Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Vijay Parthasarathy

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.


New York…

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?

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

I grew up for a while in Europe. When my family returned home in the late 1980s, I discovered to my shock that chicken nuggets & Pepsi wasn’t a thing in socialist-era India. Seeing my glum face, a friend took me to a stand supposedly selling ‘Pepsi’ — only it turned out that the vendor, my friend and probably all of India were happily mangling the word ‘popsicle’ and calling the cola variant ‘Pepsi.’ Classic bait and switch. I remember clearly the desperation rising up my chest.

All to say, any future fascination with symbols and signification wasn’t a conscious thing, yet the experience sensitized me to culture, consumption, and globalization. 

SEMIOVOX

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

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

In one of my introductory PhD classes, we were asked to deconstruct a music video. I picked REM’s delightfully dense ‘Imitation of Life’ and, employing caution, offered a page’s worth of binary tensions and reasonable interpretations. (I was concerned that if I got too self-indulgent, the professor would remark with a meaningful glance, “Semiotics is certainly a way to ferret out the lunatics.”) I was promptly asked to dig deeper. Deeper to the point of disorientation. Forget your inhibitions, don’t worry about being judged. Keep going, a little more. I obliged, as my incredulity transformed into glee. It was like the teacher was enabling a crack habit.

What’s not to like about that? 😇

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

I have degrees in Physics and writing; for years I was a media commentator on sport and global culture. My anthropology dissertation centered on how comedy shapes global modernities. Folks sometimes ask me how I reconcile my divergent interests and why I choose to do what I do. My glib go-to response is that commercial semiotics is one of the few professions that endorses a jump from particle physics metaphors to a Rafael Nadal joke in the same thought, without first directing you to an ADHD therapist.

For two decades I bounced from discipline to discipline in search of wisdom. Truth is, I got a bit tired of interviewing people. I was burnt out from years of chasing after flaky comics. I had developed a real distaste for some of poststructuralism’s decentralized excesses. I was looking for a more balanced approach, and that’s when I stumbled into commercial semiotics. The ‘expert perspective’ sounds convenient for a guy who on some days likes nothing better than to lounge in his pajamas….

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Having the stamina, discipline and courage to think things through. Optimism and an openness to ideas, sensations, emotions, and experiences. Real empathy that flows by default. The capacity to resonate with different mindsets. Above all, the wisdom to separate ideal outcomes from short-term incentives.

SEMIOVOX

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

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

  • Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci’s big ideas like ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘organic intellectuals’ continue to underpin civil society. My applied work in interpersonal and organizational dynamics draws from his theories of group consent and language politics. One of the great modern philosophers, alongside Bakhtin.
  • Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige shows how punk and other subcultures employed ‘style’ to resemiotize cultural commodities in a radical act that drained popular culture of its standard meanings and infused it with new life. The book was a foundational theoretical resource in my analysis of how comedy culture went mainstream globally. I continue to draw on its ideas in my commercial categorizations of modern subcultures.
  • David Lodge’s novel Nice Work. It’s not often that a novelist casually launches into a lucid explanation of the difference between metaphor and metonymy. In one comic sequence, a feminist theorist insists on decoding a cigarette advertisement for a clueless but curious CEO type. It gets a bit… Freudian. Lodge is my kind of semiotician: intense and easygoing.

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?

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

My elevator pitch: I help global brands make culturally astute, emotionally resonant decisions that shape their future and legacy.

With some skeptical Fortune 500 clients, I use ‘semiotics’ interchangeably with ‘cultural strategy’ because as we know, the word ‘semiotics’ does an awful job of decoding its own meaning. ‘Cultural strategy’ feels more evocative.

SEMIOVOX

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

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

I especially love applying psychological semiotics to leadership development and team building. I regard the models that I’ve developed as my life’s work. Positioning challenges are often fun. I also love understanding how historical trends impact future outcomes for products like coffee or salt.

SEMIOVOX

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

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Semiotics has an image issue — particularly in the US, where quantitative sociology has held insights professionals in a chokehold for decades. Even more problematically, I think semiotics may be limiting itself to solving bourgeois crises: how to package beauty products for the middle class? How to take botanicals mainstream? More eyeballs, more business! And let’s keep emergent trends relatable!

We’re looking for something fixed, adapting to a ‘politics of guarantees,’ and playing it safe so we can expand the discipline. Commercial semiotics could be more ambitious, more imaginative. The flex potential is massive. There’s tremendous scope, for example, to apply semiotics to leadership, organization and interpersonal dynamics. Semiotics, among all research methods, is best equipped to make capitalism sustainable — close to a perpetual motion machine — for centuries to come.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

The more compelling question is, Saussure or Bakhtin? There is a more productive tension there — Bakhtin doesn’t simply refute Saussure’s view of the world; he complicates it. I do resonate with Saussure (and enjoy the hell out of Barthes), but Bakhtin’s insights into the dynamic, democratic relationship between language and culture are golden.

SEMIOVOX

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

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Read widely, absorb everything, and over time develop your own theories, approaches and applications. Synthesize it all to create something original. If you can find your voice as a semiotician, there’s a real opportunity to create meaningful impact at scale.


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.

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