Archive for July, 2011

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Signs of discontent

Friday, July 29th, 2011

In early April this year, the educated upper and middle classes and youth in India’s urban centres rallied behind an unlikely hero, 72-year-old anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, from a small village in Maharashtra. Anna Hazare adopted a favoured protest tactic of Mahatma Gandhi, the fast until death to shame the Government into considering an anti-corruption bill and enacting it into law.

Hazare’s use of the fast showed how the symbolism of this act has changed since Gandhi’s time. Gandhi’s own understanding of the fast was that it was first and foremost a self-directed act, designed to purify the self of its own selfish excesses. When it came to protesting against the State, he used non-violent resistance as his main political method. But since then, and as we saw here, fasting has become politicised – turned into the ‘hunger strike’ and used as a protest weapon against the State.

The semiotics of the protest also revealed an interesting amalgam of symbolism brought in to strengthen the protestors’ halo and just cause.

For example, an image of Mother India, portrayed as a typical Hindu Goddess, was superimposed upon a map of India, symbolising the protest as a patriotic movement to restore the glory of the nation which has fallen, due to the actions of corrupt politicians. The image showed her holding the Indian flag in her left hand and waving it, while holding up her right hand in the gesture of a blessing – all to encourage her devotees, the patriotic middle class in their just fight. 

India has always been portrayed as the ‘mother’ in all of its languages, in contrast to some other cultures, such as Germany, which represent their country as a ‘father’. So a popular chant is ‘bharat mata ki jai’, which would be translated as ‘Victory to Mother India’ or ‘Hail Mother India’. 

It’s the custom in India when setting forth on a venture of any kind to seek the blessings of parents, especially your mother. So, the protestors’ portrayal of Mother India blessing her children showed that they were embarking on a new mission to save the nation.

They also put up a huge banner featuring a warlike call to have strength. All the Indian heroes of the Independence struggle and prior were depicted on the banner – as if to indicate that their soul and spirit were now invoked in the battle, making their spiritual blessing available to the modern warriors fighting to save the country.

Anna Hazare, the rural activist and contemporary hero wearing the Gandhian mantle, dressed as befits this symbolic lineage – in white khaki with the trademark white cap of the people’s hero. There was nothing flashy, trendy or designer in his attire to take away from the Gandhian image.

Modern protests would however be incomplete without two new elements – the televised debate and the candle-lit vigil. So, not only did TV cameras cover the man undergoing his fast for 36 hours, they set up temporary interview spots on the site and staged televised debates with various political celebrities who added their mite and sound bite to the battle. Finally, citizens around the country showed their solidarity with the cause by setting up candle-lit vigils in their towns on the evenings of the three-day fast. Of course, Facebook, Twitter and all manner of social media were liberally used to swell the numbers of protestors.

Contemporary middle-class protest in India is thus positioned as being clean and positive – the ‘good’ fight against the cancer of corruption. It is a fight that is blessed by the legendary heroes of the motherland, drawing inspiration from the master protestor, Mahatma Gandhi, televised and debated by intellectually minded citizens and finally, touching the hearts of millions of ordinary people throughout the country. What could be a more noble play – for power to influence the government?

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

Posted in Asia, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

The latest genre to send ratings soaring on British TV is ‘structured reality’ – often described as an amalgam of reality and drama. Series such as The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) and Made in Chelsea feature people playing themselves, but in scripted or semi-scripted scenarios.

The emergence of structured reality marks a response to the cultural pressures and contradictions which sank the earlier reality landmark Big Brother.

When Big Brother was first screened on British TV in 2000, it was partly rooted in the slacker genre of the 1990s. Reality was represented as baggy, loose and unstructured – about endlessly hanging out and discussing trivia.

Although housemates did face the occasional task or challenge, the idea of reality here mostly opposed narrative structure and dramatic action. It enacted the postmodern undoing of ‘plot’: the liberation of trivia from over-arching narrative.

Also in keeping with the slacker genre, early Big Brother represented people in an ‘off duty’, function-less state. The house was a suspended, abstract environment, which cut its occupants off from the personal or professional identities they held in the outside world.

But as the years rolled on and slacker culture waned, Big Brother found itself unable to maintain the loose and non-prescriptive reality it staged in its first season.

Levels of intervention, manipulation and narrative twists increased – clashing with the idea that the house was meant to offer an open-ended, experimental environment in which outcomes would be unpredictable (although ideally involving sex of some sort).

Last year, the programme finally did collapse under the contradiction, as ratings fell and Channel 4 announced the 2010 season would be its last. Big Brother lives on, but only just – having been bought by a smaller channel.

And as its popularity waned, so structured reality rose to take its place, bringing in a new idea of reality compatible with overt scripting and management.

For example, in contrast to the ‘off-duty self’ represented in early Big Brother, structured reality gives us the professionalised ‘always-on self’. Coherent and self-coincident, the ‘always-on self’ flows seamlessly between on and off-screen life, reflecting the way social media are undoing the boundaries between private and public identity.

The stars of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea are, effectively, specialists at being themselves. And there’s a clear connection here with the quasi-professional identity management encouraged by today’s social-media discourse.

11 years ago, Big Brother represented reality as an experiment. And, of course, the idea behind an experiment is that no-one knows what’s going to happen (however much manipulation was going on behind the scenes). It was the possibility of surprise and inconsistency – best of all, lapses and slips of every kind – that kept viewers interested.

Structured reality expresses the opposite: a managed vision of reality and identity that reflects wider cultural changes – in particular, the rise of the transparent, ‘always-on self’  that’s the same at work, at home and at play.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Having recently written a paper on semiotics and digital for a conference, i have started to consider the future development of the logotype. Logos are neat condensations of meaning, that have always been of interest to me. Sad that there is a curious paucity of good books on the subject. Coffee table compendiums packed with examples abound but little analysis of meaning. Marks of Excellence by Per Mollerup is the exception and it contains a good dose of semiotic theory. In it he writes: “identification, description and the creation of value are just some of the possible functions of a trademark”. It is my contention that creation of value will increasingly play a greater part in logo futures as they become a more active currency in the digital economy of signs. One reason for this is that the original identification function of logos may be rendered superfluous by a policy aware web in which digital authentication widgets, designed to cut out impostors and spam, do it for us.

So, what possible future scenarios can be imagined for logos? Well, looking at present trends, corporations are already commissioning redesigned collateral to cultivate more biddable, agile, responsive and less monolithic identities.

It seems that logos are gradually becoming more metaphorical and less metonymic (a radical aspect of the London 2012 Olympic logo, for all its sins).

This has meant evolving logos that are both more diffuse and more multi-faceted. Witness the diaphanous new Mastercard logo and the recent re-branding of Tassimo with faded petals. These are rudimentary harbingers of less condensed and more diffuse logos, dispersed across space and lattice strut. An extreme version of this is the MIT Media logo that features 3 intersecting spotlights which can be arranged into 40,000 potential permutations with 12 colour combinations. This is a facet of de-materialization – from the Marxian perspective it parallels the more fungible, quicksilver nature of financial capital and electronic flows. Many logos still hark back to their origins as either heraldic emblems where the shield motif symbolically circumscribed meanings or to monogram signatures that were often cryptic and occluding. Condensation may be discarded in favour of tessellated brand motifs that ubiquitously mark branding; running through it like a stick of rock.

Personalization may be another driver, as per the book the Filter Bubble which shows how each of us is already enveloped in a unique digital habitus that insidiously determines the cocktail of news and content they are exposed to. As digital communication feeds off a flow of real time data supplied by RFID and other sensors that pick up consumer signatures, a logo could inflect corporate identity in a more fluid way such that it could both embrace the milieu in which it appears and address prospects appropriately. I believe that logos may become interpretative actors in their own light, interacting with other digital entities around them in ways that create edutainment and more ebullience. This may mean that logos will function far beyond their originally remit of identification and more active avatars. As artificial intelligence progresses apace logos may become ingratiating envoys for digital brands.

Scott Brinker has argued that as data becomes more semantic and meaningful ‘data branding’ or the making available of proprietary company data under creative commons protocols will be employed as a competitive advantage. This is because they will be amenable to being useful mash-ups.

In this scenario it is possible to imagine the logo as pulsating with bits of data pulled from the data cloud and morphing as the data stream oscillates. This ides of real time data modeling, for instance correlating sales and trend data has already been dubbed ‘nowcasting’ in a 2009 Google white paper. The most apt application I believe would be for the logo to reflect the real time fortunes of the brand. Some formula for symbolic investment, perhaps a Semiotic Value Index metric can be implanted into the code for logos, allowing them to wax and wane in concert with the stock price, sentiment online and other basketed indices? This would be in tune with the passion for infographics, make logos more dynamic and allow for greater transparency – one for the big brave brands. Finally, another evolution for the logo might eventually be total evanescence into an invisible meme or force field that leaves engrams in the minds of prospects helping them recall brands. This would mean logos would have come full circle – literally leaving a neural mark.

Whilst all this may seem like science fiction I believe that these visions are not so far fetched because they are merely extrapolations and combinations of drivers already afoot: digital de-materialization, continuing acquiescence vs privacy intrusions, personalization of brands (Nike ID) content consumption mediated via social graphs and the filter bubble with the semantic web and cleverer data and augmented space to come, bringing a coterminous desire for cute infographics and real time dashboards to represent data patterns.

One thing is for sure, logos will be both fleeter on their feet and semiotically more active than at present. They will make today’s logos look like stodgy and archaic ciphers that petrify meanings in mute monologues. So much for my visions for the future of the logo. At any rate, I predict that logos will be active agents traversing the seething domains of the semiosphere and will start to play a role in ecologies of augmented space replete with semiotic information of all types. As Peirce said, signs have a tendency to grow or even to perfuse.

© Chris Arning  2011

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Mahatma Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. The design pays tribute to his life and achievements. The top of the cap and cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton – one of the symbols of Indian independence. The colour white is a reference to truth and peace, while the Mandarin garnet represents the orange colour that is part of the Indian flag. The nib shows an image of Mahatma Gandhi, walking with a stick. In addition, the limitation of the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000 is symbolic for the masses of people who followed him during his fight for independence.” Mont Blanc website

 

July 2011

Dear Bapuji [Bapu means father in Hindi, and Bapuji is a respectful, affectionate term for Gandhi in India], 

I would lie if I said that the first sight of this Mont Blanc ink pen did not catch my fancy. On the surface it seemed very nice and befitting…Mont Blanc, the iconic brand of writing instruments, paying tribute to your life and achievements. But that was just my first reaction. When I read further about this ‘Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000’ something did not seem right – either to my Indian heart or to my branding mind.

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

Bapuji, you are no Amitabh Bachchan endorsing any and every product.  Bapuji, you are my Bapu, the father of my nation. Maybe I am sounding like an emotional, patriotic Indian.  Let me put on my branding hat and objectively view the case of Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi coming together. After all, there’s got to be a sync between the two brand identities to create meaningful synergies. 

Yes, I do see a basic match at the functional level.  Bapu, you wrote profusely and demonstrated the power of the pen to the world. It seems appropriate for the top international brand of writing instruments to pay you a tribute.

But what about the brand fit at the core values and vision level? Is there a match between Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi at the philosophical and cultural level?

Gandhiji, to get to the core essence of your life philosophy, I poured over your words verbatim in Mohan-Mala [an anthology of Gandhi’s thoughts and writings]. You wrote:

 “The dream I want to realize is not the spoliation of the property of private owners, but to restrict its enjoyment so as to avoid all pauperism, consequent discontent and the hideously ugly contrast that exists today between the lives and surroundings of the rich and poor.”  Mohan-Mala, 1929

 Doesn’t the very concept of a limited edition for only 3000 exclusive owners defy your dream? If I am buying an ink pen for a whopping price of Rs 1,161,145, where am I restricting its enjoyment? Am I not sharpening the contrast even between the super-rich and the poor?

I appreciate the fact that the product design for the Monc Blanc Limited Edition took inspiration from the spindle. But does Mont Blanc really know what the spinning wheel and khadi mean to the people of India?

I claim for the Charkha [spinning wheel], the honor of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and businesslike manner. The Charkha, therefore is not only not useless…but is a useful and indispensable article for every home. It is the symbol of the nation’s prosperity and, therefore, freedom. It is a symbol not of commercial war but of commercial peace.” Mohan Mala, 1921

How can the charkha be an inspiration for Mont Blanc whose DNA goes against entering every home. Bapu, is this not a superficial use of such a deep and profound symbol? 

I ask, what does a luxury item catering to only 3000 individuals have anything to do with your values of equality, simplicity, minimalism and economic freedom?  Bapu, you penned these words in 1921:

“Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful.Thus, the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour.” Mohan Mala, Oct 1921

I respect Mont Blanc’s intent to pay tribute to your life and achievement. But it hurts me to see you being used as a ‘celebrity’ endorsing the epitome of opulence. You are my India. You are the universal spirit of peace, harmony and non-violence in each of us. How can the soul of my country be used as a symbol for pure economic gain?

I ask, where is the match between the ideal of simple living-high thinking and the ultimate expression of high living?

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

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Habitual Symbol Manipulator

Monday, July 11th, 2011

When I saw techno producer Tony Child (DJ Surgeon) describe himself on his blog as a Habitual Symbol Manipulator, I was surprised.

To me, the phrase sounded better suited to the semiotician than to the musician. Why was Tony comparing music, which I’d always considered both more abstract and more concrete than the ‘symbol’, to something so semiotic-sounding?

I asked him about the phrase, and he told me that it came from the following passage in Aldous Huxley’s novel The Island:

“A talent for manipulating symbols tempts its possessors into habitual symbol manipulation, and habitual symbol manipulation is an obstacle in the way of concrete experiencing and the reception of gratuitous graces."

Most semioticians would instantly want to deconstruct Huxley’s Romantic belief in immediacy here, proving themselves Habitual Symbol Manipulators beyond all hope of cure.  But I still wondered why Tony, as a musician, called himself that. His reflections offer food for thought for semiotics, rhetoric and creative communications in general.

Tony Child: “You’re surprised that I call myself a Habitual Symbol Manipulator? Well, I think that Huxley wants everyone to see themselves in the phrase. The idea behind the novel is to get everyone to recognise themselves as the foreigner or analyst [the main character in the novel is an analytically-minded visitor to a remote island community].

“So Habitual Symbol Manipulation is something maybe many people recognise in themselves. It sounds really specific, but actually it’s a much bigger truth.

“A DJ set is Habitual Symbol Manipulation from start to finish. I manipulate the codes and symbols of music to produce particular effects on people – not creating music but arranging it, squishing it, filtering it, opening it up, smudging it with echoes and reverbs, bringing it in and out of focus.

“In fact, a DJ set is a piece of communication just like an ad or text. I use techniques all the time to catch people – playing with their expectations and subverting them.

“Take repetition. I play a track my friend made which is purely repetitious. Whenever I play it, the audience goes through a similar journey. First, they’re excited – the track is new and it catches them. Then, they get bored, because of the repetition. But if I’m brave and persist with the repetition, taking them further and further into boredom and frustration, eventually they come out the other side and go crazy! I haven’t changed a thing – and it always happens. Then I catch the wave of excitement and introduce something new.

“You don’t need any tricks. If you’re brave enough to break through a certain barrier of boredom, then you can reach people on a deeper level.

“Another way I manipulate the symbols of music is by not giving people what they want all the time. I use frustration as a tool, and work with a model of tension and release. For instance, I play something that’s deliberately difficult and unfamiliar – so people won’t like it. And then I give them a reward or resolution, moving on to something they’ll like. It’s not sadism – it’s a balance of pleasure and pain that makes the whole thing work.

“But Habitual Symbol Manipulation can also be a gateway to something else. Huxley was maybe wrong to oppose it to ‘gratuitous grace’. I think Habitual Symbol Manipulation can be a prison, or it can be liberation. If you use it in the right way, and know when to let go of the method, it can lead beyond the symbolic mode – certainly in music.

“For the communication to really work and reach people, the Habitual Symbol Manipulator can’t be too fixed or stuck in an intellectual process. They have to be open. And I also feel it’s important to love and respect the people I’m communicating with. If I don’t, it becomes sadism, which is not fun for me personally. Even if there are parts of my set which are harsh or difficult, I always provide some resolution.”

Picture credit: Marek Petraszek

© Louise Jolly 2011

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