Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Charles Leech

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of applied semiotics (from around the world) to answer 10 identical questions and submit a candid photograph.


North York, Ontario, Canada…

SEMIOVOX

When you were a child/teen, how did your future fascination with symbols, cultural patterns, interpreting “texts,” and getting beneath the surface of daily life manifest itself?

CHARLES LEECH

As a child/teen, I was very involved in classical music — Anglican church choirs, and playing trombone in all my high school’s bands and orchestras. Wagner was a favourite: great trombone lines! So I suffered a layered, dual-shock when I heard ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: firstly, ‘what is Wagner doing in a Vietnam war movie?’ followed secondly, and quickly, by ‘why does it work so perfectly?’ That was the start of assessing congruencies in narrative codes, for me — I became very curious about how music worked, emotionally: easy connotations, difficult denotations! Realizing that there were at least two layers working all the time in all language and communication opened up that whole world to me.

SEMIOVOX

Describe your first encounter(s) with the theory and practice of semiotics.

CHARLES LEECH

As an undergrad, I was introduced to semiotics (see below) through Barthes’ Rhetoric of The Image — I remember clearly working through the analysis of Panzani Italian food advertising. I loved the practical application of it, the fact that Barthes used commonplace, banal examples from contemporary popular culture. I learnt that you could think deeply about seemingly silly things, and derive meaning from them belied by their simplicity.

By second year, however, I realized that semiotics was as prone as any academic field (perhaps even more so?) to descend into pretentious abstraction; I’m not clever enough to keep semiotic analysis in pure abstraction. It always needs to be applied, to be practical — it took me years to push past abstraction and return to the practical application of it.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

CHARLES LEECH

I actually discovered that ‘semiotics’ was a field through misinterpreting REM song lyrics. In ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It’, I heard Stipe sing “Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! Semiotic, patriotic, slam book neck, right? Right.” Except, of course, he’s really singing “symbiotic”, not “semiotic”. It took me years to realize my mistake. But by then it was too late. I [mis]heard this in 1987 and thought ‘what is ‘semiotic’?’ before realizing that it was not only an actual thing, but that my university in fact offered courses in it… and when I investigated, I realized it was the name for the skeleton key for all my curiosity about why and how things meant what they mean. Amazing! I took a couple of undergraduate courses in it, and nearly failed them — I was totally out of my depth! I gave up… it wasn’t until 5 years later that I realized I simply couldn’t let it go that easily, and so tackled it again, this time as a Masters degree. I’d grown 20 years in those 5 years and found my focus; from there it all fell into place; eventually my PhD thesis would tackle the very same case history that first captured me as a pre-teen: Wagner and Apocalypse Now (amongst others).

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

CHARLES LEECH

I think the usual soft skills: imagination; the ability to step back in ever-expanding concentric circles of context; knowing yourself and how you feel; and vocabulary. I believe the best semioticians are necessarily multi-lingual and I know that not having additional languages to draw on for meaning is a terrible barrier for me.

SEMIOVOX

What three books about semiotics have you found the most useful and enlightening in your own work?

CHARLES LEECH

All of mine are old – I’m sadly out-of-date on semiotic books!

Barthes’ Mythologies was a big one for me; I was especially struck by the analysis of wrestling. Wrestling! I never would have imagined the deep roots that such a silly spectacle could have: such an eye-opener.

Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality introduced me to the ideas of ‘simulacra’ (and thus to Baudrillard), as well as ‘metasemiotics’, on which I built my PhD thesis: I continue to use both those concepts to this day in my commercial semiotics work. Also, I loved that it engaged with pop culture science fiction films – a personal favourite.

Kristeva’s essay ‘Word, Dialogue, and Novel’, which I found in the textbook Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art was also hugely influential, allowing me to connect meaningful texts in apparent contradiction of the challenge of ‘postmodernism’. It not only helped me understand Apocalypse Now, but also The Simpsons.

SEMIOVOX

When someone asks you to describe what you do, what is your “elevator pitch”? How do you persuade a skeptical client to take a chance on using this tool?

CHARLES LEECH

Well, in truth, commercial semiotics is only one of the tools I use as a full-service qualitative market researcher. But my semio elevator pitch goes like this: we all agree that red means ‘stop’ in our [Western] culture, right? Yes. But it also means ‘passion’, right? Yes. Weird, right? Hmm. Do you know why it’s able to do both? No. Well, semiotics explains why — in fact it’s able to explain where most of those accepted, intuitive understandings come from. And knowledge is power, my friend.

But persuading Western blue-chip clients to take a chance on using semiotics in a project is something I’ve never managed. Unless they ask for it (and then 40% of the time, they have no idea what it is, what it means, and don’t understand that it’s completely irrelevant to both their business problem and their research objectives), we sometimes offer it as pro bono: the first hit is always free, my friend.

SEMIOVOX

What specific sorts of semiotics-driven projects do you find to be the most enjoyable and rewarding?

CHARLES LEECH

I most enjoy what we call ‘macro-semiotic’ projects, which are engaged with the deeper meaning of things in the world, and the role they play in culture. It’s contemporary ‘mythologies’ in the Barthian sense. What socio-cultural purpose do they serve? What emotional foundations support them? Where did the idea come from, and how did it evolve? How can we use that to better understand the present, and project that into hypotheses for future engagement? We’ve done this for batteries, for deodorant, for video game consoles, for virtually all alcohol categories, coffee, tea, and French fries. Sometimes ‘micro-semiotics’ aka packaging or creative qual, comes out of it; sometimes not.

SEMIOVOX

What frustrates you about how semiotics is practiced and/or perceived, right now?

CHARLES LEECH

I have many frustrations with commercial semiotics, but few with how it is practiced! Most of my frustrations are on the client side: clients who want semiotics because it’s ‘deep’ but have zero patience for anything more than 10 words on a single PPT slide; clients who think ‘semiotics’ can produce new packaging; who think that it exists only to explain what colours mean (i.e. my elevator pitch but nothing further).

The role of the researcher in conducting semiotic analysis is also on ongoing concern. Researcher bias is always an issue in qualitative research, but it’s especially acute in desk-based semiotic research where the researcher’s pool of associations can ultimately generate idiosyncratic research results; it has to be very carefully contextualized and explained to clients (in advance!) in order to provide the needed value/ROI.

As a profession, we’ve been talking about a global-standard professional market research semiotician qualification for over 20 years (which is my tenure), but it still remains an unconquered challenge. We all do it differently, and few of us are wrong.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

CHARLES LEECH

So difficult! I tend to use Saussurian language — signified, and signifier. And I believe for commercial semiotics, Saussure is more helpful, since most clients are happier to accept the fusion of signified and signifier into instant, unmediated meaning. So I’m Saussure at work. But at home, I personally lean more into Peirce, since I believe in the existence of an interpretant, and its role in mediating meaning… and although I acknowledge that Saussure believed that thought cannot exist outside of language, I believe that music is the Peircian refutation of that.

SEMIOVOX

What advice would you give to a young person interested in this sort of work?

CHARLES LEECH

First, watch as many movies and famous TV shows that you can; read magazines (or whatever they’ve become); listen to music. Become immersed in the popular culture of your culture. And ask ‘why?’ about ev-er-ee-thing. And learn early on, as early as you can, to express your enthusiasm and passion for it to others in honest but simple terms, and using examples that everybody can grasp. Understanding something through your analysis is one thing, but the true trick is explaining it to a layperson in such a way that they feel excited and elevated.

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