Monday, November 18, 2013

Nightlife Semiotics

It's 9 pm on a fall  New York night and the air is getting chilly as the November sun has long since set. Soon apartment doors are swinging open as laughing groups of New Yorkers emerge for a night of merrymaking in the hundreds of bars, clubs and watering holes that grace the streets and avenues. It's Saturday night and many have recovered from a long week of work and school and are eager to relax and enjoy the city's bright lights. It is in this social, and soon to be inebriated, environment that a complex display of semiotics is soon too occur. New York's night has a whole unique set of signs to it, with different individuals, groups and drinking establishments eager to perform a certain role and occupy a niche in the cramped and wild partying that takes place in Manhattan on any given weekend (or night for that matter). Anthropologists like Marcel Danesi and Roland Barthes have long ago identified that human beings use semiotics in any given social setting to convey, receive and negotiate different meanings and the bar scene in New York City is no different. The myriad of different backgrounds and cultures provide for a dizzying array of semiotics that has a flavor all its own.

Before any New Yorker, or visitor, needs to do before they go out on the town is to dress the part. The many different kinds of bars and clubs leads to massive diversity in fashion and "looks" that many cultivate to convey a specific message and representation of their identity. People who wore trendy three piece suits during the day don jeans and t-shirts complete with converse shoes to attend rock concerts at Webster Hall. Others embrace the status of being lawyers, bankers and brokers in the economic capital of the world wearing impressive Ralph Lauren and Armani suits while hailing town cars to get themselves to their place of choice. Students near the big schools like Columbia, NYU and Hunter dress the part with collared shirts and trendy dresses while they jump on subways or into yellow cabs to take them to the nearest all night happy hour. Many others dress in outlandish costumes or wear shirts with profane or politically incorrect messages that draw sidelong glances on the streets as they pass by. Each person uses these outfits to present a certain message to others, resulting in innumerable instances of "Seconds" as people interact throughout the night. Suits, skirts, present information, even the guy in a white t-shirt and shorts who implies that he "doesn't give a f**k.
The bars themselves are a hotbed of semiotics, using architecture, furniture and drink choices to present a certain style that will attract customers. McSorely's Pub on St. Marks Ave is an example. Claiming to be the oldest pub in the city, the pub's owners have adorned it with hundreds oh historical photographs and gadgets including several original posters from Theodore Roosevelt's tenure as Police Commissioner. The floor is covered in sawdust and the waiters with thick Irish brogues carry twelve mugs of beer at a time, slamming them down in front of thirsty patrons who squeeze in with different groups at stout wooden tables. Up the street is a NYU hotspot, the Continental Bar, a place known for being one of Iggy Pop's watering holes as well as the infamous "24 hour happy hour" that has ruined many a GPA. The walls are adorned with movie posters from the 1950's and the furniture gives off a raw, rum scented smell. The manager leans against the wall in a top hat with curly hair, sleeveless t-shirt and high laced boots, looking eerily similar to Slash, the legendary guitarist. Across the 1 Oak club fills its barrooms with lavish furniture and exorbitantly priced drinks served by waiters in bow ties. Every bar or club presents a collection of signs that are supposed to stress a message and attract a certain crowd that want to experience an atmosphere that coincides with their tastes and attitudes.

Of course, signs have to be interpreted and with people coming from all over the Tri-state area mistakes are common. One story illustrates this. At a bar called the 13th step in the East Village a young man and woman are talking by the bar. The woman twirls her hair and the man touch her her hand in a display that Danesi could spot a mile away as social mating ritual. However, the mood is broken as one of the man's friends walks over looking for yet another friend. "Wheres John" he slurs. "Oh he's deaded" responds the annoyed man. The woman gasps and says "I'm sorry your friend died." The man waves it off "it just means he went home." " Little morbid dont ya think?" the woman quips. Exchanges like this show how new words and images that pop up continually in the party scene need to be explained and interpreted at every turn.

The New York nightlife is full of semiotics. Club goers and the places they visit seek to present a image, a semiotic message that tells other people who they are and where they belong. This is a dynamic process, people of all walks of life continue to experiment especially in Manhattan with different scenes and people commonly completely reinvent themselves to experience different environments. The result is that signs and symbols are constantly redefined and negotiated as people drink and dance until they greet the sun with bleary eyes.

1 comment:

Gabrielle Borenstein said...

I think this post, much like Danesi's book, points to something very interesting: the extent to which an individual's conscious choices contribute to and affect the semiotic web of relations he or she finds himself or herself in. Wearing a particular outfit, lipstick, or pair of shows project certain images and come with different associative characteristics. They entwine us with certain meanings that are by and large socially constructed (via thirdness). What I found most interesting about this piece was that it delves into the niches within niches. Rather than just American habits or New York habits, this considers neighborhood or bar-specific interpretants. It stresses context. For what is desirable at one bar in midtown-- say a man wearing an expensive suit -- is not desirable at a dive bar on the lower east side. This purports the question: to what extent does context always dictate the interpretants or what is desirable? Are there any universal interpretants that stand independently of locale or time? What is the most overarching and widely accepted type of interpretant?