplores the ak that lu ion includ ant cultural nder race ife Iwn texts opinion a ularly valu of popular stem or en are all in d ideology ems to be vhile what linment as at little in ting we do as of pop 15 book to terpreting e reviews and opin ivrite aca ients that book a analyzing ru are al Popular Signs ready practicing sophisticated semiotic analyses every day of your life Read ing 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 prac tices 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 mean ing 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 nei ther very new nor forbidding Its modern form took shape in the late nine teenth and early twentieth centuries through the writings and lectures of two men Charles Sanders Peirce 1839 1914 was an American 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 19505 by the French semiologist Roland Barthes 1915 1980 in a book entitled Mythologies 1957 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 analyz ing 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 Often the subject of a semiotic analysis a movie say or a TV pro gram doesn t look political at all it simply looks like entertainment in our society especially in the aftermath of the Watergate and Monicagate scan dais politics has become something of a dirty word and to politicize some thing seems somehow to contaminate it So you shouldn t feel alarmed if at first it feels a little odd to search for a political meaning in an apparently neu tral topic You may even think that to do so is to read too much into that topic 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 personal or group inter est Such interests are encoded in what are called ideologies or worldviews 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 in which the interests of all those who belong to it constantly compete with one another Take for example the way people have responded to the movie Forrest Gump Those viewers who like the film tend to share its conservative political INTRODUCTION values its celebration of individual responsibility and capitalist enterprise The same viewers on the other hand are less likely to enjoy Oliver Stone39s Nixon a film that gives a lessthanlflattering portrait of one of American con servatism s leading standardbearers of the last century in each case the viewers responses are shaped in part by their ideological and political inter ests not simply by their tastes in movie styles While not all movies are as manifestly political as these two are careful analysis usually can uncover some set of political values at the heart of a film although those values may be subtly concealed behind an apparently apoliti cal facade Indeed the political values that guide our social behavior are often concealed behind images that don t look political at all Consider for exam ple the depiction of the quottypicalquot American family in the classic TV sitcoms of the fifties and sixties particularly all those images of happy docile house wives To most contemporary viewers those images looked normal or nat ural 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 con trary 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 con vince women that their place is in the home not in the workplace competing with men Such images or signs did not re ect reality they reflected rather the interests of a patriarchal malecentered society If you think not then ask yourself why there were shows called Father Knows Best Bachelor Fa39 ther 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 Such are the kinds of questions that semiotics invites us to ask They may be put more generally When analyzing any popular cultural phenomenon al ways 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 ana lyzing any image or activity Take for instance the reason you may have joined a health club or de cided not to Did you happen to respond to a photo ad that showed you a gorgeous girl or guy with a nicelooking guy or girl in the background On the surface of the ad you simply see an image showingor denoting a pa tron of the club You may think I want to look like thatquot But there39s probably another dimension to the ads 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 that other figure appears in the back ground That s supposed to be you The one in the foreground is the sort of person you39re being promised you39ll 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 of getting you tojoin Suggestion or connotation is a much more power ful stimulai you are pre notative sn Health though ac telling you gestion is Willie Hort sic instanc Bush39s car one Willie someone i this fact E black an Massachu Signs commerci of electrOi learn to di Semit about idet ten the se modern li sible a quott such it is thing else peared T Interpre In 1998 returned Beetle w broadert One within its cultural s have occ distic ch commor swer to i the Thirc ter of W The enterprise liver Stone s 1erican con h case the litical inter are careful irt of a film ntly apoliti Jr are often 3 for exam sitcoms of cile house 1alquot or nat nd women 390 the con ony But to ll because ed to con competing reflected think not zchelor Fa few of the Of course er that her They may 1enon al he way it 1ey really Ihen ana lb or de ed you a Jnd On g a pa probably ie with a is a good he back e sort of say this effective 3 power Populur Signs ful stimulant than denotation but it is often deliberately masked in the signs you are presented with every day Semiotics one might say reveals all the de notative smoke screens around you Health club membership drives you may think aren39t 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 suga gestion is used all the time in actual political campaigns The now infamous Willie Horton episode during the 1988 presidential campaign provides a clas sic instance What happened was this Some Republican supporters of George Bush39s 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 of ten 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 acces sible 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 some thing else comes along to change the environment in which it originally ap peared Take the return of the VW Beetle Interpreting Popular Signs In 1998 after a hiatus of some twenty five years the Volkswagen New Beetle returned to the American automotive marketplace But the return of the Beetle was not only a consumer event it was also a sign an indicator of a broader trend within American popular culture The question is of what One of the key elements in a semiotic analysis is to situate your topic within its historical context and this is especially important in analyzing the cultural significance of the VW Beetle because of the dramatic changes that have occurred within its history Originally conceived as a kind of propagan distic challenge to America s ability to provide automotive transport to the common person the Volkswagen or people s wagonquot was Adolf Hitler39s an swer to the Model T It was expressly designed to connote the superiority of the Third Reich and to be a symbol of Germany s triumphant entry to the cen ter of world power and prosperity The defeat of Nazi Germany put a swift end to that significance and INTRODUCTION when the VW Beetle first appeared in American showrooms in the 19505 its meaning changed accordingly During an era of postwar prosperity when US automobiles the biggest and gaudiest on earth were signi ers of American affluence the humble Beetle was a car for the prudent and the penny pinching One of the first subcompact economy cars the VW Beetle with its underonethousanddollar price tag served as a kind of reverse status symbol identifying its owner as someone who didn39t have a lot of money to spend Realizing this the advertisers for the VW decided to make a virtue of necessity and so used humor to market their product as a homely but sen sible alternative in a marketplace of tailfinned extravagance and status sedans This humor and the low cost of the Beetle contributed to the next stage of the VW s semiotic history which intersected with the rise of the 19605 youth culture For then the Beetle along with its wildly popular Microbus cousin became the car of the counterculture a cheap set of wheels for free wheeling hippies who disdained the muscle cars luxury chariots and ordi nary autos of the rest of America Indeed original Beetles and Microbuses preferably plastered with Grateful Dead stickers retain something of that significance to this day mixing memory and nostalgia for many an aging baby boomer The Beetle disappeared from the American road in the 19705 as the hip pie scene turned yuppie and a host of more fuelefficient japanese subc0m pacts in those days they were known simply as Toyotas and Datsuns provided a more functional alternative in the wake of an exponential increase in gas prices Volkswagen scrapped the Beetle and turned to the Rabbit which never developed a cultural significance at all But as they say that was then and this is now The question for our semiotic analysis is what does the Beetle signify today it certainly isn t a sign of Nazi 1 sive fori nifier of of we n sign begin vv sociatio year wi seek to styles 1 product Beetle i new c der to there is Hei sis Am pickups lines v revival from tl ended irrevers and fur the epi as fuel alty of sign w Th sign 5 can lor of new associi that re ie 19505 its y when US f American the penny Beetle with Jerse status if money to a a virtue of 21y but sen and status 3 next stage the 19605 r Microbus 315 for free ing of that y an aging as the hip e subcom Datsuns a1 increase bit which on for our sn t a sign Popular Signs of Nazi prosperity nor is it simply a perky economy car it39s a bit too expen sive for that it s no signifier of the counterculture either But it is a sign a sig nifier of current popular cultural preoccupations To see what it is a signifier of we need to look at the current system in which the Beetle functions as a sign To establish the system in which a sign functions and gets its meaning we need to look at some things with which the sign can be associated or re lated for from a semiotic perspective the meaning of a sign largely lies in its relations to other signs both in its similarities and in its differences to them in other words when looking at a popular cultural sign you want to ask quotwhat is this thing like as well as how is it different from some of the things that it resemblesquot By asking such questions you establish a set of as sociations and differences You can then approach the semiotic significance of your topic Let s return to the Beetle to see how this works So ask yourself with what things can the return of the Beetle be associated It would be useful to begin with those products that are closest to it other automobiles But this as sociation while essential to our analysis only takes us so far because every year witnesses the introduction of new automobile lines as manufacturers seek to stimulate consumption through the introduction of new models and styles The Beetle39s return in other words is part of the system of automobile production and consumption but without any way of distinguishing the Beetle from other cars within the system its meaning would be limited to new car offering in a marketplace that continually offers new models in or der to stimulate consumptionquot This is a part of the Beetle s meaning but there is a lot more to it than that Here is where we can consider the role of di erence in a semiotic analy sis Among the new model car offerings of 1999 were a host of SUVs sedans pickups sports cars subcompacts in short the whole array of automotive lines What made the Beetle different was in large part the fact that it was a revival with some modifications of a popular and culturally acclaimed auto from the golden age of American motoring the 19505 and 19605 What ended this era was the Arab oil embargo of 1973 which sent gas prices on an irreversible sky rocket and prompted carmakers to search for more functional and fuelefficient automotive designs Chrysler s bland K Car might represent the epitome of this chapter in automotive history The Beetle which was not as fuel efficient as the new subcompacts from japan and Detroit was a casu alty of the gasoline spike and it can be argued that the flair of automotive de sign was as well The return of the Beetle then marked a return to an earlier era of car de sign So what significance can we find in this To answer this question we can look back to the primary system in which the Beetle figures the system of new car offerings at the end of the millenniumand look for some more associations or similarities What we find are a number of other automobiles that represent the revival of earlier largely abandoned styles from the golden INTRODUCTION age of American motoring These include the return of the sporty two seater inaugurated by the Mazda Miata and most recently reproduced by the return of the twoseated Thunderbird as well as the revival of the Mini There are also Chrysler39s PT Cruiser which while being a new design was intended to suggest the styling of a 19505 hotrod jalopy and Chevrolet39s SSR another new model with a 19405 profile So there has been a pattern of what might be called nostalgic revivals in the automotive marketplace This pattern already provides a clue as to the cul tural significance of the return of the Beetle but before describing that mean ing it would be useful to broaden our perspective a bit to see whether the pat tern we have found within the system of car production can be found within the broader system of American consumer behavior And sure enough it can Indeed the last five or ten years have seen quite a number of revivals from the 19505 and 19605 in 2001 for example SampH Greenstamps an icon of fifties and sixties consumer culture that disappeared years ago along with such relatives as Blue Chip Stamps and Plaid Stamps staged a digitalized comeback as Greenpoints In the realm of entertainment movies such as Ocean s II and The Rat Pack along with the emergence of a lounge music scene represented a revival of the SinatraMartinDavisLewisBishop era We could continue searching for related revivals but the outline of a sig nificant pattern is already emerging Clearly the turn of the century wit nessed a number of popular cultural revivals Such revivals arguably signify a certain nostalgia for a bygone era a desire to return to the products and im ages of the past This raises another question in our analysis so far Why should Americans desire to return to the past Here you need to look at a much broader context in your semiotic analy sis the overall mood and state of American consciousness By the end of the millennium that mood was at once jaunty in the wake of the huge stock market runup of the 19905 and uncertain as Americans worried about what Y2K would bring At times of uncertainty we tend to cling to those things that we know the old verities as it were in a consumer culture those things include triedandtrue consumer goods like well VW Beetles or Ford Thunderbirds The return of such vehicles reflects a calculated gamble on the part of their manufacturers that Americans would embrace them as signifiers of a more certain and comforting past But they are also signifiers of that end ofthenineties jauntiness for these like the PT Cruiser are also fun cars de liberately and strikingly cute and whimsical rather than being simply func tional As such they are representative signs of their times indeed But wouldn t you interpret the owner of a PT Cruiser differently from the owner of a VW Beetle Or what about a Thunderbird buyer Or a Mini pur chaser All these cars can be associated together and all bear a similar mean ing in one context but there are also their differences to consider These dif ferences help to establish an even more precise significance for the Beetle and so to conclude our analysis we must turn to them Wh say a P note gs bright g especial but not for betts being n model l age Sin about tl sort of as do n vertisin that the they dr tural r cult we or shoul order how car not c Anal y twoseater y the return ii There are intended to SR another c revivals in is to the cul ithat mean her the pat Jund within enough it of revivals lpS an icon along with digitalized es such as Inge music p era ie of a sig antury wit y signify a ts and im i far Why otic analy 3nd of the uge stock ied about 39 to those Jre those 5 or Ford tie on the signifiers that end cars de ply func from the Aini pur ir mean Liese dif 2 Beetle Popular Signs What differences can you note between the image of a Beetle owner and say a PT Cruiser driver Though there may be a number of differences to note gender difference is especially striking here for the Beetle with its bright green and yellow color options as well as its lowoctane cuteness has especially become the choice of women consumers With its relatively low but not bargain basement price tag the Beetle has become a favorite choice for betteroff young people especially women in their early careers While not being nearly as connotative as the Beetle of the 19605 then the current model has already assumed a certain significance sending an identifiable im age Since Americans have always used their automobiles to make statements about themselves and construct a personal image we can interpret just what sort of person is likely to drive what sort of car indeed we do this all the time as do market researchers who as you will see further in our chapter on ad vertising commonly construct consumer profiles on the basis of the products that they buy And after all don t you interpret others on the basis of the cars they drive Isn39t your own car a lifestyle signifier The Classroom Connection The interpretive analysis we have sketched out here is intended to illustrate the kind of thought process that goes into a semiotic analysis The historical surveying and contextualization the comparative associations and analytic distinctions and the drawing of interpretive conclusions are what come first in the writing process Once you have done that you will have your thesis or argument which will then form the structural backbone of your written analysis Your paper will present that thesis and defend it with the evidence that your semiotic thinking produced This process is in essence no different from the more conventional interpretive analyses you will be asked to per form in your college writing career it is in the nature of all interpretations to make Connections and mark differences to go beyond the surface of a text or issue toward a meaning The skills you already have as an interpreter of the popular signs around you of images objects and forms of behaviorare the same skills that you develop as a writer of critical essays that present an argued point of view and the evidence to defend it Because most of us tend to identify closely with our favorite popular cul tural phenomena and have strong opinions about them it can be more diffi cult to adopt the same sort of analytic perspective toward popular culture that we do toward say texts assigned in a literature class Still that is what you should do in a semiotic interpretation You need to set your opinions aside in order to pursue an interpretive argument with evidence to support it Note how in our interpretation of the VW Beetle we didn t say whether we like the car Our concern was what it might mean within a larger cultural context It is not difficult to express an opinion but that isn t the goal of analytic writing Analytic writing requires the martialing of supporting evidence just like a INTRODUCTION lawyer needs evidence to argue a case So by learning to write analyses of our culture by searching for supporting evidence to underpin your interpretive take on modern life you are also learning to write critical arguments But howquot you and perhaps your instructor may ask can I know that a semiotic interpretation is right Good question 4t is commonly asked by those who fear that a semiotic analysis might read too much into a subject But then it can be asked of the writer of any interpretive essay and the an swer in each case is the same No one can ever absolutely prove the truth of any argument in the human sciences what you do is persuade your audience through the use of pertinent evidence In writing analyses about popular cul ture that evidence comes from your knowledge of the system to which the object you are interpreting belongs The more you know about the system the more convincing your interpretations will be And that is true whether you are writing about popular culture or about more traditional academic subjects But often our interpretations of popular culture involve issues that are larger than those involved in music or entertainment How for instance are we to analyze fully the widespread belief as reflected in the Classic TV sit coms mentioned earlier that it is more natural for women to stay at home and take care of the kids than it is for men to do so Why in other words is the concept of housewife so easy to accept while the idea of a househusband may seem ridiculous How in short can we interpret some of our most basic values semiotically To see how we need to look at those value systems that semioticians call cultural mythologies 0f Myths and Men As we have seen in a semiotic analysis we do not search for the meanings of things in the things themselves Rather we find meaning in the way we can relate things together either through association or differentiation We39ve done this with the Beetle s place in popular culture but what about with be liefs This book asks you to explore the implications of social issues like gen der norms that involve a great many personal beliefs and values that we do not always recognize as beliefs and values Rather we think of them as truths as in Of course it s odd for a man 0 stay home and take care of the houselquot But from a semiotic perspective our values too belong to systems from which they take their meaning Semioticians call these systems of belief cultural mythologies A cultural mythology or myth for short is not some fanciful story from the past indeed if this word seems confusing because of its traditional asso ciation with such stories you may prefer to use the phrase value system Con sider the value system that governs our traditional thinking about gender roles Have you ever noticed how our society presumes that it is primarily the role of women adult daughters to take care of aging and infirm parents If you want to look at the matter from a physiological perspective it might seem that are physit aged Ant the nuclei It is cultw But v You may rounding rules of tl ate proct phone 5 the male they Cat A cu the way i tinted lei were the sume thz look otht of lenses lenses at of lenses The ality on of Euro other cu ture for values it ture beli vidual l demons its tale c terests young v band s c to be hlt that kee years at in their tale V than hi an exar ends at The ican o lyses of our interpretive its mow that a y asked by 3 a subject and the an he truth of ir audience gtopular cul which the he system hether you ic subjects as that are stance are sic TV sit y at home rwords is sehusband nost basic stems that anings of ly we can in We ve with be like gen at we do as truths e of the systems of belief Dry from nal asso em Con gender arily the parents it might l Popular Signs seem that men would be better suited to the task In a state of nature men are physically stronger and so would seem to be the natural protectors of the aged And yet though our cultural mythology holds that men should protect the nuclear family it tends to assign to women the care of extended families It is culture that decides here not nature But while cultural myths guide our behavior they are subject to change You may have already experienced a transitional phase in the myths sur rounding courtship behavior In the past the gender myths that formed the rules of the American dating game held that it is the role of the male to initi ate proceedings he calls and for the female to react she waits by the phone Similarly the rules once held that it is invariably the responsibility of the male to plan the evening and pay the tab These rules are changing aren39t they Can you describe the rules that now govern courtship behavior A cultural mythology or value system then is a kind of lens that governs the way we view our world Think of it this way Say you were born with rose tinted lenses permanently attached over your eyes but you didn t know they were there Because the world would look rosecolored to you you would pre sume that it is rosecolored You wouldn t wonder whether the world might look otherwise through different lenses But in the world there are other kinds of lenses and reality does look different to those who wear them Those lenses are cultural mythologies and no culture can claim to have the one set of lenses that sees things as they really are The profound effect our cultural mythologies have on the way we view re ality on our most basic values is especially apparent today when the myths of European culture are being challenged by the worldviews of the many other cultures that have taken root in American soil European American cul ture for example upholds a r 39 J39 quot 39 social 39 D that values individual rights before those of the group but traditional Chinese cul ture believes in the primacy of the family and the community over the indi vidual Maxine Hong Kingston s short story No Name Womanquot poignantly demonstrates how such opposing ideologies can collide with painful results in its tale of a Chinese woman who is more or less sacrificed to preserve the in terests of her village The story from The Woman Warrior 1976 tells of a young woman who gives birth to a baby too many months after her hus band s departure to America with most of her village s other young men for it to be her husband39s child The men had left to earn the money in America that keeps the impoverished villagers from starving They may be away for years and so need to be assured that their wives will remain faithful to them in their absence lest they refuse to go at all The unfortunate heroine of the tale who to sharpen the agony had probably been the victim of rape rather than the instigator of adultery is horribly punished by the entire village as an example to any other wives who might disturb the system The heroine ends a tragic suicide That Kingston wrote No Name Womanquot as a selfconscious Asian Amer ican one whose identity fuses both Chinese and EuroAmerican values INTRODUCTION reveals the fault lines between conflicting mythologies As an Asian Kingston understands the communal values behind the horrific sacrifice of her story s heroine and her story makes sure that her EuroAmerican readers understand this too But as an American and as a feminist she is outraged by the viola tion of an individual woman s rights on behalf of the group or mob which is how the village behaves in the story Kingston s own sense of personal con flict in this clash of mythologies Asian American and feminist offers a striking example of the inevitable conflicts that America itself will face as it changes from a monocultural to a multicultural society To put this another way from the semiotic perspective how you interpret something is very much a product of who you are for culture is just another name for the frames that shape our values and perceptions Traditionally American education has presumed a monocultural perspective a melting pot view that no matter what one s cultural background truth is culture39blind Langston Hughes took on this assumption many years ago in his classic poem Theme for English Bquot where he writes i guess I m whatI feel and see and hear and wonders whether my page will be colored when he writes Be ing me it will not be white the poet suggests but while he struggles to find what he holds in common with his white instructor he can t suppress the dif ferences In essence that is the Challenge of multicultural education to iden tify the different cultural codes that inform the mythic frameworks of the many cultures that share America while searching for what holds the whole thing together That meaning is not cultureblind that it is conditioned by systems of ide ology and belief that are codified differently by different cultures is a founda tional semiotic judgment Human beings in other words construct their own social realities and so who gets to do the constructing becomes very impor tant Every contest over a cultural code is accordingly a contest for power but the contest is usually masked because the winner generally defines its mythology as the truth as what is most natural or reasonable Losers in the contest become objects of scorn and are quickly marginalized declared un natural or deviant or even insane The stakes are high as myth battles myth with truth itself as the highest prize This does not mean that you must abandon your own beliefs when con ducting a semiotic analysis only that you cannot take them for granted and must be prepared to argue for them We want to assure you that semiotics will not tell you what to think and believe It does assume that what you be lieve reflects some cultural system or other and that no cultural system can claim absolute validity or superiority The readings and chapter introductions in this book contain their own values and ideologies and if you wish to chal lenge those values you can begin by exposing the myths that they may take for granted To put this another way everything in this book reflects a political point of view and if you hold a different one it is not enough to simply presuppose the innate superiority of your own point of view to claim that one writer is being political while you are simply telling the truth This may sound heretical i i F r i t it precisely invisibilit by saying gins thi alternath that som in societi myth thi other m5 America combinir Getting Mytholog ways kee constant this bool tried to r time it ta occur is somethir of semic Americai It s 3 critical Vi at answe analytic hypothe would be almost it come er should f tions kei plored S i The N m in Kingston f her story s understand y the viola ob which is arsonal con t offers a ill face as it 3U interpret ust another raditionally meltingpot ilture blind assic poem nd see and mites quotBe gies to find ess the dif in to iden rks of the the whole ms of ide a founda their own ery imp0r for power defines its ers in the clared un ties myth when con inted and semiotics it you be 39stem can oductions h to chai may take ical point esuppose writer is heretical Popular Signs precisely because human beings operate within value systems whose political invisibility is guaranteed by the system No mythology that is to say begins by saying this is just a political construct or interpretationquot Every myth be gins this is the truthquot it is very difficult to imagine from within the myth any alternatives indeed as you read this book you may find it upsetting to see that some traditional beliefs such as the proper roles of men and women in societyare socially constructed and not absolute But the outlines of the myth the bounding and binding frame best appear when challenged by an other myth and this challenge is probably nowhere more insistent than in America where so many of us are really hyphenated Americans citizens combining in our own persons two or more cultural traditions Getting Started Mythology like culture is not static however and so the semiotician must al ways keep his or her eye on the clock so to speak History time itself is a constant factor in a constantly changing world Since the previous editions of this book American popular culture has moved on In this edition we have tried to reflect those changes but inevitably further changes will occur in the time it takes for this book to appear on your class syllabus That such changes occur is part of the excitement of the semiotic enterprise There is always something new to consider and interpret What does not change is the nature of semiotic interpretation Whatever you choose to analyze in the realm of American popular culture the semiotic approach will help you understand it it s your turn now Start asking questions pushing probing That s what critical writing is all about but this time you39re part of the question Arriving at answers conclusions is the fun part here but answers aren39t the basis of analytic thinking Questions are You always begin with a question a query a hypothesis something to explore if you already knew the answer there would be no point in conducting the analysis We leave you to it to explore the almost infinite variety of questions that the readings in this book raise Many come equipped with their own quotanswersquot but you may indeed will and should find such answers raise further questions To help you ask those ques tions keep in mind the two elemental principles of semiotics that we have ex plored so far I The meaning of a sign can be found not in itself but in its relationships both differences and similarities with other signs within a system To in terpret an individual sign then you must determine the general system in which it belongs What we call social reality is a human construct the product of a cul tural mythology or value system that intervenes between our minds and the world we experience Such cultural myths reflect the values and ideo logical interests of its builders not the laws of nature or logic N Perhaps our first principle could be more succinctly phrased everything INTRODUCTION is connectedquot and our second simply summarized as question authorityquot Think of them that way if it helps Or just ask yourself whenever you are inter preting something what s going on here In short question everything And one more reminder Signs are like weather vanes they point in response to invisible historical winds We invite you now to start looking at the weather
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