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.


Boston…

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?

JOSH GLENN

I grew up shuttling between my father’s evangelical Christian household, and my mother’s household, which was not at all religious. This sort of upbringing will turn anyone into an engaged ironist: passionate about particular, freely chosen aspects of one’s culture while cynical about everything else. Also, we lived in a diverse Boston neighborhood, where — out of curiosity and respect, but also in order to keep from getting beaten up — one had to become adept at surfing ethnic-religious tribal differences. One often hears the type of moral perspective that I’m describing called “cosmopolitan,” but if you’d asked us about it at the time, my peers and I would have used a more pragmatic term: “streetwise.”

SEMIOVOX

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

JOSH GLENN

At college, c. 1986–1991, I muddled through Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection and the later Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text. Which I enjoyed, though I was skeptical of these and other post-structuralists’ guru-like suggestion that a meditative attention to gaps and glitches in the cultural matrix can reveal glimpses of “the real.” As someone who tends to favor diligent craftsmen like T.W. Adorno and Paul McCartney over such groovy, guru-like (and OK, brilliant) figures as Walter Benjamin and John Lennon, I found myself instead drawn into the decaying orbit of then-no-longer-fashionable structuralists like Saussure, Althusser, and the early Barthes… whose writings were all too available in in Boston’s used bookstores. As far as I could tell, I was the only person still interested in reading them.

By the time I’d dropped out of a graduate program in Sociology, I’d figured out that “post”-structuralism isn’t a repudiation of Saussure, et al., so much as it is a well-meaning and useful (if opaque and jargony) gambit to prevent egotistical structuralists from confusing their tidy models and “codes” for reality. Hermenaut, the indie intellectual zine/journal that I published from 1992–2001, was in part an effort to do Barthesian Mythologies-style semiotics vis-à-vis American culture in a non-opaque, non-jargony manner. (I coined the term “hermenaut” to conjure up an adventurous seeker of meaning.) To pay the bills, I toiled as a handyman, teacher, bartender, and eventually as a magazine and newspaper staffer; I never would’ve imagined, then, that I might spend a quarter of a century doing semiotics for a living.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

JOSH GLENN

Around 1998, Greg Rowland — he and I were both columnists for England’s The Idler, and he also contributed to Hermenaut — hired me, as a freelancer, to write up analyses of various aspects of American culture and brand communications. I soon roped in my Hermenaut colleague Scott Hamrah, and for nearly a decade the two of us would work behind the scenes for Greg, as well as for Malcolm Evans and his team (at Added Value, then Space Doctors), and other European agencies too. As a “semiotician” — it was a long time before I’d apply that moniker to myself, and I continue to do so self-consciously — I am utterly un-credentialed. I learned on the job. But perhaps that’s my superpower?

Semiotics remained a weekends-and-evenings activity for me until 2007, when I quit my job at the Boston Globe to go on retainer with Space Doctors. (Hamrah and I parted ways not long before this juncture.) Even then, semiotics remained a part-time gig. I valued having plenty of bandwidth free not only for parenting, but for my creative publishing projects — like The Idler’s Glossary, Significant Objects, and the UNBORED books and activity kits. It wasn’t until 2014, when I cofounded Semiovox with Ron Rentel (a brand-building and innovation veteran, and head of Consumer Eyes), that I went full-time. We’ve enjoyed a good run since — particularly with multi-market projects, which are a joy because they allow me to collaborate with semios from around the world.

The Covid slow-down moment provided an opportunity to bring my passion for creative publishing projects into the applied semiotics space, so I redesigned Semiovox’s website and began using it as a platform for playful, experimental semiosis. This includes fiction and cultural analysis (e.g., Mickey Mouse), as well as series like COVID CODES and SEMIO OBJECTS — and these Q&As, too — intended to give voice to our global semio community. In this latter endeavor, I’m building on the foundations that Malcolm and I began constructing in 2010 via Semionaut.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

JOSH GLENN

Terrific answers to this question have been given by others in this series, so I’ll just add: the ability to oscillate rapidly and productively between mental modes. Between inductive, deductive, and abductive reasoning. Between the naive open-mindedness of an “alien anthropologist” (which is how I tend to imagine myself, at a project’s kickoff) and a seasoned analyst’s expertise. And between — well, let’s return to the Beatles metaphor. You’ll want to begin in McCartney mode, putting in the effort (research and analysis requires immense focus and stick-to-it-iveness) in order to get a project 85% of the way there. Then, just when you think you’ve succeeded, you’ll want to click into Lennon mode, relying on imagination and creativity, and generating an overarching theory. Which will screw up the tidy analysis at which you’d arrived earlier, and force you to “kill all your darlings.” Repeat, repeat, repeat — this is the hermeneutic circle in action. Cycling through states of mind is tricky stuff — not everyone can do it.

SEMIOVOX

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

JOSH GLENN

I haven’t read many books about commercial semiotics; I’m waiting for Chris Arning’s to materialize. However, in the course of developing and putting into action my own “G-schema” (an evolution of the semiotic square) during the past few years, I’ve been most inspired by three works of theory, the names of all the authors of which — like my own — happen to begin with a “G.”

  • Gadamer’s Truth and Method, which rejects both induction (logically reasoning your way from the data to a general interpretation) and deduction (explaining the data through the lens of of a general interpretation) in favor of an alternative model of understanding, one designed to circumvent preconceptions: the “hermeneutic circle.”
  • Greimas’s Structural Semantics, which offers a nuanced, multidimensional way to do Saussurean semiotics — by reintroducing Aristotle’s “square of opposition” as a tool for mapping out the logical junctions and disjunctions of Saussurean binary oppositions.
  • Geertz’s Local Knowledge, the essays collected within which demonstrate how those of us who analyze culture via semiotics can deploy the hermeneutic circle to avoid the trap of mistaking our models with reality — i.e., via “a continuous dialectical tacking between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure in such a way as to bring them into simultaneous view.”

My “G-schema,” which I’ve deployed most recently via a year-long series of multi-market studies across beverage categories commissioned by various business units within The Coca-Cola Company (the schema also appears in the appendix to my 2021 book The Adventurer’s Glossary), marries the semiotic square with the hermeneutic circle… thus resulting in a “squared circle” of sorts. And they said it couldn’t be done!

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?

JOSH GLENN

Ron and I remind potential clients of the political consultant’s adage it’s not what you say — it’s what people hear. We all make sense of communications (whether from brands, culture, or media) by filtering such stimuli through a pre-conscious and therefore ultra-persuasive matrix of assumptions. It’s thanks to this matrix that we can instantly make sense of packaging, advertising, and so forth… and intuitively decide whether or not a brand is relevant to us. It’s difficult for consumer research to access this matrix, because we don’t know what we know — i.e., consumers can’t articulate tacit knowledge, acquired via osmosis. (Nobody can.) So if you want to discover what the consumer “hears” when your brand communicates via pack, advertising, social media, retail decor, etc., then commercial semiotics’ methodology — analyzing stimuli that’s representative of those forces that create, reinforce, and challenge assumptions around a cultural territory, say, or a brand category — provides a crucial complement to consumer research.

SEMIOVOX

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

JOSH GLENN

I really dig projects where the object of analysis is a “-ness” or an “-icity” — a higher-order benefit, to use marketing lingo. “Masculine Luxury,” say, or “Female Empowerment,” or “Making a Big Change.” Not to mention “British-ness,” “Mexican-ness,” and so forth.

However, the stimulus set for these sorts of study is difficult to define — which means that the client can never be certain we haven’t overlooked key stimuli. I’m OCD enough to share that anxiety. Which is why I also enjoy doing a category analysis: It may not be as sexy, but the research is quite straightforward (as long as you include transgressive “challenger” brands, not just market leaders). Of course, with the latter sort of study you’ll encounter another hiccup — the client may resist having their assumptions about their own category challenged.

A veteran semio will tell you it’s a good sign when the client is skeptical or resistant — because it means they’re fully engaged, which isn’t always the case. When the client becomes your collaborator, even an agonistic one, you’ll get the best results.

SEMIOVOX

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

JOSH GLENN

Semiotic analysis should precede everything else — brand positioning work, consumer research, writing a design or marketing brief, etc. Whenever we take on a project where one or more of these things is already underway, or even (di meliora) completed, Ron and I can predict that in our activation sessions we’re going to have to make like the protagonist of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai… and jumpstart the spacecraft while it’s already in midair. Not that doing so isn’t fun, sometimes.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

JOSH GLENN

I’m enamored with Peirce’s concept of “abductive” reasoning. Also, why is Geertz’s anthropology so enjoyable to read? Because it vividly brings Peirce’s theory of concept-formation to life. As a “malarial and diffident” outsider, Geertz will experience a bewildering firstness (e.g., a Balinese cockfight), then conduct assiduous research and analysis to make sense of how this culture works (secondness), and finally he’ll offer us a rich, nuanced, diagrammatic reading of a semiosphere’s potent symbols (thirdness). Minus the malaria, this is exactly how we commercial semioticians operate… so why aren’t our narratives one fraction as entertaining to read as Geertz’s?

Having said all that, when it comes to identifying and mapping out the norms and forms that shape and guide behavior within a culture and/or category, neo-Saussurean methods are not only highly effective but easily comprehensible for clients. (As a philosophical “pragmaticist,” Peirce would surely appreciate this critique.) I was impressed to learn (in a Semiofest Session from 2021) how Mariane Cara, Hamsini Shivakumar, and Chris Barnham have employed Peirce in their own work, and I look forward to further investigations. But for now I’ll continue to surface codes and tinker with the “G-schema” — while toggling between Peircean modes of logical ratiocination as situationally appropriate.

SEMIOVOX

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

JOSH GLENN

It’s very demanding work, and not everyone (no matter how intelligent) possesses the peculiar admixture of abilities needed to do it well. But if you enjoy learning new things and solving complex puzzles, then there’s nothing else like it.

The folks you’ll encounter via Semiofest — and the online Semiofest Sessions, which I’ve helped convene — are not only smart and knowledgable but friendly and welcoming.


MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MALEX SALAMANQUES AMIEL (England) | MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | MYRIAM DILMI (France) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | AYA KANDA (Japan) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | SERDAR PAKTIN (England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | COLLETE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | & more to come. Also see the international series COVID CODES and SEMIO OBJECTS.

Tags: Making Sense