Sunday, April 29, 2007

Semiotic Awareness

Leonard Sweet referred to semiotic awareness in a conference I attended several years ago. I had heard of semiotics as a study in linguistics, but I had never really seen the relevance until this conference. Wiki defines semiotics as the following (abbreviated):

Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology is the study of signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

Social semiotics expands the interpretable semiotic landscape to include all cultural codes, such as in slang, fashion, and advertising.

The Social Semiotics is the type addressed by Sweet, although he did not use that label. It is the study of the "signs of the time" by interpreting and deconstructing societal trends to find the deeper, more hidden meaning. In other words, any particular trend is a manifestation of a deeper longing in our social psyche. By becoming attuned to these signs we can better gauge what is driving society. One can intentional engage these deeper needs in either a constructive or destructive approach, where the latter takes advantage of this situation for their own personal gain.

To give an example of the semiotic awareness method, I will deconstruct a couple current trends in American culture. The method used below could be used for any social phenomena.

Case Study 1 - Reality T.V.

The societal trend that most quickly comes to mind is reality T.V. Reality Television is often bemoaned for its lack of meaningful content and its voyeuristic tendencies. I don't intend to either condone or condemn reality T.V., rather I am interested in WHY it is so popular given the oft expressed discontent.

To deconstruct reality T.V. we can first look at the different elements that comprise these programs. For starters, reality T.V. is almost always filmed live. Although the audience may not view the show in real time, the premise is that the show was not scripted and shot over numerous occasions until the perfect take was achieved. On the contrary, what you see is what you get, there is no going back to do it over. Why might this appeal to audiences? An unscripted, live shooting represents an actual event, a one time occurrence that shows its imperfections as well as triumphs. In a society that is innundated with artifice: plastic lawn ornaments, imitation leather, cosmetically enhanced beauty, fake politicians, there is a repressed hunger for the real, for the authentic.

Reality T.V. often uses ordinary people like you and I. Similar to the point above, these people are not professional actors, but simply respond and act in each situation as a genuine, imperfect human being. You can quickly spot their tendencies, their (not so) hidden vices, and begin to relate to them as everyday people, not the contrived personas that are seen on a typical sitcom or Hollywood blockbuster.

Instead of seeking to create order and a premeditated outcome, reality T.V. risks chaos by allowing freedom in how the story develops. The twists and turns resonate with real life experiences, as both beauty and ugliness (in the ethical sense) coexist in the random circumstances of life. Instead of a clean, linear story that has a clear ending, reality T.V. tells many stories simultaneously, and the ending is often messy and unfinished. To me this suggests that people crave entertainment that involves risk, that is organically created, that resists control and provides unanticipated surprise. Perhaps people today spend so much time trying to control their lives that there is a repressed hunger for adventure, for stories where chaos and disorder ever threatens and the outcome is never certain. Thus these programs become a saga, a real story that we watch as it unfolds. There is a real sense of being present, of participating in some way, of joining together with millions of others as we rally behind our hero or heroine.

In sum, it seems to me that a hunger for authenticity and adventure drive the current trend in reality T.V. Its dramatic success shows that this hunger is not isolated, but an existential need of our society in today's world.

Case Study 2 - Blogging

I certainly don't need to tell you that blogging has become hugely popular in recent years. Many folks credit new technology for the huge upswell in blogging and it concurrent transformation of the way news and information is communicated. Certainly blogging would not be possible without technology, but I believe the reasons for blogging's prevalance are deeper than the advent of new technology.

Blogs provide a forum for every person to have a voice. Even if only a couple friends read your blog, it is a way to communicate the things that are important to you in a public setting. It is almost akin to everyone having a banner that they could stretch across mainstreet with whatever message they want. It is freedom of self-expression, freedom to carve out your own little corner in the massive world of the internet.

Why is this important? Perhaps people today feel more disconnected than before, less able to share their views with their neighbors, with their communities. The town hall really doesn't exist anymore. Community get togethers where everyone talks about the weather, upcoming elections, and latest social gossip are things of the past. Most of us have left the small town atmosphere behind, likely never to return. Blogs provide a way to reconnect and share our ideas. It is the town square recreated on the web. We show and share our personalities, our opinions, ideas, concerns, etc. Over time we find others who share similar interests and we begin to forge an online community. The success of ones blogging adventures is highly dependent on the degree of connectedness attained (recognizing that not all bloggers seek this). As we become a deeper part of a dynamic community, or blog becomes our very real participation in the community.

Blogging then, is not just a manifestation of technological advancements, but rather a manifestation of deep desires to share our ideas, participate in community, and stay connected in a way that counteracts our own fragmented existence.


Brooke said...

Thank you for spreading awareness on hunger. Me and my husband have been reaching out and doing so as well! I can share some hunger slogans we've been posting here for you: Hunger Slogans