What is Semiotics Anyway?

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Ira Glass, Todd Haynes, Rick Moody, Christine Vachon (and many others) first took the red pill that decoded the universe when they signed up for Brown University’s controversial new major

In 1982 Ira Glass, the future creator and host of the public radio program “This American Life,” graduated from Brown University with a degree in semiotics. In response, his parents took out a classified ad in their local newspaper: “Corporate office seeks semiotics grad for high paying position.” Glass was not discouraged. “My religion was semiotics,” he recalled in a recent interview. “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 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 and 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 is 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.

Put another way, semiotics is about how we derive meaning from context. In the context of this article, those who like “This American Life” may have been drawn in because “Ira Glass” signifies a certain quirky intelligence. Meanwhile, those of you who never heard of Ira Glass but who recognized the words “public radio” have probably already abandoned this article, because you associate public radio with being all alone on a Sunday afternoon and have concluded semiotics might be similarly isolating.

As you would expect, this kind of self-referential thinking was first expressed in French. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiologie while teaching his landmark “Course on General Linguistics” at the University of Geneva from 1906–11. Saussure posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a “signifier,” i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the “signified,” or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued “sign.” Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.

But a working semiotician doesn’t go home after splitting a few signs. Signs operate within “codes” (a.k.a. languages) which are themselves building blocks of larger structures, like narratives. In the 1960s a group of thinkers arose around the idea that narratives could be “decoded” to reveal those elements that stimulated psychological pleasure.

Since it was the `60s, these philosophers soon found a political angle. Narrative pleasure was manufactured for the amusement of the bourgeoisie, they reasoned, and therefore breaking narrative codes could be a way of breaking the spell that the bourgeoisie cast over society through books, movies, newspaper articles, and the like. “I was dazzled by this hope,” wrote Roland Barthes, author of the ground-breaking book “Mythologies” (1957), “to give my denunciation of the self-proclaimed petit-bourgeois myths the means of developing scientifically; this means was semiology.”

How a nice university like Brown got mixed up in a theory like this is largely the responsibility of Robert Scholes, professor emeritus of English and current president of the Modern Language Association, and a man who bears more than a passing resemblance to The Architect in “The Matrix Reloaded.” In the late `60s, Scholes, thanks to his coauthored book “The Nature of Narrative,” was invited to participate in a conference of semioticians in Paris. When he moved to Brown in 1970, he found a campus whose openness to new lines of teaching and research would make it the perfect incubator for these new ideas.

As a scholar of modernism, Scholes had always felt that an English department needed to go beyond books and embrace cinema. To this end, in 1973 he recruited Michael Silverman, a theory-savvy scholar who had set up the film program at UC-Santa Barbara but had grown frustrated with a stodgy English department and an environment where students “surfed to class.” At Brown, recalls Silverman today, he saw a chance to engage in the “interrogation of certain ideological assumptions that seemed to be attendant upon, sort of, bourgeois notions of pleasure.”

Despite limited funding, Scholes and Silverman began incorporating film screenings into the English curriculum. Soon the students themselves, including Tim Forbes, son of billionaire Malcolm and one of Brown’s first semiotics grads, underwrote the screenings, which “drew tremendous crowds, six nights a week,” according to Silverman.

By 1974 Scholes had enough momentum to found a semiotics program. Ironically, he chose the word “semiotics” because of its lack of meaning. “It didn’t have a lot of baggage,” Scholes recalls. “It was almost a blank signifier.” He and Silverman chose an equally oblique title for the first semiotics film course, “Semiotics 66: Introduction to Cinematic Coding and Narrativity.” “We wanted a forbidding title so that it wouldn’t be seen as Saturday night at the movies,” says Scholes. All papers were to be written on one page, with no margins of any kind, and graded on a scale of 1 to 9.

This simultaneously inviting and uninviting new major quickly gained a cult-like following. And though the works of semioticians were only part of a larger syllabus of recent literary and film theory, the phrase “Brown semiotics” began to take on a larger signification, one that involved expensive black clothes and European cigarettes and a certain kind of hyper-intelligent ideological refusenik.”

Semiotics . . . was like a conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories,” Ira Glass remembers. “It wasn’t just that authority figures of various sorts did things that were questionable . . .. It’s that language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place, which when, you know, you’re 19 or 20 is pretty much exactly what you’re ready to hear.”

There was a feeling of creative anarchy in the program. “You would get Xeroxes of articles that were in journals that were just being published,” remembers Christine Vachon, producer of “Boys Don’t Cry” and of fellow Brown semiotician Todd Haynes’s “Far from Heaven.” “It was really incredibly fertile,” Rick Moody says. “Everybody there was really crazy in the best way. Out doing stuff at all hours of day and night.”

But the thing that appealed most to students of semiotics was the idea that they had acquired a superhero-like power. “It was as if you had these, like, magic lenses that you could put on,” recalls writer Steven Johnson, founder of the seminal online magazine Feed.com and author of the recently published “Mind Wide Open.” “It really had the feeling of `We’ve cracked the code, other people don’t know,’ and `Oh my God, what are we going to do with this powerful information?”’ echoes Glass.

What to do, indeed. The faculty answered this question by introducing artistic production into the curriculum. This, according to Silverman, was critical because it fostered “a certain problematic in relation to [artistic] practice” by forcing theory to be “materialized.” In the late `70s a limited filmmaking component was added to the program, taught by experimental filmmaker Leslie Thornton. Theory, however, was still the foundation: You could not even touch a camera until you had taken the red pill of Semiotics 66.

But all was not smooth decoding at Brown. The “problematic” with semiotics was that by becoming a means of interrogating the ideological assumptions of bourgeois pleasure, semiotics itself became a form of bourgeois pleasure. “It was like an exclusive, self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids,” recalls novelist Samantha Gillison, an Brown Classics concentrator in the 1980s.

In the Course on General Linguistics, Saussure argued that a language only has meaning when there is a collective of individuals who share the code. Soon, semiotics became a hermetically sealed code outsiders could not crack. The language was made even more impenetrable by the introduction of new theorists who proposed interrogating the language of interrogation even as it was doing the interrogating. Recalling those heady days, Scholes smiles and quotes the philosopher John Wisdom: “Every day, and in every way, we’re getting meta and meta.”

And all that meta-ness drew resentment. The English department that housed the semio-splinter was decidedly old-school, replete, as Moody recalls, with “old, tenured professors who were going through, like, another survey course on, you know, the Lost Generation and . . . could barely be waked to deliver their lectures.” These professors wanted to pull out the splinter. “We were seen as the carriers of a disease that was going to infect students,” says Silverman.

More problematic was the attention of the outside world. In 1986, Philip Weiss of The New Republic wrote a mean-spirited article that used semiotics as the whipping boy for liberal education gone mad. “The words piled up,” Weiss wrote of his experience auditing Semiotics 66. “Splitting. Blockage. Scopophilic. Slippage.”

John Simon of The New York Times wrote a similarly scathing article. Scholes’s new Center for Modern Culture and Media lost a Mellon grant. Even though it was by then one of the most popular humanities majors, Semiotics was in danger of disappearing from campus altogether. Scholes and Silverman, who had brought over top-flight junior faculty, found they had no prospect of tenuring them and very little in the way of budget. Suddenly a whole roster of academics were in danger of being hung out to dry or entombed in Old English.

But just as attacks on semiotics were intensifying on campus, early graduates of the program were starting to make their mark in the world. And ironically, it was their semiotics-derived skills at decoding narratives that would help them recode elements of culture into some of the last decade’s most memorable moments of bourgeois pleasure.

True, many graduates had to go through a “de-semiotization” in order to create again. During his first year at Columbia’s writing program Moody was deeply conflicted: “I did feel like, `I learned all this stuff and I loved it, and what exactly does it have to do with the one thing I’m good at?”’

Steven Johnson found he had developed a prose style that sounded like he was translating himself “from the French.” Meanwhile Glass, was in anguish about how to convert the theoretical “open text” he had postulated in his undergraduate thesis into something that could actually make it on the radio. “I have to say it took years to wash it away,” says Glass.

But all this anguish introduced art into the mainstream that had what Rick Moody calls a tendency “to infiltrate and double-cross,” works that might be called “semiotic” for lack of a better signifier. The indefinite narrators of Jeffrey Eugenides, the Douglas Sirk-referencing of Todd Haynes, the Barthesian code-consciousness of “This American Life” all sprang from ideas expressed more primitively in marginless semiotics papers.

And these same ideas were picked up by the culture at large. “We’re so pop-culturally literate now it’s not bizarre to stand back and go, `Wait a second, do you understand the subliminal message in this movie or this ad?”’ says Christine Vachon. “Now we’re totally, like, past that into some new sort of twisted form of constant irony.”

Meanwhile, the semiotics program has been reloaded. In 1992 Tim Forbes, the student semiotician and cinephile who funded those first screenings in the `70s upped his ante with a $2 million grant from the Forbes Foundation for what is now called the Malcolm S. Forbes Center for Research in Culture and Media Studies. “We’re a kind of marginally legitimate operation now,” Silverman, now the department chair, acknowledges from his office in MCM’s new headquarters atop College Hill.

The students have also changed. “They don’t feel themselves so much involved in the birth of a field,” says film theorist Mary Ann Doane, who has been at the program since 1979. “They see themselves as coming and having to master a discipline that’s already in place.”

As for the early semio-grads, many have internalized “a certain problematic relation to practice,” just as Silverman (who had a cameo in Haynes’s 1989 Sundance winner “Poison”) would have hoped. And for all their creative crises they still see semiotics at Brown as a foundation of their success.

“Honestly,” says Glass, “I wouldn’t have my job now without it.”

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Author of six books including the New York Times bestselling Four Fish and the 2020 quit-your-phone how-to guide Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org

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