Code-X (Intro)
By: Joshua Glenn | Categories: Codebreaking, Most Visited, Semiotics

Reality, according to the post-structuralists whom members of my generation were encouraged to take seriously in the Eighties, is a shapeless mass of experience (call it: nature) upon which is superimposed — pre-consciously, and therefore ultra-persuasively — a complex, language-like matrix of… not meaning, exactly, because there is no such thing, but meaningfulness (call it: culture). These theorists (Derrida, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, the later Foucault and later Barthes) suggested that a meditative attention to this matrix’s gaps and glitches might reveal glimpses of natura naturans, reality in its never-ending state of flux and mutation. Far out!

The aim of the forthcoming Code-X series of HiLobrow posts is more modest, less mystical and liberatory than the post-structuralists’ mission. Via detailed observational analysis, this series aims to surface not nature, but culture. Each post in this series will identify one code: a single node in the vast meaningfulness-matrix structuring our perception of the everyday world.

Structuralism: Until you know everything, you know nothing. Post-Structuralism: Because you can’t know everything, you will never know anything. Code-X Series: Well, let’s see how far we can get.

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The Code-X series will be a minor contribution, a footnote, to the codex begun and abandoned by the post-structuralists’ predecessors. Once upon a time, structuralist linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and social critics including Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Greimas, Lacan, Althusser, the early Foucault (of Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, and The Archaeology of Knowledge), and the early Barthes (of Elements of Semiology, Mythologies, and The Fashion System) sought to analyze not what everyday objects, actions, and gestures within a given social order mean… but how they mean. How does the a priori network of classifications, categories, and concepts (a.k.a. the all-encompassing sign-field) through which each of us intuitively reads and interprets everyday life function? What are the implicit assumptions (or “mythologies”) we’ve absorbed without consciously evaluating them?

Since the late 1990s, I’ve worked as a semiotic culture and brand analyst. My agency, Semiovox, audits the codes of cultural and market categories from the outside-in, i.e., as alien anthropologists or archaeologists who regard the apparently permanent, natural, and inevitable norms and forms of everyday life in 21st-century America as impermanent, unnatural, and evitable. At the same time, we’re acting as cultural insiders — drawing on years of attention to cultural trends, shifts, and minutiae. The sociologist Robert Friedrichs claimed that a social scientist should be a “minotaur”: productively divided, striving to be simultaneously objective and subjective.* Operating as a minotaur semiotician, on behalf of the 100+ brands who’ve hired me over the years, I’ve haphazardly worked towards what Barthes optimistically called a “total ideological description” [ideology not in the sense of an explicit idea fed by the bourgeoisie to the masses, but in the Althusserian sense of an implicit, unquestionable “primary ‘obviousness’”] of pop culture, media, advertising, and packaging.


I’ve shared a few of my insights into how meaningfulness operates in four of my books, The Idler’s Glossary, The Wage Slave’s Glossary, Taking Things Seriously, and Significant Objects, as well as in my introduction to HiLoBooks’ edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt. Also, I’ve anticipated this Code-X series in previous HiLobrow posts: e.g., The Double Exposure Series, Star Wars Semiotics, Icon Game, Meet the Semionauts, Show Me the Molecule, Science Fantasy, Inscribed Upon the Body, The Abductive Method, Enter the Samurai, and Semionauts at Work.

Alas, many of the codes analyzed in the Code-X series may seem banal, quotidian, obvious. Why? Because that’s how semiotic [i.e., meaningfulness-producing] codes function in our daily lives; they operate at the that’s-just-how-things-are level of primary “obviousness.”

WARNING: An all-encompassing codex is an impossibility — because culture is always changing. Also, no isolated code means anything except inasmuch as it differs from all related codes within a category — so therefore extracting one code at a time from various cultural (e.g., British-ness, Happiness, Beauty) and market (e.g., Automotive, Male Grooming, Chocolate Milk) categories won’t do much to enlighten anyone. However, in my own work, before I can classify codes and map them onto an explicatory grid [e.g., a Greimasian “semiotic square”], I first must identify them — and that’s what this unassuming series aims to do.

* “An attitude at once critical [objective] and apologetic [subjective] toward the same situation is no intrinsic contradiction in terms (however often it may in fact turn out to be an empirical one) but a sign of a certain level of intellectual sophistication.” — Clifford Geertz



MORE FURSHLUGGINER THEORIES BY THIS AUTHOR: We Are Iron Man! | And We Lived Beneath the Waves | Is It A Chamber Pot? | I’d Like to Force the World to Sing | The Argonaut Folly | The Dark Side of Scrabble | The YHWH Virus | Boston (Stalker) Rock | The Sweetest Hangover | The Vibe of Dr. Strange | Tyger! Tyger! | Star Wars Semiotics | The Original Stooge | Fake Authenticity | Camp, Kitsch & Cheese | Stallone vs. Eros | Icon Game | Meet the Semionauts | The Abductive Method | Semionauts at Work | Origin of the Pogo | The Black Iron Prison | Blue Krishma! | Big Mal Lives! | Schmoozitsu | Calvin Peeing Meme | The Zine Revolution (series) | Best Adventure Novels (series) | Debating in a Vacuum (notes on the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad) | Pluperfect PDA (series) | Double Exposure (series) | Fitting Shoes (series) | Cthulhuwatch (series) | Shocking Blocking (series) | Quatschwatch (series)



Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based semiotic culture and brand analyst. He is editor/publisher of HILOBROW and the Radium Age science fiction imprint HILOBOOKS. In addition, Josh is co-author of several books, including (with Mark Kingwell and the cartoonist Seth) THE IDLER'S GLOSSARY and THE WAGE SLAVE'S GLOSSARY, the object-oriented story collections TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY and (with Rob Walker) SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS, and (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen) the family activities guides UNBORED, UNBORED GAMES, and the forthcoming UNBORED ADVENTURE. In the ’00s, Josh was an editor and columnist for the BOSTON GLOBE's IDEAS section; in the ’90s, he published the high-lowbrow zine/journal HERMENAUT.