Cara Williams

Renegotiating Signification and Signifying Systems

Popular culture surrounds us.  It inundates our lives, provides a foundation for many of our experiences and activities, as well as serving as a tool for ideological norming.  According to Raymond Williams (1983), culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (87).  Williams identifies three main definitions:  “a general process of intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic development,” “a particular way of life whether of a people, period, or group,” and “the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity” (90).  While most people would use “culture” to refer to the first definition, it is primarily the third definition that most concerns our group.  Culture, in all its senses, refers to texts and practices whose principle function is signification—the production (or the occasion for production) of meaning.

I begin with this rather elementary introduction by definition because of the complexity of the word culture and because of the contested notion of the value of popular culture to society, pedagogy, and academia.  Our group has operated from an unspoken premise that popular culture is a text, or rather texts, which have significant ideological implications.  And rather than get bogged down here in all the competing definitions of ideology (or even popular for that matter), I realized that we, as a group, really took for granted that we were operating from the same base ideas, definitions, and theories regarding popular culture, disability, and even language.  Within the private confines of our group’s discussion board, we clashed (very productively, I might add) over ideas due to competing theoretical foundations without ever realizing that was what was going on (at least I didn’t realize it).  So at the end of the semester, I find it necessary to return to the beginning and interrogate my own foundations for these ideas, both separate and connected ideas.

To return to the notion of popular culture, I operate from the foundational idea that popular culture does indeed have value in spite of or because of its mass distribution and consumption.  I also see popular culture as a site of struggle between the interests of dominant and subordinate groups. Tony Bennett (2006) explains,”The field of popular culture is structured by the attempt of the ruling class to win hegemony and by forms of opposition to this endeavor.  As such, it consists not simply of an imposed mass culture that is coincident with dominant ideology, nor simply of spontaneously oppositional cultures, but is rather an area of negotiation between the two within which—in different particular types of popular culture—dominant, subordinate, and oppositional cultural and ideological values and elements are ‘mixed’ in different permutations.” (96).  This idea makes popular culture a profoundly political space in which meaning and values become negotiated.  In this way, we can use popular culture texts in the same way we might use literary or artistic texts to identify, interrogate, or even change meaning and language.  We can also use popular culture as a political medium for change.

To look at popular culture as a text, we must look at it as a signifying system. The sign is constituted by the signifier, the series of sounds or material thing, and the signified (the concept that the signifier evokes).

Saussure’s Model of Signification:

Barthes’ Model of Signification:

Building on the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes emphasizes the “second-order signifying systems” (Silverman, 1983, 26).  Building on the system of language, Barthes suggests there are “connotative” systems.  These systems operate “for the purpose of expressing and surreptitiously justifying the dominant values of a given historical period” (Silverman, 1983, 27).  This is where popular culture comes in.  Barthes model suggests that connotation intends “an ideological coercion” of the reader and “denotation engages the reader or viewer at an ideologically innocent level” (Silverman, 1983, 30).  (It is important to note that Barthes model also suggests that it is possible to be outside of ideology, while Kaja Silverman (1983) quotes Louis Althusser’s obervation that “we cannot step outside of ideology since it is only inside of it that we find our subjectivity and our social reality” (31).)  Popular culture including advertisements, photographs, magazines, billboards, theme parks, video games, board games, toys, gadgets, phones, television shows, movies, formula fiction, soap operas, music, etc. all possess the power to connotatively create meanings by association.  Therefore, if models are all white and able-bodied then  the meaning of beauty, through the connotation and secondary signification,  is white and able-bodied and the connotative meaning of not-beauty or even ugly is black, brown, yellow, red, purple, green (whatever not-white color) and disabled.

To add onto Barthes, Jacques Derrida is, for our purposes here, mostly interested in what happens in that space between the signifier and the signified.  For Derrida:

1)     language is relational and while the Saussure privileges parole over langue (speech over language or the signifier over the signified as well as speech over writing (the idea of writing as recorded speech)) because he sees one as preceding the other, Derrida insists that this is a false opposition.  One term cannot exist without the other, the signifier cannot exist without the signified.

2)     If no term takes precedence, then every signified must also function, in its own turn, as signifier in “an endless play of signification” (Silverman, 1983, 34).  All signifying terms are secondary.

3)      Meaning is slippery, moving from one term to another.   The signifier is not connected to one signified in one unit, but can move beyond itself.

To understand popular culture as a signification process means that it creates meaning, that meaning is capable of transmitting ideology and the values of the dominant class, and finally in every term that we look at, we can only understand it in relation to its “other.”  This does not mean that we can simply invert the hierarchy and begin to privilege the opposing term.  This recreates the same kind of hierarchy we struggle against, just inverted.  Instead, what becomes necessary is to build a fluid space where we can all move on a continuum where ability and disability constitute only points on an infinite axis.

To go further, we cannot understand or examine disability without also examining ability.  When looking at popular culture (whether its watching an episode of Glee as we did in class, examining Lady Gaga’s performances of both ability and disability during the VMAs in 2009, or looking at photographs of Aimee Mullins) we must be aware of both the spoken and unspoken messages these texts convey.

To complicate things further, we have to question if there is a difference between disability and the performance of disability.  For example, in Lady Gaga’s VMA performance, she temporarily poses as a person in need of a cane but the rest of the performance (both before and after) she proves herself to be exceedingly able-bodied.  The questioning of Lady Gaga’s disability or ability also brought into question the disability or ability of the mobility chair dancer that appeared (kind of out of nowhere as far as the perspective of the camera is concerned– which is another whole topic in and of itself) for about ten seconds of the song before being shunted away.  What is involved in the performance of disability?  Or in the performance of ability, for that matter?  Should we question the “reality” of disability or ability?  For all intents and purposes, I appear to be a fully able-bodied individual.  However, two years ago I was diagnosed with a blood clot in my brain that has inhibited, at various points over the last two years, my ability to exercise, to drive a car, to fly a plane, to read a book, to read a computer screen, to read a blackboard or whiteboard.  Does that constitute disability, temporary or otherwise?  Or because I give the appearance of ability, does that make me abled?  And for how long are any of us abled or disabled?  The more we examine ability and disability, the more we can see that these are fluid ideas and identities that change regularly and as they do they change the connotations and ideas that accompany them (such as beauty).

However, we cannot just look at representations or performances of disability for the whole picture.  We must also look at performances and representations of ability, which we see much more often to the point we may not even think about it.  This privileging of ability places value on ability as well as norms ability, otherizing disability. To echo Judith Butler’s (1999) understanding of the gender binary and applying it to the ability binary, there is no reason to divide human bodies into abled and disabled except that such a division suits the economic needs of ability and lends a naturalistic gloss to the institution of ability (for Butler’s thoughts on the gender split see Gender Trouble 143).

In the classroom, this has very serious implications and complications.  Educational spaces are upheld as spaces of transmission and creation of knowledge and meaning.  It begins with the understanding that within the classroom exists systems of privilege and oppression that enable and empower the learning of some and restrict or inhibit the learning opportunities for others.  To perpetuate within the classroom the otherizing and oppressing of disability excludes valuable contributors to knowledge production as well as placing limitations on understanding. This is not, as Kristina R. Knoll (2009) points out, a problem of individual bodies where the “disabled” person should strive to overcome the limitations of their body and mind (123).  Instead, she asserts that this is a social problem, created by the linguistic and physical privileging of one type of body and mind over another (Knoll, 2009, 123). What needs to be examined are not the limitations of disability and possibilities for overcoming disability.  Instead, it is important to look at what the ideological values are for privileging ability and what we lose through the oppression of disability.

Examining popular culture in a pedagogical frame allows us to question identities of ability and disability, privileging of ability over disability, as well as renegotiate the meanings of ability and disability.  As educators in any sphere (whether it is the home, the classroom, or the workplace), we cannot dismiss the knowledge that “students” gain from other sources besides our educational sphere.  We must work with and through all areas of signification if we are to reframe ability and disability.

This is where the feminist classroom and feminist pedagogy become so important to disability, language, and popular culture.  I believe, from our readings throughout this course and others, that a feminist pedagogy is to make visible, analyze, and critique the norming practices and systems of education. If I declare within the institution of education that I study literary theory and popular culture, then it is my responsibility to use these systems and pedagogy to understand, critique, and invert education’s patriarchal and hierarchical traditions as they are represented and reinscribed through curriculum, assignments, course design, assessment, student-teacher interaction, etc. I see feminist pedagogy as one of exchange; it is  teaching that involves reciprocal acts among students, teachers, and ideas. This works against hierarchical knowledge traditions and toward a plurality of views, dialogue as a means of opening up possibilities and probabilities, cross-discursivity, and intersectionality. It also works to invert the hierarchy of teacher knowledge by accepting views from others’ experiences, emotions, and reason. This type of dialogue where all views are considered and held in suspension from absolute certainty is summed up by Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald (1998) who suggest that, “In a feminist class, where authority is scattered, where students’ knowledge and experience become part of the texts in the course, where reflection and self-monitoring bring the rhetoric of the class itself under scrutiny, the influence of texts, however canonical, can be reimagined” (237). This would include the authority of ability.  This type of dialogue suggests that each of us come with our own experiences and knowledge to give, and allows us to reimagine, analyze, negotiate, and revise privileged terms such as ability.


Bennett, Tony (2006).  “Popular Culture and the turn to Gramsci,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture:  A Reader, 3rd edn, Ed. John Storey, London:  Pearson Education.

Butler, Judith (1989).  Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York:  Routledge.

Knoll, Kristina R (2009).  “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy” In Feminist Teacher, Volume 19, Number 2, 2009, pp. 122-133.

Ritchie, Joy, and Kate Ronald (1998). “Riding Long Coattails, Subverting Tradition: The Tricky Business of Feminists Teaching Rhetoric(s)” In Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words. Ed. Susan C. Jarratt and Lynn Worsham. New York: MLA. pp. 217-38.

Silverman, Kaja (1983). “From Sign to Subject:  A Short History” In The Subject of Semiotics, New York: Oxford UP.  pp. 3-53.

Williams, Raymond (1983).  Keywords, London:  Fontana.

My Pedagogical Enactment #1

Education, Masculinity, and “Underachievement”

A few months ago, a friend of mine with whom I share a collaborative blog site posted this article and her reactions to it as a resident of Virginia, as the product of the Virginia public school system, and as a feminist. She was deeply angered, disturbed, and offended by the idea of public school classrooms being separated by sex. And I felt the same way. After all, wasn’t it the general consensus that the whole idea of “separate but equal” failed when the Supreme Court overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson and heard Brown vs. Topeka, KS Board of Education? Again, it boils down to essentializing gender: girls are better with words and boys are better than numbers, girls like to talk while boys like to play, girls are quiet and passive while boys are active.

Lynn Raphael Reed explains in “Troubling Boys and Disturbing Discourses on Masculinity and Schooling” (1999), explains the paradigm behind the separate sex classroom:

… Gender as a social practice is replaced by idiographic descriptions of learner orientations, with gendered preference embedded in the brain. It also reinforces the relational argument of male disadvantage; that girls and women are somehow causing boys’ failure. (39)

My interest in this new group (class? Label?) of students increased as my seventeen-year-old nephew was labeled one of these underachieving male students. My brother called me to tell me the news. It struck me as absolutely absurd. My nephew has been beating me in chess since he was nine. He was reading my college textbooks when he was twelve. My brother explained that my nephew had been acting out at school over the last year and a half, failed or was failing several of his courses, and stood a very good chance of not graduating from high school in May.

He did graduate (granted it was by a very narrow margin), and I was present for his graduation party in Atlanta last weekend. I sat and spoke with him for a long time this weekend as we discussed his future plans. He would be attending Georgia State University in the fall. This surprised me; I had not known he had even applied to college. He admitted that he had at the last minute because that’s what all his friends were doing.

In the case of my nephew, I could see how the paradigm Reed describes would apply. My nephew grew up in a single parent household. His mother “abandoned” him when he was 18 months old. He was asked to see a school psychologist. His disinterest in his classes was connected to the failure of his mother to be “present” in his life, though this somehow never was considered as a root cause of his older sister’s poor senior year high school performance and subsequent collegiate failure.

So the label of the “underachieving male” still doesn’t fit well with me. And as Reed claims, “This is not an argument over whether male educational underachievement exists or not: its ‘reality’ is a measure of its productivity in reshaping the landscape of educational policies and practices and there is considerable evidence of its current effects” (34). That achievement in school is being tied directly to sex/gender disturbs me. That the “underachieving female” goes unlabeled disturbs me as well; almost that it is taken for granted that the female is “underachieving,” making the label useless or redundant. Additionally, that achievement and gender are yoked in this way indicates decidedly separate ideas about what classifies success according to gender in ways that curriculums and assessment fail to take into account.

The move towards separate sex classrooms in Virginia is being touted as a “pro-choice” move in which administrators have appropriated feminist rhetoric to garner support for their controversial move (this appropriation being something that also raised my hackles), though the real concern appears to be, according to some online sources and my blogging friend who teaches in Virginia, the “underachieving male student.”

My nephew’s label as an “underachieving male student” confuses me, and so I sat down to read more about it. Reed (1999) suggests, and I agree, that what feminist pedagogical theory can contribute to this conversation is an acknowledgment of “the real and multiple interests and subject positions of different boys rather than importing a political identity (politically correct or otherwise) and placing it upon them” (44). To that, I would add that we acknowledge the real and multiple interests and subject positions of students (regardless of sex, gender, race, class, disability, religion, sexuality, etc.).

Reed (1999) also suggests that “critical literacy through social action” is a possible approach through which to negotiate gender in the classroom. With this in mind, I sat down to talk to my nephew about how he perceived his gender being perceived, understood, and utilized in a classroom space. My intentional pedagogical enactment, I must admit, was a complete failure. What I ended up being more interested in was his very real understanding that one of his teachers had labeled him in this way and the pronounced effect it had upon him, his reaction to that teacher, his reaction to other teachers, and his reactions to classroom experiences in general. Rather than teaching him how language was working on him, it was clear to me that he already understood very well how language constructed him and what it meant to act out a role, particularly one assigned to him. What he also knew, which I wasn’t thinking about, was how my language and my label as teacher as well as aunt, had also constructed (and his reaction to me and his anticipation of what I would do, say, and how I would act).

So I suppose this was a pedagogical enactment in reverse. In my intention to get him to understand how language constructs his presence and roles in classroom spaces, I failed to perceive that he already knew this and was, in fact, acting out his assigned role with relish and forcing me to remember my own subject position, where it places me, and how others can react to or manipulate that position.


Reed, Lynn Raphael (1999). “Troubling Boys and Disturbing Discourses on Masculinity and Schooling:  A feminist exploration of current debates and interventions concerning boys in school,” in The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Gender and Education, Eds. Madeleine Arnot and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, New York:  Routledge.  33-48.

One Response to Cara Williams

  1. Kristine Paterson says:

    Cara, I enjoyed reading your blog. I especially like the point that: “I also see popular culture as a site of struggle between the interests of dominant and subordinate groups.” This is a very interesting way to view this topic and I had not thought of it so thank you! I also enjoyed your visual aids. -Kristine

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