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  Joel Achenbach
Joel Achenbach
Marshall Blonsky, Guide to the Signs of Our Times
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 1992; Page C1

To a normal person, Union Station is just a place with shops and trains. But to Marshall Blonsky, a professional semiotician, it is a mother lode of signs, symbols, signifiers -- a code in need of decoding. And so before he'd even gotten off the escalator from the garage, he began to read the place, to decipher the text of Union Station.

"As we move down this escalator" -- the walls closing in, the city gradually disappearing from view -- "less and less are we able to constitute Washington. This" -- he pointed ahead, to the station-mall -- "is the city of the future. We'll live in a bubble."

The automatic doors opened. He glided through.

"The body is becoming disused. We don't need a body."

Perhaps it was reckless, dangerous, taking a semiotician to such a place and asking him to react. Would it be too much for him? Could he suffer signification overload, some kind of neural blowout? Perception spasms so intense they'd knock him right to the ground?

No sooner had Blonsky reached the station's shopping concourse when he saw ... it was almost too perfect ... a Yamaha baby grand piano playing by itself.

"Look!" he screamed. "It's a piano playing without a person! Look look look look!"

It was cordoned off with velvet ropes like they use at movie theaters. What's it mean? What's it mean? Tell us! Read the piano!

"You don't need people anymore," Blonsky intoned.

Blonsky pointed to the vaguely neoclassical frame of a nearby store called Papillon. He said, "This is your typical postmodern facade. It's the sign of architecturalness. A thin veneer."

Right: It's not architecture, it's the image of architecture.

He looked around, studied the profusion of stores, the gilt ceiling, the Greco-Roman statues, the opposition of the old and the new, the authentic and the simulated.

"It's hyperspace," he said. "I don't mean to further monstrify myself, but I am getting a tad excited."

How appropriate that Marshall Blonsky is not easily labeled. Professor? Journalist? Cultural critic? Philosopher? Intellectual gadfly? To name a thing is to engage in misnomer. A word is itself a code demanding decoding. In the modern age one speaks and writes with an air of apology, knowing that any statement is inexact and biased, obscuring as much as it clarifies.

Maybe you'd call Blonsky a Freelance Decoder. Or a Semiotic Mercenary. Newspapers and magazines can hire him, send him into dangerous territory -- Caution: Signfield Ahead -- and he'll come back with a fresh "reading" of the place. Psychics read palms; Blonsky reads culture.

For the moment we will call him an author. He has written a book, "American Mythologies," that is about Giorgio Armani, Vanna White, Annie Sprinkle, Umberto Eco, Stephen King, Merv Griffin, Ted Koppel and many other purveyors of image. It's about the imagistic imperialism of America. It's about one professor's personal quest to make sense of life in the age of illusion.

"For over a decade I was ensconced in the academic ghetto. Suddenly one day, feeling dusty and moth-eaten, I decided to answer the call of the American road," his book begins. He adds later: "I wanted to hit the road, to try to become an intellectual in action."

An intellectual on the loose! Where are the men with the big nets when you need them? Blonsky's project is saved from insufferableness by his own self-deprecating sense of humor, the pervading atmosphere of whimsy, of fun. Like your teachers told you, It's Fun to Read. (On the north side of the Capitol we saw big oak trees with labels stuck to the trunks. "It's a tree zoo," Blonsky said.)

This crypto-Kerouac, 54 and balding, was not searching for America, exactly -- he was searching for the idea of America. He even looked for it in places like London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Moscow, "because the idea of America has become a planetary phenomenon... ." It's about time a native citizen explored the topic; for years the Europeans have been making trips over here to study these strange creatures called Americans ("the little people," they call us) and to write books about big cars and smooth interstate highways and dumb Hollywood movies and especially what Las Vegas means. A French philosopher once told Blonsky, "You don't have to be intellectual. Be yourself. We'll study you."

So now we have our own boy on the case. Blonsky is a semiotician but not a deconstructionist. You might say deconstruction goes a lot further than semiotics. Semiotics seeks the meaning beneath things, while deconstruction doubts whether there is such a thing as meaning. A semiotician subverts myth, but a deconstructionist subverts language itself, breaking it down into such fine particles that eventually all you have are bleak little quanta of no obvious significance. The semiotician uses a magnifying glass, the deconstructionist uses an atom smasher.

The irony is, "American Mythologies" probably will be most enjoyed for the surface details -- his revelation that guests on "Nightline" can't see Ted Koppel and are tethered to the disembodied voice of Ted by a mere earpiece; the offhand remark by porn film director Ron Sullivan that he frequently cuts away from erotic full-body shots to genital close-ups ("the plumbing shots") because it never occurs to him to wonder what actually arouses a viewer; Vanna White saying, quite correctly, "Because of the fact I don't speak on television, people are able to make me whatever they want me to be."

So it's just grand that Blonsky can use a reference to Dante's "The Divine Comedy" in describing "Wheel of Fortune" ("Vanna is Beatrice taking you through the circles of ignorance, encouraging and applauding you every time you decipher one of the riddles of the universe"), but what's more interesting is that Blonsky got backstage. He's right there in the dressing room! When Vanna White sees his tape recorder, she asks, "Can I hold it for you?" Neat detail! "She pleases all and everyone," Blonsky writes.

The book is adapted from articles Blonsky has written for mainstream publications (including some for The Washington Post's Outlook section). It's a dense book. Physically dense. It must be the paper, those textbookish clay-heavy pages. It's no bigger than an ordinary hardcover, but when you pick it up you feel an extra tug in your wrist muscles, as though all the French-influenced semiology is weighing the thing down.

"It's 2.7 pounds," Blonsky noted.

Someone once said: God is in the details.

Blonsky was in Washington last week to speak at the Smithsonian, but first he spent the afternoon wandering around Capitol Hill, at my urging. I stick myself in this story partly to give you an idea of what it is like to read Blonsky's cinematic journalism -- his thumb is always sticking across the camera lens -- and because Blonsky's self-described monstrousness, his way of marching Godzilla-like across the landscape and torching everything in his path, came at my urging. Go, Marshall, go! was my instruction. (This confession is itself Blonskyesque, an attempt to peel back another layer of the textual facade.)

At midday we took a taxi to Capitol Hill, and Blonsky gave a reading of the Thank You for Not Smoking sign inside the cab: "I have the concept of junk signs, just as there's junk food. Nobody looks. It's dead language."

We took a corner table on the second floor of a fashionable bistro, La Brasserie (when talking philosophy, you eat in a French restaurant; besides, Blonsky's inspiration is the late Frenchman Roland Barthes, author of his own "Mythologies" back in the 1950s). In a vase sat a rose and a lily of the Nile -- to Blonsky, the sign of a power restaurant, a place that doesn't want to acquiesce to the post-'80s taste for downscale, humble, quiet flowers (the penitential look to make up for the Reagan years). The food on the plate glowed in bright "Miami Vice" colors, particularly the soup, in which red, yellow and green bell peppers had been pureed and somehow segregated within the bowl, resisting osmosis. What was the message? The message of no-message: It showed our craving for artifice, for images, for the purely visual. "The soup is not to eat, it's to look at," Blonsky said. "This is a society utterly superficial, utterly in the service of images. The destiny of so many people is to become an image."

Even the act of dining is a sign. In the 1980s, Blonsky said, "the meal became medium." (Great all-purpose excuse for overeating.)

Does he ever shut down? Does he ever just kick back and watch a ballgame (or some other "demotic" hobby, to use his word) and stop thinking so much? He says he does. But his girlfriends used to ask him, accusingly, "Are you reading me?" He would deny it. They wouldn't believe him. Being a semiotic empath, he said, "is a gift, but it's a curse as well."

Blonsky, now a professor at New York University and the New School for Social Research, was one of the first people to teach semiotics in the United States. He studied at Yale under the late Paul de Man, one of the founders of deconstruction and yet more famous for being posthumously discredited for antisemitic writings during the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Blonsky, a Jew, said the revelation about de Man shocked him. But he apologized for his mentor, saying the collaborationist writings were the work of a young hustler. "I wouldn't be whatever I am today were it not for him."

Whatever he does, he does it with zest. "He is a rather protean personality. Interested in everything," says Geoffrey Hartman, a renowned professor of English and comparative literature at Yale who remembers Blonsky as an unusually inquisitive graduate student. (Hartman sees semiotics as "imperialistic," trying to have its say on everything, but notes that this may be an act of defense more than offense, a response to "information sickness," that feeling that modern life is characterized not by a lack of knowledge but by a surfeit: "I see semiotics as partly a response to the too-muchness.")

Finishing his crab cakes, Blonsky gave an ominous warning: People like him, decoders, are in demand among corporate advertising agencies. Hire a semiotician, find a better way to manipulate.

As we left Union Station he decreed it not so much a real place as a simulacrum, the way a capped tooth is not a real tooth but merely the simulation of a tooth. It was like a Spielberg set, he said, a movie version of a train station. That gilding on the ceiling -- how violational of Washington, a city that shouldn't be prettified because it is not about prettiness but about power.

"If you're the capital of the empire, then you've got to signify. But the interesting thing we saw is that the capital is becoming schlockified."

Out front a woman with a camera snapped a picture of the station.

"Look, she's here to possess and take an image. She's here to collect and possess and take home an image."

But is that bad, Marshall?


"The thing I object to is the passivity, the life of images -- not to mention the pink that everyone seems to be wearing."

We walked to the Capitol itself. Blonsky wandered the Rotunda, read the paintings, the statues, the tourists. "This is American idealism before Nixon, before Watergate, before we became a bitter people."

And then, suddenly ...


The figure stood frozen. It was a man in a soiled khaki suit. Cowboy hat. A badge on his chest, "Jackson Junior Police Department." He held fliers saying, "Haines for President." He was clearly alive but did not blink, did not so much as twitch a muscle. Minutes passed. Blonsky circled him.

"He's simulating a George Segal-like statue," Blonsky decided.

In other words: A man was simulating the simulation of a man. Brain-twisting stuff!

"It's Jimmy Stewart/Ross Perot," Blonsky said -- and then jumped practically out of his skin, dropping his glasses, squealing, "Oh! You looked at me! Jesus Christ!"

The man-statue had looked him in the eye. A few minutes later the man ended his freeze, started talking, said his name is Robert Haines and he is not a performance artist but a real presidential candidate, that he freezes like that because "it's a form of rest" and it was hot outside.

"I'm demonstrating leadership and discipline at the center for democracy," he said, adding a moment later, "My heartbeat goes to less than 50 beats a minute."

And Blonsky, amazingly, had nothing to say. Was this a put-on? The authentic article? It had finally happened: Marshall Blonsky, trained semiotician, had met the unreadable man, the unbreakable code.

© 1992 The Washington Post Company

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