23 Nov

Social Semiotics for a Complex World

Posted By polity_admin_user


The Social Semiotics of Trump

So Trump won the US Presidential election, against most predictions. Why? And what forms of analysis could have done better?

Social semiotics for a complex world was designed to provide that better analysis for circumstances like this. It was written before Trump’s giddy rise, fall and apotheosis, so I couldn’t analyse it in the book. But Social Semiotics is an on-going project for citizen analysts from many disciplines and sites. I reflect here on what Social Semiotics could have said.

One strength of Social Semiotics is its chaos and complexity approach. Some sociologists have begun to use this approach, including the late John Urry. Trump shows why this approach is now indispensable for linguistics, media and discourse analysis.

Trump’s popularity swung around so wildly that commentators became reluctant to make obvious predictions. A guy like this can’t be taken seriously, right? Not right, it turned out.

Volatility happens in political and social life, of course, and commentators cope. But linear thinking is still the default setting, and it has problems.

It treats fluctuations as noise that obscures the real object of analysis, the outcome. But for complexity approaches, many causes blur indistinguishably, and fluctuations are also real. They indicate conditions in which some normal rules of social action do not apply. Chaos theorist Prigogine called them ‘far-from-equilibrium’ conditions. Chaos has its own rules, and their study is science, too.

Social Semiotics analysis has many strategies. I illustrate with two sites a year apart.
In August 8th 2015, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly asked tough questions of Trump, then leading the Republican Primaries. Interviewed later on CNN Trump commented:

‘You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her – wherever.’

On October 7, 2016, The Washington Post reproduced a video of Trump from 2005. On it, Trump’s highly recognizable voice said: ‘And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.’

Candidates’ words can have huge consequences. Meanings matter. Except that in this case, the first statement provoked a small blip in Trump’s campaign, from which he completely recovered. The second triggered a sustained slump. Yet superficially both statements seem equally abusive and unpresidential.

In linear social sciences the same cause should have the same effect. That makes political and social life predictable. When the same cause has completely different effects, you know you are facing non-linear causality.

Linear analysis isn’t always wrong or irrelevant. Trump’s second statement got the reaction expected of the first. What happened the first time? And is the apparent linearity of the second occasion really a sign of post-complexity?

Social Semiotics answers such questions by probing dynamic exchanges of meaning at many scales from local to global. In these exchanges meaning is always essential, always complex, always social. Contexts always affect meanings and their interpretation. Language is multimodal, verbal language plus other semiotic modes, including on this occasion speech on TV and recirculated private speech. Texts in all modes construct some versions of reality and resist others, but realities remain outside texts, ready to bite back.

The case shows the omnipresence of Orwellian ‘double-think’. In double-think people believe both halves of a contradiction. Trump’s followers have to believe he upholds traditional Christian values and also promotes racism and sexism. The ‘blood’ text simultaneously expressed traditional values about men’s rightful dominance over women plus unacknowledged disgust towards women. The ‘pussy’ text failed to stitch together male power and adolescent entitlement, on this occasion, but it could have.

Between these two occasions a reality flip-over happened. Trump’s sexism was said but not heard in the ‘blood’ text, but broke through in the ‘pussy’ text. Why, and how? Reality flip-overs complicate political and media analysis in the chaotic conditions we live in today.

One sobering lesson Social Semiotics draws from the analysis is that beyond particular ideas that led to Trump’s victory and policies that may follow from it, Trump’s success was produced by a kind of madness, which it will now make worse.

And the world will need Social Semiotics even more.

Bob Hodge is Research Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.

His book, Social Semiotics for a Complex World: Analysing Language and Social Meaning, is now available from Polity.