What is semiotics?

          Semiotics 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.

Those French guys...
          These 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.
Archetypes and the collective unconscious
          The 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.)
Semiotics vs. The New Criticism
          Archetypes 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.
"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte"
         A 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.
What does this have to do with subways?
          So 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 analyses.
Subways as a source of alienation in modern life
          The 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.
           These characteristics 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.
Subways as a symbol for community in New York City
         The 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.
The subway archetype...
          In 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.