Hyperrhiz 21

31 Truths of Teaching Cultural Semiotics in a General Education Class

Sarah Whitcomb Laiola
Coastal Carolina University

Citation: Laiola, Sarah Whitcomb. “31 Truths of Teaching Cultural Semiotics in a General Education Class.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.let01

Abstract: this listicle demonstrates the ways online personality quizzes, such as those produced and popularized by Buzzfeed, highlight the connectedness between cultural semiotic systems (ideology) and digital encoded systems (software). Though this connectedness is often understood to be the result of encoding ideological meaning and value into software systems, as critics like Wendy Chun and Alexander Galloway have argued, this connectedness is much more fundamental: both ideological and software systems operate through encoded chains of meaning. In software systems, we call these chains “code”; while in ideological systems, we call them “semiotics,” following Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure (among other structuralist and post-structuralist theorists). As this listicle argues, Buzzfeed-style personality quizzes make this connection explicit, as they merge computational data analysis with culturally determined signs of meaning in their effort to reveal some hidden, unknown, or invisible “truth” about those who take the quiz. This “truth” is, of course, no more than the pattern that emerges from the data-points produced in the quiz-takers’ responses. Notably, however, this data is made meaningful as much by its analysis through a computational system, as through a cultural system of semiotic meaning. These quizzes, thus, function as effective pedagogical tools to illustrate the ways (both within and without the computational machine) semiotic systems can determine meaning and truth in the cultural, ideological “machine” of the world.

Keywords: Buzzfeed, listicle, quiz, semiotics, software, visual culture, cultural mythology, teaching, general education.

31 Truths of Teaching Cultural Semiotics in a General Education Class

1. We’ve all been there, showing students popular texts (advertisements, for instance) to prompt discussion about, or introduce the concepts of: Semiotic Systems, Signs, and Culturally Constructed Mythologies.

We show them texts like this:

2. Or this:

3. Or this:

4. And at first, all seems well. They start to get it.

5. You see sudden moments of clarity popping up all around the classroom.

6. The students start philosophizing.

7. And you get excited.

8. You feel SO successful!

9. Maybe you even feel a little self-congratulatory.

10. And you continue with your lecture, showing them that it isn’t just “sexiness” or “beauty” that are culturally constructed through signs; everything around them is, in some way, functioning semiotically.

11. In fact, as you remind them constantly throughout the lecture, nothing is inherently meaningful.

12. At some point, you realize you’ve gone too far. The faces staring back at you that were once alight with realization become shadowed by skepticism.

13. This feeling eventually takes over the class, and even though the students look like they might believe you...

14. You’re pretty sure they’re just humoring you. Your lecture may as well be total nonsense in the face of such skeptical resistance.

Basically me, teaching semiotics.

15. Well...

A way to instill the lessons of cultural value systems, mythologies, and circulating signs that both denote and connote meaningfully, that will convince even the most skeptical of the Semiotic Truthers.

16. You right now:

17. Teach by using...

18. As texts made up of signs that, when taken together, will somehow produce an “accurate” reading of a person -- a reading that was ostensibly “hidden” before the quiz -- these quizzes are perfect examples of cultural, semiotic chains making meaning IRL.

The question-and-answer sets are structured through explicit denotative and “hidden” connotative information -- precisely the semiotic division that many students have difficulty grasping.

19. Take, for example, this question from a Buzzfeed quiz entitled “Which Disney Movie Would You Actually* Star In?”

*And while we’re at it, note that the title’s use of “actually” signals that this quiz will reveal something new or hidden, some implicitly connoted, yet very true, information about its user, which was unknown before taking the quiz.

20. The Answer Options for this question are:

In another context, “a palace,” “on a mountain,” or “always traveling” might fail to signify anything more than the words’ denotative meanings.

21. However, in this context, precisely because we encounter these phrases in a text that will tell us something about ourselves, something “actual” that we didn’t know before, each of these answers always already signifies something more than its explicitly denoted surface meaning.

22. In fact, unlike most cultural sign systems, those in the quiz are almost more accessible through their culturally connotative significance than they are through their linguistically denotative significance.

23. There is no resisting the semiotic here, since every answer choice -- every sign -- always already means something more than what it says (or seems to say) on the denotative surface.

24. (Even when you wish it didn’t).

25. Even though lecturing with Buzzfeed quizzes-as-semiotic- systems can be incredibly effective...

26. In the process of building a quiz, students have to imagine and build an entire cultural system that is based in signs that all contain explicitly meaningful denotative, as well as student- defined connotative information.

27. This system is enacted through the quiz type, its results, its questions, and its answers -- in other words, the meaningful links that students build among the signs as they compose the text.

28. Even more importantly, each of these elements must be consistent with the expectations, assumptions, and meanings of these signs as they circulate both within a wider cultural system, and within the contained cultural system defined by the quiz.

29. At the end of it all, students have a wider, deeper understanding of semiotics as multiply meaningful systems that are culturally constructed, rather than inherently meaningful.

30. And even if their quizzes aren’t the most accurate ever produced...

31. At the end of the day, you know students walk away from your lesson at least one (but more likely one hundred) step(s) closer to understanding how semiotic systems work to construct meaning in a culture.

Image Citations

Note: All specific memes created by the author for this publication. All citations describe original source material.

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