The web is probably being oversold as an educational medium these days; there are very few things that can be done on the web that can't fairly easily and cheaply be done using more traditional methods. I put this site together, however, because I was having a particular problem in my classrooms and thought certain traits of the web might lend themselves to solving the problem. Many of my undergraduate students were having trouble recognizing the formal quality of media texts. When asked to analyze an advertisement, they'd have a hard time getting beyond simply describing their feelings: a fashion model was sexy, an image beautiful or attractive or repulsive, and that's all there was to say. It was as if their personal reactions were somehow there on the page; the formal, culturally arbitrary forms that were at work remained invisible to them. Discussions in class of slides of advertisements helped a bit, but only so much.

We're so bombarded by intense, rapid-fire imagery these days that it's hard to find the space to contemplate those images, to think about how they work and what they say to and about us. People complain about the "world wide wait," the slow speed at which web-based images load and get displayed on our screen, but in this context it seemed to me that this slow pace might be useful. On the web, students could self-pace their encounter with images, and explore them at a thoughtful speed. (This is why art museums tend to use undistracting, white walls; I consciously tried to imitate art museums in my minimalist layout.) Furthermore, the capacity to manipulate images so as to make the process of imaginative substitution (what semioticians call "the commutation test") that's part of the stock-in-trade of formal analysis more obvious and understandable. With digital images, it's fairly easy to change and substitute elements of an image, so the process of commutation doesn't have to be left up to the imagination.

My use of semiotics and semiotic terminology here is solely directed to this pedagogical purpose. For that reason, many of the theoretical debates and fine points surrounding the field are simplified or ignored, and my use of the field's terminology -- which has tended to be unstable over time in any case -- is perhaps at times simplified and lacking in nuance: my apologies to those who find these fine points fascinating. And I leave the question of whether semiotics is best understood as a science or a heuristic (or as a form of spiritual training) to others.

There is one intellectual issue, however, that is reflected in some of the choices I've made in putting together this web site. Ever since the Gulf War, with its highly chauvinistic media coverage and wide popularity in the US, I've had a growing feeling that some of the original essays in the semiotic tradition, particularly Roland Barthes' "Myth Today" in the collection Mythologies, have more contemporary relevance than is frequently assumed. True, the theoretical framework laid out in "Myth Today" tends to obscure history and the complexities of experience and variations in interpretation, and at points it problematically presupposes the existence of authentic or "true" relations between signifiers and signifieds. But after noticing the similarity between many Gulf War media images and Barthes' central image -- the cover of Paris Match featuring an African soldier saluting the French flag in what was at the time the French colony of Algeria -- it seemed to me that much of what Barthes was getting at in the essay was still relevant. (I use some of these Gulf War images in the web site, and quote Barthes directly in the sequence on ideology.) So the tendency in cultural studies and related fields to dismiss both formal semiotic analysis in general the analysis of "Myth Today" in particular (both of which were encouraged by some of Barthes own later writings) are unfortunate. Whether or not our era is postmodern, it is also still what Barthes called "bourgeois," and the power of media and cultural forms are best understood with that in mind.

Home | Table of Contents | Links | Definitions | Bibliography/Further Reading | Acknowledgments