Semiotics Semionaut

Making Sense with…

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Photo courtesy of Serdar Paktin

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.


London / Istanbul…

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?

SERDAR PAKTIN

When I was three or so, whenever we took the bus to go somewhere in the city I’d ask my mother a thousand questions — particularly about shop signs and displays, what they wrote there, why they chose that particular name, what the meaning of the symbol was, and so on. My mother also tells me that I was deeply curious about the reasons for people’s behavior.

The Turkish culture I grew up in is “high-context” — semiotic in nature. I grew up knowing that meaning is always contextual, and I’ve remained curious about cultural context. When I’m on public transit I’ll still make a one-player game of investigating shop displays.

SEMIOVOX

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

SERDAR PAKTIN

At the military high school I attended, I was fascinated by a course on “Poetry Knowlege,” in which we learned about different means and tools of meaning-creation, such as rhyming, rhythm and prosody, metaphors and so on. Who knew that a poem could have different layers of meanings, each of which opened a new window of perspective to the story told?

Later during my undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies, I was similarly amazed by a course on “Textual Analysis” — which broadened my horizons when it came to meanings, signs, and symbolism. I became fascinated with Structuralist and Post-structuralist theory.

SEMIOVOX

How did you find your own way to doing semiotics?

SERDAR PAKTIN

The experimental pedagogy of my undergraduate degree program emphasized a Socratic-style and interdisciplinary approach to “problem-based” learning, for which I’m grateful. I gravitated to Post-structuralism, Russian Formalism, Existentialism, Pragmatism — Barthes, Derrida, Bourdieu, Bakhtin, and so forth — a social-semiotic approach that helped provide answers to my ongoing questions about how and what things mean to people. I wanted to explore the intersectionality of culture and communication, so when I was granted a Fulbright Scholarship I ended up earning a Master’s in Liberal Studies at New York’s New School for Social Research — where I studied with Julia Kristeva, Christopher Hitchens, Anthony Gottlieb, Robert Boyers, Jim Miller, Ann Lee Stoler, and other brilliant literary analysts.

I was hired part-time at a prominent strategic communications consultancy that worked on election campaign communications and messaging strategy, for clients from Bill Clinton to the American Red Cross. I already understood that semiotics could help lead to meaningful change for people, but until you get real-world experience — for example, I participated in research for Michael Bloomberg’s second-term election campaign — it’s all so theoretical.

SEMIOVOX

What are the most important attributes of a good semiotician?

SERDAR PAKTIN

You have to be an abstract thinker — capable of perceiving an underlying structure within complex meaning systems. Even trickier, you then have to make this invisible structure visible to others, through language and other communications. I’m still working on the latter.

Most importantly, you need to balance empathy for the topic at hand with a certain emotional reserve that prevents you from falling into biased errors of perception and judgment. I often describe this delicate balancing act as the “outsider gaze.”

SEMIOVOX

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

SERDAR PAKTIN

  • Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, a collection of essays [on the nature and development of novelistic prose]. I am mesmerized by a passage that ends like so: “The speaker strives to get a reading on his own word, and on his own conceptual system that determines this word, within the alien conceptual system of the understanding receiver; he enters into dialogical relationships with certain aspects of this system. The speaker breaks through the alien conceptual horizon of the listener, constructs his own utterance on alien territory, against his, the listener’s, apperceptive background.”
  • Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus finds meaning in the meaningless task to which he is condemned, in Camus’ reinterpretation of the Greek myth, and he continues to perform it as long as he chooses. Simply by shifting our perspective from Sisyphus’ “curse” to his choice, Camus provides us with a powerful metaphor for the individual’s persistent struggle against life’s absurdity. One of the best books I’ve ever read.
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. A work of intertextuality from beginning to end, a semiotic “sculpture” composed of characters who are themselves semiotic constructions, and a whale which is an entity of meaning constructed bit by bit over the course of the novel. An astonishing, beautifully written work of and about meaning-making.

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?

SERDAR PAKTIN

I remind them that we live in a cultural sphere where our choices, values, tastes, preferences and tendencies are shaped on a macro level. Cultural associations are strong determinants of the way we perceive and think about things. In order to communicate in an impactful and meaningful way, then, you need to understand the codes of that particular “cultural sphere.” Before you can get clever with your marketing communication, you have to understand what’s relevant and engaging to people within that sphere. You can’t connect on a deep level without analyzing context first.

SEMIOVOX

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

SERDAR PAKTIN

Each new semiotics project is an Indiana Jones-type adventure. Once you get on the road, you don’t know where you’ll end up. You’ll make your way through a bewildering “forest” of signs. You’ll journey deep into unknown territory in order to obtain a tiny but powerful cultural code or nuance… which turns out to be a key that unlocks the target audience’s psyche. You’ll only know you’ve arrived when that magical key suddenly dazzles your eyes.

I remember one particular project, on behalf of an ice cream brand, where we discovered that every little nuance of texture in food could be communicated via distinct linguistic cues. The notion of “crispiness,” for example, had eight or ten levels of meaning — and at each level, the word used to describe the treat could have positive or negative connotations, depending on how you said it. These types of discoveries make me fall in love with this work!

SEMIOVOX

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

SERDAR PAKTIN

I wish that there was better communication between theoretical and commercial semiotics. Theoretical semiotics is impossible for anyone but academics to understand; and on the other hand, commercial semioticians are too narrowly focused on solving their clients’ problems. This state of affairs is a shame, because as I said earlier, semiotics provides various “magic keys” that allows us to learn so much from other cultures, offering a boost to creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation has always taken place at the intersection of cultures, borders, disciplines. In the real world, nomads, refugees, and expats have always been at the center of creativity and innovation — because their “outsider gaze” allows them to translate ideas, knowledge, and skills from one sphere to another. Ironically, though, despite the fact that our world is more interdependent and uncertain than ever before, we don’t seem to value cross-cultural and interdisciplinary practices like semiotics as much as we should. That’s frustrating.

SEMIOVOX

Peirce or Saussure?

SERDAR PAKTIN

Between the two of them, Peirce — because his approach includes the interpreter as part of the meaning-making process. However, I prefer Bakhtin to Peirce or Saussure. His approach considers the context and the motives of both the interpreter and the utterer. Therefore, the meaning is created not only through signification but also with the influence of the context and the influence of the parties’ motivations, making it an even more complex process. The dialogic nature of Bakhtin’s approach gives agency to the interpreter — with his or her “outsider gaze.”

SEMIOVOX

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

SERDAR PAKTIN

If you’re curious about what lies beyond the visible, about what meanings are below the surface, then you’re on the right path. So stay curious about…

  • What is immediately obvious, and what lurks behind the obvious
  • Why people behave in certain ways — and whether they’d behave differently in another cultural context
  • Why brands choose particular colors
  • Why the meals you eat have particular structures, and what these structures mean
  • And everything else, too

MAKING SENSE WITH… series: MARTHA ARANGO (Sweden) | CHRIS ARNING (England) | CHRIS BARNHAM (England) | AUDREY BARTIS (France) | ANDREA BASUNTI (England) | HIBATO BEN AHMED (France) | MACIEJ BIEDZIŃSKI (Poland) | MYRIAM BOUABID (Tunisia) | KISHORE BUDHA (England) | MARIANE CARA (Brazil) | GIULIA CERIANI (Italy) | BECKS COLLINS (England) | INKA CROSSWAITE (South Africa) | DORA JURD DE GIRANCOURT (France) | NATASHA DELLISTON (England) | PANOS DIMITROPOULOS (China) | ROB DRENT (Netherlands) | VLADIMIR DJUROVIC (China) | JOËL LIM DU BOIS (Malaysia) | WHITNEY DUNLAP-FOWLER (USA) | ROMÁN ESQUEDA (Mexico) | MALCOLM EVANS (England) | NICK GADSBY (England) | PETER GLASSEN (Switzerland) | JOSH GLENN (USA) | PAULINA GOCH-KENAWY (Poland) | STEFANIA GOGNA (Italy) | EUGENE GORNY (Thailand) | SAMUEL GRANGE (France) | GISELA GRIMBLAT (Mexico) | AIYANA GUNJAN (India) | FRANCISCO HAUSS (China) | EMILY HAYES (England) | YOGI HENDLIN (Netherlands / USA) | HANNAH HOEL (New Zealand) | KATRIN HORN (Austria) | IVÁN ISLAS (Mexico) | SARAH JOHNSON (Canada) | LOUISE JOLLY (England) | GEMMA JONES (Netherlands) | CHRISTO KAFTANDJIEV (Bulgaria) | SEEMA KHANWALKAR (India) | KAIE KOPPEL (Estonia) | LUCIA LAURENT-NEVA (England) | RACHEL LAWES (England) | CHARLES LEECH (Canada) | ELINOR LIFSHITZ (China) | WILLIAM LIU (China) | RAMONA LYONS (USA) | KATJA MAGGIO (Netherlands) | LUCA MARCHETTI (France) | SÓNIA MARQUES (Portugal) | MAX MATUS (Mexico) | CHIRAG MEDIRATTA (India / Canada) | CLIO MEURER (Brazil) | ELODIE MIELCZARECK (France) | THIERRY MORTIER (Sweden) | RAHUL MURDESHWAAR (India) | SERDAR PAKTIN (Turkey / England) | MARIA PAPANTHYMOU (Greece / Russia) | VIJAY PARTHASARATHY (USA) | GABRIELA PEDRANTI (Spain) | JAMIN PELKEY (Canada) | GAËLLE PINEDA (France) | ALEXANDRA ROBERT (France) | GREG ROWLAND (England) | KARIN SANDELIN (Sweden) | CARLOS SCOLARI (Spain) | COLETTE SENSIER (England) | HAMSINI SHIVAKUMAR (India) | GIANLLUCA SIMI (Brazil) | TIM SPENCER (England) | TIM STOCK (USA) | XIMENA TOBI (Argentina) | DIMITAR TRENDAFILOV (Bulgaria) | ALFREDO TRONCOSO (Mexico) | ADELINA VACA (Mexico) | JENNIFER VASILACHE (Switzerland) | ANTJE WEISSENBORN (Germany) | COCO WU (Singapore / China) | & more to come.

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