Is Semiotics Everything?

There’s a bit in The Great Gatsby that impressed me the first time I read it. It shocked me too, because I didn’t want it to be true. It’s about Daisy’s voice being charming because it is ‘full of money’. Carraway is talking with Gatsby. It goes:

‘She’s got an indiscreet voice’, I remarked. ‘It’s full of – ‘ I hesitated.

‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly.

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbal’s song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl… (p126)

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote for advertising agencies. He started out in advertising. So in a way it’s not surprising that he creates characters that are semiotic (formed of associations) – Daisy is money, represents money. The Great Gatsby can very easily be read as a critical take on advertising, and on how advertising feeds into a culture. It probably depends on how much you think it’s good to look like, or be like, a catalogue model. Gatsby is just such a model. Part of Daisy’s attraction to him seems linked to him being like ‘the advertisement of the man’.

Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.

‘You always look so cool,’ she repeated….

‘You resemble the advertisement of the man,’ she went on innocently. ‘You know the advertisement of the man -‘ (p125)

When I first read the bit (top of page) about Daisy’s voice being ‘full of money’, I was 25 and a Literature student. I thought it was ‘interesting’ because these semiotic characters seemed superficial, and tragic in the context of the novel. ‘Interesting’ because I could make an essay of it! I was also happy to think of Daisy in this tragic and superficial light. I felt that the novel was a critique of their superficial identities, and that, by association, the novel was also a critique of semiotics itself, in that semiotics is the theory behind advertising. Perhaps I wanted to dismiss the power of semiotics at the same time as dismissing these superficial people, much like psychologists want to deny the power of behaviorism. We don’t want to think of ourselves as the products of simple drives or associations. Being a poor Literature student, I probably also wanted to get away from a sense that we can be judged by our wealth, or lack of it. I wouldn’t like to judge myself by the standards of The Great Gatsby. I’d be Mr Wilson – the guy who works in the garage mending Tom’s car.

Now that I’m nearly 40, I can’t so easily dismiss the power of semiotics. I can be enchanted by voices ‘full of money’ too. Mariella Frostrup has a voice full of money, as does Francine Stock. Sexy, and full of authority too. But for me, I think their voices represent money most of all, perhaps also conjuring a whole field of associations – middle class, private school, privilege, authority. Is it ‘money’ that I hear in those voices most strongly? Perhaps money trumps everything else. And what does it mean that I’m Mr Wilson, having a voice with no money in it?!

Anyway, my question was going to be: Is semiotics everything? Because when reading The Great Gatsby, I can very easily start to believe that semiotics suffuses everything. The question is perhaps what a ‘person’ can be beyond semiotics. Are we little more than the associations we carry, the associations we project? Are we simulacra, in the Baudrillardian sense, to ourselves and to others? Or is there an ‘individual’ that somehow precedes representation?

And what does it mean that I like to read semiotic novels, and watch semiotic films, and yet I’m not sure whether I’d like to write one? Perhaps I should come to terms with semiotics – make peace with it.

…. A few months later. I saw a Taylor Swift video that is just about the epitome of:

High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

 

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About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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3 Responses to Is Semiotics Everything?

  1. Love your take on the language used in Gatsby. Had forgotten about F. Scott’s past and this was just illuminating!

  2. John,Wizened Web Wizard Wannabe says:

    I found your blog because I was searching for “semiotics.” One of my favorite books on semiotics is “I think I am a verb.” It is the fourth in Thomas A. Sebeok’s series, “Contributons to the Doctrine of Signs.” Certainly one of the quickest ways to learn about Sebeok is to read the Linguist List’s review of a recent book “Semiotics Continues to Astonish: Thomas A. Sebeok and the Doctrine of Signs” at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-733.html

    His title, “I Think I Am a Verb,” is an excerpt from a note written by Ulysses Grant to his doctor a few days before his painful death from throat cancer. “I do not sleep though I sometimes doze a little. If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

    John Harvey, Wizened Web Wizard Wannabe

    “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

  3. Geof Jones says:

    Like your blog. Very thoughtful.
    Actually, if interested in semiotics you should start off with Charles S Peirce. The word comes from him after all. Peirce’s perspective goes beyond the idealism found in current uses. Be warned, however, Peirce is not for the faint-hearted.

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