Pop semiotica

…or: why I’m not afraid to admit I take Tron and Linkin Park philosophically seriously even though respectable intellectuals consider them mass-produced pieces of crap.

This is my own little Averroistic treatise on why the general public and even Hollywood, Bollywood, et al, are sometimes are just as insightful, if not more so, than we professional thinkers. Now, my argument is very simple: when confronted with a pop cultural/mass media phenomenon like the Tron franchise or the band Linkin Park, I take into consideration two things:

(1) Beyond their immediately explicit content, i.e., the plot and dialogue of the film or the lyrics of the album, which can at first appear very flimsy to say the least, to instead take in their total aesthetic — what are the images of their scenes, music videos, or album arts telling us? Is there meaning in something as fundamental as the setting, premise, or tone, or as immeasurable as the chemistry between the characters or the instruments?

And (2) the extent to which we may conceive the sincerity on the part of the film makers and the musicians, separate from their entangled relationship with the cynical corporate structure that enables them. More specifically, is the sincerity effectively communicated? This is key, for the locus of a product’s authenticity very often lies outside itself, in the audience and in the makers: how alienated or related were its creators, and how do we respond to what we’re beholding?

So, I’m trying to aim for a fuller semiotics. After these considerations, what I feel that I find in something like Tron or Linkin Park is something truly spectacular, in the archaic spectaculum sense:

On one level there’s their employment of mythological motifs and other archetypal idioms. In truth, the mass media has been using this method for quite some time, as has been well-established and researched by critics for over a generation. What I do is to argue on an additional level, namely, that there’s also philosophical content there, from rather intricate, part-Wagnerian, part-Gnostic Hegelianism in Tron to multifaceted Cartesian transhumanism in Linkin Park. Whether such content was intentional on the part of the products’ creators is irrelevant: because they are already delving into the collective consciousness anyway, it’s no surprise that they’ll end up channelling very real philosophical elements alongside the archetypes.

This brings us to the puzzle of whether what’s really going on is that I’m just actively creating meaning out of disjointedness and lacunae, injecting meaning where there is only gibberish. The question is tantalizing but probably unanswerable, for it is part of the job of the intellectual to deconstruct his cultural surroundings; consequently, the same mystery that secretly befuddles the scientist, namely, whether their work truly constitutes discovery or actually just maieusis, also beguiles the critic, only more consciously.

Now, with all that said, can it be said that I’m “selling out”? I really don’t know. But I think some cautions need to be made:

To begin with, methodologically-speaking, my approach isn’t new per se, as established and influential thinkers like Stanley Cavell long since beat me to the punch. My spin is simply to apply it to some of the pop cultural expressions that are meaningful to my generation (and I intend to continuing doing so, both for my generation and, as I grow older, for upcoming ones). Yet, again, I’m just fulfilling part of my job as an intellectual.

Nevertheless, I recognize that pop culture is what’s specifically rubbing my colleagues the wrong way. Regarding this, I ask older scholars to consider the huge and central place mass-produced pop culture has played in my generation’s development, especially in the West but also throughout the world. For better and for worse, with the commercialization and instrumentalization of knowledge, education has become vocational, and with it, the classical traditions of all cultures have been displaced: classical Greek, Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese are no longer taught in schools, and with them has gone most of the ancient literature, to say nothing of the fate of music and the visual and performance arts. We’ve had to fill the vacuum with something, and people like me have done it with Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Tron, Linkin Park, Nine Inch Nails, and so on.

Such a change certainly makes us more dependent upon the capitalistic commmercialist system. However, some of us do have a deeper and ultimately more critical interaction with it. In this way, we’re not different from you, the older generations, for two reasons:

(1) That mass produced pop cultural products also occupied a very key position in your own generation — indeed, the classic traditions were often co-opted or provided the mythos for much of it (Irwin Allen and Don Cheffey come to mind).

And (2) within the schools, the classical traditions were themselves instrumentalized, insofar as they were used by nation-states to advance the goal of socialization as determined by the times. You learned the classics of your “culture” (itself a construction, by the way) as much to differentiate yourselves from other societies as to ground yourselves in something more organic.

The forgoing also means you are not any more “sophisticated” and “cultivated”, much less “independent”, than my generation today. If anything, if by no other process than cultural sedimentation, our mass media pop cultural products today are richer with cultural minerals from the past.

As for my peers, who for reasons of either having access to the classical traditions or for belonging to ideological backgrounds hostile to the current status quo, my sympathies are obviously with you, but I ask you to consider that all media products, mass, indpendent, or otherwise, are culturally encoded, as well as shaped by the medium and financial forces behind them. We must look for authenticity with sharper scalpels.

I also ask you to consider the structure of my interpretations: are they thought out and meaningful? Do I cite sufficient evidence and do I make appropriate use of it? Do I succeed in making you see some of these products in a new and more interesting light?  You don’t have to agree with me or even like what I’m doing; rather, I’m asking you to judge whether it’s intellectually credible, regardless of whether you judge it intellectually worthwhile.

To wrap this up, my argument ultimately is two-fold: on the one hand, everything has its place, and so we must judge Tron, Linkin Park, etc., by their own measure. To be sure, there is film that is greatly made and greatly messaged, but these are the province of we elites; simply put, what I’ve said here is neither in dismissal of nor in address to such works. And on the other hand, and more importantly, we must always be open for wisdom, interesting ideas, and potent insights, regardless of their vessel — as the old saying goes, don’t shoot the message with the messenger, even if it’s neon dazzly.

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7 Replies to “Pop semiotica”

  1. Nice. Do you think that the Marxist critiques towards capitalism has colored the Euro’s distrust of pop culture in general. I very much like the links you draw with Peirce. Apparently there has been much renewed interest in Peirces work. Have you read anything on Semiosis? It’s an expansion on Semiocis in that events like gestures, inflections, and smell can invoke a sign as much as language. It was introduced into our class over the summer. Sadly it seems I’m the only one with much interest.
    Glad to hear your reading peirce.

    1. Great to hear from you! I’ve read some of Pierce. Actually, the post was written in response to an Italian colleague who’s reading Pierce right now for his thesis and doesn’t take too kindly to him — typical European haha. I think Americans in general don’t have as sharp a distinction between high and low culture, which is why we would be inclined to find meaning in pop cultural products whereas the Europeans would turn their noses up at it (but still buy it all up).

      1. Nice. Do you think that the Marxist critiques towards capitalism has colored the Euro’s distrust of pop culture in general. I very much like the links you draw with Peirce. Apparently there has been much renewed interest in Peirces work. Have you read anything on Semiosis? It’s an expansion on Semiocis in that events like gestures, inflections, and smell can invoke a sign as much as language. It was introduced into our class over the summer. Sadly it seems I’m the only one with much interest. Glad to hear your reading peirce.

      2. Hmmm unfortunately, because I’ve been squarely planted in the Medieval section of the philosophy faculty here, I haven’t had much exposure to the phenomenological section, and by extension, semiotics.

        Did I mention that Leuven is the mecca of phenomenology? We’ve got Husserl’s entire archives here. If you were here, you’d have more than enough company — too much!

        Ironically, I wonder whether one of the reasons Marxism didn’t take off in America was precisely this lack of a traditional “high culture”. That’s an intuitive assessment on my part…

  2. very academic.. i see you are making good use of your belgian education… your analysis is very incisive so i do not think i can respond adequately unless i take just as much of a close reading of it myself (which i haven’t) but i both agr…ee and disagree (more the latter) that a creator’s intention is irrelevant. i don’t know if that’s existential thinking [or some other appropriate word/idea] but i think we sometimes have to trust/respect the individual’s truth even if it opposes the collective truth… isn’t that how society is able to progress, accepted forms of ideas changing over time.. are we talking about the same thing? ultimately, there is nothing wrong with pop culture simply because it permeates more thoroughly, and a bit more pervasive than other ideas. i think it’s the deliberate avoidance of it, that makes one very self-conscious and contrived. feel free to analyze, critique, embrace whatever!

    1. Hi Linda! I copy-pasted your comment from Facebook onto here so others can read it.

      Okay, so, the practical origin of my diminishing the importance of the creator’s intention is that very often artists, whether they are film makers, visual artists, dancers, etc., have very deep intuitive grasps of why they do what they do, but they are unable to articulate themselves — or, conversely, their ideas are so high concept, that they are many degrees removed from how their work will actually be received (this is a big problem in contemporary circles).

      The theoretical origin, though, is also to create a space for the intellectual in which he is not subject to the artist’s vision alone — otherwise no creative thought could ever be made! 😉 But yes, I see your point: the dark side of this is that the artist’s vision can be overruled, which is also dangerous.

      As for pop culture per se, hmmm I think ultimately what I’m arguing here is that pop culture, as much as high culture, is actually an expression of the collective unconscious — sometimes manipulated by self-aware corporate or artistic forces, for sure, but very often not.

  3. i had to think for a moment how you did that [in reference to posting as me] and if this can be used for mischievous reasons… too much hacker/assange influence maybe? i feel like a lot of these ideas could be addressed/cleared up/reach an agreement/compromise because there is a lot going on… which i don’t necessarily agree/disagree with both your ideas and mine (yes, i disagree with some aspects of my statement but felt it was worth something to state them anyway). my time off from school is making me throw /////’s all over the place. so, my final say on this matter is: OKAY!

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