What is Semiotics Anyway?

A tour through an obscure academic discipline that helped make a handful of Brown University graduates very famous

Paul Greenberg

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Signifier or signified? You tell me. . .

In 1982 Ira Glass, the future creator and host of the public radio program “This American Life,” received a bachelor’s degree from Brown University in a discipline called Semiotics. On graduation day, Glass’s father took out a classified in the local newspaper and handed it to his son when he stepped down from the podium, diploma in hand.

“Corporate office seeks semiotics grad for high paying position,” the ad read.

Glass dismissed the joke as inane, parental cluelessness. “My religion was semiotics,” he recalled. “Before semiotics I was, like, a middle-class kid who didn’t know what he believed. . .. Semiotics, basically, was exactly the way I defined myself.”

It was not only Glass who defined himself as a Brown semiotician. From its founding as a fledgling “program” in 1974 to its morphing into a full scale Department of Modern Culture and Media in 1996, Brown semiotics produced a crop of creators that, if they don’t exactly dominate the cultural mainstream, certainly have grown famous sparring with it. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, Academy Award-nominated director Todd Haynes. legendary indie producer Christine Vachon, Ice Storm author Rick Moody, pop-science writer Steven Johnson — all walked the slanting corridors of Adams House, a sad cottage at the fringe of Brown’s Providence campus. There at the bottom of College Hill, under the aegis of an august English professor, an academic discipline sprang up that would make some parents very worried and some students very successful.

Shout the word semiotics across a room today, and the room will very likely shout back at you, “What do you mean, semiotics?” It’s a good question and at the same time, according to semiotics, a uselessly subjective question, for semiotics is the study of meaning itself — or rather how images and words (like semiotics, for example) come to mean anything at all.

“I was dazzled by this hope, to give my denunciation of the self-proclaimed petit-bourgeois myths the means of developing…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org