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Biography

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. From the age of seven, Istudied the violin and dreamt of a concert career. Those dreams were dashed when, in 1956, Ivan Galamian, at that time the greatest violin teacher in the world, told me I would "never be one of the immortals." I, a 17-year-old, then moved my dreams into literary studies at Yale College, where I graduated Scholar of the House, magna cum laude, in 1959.

I acquired some life experience in show business of the 60s, working as an assistant to the Broadway and television producer Leland Hayward. My specific task was being the "buddy" to comedian Buck Henry, which meant doing anything Buck wanted, especially laughing at his jokes. This helped me, the young side-kick, understand the thin line between reality and fiction. In the late sixties I became assistant to one of America's top journalists, Alfred G. Aronowitz, who was under contract to the Saturday Evening Post. In the capacity of researching for and writing with Aronowitz, I smoked pot with Bob Dylan and tried to date the singer Diahann Carroll.

Tiring of life experience and celebrities, I matriculated in 1970 at The Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University where I became intoxicated with structuralism and semiotics, which had just taken Hopkins by storm. I remember my first party with Jacques Derrida, so different from partying with Dylan. Here, the only substance was words.

In 1971, I received my master's in writing from Hopkins; in '74, I received an M.Phil. in English and comparative literature, from Columbia University; and in '79, obtained my Ph.D., again in comp lit at Columbia, under the direction of Paul de Man, chairman of comparative lit at Yale. My dissertation was on Coleridge, Wordsworth and Mallarmé, and De Man, approving it one day in New Haven, said: "I could have deconstructed you, but I won't."

My life was decided; since then, it has been ruled by an eagerness to be both in the world and decode its meanings. A satisfying but impossible task.

I have taught at The New School in New York (1973-1993), where I introduced semiotics to its first generation of students; at New York University (1988-1997); at Vassar College (1990); at Cooper Union (1991). In 1994, I participated in the faculty of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In 1996 I became senior advisor to the director, New Directions for News, School of Journalism, University of Missouri. After than, I was a Senior Fellow at The Rose and Erwin Wolfson Center for National Affairs, The New School, and adjunct professor of telecommunications at New York University. I am currently Professor of Semiotics in the Critical Studies Department in Parson's School of Design, New School University.

In 1985, I published On Signs (Johns Hopkins University Press/Basil Blackwell), the widely used text on semiotics, which became a VLS bestseller. In 1989 I wrote the introduction for Private Property by the photographer Helmut Newton, published by Schirmer/Mosel in Munich and republished in the February '98 issue of Taiwan Playboy. In 1992 I published American Mythologies (preface by Umberto Eco), which became a sort of succès d'estime, landing me on The Charlie Rose Show, Pozner & Donahue, Good Morning America, Oprah and others. I have also commented on NBC Nightly News, CNN News Hour, Hard Copy, National Public Radio, National Geographic Television, etc. on subjects as varied as shopping to Umberto Eco to O.J. Simpson to taboos. I'm often quoted in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report on subjects as diverse and absurd as cowboy boots, the oily fluidity of Monica Lewinsky's name, the meaning of the Marlboro Man and the portrayal of youth on Times Square billboards.

Among the magazine articles I have written, I am reasonably proud of the Ted Koppel and Umberto Eco profiles, both published in The New York Times Magazine (1988, 1989), the Vanity Fair piece on Merv Griffin, Donald Trump and Atlantic City (1990), as well as the series "Marshall in Wonderland" written for The Washington Post/Outlook section (1988-'89), going from stumping with Pat Robertson to spending six intermittent months with NBC Nightly News to playing fly-on-the-wall backstage at numerous Hollywood game shows. I was a contributor to the Roman magazine, called "the Italian Wired," Telèma, and to the cultural section, "mais!" (more!), of the Brazilian newspaper-of-record, Folha de S. Paulo. I've also been an op-ed columnist for the Christain Science Monitor, which requires me to observe certain Christian scruples, which are fine with me.

I have been profiled in The New York Times (June 1996), Smithsonian Magazine (September 1993), The Washington Post/Style (July 1992), and in Europe by such magazines as Europeo and Panorama.

In the course of researching American Mythologies, I traveled profusely. In Tokyo I conversed with a mechanical dog; in Milan I hung out with Armani; in Moscow I had lunch with Yevtushenko and a vodka-drenched dinner with Voisnesensky, fighting him for the check and, thank God, losing. As a "social commentator" on America I have traveled from the Bangor Maine of Stephen King to the Washington, D.C. of master-of-the-universe John Sculley to the Cupertino, California headquarters of Apple Computer.

I now live in New York City. I am currently engaged in two book projects, American Mythologies 2 and Marshall Arts, intended also as a stage production. My collaborators in the stage project are the director Gerald Thomas and the composer Patrick Grant.

Interests

semiotics, deconstruction, semiology, signs, signifiers, autobiography, images, Iraq War, picaro, the devastating skills of a loser