is the study of signs, where a sign is roughly defined as anything that
has a meaning. A sign can also be called a signifier, after the
Swiss linguist Fernand de Saussure, who defined language as a system linking
arbitrary symbols (words), which he called signifiers (signifiants)
with meanings, which were called signifieds (signifiés).
This sounds like a complicated way of saying something obvious, which
it is. Complicated ways of saying obvious things are a big part of semiotics.
Semiotics is a part of "cultural theory," which extends the
methods of literary criticism to study non-literary objects. In cultural
theory, pop culture, advertisements, and (famously) a hamburger and french
fries, anything really can become the subject of analysis and have its
meaning dissected and described using many French words. French words
are also a big part of semiotics, since the subject has its origins in
the work of French theorists such as Derrida, Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari,
Baudrillard, and so on.
French guys wrote largely incomprehensible texts in which they analyzed
the notion of the text. A text, in semio-speak, doesn't actually refer to
a real text necessarily but rather to the sign which is being analyzed.
A hamburger and french fries (steak frites) can be a text, for example.
Barthes wrote a book called Mythologies (Mythologies) in which he
wrote short pieces analyzing all sorts of things like pet dogs (chiens), steak frites, cowboys (les cowboys) as signs. He wrote about
all the associations linked to these common archetypes (another semiotics
term for saying something simple in a complicated way), particularly those
linked to the words (signifiants) describing the things rather than
the things themselves. So for example he would say that cowboys are related
in our common web of associations to cows and boys and boyos and boisenberries.
This again is a complicated way of saying something obvious.
and the collective unconscious
common web of associations we all carry around and refer to whenever we
encounter signifiers (signifiants) is a big deal in semiotics. It
is intimately related to the concept of connotation (what a word
evokes), which is distinguished from the denotation of a word (what
the word means). So for example the word "fries" denotes, well,
fries (without the quotes, which is to say the french fries themselves and
not the word "fries") but it connotes McDonalds, childhood, obesity,
movies, Belgium (at least to French people but all semioticians pretend
to be French), and so on. Thus we can say that fries belong to a complex
associational matrix with these nodes.
When we encounter
the word "fries," we think of all these things -- an association
made by referring to the collective unconscious (a Jungian concept;
Jung wasn't French but he was Swiss, which is close enough, unless you are
French, in which case it is a completely different animal). Note that the
idea that fries are a part of the collective unconscious, which is
to say that set of archetypes that everyone posesses in common, is a very
United States-centric viewpoint. It is unlikely that Australian Aborigenes
people have french fries in their unconscious, or at least it was until
McDonalds went global. Pointing out this implicit bias is a common criticism
of semiotics used by Multicultural Studies Theorists (a group of scholars
with a whole other set of incomprehensible terminology to say obvious things
in a complicated way). However, the semiotician would counter that it is
part of semiotics to study the extent to which signs and their meanings
are distributed among people, and that the group of people who carry the
sign in their mind is an aspect of the sign itself. (In ordinary language
this assertion just means that different people speak different languages
and that words belong to a language.)
vs. The New Criticism
and the collective unconscious are used to develop the idea that what is
written (or said or viewed) is partly in the mind of the reader (hearer,
viewer), so that a text (remember that "text" doesn't mean text
in semiotics) depends on who is reading it (hearing it, viewing it), an
obvious idea which forms the basis of reader response theory, an
important school of literary criticism. Reader response theory is a rebuttal
of previous schools of literary criticism which focused on analyzing just
the text (le texte) and nothing outside it (hors-texte). One
of these schools was the New Criticism (which isn't new, it's from the 1950's).
In the New Criticism, you look at texts (which for the New Critics really
were texts -- parts of books) with blinders on so that you see nothing which
is not written in the text (hors-texte). So for example, when you
are looking at a text from a novel, you are forbidden to consider the author's
biography, what the author meant by the text (authorial intent is a very
suspect idea in modern literary criticism), how the text fits into the novel
as a whole, and so on. Instead you analyze the words of the text. For example,
you might write a long treatise on what the effect of using "the"
rather than "a" is in a sentence.
n'y a pas de hors-texte"
semiotician might criticize this method, or at leat the philosophy of the
method (and he would perhaps refer to this as the meta-method) by
saying that when we talk about the effect of a word choice, we are
talking about what the words do in the reader's mind, and that therefore
we really can't separate the text from the person who reads it. The question
of whether a text exists on its own, as an abstract Platonic form, or exists
only in the mind of the reader when it is read is a big debate in literary
theory. (You are forgiven if you have noticed the similarity between this
debate and the question of whether, when a tree falls in the forest and
no one hears it, it has really made a sound, a question which is an archetypal
(there I go using one of those semiotics words again!) silly question that
sensible people don't spend their time debating.) The issue of the text
and whether it exists on its own or not led to Derrida's famous remark "il
n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is nothing outside the text"),
which he used to argue, contradictarily, that the text is composed of lots
of things outside the text itself.
does this have to do with subways?
what does this have to do with subways, you might ask? Partly, it's just
a joke. I wanted to make a hypertext about subways and I was looking for
something to call it, and I came up with "Subway Semiotics." Had
I thought of another name instead, say "Subway Stories," you would
not be reading this tiresome text about semiotics but instead a lively,
understandable story about stories. But actually this name makes a lot of
sense since the premise of the site is that subways (my text) are a metaphor
for modern society in general and for New York in particular. Thus I really
am writing about the semiotics of subways, although in most of the site
I will be doing it through poems and images and not through unpleasant theoretical
as a source of alienation in modern life
people in the subway car with you are a cross-section of society which represents
in miniature society as a whole. Like modern culture, riding on the subway
is anonymous. People on the subway are suspicious of each other and pretend
that the other people on the car do not exist. They are preoccupied with
speed, with getting somewhere, and pay no attention to how they get there
(unless there is a delay, in which case this all breaks down and people
talk to each other and act friendly while they complain about the MTA, so
you could in a sense say subway delays restore our sense of community!).
People on the subway lose their identity as unique human beings and become
generic subway riders, who are distinguished only by their appurtenance
to broad visible types: businessman, black-kid-with-a-boom-box, student-reading-a-book,
mother-with-child, homeless-beggar, young-person-with-purple-hair, etc.
It makes no difference on the subway if the black kid with the boom box
is actually a talented writer; on the subway he is just a black-kid-with-a-boom-box
and the white people stick their hands in their pockets to protect their
wallets when he comes too close.
of life on the subway are in fact major features of modern life in general.
A lot of the time, we treat our fellow humans as if they were strangers
on the subway who might steal our wallet. We focus on results not processes,
are self-absorbed and yet somehow anonymous. I made this site to explore
the nature of subways as a way of exploring modern culture. So it really
is an exercise in semiotics. Lest you think I am against subways (and therefore
wonder why I bothered to make a web site about them), I want to point out
that the subway has another aspect which is related to its function as a
symbol for the City of New York.
as a symbol for community in New York City
subway is the fiber which connects the city. It is the thing that makes
Queens and Brooklyn a part of New York City (and the lack of a subway to Staten
Island goes a long way towards explaining why Staten Islanders don't feel
they have anything to do with the rest of the City and some of them want
to secede). It is the place where New Yorkers most often come in contact
with each other, the one place where Black people and white people, rich
people and poor people, young women in the flower of good health and mentally
ill homeless people, the employed and the unemployed, all come together
and share a common destination. The subway is what gives New York its ease
of living and its cultural opportunities, because, for instance, the Metropolitan
Museum of Art is only a short ride away from Harlem and the strange Chinese
vegetable you could never find out in the suburbs can be obtained with a
token (now a Metrocard, but the expression is that it's only a token away)
and a trip to Canal Street. Because of our intermigling on the subway, no
New Yorker can ignore issues like race and poverty and mental illness, because
they are faced with them every day on the way to work. The subway joins
New Yorkers into a community, linking what were once self-contained homogeneous
neighborhoods people didn't leave into a single unit.
a real sense, therefore, the subway symbolizes everything which is good
about New York, while in its previous interpretation (see above), the subway is an emblem of everything bad about the city. Thus
subways are a rich distillation, full of real-life contradictions, of the
City of New York.