Scott Bakker, writing for his excellent blog Three Pound Brain, recently posted several pieces critiquing semiotics under the collective title "More Disney than Disneyworld: Semiotics as Theoretical Make-Believe."
Now, obviously, read part one and part two. They're good (although I'm still working through part two). They're so good, in fact, that they've helped me clarify a chapter of my in-process dissertation that's been giving me fits ever since I turned in a rough draft of the chapter to my dissertation advisor this past October. These posts have given me the "so-what" of my dissertation, why I transition from one theoretical lens to something wildly different.
First, a bit of background. Fully half of my dissertation committee members are contributors to PhilPercs.com: John Fletcher and Jon Cogburn, specifically, and my chair Alan Sikes was also asked to be a founding member but couldn't commit to the Web site because of his own research schedule. Much of my identity as a scholar - as well as my thinking's DNA - is represented in a nontrivial way by the interdisciplinarity and openness to the Muse of philosophy that so characterize all of our authors' visions of what this blog can be.
So as readers may imagine, discovering the "so-what" of a major part of my dissertation - indeed, really nailing down why the intervention I'm making with my research matters - is no small thing. Discovering the thing that was missing from a chapter was the point of the whole document is also horribly terrifying.
My in-process dissertation fits somewhere between the disciplines of philosophy of art and theatre history and historiography. I use the contingent local (to Louisiana) history of professional wrestling as a paradigm example of how stylistic aspects of performance attenuate when these performances transition from local practices to global(ized) practices. That's a cool thing to argue. Here's the problem: if you're talking about professional wrestling as a performance practice or text to be theorized, omitting Barthes's essay "World of Wrestling" (from Mythologies) is simply unthinkable. Although my dissertation, unlike some, intentionally omits a literature review because so little has been written on professional wrestling, omitting a review of Barthes's analysis was unthinkable even though my work has squat all to do with semiotics.
My argument, for the curious, combines the insights on defining style from philosophers of dance (in particular, Mary Sirridge and Adina Armelagos) with aesthetic ontologists' attempts to provide for the ways in which mass-produced art differs ontologically from earlier forms of art (think Noel Carroll). I knew that I had to include Barthes, but couldn't figure out how to connect this necessary chapter to the rest of my dissertation. In fact, I guess you could say that I didn't see what my dissertation's "so-what" should be. Why my intervention rather than existing contributions to the discourse?
It turns out that Bakker's posts have finally given me my "so-what," in part because of his more expansive view of what constitutes the discipline of semiotics. If you'd asked me before this past week to point out the relevant aspects of the discourse of semiotics, I would have pointed to Saussure's semiology, Peirce, Barthes, and Umberto Eco - with most of the heavy lifting being done by Barthes and Saussure. Bakker's posts, by contrast, do what I've been unable to do with this aspect of the discourse on literary theory and aesthetics: to think about semiotics as a discourse between schoalrs rather than a collection of stangant texts whose knowledge I must receive.
What I love love love about Bakker's posts is that his analysis of semiotics is anything other than the closed system that so beguiled my dissertation. Rather, semiotics is a fractious conversation comprised of a continuum of scholars who are all jointly interested in and invested in contesting issues regarding textuality, representation, and simulation. For me, a philosophy teacher who is no stranger to teaching Barthes, Eco, and Baudrillard, Bakker's posts locating Jean Baudrillard's concept of the simulacrum as the lynchpin or "end" of semiosis made me rethink my understanding of all these authors' works and the influence these works had on each other.
The "eureka" moment of the relevance of this stuff to my own work was when Bakker noted this in part one of these posts:
The sin of the Walt Disney Corporation, then, isn’t that it sells simulations, it’s that it sells disempowering simulations. The problem that Disney poses the semiotician, however, is that it sells simulations as simulations, not simulations as reality. The problem, in other words, is that Disney complicates their foundational dichotomy, and in ways that are not immediately clear.
As with Disney, so too with professional wrestling. While I take Bakker's larger points on the allure of semiotics to academics because it allows an academic to become an interpreter of texts (and thus all of reality), I think he gives shorter shrift than I do to the ways that all of these semiotic thinkers are simply recapitulating certain of the more troubling aspects of modernity in aesthetics into theory/philosophy at large. I agree with Bakker's conclusion, but think that you can reach that conclusion with very different premises. That's what's so exciting about this, for me - I can cite someone interested in neurocognitive studies without necessarily committing to the lens through which that scholar arrives at his conclusions.
Regardless, consider this. Bakker notes that the semiotician is
actively alienating the very culture they would reform, leading to the degeneration of social criticism into various forms of moral entertainment, a way for jargon-defined ingroups to transform interpretative expertise into demonstrations of manifest moral superiority. Piety, in effect.
Although Bakker notes that in-group privilege is partially constitutive of the popularity of semiotics, I think you can also argue that semiotics' intersection with discourses of modernity in aesthetics are equally constitutive (although I do think Scott would go further and say that the discourses of modernity are just as much a function of in-group privilege).
Some clarification of terms, first. I understand modernity in aesthetics through the work of Clement Greenburg and Thomas McEvilley. Thomas McEvilley, in his excellent speech "what is at stake in the culture wars" (anthologized in the excellent collection Beauty is Nowhere, 1998), persuasively conceptualizes modernity (specifically, modernity as an epoch) as a series of attitudes about history, culture, and meaning in the West: history as progressive (we proceed ineluctably from primitivism to civilization), culture as hierarchical (some cultures are more advanced or better than others), and meaning as being the province of transcultural universals (which just happen to be all be Western). This dovetails nicely with Clement Greenburg's canonical text "Modernist Painting" which holds that for art to be modernist it must be reflective in some way or commenting upon its ontological status as a work of art (its arthood) in some way. For Greenburg, modernist painting is painting solely concerned with the aesthetics of painting: the two dimensionality of canvas and how that interacts with what is painted on it.
McEvilley theorizes modernism as a philosophical or theoretical lens through which we view the world: but like that greatest of lenses, the telescope, this lens facilitates or encourages certain types of seeing ("making the distant appear near") while deprivileging other types of seeing ("everything that the lens's tube excludes from view"). This is the "so-what" of the semiotics chapter, actually, that Scott led me to: if semiotics is a discourse solely concerned with representation, signification, simulation, and the like, then in certain respects even the most post-modern semiotician (such as Baudrillard, by my reading) will ultimately be unable to distance himself from the sorts of universalizing tendencies I associate with the modernist discourse (or from what Bakker notes is the hubristic tendency of the neoliberal academic to position the interpretation of signs as the puzzle of reality, with the humanities scholar as the key to the lock). By linking Barthes's discourse to Baudrillard's discourse, it becomes possible for me to understand "World of Wrestling" as an early gesture toward semiotics' attempts to deal with simulacra: and this is a much cooler understanding of this classic text than my own (previously more pedestrian) approach.
A further upshot to this is that, if I can articulate this conception of semiotics as a discourse that is ultimately (to employ Bakker's terminology) self-regarding, I think that I can also communicate why excluding non-textual meanings is harmful for the interpretation of an art form that involves - in no small part - the presence of bodies, the presentation of blood and sweat, the simulation of the ideal of a physical fight rather than the representation of a fight as such. And my own extra-semiotic accounts of meaning in wrestling are newly motivated by pointing to all of the discursive blind spots semiotic approaches to meaning in wrestling miss.
Finally, the reason I'm writing this post: I've been having major difficulty thinking through the implications of all of this to my dissertation. So in part, I was hoping that this post - of the genre of writing that I call "writing about the dissertation rather than writing the dissertation" - could help me clarify what it is that I'm having trouble articulating in the actual dissertation.
I don't know whether this was at all interesting or useful to other readers, but I figured I'd put it up on the blog. Figuring out the link between the "they say" and the "I say" aspects of my dissertation has been a humbling process for me.