Semiotics and Popular Culture: a summary of the introductory chapter to Signs of Life in the USA:
Maasik, Sonia., and Jack Solomon. “Popular Signs: Or, Everything You’ve Always Known about American Culture (But Nobody Asked).” Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. 3rd ed. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

The introduction to our text begins by noting that the “artificial wall between everyday life and the ivory tower is at last coming down (2). Popular culture grows out the same cultural soil as the “highbrow” stuff that we have traditionally studied. Because we want to know about that common ground, popular culture is as useful a place to work as any other.

Key term: sign; a sign is something that carries a meaning. Stop signs, hair styles, dolls, and all the other stuff that makes up our life carry meaning. They are signs. (3)

Our textbook has two parts. The first is about the American obsession with consumer goods and services. These include films, clothes, books, buildings, sports, etc. The second part of the book looks at how culture creates identities. The authors explicitly warn students that we will be talking about how culture creates us. The book explicitly warns us that Americans like to think in term of individuals and individualism, but we are focusing on culture.
    Later, the authors make a crucial point: “This does not mean that you must abandon your own beliefs when conducting a semiotic analysis, only that you cannot take them for granted . . . . We want to assure you that semiotics will not tell you what to think and believe. It does assume that what you believe reflects some cultural system or other and that no cultural system can claim absolute validity or superiority” (17).

Key term: the semiotic method; this specific method keeps our analyses from degenerating into rants, opinion pieces, or simple descriptions. According to the semiotic method:

  1. All social behavior (pop culture and high culture and everything between) represents the interest of some group. Thus everything is “political” in the sense that it serves someone’s vision of reality.
  2. Semiotics asks, “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?" The method is fiercely skeptical.
Your job is not to take sides on a question. Your job is more complex:
  1. To describe the context for whatever interests you, i.e., where does it appear, what versions does it have, what are the differences among versions? “How is it different from some of the things that it resembles?”
  2. To identify the system in which a sign works. (9)
  3. To identify how pop culture can produce items that have a significant difference from other things that are much like it. See the example of Spielberg’s E.T. (12)
The book emphasizes that nobody is going to have the “final” or the “right” analysis of something from popular culture. Students often accuse each other – and semioticians – of “reading too much into” a subject. For many of us, the objection reveals or discomfort with a non-individualist methodology.*

Key term: myth; myth has a specific meaning in semiotics. It refers to the “constellation of signs” that give a culture its characteristic systems of belief. We are talking about cultural mythologies, not about gods and spirits and ghosts and goblins (15).

Maasik and Solomon note, “in a semiotic analysis, we do not search for the meanings of things in themselves. Rather, we find meaning in the way we can relate things together, either through association or differentiation” (15).


*Some of you may believe that disciplines such as mathematics have “final” or “right” answers. Scholars in these disciplines are acutely aware of how their knowledge is constructed, and they expose its cultural roots to keep inquiry alive. If you would like readings in this subject (it’s fascinating and difficult) see me.