Adapting Barthes' Semiotic Method

1)  Look at seemingly 'empty' artifacts of popular culture (especially those whose meaning seems neutral, transparent, a matter of commonsense, or otherwise innocuous). As one critic has observed, Barthes wants to stop taking things for granted; he is "interrogating the obvious."

2)  Focus on a group of similar objects rather than a single entity.  Click here for some sample groups of "cultural productions" that would reward semiotic analysis as Barthes practices it.

3)  Analyze them as a sign system composed of signs (example: gestures, names, expressions are signs within the sign system of wrestling), with an eye to exploring what non-verbal messages are transmitted by the sign system and how constituent signs contribute to this message. He is particularly interested not so much in what things mean, but in how things mean.  Be methodical.  Do Geertz' "thick description" of the system's entire visual vocabulary of signs.  If you have not identified "the basic sign" (e.g., in wrestling, the wrestler's body) upon which meaning is projected by various "diacritical marks" (e.g., expressions of pain, flabbiness or effeteness or imbecility or rage), then you have not yet really seen the system and you are only looking at the surface.

4)  "The goal? Exposing the artificiality of those signs which disguise their historical and social origins."  If this cultural production enforces discourses of dominant ideologies, point that out, but also take notice if it allows negotiation of power by subversive or compensatory exchanges of material goods, people or ideas."  This is the unmasking of "mythologies" Barthesian criticism hopes to produce in order to give its readers more control over their lives, or at least an awareness of the forces they cannot control.  That is your paper's "so what?"

        I urge you to send me an email or talk to me so that I can help you test the suitability of the cultural system you have picked.  Some people pick good systems for other writers but ones that they don't know intimately enough themselves.  Others pick systems whose myths they still believe in so passionately that they are incapable of the synthetic analytic move to detect the controlling ideology motivating the signifier-signified decoding rule.  The former situation will produce weak analysis, and the latter will produce a nostalgic memoir.  Neither is "Cultural Criticism."  

        Remember that the Cultural Critic or Semiotician (you can use either term) must be an absolute master of the arcane details and vocabulary of the system under analysis.  Only an insider can see the myth in its fully-extended operation, and in the myth-cult's names for things, some of the most powerful linguistically driven rules may be encoded.  Your stance has to be very well-informed, "edgy," agile and clever, while maintaining a serious sense of your mission, to disclose the hidden functioning of the myth by which your tribe is being constructed.

        One way to achieve the ironic, critical view of a visual sign system you are deeply involved with is to consider yourself an "alien anthropologist" who is trying to understand it.  Looking at how anthropologists view collisions between cultures can help.  One alienating collision, which produced so-called "cargo cults," happened in Melanesia in the South Pacific during the past century.  For as complete and accurate an introduction to cargo cults as can be quickly located, click here for Paul Raffaele's "In John They Trust,"  Smithsonian Magazine, February 2006.  For a demonstration of a semiotic interpretation of college strategic plans as "cargo cults," click here.  It could be argued that strategic plans are texts rather than visual sign systems, but think about the college as the system, including its Admissions advertising.

        For some images that could contribute to a semiotic analysis of the racing world in which Hemingway's "My Old Man" is set, click here.  Note that semiotic analysis of literary works partakes of many assumptions developed by New Historicists, such as the importance of minor characters or under-reported segments of the historical setting (the non-jockeys, the few women), the competition between variant codes to assign values/identities to things or actions (horse-worshipers vs. gamblers; adults vs. children; horses vs. humans), and the motivation of those codes by ideological systems that need to be discovered and understood (and sometimes subverted).  The subversion of code-shaping ideologies is more Semiotics than New Historicism.  The latter seem more interested in subverting their readers' Old Historicist assumptions about the past than in subverting the past's ideologies about itself, which they tend to treat somewhat tenderly.