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Steven Johnson - I Was an Under-Age Semiotician

Steven Johnson - I Was an Under-Age Semiotician

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Published by Bob Wobbly-Headed
Steven Johnson. I Was an Under-Age Semiotician. New York Times.
Steven Johnson. I Was an Under-Age Semiotician. New York Times.

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I Was an Under-Age Semiotician
By Steven Johnson
Published: October 14, 2011
It is an occupational hazard of being a writer to be appalled by the prose style you deployed in your youth.Most of the time the flaws reflect unchecked enthusiasm, or literary clichés that have not yet worn away,or a certain inability to settle on a defined voice. But reading my own college juvenilia, I have a strangeand almost total sense of disconnection. This is from a paper I wrote at the age of 19:
“The predicament of any tropological analysis of narrative alway
s lies in its own effaced and circuitousrecourse to a metaphoric mode of apprehending its object; the rigidity and insistence of its taxonomiesand the facility with which it relegates each vagabond utterance to a strict regimen of possible enunciativeformations testifies to a constitutive faith that its own interpretive meta-language will approximate or 
comply with the linguistic form it examines.”
I was a sophomore in college, and my voice on the page sounded like that of a 60-year-old Sorbonne professor, badly translated from the French.But writing those sentences
 — 
and there are thousands like them still tracing their vagabond utterances onmy hard drive
 — 
turned out to be a critical part of my education. I was, you see, a semiotics major atBrown University, during a remarkable spell in the 1980s when semiotics was allegedly the third-most- popular major in the humanities there, despite being a field (and a word) that drew nothing but blank 
stares at family cocktail parties and job interviews. “Ah, semiotics,” a distant relative once said to meduring winter break. “The study of how plants grow in light. Very important field.”The obscurity of the field was partly the point. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot,”
which takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s, the heroine first stumbles across the semiotics
 program when a friend comes home with a copy of Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology”: “When
Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a
 book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything,then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.”Greek for the “science of signs,” semiotics as a field
dates back to
fin de siècle
philosophers and linguistslike C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in modern times it is most commonly associated withUmberto Eco. The general thrust of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if languageshapes our thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to makesense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of language itself: signs, symbols,metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools asreadily as you could a Nike ad.
 
Yet when I arrived at Brown in the mid-80s, there were dozens of splinter groups huddled beneath the
semiotics flag: Derrida’s deconstruction, post
-Freudian psychoanalysis, postfeminism, poststructuralism,cultural studies. (We were post- a lot of things, it seemed at the time.) Insiders rarely talked about
“semiotics,” in fact. The umbrella term was just Theory, with a capital T. Theorists like Derrida and
Michel Foucault were heroes on many college campuses around that time, but somehow having adedicated major that announced your allegiance
 — 
instead of hiding behind a more traditional degree in philosophy or English
 — 
made the affinity more pronounced.S
ome of this was posture, to be sure. “Going to college in the moneymaking ’80s lacked a certainradicalism,” Eugenides writes. “Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it
created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture,sadism, hermaphroditism
 — 
 
with sex and power.”
Embracing semiotics came with certain costs. In my own case, I spent most of my mid-20s detangling my prose style. (It got younger as I got older.) I now spend more time learning from the insights of sciencethan deconstructing its truth claims. I slowly killed off the desire to impress with willful obscurity. Duringmy grad school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise visit, modestlyanswering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined reading his written words on the page. Heseemed, amazingly, to be saying something, rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential
question that began by putting “under erasure” the very nature of an answer. I remember breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, “I am sorry, but I do not und
erstand the
question.” It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida himself was asking for more clarity.
But there was more than just the-latest-from-France fashion to semiotics in those years. As a good friendonce observed, it left many of us with an intoxicating sense that the everyday world
 — 
particularly theworld of media
 — 
contained a secret layer of meaning that could be deciphered with the right key. (Some
of that allure was packaged neatly into the “Symbology” discipline of the “Da Vinci Code” novel
s.) Aswe grew older, many of us started using different conceptual tools, but it was that initial rush during our semiotics years that got us started: that exhilarating feeling of being 20 and gaining access to a hiddenworld of knowledge. By the time I started writing books about technology and media in my late-20s, thesentences were shorter and the arguments less prone to putting themselves under erasure, but whatanimated my work was the sense that computer interfaces or video games had a subtle social meaning tothem that was not always visible at first glance. That perspective was also the legacy of my semioticsyears, and it turned out to be much more durable than the prose style.I know of very few friends from that period who continue to practice Theory as it was taught to us then.But a striking number of semiotics students have gone on to influential careers in the media and thecreative arts. (Perhaps anticipating this development, during my tenure at Brown the concentration wasrenamed Modern C
ulture and Media.) NPR’s Ira Glass, the novelist Rick Moody, the filmmaker Todd
Haynes, Eugenides himself 
 — 
all spent their formative years in the semiotics program. The antihero o
Sam Lipsyte’s hilarious 2010 novel,“The Ask,”
 takes theory classes at a college clearly modeled onBrown. (Lipsyte was in fact my roommate for most of my college career; I like to think the stinging parodies of semio-babble in that book were modeled on his other friends.) A long list of aspiringsemioticians went on to play important roles in the early days of digital media. Looking back, I suspectthe semiotic worldview
 — 
 
with its constant emphasis on “textual play” — 
gave us conceptual antennasthat helped us tune in to the hypertextual chaos of the Web when it first emerged.

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