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The semio-grads

Page 3 of 4 -- This simultaneously inviting and uninviting new major quickly gained a cult-like following. And though the works of semioticians were only part of a larger syllabus of recent literary and film theory, the phrase "Brown semiotics" began to take on a larger signification, one that involved expensive black clothes and European cigarettes and a certain kind of hyper-intelligent ideological refusenik."

Semiotics . . . was like a conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories," Ira Glass remembers. "It wasn't just that authority figures of various sorts did things that were questionable . . .. It's that language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place, which when, you know, you're 19 or 20 is pretty much exactly what you're ready to hear."

There was a feeling of creative anarchy in the program. "You would get Xeroxes of articles that were in journals that were just being published," remembers Christine Vachon, producer of "Boys Don't Cry" and of fellow Brown semiotician Todd Haynes's "Far from Heaven." "It was really incredibly fertile," Rick Moody says. "Everybody there was really crazy in the best way. Out doing stuff at all hours of day and night."

But the thing that appealed most to students of semiotics was the idea that they had acquired a superhero-like power. "It was as if you had these, like, magic lenses that you could put on," recalls writer Steven Johnson, founder of the seminal online magazine and author of the recently published "Mind Wide Open." "It really had the feeling of `We've cracked the code, other people don't know,' and `Oh my God, what are we going to do with this powerful information?"' echoes Glass.

What to do, indeed. The faculty answered this question by introducing artistic production into the curriculum. This, according to Silverman, was critical because it fostered "a certain problematic in relation to [artistic] practice" by forcing theory to be "materialized." In the late `70s a limited filmmaking component was added to the program, taught by experimental filmmaker Leslie Thornton. Theory, however, was still the foundation: You could not even touch a camera until you had taken the blue pill of Semiotics 66.

. . .

But all was not smooth decoding at Brown. The "problematic" with semiotics was that by becoming a means of interrogating the ideological assumptions of bourgeois pleasure, semiotics itself became a form of bourgeois pleasure. "It was like an exclusive, self-contained puzzle for super-smart, super-rich kids," recalls novelist Samantha Gillison, an Brown Classics concentrator in the 1980s.

In the Course on General Linguistics, Saussure argued that a language only has meaning when there is a collective of individuals who share the code. Soon, semiotics became a hermetically sealed code outsiders could not crack. The language was made even more impenetrable by the introduction of new theorists who proposed interrogating the language of interrogation even as it was doing the interrogating. Recalling those heady days, Scholes smiles and quotes the philosopher John Wisdom: "Every day, and in every way, we're getting meta and meta."   Continued...

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