Do You Get What You See?

HERE are some signs of the times. Can you read them?

The Armani soft shoulder. The TV game-show squeal. The Stephen King gallery of horror. Bill Clinton's hair.

What you see is not what semiotician Marshall Blonsky gets from these images.

The decoded message of each, he says, has little to do with its substance: The soft-shoulder suit signals "sensitive," the squeal is the addictive euphoria of TV's speed and greed, horror stories are the modern version of ancient visions of hell, and the candidate's hair says "blow-dried ... star ... celebrity, Warren Beatty."

Before you chalk this off as the latest psychobabble, ask yourself: Do you ever wonder where the shapes, colors, and sensibilities of clothing, food, and entertainment come from, and why?

The science of semiotics finds signification and communication outside of language, Blonsky says. There is a transnational, cultural power structure - as important as any economic one - that creates the glossy images and desirable objects influencing our lives, he says.

His theory is this: Geopolitical equivalents of high school "fast crowds" are setting the pace for the rest of us.

Blonsky, a professor at New York University and the New School for Social Research in New York, spent four years stalking that power structure around the world asking, "Why this?"

"Why this?" he says, pointing to the metal designer signature on his own Italian leather loafer. (Yes, he acknowledges, his attire - a double-breasted Italian-cut jacket and blousy pants - screams "hip author.")

Why the rage for letter-turning Vanna White? (An empty vessel - viewers can imagine her any way they want.)

Why did the Merv Griffin-created Wheel of Fortune game show become so powerful it could knock Peter Jennings and the ABC Evening News back a half-hour out of prime time? (It makes the average Joe feel like a hero in his own home, because game shows are designed to let the viewer get the answer before the contestants do.)

In his quest for "why," Blonsky spent time with, among many others, TV-anchor Ted Koppel in Washington, Italian designer Georgio Armani, French economist Jacques Attali, horror-story writer Stephen King, game-show beauty-mute Vanna White, and her creator Merv Griffin.

The result is his new book, "American Mythologies," a sort of anecdotal textbook on those who create and manage this hidden world order.

"These people gave me new eyes," Blonsky says. "Bush talks about the New World Order; I'm showing you a glimpse of what it really is."

Interviewed on a visit here to lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, Blonsky clearly enjoys retelling his adventures, tattling on the powerful and famous. And it's a good thing too, because without that interesting anecdotal anchor, his prose and conversation, fluffed with arcane jargon, could easily float off into the nether-reaches of post-modern deconstructionist theory.

His science of semiology seems at times like speculative free association - it's highly subjective. But Blonsky, hands aflutter and brow creased, always seems to be able to tie up the loose ends in logical fashion.

Speed, for example, is a theme that crops up frequently with Blonsky. Think of these images: faxes; cellular phones; tight-fitting sports clothes; automated teller machines (ATMs); formulaic movie sequels (Alien 1, 2, 3); game shows; and the buy, buy, buy signals created by commercials and credit cards. In essence, they all connote speed, he says.

Even colors, Blonsky says, have speed. Electric blues and hot-red colors carry a speed "against which there is no defense," he says, explaining that marketers calculate that those colors "overwhelm" faster than other colors.

All this speed creates a sense of euphoria, he says.

"What I think is going on is the creation of a rather large new class of urban nomads who go hither and yon all barnacled with their portable objects: The cellular phone, the ATM cards, the faxes, the credit cards, the easy access to airplanes, the laptop [computer], these silly walkmans," he says.

"The image they create is whoosh! I can go anywhere," he says. "This is a `migrancy' of privilege producing the lonely narcissist, having no allegiance to anything, to ideology, to state, certainly not [to] the spouse or family."

Glossy images reflected in technology, goods for sale, and the media are mimicked all over the world, Blonsky explains. As those images multiply and become more seductive, it is important for people to perceive the truth behind the images - or, as Blonsky puts it, "to smell the mendacity."

"By and large, the people you meet are going to be sign-encrusted, image-encrusted, armored. I'm not proposing that you read the armor in a judgmental way to put people down, to classify them, to socially advance yourself," he says.

Rather, he concludes, "I'm trying to see you, not your image; I'm trying to let you see me, not an image. I'm trying to install profundity back into human life...."

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