Category Archives: Academics on Pop Culture

Yes, there is a fan studies journal

What are (what is?) fan studies, you ask?

To get some idea of what fan studies is about, and what is possible in the field, check out the recently-launched online academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, or TWC.

TWC is an international peer-reviewed journal published by the non-profit Organization for Transformative Works. It publishes articles about “transformative works,” meaning, broadly, cultural works transformed by the individual fans and fan collectives who use and discuss them. Fan fiction, or fanfic, for example.

You can find out more by skimming the Table of Contents of their first five issues, which cover a huge range of stuff. For example, the first issue covers everything from Star Trek to Warhammer 40,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential primary campaign to horror fiction to BDSM “slash” fiction to theories and practices of collective (not individual) authorship.

Not a bad site to bookmark. 🙂



Richard Hoggart (1918-) is an enormously important figure in the history of cultural studies, having written the seminal book The Uses of Literacy (1957) and many other works and having founded, in 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham.

The CCCS was the wellspring of cultural studies in Britain, and has had a strong influence internationally. It operated from 1964 to 2002, when it was closed (to great controversy).

Moral Panic!

A still from The Blackboard Jungle (dir. Richard Brooks, 1955), which we'll soon be discussing in class.

A still from The Blackboard Jungle (dir. Richard Brooks, 1955), which we'll soon be discussing in class.

In 313 we’ll soon be discussing the concept of moral panic, a term used by cultural critics to describe episodes of widespread public anxiety over putatively “deviant” or “dangerous” behaviors or groups that are said to pose a threat to society.

Often young people and youth culture are the targets of moral panic, as discussed in both John Springhall’s Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics and James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage (both of which are excerpted in our Moodle readings). We’ll be exploring this theme in upcoming classes.

The Wikipedia page on “moral panic” is unusually thorough and well-documented. Worth a look, and worth bookmarking.

Also, here is an example of something fascinating that developed fairly recently and might or might not be categorized as an instance of moral panic: the widespread reaction to an online “game” or pastime called Miss Bimbo, in which players compete to create the ultimate stereotypic “bimbo,” or idealized female figure (the link here will take you to a story in the London Times online). Yow, it’s a mind-boggler.

Finally, here’s an excerpt from the lyrics to that classic by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” (released on Gee Records in 1957):

I’m not a juvenile delinquent



No-no-no, I’m not a juvenile delinquent

Do the things that’s right

And you’ll do nothing wrong

Life will be so nice, you’ll be in paradise

I know, because I’m not a juvenile delinquent

But listen boys and girls

You need not be blue

And life is what you make of it

It all depends on you

I know, because I’m not a juvenile delinquent

It’s easy to be good, it’s hard to be bad

Stay out of trouble, and you’ll be glad

Take this tip from me, and you will see

How happy you will be…

(Lymon, incidentally, died of a heroin overdose at age 25.)

Benjamin and the Frankfurt School

Here are some items relevant to our reading and discussion of T.W. Adorno:

1. First off, the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) supplies some useful contextual information about the so-called Frankfurt School and its best-known contributors.

Walter Benjamin

2. Secondly, a very well-known and important scholar associated with the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin, is referenced in our Adorno reading. The relevant work by Benjamin, a famed essay titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” can be found at MIA. Adorno and Benjamin are not interchangeable thinkers, but can be seen as usefully complementing if not contradicting one another.

Ways of Seeing

3. Thirdly, also in connection with Benjamin, the 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing (which also led to a book of the same name) was greatly inspired by the work of Benjamin, particularly the aforementioned “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Hosted and largely written by John Berger, this TV series has been very influential. Here FYI, via YouTube, is an excerpt:

The chief questions in play for our Frankfurt School scholars were, is mass culture revolutionary in its potential? And, if so, why is it so often reactionary in its effects?

Semiotics: Barthes does it, but what is it?

Semiotics means, literally, the science or study of signs.

The word semiotics comes from the Greek semeion (sign or mark) and semeiotikos (interpreter of signs, or sign reader). It is sometimes called, particularly in Europe, semiology (–ology meaning science or discourse), as in Barthes’ Mythologies.

“The basic goal of semiotics,” as Marcel Danesi writes, “is to identify what constitutes a sign and to infer, document, or ascertain what its meanings are” (Of Cigarettes 9).

What is a “sign”? According to semiotics, a sign is any object of interpretation, that is, anything that we take as signifying (standing for) something else. That could include, for example:

words, pictures, diagrams, gestures, facial expressions, musical notation, clothes, monuments, flags, television commercials, traffic signs, emoticons, fingerprints, arithmetical and algebraic notation, Morse code, semaphor, color-coding, architectural details that remind us of other times and places (e.g., Greek columns), ad infinitum…

As Danesi remarks, a sign must have distinctive physical structure, must refer to or denote something, and evokes particular thoughts, ideas, and feelings in people (9-10).

Where semiotics comes from:

Semiotics includes various approaches drawn from various traditions. Barthes’ approach is Saussurean, which means it draws mainly from Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist and author of the Cours de linguistique générale, or Course in General Linguistics (assembled by his students from his lectures and notes and published posthumously in 1916). The Cours is considered a landmark in linguistics, that is, in the study of language.

In the Cours, Saussure proposes that language, instead of being “peripheral to [our] understanding of reality,” is in fact central; that “our understanding of reality revolves around language” (Cobley 255). In other words, language shapes our very perceptions. In addition, Saussure argues, words do not refer outward to some reality “outside” of language, but instead refer to one another; that is, language is a system that is based on differences among words, not on referentiality. (This argument is one of the cornerstones of structuralism, and has been expanded upon by Derrida and other poststructuralist theorists.)

There’s more: the Cours also posits a general “science of signs,” or sémiologie, of which linguistics would be only a part. This semiology (as the term is usually translated into English) would study “the life of signs within society” (Clarke 124) or “the life of signs as part of social life” (Cobley 259). Saussure concentrated on the linguistic sign, that is, spoken and written words; later scholars, though, extended his ideas to a more general theory of communication.


In Saussurean semiology, a sign results from the correlation between the signified and the signifier (Cobley 264-265; Barthes, Elements 35-48; Danesi 10). What does this mean?

  • The signified (from the French signifiĂ©) is the concept represented by the sign. In Barthes’ example of the roses (Mythologies, p. 113) the signified is “passion.” In Danesi’s example of smoking cigarettes, the signified might be “sexuality” or “jazz clubs” (10).
  • The signifier (signifiant) is the thing that does the representing, more specifically a concept, mental image, or word (sound-image) that does the representing. In Barthes’ example, the signifier is the idea of “roses.” In Danesi, the shape of a cigarette (as opposed to a cigar or pipe) may be said to be a signifier.
  • The sign is, as Barthes says, the “concrete entity” that brings together the signified and the signifier. In his example the sign is an actual bunch of roses. In other cases the sign could be another object–for example a specific instance of cigarettes–or a word, a sound, or an image, etc.
  • In Elements of Semiology, Barthes defines signification as “the act which binds the signifier and the signified, an act whose product is the sign” (Barthes, Elements 48).

Second-order semiology:

Barthes points out (here is where things get complicated!) that a sign in one system may become a signifier in another; in other words, it is possible for one sign to serve as an element in another sign (see Mythologies 115).

1. Signifier 2. Signified


So, in Barthes’ example from Mythologies (116), a magazine cover showing a black man in uniform giving a salute not only signifies that a black man in uniform is giving a salute but also signifies, as Barthes says, “French imperiality,” that is, the idea that “France is a great Empire, that all her sons…faithfully serve under her flag.” If the magazine cover tells us that a black soldier is giving the French salute (the first order of signification), it also implies that France is something worth saluting (a second order of signification). In other words, when we see a close-up of a soldier saluting, with his eyes uplifted, we may assume, based on past experience, that he is saluting the flag of his country (first order of meaning), and this sign may then signify to us other concepts, that is, other signifieds, such as empire, loyalty, or equality (second order of meaning).

Barthes says that our cultural “myths” function exactly this way, taking signs from a system and transforming them into signifiers in another system, what he calls a metalanguage, meaning language about language or language on top of another language (115). Though the sign in its original system may be rich with specific meaning, when “appropriated” for use in a cultural myth it becomes merely the form of another message. Myth, says Barthes, distorts or “deforms” or empties out the specific meaning of a sign and uses that sign to give form to some other concept, something that “outdistances” the meaning (123). In a similar vein, we might say that, in Scholes’s Budweiser example, signs of sport (baseball) and leisure (beer) become signifiers of a larger, more amorphous concept: America. The specific meanings of a baseball game supply the form for a larger ideological narrative, one of the American Dream.

Danesi argues (20) that the three tasks of the semiotician are:

  1. To unravel the history of signs.
  2. To expose the sign-based processes behind perceptions of normalcy.
  3. To study how “the particular system of signs in which one has been reared influences worldview.”

Denotation vs. connotation:

Here’s a useful distinction that Barthes sometimes uses:

  • Denotation (adj. form denotative): the literal or ostensibly “objective” meaning of a text/image/message (“This is a picture of a house”).
  • Connotation (adj. form connotative): an implicit or not-so-obvious meaning of a text/image/message, often emotive or ideological in nature (“The house in this picture is dark and scary”).


Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. NY: Hill and Wang, 1968.
— . Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. NY: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Clarke, D. S., Jr., ed. Sources of Semiotic. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.
Cobley, Paul, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.
Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.