Cultural texts

A text is not a literal text, but in Semiotics refers to a combination of signs, signifieds and mechanisms like metonymy. A text could be a sentence, a paragraph, an image, a story, or a collection of stories.

A collection of signs in a single photograph or painting, a video clip, a television show, a feature film. Whenever signs come together in the land of semiotics, they become texts. These texts can be understood, rearranged and put together in different combinations, with different meanings to different groups of people.

Cultural texts refer to sign systems, storytelling tools and symbols that contribute and shape a society’s culture. They have underlying cultural meanings. They either require certain cultural knowledge to be understood, they are produced through a certain cultural context or, as most texts do, become representative of a culture and its values.

But cultural texts are not one-dimensional. A text is not simply representative of one culture, it does not belong to one culture, even if it purposefully excludes others semiotically. Cultural texts are multi-dimensional, they are dynamic.

A cultural text is perhaps better understood as having cultural layers of understanding. Where groups different in age, race, nationality, sexual orientation may read and understand a collection of signs in different ways. Depending on the producer or the audience, the text itself has a kind of flexibility in meaning to different people when it starts to operate culturally.

Semiotics more generally poses a number of questions in regards to cultural texts and the stories they tell.  Questions like what makes a cultural text in the first place? What is defined by a cultural text, what is included and what is excluded? How are cultural texts used to represent society at large? How do cultural texts even become representative? What do signs signify culturally, and how and why do they become symbolic in the first place.

Snap Judgment

Music producer and former diplomat Glynn Washington, inspired by This American Life radio host Ira Glass created the radio show Snap Judgment.

Washington has been praised for drawing a more diverse and younger audience to talk radio and podcasting, mediums that had previously been associated with middle aged white men.

Snap Judgment is a storytelling program following the format of This American Life, telling a series of stories along the same theme. Like Glass, Washington opens each episode with an almost bombardment of signs and signifieds to hook the audience, layered in connotations and denotations, while leaning on music to keep the show’s meta-linguistic momentum.

Washington himself opens each show with a story from his life, introducing the theme for the hour.  Washington is African-American, raised in Detroit, and has worked as an educator, diplomat and activist in addition to a radio producer. Washington as the show’s host draws on his experiences growing up in Detroit and his experiences travelling internationally as part of his diplomatic work.

Washington’s program draws on his personal experiences as an African American man living and working in America and as a diplomat travelling around the world. As a result, his program engages a number of sign and signifieds that are particularly meaningful to different groups of people, both in African American communities and globally. Washington opens the episode 'Homecoming Surprise' like this:

Ok, so I had just returned from a year overseas. In Japan. A magical, transformative year.  And my ex-girlfriend meets me at the airport. Ex, because we decided that a full year apart…well. She’s beautiful, beautiful like Whitney Houston before the darkness beautiful. Dressed in a white lace dress, pure.  I thought of her every single day. And finally she’s wrapped tight against me, tears. I hug her, she kisses me…and I know.  Right then I know that any reconciliation I may have hoped for…it’s not going down because something…because someone has happened. And I even know who.

When he describes his ex-girlfriend as ‘beautiful like Whitney Houston before the darkness’, we can infer that she was a beautiful African American woman.  Houston before she lost her battle with drug addiction. Within African American communities, ‘Whitney before the darkness’ is a cultural sign whose signifieds are perhaps more detailed.  Whitney Houston in the 1980s was the quintessential good girl.  A girl that was good at everything, that was maybe too good for you to be with. Since this reference to a good innocence may be lost on an international audience, Washington follows it up with a description of his girlfriend’s ‘white lace dress’ another sign of purity, to maybe keep us all on board with who this woman is and what she represented to him.

Both Snap Judgment and This American Life operate as cultural texts and engage a variety of signs and signifieds as part of their storytelling. But there are a few crucial points of difference.

One point of difference is that all of the stories on Snap Judgment address people around the world making a crucial life decision. The show’s stories are global in scope. This American Life although broadcasted globally, is primarily interested in contributing to a more dynamic American cultural identity. It tends to select stories narrated by Americans, and if it is an international story, it relates back to American foreign policy in some way.

In the structure of storytelling, Snap Judgment aims to go directly to a story’s arc, directly to the point of tension where a person must make a decision that impacts the course of their life and the lives of others.

Past stories featured on the show have included the story of a 1970s rock band in Zimbabwe, a British woman who responds to a personal ad to live with a complete stranger on an island in the Torres Strait, to American magicians attempting to do the dangerous bullet catch trick.

A second point of difference is the show’s reliance on a staff of audio engineers, producers and story contributors diverse in age, race and nationality. This operates in many ways to diversify the show’s reading as a cultural text.

The music itself guides the story along, or provides a rhythm to the story subject’s particular way of speaking. Washington describes the show’s elaborate audio production as a crucial part of their approach to storytelling:

What do we mean by storytelling with a beat? Every person speaks with a cadence, thinks with a cadence, you hear the rhythm of the person as they speak. And you get into their world, they hypnotize you into getting into their own thought perspective.  That’s what it’s all about. My problem often times with public radio storytelling is that we try to translate it for them. We put the mic in the guy’s face, he tells you an answer, you translate it back to your audience. Get out of the way.  Let the person tell their own story.  I want to feel at the end of it that we’ve taken you for a ride. Strap in, let’s go.

Washington is particularly interested in developing a kind of semiotic rhythm where the words spoken by different storytellers are given their own unique rhythm that preserves their voice, their individuality.

This brings us to a third point of difference when comparing both programs as cultural texts. Personal, individual narration is a key component to Snap Judgment’s success. When Washington warns to ‘get out of the way’ of your interview subjects, as a producer, he sees the value in presenting a diverse set of physical voices and experiences to his audience.

Cultural texts are influenced not only by the cultural backgrounds of the audience but the producer as well, or the storyteller in this case. 

When Washington describes the process of ‘translating’ as an interviewer in radio, he is describing the process of re-stating or reframing semiotically the voice and meaning of your subjects’ statements, signs and signifieds.

We are either translating culturally, reframing certain signs into a relatable cultural context. Or we are translating, most likely, to make the subject’s voice, demeanor, or words more media friendly, more culturally mainstream, or more entertaining.

Snap Judgment and This American Life both emerge as cultural texts in their own right, and both contribute to cultural identity. However, their boundaries as cultural texts are drawn differently.

While This American Life consists of predominantly white middle aged American producers and reporters including stories with diverse subjects, the strength in Washington’s program is that the voices themselves are as diverse as its subjects.

Through Washington’s personal narration alone, the program engages a number of signs and symbolic systems that are meaningful and specific to an African-American cultural experience in ways that may not resonate with a wider global audience.

But at the same time, Washington’s diplomatic experiences, along with the widespread popularity of the program and the diversity of its contributors - as audio engineers, as storytellers - the program also contributes to a larger uniquely American identity, but also a global one.

It emerges as an American cultural text contributing to narratives of struggle, success and collective identity through shared personal experiences.

But it also emerges as a global pop cultural text in the personal sharing of stories from around the world.