Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Josh Glenn

What makes a semiotician tick? SEMIOVOX’s Josh Glenn has invited his fellow practitioners in the field of commercial semiotics, from around the world, to answer a few revealing questions.

Brighton, UK…

For Coco, Dan, and Paula*


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?


This question threw up a lot of sediment from the unconscious. Some examples of an early decoding and encoding impulse — like sitting opposite a radio operator at a distant outpost of the British Empire toying with a Morse Code key. Much stronger than a wish to reach out and make sense was a deeply impressionable disposition, easily triggered towards amazement and delirium. Terror in the face of a Caribbean storm of apocalyptic thunder and lightning. Lifting a flat stone out of damp earth in the tropics and being transfixed in the headlights of a great seethe of tiny lethal looking creatures primed to shoot through any fissures or gaps and take you over. The big recurring theme in what structured the surface of signs and interactions, though impossible to conceptualize as such at the time of course, was identity and power. This will be implicit throughout the story.

I was born into a bilingual and bicultural family.  One culture of hearth, home, community, the mother tongue Welsh, which children had been beaten for speaking in school within what my grandparents spoke of as living memory. The other expressed in the language of posh authoritative voices on the radio, of snobbery, bullying, fraud, occupation. “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a lump of beef” – lines from a nursery rhyme repeated by the people we were taught had invaded and stolen our country. Brits of the Celtic nations (think of us as the native Brits) stand in roughly the same relation to the English as any conquered indigenous people you can think of do to their colonisers. While also, in another mode of being, co-existing as the best of friends and neighbours, often doing the English overlords’ dirty work for them historically within the global colonial context. And Taffy’s beef has always been with the privately educated English ruling class and culture of the South East of the country, never with the English working classes. So Liverpool, sometimes regarded as the capital of Ireland in spite of being in England, was definitely also the capital of my North Wales homeland.

But my real emotional homeland is also the West Indies. In memory there is a brightly lit box of sun, sand, sea and palm trees, between the ages of  5 and 8, which feels bigger than all the other childhood years put together. My father was assigned by the British Colonial Office to be head teacher of the school on a tiny island in the Bahamas, the only all white island and one where any overnight black Bahamian visitors were required to stay in a segregated facility by the dock called the Bogue House. The ethos of our time in the Bahamas was probably much like 1950s Mississippi or Alabama, but combined with an overlay of English colonial pretentiousness, ceremony and regalia. It didn’t take much rational decoding or nuanced emotional intelligence, even for a child of my age, to sense that all this was profoundly wrong. My parents were decent people so they knew it too. And they made the best of it, my father dealing with it better than my mother was able to. We learned to live with contradictions.  

Teenage years back in North Wales coincided with the glory days of 1960s popular music and culture, with two main strands pointing the way forward to future interests in critical theory and semiotics. One to do with psychedelia, altered states of consciousness, opening the doors of perception. “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice. When she’s ten feet tall.” The other strand around civil rights, the peace movement, gender equality, environmentalism, a rejection of corporate capitalism and imperialism. In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty sums this up for Alice when he explains that it’s not so much about what words (which can stand here for other signs and symbols) mean, or the variety of things they can be made to mean, but about “Which is to be master – that’s all.”


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


I was introduced to semiotics by Terence Hawkes whose book Structuralism and Semiotics (1973) was one of the first straightforward expositions of the subject in English. This was the launch volume in a series called New Accents, of which Hawkes was the general editor.

I was attracted less to semiotics specifically than to the broad range of topics that series covered — post-structuralism, deconstruction, cultural studies, narratology, feminist criticism, the influence of Freud and Marx on literary and cultural theory. Hawkes had taught me as an undergraduate in Cardiff and supervised my PhD research on Shakespeare so I was part of an emerging ‘theory’ community in UK academia in the 1970s and 80s, and a contributor to one of the New Accents volumes. As for his contemporaries Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Terry Eagleton, the exercise of power through the ideologies of class and colonialism — and in collective resistance against such hegemonic forces — was key to Hawkes’s approach to critical analysis and commentary. 

There are a number of us now working in applied semiotics for brands in UK whose career orientations and skill sets are rooted somewhere in the work of these people and the educational changes they helped bring about. I have documented this in “Semiotics Goes Business,” the closing chapter of Fascinating Rhythms, a collection commemorating the work of Terry Hawkes, edited by John Drakakis and published at the end of 2022.


How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?


By the mid 1980s I had published a number of things on critical theory, including one of the first book-length applications of post-structuralist and cultural materialist approaches to a reappraisal of Shakespeare and his influence, Signifying Nothing. Terry Eagleton wrote a generous foreword to the second edition of this book (1989) and an article by  Terence Hawkes including a number of favourable mentions, which appeared in the London Review of Books, led to a minor foretaste of  the UK’s version of  today’s ‘culture wars’ in a furore around contested cultural meanings of Shakespeare which came to be known as the ‘Bardbiz’ controversy.

I was teaching English at the Polytechnic of North London, where some of my students were taking the theory revolution off in some fascinating new directions. David Freeman reinvented himself as The Lover Speaks and, with the help of Herb Alpert and Jimmy Iovine, put out a Barthes- and Lacan-inspired album of the same name on A&M Records which included the song “No More ‘I Love You’s’,” a direct steal from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. This song eventually became a Number One hit single for Annie Lennox.  Wendy Wheeler became a leading light of biosemiotics, publishing The Whole Creature and Expecting the Earth. Sean O’Hagan became one of UK’s most distinguished popular culture and music journalists. Another student, Virginia Valentine, was developing a critical theory-inspired approach to brands and advertising and asked me if I would like to be involved. I resisted until Virginia indicated that the work was taking off, she had started a company called Semiotic Solutions, and she was desperate for a sounding board who understood critical theory. She said that she was charging clients £700 per day and would be happy to pay me the same. That was between a quarter and a third of my monthly salary as a teacher. At that point, spontaneously, I uttered the most stupid thing I have ever said in my life: “No, half that amount will be just fine.” The rest is history, mystery, misery. Rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien!  


What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?


Being way too impressionable, a robust sense of humour, a natural interest in classification systems, top communication skills, a good memory, humility, curiosity, empathy, self-confidence, imagination and flair. Fearlessness.  


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


John Berger’s Ways of Seeing exemplifies formal and aesthetic analysis supremely tuned in to the power relations encoded into all communication. Berger was also a writer of great integrity, who in 1972 donated half the Booker Prize for his novel G  to the Black Panthers, the Booker fortune being based historically on sugar plantations and slavery.

Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. Latour’s idea that the Enlightenment didn’t really happen and we are still living in the late, late, late Middle Ages is a great empowering fiction for applied commercial semiotics, given all the mystical and metaphorical mumbo jumbo that hovers around brands and the modern religion of consumerism. Latour’s later advocacy of environmental activism is a powerful complement to We Have Never Been Modern, and draws out retrospectively a strand of political realism in the earlier work.

Jesper Hoffmeyer’s Signs of Meaning in the Universe. Around the time that structuralism and semiology became the basis for the version of applied semiotics that flourished with the globalization of brands in the 1990s, academic semiotics, under the tutelage of Thomas Sebeok, was recognizing the Saussure- and culture-based paradigm as a limited junior branch of the discipline. This emerging semiotic discourse embraced the Peircean model as its theoretical grounding and looked not just at language and culture but at all the other forms of semiosis and signalling in the universe — within the body, involving animal species other than humans, between plants, and including the many microscopic creatures that live within and all around us. Hoffmeyer’s book is a brilliant popular science introduction to why biosemiotics (and cybersemiotics as part of that) would necessarily include, but go much further than, linguistics-based and cultural semiotics alone. 


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?


I use semiotics among other tools to help people understand how popular culture and media (including social media) are changing. Anywhere in the world — using experts in many different countries. It’s like a kind of jazz anthropology. Or ultra-premium privatised journalism. We look at topics like the changing role of women, sustainability or regeneration, social equality, attitudes to obesity, trust, nature, perceptions of freedom and democracy, you name it. And what the changes in whichever of these themes you might be interested in as a brand mean for you and your competitors. Specifically what your brand needs to do to function and communicate with people more effectively, in relation to your chosen theme, as the world of culture, media and competitive communication all around it evolves. 


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


Some of my best examples are in easily accessed published papers co-authored with Michael Harvey (for Guinness UDV), Katja Maggio-Muller and Marina Anderson (for Procter & Gamble), and Hamsini Shivakumar (on the application of semiotics in developing markets). The paper with Katja was especially useful in providing the results of internal analysis she did at P&G quantifying how semiotics had boosted their concepts in terms of popularity with consumers and ROI.

I’ll focus here on what has been personally most enjoyable and rewarding.  

  • In 2008, coinciding with the financial crisis of that year, I was involved in a project for Omar Mahmoud and his team at Unicef on the culture and communication codes of donation. Gratifying to be working for a global organisation sustained by the vision of the UN and devoted to fighting for the welfare of all children regardless of ethnicity, nationality, family or creed. The relief of being back with the sense I had when I was in teaching of doing unconflicted entirely worthwhile work. 
  • Projects inherently so satisfying to do and involving so much learning that it’s like being back in academic research but much better funded, working in a looser more creative way, and collaborating more flexibly with great clients and brilliant teams of analysts. A standout project in this respect, written up in detail in my ESOMAR conference paper with Marina Anderson, involved creating a new acculturation model for US Hispanic consumers. This still sets the standard, in my mind, for the kind of work that brings clients experienced in using semiotics back to the methodology, as the default option, when they are faced with a challenge they can’t imagine any other kind of research approach being able to encompass.
  • The other project I would mention in this context, one I am not yet allowed to talk about in any detail, is an experimental ‘biosemiotic’ approach to the obesity pandemic, where the team is evaluating, and developing strategies, based on not only cultural but also clinical learning.  One of my incidental learnings here was that when the Obamas were attempting to make inroads into the obesity epidemic by regulating advertising to children and the food and drink offered to pupils in US public schools, a corporate supplier of products made cultural history by lobbying to have pizza reclassified as a vegetable. So that it could qualify as one of your healthy five a day. Three decades doing cultural research have brought a wealth of such (sometimes tragically) comic highlights. Stand up comedians are among the best cultural analysts. I won’t mention my personal favourite in case the choice triggers anyone. 

In 2019 I decided to reset my horizons and change the job description again as I did at the end of the 1980s (a mid-life career switch is one of the best things you can ever do) — this time from brand semiotician to writer and researcher. My gratitude goes to all the brands and clients who helped make this possible. And to the first career in teaching that left me with no expensive tastes — my first boss at Added Value, Paul McGowan, once asked a PA booking a business hotel room for me to make sure that I wasn’t given a key to the minibar as I had never seen one and wouldn’t be able to handle the temptation. Doing semiotics and cultural insight for brands gives you some great tools for doing your own projects and for helping organisations that can’t spend as much as big corporations.

A satisfying undertaking, unfunded and coming to fruition in 2022 under this new banner, combined longstanding interests in imperialism and peace work. This is Colonial Crossfire, a translation I took on with John Howard Jones of a book by Ioan Roberts published originally in Welsh as Rhyfel Ni (‘Our War’), an oral history made up of interviews with Welsh and Welsh-identifying (Patagonian) combatants fighting on opposite sides in the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands conflict and with some of their bereaved families.


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


Nothing frustrates me. Having been involved in the late 1980s and early ’90s when there were a handful of practitioners who all knew each other and were struggling to articulate definitions, benefits, processes, and a language, it’s a joy to see thousands of people on the LinkedIn Semiotic Thinking Group, so many familiar and unfamiliar faces at various live and virtual events, and to know that anyone in client world who hasn’t yet heard of or engaged with semiotics and cultural insight isn’t doing their job properly. Everybody working in or trying to break through into this incredibly rewarding professional universe should be celebrating and supporting each other and the plurality of priorities and perspectives we share. It is a tribute to the spirit of the professional community around the world, as well as to its founders and local implementers, that Semiofest is by far and away the top brand in the world of commercial semiotics, and that this hallmark organisation is a not for profit, open equally to the infinite riches of academic semiotics and understanding the real-world constraints involved in making it work for clients in the private or public sectors, and is unremittingly welcoming and friendly to all enthusiasts.

I am saddened only by the wedge currently being driven by economic sanctions and proxy wars into the globalised economy which, for all its failings, experienced what already feels now like a nostalgic golden age coinciding with that of applied brand semiotics. Thucydides, in fourth century BC Athens, warned against the risks attendant on the decline of one great empire coinciding with the rise of another. Political commentators are currently writing about the ‘Thucydides Trap’ in relation to what’s going on between the US and China. With its knock-on effects in terms of what we are not doing together to address critical environmental issues. I sense a division in the brand semiotics discourse between catastrophists who hear the warning from Greta Thunberg and her like that the house is on fire and others who stick to a narrow bandwidth of business as usual, maintaining a polite silence on the big contextual issues, focusing only on a real or imaginary uncritical consumer (in UK she’s a big fan of Strictly Come Dancing and Downton Abbey) and devising ever more tantalizing ways of doing what FMCG clients used to refer to as “delighting her”? Or maybe both these semioticians live side by side in all of us.


Peirce or Saussure?


The Saussurean model, combined with the input from British cultural studies, did a great job for us getting started with the version of applied brand semiotics that originally emanated from UK in the 1990s. Since then it has been a joy learning from Peirceans and applied models from the Moscow-Tartu-Lotman school, becoming more pragmatic and pluralistic in our approach. Going forward the lead model has to be Peirce, because what Saussure does for cultural understanding and symbolic signification can be accommodated within the Peircean model. But things do not work vice versa for:

  • Peircean habit formation (versus Saussurean codes)
  • the incorporation of Peircean firstness and secondness in thirdness (which is the only part of the rich Peircean soup that Saussure engages with)
  • disrupting the human species exceptionalism implicit in the Saussurean model’s privileging of language and culture—– which needs to be done in order to open up a wider Peircean notion of universal semiosis coterminous with life itself.

On a cultural level the challenge to binarism in the area of gender and sexuality has opened up previously excluded or marginalised middle grounds in ways we would do well to replicate in other areas of discourse, not least the Orwellian “you’re either with us or against us,” us and them, good versus evil propagandising which is becoming normalised in polarizing political and social media discourse. The Peircean triad is evidently more empowering in this respect than Saussure’s bipartite signs and binary oppositions. Hopefully clients will soon themselves begin challenging applied Saussurean talk about consumers thinking in simple oppositions and paradigms, conditioned to do so by the nature of language — if the semioticians themselves haven’t got there first to challenge such limiting ways of thinking. The Greimasian semiotic square is obviously helping in that respect already — but starting from a basis of the dynamic Peircean triad is a much more compelling way of dealing with a reductive binarism.


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


You can never step into the same river twice and that’s true of semiotics, which was a very different phenomenon when I stepped into it from what it is now. So it’s me who should be asking for advice. All my good ideas came from people younger than myself. I would say never follow leaders in the business world. Unless they happen to be Nelson Mandela, the Buddha or Jesus they are not, in my experience, a very impressive bunch. Other prophets and deities are available. Blasphemy terms and conditions apply. As your career evolves, exercise increasing self-awareness as to your place in the evolving discourse and context (part of the job anyway), and know when to get out of the way with a good grace. If you are a semiotician approaching their/her/his mid-fifties, watch out. Except for things that are specifically older people’s stuff, make sure you have younger people writing your scripts for you. And maybe you should be letting them present their own work. Stop or adapt before you embarrass yourself in ways much worse than you already have. I’m not being ageist. Sharing learning from experience. It’s a fine line.

After backing off a bit, thinking of myself now as a writer and researcher in a broader sense, some final reflections on terminology:

  • ‘Semiotics’, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a cold, technical sounding word that pushes you away and communicates nothing of the rewards of engaging with the activity it supposedly denotes.  So do think about alternative ways of labelling what you do, unless you are selling something already known to and loved by the buyer. 
  • A ‘semiotician’, strictly speaking, is someone who can explain Saussure, Peirce, Russian and Estonian semiotics, biosemiotics. Having never studied semiotics formally I would never now describe myself as a semiotician as it would feel fraudulent.
  • In the English language, the connotation is also a bit cold, thin and reedy. Like a dietician, a hygienist, a beautician or some kind of hairdresser (without the warm chat and free therapy) — a trichologist or a colourist perhaps. Much as we all respect these professions, do ask yourself — if you happen not to be an academically trained semiotician — whether some connotation of that order represents what you aspire to be. Ask yourself: if I’m ever going to be exposed for pretending to be someone I’m not, would I want that to be for impersonating something that sounds like a hairdresser? One in a relatively surly and uncommunicative mood. 



Tags: Making Sense