The Semiotics of Fear: How Things that Scare Bring Comfort in Later Years

Were you afraid of the dark as a child? I was. Wind whistled through the floorboards in my room, rattling the splash pages I cut out of comic books and taped to my walls. The house constantly settled further into the ground, moaning its own eulogy that lasted for years. We lived near a military base so you’d constantly see then unidentified lights flashing in the sky, generally flares and dogfighting jets. Add to that equation the smoke pouring out of the register from my chimney-smoking parents downstairs, and you had yourself the makings for a B horror film . . . at least to a child of 8 years old.

I think darkness signifying the unknown and the possibility of untimely demise changed for me around adolescence. Darkness hid the parts of myself that were changing, the parts of myself I wanted to tuck away when engaging in intimate relations: combination skin, hair sprouting out of parts of my body I had been unaware of for years. When it came to treading the uncharted, darkness became a source of liberation.

During that awkward period in my life something new began to signify the possibility of untimely demise: police sirens and lights. Even if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, other than walking into town at 3am during summer vacation, the sound of police sirens and the sight of red and blue flashing on the horizon prompted an instinctive impulse to run and hide.

But today when I look out my house window and see those same lights flashing, I’m usually comforted. The speed limit sign changes near my home from 30 to 55, which some people seem to mistake for a transition from 30 to 120 m.p.h. Just a few months ago someone died making that transition because it drew them into the ditch as they were rounding a corner.

I’m primarily concerned about my children. I wouldn’t let my kids play near the road, but if they snuck home, or were getting off the late bus, what would happen if one of these erratic drivers decided to kick it into high gear about two miles before my house like they generally do after the bars close on weekends? I probably won’t find out, because a state trooper likes to hang out by the speed limit sign down the road. And the lights are flashing from 12am until 3am at least one day every weekend. Years ago that would have felt invasive. Today it liberates me from unnecessary anxiety.

As time passed, I went from running away, to rooting for these guys . . . well, I root for them when they enforce the speed limit in front of my house, anyway.

It’s interesting how the things that signify danger or impending doom to us when we’re young become sources of comfort to us as we get older. I’ve been trying to think of more examples, or perhaps examples of the converse: things causing comfort that later cause us anxiety. I have come up with a few, but they barely qualify as universal. How have the semiotics of fear changed for you over time?

Practical Application of Literary Criticism in Everyday Life

I work at a school of technology, where the humanities take a back seat in most two-year and certificate programs. Students enrolled in tech programs are generally enrolled in hands-on courses, and some find the classroom environment contrary to their learning styles. General education requirements entail that these students will eventually find their way into one of my literature or creative writing classes, where their resistance to lecture-based learning is very apparent. The most pressing question I hear is, “how is this going to help me (in my life/in my career)?”

I recently had one of my classes critically analyze Rita Dove’s “Driving Through,” a poem about exploring one’s past, coming to terms with the fact that who we were inevitably influences who we become, and how the person we become grows to wish they could change their past so that their history becomes one with who they are. Dove’s poem is about regret, a feeling that can push us forward because we can’t transmute the past *

After we analyzed the poem a few of my students asked what the point of critical analysis was. I never really thought about justifying it before. I always found literary analysis personally enriching. Some of the first lenses I was exposed to changed not only my perception of texts, but my perception of the world around me. The texts became a microcosm of society upon which I could test these lenses for application in the real world. Feminist critique of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale led me to feminist critique of advertising. Incidentally, after reading The Handmaid’s Tale through a feminist lens, I never looked at the cover of magazines in convenience stores the same way again. My life had been irrevocably changed.

Alright, I guess you don't need The Handmaid's Tale or a feminist approach to literature to see something's wrong here.

The value I attribute to this is great. This knowledge is power. It feels like I’m staring through the glare caused by social veneer. I’m able to discern what truly matters, not what the media and corporate America tells me is important. When it comes down to it, the semiotic observation that everything is a text is true, and learning to critically analyze literature is to learn how to critically analyze our world. It is a way to construct meaning, and thus construct knowledge about what is truly being conveyed to us in the thousands of media messages that we are bombarded with on a daily basis.

But I’m not sure I’d see it that way if I never would have been exposed to media messages contrary to my own beliefs. I think, for the younger generations exposed to advertising online, those contrary messages, messages that contradict one’s personal understanding of the world, aren’t as apparent as they were when the digital immigrants were viewing advertisements in print and on television.

Online advertising targets the consumer with more accuracy than ever before. Advertising doesn’t try to get you to buy into a cultural idea. They cater to your notion of culture and identity through keyword targeting and profiling, and sell you the products that reinforce your notion of selfhood and social belonging. Society and the self have become streamlined, and the world of advertising becomes an extension of the self. Teens and young adults are at a vulnerable point in their lives where they’re still discovering who they are. Taking a cold, hard look at themselves in the mirror results in metamorphosis. If they don’t like what they see, they become something or someone else. Today advertising transmutes in accordance. Digital natives don’t get the same opportunity to gauge what they were with who they become like previous generations. When they do, they’re not doing it in the same way that we did.

For example, as I began to change, the media messages contained in popular magazines I enjoyed stayed the same. The underlying agenda or lifestyle my favorite magazines were trying to perpetuate remained static for the most part. The disparity between this agenda, which I once bought into, and who I became-a person who wholly rejected that agenda-forced me to confront my values, and made me aware that, even as I was changing, I might still be buying into particular notions of a suitable lifestyle pressed upon me by society. I began exploring, very often in an unconscious capacity, how I could transcend social construct and find my own path. I began to see myself and society at large as two very separate constructs.

I’m not sure that disparity exists in the same capacity it did when I was growing up. The skepticism of society at large was one of the huge incentives for me when learning how to critically analyze literature and the world around me. With online advertising, corporate America isn’t at odds with the digital natives. It is one with them. Instead of advertising telling them, “this is what you should be,” it tells them, “you are who you are, and here are some products that might work for you.” I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. But it does offer instructors and professors of literature, at least those who found the same value in literary criticism I did, a challenge. We can’t always sell it to today’s students in the same way it was sold to us.

The Plight of the Academian and the Author

Read Aeschylus yet? Have his works on your shelf? If you answered "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second, maybe it's time to reconsider your personal library. Considering the rate new and engaging books are coming out these days, ask yourself, when am I actually going to sit down and read his works? Just toss it.

Now that I have finally weeded out my book collection, I’m starting on my magazines and journals. I started with a year’s subscription of The American Poetry Review that I got back in 2003. I don’t think I can part with a single one of them.

I’m not an indiscriminate reader, not anymore anyway. I mercilessly throw away books or donate them to libraries at least once a month. My disdain for literature which didn’t apply to me started back in my undergraduate years, when the school, or one of the clubs, would host a book sale each year. I’d watch my friends scramble down after class and pick up as many of the “classics” as they could get their hands on. Anything with Aristotle’s name, or Plato or Socrates. We were English majors after all and we already had full collections of Shakespeare and all of the Norton anthologies with the greats. We had moved on to literary criticism, philosophy, and relatively obscure poets like Hart Crane, the poets we didn’t always hear about in class but heard about in passing or in interviews with other greats.

When I moved in with my wife, also an English major, we started boxing up our collections and tossing out the books we both had copies of. Three Shakespeare collections were reduced to one. A lot of required texts we read for class were tucked away in a closet in my parents’ house. Years later when we went through them, we realized most of them meant little to us. Neither of us cared much for American imagist poetry. The countless collections of literature that feature excerpts from classic greek texts, they just didn’t matter. If they did feature something important to us, we wanted the entire text, not a single chapter to sample the material. All of the texts that we promised ourselves we’d get to some day, like the works of Euripides, we knew in our mid-twenties what we didn’t know when we were in our late teens: there was no way in hell we were going to dig through all of the works our professors attributed value to.

I feel like most people hit a point early in their lives where they’ll come to the realization that they’re not going to read everything on their shelves, but they don’t. I’ve watched many a professor retire with three shelves filled with books they’ve never read. I’ve had the luxury of sorting through the collections of retired professors who then, at the moment of retirement, realize they’re not going to read most of the work and leave the books in boxes in a department common room for students to browse, so that they may continue the legacy of knowledge hoarding. I have watched cohorts slink away with bags filled to the brim with books they’ll never read. Screw that. I won’t be a part of it.

The value of these works diminished for me a long time ago. It used to pain me to say “no” when a colleague or cohort in my program asked, “hey, have you checked out Aeschylus?” It doesn’t bother me anymore. That’s not my focus.

I’ve learned, through the years of cleaning out texts which are unimportant to me, not to crack a book that I know I probably won’t read. The minute I do, I’ll convince myself I need to read it. The last time I did this, it was with Proust. The prose was elegant, so elegant  and drawn out that after a few pages, I still didn’t have any notion of the plot. But the language. The language!

That’s part of the reason I’ll hang on to my subscription to The American Poetry Review from 2003. There’s some great material in those issues. Some of those folks can truly be called wordsmiths, even the folks who I don’t recognize by name. But there’s another reason: I feel sorry for most of the authors inside, all of which, at the time of publication, had probably convinced themselves that they were on the verge of making it big, at least as far as poetry is concerned. I look back almost ten years later, and I still don’t recognize 95% of the names in the July/August issue. I counted 30+ books advertised in that issue. I recognized perhaps one or two of those names, and those were the names of poets who had been writing since the 90s or earlier. Some of those books probably won a pushcart prize or some other notable award of distinction. I still have no idea who the authors are.

Perhaps that’s my fault for not being an integral part of the poetry movement in America. Maybe it is society’s fault for not attributing enough value to poetry today. Despite the culprit, maybe what I’m describing is symptomatic of the lives of many as writers, including myself. No matter how much exposure we work to give ourselves, we’re still going to die obscure authors known by few, relatively speaking. The question is, are you willing to accept that? Furthermore, why are you writing?

Most days knowing I’ll likely die an unknown author doesn’t bother me. I’m writing because I love it, and if only one other person enjoys my work, that’s good enough for me. I’m not writing to make a living, and I’m glad I’m not. I think that can be dangerous. I’m still motivated to expand my audience, but I find my motivation stems more from my desire to be remembered after I die than to be applauded for my works now. But there will be no marble bust made in my honor. My works won’t be tucked away in some monastery, hidden from the eyes of the general population for years before resurfacing and granting me the acclaim I once thought I might deserve. At best, they’ll grant me continued appointment at my job and I’ll garner a wider audience. Most days I’m alright with that.

But there are some days where I open an old literary magazine and see a plethora of names I don’t recognize. I wonder where those authors are today like I used to wonder what happened to the cast of Salute Your Shorts on Nickelodeon. I looked them up long before I started wondering about authors in these magazines and journals. Like most, they fade into the backdrop. I wonder if the old tapings of their shows bring them only a sense of longing and despair. Do they look back in disappointment at what they thought was going to be when they were in the prime of their career?

Ever wonder what happened to these folks? Some went on to do notable things in the realm of acting. Others just moved on. What're you going to do if and when it finally occurs to you that you're not going to be the next Sophocles, or the next Dean Koontz?

I think it is a pivotal point in the small press author’s career when we have these feelings of inadequacy, when the disparity between what we originally set out to accomplish and the reality of the situation hits us, and for the first time, we begin to feel unremarkable. It’s almost inevitable that most of us will feel this at some point. It’s what we do with it that counts.

This feeling has hit me many times over the years, but it never keeps me down. I doubt I’ll be doing anything different from what I am today, or was yesterday. I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never stop writing, and I’ll never give up on publishing whether it takes me somewhere, or leaves me laboring over a manuscript in my moldy basement. One of my primary motivations has been to establish a legacy that will live on after I’m gone. I can’t imagine giving up on that while I’m still here.

So what are you going to do? Whatever our dreams are, are you going to move on to do something notable in the field you’ve always loved, or are you simply going to move on? I think the answer rests in part with why you’re doing what you’re doing to begin with.

Rhetoric of Evil

Some people have tried to convince others that letting your children watch this fellow borders on an act of evil

The construction of evil is very reminiscent of approaches to writing. In both we have to consider purpose, audience, and intent. In writing, if our purpose is to persuade a particular audience, what is our intention, why do we want to persuade the audience? Rhetoricians of yore made sport of persuading for the sake of persuasion, but in real life application outside of academia, persuasion also carries with it an additional weight. It is a means to an end.

There is little difference in the construction of evil. The distinction between purpose and intent is rendered more apparent than in writing. But the language is juxtaposed due to legal terminology, particularly the phrase “with intent to kill.” The intention in an act of evil, thus, becomes equivalent with “purpose” in writing, and motivation in murder or other manifestations of socially-recognized evil equates with what we recognize in writing as “intention.”

A psychopath might harm someone with the intent to kill, as dubbed by legal terminology, but what is their purpose or motivation? Do they intend to kill to squelch or satiate some unconscious, sadistic impulse? Is their motivation revenge? Generally speaking, in most modern societies motivation is a means to solving a crime, but it is not an essential criteria for evil itself. All that is needed is intent to commit a socially recognized act of evil.

Motivation is a fickle mistress. Intention to commit a socially recognized act of evil without an apparent motivation is often one of the most fear-inducing manifestations of “evil.” At the same time, intent to commit a socially recognized act of evil with a clear motivation can be dubbed either evil or good, depending on the rhetoric employed to justify or condemn the act.

For example, in war the intent to kill can be justified by a motivation to squelch a greater evil. The greater evil is generally established by two things:

1. chronology: the greater evil is the force that initiated the intent to kill through provocation.

2. quantification of innocence: the greater evil intends to kill those who do not wish to reciprocate, innocent civilians rather than willing soldiers. The quantification of innocence rests on a continuum in which children rest at one end with unwilling participants following and willing participants resting on the other end of the spectrum.

In coming weeks (interspersed by interviews and random reflections on other topics) I plan to explore the rhetoric of evil in greater depth by looking at how theological depictions of evil are used to justify socially recognized acts of evil while simultaneously condemning other socially recognized acts of evil. Also, I hope to look at the ways that rhetoric is used to transmute acts we might not normally view as evil, like political viewpoints and alliances, into heinous crimes against humanity.

On the Predominance of Special Topics in the Humanities

I'd like to propose a new course titled "abstract basket weaving for the motorcycle enthusiast 101"

Already, as I begin to mull through my thoughts so I can attempt to put something coherent down on paper, I realize that I’m not necessarily writing about special topics courses. Rather, I’m writing about how institutions are moving away from general courses, and towards specialized topics. I think there are pros and cons associated with this shift.

When I was in grad school, I took two courses that I thoroughly enjoyed. First, I took a course on science fiction. The second was a course covering various graphic novels. I enjoyed the science fiction course because it covered many authors I was already familiar with and allowed me to explore these authors in an academic capacity. I read Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly in coordination with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. This experience marked my shift from novice inter-textual analyst to, not quite a veteran, but I was able to scrutinize texts for deeper meaning and use the insights provided by philosophers and critics to add more substance to my reading experience.

But I was almost done with my M.A. coursework, and when I started my short-lived stint studying for the GRE so I could transfer to another institution, I realized that in almost a decade of education in English, I had little to no knowledge about literature from the 14th century to roughly the 17th century, except the staple: Shakespeare. I had always mistakenly assumed that this was simply because he was the only high watermark from this time period. I felt like I was almost done with my education, and grossly underprepared for the GRE. Adding insult to injury, I realized that most of the science fiction texts I had read were not included on the GRE. The course I had signed on for, in a broader academic capacity, wasn’t going to do me much good. It was personally enriching, yes. It taught me that I could apply various critical lenses to virtually any writing, whether pop culture, cult, or pulp. This was exciting to me at the time because journals appeared to be looking for critical analysis of pop, pulp and cult writing, particularly anime and graphic novels. I thought this would be my calling, to continue the discourse of literary criticism by viewing new works through old lenses. Consequently, I’d be justifying the view that these works have literary merit.

The problem, for me, is that as we move towards incorporating more of these specialized courses into our humanities curriculum, we’re introducing students to material without a solid foundation. We’re sacrificing the old for the new. If we have a limited number of course offerings, the problem becomes more significant.

I still think there’s a place for criticism that validates new artistic endeavors as literary or of academic merit. I’m currently teaching a graphic novels as literature course at my institution, and I have already had students in the class approach me to talk about how other professors (professor, actually) scoff, and find the notion of a “comic book course” laughable. So at the institutional level I play the role of the critic justifying comic books as forms of literature, and damn it, they are. Anyone who believes Pulitzer or Hugo awards hold weight in the world of writing have to acknowledge that comic books have the potential to be literature, because authors have been the recipients of the Hugo and a Pulitzer special prize for their work. But I’m getting off topic.

While I think there is room for critics continuing literary discourse by bringing new work in, I also wonder if this trend has stripped us of a few potential Foucaults or Benjamins. Of course then I remember that they weren’t necessarily literary critics. My abstract reasoning and exposure to semiotics sometimes gets me into trouble. They were reading society as text and interpreting it critically, so why weren’t they considered literary critics? I ask myself. Sometimes I think I’m a sociologist caged by a M.A. in English and Communication with a strong focus in literature.

Is this art? Well, its aesthetic value is debatable, but if it is symbolic of what we as critics have done to art, then yes, it sends a message. Oh, it's just some crap you found on the street?

So instead, let’s say that this trend, this validating new works as literary, may cause us to lose a Stephen Greenblatt, a man who breathes new life into the old, and, it could be argued, created a new critical lens through which we can view old literary works and new alike. I’ve witnessed the product of new historicism first-hand. Pardon me if I sound crass, but it’s good shit. But today, what I bought into initially and what I’m seeing, is a lot of folks using the old to breathe life into new works, to justify them as literary. This has the potential to be dangerous. One look at Ofili’s Virgin Mary encrusted with elephant shit and you see how liberal people have become with what they deem art. I’m not saying the piece isn’t art, but I will make a case against the display I saw at SVA years ago which featured a skyline of penises and giant spreads covered with small drawings of the male genitalia which were rendered without the artist taking his pencil off the paper. I’m sorry, I don’t think that is art. And if one of my students told me they were taking a course on feces as art, I’d probably scoff like the professors who think a comic book course isn’t viable. And maybe, like them, I’d be wrong. Then again, maybe in 200 years we’ll be taking course on stick figure drawings as literature.

Back to the point I was careful to make before a long journey through random thoughts associated with academia: we can tell ourselves that standardization doesn’t exist in higher education in the same way it exists in high schools. GRE tests are telling a different story, and I believe that if we continue to strip our curriculums of core courses for the sake of specialized courses then we’re going to be moving away from the standards established by GREs. Additionally, like I said above, we’re immersing students in special topics courses without proper orientation to the fundamentals. I want my students to recognize Byron as the godfather of emo, and understand the shift from poet as prophet to poet as madman, and how our authors today fit within that paradigm. I want them to be able to use the old to breathe life into the new, and use the new to breathe life into the old. I want them to see patterns in literature. When they read popular fiction, I want them to know whether it has gothic or romantic undertones. I want them to be able to put new works into a framework of understanding.

Of course this is coming from someone who strongly supports and teaches specialized courses like comic books as literature. I’m hopelessly postmodern.