George Myers Jr.

MARSHALL BLONSKY on Signs: An Interview

Signs are the clothing that meaning wears. Signs are symbols or masks of something else; they make us act and react; buy, cheer and leer. Madonna, Elvis and Lady Gaga used them in her performances to change cultures. themselves were signs. Presidents, movies and clothing are fabricated of signs and symbolism; and their marketers spoon-feed them into us. If signs of power and wealth aren’t decoded, says New York City semiotician Marshal Blonsky (b. 1938), they will manipulate us unto death.

“We see them, we even can read them for what they are,” Blonsky said, “but we respond to them anyway. And that’s what we don’t want to have happen.”

Blonsky left the academic world of New York University and the New School for Social Research, where he has taught since 1973, to interview people who are well known for being well known, public icons and dream makers. During his four-year journey as a cultural journalist, Blonsky made a name for himself as an entertaining “decoder” of Pat Robertson, Annie Sprinkle, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Umberto Eco and others. He watched Vanna White let down her hair in her dressing room; met filmmakers Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway and Costa-Gavras; and got himself “made over,” into a sign himself, by Giorgio Armani.

Becoming enmeshed in American gloss, he became its barker, profiling celebrities and writing about his experiences in Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Connoisseur and The New York Times Magazine. The pieces were collected and published by Oxford University Press as American Mythologies (1992).

Though deeply interested in what draws the public eye, Blonsky is an academic whose view of the world is too layered, too complex, for the public to spend equal time with him. His important book On Signs appeared from Johns Hopkins University Press in 1985. Blonsky teaches semiotics — the study of signs and symbols, and their use or interpretation — at New York University and the New School for Social Research. College-level instruction is his milieu. He is Visiting Professor of Humanities at Cooper Union and Vassar College, an adjunct professor at Queens College, and a faculty member of the International Center for Semiotics and Linguistics in Urbine, Italy. Blonsky the conversationalist is as wide-ranging as Blonsky the learned academic.

He said he remembered the first instance he was conscious of a sign — something standing in for something else — and he said he recognized instantly, somehow, what it really was.

“I must have been 6, playing Paganini in my room. My mother was a stage mother and I, a concert violinist-to-be. This was before the greatest violin teacher in the country, Ivan Galamian, nipped the bud of that career. 'He’ll not be one of the immortals,’ he said, a bit late for me, at 16, after I was for several years studying with him. But back before this shattering news, in the happy years when I sheltered in my mother’s plans, I played my Bruch and Lalo all day and into the night, one day as an act of sport playing my mother’s favorite, the encore piece, the Bruch adaptation of Christ’s lament, ‘Eli eli,’ God why has thou forsaken me.”

More from our conversation:

Question: So, it happened then?

Blonsky: Was I conscious the bedroom was getting warm with desire? No, because I was too busy respiring that warmth. But even a 6-year-old, as a matter of philosophical common sense, reads signs. And he’s not a semiotician just because he understands, as did I, that playing the “Eli eli” was a communication, a "come here” to my mother. But real semiotic consciousness comes when you really get it: that a sign is a stand-in for something not available.

Remember the Eco example, in my book? He balls a piece of paper up, throws it at a student, asks: “Was that a sign?’, hears “yes” and shouts, “No, it was a stimulus and you responded.” All the while balling up another piece, raising it, finally announcing: “This is a sign! Something sending you to a thought of something that isn’t happening.” Instead of consuming the paper object — throwing it a second time — he made it stand in for “crazy professor going around room, aggressing on students.” And he accomplished that unnatural act of making one see the sign and not its referent, the designator, and not what is designated.

When you do that, when you see the windowpane and not the scene it shows, you’re acutely aware you’re not out there. You live a bit with absence.

Q: When you use language, or talk about signs in general, it’s as if …

Blonsky: As if you were in a space sheltered from the bustle of the throbbing street. You are abstracted from immediacy. Sounds nice, but we like the bustle; liking language comes later. Six years of age, I was a premature over (musical) language, but that day — because mother was slow to respond, who knows why? — the phrases began to sicken. I suddenly knew. The bowing wasn’t what I desired. The bowing was a gesture as if an ectoplasmic lengthening of the arm to touch the mother, to bring her near. I wanted her face, body at the door where she wasn’t. By the maternal refusal, the playing became hollow. I had been welcomed into the world of signs.

The consciousness of signs flickered off. Doubtless it came on, and off, over the years growing up, but shamefully, it was only some 20 years ago — when I arrived at Johns Hopkins University, doing my master’s — that a TA turned me onto Barthes’ famous analysis of the Panzani ad. “Wow” effect as I glimpsed with astonishment at the net shopping bag; in it, the tomato, onion, pepper, pouches of pasta, Parmesan, tin of sauce. The colors — red, yellow, white, green, forget the yellow — why, it was the flag of Italy! The pouch stuffed: Why, the cornucopia! The net on a tabletop about to open and bring forth the good things. Why, a parousia, presencing! The food on table. Signs, signs I was a sign junkie.

Q: Talk about paintings. Why is a $45,000 painting of a bowl of fruit so much more valuable, apart from its trade-in value, than a $4.50 bowl of actual fruit?

Blonsky: Because they know, but they cannot say, that the work isn’t very much about the world. Yes, the figurative painting is imitating the world, but, in studied terms, its mimesis is just one “trope” among others that it’s using. My teacher Paul de Man used to say: No one in his right mind would try to grow grapes by the luminosity of the word “day.” He meant that we intuitively know not to confuse the materiality of the signifier with the materiality of what it signifies.

When you buy a painting — and we’re not talking about the kitsch crowd here — you’re buying it for its non-perceptual dimension, for the materiality of its signifier. Francis Bacon provides the most evident example. He isolates his figures in rings and parallepipeds, and even tells why: to conjure away the figurative, illustrative, narrative character. The figurative (another way of saying “representation") implies the relation of an image to an object that it’s supposed to illustrate. It also implies the relation of an image with other images, the ensemble telling a story. To isolate is to break that story and impede the illustration.

Q: Let me ask more generally: Why is the image of a thing sometimes more desirable than the thing itself?

Blonsky: The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used to say that the first symbols, natural symbols, issued from a certain number of prevalent images — the image of the human body, the image of a certain number of evident objects like the sun, the moon and a few others. “Evident” means there’s no disputing them, they’re a part of living nature, they were here before us and will outlast us. Exceeded, all we can do is stare, co-opted, fitting into their order.

And anything that has been constructed like one of these symbols — well-delimited and delineated, precise, complete, definitive — takes on their power. So the thing itself can become an image and when it does so, it is not simply desirable, it is mandatory. So much for a classical conception of the image. Today, images have been assigned the principal role in the promotion of consumption. The image is given to us as desirable so that we will buy its referent.

Q: It seems like our images, more and more, are formed by advertising, that visual culture has become the culture of advertising, the culture of the sensational.

Blonsky: Movies, music videos and spots pretend to tell stories but in fact only give special effects, all sorts of sensations, the worth of a production henceforth judged according to the millions of dollars spent to construct cyborgs, cars, undersea craft, skyscrapers, entire cities whose destiny is to be destroyed as violently as possible in catastrophic jubilation. And no story, no words, no content, no signification will be allowed to get in the way of this expensive new form.

Q: Did you know Roland Barthes well? (Barthes’ Mythologies was published in 1957.)

Blonsky: I was a devoted student. I would go see him every time I was in Paris. I knew nothing then of his desperate, solitary life. When, toward the end, he developed his “hands off” idea of relationships — that is, not to be too close for fear of suffocating the other — I didn’t realize it wasn’t only intellectual. It was personal. He never allowed anyone to live, to stay with him. I’m glad I knew nothing of it. I could have known more about his life with “the boys.” I was friends (still am) with Richard Howard, his elegant translator. It would have been easy to learn the details. I think I deliberately didn’t go to the parties to which I was invited. I wanted Barthes pure. Stupid, no? I never knew until Eco’s little preface to my book that it was Barthes who welcomed me into semiotics, not Eco.

Q: What’s your take on Barthes’ Mythologies. Of course, you loved it. It had a tremendous effect on your approach to pop culture.

Blonsky: So, I was this crazy thing, a knowledge seeker–knowledge sucker — but, oh, so specialized. I was buying, buying Barthes. It was embarrassing. Here I was at Yale studying with Paul de Man, adoring him, buying Derrida as well, but my not so secret flame was Barthes and Barthes’ Mythologies. “He’s a dummy,” the amused de Man once said of Barthes. It hurt, because that made me a dummy. But I continued to buy, buy, specializing in Barthesian knowledge, wanting little but that, wanting more Mythologies; meanwhile, willfully uninterested in the French politics whence that knowledge came. I was reading Michel Foucault at the time. I wasn’t so stupid I didn’t know that the signifier’s place is never innocent. But I passionately wanted Barthes the Brain to be innocent so I did not want to know anything of the politico-personal that might displace my desire.

And, you know, wanting his mind, wanting nothing to do with his body, his sadnesses, the lack of degrees and so on, Barthes dies miserable. Though it isn’t widely known, he committed suicide. In the hospital after the truck hit him, a tracheotomy rendering him mute, he told his friend, Kristeva, that he thought he was a severed head. Voila, as his countrymen would say.

I’ve been teaching Mythologies from 1973 to the present. The students have begun to complain. Some always did: the language, precious, blah blah blah. But almost all today want no longer to seize the sign-artifact. I can’t any longer pass on the joy and technique of semiotic vampirism. The age isn’t friendly to sucking the sign dry of meaning. The Zeitgeist wants the once-over-lightly, the high flights of theorists like Baudrillard and Jameson. Tant pis. A light went out in culture.

Q: How is the French view of American culture different from that, say, of the Japanese, or the Serbs or Germans? Everybody seems to love American pop culture, but simultaneously hate it, or want it — that’s the power, I suppose of marketing rhetoric.

Blonsky: “In today’s world you can have only two images of a promised land,” Umberto Eco has said, “either America or, if you radically change your world view, some parts of Europe — Tuscany in Italy, some parts of Scandinavia — with a less hectic life, with contact with nature. But there are no other strong images.” We can take this image as a symptom or trace of some deeper thought about the times: That there has come into existence a transnational, global organization of the economic structure of capitalism.

Q: If it wasn’t Barthes who pulled you into semiotics, would it have been another scholar/teacher?

Blonsky: Yes, Umberto Eco. Why? Because of his playfulness, the “register jumps” from the scholarship of, say, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language to his light pieces for Espresso. Only a gray corpse could he not pull in.

Q: Through your travels and magazine articles about them, the interviews, in a very real way, you were the one who took semiotics public.

Blonsky: Michel Foucault used to say that the text hides something, something about it is invisible, and that invisible thing is its power, which analysis can reveal. If I took semiotics public, it means that I went to the text’s — the image’s — place; to its author, the “imagomancer’’ whose mind contrived the image out of a strategic desire to control a field. The people I profiled are some of the authors, the wills to power, I sought to decode.

Ted Koppel presents his work to be reported. But on the first night of our encounter, not before air time — he, on a podium above me, I, on a chair below — I open my briefcase. Ping go the latches. “Don’t do that,” he snaps, “I hear everything.” That detail, a puncture point, will prove a hole as much into him as me and I will use it. I’m sure he never dreamt I was already at work.

Q: TV producer Merv Griffin, who you also profiled, believed you betrayed him in your article. Do you feel that way?

Blonsky: I protected him. I kept the one secret that really mattered to him.

Q: Apart from “getting the story,” or decoding the story, in your case did you feel any sense of obligation toward your interviewees? Journalists are supposed to come away with their subject’s story; semioticians seem to come away from their interviewees with a semiotician’s story.

Blonsky: Eco once said that an intellectual puts a system into crisis. In a crisis you have to make a decision. Well, some of the authors I met were intellectuals — Attali, Finkielkraut, Frears, Costa-Gavras, a few others. With these scholar-heroes, and as Virgil, I toured the semiotic inferno, corroding images to see what was behind them. As for these, my obligation was not to profile. The profile reveals too much.

Your other remark about semioticians coming away from their interviewees with a semiotician’s story. Why not? I made myself a subject of a story whose objects were the doings of others.

Q: Why are some celebrities, some presentations of experience, more believable than others? Good movies and the better books, for example, often seem to be real worlds for me. But theater, for me, is always about me having to pretend what I’m watching isn’t people pretending; I have a terrible hard time believing in it. Why do some simulacra convince us more than others?

Blonsky: Let’s say the more believable simulacra are the ones least commodified by great corporations, in this postmodern era. Books are in a privative sector. Small budget movies as well. The money hasn’t been poured into them, therefore no special effects whose content must never distract from the expensive form. Such ancillary content is never “believable.” Hence it cannot move us.

Q: When you decode a sign’s meaning, does that sign lose or gain power for you? Unscrewing the cap of a metaphor, isn’t that about usurping power from the thing, and finally also about power?

Blonsky: It loses power. By watching it play at establishing meaning, you can treat the meaning — the mimesis of reality — as imposture. That’s the great lesson of Barthes’ Mythologies. The game of semiotics is all about power. You deprive the sign of its power to mimic the real.


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