Archive for the ‘Header Navigation’ Category

|

How Brands Protect Us

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Preface

The level of anxiety is becoming higher in the world today. It was traditionally high in Russia. It looks as if 20th century Russia lived under the motto “may you live in interesting times”. The country has gone through several wars, bold social experiments, dramatic changes and crises[1].

How did all this influence the lives of average Russian citizen and Russian culture overall? It became habitual to anticipate that unexpected disaster might happen. That families might lose all their savings. That social status might change from high to low and vice versa in several months. That results of planning and strategic thinking might turn into a joke. That it is important to value the current moment, to live here and now. It also brought a kind of tolerance of stress. Strength to overcome difficulties, durability and fortitude. Inventiveness and resourcefulness. Low trust in relation to state and government, the habit of relying on oneself.

After a relatively calm period between 2000 and 2013, negative events started again in 2014: the annexation of Crimea and economic sanctions from the West that followed; the collapse of the rouble in late 2014 (real incomes halved); the decrease in oil prices (the Russian economy being built on oil); two wars (Ukraine and Syria) – these have all had an impact on social mood and contributed to increasing anxiety.

On Сhart 1 we can see represented the dynamics of social mood from 2010 to 2017[2]. The level of anxiety is very high during all periods: it ranges from 36% to 49% of respondents, with the lowest average degree in 2013 and 2014 (after a calm decade), reaching the highest levels in the 1st quarter of 2015 (after the events of 2014) and the 1st quarter of 2016. In 2017 the crisis is still here, however, the social mood has become calmer. Citizens have adapted to the situation. Still 40% of people believe that in their environment anxiety prevails over tranquility.

The cultural peculiarities related to such high levels of social anxiety are manifested in several tendencies in consumer behaviour:

• Russian consumers prefer to spend rather than save. In the good times, they are very receptive to novelties and brands communication in general;

• Risky consumption is popular. Adventures, speed of life, self-indulgence – everything that helps take the most from the current moment.

• External signs of status and strength are very important in the dominant culture – rich and powerful are less vulnerable.

• Controlled consumption, attention to brands, reading packs before purchase. The belief that it is impossible to control external factors, but possible to control what one eats and buys.

In this article, we will analyze how the last two tendencies are represented in marketing communication and branding. We will show how brands in Russia help consumers in building personal strategies of safety. We will also provide some examples from the cultural and media fields.

Semiotic Codes of Protection in Branding

There are various ways in which brands in Russia are connecting with meanings of protection and safety:

One way is through a literal interpretation of the theme in the form of protecting borders, or products that provide strength and may help even in a physical sense (numbered below 1.1.-1.3.).

Another type of code utilizes topics that are not directly related to protection, but can decrease consumer anxiety in a subtler way: associations with kind nature, trusted traditions, or wise technology (see codes 2.1-2.3). Such codes describe sources of protection that exist in the outside world.

The third type of interpretation goes deeper to the understanding of safety and what it means to consumers. Such codes refer to signs of comfort, care, support of the community and control over personal choices (3.1-3.3). This group of codes speaks about human input in creating the sense of security: relationships and personal responsibility.

Some of the brand examples we provide for the second and the third group of codes probably were not aimed by their designers to communicate protection (or only protection). But they do so on the connotative level. They also show possible indirect ways of presenting safety, that may be used by other marketers.

On the Chart 2. we have summarized the main semiotic codes of protection observed in communication materials representing brands in Russia in the recent years. This chart describes the dominant semiotic field, the signs that are common and universally understood in Russian culture. Although the codes were derived from Russian material, we believe that some of them could be successfully integrated in marketing communication in other cultures or in global campaigns. Below is a description of the main codes.

• Protecting Barrier

This is one of the most popular codes in communication of safety and protection. “The barrier” speaks more about prevention of a problem, rather than relief. By using the code a brand becomes associated with a reliable partner. The border prevents a problem from intervening in the consumer’s life, be it insects, infection, dirt, or computer viruses. Very important here is the dichotomy “me-others”, or “a person – an outer world”, “friends – enemies”.

Symbols of barriers are often combined with the signifiers of efficacy and power: red, bright intense colors, images of heroes, strong animals. That is a kind of militant protection and it is usually used in communication of products which serve “against” something: medical remedies, insecticides, cleaning products, information security and such. Sometimes the product itself is portrayed as a barrier: for example, an SUV car or an IKEA home which hides its owners from the disasters of the world outside.

The code is almost never used in communication of “peaceful” products, which do not fight with the problem, but protect the consumer from it in other ways (vitamins, ecological food, gadgets).

Signs: shield, protecting circle, wall, shell, black color, thick and hard substances, etc. Also, metaphors of safety belt, lifebuoy.

 Image 1.1.                                                                                                                                           

• Handy tool 

This code is close in meaning to the previous one. It also speaks about fighting the problem. The “me-others” dichotomy is strong in this code too. Here, however, consumers are portrayed in a more independent and powerful position. They do not hide behind a shield; they take an active role in dealing with the situation. The product in the hands of a user adds strength, power and reliability. This is a predominantly masculine theme. Even in communication of unisex products, when a human character appears in the context of the code it is usually a man.

This theme is frequently used by companieswho associate their products or services with provision of safety: insurance, banking, pharma, food (security from hunger and lack of energy), household cleaning, personal hygiene.

Signs: firm and solid shapes, convenient to hold in the hand; a fist; dark colors, non-transparent surfaces; seriousness.

 Image 1.2.

 

• The Hero

Personification of a protecting figure. This appears in the three different forms: “Real man”, “Magic Helper” and “Strong Animal”.

“Real Man” – physically strong, big, usually serious. Patriarchal dream. He can be presented as a portrait of the consumer, or a man who protects the consumer. In the latter case, consumers are usually women, children, and more rarely other men (not as strong as the Hero).

“Magic Helper” – popular characters of superheroes (Spider Man, Super Man, Russian bogatyrs (knights)); animated characters, usually masculine; the product itself as a magic helper. The difference from “The Tool” is that in this code, the product acts itself. It is not a tool in a hand of a user, it is an independent character.

“Strong Animal” – lions, tigers, bears, horses and others. Brands are associated with the power, energy and aggression of these animals. The consumer is usually described as a handler. Sometimes animal energy is attributed to the consumer. Connotations of paganism.

Signs: powerful actions and actions above human abilities (flying, breaking walls); loud sounds, roaring; big muscles. The consumer is behind the hero, under protection of it. When the product is shown alone: camera angle down-up, light on the “hero”, central position in a shot, big size.

Image 1.3.                                                                                                                

• Calming Nature

Nature is a powerful resource for lowering anxiety. Green fields, blue sky and still water are well-known signs of calm. Calmness in its initial, clear form. These signs are widely used in marketing communication, especially in the food category, cosmetics and hygiene. The code connotes that the product protects consumers from threats associated with modern technologies (including chemical poisoning).

This code exists in the two main forms. The first is about the origin of a product: an ecologically clean region of Russia, a farm with eco-style production and so on. The second form speaks about one or more natural ingredients within a product.

Both versions are mainly used in branding for female audiences. Within this code, women are portrayed as tender, fragile and beautiful in a classic way.

Signs: green, beige, light-blues and other neutral clean colors; images of plants (flowers, herbs, berries, spices); little cute animals (sheeps, rabbits, birds); slow pace; static images. Text: “bio-…”, “eco-…”, “chemical-free”, “no additives / preservatives / GMO” and etc.

Image 2.1.

• Authority of Science

Although “Science” is not necessarily about protection, the associations with it are often used to communicate safety (“Rexona men – maximum defense”). Science provides safety from failure. It guarantees quality. The choice is supported by data and expert opinion. Scientific protection is advanced, precise and proved.

The code is mainly masculine, as it is based on the rational perception of the world (in the dominant cultural field in Russia rationalism is associated with masculinity – irrationalism and intuition with femininity).

One of the interpretations of the code is futurism – faith in a better, smarter future and new ways to provide security.

Signs: metal colors, smooth surfaces, formulas, figures and charts, micro-elements, scientists and experts, computers and robots, industrial images, futuristic factories and machines. Text: scientific terminology, abbreviations, names of chemical ingredients (Zn).

Image 2.2.

 

• Safety in Traditions

Safety sometimes lies in things proved by experience over several generations, well-known and habitual. Childhood memories, fairy tales, common food and recipes.

The popularity of symbols related to national traditions in culture and in branding has been growing in the recent years. The Russian Federation has a long history, although in its modern form, as a capitalist republic, the country is just about 30 years old. Russia is in search of its national identity.

There are several types of codes within this theme. Each of them idealizes a certain period of Russian history:

• Old Slavic traditions. Living in harmony with nature, brave souls, beautiful people

• Russia of the 19th Classic literature and music, aristocratic life-style

• Early USSR. Despite all the terrible events of the early decades, for many people it was a romantic period which provided several great stories in art – architecture, design, cinema, poetry

• Heroism of USSR in WW2. The nation that defeated fascism is strong and can protect itself in the future

• USSR of 1960s. First man in Space. Rock-n-roll. Retro style. “Thaw” in political system

• Late USSR. Good quality of some products, protected by government standards of production (GOSTs). Order and safety. Taste of childhood

• Present time. Russian soul. Local products.

Sometimes all these types are combined in the same communication campaign, showing the  rich history of the country.

Signs: historical elements, documentary style, stylizations, national symbols (such as birch).

 Image 2.3.

• Supportive Community

Protection may come from those who surround us. In the Russian collectivist culture, it is normal to expect support from family, friends and even from a stranger on the street (but citizens rarely expect help from the state and government).

The code is often used in marketing. Brands are trying to get the role of a friend or create an image of a supporting circle. For example, in the IKEA ad below, a group of strangers came to the NY party. The hosts invited them in friendship and did not show their surprise. Slogan: “Make yourself at home!”

Signs: holding hands, parties or family gatherings, domestic atmosphere (calm light, relaxed poses), friendly smiles and actions of help, support. Text: “always here”, “friends recommend”, “one of us”.

Image 3.1.

• Tender Care

This code is about soft and caring protection, which in Russian culture usually comes from women. Women feature in the majority of ads in pharma, food and household products categories. They are presented as experienced consumers, who know the available options and make the best choice for their families.

It is interesting that women are both the most frequent subjects of care and recipients of it. When brands communicate safety from anxiety through care, they usually show women as the consumer. In the second place – children and older people. Men are represented as recipients of care in the family environment, with children, at home. Very rarely are men shown receiving care in other circumstances.

Signs of caregiver: confident smiles, important, authoritative position in the shot, hugs and kisses. Signs of care receiver: relaxation, happy smile, images of enjoying (product, service). Serenity and calmness.

Image 3.2

 

• Informed Control  All the previous codes contained the idea of controlled consumption and personal responsibility. However, there are branding concepts in which this idea becomes central. The code is rational and it is based on informing consumers about possible threats and giving instructions on how to avoid them (or life hacks).

The theme also concerns the accessibility of information. Constant access to mobile and internet connection is the necessary attribute of safety today. Knowing the sources of trusted information is the way to feel protected in a world when media are full of lies and propaganda. Consumer online forums, recommending services, independent check-ups of products (RosControl company).

Signs: instructions, rules, schemes, long texts, explanations, information about details.

Image 3.3

Conclusions

In the article we described the most visible dominant codes of Protection in Russian marketing communication. These are often used in combination with each other, providing a complex image of safe and reliable brand.

We can see that the prevailing safety and protection themes in Russia tend to be rather patriarchal. Protection usually comes from masculine characters, or products that have masculine elements (the codes “Barrier”, “Tool”, “Hero”, “Science”). However women too can be protective figures (through “Care” or “Nature”) but most of the codes portray women as the recipients of protection.

The source of protection can be in the future or in the past. References to the past are more often used in brand communication in Russia. It seems that Russian marketers perceive technologies and futuristic dreams as great, but as the future is uncertain, they choose the symbols of past achievements and local traditions.

The analysis shown that there are many possible ways for a brand to communicate the meaning of safety, both direct and connotative, and thus help reduce anxiety in Russian society.                      

Footnotes

[1] The revolution of 1905; World War I; the Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of USSR; Civil War, hunger of 20-s; Stalin’s repressions of 1930-s; World War II, during which USSR lost from 20 to 40 million citizens (by different estimates). Pavlov’s money reform of 1960-s, war in Afghanistan in 1980-s. Gorbachev’s Perestroika, leading to the breakdown of USSR in 1991. Economic collapse of the 1990-s.

[2] FOM, Omnibus survey. Sample: 207 cities and villages, 73 regions of Russia, 3000 respondents. http://bd.fom.ru/pdf/d05no2017.pdf

© Maria Papanthymou 2017

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Creolised Fashion

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

 

Creolised fashion: Chanel, ChiChiA, Guinness

I’ve recently become obsessed with gorgeous clothes from a fashion brand remixing African fashion with western elements. ChiChiA presents Tanzanian khanga cloth with an East London edge: rips, tailored and boxy shapes. The clothes are glorious – and their marketing reminded me of Guinness’ 2014 ‘sapeurs’ ad, featuring Congolese men who compete to be the most snappily dressed in smartly tailored suits. ChiChiA’s work made me realise just what worked about Guinness’ ad, and gain insight into the dividing line between cultural homage and cultural appropriation.

okayafrica1

The difference between fashion and costume is incomprehensibility. If an outfit is full of recognisable signs pointing to a single meaning, it is costume, with a meaning clear enough to take over the wearer and erase her. If its signs clash, it isn’t immediately comprehensible to anyone except the wearer – and it’s fashion.

A full skirt worn with peeptoe heels, a twinset and hairbow is a fifties costume; a full skirt worn with a leather crop-top is fashion.

This dependence on mixed signs is similar to creolisation, in which associations from multiple heritages combine to create a cultural fusion defining itself spatially instead of historically: a country, city, or in the case of fashion, a human body.

Desirable modern personalities are often creolised: either literally, as in the desirability of ethnically mixed bodies in culture (think Rihanna with her green eyes, Chrissy Teigen or African-American albino model Shaun Ross), or in their awareness of many different cultures and aesthetics. A lack of easy comprehensibility forces attention to the person who is the site of creolisation, giving them the authenticity of fashion rather than costume.

fashionista1

Brands often aim to demonstrate creolisation, and land at cultural borrowing. One of the most woeful examples is Chanel, which tried to remix the traditional feathered Native American headdress as a symbol of ‘craftsmanship’ in 2013, and was confronted with near-universal accusations of racism and appropriation. Ultimately, Chanel’s whole show was associated with the ‘basic bitch’, a white girl wearing Native American headdresses to festivals: someone who clings to signs which are both hollow and obviously comprehensible.

This self-presentation lacks cool because it lacks incomprehensibility. The individual basic bitch is not a space where fashion and personality are created, but a wearer of borrowed costume: on a non-Native American, the headdress is a loud failure to be fashion, and a less resilient or smaller brand than Chanel couldn’t have recovered from it.

telegraph1

ChiChiA escapes inauthenticity because its non-western influences come from the designer/founder’s own heritage, in contrast with Chanel’s, but that isn’t all; Guinness’ Irish roots couldn’t be less relevant to the Congo, and their ad was still well-received, seen as expanding rather than devaluing the drink brand. What works is that these brands are reflecting already-creolised cultures: sapeur fashion arises from a long history of cultural crossover, and ChiChiA evokes London’s status as one of the world’s most powerful creolising societies.

In both examples, signs from different cultures are translated by and into each other in fashion, as in creolisation. Elements which resist translation come to signify their own origins, often over and above their original culture-specific meanings.

ChiChiA’s marketing towards creolised cultures, as well as around them, is reflected in its founder’s summary of Tanzanian-heritage women’s reactions to her fashion: ‘You wear a khanga at home to clean the house, not to a party.’ That’s why she doesn’t make khangas: she mixes the khanga cloth with western structures like crop tops, shoulderpads and pencil skirts. Sapeur fashion also mixes classic European tailoring with bright African colours, making the resulting outfit an embodied assertion of creolisation. Creolisation’s ability to give khanga the higher-level sign of Tanzanian-ness, and erase its culture-specific meaning of casualness, is like the three-piece suit’s ability to signify European-ness rather than stuffy formality when worn, in bright colours, in the Congo.

These jostled signs, creolised into incomprehension, are the type of existing cultural interaction that brands can borrow from without accusations of appropriation. Guinness’ sapeur association isn’t a borrowing of an untranslated sign; it’s associating Guinness with creolisation itself.

Black creolisation

 For an example of larger-scale marketing towards rather than around creolisation, we can look at Guinness’ post-sapeur Africa campaign, Made Of Black, which figures blackness as creolisation itself.

This definition is common among African-Americans, whose culture is arguably the most successful of the 20th century. Made Of Black’s flagship ad uses Kanye West’s ‘Black Skinhead’ as soundtrack, a song whose title’s creolisation is so tense that it’s almost an oxymoron, associating a punk movement with strong white supremacist undertones with black power. The song includes lyrics in praise of the main driver of literal creolisation, interracial sex, and is also a valorisation of a culture defined as ‘black’ but in fact creolised; a distinction which becomes more obvious when African-American cultural signs are positioned beside un-American African signs in Guinness’ video.

guinness1

Guinness positions its ‘blackness’ as necessarily polyphonic, presenting many different African celebrities in the ad. It also includes multiple bright colours on the face of a black model, and mixtures of various African, European and African-American influences – such as breakdancers against a background of north African/ Arabic-inspired prints. This combination invites Africans to identify themselves with the creolisation of African-Americans,positioning such creolisation as desirable: an aim with obvious benefits to a European product trying to become an important element in African cultures.

But Guinness’ blackness is not only ethnic. The ad points to ‘black’ as a ‘mindset’ or ‘attitude’ incorporating diversity, cultural rebellion and the site of fashionable identity mixing, pulling on cultural connotations of black as the colour into which all colour dissolves. This positioning of blackness as a space where many diverse associations meet has been prefigured by rappers playing with the concept of blackness. For instance, in Jay Z’s ‘Run This Town’ video, the “all black everything” lyric and aesthetic refer to clothing as well as ethnicity; to the anarchists using black as a symbol of countercultural freedom and the fashionistas using it as noncommittal catchall chic, as well as the immediate meaning of negritude or black power.

 Black as creolised space is a very powerful association. But Guinness’ discussion of blackness is made tense by its uncertain positioning of creolisation. The beer’s blackness is simultaneously portrayed as already creolised, a space where various cultures have found a home; and at the same time, allied to the extremely broad space of Africa and its multiple non-creolised cultures.

This causes uneasiness: is Guinness a site, like ChiChiA, or an element?

And that tension may be the cause of the ad’s mixed reception, as Africans remain unsure who is being ‘made’ in its tagline. Is Guinness paying homage to the role of black or African drinkers in creating its brand, or are they being encouraged to pay homage to its role in their racial/ cultural identity?

Power lines are the faultlines in any society, but especially so in creolised cultures, built at the same time by and in resistance to colonising elements. ChiChiA’s founder can own creolisation as a black woman in a way that is politically problematic for Guinness to use as a European brand. The campaign’s success will test and be tested by the extent to which Guinness is already embedded in the African cultures that ‘Made of Black’ targets.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

Who Are We?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Kapoor & Sons caught everyone by surprise. It is not a conventional blockbuster and yet Facebook was awash with friends recommending it to friends to catch it next Friday. Beyond the feel good family saga is there a hidden societal anxiety it inadvertently hints at?

One might say that along with Dil Dhadakne Do it is ushering in cinema that explores the dysfunctional family; a counter point to the era of ‘hum saath saath hain’ (‘we are together’, ed.) families. Both these films penetrate the happy façade and reveal troubling conversations around incompatibility, unfaithfulness, sexual preferences etc. But there may be a little more to Kapoor & Sons than just that.

The film’s climax is moving. The family photograph that the ageing patriarch was longing for finally gets captured. This is the high point of the film, the emotional reward for the viewers as they liberally cry into their tissues and hankies; tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.

One could argue that the grandfather is the real ‘hero’ of the movie and it is his striving to have a family photograph of Kapoor & Sons that holds a mirror to the unconscious societal yearning today: the desire to craft an ‘heirloom’ in these times that impede the historicization of our lives.

kapoor-sons

The photo studios are near dead, the yellowing ancestral photo frames on the wall are disappearing from our homes and even the idea of the photograph itself is changing.

Up until the 90s, the photograph was solely a physical, palpable object. As it creased and wrinkled and faded and changed colors, it was like rings on a tree trunk, it told us the era of its origin. It was a hand-held time travel device. In one glance it showed us the passage of time. It. It told us where we were and where we had reached today. It was a marker of our social identity as much as it was of our happy moments. Photographs were taken on key momentous occasions and they told the story of our lives, the milestones of our life were mapped in these photographs.

The weight and significance of our photos has emptied out today, as we endlessly take ‘selfies’ and ‘wefies’ with our phones and upload them on Facebook or our social media home of choice. We take so many pictures, that it becomes a virtual live streaming of our life. Our real self is converted into its digital equivalent at rapid intervals. Our pictures are a representation of our ‘present continuous’.

Today updating is of more importance than history. We display our individual metamorphosis as we flow in the liquid river of time, but we hardly ever preserve our collective history. And apps like Snapchat go one step further and erase the past altogether, it is a capture of our ‘now’; the way we existed for a fleeting moment, and then it is gone.

Today the ideas of heritage and lineage are vanishing with the decline and breakdown of traditional family structures. Families meet probably once or twice a year around ceremonies of birth, marriage and death. Identity increasingly resides in the individual and not the grand collective.

The family photograph’s job is to stand against this evaporation of our family history and the rise of constantly morphing, transient individuality. The family photograph becomes a tangible possession, an attempt to solidify a moment, to freeze it and cast our collective identity into a solid photo frame. It becomes like a plaque or a bust that can withstand the vagaries of time. It concretizes our family heritage.

With the family photograph we are instantly framed in our Khandaan (‘family’ in Urdu, ed.). It instantly creates an institution. The family photograph’s quest today is to answer ‘who are we?’. It is an attempt to create a tiny bastion of our familial identity within the shifting sands of time where nothing permanent will take root.

‘Kapoor & Sons’ would typically be the name given to a family business in the good old days, when one was able to visualize one’s succeeding heirs well into the future. Today where no one knows what tomorrow will bring, the movie Kapoor & Sons urges us to capture and commemorate our family, our little Khandaan, no matter how imperfect the individuals in the unit may be. It knows that our family photograph is just what we may need by our bedside, as we journey into the future unknown.

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Creme Eggs

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Creme Eggs and the Subjectivity of Childishness

Winner of Semionaut New Writers Award 2016

Crème Egg wrappers dissolve luxury codes – the sparkle of foil, the personalisation of variable wrapping, the red and purple power colours – into luxury chocolate’s traditional liquidity paradigm. Crème Eggs are the only popular adults’ single-serving chocolate, available casually and as an individual product in a way that luxury boxed chocolates aren’t, and differing from bars because they can’t be shared, divided or saved for later. Through looking at Crème Eggs’ technique for making adults choose this single luxury serving of chocolate each year, we can find out about the liquidity paradigm’s modern applicability to the subjectivity of childhood, rather than that of female sexuality.

Creme Egg 1

Nostalgia is culturally treacherous, due to its easy slipping point into twee and the difficulty of cross-generational appeal, but childishness in its free-flowing subjectivity is always appealing. Crème Egg’s erratically folded foil and the yellow ‘splat’ – looking, as it flows over the egg’s curves, more like a spill – invites adults to assume the vision of a child who doesn’t know it is an object. In millennial terms, this is a break from ‘adulting’, a verb which openly opposes the performance of adulthood to the real, subjective self of childhood.

Culturally, the freedom of childhood is closely linked to Easter feelings of renewal. The three-month period of Crème Egg availability, like the Lenten period, mimics the pregnancy preceding the springtime rebirth of the year: a dynamic acknowledged by both Christianity and the pagan religions whose springtime rebirth celebrations it assimilated. So it’s fitting that the Crème Egg prompts associations with childhood and interiority, linking it in British minds not just with childhood Easter celebrations and holiday, but with these older, more primal senses of the rebirth of the year.

Subjectivity

Flake 1

Women are often encouraged to dissolve their everyday selves into melting chocolate imagery, entering a Cixous-inspired world of liquid, sensual subjectivity. Taste is more subjective and so more private than sight or hearing, which can be reproduced and shared by machines such as cameras or sound recorders. The privacy of taste is the secondary connotation of the typical closing of a woman’s eyes as she tastes the chocolate (with the first connotation being, of course, orgasm).

This sensuality is coded as sexual, but even as the ad presents the woman to external gaze, it insists by focussing on taste that the chocolate is allowing subjectivity. The female sexuality in chocolate adverts, though displayed, isn’t purchasable by men as many brand portrayals of female sexuality are. Rather, its transcendence is so focussed on women’s subjective experience that any chocolate brand wishing to target men must explicitly and aggressively position itself as male: in the simplest form, Yorkie is declared ‘Not for girls!’

Crème Egg’s invitation to transcendence extends to both sexes, but otherwise follows the subjectivity model. Minimal packaging reiterates the egg shape, which acts as a pointer towards a single person’s mouth (it’s impossible to eat a Crème Egg broad end first). Easily cupped in the hand, this shape gives a sense of almost weaponised purpose, borrowing from bullets and grenades. The invitation to the subjective is deepened by the variability in packaging which comes from wrapping an asymmetric egg in a rectangle of foil: it’s possible to select your egg with mostly yellow, red, purple or logo showing, according to your preference. And the non-uniform folds make the eater shy away from the ritualised process of (for example) untwisting a Lindor twist, in favour of a personalised process according to the trajectory of the wrapper of the specific Crème Egg chosen. The wavering line of the wrapper signifies the messy, fluid boundary between egg and world, or egg and mouth.

Fluid identity and pre-digital childhood

Crème Eggs offer a childish space valorised by luxury codes, not a luxury space with childish accents. This order of associations is reinforced by the anchoring logo, whose position across the lower, broader curve of the egg pushes the modern, lower-case, printed crème egg logo out further than the more traditionally luxurious handwritten Cadbury’s logo. But Cadbury’s 19th century associations are nonetheless an important part of Crème Egg’s childishness offer.

The 21st century exchange of purple for blue quirked the childish primary triumvirate on the Crème Egg packaging. It also emphasised retro luxury. Cadbury has never reacted to the post-industrial-dye devaluation of purple, which is a bold, traditional luxury signifier (as is red, to a lesser extent). These colours are pre-postmodern and non-ironic, from a time before one-note elegance became desirable. This retro flamboyance also calls on a strong, particularly millennial, association of bold childishness with freedom from the single objective self.

In an act of cultural mimesis echoing recapitulation theory, the pre-digital self often represents the childish self – gloriously subjective and fluid. Steampunk is the clearest expression of this cultural association, but it’s also seen in the adoption of over-the-top hipster disguises (most obviously Victorian-style beards) among millennials.

For a certain generation which includes myself, the pre-digital world and childhood are literally the same era, but that isn’t the only reason why subjective freedom, pre-digital culture, and childhood are allied for us. Childish games of disguise and dissolution are the target of cultural hunger for a pre-internet world in the minds of people whose digital personas are fixed and tracked by everyone from school friends to advertisers. In Crème Egg packaging we see how childhood fluid subjectivity mingles with the hunger for pre-digital subjectivity, using bold colour codes which are at once retro and toddler-like.

The wrapper’s white line, dividing the 19th century red and purple, suggests the separations and enforced categorisations of everyday life. But Crème Egg eaters aren’t encouraged to think about the quirkiness or ‘wackiness’ lying in this liminal line, as they are in many products promoting childishness in adults. Rather, the liquid freedom of childhood obliterates categories and liminality at the same time (as the yellow splat and logo override the white line on the egg wrapper), inviting the eater to ride roughshod over the entirety of the objective world. This letting-go, coded as childish by other signifiers, makes the Crème Egg a space of release – pre-digital, pre-adult, and fluid – for all.

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Mortal Archetypology

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

 

This is a second piece drawing on collaborative research, by Peter Rock and Malcolm Evans, into current cultural representations around ageing and mortality. An overview of this research will be presented at Semiofest in Tallinn which, with preliminaries and postscripts, runs from June 1 to 42016. (Editor)

We turned to archetypes to structure Age Hive, our database for gathering and tagging input globally on ageing, mortality, the 55+ market – moving back now on occasions to 50+, fifty being what advertisers and marketers seem to regard as a cut-off moment, the point of no return, a rite of passage into the Twilight Zone. Archetypes, like the great global brands, have the advantage of purporting to a kind of universality and combining real psychological and experiential substance with rich symbolism. They also have strong rational and emotional dimensions.

Having spent my early years in applied brand semiotics telling people it had nothing to do with archetypes, being rooted more in cultural materialism than the collective unconscious, I thank former Semionaut contributor Michael Colton for updating my thinking on their usefulness and recommending that I read Archetypes Revisited by Anthony Stevens.

MortalArchetypes

Age Hive starts as a semiotic square, with each quadrant divided into spaces occupied by two archetypes, then with each of the remaining four archetypes located on the cusps of two quadrants, at N, S, E and W positions. Within each archetypal space there are areas dealing with: death, end of life, ageing , flavours of mortality; spirituality and religion; community, gender, ethnicity and social class markers; implications for different brand categories; tonality, look & feel; and geographical markers of continent, country, region.  Thus the accumulating corpus gets structured thematically as each new addition arrives and is tagged (it is also slotted into a time frame).  From the hundreds of archetypes identified by Jung, the marketing community seems by and large to have agreed on 12 and these are the ones we are happy to use as a kind of lingua franca.

There follows below a rapid fire illustration of the 12 archetypes using personalities who caught our attention, from a UK point of view but also range more widely.  For individuals with a public profile (like hieroglyphs combining plural meanings), as for brands, there is always more than one archetype at play in cultural signification.  In the examples that follow we have selected, from the potential alternatives, one key archetypal indentification which tells us something interesting about how each figure plays in his or her current cultural context.

For a light-hearted ideation session around archetypes (you have to take a break from, or within, mortality every once in a while), we also broke briefly and digressively from the Age Hive semiotic square, adopting as an experimental model for the archetypes, and in honour of Claudio Ranieri (64), his winning 4 – 4 – 2 team formation at Leicester City (with one of the 2 as definite front man).   Ranieri led Leicester to victory in the 2015-16 Premiership at odds of 5000 to 1 (odds at the time for the Loch Ness Monster’s existence being proved were 500-1, and for Elvis turning up alive 2000-1).

Archetypes442
So going row by row, left to right from the back. Just to be clear, these are illustrative instantiations in a time and a place, not the archetypes themselves:

CAREGIVER: Papa Francisco. The goalkeeper is last line of defence, the one who ultimately pays for the sins of others.  Jesus would have been a goalkeeper. Francis is a Caregiver because he’s a man of the people and looks after the poor. In the language of UK football commentators, he has taken a couple of knocks lately as head of the Catholic Church, which has been getting some stick in the press and in cinema.  So we have Judi Dench and the real Philomena, brave mother and victim of the brutality Irish nuns, together on the subs bench ready to take over if Francis, like Pope Ratzinger last season, finds he can’t last the full 90 minutes.

INNOCENT: Jae Rhim Lee, artist and burial innovator, who created and models a mushroom suit you can be buried in. This special species of mushroom digests you so you become quickly and harmlessly one with nature. Burial and cremation, of course, raise issues of enormous environmental significance. There is a definite ‘performance’ dimension to Jae Rhim Lee though.  She might well be a Death Café-style hipster talking-point, and is a second cousin to the group Peter Rock refers to as the Divas (see JESTER below).

LEADER: Angela Merkel.  Solid, uncontroversial (with sincere apologies to the people of Greece), clearly represents some culturally female values (ditto) but can make difficult decisions – so Leader rather than the classic Caregiver maternal role.  This is neither the time nor the place to say anything about Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton.

MAGICIAN: Claudio Ranieri.  Could have been Leader or Caregiver (he would bring pizza in for the players, and missed part of a big team occasion for his mother’s 90th birthday). Magician because that role is part scientist (Leicester’s success was rationally grounded on data and great-value player acquisition) and part alchemist, realizing the gold in what received wisdom regards as base metal.

SAGE: Wilko Johnson.  If you haven’t already, you have to see the sublime 2015 film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. Connects with one of our database codes Dead Man Walking, i.e. making a career out of being at death’s door and talking about it.  The role in UK was occupied previously by Clive James who talked for years about the experience of dying while stubbornly remaining alive (he still is at the time of writing).  Wilko, who made a career initially with Dr Feelgood as a to-all-appearances psychotic pub band-style guitarist – a Canvey Island boy without language – turns out in the film to be phenomenally wise and articulate on life, death and mortality, speaking from memory long passages of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost and (in the original) Old Icelandic sagas. For intellect and sagacity, Wilko blows Clive James and the effete Oxbridge brigade out of the water. Purest joy and inspiration. Perfect for the back four as well since he looks like the younger brother of West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic. Wilko is also the executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones.

EXPLORER: Sir David Attenborough, naturalist, documentary maker over many decades, environmentalist, English national treasure.  Developed a distinctive style of commentary by listening to his actor brother Richard Attenborough perform Shakespeare. The secret sensory musical underpinning of David Attenborough’s success is that he talks about nature in Shakespearean blank verse.

CREATOR: AKA the artist. Could have been David Bowie but we selected Jenny Diski so the team’s perfectly balanced in gender terms. Count them (with the substitutes) – 9 men (including 2 cropped half men counted as 1), 9 women. Jenny Diski was an author. She died last month.  Said in an interview two months pre-death that nobody was interested in her before she was dying and now she couldn’t move for interview requests.  Dead (Wo)Man Walking code – the thinking person’s equivalent of the zombie box set frisson. Jenny Diski’s comment on how these things seem to be panning out today: “Death is really sexy for people.  Death is sexier even than sex.”

OUTLAW: Keith Richards. Say no more. God bless him.  There’s a sign on the wall at the current Rolling Stones exhibition in London, written by Charlie Watts (or maybe Mick Jagger): “ Keith was very loose, he never told anyone what to do” (Thanks for this, Sarah Farrugia)  So not much point then in thinking anything could be gained by giving Keith an AK47 and locking him in a room with Donald Trump (69), Sir Philip Green (64) and Tony Blair (63). Keith’s too big and gracious for that. Even if it was essential, to save the world.  As a general mature later-life principle, don’t just do it. If it’s worth doing you can always do it later.

LOVER: our attacking midfielder and second top goal-scorer, Prince.  Could have been Jester.  In this particular costume (pictured) he’s the prince of intimate emotional intelligence and seduction by giving it all away for free (like nature and divine grace). He’s singing “If I Was Your Girlfriend” in the film of the Sign O’ the Times tour. “If I was your girlfriend/ Would you let me wash your hair/ Could I make you breakfast some time/ Or then, could we just hang out”.  The first words on the last frame of Sign O’ the Times say: IF YOUR BODY GETS TIRED KEEP DANCING ‘CUZ U GOTTA KEEP THE BLOOD FLOWING DOWN 2 YOUR FEET.  “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity. We can be like they are. Don’t fear the Reaper”.

JESTER: La Petite Mort-ician.  @ChickAndTheDead. Qualified mortician. AKA Carla Valentine, curator at Barts Pathology Museum in West Smithfield, London. Carla writes: “I think people are as obsessed with death now as they were in Victorian times. I often organise spooky-themed evening events, from lectures about bodysnatching and famous murders (complete with themed cocktails and food), to baking classes and taxidermy workshops. They’re really popular and I love getting involved. I’ll finish the event at about 9pm, and if I haven’t already eaten I’ll make something like chilli and have a glass of wine before reading and heading to bed at about 11pm. Luckily, I don’t have nightmares.”

HERO(INE): Helen Mirren. Top goalscorer.  Heroism is usually about the first part of life’s journey – heading out, self-assertion, individuating, making one’s mark. As distinct from the return, reintegration, community, spirituality, the Hero perhaps then transforming into Leader, Sage or Magician. Helen Mirren somehow squares that circle.  Mysteriously has it all.  John Fowles wrote “mystery is energy”. Sometimes best let the mystery and the energy be, don’t over-interpret.  One thing’s for sure – it’s not down to any products. It’s in spite of association with anti-ageing.

And finally on the subs bench…

EVERYMAN/EVERWOMAN: The families of Liverpool football supporters killed at the Hillsborough disaster of May 1989.  Who finally received justice after 27 years of fighting to clear the names of loved ones slandered by corrupt and incompetent senior policemen supported by the gutter-press.

At the end of the storm there’s a golden sky. And the sweet silver song of a lark.  Context and embodiment give words a completely different life and resonance.  Here’s Jesper Hoffmeyer quoting Gregory Bateson and commenting: “’The notion that language is made of words is nonsense….it’s all based on the idea that ‘mere’ words exist—and there are none.’ Thus our everyday experiences in interacting with one another linguistically do also, I suppose, largely support the feeling of real communication as something like a smile that breaks through without our knowing”. (Biosemiotics, p.305)

Chronic cynicism isn’t something that automatically comes with experience.  It’s for people who are not so much scared to grow old as scared to grow up. As Harvey Keitel’s character, Mick, says to his old friend Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) in Paolo Sorrentino’s brilliant Youth (2015), a film not so much about ageing as about having grown properly old: “You say emotions are overrated. That’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got”.

Well done, Claudio and the boys and girls. Tight at the back, creative in midfield, penetrating up front.  Just what the doctor ordered. Nessun dorma. Roger Wilko and out. And as the last words on the last frame of Prince’s Sign O’ the Times film say: ALL THANKS 2 GOD and MAY U LIVE 2 SEE THE DAWN.

Walk on, walk on. With hope in your heart.

© Malcolm Evans 2016

Posted in Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Coming of Age

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Malcolm Evans and Peter Rock have been collaborating since September 2015 on a project to database semiotic & cultural data & insight into themes influencing people aged 50+, a demographic with whom advertisers and marketers could profitably improve their communication. This is an initial look at the UK leg of that work in progress.

In March 2013 Sraboni Bhaduri looked, for Semionaut, at changes in representations of older people in Indian advertising. Here we do the same for UK. This comes at a time when popular culture, especially film, is very much involved with themes around ageing and mortality, and a series of high-profile celebrity deaths have prompted a time of reflection. We give below the headlines on the Ageing theme in UK advertising’s Residual (dated), Dominant (mainstream) and more emergent (dynamic, forward-looking) codes – and say more about representative campaigns and executions.

AgeRDE

The Residual codes are partly based on cultural memory and nostalgia: Dame Thora Hird’s ticket to ride on the patriotically-named Churchill Stairlift in the 1990s (how different in her ageing aunty persona from our 2016 dames, Judi & Helen); the forlorn J.R. Hartley haunting second hand bookshops in the 1980s in search of a volume he once wrote on fly fishing, before finding it via Yellow Pages; the Werther’s Original kindly grandfather, updated and professionalized as an older male confectionery chef in the most recent TV execution.

Our example here of how the codes of the past can endure into the present is Michael Parkinson for Sun Life insurance. This plays on an ancient formula in which the older celebrity male twinkles to camera and takes the “If you’re like me…” mature market into his confidence. Parkinson talks directly but discretely about death and how to make provision to avoid inconveniencing those we leave behind. In the past, on these relatively unsophisticated 50+ communications, a free biro might be thrown in at some point as an incentive to respond for the frugal pensioner. This has been updated today to a choice from an attractive range of higher value gifts for anyone who signs up. With the pen, going to anyone who even applies for details, upgraded to a Parker – once a near-luxury marque for this generation. A result all round, one surmises, with Yorkshireman Parkinson (knowing what’s what, calling a spade a spade etc) belying his super-rich status and standing up for the canny consumer.

specsv

The Dominant codes are more complex. Some of that Residual harmlessness and eccentricity lives on – in the comic catatonia modulating to Dionysiac frenzy of the old men and women in the Specsavers Aerobics Instructor ad, for example, and the toe-curling sentimentality of the 2015 John Lewis Christmas ad, which took viewers into the darker area of isolation among UK’s elderly population: “Show someone they’re loved this Christmas”. This ran in parallel with the charity Age Concern’s awareness-raising campaign (“No Friends”) with its ironic Facebook generation echo – and soon-to-emerge connotations of exploiting the vulnerable when press headlines appeared in February 2016 alleging that the energy giant E.ON “paid £6m to Age UK in return for the charity promoting expensive tariffs to pensioners”.

There is a stark contrast in this mainstream area between recent still glamorous endorsers of anti-ageing products (for l’Oreal, Jane Fonda, at the time of writing, is 78, Helen Mirren rapidly approaching 71) and the shambling objectified old geezers in the Barclays Digital Eagles ad about Walking Football. As this game, designed to ensure that the infirm can still compete and have fun, explicitly targets men of 50 and over (young enough for Jane and Dame Helen to be their mums) we have some dissonance here between how 20- or 30-something ad men see their older co-genderists and how the 50+ male nowadays sees himself. This is profoundly stereotypical and non-aspirational mirroring.

Barclayswalk

An older colleague suggested chirpily to me that the walking game should be staged in a Shawshank Redemption-style prison yard where crowds of football lovers now in their eighth year of austerity cheer on the guilty (yet uncannily plucky and somehow sympathetic) bankers, with their balls and chains, as they drag and dribble along. Because they’re worth it. A quick antidote for the agency – watch the first 15 minutes of Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day 2007 reunion concert film (Robert Plant was then 59, Jimmy Page 63, John Paul Jones 62– all on top of their game and some). That’s a bit closer to how the inner wrinkly, as you see him, (AKA a grown-up) likes to see himself. Even next generation drummer Bonzo Jr., currently 49 (June 2016), will qualify for his Walking Football permit soon.

CelebrationDay

More needs to be said about the anti-ageing codes. Keeping a questioning of self-worth on the agenda for women (even by explicitly affirming you are worth it) is at best a questionable activity. Are you planning at any point to suggest overtly to Sir Ian McKellen that he might be worth it? Or maybe Charlie Watts? One of our most insightful critics of these cultural representations wrote recently that the time has come to move on from anti-ageing to pro-ageing. The fact is, if you deconstruct the codes and signifiers of this category carefully enough, that this shift, very subtly, has actually already begun.

The trajectory overall so far is: from gentleness, eccentricity, common sense (with a twinkle); to pathos, humour & ambivalent empowerment, with occasional lapses back into a grotesque objectification that would never pass today in relation to ethnic, religious or gender differences but is still alive and well in the world of ageism. All the more alarming because (unless we are negligent or unlucky) we will, as is not necessarily the case with other forms of diversity and otherness, be there ourselves one day. The apparent ease, culturally, with which one may become a self-hating ageing person, for we all age from the moment we’re born, is just wilfully storing up even bigger problems arising from ignorance and prejudice for ourselves later on. Having reached 80, on his birthday, the late great Acker Bilk said “By the time you get to my age you’re either 80 or you’re dead. And on balance I’d rather be 80”. Obvious but worth saying. Just what mortality said it would do on the tin.

blackstar7
David Bowie, Blackstar

So to the Emergent zone in ads.

Contextually what’s happening, with regard to ageing, in popular culture in UK (and arriving from the US and/or mainland Europe) is amazing. The generation after the first teenagers (the ones who perfected youth culture), the ones who were hippies, mods, rockers, all that, who were the puppet-masters of punk, are now in their late 60s (a magic second coming-of-age decade which shares its name with a magic historical decade) or 70s and… guess what… promise you won’t laugh… ageing and death have become cool. Now who would have guessed the Boomers were going to make that happen? There are some quick tasters in Paolo Sorrentino’s sublime film Youth (starring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda), in The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, in the devastating Still Alice, of course, and in the very private yet transcendentally public death of David Bowie (a brilliant business model – enjoy your post-death royalties from investors up front while you’re alive, then pay them back with knobs on by staging the most charismatic and commercially astute exit in almost two millennia – nice one – you’re definitely worth it, Ziggy!)

And the ad men are beginning to respond with an emerging light-touch mix of wisdom, love, compassion, kindness, integration, strength, the spark of life and shared mortality. A lot to ask, perhaps, but it’s all there when the fear, denial, objectification and stereotyping are suspended and the authentic values of the return half of life’s journey gain expression.

The examples:
DoveGreyHair

Dove celebrates the beauty of grey hair, tapping into a cultural trend, making a point to do so in the context of hair (and people) diversity rather in a cultural ghetto specific to Oldies. Being addressed as a semiotically ‘unmarked’ person (rather than specifically as old, gay, black, Muslim etc) can occasionally be heartening and on the side of life. Then how to showcase perfectly in a branded commercial format the elegant understatement and ever-present latent menace of Harvey Keitel, ironically morphed into a kindliness which allows Direct Line to bring their edgy transposition of Werther’s Original-style warmth and security to the emotionally fraught and inherently uncertain world of car and home insurance.

WonderfulLife

Finally two ads which touch on the highly topical dominion of death, the ever-present, however shadowy at times, elephant in room 50+. IKEA follow the happy memories of a couple, as boosted by love and imagination and as seen more realistically in the family album – and poignantly as the woman, now older, sits with her granddaughter and glances over at the empty chair. A brand which specialises in feet-on-the-ground democratic excellence and understanding life’s transitions just about rescues the execution from the semiotics of non-ironic greetings cards.

FirstChoice2

In The First Choice all-inclusive holidays “Seeker” ad, where the music track (The Who’s 1970 single name-checking the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary – it only reached number 19 in the UK charts so still has freshness and cultural discoverability) is, subtly supported by vintage styling and aura, the only thing that explicitly interpellates UK youth culture’s greatest generation. While an underwater sequence cues in dream imagery, the unconscious, a wandering through one’s personal avatars of male or female, youth, childhood, middle age and what may be to come.

It’s clear from this execution that it doesn’t take a representation of an older person (whether IKEA’s glancing soft-focus emotion or documentary observation of physical decline set off by jaunty comic music Barclays-style) for the 50+ target to empathize and identify. They have a fluid lifetime of those avatars to tap into. And no one can know better the import of this First Choice execution’s joyful, impulsive take on carpe diem. Seize the day, nurture and harvest the time. Don’t always mirror what the sceptic, with a jaundiced unloving eye, sees on the outside. If ever the person inside becomes an old codger, he or she’s already dead. And you’re not going to sell them anything. No one knows better that you have to be mindful, active, fully in the moment. The sound track keeps stopping just before “The Seeker”s punch-line and jump-cutting to later in the song. This is the ad’s lyrical absent presence: “Don’t get to get what I’m after/ Till the day I die”. But you do. You will. You can have it now. It’s already well past the point where you still have to pinch yourself and remember that this is not a rehearsal.

FirstChoice

© Malcolm Evans 2016

With heartfelt thanks to the UK MRS Advanced Semiotics class of May 2016 – Elisabeth Bennett, Sarah Hall, Lyndsay Kelly, Tom Pattison, Laure Payen

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

Network: Marc

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

 

 

Your experiences in education – did you encounter semiotics? If not, what difference do you think such an encounter would have made?

Although not taught as semiotics, there used to be huge focus on textual and visual analysis throughout primary and secondary education in my native Bulgaria. Thinking about it now, it feels like it was often a necessity. Each year, the list of mandatory summer reading books was invariably dominated by authors such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, whose works always inevitably required deeper analysis back in the classroom. The constant nudge to look for the deeper meaning in texts and signs quickly evolved into a favourite pastime. So, when I heard about commercial semiotics as a research methodology, I instantly wanted to know more. Luckily, with the international research I do, I often have the opportunity to use semiotics and those early lessons are certainly coming in useful now.

How does it feel being the first (and currently still only) adopter and main spokesperson for semiotics in a business employing over 100 people? What are your best soundbites for catching colleagues’ attention, encouraging them to get involved in semiotics?  

I’m lucky to have a very supportive network of colleagues who are constantly looking for new ways of enhancing our offer and openly welcome new ideas. When I came back from the semiotics training course, I didn’t expect there would be such an appetite for semiotics in the business, but it quickly transpired that a few colleagues had worked with semioticians in the past and their experiences were overwhelmingly positive, so it wasn’t a difficult sell at all. Looking at where we are as a business now and how our offer is evolving, it makes a lot of sense to integrate semiotics and make it a de facto methodology for certain types of projects.

For those colleagues who are less familiar with semiotics, talking about going beyond the obvious, unlocking deeper insight, and gaining an understanding of how their categories are structured symbolically seems to have particular resonance and stopping power. For those working on international projects, the hook is ‘cultural insight’ and help in understanding the subtle nuances that drive different interpretations, attitudes and behaviours across different cultures.

Elevator pitch – what would you tell a prospective client about semiotics?

The way I see semiotics is as a higher-gear research methodology that can help you quickly get to the nub of the matter and harness emerging trends. Particularly useful if you’re looking to solve long-standing puzzles, find the edge in crowded categories and/or scale a brand internationally.

The picture you have chosen to illustrate this interview – your thoughts about it, why did this come to mind?

I came across this print ad from Hut Weber (German hat manufacturer) fairly recently and thought it beautifully summed up in 2 simple images and 3 words what semiotics is all about, i.e. understanding how subtle signs, which our brains process intuitively, work to change our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours.

Hut Weber

For me, 3 distinctive elements in this comms piece exemplify what semiotics looks at and why it is such a powerful methodology for unlocking fresh insights:

OBJECT: the presence of a simple object – that of a hat – completely changes who we see and what we associate that image with. The hat changes the image of the man from the evil, sadistic Adolph Hitler to the charming, fun-loving Charlie Chaplin. The echo, in the Hitler image, of the cover of Timur Vermes’s satirical novel Er Ist Wieder Da (translated as Look Who’s Back) adds a reflexive twist to this transformation. Vermes’s Hitler, having woken up in Berlin in 2011, reinvents himself as a  TV comedy star.

HISTORY: if this same print ad had aired 100 years ago when both Hitler and Chaplin were 25 years old, but certainly not as well-known as they are today, it wouldn’t have carried the same meaning as it does today.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: looking specifically at how the two images are positioned in relation to each other, we see a positive progression from left to right, which is how the encoder of this message intended us to interpret it knowing that the convention in the Western world is to read from left to right. But this subtlety in interpretation can easily be lost in Arabic or certain Asian cultures for example who don’t read or decode messages in the same way. There’re bound to be some differences and from a research perspective, it’s great to know that this is something semiotics can help with by bringing deep cultural insight to the table.

© Marc Dimitrov 2016

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Homes in India (3)

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

 

Objects and symbols in the Indian home space

Typical objects found with uncanny regularity across homes, trace the strands of the narrative that runs through the idea of home in India. It is a space that belongs to the familial collective rather than to the individual and therefore carries the responsibility of representing the family to the larger collective. As soon as he walks in, the visitor is sure to run into the great Indian ‘showcase.’ It is a glass fronted cabinet which typically contains trophies and medals won by the children, toys evoking memories of their childhood, wedding pictures, fifty year old pictures of parents in the early years of their marriage and sundry objects that represent the bricolage of the family’s pride & joy.

The home belongs to the familial collective and everyone & everything contained in that space is jealously guarded. Guarding against the evil eye and ushering in prosperity is a theme that underlines the divide between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Feng shui Buddha and the Ganesha will sit on the same shelf, united in their endeavour of securing the auspiciousness of the home space.

baby pic in drawing room pg21

There are some decidedly intriguing objects like soft toys, artificial flowers, posters of babies and ingenuous ways to install covers on all kinds of objects that mark Indian homes. What do these things mean? Why are medieval locks sitting alongside modern security measures? Why do plastic chairs find favour in rural homes as well as in modern urban homes? The shift in identity from the familial collective to that of nascent individuality has heralded the idea of décor; but the unique collection of objects still makes it an unmistakably Indian home.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense | No Comments »

Tamasha: the other you inside

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Tamasha, released in November 2015, did only moderately well at the box office. But it got people talking. Underneath all the Mona-Ajit humour and the love story, there is a message in the movie that may be worth digging out and looking at.

It is not the familiar tale of following your dreams. There are plenty of Bollywood fables around the struggle of becoming a cricketer, musician or runner.

Tamasha_(film_poster)

It creates conversation because it is perhaps the only one that conducts a considered exploration of the dilemma between individual and societal identity in India.

For aeons, identity in India has been contiguous in nature. You never imagined your existence independently – still to date, in youth focus groups, ambitions centre on buying a house and car for the parents – the future self was visualized through the lens of family and society.

It was not just a shared identity but a societal identity one had to undertake. You had to cater to a societal ‘idea’ of who you were. You had to choose from a caste system of cookie-cutter identities on offer, doctor, engineer or IAS (soon followed by MBA).

No matter your individual uniqueness, you were obliged to fit into one of these moulds in order to be certified ‘successful’. Each ‘identity’ came with an unwritten code on how to live, talk, and behave. You had to give up your real self once you joined this program.

Everything ‘you’, that did not fit the mould was extruded out to become a ‘hobby’ you were free to practice on a Sunday. ‘Hobby’ was a mechanism to release the ‘abnormal you’, so as not to interfere with your social mobility and societal standing.

Individualism had little space in this struggle for upward mobility. Individualized hairstyles were largely absent. People with weird hair and casual behaviour were in the arts and journalism. They lived as they wanted but we were warned adequately that these people had to struggle all their life.

Meanwhile the exiled, abnormal you would make occasional appearances when it had an opportunity or when society gave permission to be yourself. It would find expression in college festivals or on Holi or at quiz competitions or at a wedding sangeet or at an office cricket league or betting pool.

Tamasha talks about this extruded us, the abnormal us, the ‘other you inside’ that we always carry within. Tamasha is about the bi-polar existence of us. Tamasha is (an exploration and) a calling to get in touch with the real you.

Tamasha is reflective of the changes taking place in Indian society. The technology, economic and business environment is throwing up opportunities that no longer fit the traditional mould. The digitalization of India makes it possible for us to pursue our unique strengths and yet be successful without submitting to any program that robs us from ourselves. The societal and individual identity for once is collapsing and fusing into one. Today it is possible to be successful without giving up on who you really are. Indian youth for the first time have a tremendous opportunity to live out extremely authentic lives, 24X7.

For the first time there is talk of running a race of your own choice rather than running on a track designed by your parents and society. Today it is possible to dream your own dream rather than being a vehicle for playing out a dream handed over to you by your parents and society.

(We see evidence of this blossoming individualism in the mushrooming of hairstyles. Today’s youthful hairstyles of spikes and textures and slashes and cuts, stand up and speak out aloud the individuality of the person sporting it, rather than being helplessly flattened with hair oil to convey conformity. The Indian cricketer’s varied hairstyles are perhaps a good example of this proliferation of individual identities).

Tamasha celebrates this world where this unique madness of ours is worn on our sleeves and we live out the ‘tamasha’ inside us instead of choosing to live a normative life chosen by others. The time is right to let the ‘other you inside’ step out and play and cavort on the stage that is today’s India.

© Subodh Deshpande 2016

See here for Tamasha production details and plot summary.

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

Adele Revisited

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

As we can see in Saturday Night Live’s “A Thanksgiving Miracle” sketch (November 21, 2015), in the United States, Adele has entered the pantheon of iconic showbiz figures — along with Marilyn Monroe, Bill Murray, and Flavor Flav — about whom nothing more need ever be said. She is operating on the astral plane of influence.

 

 

Posted in Americas, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Homes in India (2)

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Editor’s note: Continuing our headlining of an extended cultural and ethnographic study.  To request a copy of the full document please email editorial@semionaut.net or sraboni.bhaduri@futurebrands.co.in

Continuum of the private and the public space:

Traditionally the separation between the private home space and the public space is notional. There is an inherent need to stay embedded within the community network and keep up with each other’s life with a mixture of concern, support and gossip. The home and the immediate area outside the home, peek into each other without any discomfort. Homes are built around a central space like the courtyard onto which the rooms open out, which is structurally true to the notion of seeing and being seen. The idea of privacy is a modern one. Shutting the door is a very loaded act and signifies cutting off from the collective ‘view.’

home2

The threshold as a symbol:

The self extends to a shared community space but at the same time the world outside the home is where the pollutants and the evil influences reside. The sanctity of the home needs to be retrieved from the outside world. The threshold becomes an important structure which marks this separation between the self and the other. The threshold and the main door even in modern homes are heavily decorated and personalized to announce status and ownership, while various devices ward off the evil eye.

home1

Fluidity of spaces:

Within the home, the drawing room continues its dialogue with the community. Showcases stuffed with trophies won by children. Their toys and souvenirs tell the story of the family and all that makes them proud and memories that they hold precious. The other rooms remain tucked away from public view. Modernization manifests itself through the appearance of aesthetics. For the first time, décor has become part of the narrative. The rooms now have boundaries but the separation is still fairly fluid. The fluidity is marked by softness that a curtain offers versus the hard separation of the door. The specialized function of a room remains negotiable so it is not unimaginable to have study table in the living room or to tuck away a bucket under the bed.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

Posted in Asia, Culture, Global Vectors, Making Sense | No Comments »

Hello from the Other Side

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

 

Editor’s note: Adele lives down the road from Semionaut’s secret undersea base near Brighton UK and, for us Brits, she mythically resolves the contradiction between your mate and a stellar talent greater than any who came before her (also author and immaculate vocal interpreter of the best Bond song ever, by some significant distance). Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.  And so on – pick whoever you like. They won’t come close. So it’s refreshing to receive a brave and insightful contribution from the other side of the world, one which has the courage to have a shot at decoding the ‘meaning’ of Adele. For which, many thanks Subodh – our new contributor. Connotations of “the other side” in colloquial English: beyond the grave (look at Adele’s face on the cover of 25, not wanting to start any Abbey Road-type rumours or anything); the opposition, the enemy; across the water (for Brits the Americans on ‘the other side of the pond’); the Other of the primal I-Thou pairing, a founding source of identity – all subjectivity having been intersubjectivity long before neuroscience discovered the mirror neurons; the other side of the end of a relationship, one which thought it would last for ever. We publish this as a conversation opener. Please come back to us. Anyone. Everyone. It’s good to start with a decoding voice from a culture where a man can still use the word ‘frumpy’ without having to resort (as would be necessary for the word to be sayable in the West) to camp archness or ostentatious half-ironic bitchiness – and to do so without pre-emptive fear of gender armageddon from the other side, from those who once made the mistake of caring too much. The house lights dim. Hello, it’s me. Who is speaking? 

Hello from the Other Side: the Meaning in Adele’s Music

Adele’s 25 has become the year’s biggest-selling album in the US, with a record 3.38m copies sold in its first full week of release. She cuts a distinctive figure amidst the female pop stars of today with her unique brand of music. Her heart-broken ballads are heard everywhere from taxi radios to cafes to salons and airport lounges. What makes her unique brand of music so popular?

Adele has often been quoted saying that she strives for a certain effect in her songs, its ability to move her. This tear-inducing quality is the key ingredient of Adele’s music. Adele’s lyrics have a strong universal character. She appears to be narrating our story. She has this operatic ability to convey the tragedy of modern relationships; that makes our hearts ache with reminiscence. Listening to Adele becomes a cathartic act. She creates a new genre of music; she is a ‘Cathartist’.

adele-announces-25-release-date-cover-art

Adele embodies this tragic figure. She comes across as a smiling survivor; bravely carrying on with her life. Her generous figure, ordinarily dressed (sometimes bordering on the frumpy), is very unlike the sleek, glamorous, airbrushed stars. She appears very much the ‘hapless girl’; the one who gets dumped; half expecting the love of her life to turn back.

There is perhaps another function to Adele’s songs. The technology of today erases time and distance and we experiences lives where everything is within immediate reach. Adele’s music negates this and creates a sense of distance and loss. Her music is like a reverse telescope. It manufactures distance: people appear further than they really are. In a world where we are constantly connected, her songs suggest the pain of separation. Today when lives are lived out on Facebook, it is hard to lose touch with people even if you un-friend them, and one often ‘bumps’ inadvertently into ones exes in the digital world. Adele creates a tunnel of nostalgia and wistfulness for us to dive into. Ensconced in her music; our loss appears considerable and significant, as it ought to.

Just as the telephone was this heavy contraption that made our relationships precious by making our loved ones barely audible and out of touch, (The sheer ease of smart phones compresses our world; people appear close at all times) Adele’s songs make us feel a palpable sense of loss in a world where technology with its pervasiveness and immediacy conspires to dilute it. Adele makes us believe that it is in fact a dense wall that separates us from those we once loved and once in a while we can peer across and say hello from the other side.

© Subodh Deshpande 2015

Posted in Asia, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Homes in India (1)

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Editor’s note: Sraboni Bhaduri sent us a fascinating and comprehensively illustrated cultural and ethnographic study of Homes in India that she compiled using materials provided by her colleagues at Futurebrand. This is beyond the scope of what we can publish here but Dr Bhaduri has agreed to summarise key themes for Semionaut. If you would like to see more please email editorial@semionaut.net or sraboni.bhaduri@futurebrands.co.in

HomesIndia

Homes in India

In spite of regional differences, social backgrounds and levels of prosperity, there is a certain unity in the way that homes in India look. What provides ‘homely comfort – a term that is used to characterize essentially what homes should be. What makes a home quintessentially Indian? What does it say about the nature of needs, priorities and social structure? How is this reflected in the way space is used? What are the typical artifacts that unite India in symbolic terms?

A small glimpse of the decode of the home space in India will follow a four part structure:
1. Key codes of homeliness
2. Topography – rooms, external spaces
3. Objects and symbols
4. Modernity

Picture1[1]

Key Codes of Homeliness:

Homes are characterized by a sense of flow. It is a space that does not demand considered thought either by way of arrangement or in the way of being. Spaces are not super specialized by function or designated place for objects. Bedrooms may flow into the living room if grandfather likes to sleep below the window there or shirts may be perpetually draped on the back of the dining room chairs; simply because it is the first available clothes hanger like object one encounters on coming back home from work. The needs and convenience of the inhabitants reign supreme. Spaces and objects follow the flow of life within that space. Untidy trail of objects and the off hand treatment given to aesthetics however needs to be distinguished from cleanliness. Homes are meant to take care of the well being of the family and safety, security and prosperity are the key needs that it caters to.

It is a space that contains and takes the family and the guests into its fold. The doorway is therefore invested with a great deal of significance as it marks the separation between home and outside ; between trust & mistrust; between safety and threat; between prosperity and want. The woman of the house, mostly a mother figure, is the one who is charged with responsibility of translating this. She is the definitely the chief custodian of homeliness.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2015

 

Posted in Asia, Culture, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Emergent Indian Woman

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

One has grown up believing that every Indian woman reflected the Mother/Caregiver archetype. Even if she started out as the Innocent or had a brief stint as the Explorer or even the Rebel, eventually she had to be the Mother. Whether it was biological or metaphorical, in real life or on screen, this was essential for the woman if she had any desire to get her man or to avoid being punished or simply bumped off. On screen, the Bollywood heroines followed this trajectory, reflecting it in the clothes that transited from fashionable to the prescriptive, gracefully draped sari. Transit accomplished, you knew that she was (as she still normally is) going to be shortly rewarded with marriage. Long-suffering was a prefix that came with the territory and all the roles.

Femininity in India has been characterized as soft, gentle and comprehensively embodied in the quintessential blushing bride. She is delicate but with great strength of character and mythic strength to fight and protect. She spanned the unique Madonna – Warrior continuum.

Coming from this space, the emerging archetype is particularly interesting. It has been brought alive on screen most sharply by Alia Bhatt. It is really fresh, so still easier to describe as what it is not. The emerging feminine is chirpy, talkative, ebullient and spirited but she is not Julie Andrews from Sound of Music. She can hang out with the boys, drink them under the table and then crash out at their place and wake up next morning with some shred of doubt whether the boys had the nerve to take advantage of her drunkenness. She is buddy- like but not a tomboy. She is aware of her sexuality and quite eager to explore it but not burdened by morality which has been the traditional tag along for the Indian woman. She is not a rebel and nor is there a sense of celebrating some hard won freedom.

It is femininity that does not reference the masculine. There is some benchmarking against the man in terms of establishing her drinking credentials, in which she has to excel. This of course may be a reflection of the culture’s changing relationship with alcohol which has moved from being the drink of the despondent to being a symbol of partying. In that sense, it is a symbol of her shift from being a careworn dispenser of responsibility to an individual who is entitled to pleasure. However it is not a duel to establish equality or a sneering superiority. She does not mimic the masculine nor does she kick off against it. There are no statements being made and no points being proven here. It is an exciting discovery of territories that were never explored. It may be a playful act of cheating on taboos like checking out a disreputable neighbourhood or a bout of drunken dancing which transits her from the repressed to the expressive.

alia bhatt

She is free-spirited but not a wanderer. She can be materialistic and have dodgy ethical standards without being a gangster or a gangster’s moll. And if it is beginning to sound very evolved, the one on that count is easy. The reference point here is Alia Bhatt who has had some notable blonde moments. Of course the way she dealt with it was in keeping with the easy spirit of this femininity. No denial, no defense, no anger – just self-deprecating humour in form of a video titled ‘Genius of the Year.’ The air around this femininity is light and easy and sunny. It commands respect without the attendant gravitas. So, has the new feminine moved away from the traditional roles & associations?

It is not as though everything is being redefined. There is vulnerability, sentimentality and a desire to engage with all the traditional roles and it is done to the best of one’s ability. There is some striving there. Falling short is met with tears but little self-flagellation. The feminine that went before her is not mocked and nor does she take it upon herself the task of defining a brand new space or reimagining every role afresh. The emergence of this new shade of femininity is marked by a sense of ease and guilelessness. It seems to be easy because it is not burdened by a destination. It is very real because it is a shift and not a transformation. Continuity is maintained with the relational identity that she has always held. The difference is that it still exists, but that it is not what defines her today.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2015

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence | 1 Comment »

Sound & Music Semiotics

Monday, July 6th, 2015

I am embarking on a large project on the semiotics of sound and music. I have been commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau in a project ran by Push Research to create an audio mood board of brand words. As I do so, something has occurred to me about the way music and sound is packaged. Sampling culture in electronic music has enabled packets of affective scripting to be condensed into breaks – this is arguably why hip-hop production has had such an influence, because the crunching beats, moody baselines and scathing guitar riffs are salient but they are also deftly combined with richly daubed musical leitmotifs often conveying exultant triumphalism or a sort of hectoring anguish.

Maximalism

“Maximalism” is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations. In terms of design, it is the opposite of minimalism and the famous Bauhaus Manifesto that pronounced ornamentation a crime and that exalted pared back parsimony. Maximalism in interior design is associated with unusual juxtapositions, opulent shapes, and a greater association with the baroque than with the classical. The irony now of course is that musically we live in a time of both minimalism and maximalism. Philip Glass and his ilk having had a huge influence on ambient music and on advertising too. But what is maximalism? A good example would be the TRON Legacy soundtrack composed by Daft Punk composed in 2009 which combines a full orchestra with synth and drone samples for a hybrid classical trance house soundscape.

Is the definition given by this reviewer in Pitchfork magazine: “the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty.” For me, the exemplars would include artists such as Rustie and Hudson Mohawke and potentially artists such as Black Moth Rainbow and Genghis Tron in its more thrash metal iterations. In classical or romantic music you would associate it with Mahler and Beethoven, lush, bombastic, majestic symphonies. And perhaps even a Richard Strauss.

Synths and the potential for layering music in production means that lushness of music can be continually added to, like thickening the fibrousness of palms in a jungle by continually adding new threads to the fibre. Music production software packages like Logic allows us to create a new track at whim.

In hip-hop too, much production favours the use of heavy strings, synths and a wall of sound, designed to heighten the tension, sense of alienation or odds. Certainly when we compare it to the stripped down beats of the mid 1980s.

This surfeit of semiotic resources, may not be a bad thing; not an accursed share but I do think it’s popularity and catchiness to the ear does owe something to the notion of Supernormal Stimuli. This is the theory stemming from the work of ethnologist Tingerben as developed by cognitive scientists.

Maximalism is the musical equivalent of a sherbet fountain, a mouthful of Cheesy Wotsits (that’s a rather arcane UK reference) or a vast arcade of instantly viewable porn MPGs or a chromophiliac colour monkey on LSD.

Maximalism has also been called Purple to describe just these synaesthesic qualities of the music – the music is so luscious you can almost cuddle it.

Physiologically, we are easily habituated to get accustomed to a threshold of stimulation and pleasure and the threshold can be permanently recalibrated by continued over stimulation our pleasure centres can be easily overwhelmed and this is arguably what much music does.  Our dopamine, serotonin and opioids.

What culturally does it mean? Is this just about the human predilection for both possibility and excess in music production (simply because we CAN do it, we SHOULD), is it just a function of the UK’s fecund underground urban music scene, or is it somehow connected to a deeper chord of ideological note? Well, Slavoj Zizek indicated in Living in the End Times the notion of neo-liberalist capitalism built on eradicating the superego.  So totalitarian injunctions against transgression have been replaced by a tyranny of permissiveness, the injunction to enjoy, consume, acquire become normative. To be hedonistic with a hedge fund spunking money created in a casino and to blow it on cocaine, crystal meth or prostitutes; go on a spree, a binge, a bender is encouraged. Frugality in consumption and to renounce is to be a pariah or at least enemy of consumerist capitalism. Isn’t Maximalism in music then an anthem for a mythical ideology? In prodigal times celebrated by those who have and craved by those who don’t.

For me the apotheosis of maximalism is Hudson Mohawke’s Fuse. Listen here:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkWmB9NIg4U

For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:

 http://www.dummymag.com/features/the-dummy-guide-to-purple

© Chris Arning 2015

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | No Comments »

The New Guernica of Glasgee?

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

If only most brand collaborations could be as harmonious: Louis Vuitton and Takeshi Murakami; Adidas and Yohji Yamamoto have got nothing on this. David Shrigley’s deformed, hobbled, malnourished sometimes barely human stick figures are some of the most disturbing characters in British art. Shrigley has been commissioned to create the new crest and mascot for Glasgow based Scottish Premier League team Partick Thistle. It seems to be part of the club’s re-positioning towards ‘not so cuddly anymore’ designed to roll back the perception of Partick Thistle FC as harmless or lacking bite.

Shrigley

The Spanish have the word ‘morbo’ (needle) to sum up the rancorous dialectic between opposition clubs that ranges from antagonism to pure hatred – the rivalry between a Real Madrid and Barcelona for example that partly stems from Castilian hegemony and Catalunian autonomy. The exaltation in the pain of one’s nemesis team (for example being relegated), the schadenfreude of watching teams snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the bitchery on football forums, the exquisite cruelty of football chants. The fact that Crystal Palace fans reveled in the demise of Liverpool two seasons ago because the Heysel stadium disaster had denied them a place in Europe back in 1986! Gary Neville screaming like a pterodactyl at Liverpool fans after a win. I’ll never forget the middle aged female Aston Villa fan – probably delightful outside the footballing context – her face contorted with hateful bile making ‘wanker’ signs as she filed out of White Hart Lane; having been pegged back to 4-4. This all typifies British football.

David Shrigley’s art perfectly complements this ethos. Shrigley’s work is Beavis & Butthead meets Francis Bacon. It is both the adolescent scrawlings in the cubicles of public toilets and the sadistic, existential cruelty of the thwarted adult. A son eviscerating his son for no reason, figures being tortured, barely human creations muddling along in pointless situations, a sort of fake jollity, nonsense creations, logical paradoxes and non sequiturs, as well as just celebrating crapness. David Shrigley, like band Half Man, Half Biscuit in the realm of music (National Shite Day) Shrigley celebrates British (even if not English) cynicism, apathy, bodginess, underachievement and stubborn individualism. This is a cry of anguish from the North – the Guernica of suffering for the long suffering football fan in a custard splodge. This is Millwall’s chant of ‘no-one likes us, we don’t care’ – it is a visual Poznan turning its back on the heraldic propriety of the football club crest.

All that pain and revelling in forever the underdog and the outsider – I can’t think of any image better to represent it. Just as Yoshitomo Nara’s frowning girl represents the disappointed kid in every Japanese salaryman, David Shrigley’s figures represent the grumpy, cynical, snarking, dissenting Brit.

There is something gloriously subversive about this yellow figure and it is a code breaker because it looks intentionally characterful and satirical amongst the faux Disney naffness of football club mascots: shit looking lions, lame dogs, unconvincing roosters; a whole menagerie of plodding, slightly embarrassing, anthropomorphically botched figures that saunter onto the middle of the stadium at half time and half heartedly beckon to the crowd during the game. And there is something genuinely intimidating  about the Kingsley figure too which recommends him (if indeed it is a he), for intimidating the opposition perhaps brandishing a huge can of Irn Bru!

So it seems, everyone’s a winner. Shrigley as Partick Thistle fan gets one of his awkward, slightly obnoxious looking creations onto a football field and Partick Thistle benefit from the dark humour, snarkiness and sardonic perspective that sums up British football culture! Except that some PT fans apparently hate the logo. Some, we imagine might now resemble Kingsley!

© Chris Arning 2015

Posted in Art & Design, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  In this context, post-communist Bulgaria met the date with a brand new generation blind to the past, as well as with an economy and society connected with the Western world more than ever before. A reputable sociological agency (Alfa Research Ltd, Nov. 2014), however, published a report that aroused the spirits.  It showed that more than 50% of the sample expressed a clear nostalgia for the ‘old times’, caused mostly by being tired of waiting for some ‘better future’ which never happens.

Taking a look back at the history, the first elections after the changes – those in mid-1990 – were won by the Bulgarian socialists, the nearest heirs of the former communist party. That made Bulgaria the only country among the others from the former socialist block giving the power to the same body of politicians as before November 1989. Moreover, it revealed that obviously the ordinary people had not been prepared for these significant changes, as had happened in most other central European countries, either in terms of institutions or everyday life.  People tried to maintain the status quo probably because they didn’t know anything else as a political program at that time, except for some vague idea of privatised economy – and the future seemed too unclear.

The data in the report also demonstrated that a positive attitude towards the former communist leader, previously an object of comedy and of fear, increased threefold between 1991 and 2014. The sectors showing remarkable decline during the transition period were health, education, and security systems as well as the economy in general. Only the freedom of the media and infrastructure improvements were perceived as positive outcomes of the new political and economic direction. Generally speaking, exactly half of the respondents, both from the left and the right wings of the political spectrum, considered the transition period so far as unsuccessful.

All the findings in the report in question were more than curious and in cultural perspective it seemed useful to put Lotmanian semiotics into action (also known as the concept of the semiosphere) to try to reveal how the former socio-economic regime in Bulgaria and the way of living attached to it are presented in the cultural landscape of today. In brief, leading principles of the model include the dynamics within the system which bring about asymmetry and some kind of a constant (collective) memory play. Its main elements are the core of the dominant cultural paradigm (grammar) and periphery (or the sum of weaker, subordinate fields in the cultural system). Since in the first decade of post-socialism no new strong ideological center appeared and the logical outcomes were were the disunion in local culture (values, heroes, goals, aesthetics, etc.) and a constant collision between the peripheral zones, on the one hand, and a need to re-read the near past on the other. At the same time the boundary (i.e. borders of the semiosphere) was too permeable, and  thus it supported not one new core formation but, rather, several different potential formations – which rendered the system as a whole unstable.

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

Front page of Communist party newspaper, from late 1979, woven into urban lifestyle bag.

Nowadays the set of sign systems created within Bulgarian socialism – especially in its late period – lives a new life in various forms, in various places, bearing some new meanings which represent it as a semi-imaginary/semi-real cultural construction. The complex and simultaneously obscure system of meanings and influences of this heritage could be ‘read’ in different pop-cultural visual, musical, architectural and verbal texts – literature, music, films and even bars/restaurants. The elders may perceive the pop-cultural referencing of socialism as offensive and partial, while the youngsters have highly mediated impressions of it. In their eyes it is a set of texts which seem more like a mosaic resulting in a form of fairy-tale of how the anachronistic evil got beaten by the progressive part of the people and the logic of freedom of choice, speech and consumption took over.

Alongside some retrospective commentary web-sites (for instance http://socbg.com/) in the capital Sofia recently have popped up places like rakia bar Raketa” (=Rocket), its  interior stocked with emblematic products from socialist every day life (even a vacuum clearer) and the Museum of socialistic art, which collected political signs, small monuments and other propaganda artifacts. In this perspective socialism may be seen as a good business/marketing tool, recycling material culture from that time – which may still be sourced relatively easily which is partly why it can connote authenticity) in a harmless and strongly contextualized ambience (see the illustration). The past is displayed as stripped back to essentials.

Eventually, some paradoxes do become apparent in the social-cultural mix. Parts of the population do not want to remember Socialism at all, while a lot of people want it back, even if not exactly in its previous reality. But for those who barely knew it, socialism comes back via its material and commercial face (we could add here T-shirts with signs such as ‘USSR’ and ‘KGB’ on them as well).

This case is an example of how old cultural texts can come back re-coded (from the periphery) and demonstrates how tricky the culture, in terms of ‘common memory’, actually is.  Culture, just like its non-semiotic opposition – Nature, does not support empty spaces, except for perhaps some some thinner zones from time to time. When certain myths disappear they should be replaced, otherwise history come back through a boomerang effect in different and very often crooked forms.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | No Comments »

Linguistic localization of cross cultural foods

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

In an October 10th BBC article about the artist Alex Chinneck, the writer refers to an art piece as being located in a “London Piazza”.  The sentence gave me some pause, largely because I agree with the sentiment of the American author Alfred Bester when he said “for me, there are no synonyms”.  What was it about the place mentioned in the BBC article that makes it a piazza, and not a square?  In turn, how would one differentiate a square from a plaza?  That word was so long ago reappropriated into the English language that it appears all but divorced from its original Spanish roots..

But this isn’t mere nit-picking of writers and their euphemistic language.  Over the past decade or so the United States has inserted two other words into its collective lexicon; Paninis and Gelato.  Here there is room for even larger reflection; for these two words do have rough equivalents (or perhaps we can simply say synonyms) in the English language.  Namely, Gelato had for many years prior been called Ice Cream, while Panini had for likely as long been called sandwiches.  But ask anyone on the street and they will passionately proselytize that the one thing is not like the other.  Gelato, people will claim, is as separate a product from Ice Cream as Paninis are from sandwiches, and thus a distinction is necessary.  The inverse does not always occur.  Italian tourists visiting the US, speaking among themselves in Italian, would feel no need to code-switch into English if they stopped off for some ice cream.  For them, the product they purchased in the US is merely a regional variant of what they know from back in Italy, and no real distinction needs to be made.  And this begs the questions of where such distinctions, if necessary at all, come from.

Panini

One of these things is not like the others: tramezzini (top), porchetta panini (middle), American Panini (bottom).

The biggest problem with this seems to be from confusing a very generic term for a very specific one.  In Italian the noun gelato takes its name from the adjective for frozen, from the past participle of the verb gelare, and refers to any variety or the snack anglophones would call ice cream.  To say, as certain proselytizers in other parts of the world might, that to be considered gelato the product must stand to the rigor of being organic, or made with whole milk, or churned at a certain speed or at certain temperatures, is in a respect denying the monumental variation of the product you find in Italy itself.

Most products do not going under the incredible rigor of control that pharmaceuticals suffer from, where if something is to be called Aspirin it must have certain properties in certain quantities, or you will not be allowed to market it as such.  Instead, as with any other product going under any other generic label, you find a massive variety from seller to seller.  Were one to go from place to place in Italy, stopping for gelato at every occasion (recalling that the term not only refers to the gelato of the gelaterie, but as well the prepackaged ones sold in bars and super-markets ), one could create a periodic table of sorts from the varieties encountered; some places would sell creamier products while others might sell a more watery product (which works better for certain fruit flavors). Some would strive for the use of fresh ingredients while other would use chemical flavorings (the often taught trick is to look at the color of banana ice cream – bright yellow if made artificially and dull grey if made fresh), and some would experiment with flavors and combinations while others would rest with the tried and true.

On completion of this trail of type two diabetes, one would come to see just how far this umbrella term can stretch.  But a last point to consider with the ice cream/gelato distinction is that this said same distinction exists in other places as well.  A walk down the frozen aisle of a US supermarket will yield a cornucopia of products, no two exactly alike.  A look to the packaging alone will illustrate many of the same distinctions mentioned previously; here one makes mention of being creamier than the cousin it shares a shelf with, there another makes mention of how this one is slow-churned, elsewhere the product made from fair trade and organic cocoa beans stands proudly along with its exorbitant price tag.

Gelato then, is something of a paradox.  While the name seems not to refer to anything that needs to be differentiated from ice cream, applying the label is not in any way false, it is simply replacing one vague signifier for another.  Certainly, the makers and marketers of gelato all over the US do much to add certain signifiers of Italianness, and many of the already ingrained preconceived notions of what ‘gelato is’, to the product – but as far as claims of legitimacy are concerned they could just as well not.

The term Panini[i] is the plural of the Italian word panino, being itself the diminutive form of the word pane, meaning bread.  Even in Italy the terms panino and panini have come to mean refer to sandwich and sandwiches, though both the Italian words have retained their residual meaning of ‘small bread’.  And just as we found with Ice Cream/Gelato, both sandwich and panino are rather vast umbrella terms.  The hiccup comes when considering the new word Panini, which does not function as an umbrella term in the English language but refers specifically to a determined variety of sandwich heated with a sandwich press, and filled with certain meat (usually salami, ham and mortadella) as well as cheese and vegetables.  This distinction is of course non-existent with the Italian counterpart; panini may be heated or not, pressed or not, and can in fact be plain pieces of small bread.

There is then a distinction between the ice cream/gelato case and the sandwich/panino/Panini case; and that is that the Panini is more rigidly defined.  The confusion here can be immense, though with the right mindset playful; a Rueben, a Cuban, a burger and a BLT are all sandwiches by American classification, panini by Italian classifications, but not ever Panini (and no one has any idea where a hotdog would fit into any of this).  Not everything that would be called a panino in Italy would be called a Panini in the United States, though everything called a Panini in the United States would be called a panino in Italy.

Gelato, as sold in the US, as well as Panini, exists mostly as marketing terms.  An ambitious and industrious individual, nostalgically fuelled by positive experience overseas, attempted to recreate what he considered to be the superior products he experienced there.  But to survive in an already competitive market of sandwiches and ice cream, a powerful distinction had to be made.  If one considers just how many places now sell gelato and Panini, it becomes clear just how successful this campaign has been.


[i] The appropriation of the term Panino into the English language has unfortunately created a lexical confusion that makes it difficult to discuss without a certain uncluttering of terms first.  The Italian terms are panino (singular diminutive of bread) and panini (plural diminutive of bread), while the English terms are Panini (singular) and paninis (plural).  For the purposes of distinguishing the plural Italian term from the singular English, in the above paragraph the English term is always capitalized.  

© Matthew Campanella 2014

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Apple’s Swift Icon

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Swift Semiotic Observations on Apple’s Swift Icon

A few days ago, Apple unveiled their new language for Xcode programmers, which is called ‘Swift’ and which comes with the following graphic visualization:

swift-larger-image

A friend of mine was surprised at the angle of the swift having been well-briefed on the semiotic implications of angle and trajectory in Western culture iconography, e.g. they generally transverse from left to right in accordance with Western reading conventions, and that ‘down’ is usually bad to the same degree that ‘up’ is usually good . . .which generally makes the upper right-hand corner the aspirational destination for most icons and logos.

But not this time.

Some semiotic observations on Apple’s icon for the new swift:

1. The downward angle of descent is important: by showing the swift moving to the bottom right, and not straight down, the meaning changes from dropping dead to controlled descent. There’s intent with that angle.

2. What are birds often doing when they’re descending with control at speed? Hunting: through this observation, the image becomes an expression of energy, aggression (strongly mitigated by the colours and the fact that it’s only a bird), confidence, and decisiveness.

3. The downward trajectory is showing the icon literally coming down to earth; perhaps being ‘down to earth’ is a desirable or even aspirational brand attribute for Apple software (especially since it’s not open-source, and it often takes criticism about this in comparison to Android)

4. Consider the opposite angle – if we dip into Greimas’ semiotic square for a moment – which would show the swift going to the upper right corner: while this is typically the direction that all positive, non-tragedy, Western-orientation narratives take, it also carries some uncertainty: by going into the clear open blue sky, where is the swift going? It would have no destination, it would seem aimless, directionless. The open sky is freedom but also chaos and uncertainty. The current downwards direction is grounded, focused, tangible, practical — everything you might look for in programming language. Some narrative systems do better with clearly delineated borders, and my guess is that programming language is one of them (make no mistake: I don’t pretend to know anything about computer programming languages).

5. Orange is cool: it’s fresh, clean, exciting, young, simple, energetic, and positive. It’s quickly becoming the dominant brand colour-de-jour . . .

6. White is also cool, and of course very Apple – they got the chromatology absolutely on-trend, absolutely emergent.

7. Knowing it’s a swift is also key: of all birds, it’s a swift. There’s such a strong, positive association with that word! Swifts are swift: small, nimble, flexible . . . Wikipedia calls them “the most aerial of birds” which is just poetry.

8. And there’s a old-school elegance to ‘swift’ that you can’t find in ‘fast’, and an accessibility of personality that you can’t find in ‘falcon’ (everybody knows falcons are arrogant, but you could sit and have a beer with a swift – if you could keep up).

9. I also feel a degree of decisiveness and accuracy in ‘swift’ that I don’t feel in ‘fast’. For whatever reason, I think of ‘fast’ as courting association with ‘out of control’ (the faster you go, the less control you have?) but ‘swift’ is always in control: there’s almost a Biblical power in the idea of swiftness, a perfectly balanced combination of power, accuracy, determination, and confidence. Control is a desirable connotation for programming language, and from what little I understand of how the Swift language compares to Objective-C (cough), it’s an apt description of how it’s supposed to work.

10. Finally, the swift also connotes lighting-fast reflexes (they eat flying insects while flying at up to 106 miles-per-hour / 169 km/hour: they’re fast). That’s got ‘computer technology’ written all over it.

Nicely played, Apple . . .

© Charles Leech 2014

 

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Network: Ryan

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

I’m studying on the Design Futures & Metadesign MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. The keywords that clarify my research focus are sustainability, sociability and technology. I lived in Shanghai for more than 10 years before moving to London. Globalisation and cultural mixing have created significant similarities and highlighted differences between London and Shanghai. I’m intrigued by dynamic changing cultures. After a few years working in advertising agencies, I returned to education – which allows me to step out of the box, to probe my beliefs and values.

Tell us about your DJ Electric Eel project

 DJ Electric Eel (DJEE) is a practical project, a part of my MA dissertation which I’m working on currently (summer 2014).  The DJEE project involves several different topics, such as biology, music, programming etc. So I tried to use the term “DJ” to embody the complicated project as a comprehensive common sense form.

Eel1

The project, in general, is constructed by a group of electric sensors, devices and an electric eel which can generate electricity and use electric fields to perceive the outside world.

The electric eel is kept in a glass water tank. Several electromagnetic field (EMF) sensors measure the electric fields generated in water by the electric eel. The data from those sensors are organised and transformed into sounds by software (programs such as Processing and MaxMsp). The data is also transformed into visuals and music that accompany the sounds. The electric eel indirectly changes the pitch and tone of the sounds by emitting unpredictable electric signals.

How are people responding to it?  Have you been surprised by any of the reactions?

 One of the most interesting things about this project is that there are always many different responses when I talk about it and show some of the video footage to people.

On 6th June 2014, I presented the idea in public for the first time. On that occasion I also showed a single soundtrack of music generated by a small electric eel and an Arduino device prototype.

I got a lot of feedback around Nature – definitions and forms of interaction. Although Nature as a big narrative in my topic, I haven’t clearly defined it yet as a specific concept or content. Meanwhile, I realised that understandings of Nature in terms of epistemology and traditional ideology, between Western and Eastern cultures, are very different.

There were two interesting notes in the feedback to my first presentation of DJ Electric Eel: “My body is nature” and “My body is technology”. They were probably written by the same person but separately and in different colours. It was very interesting for me because the DJEE project, explicitly or implicitly, caused the participant to think about the relationship between him/her, nature and technology. The two comments are a sort of argument or conflict. They raise an interesting point to think about.

Eel2

You ask people an open question: “In what ways would you like to reconnect with nature if the technology were available?”  What would your front of mind answer be to that question right now?

 The open question is a sort of prompt to bring audiences into my topic at that moment. For me, the more interesting thing is how to reconnect nature with modern society and changing cultures. As a designer, I’m interesting in using different technological approaches to build up new dialogues between human and nature. The future expectation of the DJEE project will be a live music performance. Hence, it will not only engage with individuals but also a group of people in a social context.

You talk about the uncanny aspects of the electric eel project.  How did your interest in the uncanny come about?  What were the main steps in its development.

 The uncanny causes intense feelings. Everyone has these sorts of experiences more or less. Theoretical research, such as studying Freud and Lacan, brought me towards understanding the power of the uncanny. Actually a lot of art works, films and advertisements take advantage of the uncanny in order to create strong empathies and synaesthesis which can impress the audiences and encourage their self-reflections. I think it also works in the DJEE project. From a human DJ to an electric eel, from rhythmic music to abstract sounds, from looking at creatures in an aquarium to watching and listening to an eel making sounds. The familiar and unfamiliar experiences contribute to an uncanny experience.

Tell us about your experiences in advertising and what draws you to the world of applied cultural and semiotic analysis.

 Working in the creative department of an advertising agency, I used to look for stories and topics to connect the targeted audiences and the brand values in creative ways. The brand itself may be essentially meaningless – but advertising renders meanings and stories into brand voices. It’s just like how people create languages – advertising produces new languages and signifiers in order to clearly represent the complexity behind the brand. Furthermore, semiotic analysis helps us to better empathize with our targeted groups and potential audiences.

Where would you like to be and what would you like to be doing in 5 years from now?

 I’m quite an active person with a lot of expectations. One year of study made a lot of difference. Now, I’m planning to get back to work, and I’ll slightly shift my career focus if that’s possible. However, there are a lot of fascinating areas I want to explore in the academic context. Many things will have happened in 5 years, but learning and reflection will be deeply infused into my future life.

One year of living in London has had great significance to me. I love the city. London has a wonderful bio-environment for designers. I really want to continue my studies and discovery of the diverse cultures in London in the future.

Tell us about the pictures you have chosen to illustrate this interview.

figure 1 : the effect picture and the principle of the device

figure 2 : the relationship between these four elements will be discovered in the future

More information about the DJ Electric Eel project:

http://djelectriceel.tumblr.com/

© Ryan Hu

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Emma

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

I live in London and I’m writing my next novel but I also teach and collaborate on other projects.

How would you describe the relationship between your creative writing and your interest in the broad area of cultural and semiotic analysis?

Writing is a way of examining the human experience, along with our thoughts, analyses and reactions to the world, and putting it all in a form that can be transmitted to and shared by other minds over time and space. That makes it a philosophical, historical, psychological, cross-cultural, cross-time endeavour. Through literature, we see a singular yet diverse thread of humanity.

I’m a thinker, a traveller and a philosopher and those features colour my writing: I longed to travel even when I was a very young girl and as soon as I could, I went off with no plans to return. I travelled for many years, lived in other countries and cultures, and still work with students from all over the world. Just looking at a world map can bring tears to my eyes because I’m fascinated by this planet, the variety of life, the landscapes and the languages. I love moving across lands seeing how people live, and observing and discovering what their experience of life is. Although our lives are personalised by culture, history and circumstance, they’re replete with associations, interconnections and responses both profound and subtle. Those perceptions colour my writing but also mean that cultural and semiotic analysis is a natural place for a mind like mine.

Tell us about Dream On, Amber – how that project came about, your experience of writing and publishing the book, the kind of feedback you have received.

I grew up not knowing my Thai father and although I read hungrily when I was a child, no books I knew of had characters going through the same things I was going through. I wanted to remedy that.  Amber Miyamoto is also half this and half that and is growing up with a space where her father should be and I felt it was an important to express the feelings that arose from that experience. It took about eight months to write but I went slowly and dipped in and out of it in my spare time. I met a publisher by chance at a SCBWI event my friend took me to just after I finished writing it. We had a brief chat and he told me to email him with some sample chapters. I did and he liked them and asked to see the whole thing. A few months later, he sent an email saying ‘We really want to publish your book!’ The publishing and editorial process has been a huge learning curve. I’ve had very positive feedback: the rights have been sold in five countries so far and reviews have been great.

DreamOn

What’s next in terms of writing and publication?

I’m writing a stand-alone novel for the same age range (8 -12) that’s due to be published in 2015 by the same publisher, Chicken House. The main premise of Dream on, Amber is fatherlessness and my next book has an equally important premise. I can’t reveal what it’s about yet but I’d be happy to talk about it once it’s published. Amber is half-Italian and half-Japanese, and this next character is also Asian and living in the West. Those cultural differences are interesting to me. And Western children don’t know much about the Far East or its people, so that’s something I’d like to expose them to.

What’s the most important unanswered question that comes to mind for you?

How can humans do such inhumane things to one another?  We treat people as ‘other’ and not as versions of ourselves walking around in different casing, making the best of a given set of circumstances. Our lack of empathy for other life – people, animals, the planet – is baffling. It’s the root of racism, sexism, elitism, self-centredness, abuse, war, murder, rape. It’s the central to all the awful things that go on in the world. It’s why Angelina Jolie met last week with William Hague, and it opens the gates to so many other questions: is there a God? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are we given a luminous mind and a strong moral compass but can’t control our animal drives and the ability to be brutal? Man’s inhumanity to man is the thing I get most despondent, angry and exasperated with.

Tell us about the image you have chosen to illustrate this piece.

I’ve chosen the cover of my book, Dream on, Amber, as Amber is tiny and scared of everything but believes there’s a fearless warrior in her trying desperately to get out to help her stand up for what she believes in. The illustration shows a girl kicking high and hard, and that’s a message in itself. Overcoming ourselves is half the battle.

Where does your interest in applied cultural and semiotic analysis stem from and where are you planning to go with it?

I think I’ve answered the first part of this question above – it feels a natural home as I have a particular kind of mind and skill set. I would like, ideally, to study, observe, travel and write for the rest of my days, and to make my observations and insights useful and have meaning. This will partly be through writing books but I hope I can also use it in the commercial world to help bridge understanding and shed light on influences and behaviour. I’m an ideas person and writing books is a long, solitary business. I need to use my skills in more social and immediate ways too.

© Emma Shevah 2014

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Network, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Diversity 5: Emma

Friday, May 16th, 2014

1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity?

Transport. I’m a traveller, and although I love arriving in, being in and absorbing a new country or culture, one of the things I love most is moving: the feeling of traversing through and making my way across lands on trains, buses, planes, by car, on foot. I’m half-Thai and half-Irish and was born and brought up in the melting pot of South London. I’ve travelled and lived in a number of countries and cultures, married someone also half this and half that and have children with very interesting genes, so ostensibly, the word ‘diverse’ applies to me as well as my life experiences and my milieu, but my take on that depends on the interpretation of what ‘diverse’ means. The word ‘diversity’ is itself a hybrid, formed from the fusion of the Latin prefix di (which can mean both the number two and ‘aside’ or ‘away from’) and the verb versere (to turn). Thus ‘diverse’ is open to two readings: it can mean one (e.g. route) that turns into two, or to turn away from (e.g. a route or path). Although it would seem I personify the former definition of diversity – one nationality and culture on one side, another nationality and culture on the other, and me an amalgam of the two, I didn’t know my Thai father so the second definition is more apt: Thai-ness as a culture, language, collective psyche was turned away from me (or me from it) and I felt alienated from it. At the same time, my inherent Thai-ness meant that physiologically and psychologically, I was turned aside from the English and Irishness around me.

I went to Thailand for the first time when I was 19 and the thing that struck me, first and foremost, were the motorbikes and pick-up trucks. Riders sat on motorbikes with no helmets, women drove themselves or sat side-saddle on the back, whole families and children lined up on one bike, some precariously holding babies. In the back of the Isuzu pick-up trucks (the

motorbike-1

car manufacturer was also new to me at the time) groups of workers were ferried to and fro. The thing that struck me was the openness – bike riders weren’t helmeted, unidentifiable, uniformed in black leather– you could see them clearly, and as individuals. The backs of the uncountable pick-ups were open too, carrying people I could see to destinations I couldn’t imagine.

Those two modes of transport became a metaphor for the two nations I was connected to. As Thailand moved forward, anything was possible: yes, it took risks, but it was defiant, unmasked, trusting, and it seemed to me, as I drove into Bangkok for the first time from the airport, so free. Things were visible, people were visible. When I thought of Britain, with its helmet-clad motorbike riders, overbearing regulations, conventionality, closed-top cars taking closed people to predictable places it seemed, conversely, contained, reserved, safe, obedient, tame, stiff and filled with people terrified of doing anything socially unacceptable. I don’t feel that any more, about myself, or about the two countries, and I know that initial impressions aren’t always right, but the associations remained with me and transport has remained in my mind a thing much greater than itself.

2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are. 

The publishing world is undergoing a shift from white, male, Judaeo-Christian, imperialist (Residual) themes and characters to multi- and cross-cultural leitmotifs, if not yet in areas of book production then at least in attitudes towards it. A study in the US last year revealed that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. This study exposes two things. Firstly, that despite the (Dominant) culture of diversity in Britain and America, Asians and people of colour are still notably under-represented in books, films, plays, TV programs, MA and MFA writing programs and all areas of media production.

Junot Diaz

Secondly, even if the books on our shelves are not yet embodying the diversity in our culture, the simple fact that a study has been undertaken to highlight this discrepancy demonstrates this changing attitude towards what is being published (and read). Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, award-winning short story writer and Professor of Creative Writing at MIT, recently wrote a broadside on the ‘too white’ bias in MFA programs (May 1, 2014). Additionally, the #weneeddiversebooks trend on twitter and other social media calling for diversity in

Authenticity twitter1[1]

literature (and, as per the knock-on effect, films) focuses on the rationale that we live in a diverse world and thus under- or mis-representation is, therefore, ‘inauthentic’. As authenticity is an emergent trend in itself, the trend of calling for diversity in public platforms is sure to lead to an emergent pattern of behaviour in reading, literary discourse and publishing, which in turn will lead to a more diverse rendering of narratives in the semiosphere.

http://emmashevah.com

http://emmashevah.livejournal.com

twitter:@emmashevah

Junot Diaz photograph by Carolyn Cole for the LA Times

Screenshot of Twitter page linked to #weneeddiversebooks

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Diversity 5: Hamsini

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity 

Even as a child, I was a cross-culturalist.  I loved geography and read about people in various parts of the world.  I troubled my  mother a lot whenever she told me the ‘cultural rules/codes’ expected in our Tamil Brahmin culture…I used to tell her, that other people around the world don’t follow these customs and practices and nothing happens to them because they don’t do these things that we are supposed to do…of course, this was only in those matters which I didn’t like or didn’t wish to follow.  I had and still have a great curiosity about the various kinds of peoples that make up this planet of ours and have close friends from many cultures that are very different to mine. This is because I am hugely open-minded about genuine and apparent/visible differences and I look for the under-lying human truths of the shared experience.

However, “embracing and celebrating difference” is tough to practice (I prefer the word difference to diversity, the former being a real word that the man on the street would understand and diversity being a ‘coined’ word by policy makers hoping to give it life).  I come from a country where ‘unity in diversity’ is one of the defining characteristics of our culture and motto as we are taught in school…interestingly I came across this phrase in Indonesia as well – the only other country using it.  Hinduism is a religion that embraces diversity in its very fundamental principles and practices.  And yet, nowadays, I find general levels of tolerance dropping and conflict increasing.

2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are.

Actually, some of the roots of Indian (sub-continental) and Hindu culture are all about how to deal with difference – the peaceful acceptance of difference as THE GIVEN in society and ways to deal with difference to achieve a peaceful co-existence and to live in harmony.  This starting point of difference as THE GIVEN led to defining a role based hierarchical social order; it also led to syncretism…an ability to create fusions of the existing and the new; an ability to participate in this world and that (sufi version of Islam for e.g).

However, the downside of starting with difference as THE GIVEN is the inability to see all as ‘equal’…a very confusing idea actually, when you think about it … we are all different and yet we are equal????  If we are different in ability and in accomplishments and in status and in form, then how can we all be put on the same plane … that we are equal…in whose eyes are we equal???  It is one thing to say, God loves us all equally, as does a parent…but even a parent knows that all his/her children are not the same at all…they are different and have different destinies…

But, having adopted a “liberal and humanistic constitution” and working in accordance with late 20th/early 21st century norms of empowerment through ‘rights’ (which I am also a votary of, by the way) … we are now in a situation of low tolerance and increasing conflict as each individual and each hitherto dis-empowered group is clamoring to be heard and is impatient to overturn centuries of discrimination as they now see it.

The old model of dealing with difference viz tolerance, patience and peaceful co-existence (within endogamous communities each of which follows their own way of life) is breaking down under the forces of individualism, ambition, competitiveness, assertiveness and ‘rights’.  There is inter-group competitiveness … if Shiva worshippers can build tall statues of Shiva, then Hanuman worshippers can and must build a taller statue still…and so on…each group thinks my way is the best way and their way is the road to hell…which it is my duty to block.

We have not yet found a new model for dealing with difference that works for this new world in which we live.  How to achieve ‘liberty,equality and fraternity’ of all, for all, on an ongoing basis.  Meanwhile, new examples of syncretism and dialogue (the old values) continue to give us hope…

Speaking personally, the idea of a ‘rooted-cosmopolitan’ could be the 21st century poster  boy/girl or icon of diversity.  Not sure whether it will have mass appeal though…as in my experience, the instinctive pull of tribalism is too strong and the security of staying within the comfort zone of the familiar – viz people like me is overpowering.  Super-market cosmopolitanism (safe difference via consumption pleasures) is an easy answer…but since it does not seek to go anywhere below the surface pleasures, it can’t offer much.

The other example I can give is of ‘Semiofest’ as an organization – the 4 co-owners are 2 women, 2 men, Indian, Colombian, English by adoption…of the 4 of us, I am a globalist who has always lived and worked in India, the other three are mixed in some manner or the other…it is a combination that works very well…embracing difference is our motto and we live it every day…

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense | No Comments »

Diversity 5: Thierry

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Improv/Jam posting all contributions as they arrive. Only material of above average bad taste will be edited out (and everything here is of immaculate taste, as one would expect). Editors
1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity?
One of my earliest childhood memories: I was scared of people with brown eyes, as all the people surrounding me had blue/green/grey colored eyes. I have very few early memories, but I still remember this one. Looking back on my personal history, I got in trouble everywhere for being different, not in looks, I looked as if I fit in, but in not understanding what exactly I was supposed to do to “fall in”.
 
2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are.

We’re in an election year here in Belgium. With a difficult political history. Perhaps you’ll remember we had at one point broken the world record for the “longest government formation after democratic elections” (589 days without an elected government) 2010-2011

The Flemish “separatist” party that was one of the major players in the last debacle, is now betting heavily on new media. My personal guess is that they are going to gather more votes than ever before with, for me, a much dreaded new government formation in may 2014.
Right now I’m working with a Belgian artist (from Moroccan immigrant parents) on an art campaign to run next to the political campaigns, the perspective of my friend’s campaign is the “foreigner” as “glue” in any society … which is the opposite of the Flemish separatist party that’s campaigning with “the french speaking part of Belgium is costing the Flemish part of the country” and “immigrants need to integrate fully or leave”. As you might imagine I’m siding with my Belgian-Moroccan contemporary as I’ve always seen otherness/alterity as the most important part in any identity formation. Personally without “diversity” no “I”, perceived differences (whether real or not) are the flux of life.
In general I’m feeling that the only “emergent” examples are coming from what we call the May ’68 generation. The general perception of people in their 30s and 40s is that May ’68 failed and offered us a society where equality of genders, equality of races, … were supposedly dealt with, but in reality today in 2014 it’s become clear that this dealing with hasn’t given us the promised results and new even more vigorous actions are going to be needed to elevate all diversity to a level of equality. Furthermore, Russia is a very troubling image today, much more troubling than China ever was (of course, I’m talking here quite realistically with the knowledge that most of my fact-finding has been dependent on media … for which I have a general distrust)
(historically) Big picture view: status quo. diversity, as a difference that makes a difference, still needs to achieve its full acceptance in the larger society … but, you are unique, just like everybody else!
It’s a difficult term as it has no actual content, only a perceived one. it hints at similarity, nearly everything can be seen as similar just as it can easily be seen as different.

Posted in Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Diversity 5 – Improv/Jam

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

This fifth section was planned as a mosaic of takes on diversity, converging, from a number of different cultural start points, on a Semiofest session dedicated to diversity to take place in Shanghai on 25th May 2014.  This is a spontaneous mashup (please send contributions to editorial@semionaut.net) along the lines of a similar set of posts, a couple of years ago, on global perceptions of Brazilianness.  The questions we invite responses to are 1) & 2) below.  With a summarising glimpse, if possible, into what’s distinctive at the meta level about the cultural configuration of diversity in the national context you are writing about.

1) What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity?

First hearing calypso music on the radio after moving to the Bahamas at the age of 6. Having grown up with the sublime melancholy of Welsh hymn singing (in the chapel and at home, where we had a harmonium in the living room), I still feel the seismic shift in my body and soul with that shift in rhythm, tone and texture – as strong as the shift from green hills, rain and grey sky to dazzling sunlight, blue sea, palms, white sand, lightning and purple thunder clouds. Or from white monoculture to the positive clash and combination of races and idioms. This all added another dimension to a bilingualism and cultural code-shifting between Welsh and English identities which was there for me from the beginning. Many people who are drawn to semiotic and cultural analysis grew up with this kind of bi(or tri-)culturalism and its inescapable vista on intriguing contrast or relativism. Among the clients I have learned most from, for example, are a Mexican-Canadian (Marina Anderson) and a Sicilian-German (Katja Maggio Muller – a combination to conjure with!)

2) Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are

There are two.  The first, which has actually moved into the Dominant, is the diverse multiracial reality of Britain which, at the precise moment of the London Olympics (and significantly a Paralympics at least as impactful as the hitherto main event) eclipsed the old monocultural inbred and inward looking Britain of the Royals and Daily Mail-style paranoia about immigrants, refugees and the European Union. Still emergent in some ways, perhaps, because the battle is never won. Look at our fastest growing political party UKIP and its regular-guy engaging (I’m afraid so, especially compared with the competition) leader Nigel Farage.  The distinctive British take on diversity is, perhaps, a sharp co-presence of insularity and openness. This interplay is implicit in the internal diversity of (hegemonic) Britishness – and in the cultural history and aftermath of Empire.

The second example is the normalising of transgender – the movement from natural & normal versus deviant (Residual) to sexual preference & gay marriage (Dominant) to gender as personal choice (Emergent). In this we are, of course, one with liberal Europe and North America.  (With thanks to Brian McIntyre,  Barneys New York and 2014 Eurovision Song Context winner Conchita Wurst.  (As a lover of single entendre I have to end with three cheers for someone whose name sounds like Esperanto for ‘c-word sausage’).

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

 

 

Posted in Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Network | No Comments »

Ribbon of Victory

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

Newspapers around the world today (9th May 2014) feature images of the Russian military at yesterday’s Victory Day parades displaying prominently, among other insignia, an orange and black ribbon on their tunics. This piece by Marina Simakova explains the historical and acute current significance of this symbol. (Editors)

St George ribbon – a piece of striped orange-black cloth – for many years has been a Russian symbol of military heroism. This started long ago at the end of the 18th century when The Order of St George, the highest military award, was established, and signified by the ribbon around the hero’s neck.   Later on it was attached to different kinds of awards named in honor of  St George, every time signifying bravery and courage. It is considered that the orange stripes symbolize flames of fire, while the black ones remind us of gun smoke.

In May 2005 the orange-black ribbon could be noticed on the streets in the hands of volunteers for the first time. They gave it free to anyone, who wanted to demonstrate that they honour memory of  World War II and want to express their respect for Russian veterans. The latter responded very positively to the idea of symbolically commemorating victory over the German invaders and the ribbon gained its extensive popularity across the country.  Every year a month or so before victory day (May 9th) thousands of ribbons have been distributed. People fix them on cars, bags, or jackets – or simply wore them around the wrist or in their hair.

In 2010 orange-black ribbons were sent to Russian embassies abroad and in 2011 a giant kite made of St George ribbon fabric was sent flying in the May sky as part of a flashmob event. However, despite its success, the meaning of St George ribbon is ambivalent, and there are people who choose not to wear it.  From the very beginning they found it to be undesirably ostentatious and a sign more of patriotic bravado than true homage to the victory or gratitude to the soldiers.  The was also a concern about the symbol being, on the one hand, commercialized, and on the other, actively used in ideological work of the state. What happened next is even more worrying.

GeorgeRibbonPacks

In December 2013, during the protests in Ukraine, the ribbon was used by pro-Russian activists and counter-revolutionary forces to differentiate themselves from others. This might be regarded as expressing a certain logic: in the period of World War II Russia and Ukraine still were united in one country, and its soldiers fought on the front line together. But this logic doesn’t consider the fact that the ribbon of St George is a shared symbol, a sort of mobile war memorial.  It constitutes inclusive collective memory and belongs to all who want to express their solidarity. Using the ribbon as a point of difference in a political standoff is simply unjust. The ribbon as an object, a mere thing, becomes an attribute of segregation and the ribbon as a symbolic figure extends its meaning. Lately on the territory of both Russia and Ukraine the ribbon has acquired rather fresh but often polarizing and negative connotations – from Slavic brotherhood to collaborationism, from tradition to reactionary and imperialistic views. Ukrainian nationalists invented a humiliating nickname for a ribbon – ‘coloradie’ and for those who wear it – ‘colorados’, as the orange-black color mix reminds them of a Colorado potato beetle.

GB_Manicure_Ad[1] copy

This example shows that once the sign becomes subject to chaotic exploitation, the gap between the signifier and the signified is filled in with contradictions, which may lead to alienation of the initial sense. And now, when the ribbon’s meaning is so procurable, it is of course, regrettably, getting heavily commercialized, while the effect of such marketing is rather unpredictable.

© Marina Simakova 2014

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Brands & the Myth of the Family

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Many consumer brands these days create a human interest angle related to their brands that they think people will identify with. They give their products a character and a context that mirrors real life, and they expect that this identification will result, ultimately, in increased sales.

Flora, the margarine brand owned by Unilever, has come up with the Flora Mum, Tiffany Jones, who “lives in Suffolk with her husband Phil and two daughters Rosie (12) and Hannah (11).” Apparently, Tiff (as she’s called on the Flora website) loves festivals and Zumba and once ran a farmers market. She likes to cook everything from scratch, too.

The Flora Mum

This branding extends from the advertising campaigns and the product website, to the product itself. If you open a tub of Flora you’ll find a member of the family printed on the foil lid, with a caption about their daily life. My personal favourite is the picture of Rosie with the caption “My dad says he’s a great cook because he makes great cheese sandwiches. My mum says that’s not cooking.”

The very model of a modern family, then. Something the majority of consumers can relate to.

Or perhaps not.

According to recent research by the sociologist Sacha Roseneil, the trend for people living outside of the traditional family structure has almost doubled in the last thirty years, with the number of adults living in non-coupled households increasing from 19% in 1979 to 29% in 2004. Meanwhile, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics in 2010, the number of child-free women over the age of forty has doubled, from 1 in 10 in 1990 to 1 in 5 in 2010.

As women’s roles are redefined in society, and as motherhood increasingly become a choice rather than an inevitability, the idea of a family is changing. Access to safe and reliable contraception has combined with increased economic independence and employment and educational opportunities to give women options that they have never had before. And it seems that many of them are grasping them with both hands.

Growing acceptance of homosexuality and the legalisation of gay marriage in countries all around the world has also redefined what it means to be in a couple. The emphasis on heterosexual couples and heterosexual reproduction is no longer the gold standard. Instead, people are increasingly able to organise their personal lives in ways that suit them, rather than fitting into a one-size-fits-all model.

For all of these reasons, we can see a definite trend away from family life as it is usually understood, with mum and dad and the kids (ideally two) becoming less and less real for many people living in the UK today.

That said, whether the traditional family ever existed in the first place is debateable. Professor Pat Thane, from Kings College London, is a family historian who has discovered that the long-lasting marriages and the nuclear families of the 1950s and 1960s were actually anomalies. Instead, throughout history, single parent families and unmarried parents were more likely to be the norm. It is possible that we are just reverting to what we always had, with what we think of as “traditional” actually being a blip that is slowly fading from view.

Which brings us back to Flora. And indeed other brands too. Cars, supermarkets, food products, holidays, and lots of other consumer goods are marketed on the back of the traditional family. But why? Given that the traditional family is becoming increasingly alien to UK consumers, and given that it probably never really existed in the first place, why are brands continuing to use this myth as a strategy? It may have worked up until the 1990s, when people still had a memory of the halcyon days of family life, but now? In the 21st Century?

Brands would do much better to think of the diversity and the plurality of relationships. They need to think about how people are organising their lives in dozens of different ways, and in particular how the role of women has been  transformed beyond all recognition in the last thirty years. Instead of trying to squeeze consumers into a demographic that exists only in people’s imagination, they should think about working with variety instead.

One brand that has embraced this idea is Colmans. Their current advert for cook-in sauces shows a single dad making shepherds pie for his teenage daughter, who’s upset because she’s just had an argument with her boyfriend. It’s a far cry from the Flora idea that men can only make cheese sandwiches, to the despair of the women in their lives, but it’s all the more appealing for that.

Colmans stills.009_0

Successful advertising tells us what we already know. Familiarity sells. If the world has changed, and traditional families no longer exist, then brands need to reflect this. Sticking to the mythology of a fairytale family will, eventually, only alienate consumers – and I’m sure that’s not what brands would want from their strategy, or what consumers want from their brands.

© Alison Bancroft 2014

 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Diversity Act IV

Friday, April 4th, 2014

“And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at at them
And fishermen hold flowers”

(Bob Dylan, Desolation Row)

My three earlier Semionaut posts on Diversity were preparatory work for an article on “Diversity, Culture and Semiotics” subsequently published in the online version of ESOMAR’s Research World journal, which I link here as part 4.

ActIV.1

That piece includes a number of case studies first published in articles written with Michael Harvey, Hamsini Shivakumar, Katja Maggio-Muller and Marina Anderson and referenced in the bibliography. It also gave me the opportunity to acknowledge two decades of inspiration working in proximity to Steve Seth, who I first met at what was then known as The Added Value Company where we shared an office resembling a converted broom cupboard (‘converted’ in this instance being something of an exaggeration). My draft referred to Steve as ‘il miglior fabbro’, T.S. Eliot’s dedication to Ezra Pound in The Waste Land. I removed this in case anyone took my literary pretentiousness at face value rather than ironically.  Also because mentioning the anti-Semite Eliot and fascist Pound in a paper on diversity would be a bit like mentioning Baudelaire in the context of wellness-related consumer lifestyles or Toulouse Lautrec in relation to basketball.

Please don’t take that last remark as being in any way heightist – there is no such intention behind it. The only slight prejudice I’m feeling today (writing this in Spring at a cafe in Montmartre) is against the marginally shabby yet vaguely dandified French male of a certain age, the would-be flâneur, who still looks as if he left the house this morning dressed by a doting but mildly inebriated mother.  His authentically bohemian equivalent in Prague, with leather hat, waistcoat and pony tail, looks infinitely more robust and credible. You know what I’m talking about.

We already have some fascinating inputs for the impending co-created Act V of this sequence which will inspire a paper at the Shanghai Semiofest in May 2014.  Please keep them coming by email to editorial@semionaut.net  Here again is the briefing.

ActIV.2

The acknowledgment I finally arrived at for Steve Seth was friend in diversity and true global soul – The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer, still being one of the best introductions I know to the interplay of human commonality and all sorts of diversity today.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

I recently had occasion to interact closely with a number of wholesalers and retailers in textiles, a very old and established trade with business relationships going back three generations between textile mills and retailers.  I then used a semiotic perspective to analyse some of the discussions that had taken place with them on the phenomenon of knowingly selling fakes from their stores to their customers.

Trinary

 

 

I started by looking into the context of everyday business operations in India.  While there are laws, rules and regulations, actual business practice and everyday business ethics are more governed by social regulation.  By social regulation, I refer to the voice of social and community authority, viz, elders and the collective consensus on an issue as  to its ethical rightness or virtue.  Social regulation works through evoking three kinds of fears – divine retribution when the Gods are displeased, offending and hurting elders and thus inviting their wrath/ punishment and finally, offending the community, resulting in expulsion and exile.

Working every day within the context of social regulation, every businessman sees three levels of behaviors and practices in any given moment as being available to him.  These may alternatively be seen as three paths on which he can walk.  At the top one path is the path of virtue – virtue is also strongly linked to ideas of purity of intent/motive and non-self interested action taken vis-à-vis the other party involved in the deal.  While this is the zone typically assigned to saints and mystics, even business people are capable of acting at this level.  Those who do so command a huge level of spiritual power and moral authority over their fellow business-people.  For the sake of alliterative labeling, we can call this the zone or path of purity.

At the next level or second path is the zone/path of pragmatism and permission.   This route evolves through a collective consensus among the members of the local community and it refers to the extent of permissible deviation from the path of virtue.  In the case of fakes, it could be the extent of stock that retailers would carry of fabrics with a fake ‘Made in Italy’ label that are actually manufactured in China or elsewhere.  When they sell this stock, they knowingly mislead the customer that they are selling them fabric that they present as being genuinely made in Italy, when it is not.  Or it could be to do with the extent of dilution of a quality standard in manufacture.  As long as they stay within the ‘permissible’ range as understood through collective consensus, they have safety in numbers and they know their fellow business people will not lose respect for them.  Also, they are not compromising their longer term agenda or reputation as good people to do business with – either among customers or among the business community.

At the bottom the third path is the zone of villainy.  Acting from this zone or walking on this path will surely invite curses (gaalis in colloquial Hindi) and calumny from fellow business people.  Actions in this zone would include resorting to out and out cheating, violence, threats, treachery, blackmail, reneging on agreements (not necessarily the contract in its legal details) as well as reneging on financial dues and settlements.  When a business man acts from this zone, he has either compromised his ethics beyond repair or is risking doing so.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, “Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management” also makes reference to this simultaneous seeing of three levels of action choices.  He describes the three levels as Bhagawan, Deva and Asura.  Asura (which loosely translates as a demon) signifies actions that arise from the zone of villainy.  Deva (which loosely translates as a B-level God) indicates actions arise from the zone of awareness.  Bhagawan (which loosely translates as a truly Divine being) signifies actions that arise from the zone of a higher spiritual being.  Bhagawan actions are those that are worthy of emulation and worship.

The Indian Eye often sees presence and absence in objects, entities and phenomena not just in terms of dualities or binaries but as ‘trinaries’.  They could be three columns (parallel vertical paths to walk on) or three levels (parallel horizontal paths to climb up from level to level).  The eye spots the co-existence of A, B and C as three distinct possibilities in the same realm.  So, in the realm of ethics, there is the co-existence of God-like, Human and Demonic behaviors.  In other cases, the hybrid of A & B is seen as a distinct path in itself.  For example people may be solo Christians, solo Hindus and hybrids – also worship in Churches while following a specific Hindu God or a Sufi Saint.  They can be strict vegetarians, strict non-vegetarians and hybrids – vegetarians at home while being meat-eating outside the home.  There are combinations that are valued as a valid third element e.g. sweet-sour, bitter-sweet.  There is a valid space for ambiguity, the grey zone, the ‘third-way’, the ‘nuances and shades’.  The eye sees all three as valid vs. seeing the third as a negotiated compromise or a dialectic synthesis of hard oppositions, viz operating from a binary vision?

Does this simultaneous ‘trinary’ vision call for the development of additional tools of semiotic analysis specifically applicable to some forms of categorization in Indian culture?  Looking beyond Indian culture to global culture, the growth of the internet, social media, gaming and digital interfaces are blurring the lines between real and virtual and creating a third zone that exists simultaneously.  The development of robotics and artificial intelligence is doing something similar to the human and machine binary.   Has the time then come for a new semiotics of the ‘trinary’?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Codes of Crimea

Monday, March 10th, 2014

 

GEO-SEMIOTICS – THE CODES OF CRIMEA

8th March 2014. Crimea, an amazingly beautiful peninsula in the Southern part of Ukraine, has become the arena of a big international conflict. Due to its advantageous geographical location, Crimea has always been a subject of interest for neighbouring countries. A strategically important spot for Russia, where its Black Sea fleet is based, and a fully legitimate land of the sovereign Ukraine, torn either by revolution or by civil war, Crimea once again is the focus of the controversy and political tension.  But what does it feel like in the region? What are the particular codes of the Crimean geo-cultural identity?

Crimea5

Pebble memoirs

Although Crimea offers both sandy and pebble beaches, the latter prevail. On thousands of postcards, typical Crimean round pebbles look beautiful, but in reality they are harsh and slippery. Thanks to the poor infrastructure, in most places sun loungers are not available, which leaves room for people who are happy to lie down on their towels. Lying on the pebble surface feels somewhat like a medical procedure, and getting into the water is an adventure and, let’s face it, painful. But humans can get used to anything, and kids easily and quickly get used to the pebbles.  A set of small pebbles or a big pebble with a perfectly round shape became one of the memories that generations of kids took with them from summer vacations in Crimea. Almost anyone who has grown up in Russia or Ukraine has a Crimean pebble hidden somewhere deep in a drawer. It’s not just an alternative to a white-pinky sea shell. A pebble always acts as a reminder of comfort compromised for the seaside experience – and its round shape embodies our passion for perfection.

Swallow’s Nest

According to a famous Russian poem, the swallow is supposed to bring spring in her beak. Who wouldn’t yearn to see the swallow’s home in this case?  If someone says he knows where the swallow’s nest is, he must have definitely visited Crimea. In fact, Swallow’s Nest is a romantic castle on the edge of the cape, built for a Russian entrepreneur in homage to German medieval tradition more than a century ago. Unlike most European countries, neither Russia, nor Ukraine has castles to display. So, for the majority of kids from the former Soviet Union, the Swallow’s Nest was the first live example of a castle they came across. In many cases it remained the only one they saw in their lives. Though a derivative architectural work it became a legendary and poetic symbol of Crimea.

Soviet artifacts

Despite the 30 years that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea remains a truly Soviet place.  Here and there you may see shabby residences of former communist party leaders that still look quite epic. In any town you can still find numerous authentic canteens that keep the spirit of the workers’ solidarity. Rattling trolley buses will take you

Crimea4

around the cities if you get a yellowish ticket issued on the paper from old Soviet stock. You can also hire an unofficial taxi for a roller coaster experience on the serpentine mountain road, while enjoying breathtaking views through the windows of your Volga car. Check in one of the simple guest houses: it is very likely that it has worn wine red curtains and dusty crystal lamps in the hall – original and authentic examples of Soviet luxury.

Life in the wild

Going to Crimea will be especially cost effective if you take your home with you. Hidden beaches between the Crimean mountains are full of camping sites. Adventurers and hikers, archaeologists, young families and students live there in tents like hippie communities in 60s. They eat canned food, swim naked and playing guitars into the night, gathering around a fire.  There’re dozens of such spots with no regulations, so people are able to enjoy complete freedom. Of course, tourists arrive in boats or discover the terrain on foot so the campers aren’t allowed a complete Crusoe existence.  But this is something these children of nature can easily tolerate.

Diversity in peace

Crimea is a diverse place. In some places it looks local and private, ready to hide you in its narrow mountain tracks or small town back alleys alleys. In other places the landscape is one of towering peaks and green plateaus. Here intimacy meets grandeur. But what makes Crimea most diverse is its multicultural feeling.  This region has always had an extremely heterogeneous population, speaking various languages and following different religious traditions. All nations nearby have kept an eye on their own sacred places and historical sites, sharing these highlands and coastlines. Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Belarusian, Jews, Moldavians, Azerbaijanis and Gipsies exist side by side, living in peace. Sometimes the pristine Black Sea water seems to be the best thing for cooling down when it comes to a conflict.

Text © Marina Simakova 2014

Photographs © Olga Zeveleva 2014 – with thanks

Posted in Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

Effective cross-cultural semiotic analysis ought to reflect the diversity of cultures.  It is now accepted even among psychologists that there is no universal and standardized human psychology, rather individual and group psychology is itself hugely influenced by culture.  The American psycho-analyst Alan Roland wrote about his experiences and theorized a different model of the self for his Indian and Japanese patients vis-à-vis his American patients.  Richard Nisbett in his book, the Geography of Thought provides ‘research study-based’ evidence of the differences in perception between Americans and Chinese.  And Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist draws attention to the differences between the core belief systems underpinning Western, Chinese and Indian thought.

How might this perspective be applied to developing new semiotic tools for India/other Asian cultures?

One of the key principles of the semiotic analysis of meaning is the idea of difference and how that difference is dealt with, to create meaning.  The distinctions of ‘is” vs. “is not” and “oppositions and contradictions” is a key part of the way semioticians analyze concepts and ideas to arrive at territories of meaning.

However, there is another way to look at binaries and that is through the lens of presence-absence for a sense of completion of meaning.  The central idea here is of “completion” that goes with pairs of inter-twined entities.  One cannot exist without the other.  Both must be viewed together for the meaning to result.  The separation of one from the other, distorts the meaning.  To understand the essence, they must be viewed and understood in the pair, so deeply are the concepts inter-woven and inter-twined.  The underlying cultural code here is not that of individuality or autonomy but of essential dependence and co-existence.  It arises from a relational definition of society and culture vs. a transactional and contractual definition of society and culture.  Separation would create a feeling of tremendous loss and desolation, not a celebration of individuality.

HS1

For e.g. in Hindi, there is a central idea of a “Jodi” or pair.  Jodis would be concepts such as husband-wife, father-mother, brother-sister, hero-villain, sidekick-hero, master-servant, politician-media (recent), food-drink (khana-peena), hardware-software etc.   The central premise can be extended to a range of entities.  Is a city possible without citizens?  Can a movie Star be a Star without a multitude of fans?  Hindi pairs:  pati-patni, mata-pita, bhai-behen, raja-praja, guru-shishya.

Applying this thinking to defining category meanings would imply that even though the product categories that are bought and sold are objects, they should be viewed and understood by combining them inextricably with the users who have the closest relationship with the object.  To illustrate, cars are not cars without drivers (though new driverless high-tech cars are on the design table) and medicines are meaningless without doctors/healers/medicine men.  A semiotic study on the category meaning of cancer treatments would start by looking at cancer drugs and oncologists together or at doctor-cancer sufferer as the single and complete entity rather than separating the patient, the cancer, the doctor and the medicine into separate entities that are placed in varying individual positions with respect to one another.

Could the consideration of inter-twined pairs be a new tool added to the semiotic tool box for Indian and Asian markets?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

And the Winner Is…

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

The panel of judges – representing Semionaut editorial and the board of award sponsors Space Doctors, also including a leading academic expert on semiotics – is unanimous in declaring the winner of the Semionaut New Writers’ Award 2014:

Hannah Hoel, for her article  “Is this Heaven? Reflections on Barthes and Facebook”.

photo_HOEL

Here are some quotes from the judges:

 “It gets underneath and says something new about photography in the digital age – which is so ubiquitous and so commented on it’s a wonder there is anything left to say about it”.

“Very clever, relevant, on the money. A definite wow factor in the writing that sets it apart in a field of gifted and insightful analysts”.

“Telegraphic and often aphoristic. Yet, analytic and well targeted.  A subjective voice makes it engaging – but general enough in its observations to make it applicable to numerous cases”.

I thought this was remarkable, and love this line on Instagram: ‘The camera trespasses upon the living and the photograph lingers as a ruin’”.

Our thanks to everyone who entered for the high quality of work submitted. We will be contacting all the short listed writers direct with the panel’s feedback.  Watch out for more pieces which will be published in due course.

Special thanks too to Space Doctors for their generosity in sponsoring the prize.  And to Pavla Pasekova for her inspiration and unstinting support provided to contestants and judges from start to finish.

 

 

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Short List – Troy

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Editor’s note: In the version of this article originally submitted the two campaigns analysed were identified as being for the same environmental organisation, which was using the contrasting paradigms identified here. A request for permission to reproduce illustrations from the campaigns was declined by that organisation on the basis that these were off-brand and/or ghost campaigns. Another organisation now owns the copyright of one of the campaigns mentioned, which we reproduce here with permission. This updated version of the article replaces the specific organisation named in the original with the generic ‘environmental and wildlife organisations’. Our links, at the time of publication, still give access to the images on which the detailed analysis is based. The two paradigms identified are, of course, valid in spite of these editorial change which inevitably brings about some loss of precision. These paradigms are coincidentally also the focus of debate among academic biosemioticians currently. The Semionaut Award judging panel will base their final decision on the merits of all the short listed papers and will take the original fully illustrated version as their reference point for this one.

ENVIRONMENTAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS, HUMAN HUBRIS AND GLOBAL ETHICS

Humankind is currently confronted by global warming and mass species extinction, both of which are arguably exacerbated, if not directly caused, by human action. While humans may be the cause, all species, including humans, are at risk, and, in this way, all species are equal. Yet the way that environmental and wildlife organisations represent this issue in their various campaigns does not always suggest this is so. In some campaigns, the victim is a nonhuman species, while in others the victim is human. At the same time, the campaigns juxtapose the natural against the artificial or technological. Analysis of the semiotics employed by environmental organisations in their various advertising campaigns reveals there are two dualisms at work, namely human/nonhuman and natural/technological. These dualisms can operate to see humankind as the culprit of global warming and species extinction, such that they maintain human hubris as beyond nature. Alternatively, the dualisms can position humans as victims, knocking us off the branches of our evolutionary tree to bring us back down to earth.

Humankind as beyond nature

Several advertising campaigns represent humankind as both the cause and means of prevention of species extinction. Such campaigns include “Help protect the future of endangered species”  and “Before it’s too late” . These two campaigns allude to an imagined future in which natural animals have been replaced by artificial simulacra – cyborgs in one, origami in the other. While these campaigns suggest that technological replacements are inferior to the natural or real thing, these campaigns reaffirm the natural/technological dualism. Another campaign, “Our life at the cost of theirs?”, makes explicit this alignment of human and technology. Human interests are diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of nonhuman species, and the provocative campaign title is supported by artwork of metropolises that have the shape of animals.

In such advertising campaigns, it seems that technology and nature cannot exist in symbiosis and humankind’s alignment with the technological works to sever us from the natural world. Not only this, but the consequences of global warming and species extinction are kept at our arm’s length – it is not we who are at risk of extinction, but them. Thus, such campaigns also reaffirm the human/nonhuman dualism. In doing so, both the natural and nonhuman are represented as passive victims of humans and technology, and the call for action in these campaigns in dependent on seeing the nonhuman as objects to be valued, thus maintaining human hubris as above and beyond nature.

Humankind as part of nature

Panther

A second group of campaigns represent humankind as being part of nature and, thus, at risk from global warming and species extinction. One such campaign is “Preserve your world. Preserve yourself” which uses optical illusions to give a human face to forest scenes. While this face could be read as belonging to Mother Nature, the campaign slogan encourages the viewer to consider themselves, and thus humankind, within the natural setting. Another campaign, “Their extinction is ours as well,” further embeds humankind within nature. For this series of advertisements, naked humans pose in animal-like stances within a jungle setting. Yet a third campaign, “Stop climate change before it changes you” blends the human and the animal; the subject of the advertisement is a man whose head has morphed into that of a fish . Such campaigns challenge the human/animal dualism and reaffirm humankind’s animality and dependence on the natural world. Because of this, humans are positioned as the subject and belonging to nature. We are thus victims of global warming and at risk of extinction ourselves.

Gorilla

Unlike those campaigns that set humans apart from nature, these campaigns that embed humankind within nature move towards a more inclusive global ethics. While arguably the call for action appeals to humankind’s self-preservation, that these campaigns challenge the human/nonhuman dualism invites the viewer to reconsider humankind’s animality and our place within nature. Such campaigns encourage us to view nonhuman species as our kin, not objects of our affection that we should preserve for our own pleasure.

© Troy Potter 2014

 

Posted in Australasia, Categories, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Short List – Taras

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

Every day millions of people all around the world use railway transport. For many passengers taking a train is an everyday routine, since some simply commute day to day  to/from work, others must travel as a part of their job etc. However at the same time for many of us taking a train is perhaps not such an ordinary experience. Imagine a student on a train finally returning home after a semester of study abroad, or maybe grandparents paying a visit to their (grand)children in a far away megalopolis, or just a tourist who had to save money for a number of years in order to travel around Europe with hop-on hop-off rail pass. For all of them taking a train becomes THE travel experience – in some sense unusual & promising, for some perhaps even a bit nostalgic.

On the other side of the fence – in the world of rail companies – it is all about constant, sometimes even aggressive, competition for passengers. And such state of affairs is not surprising, because the rail operator success formula is relatively easy (and obviously not very unique) – bigger passenger flow brings higher profits. That is the reason why each and every rail company tries to search for the best ways and channels to communicate with their potential passengers, to persuade you and me to use their services.

 Language and Codes of Argumentation

If only a few decades ago railways had more or less monopolistic position in a niche of passenger logistics, nowadays they have to fight with aviation (especially low-cost airlines), bus companies and private auto transport which all, just like mushrooms after the rain, became widely spread over recent decades. As result the first line of combat is about the fight between trains and other modes of transportation. In this battlefield rail companies usually fight together, on a sort of joint front, while sharing a common discourse. Their language of argumentation gets constantly perfected and as of nowadays usually includes:

a) An argument of eco-friendliness. Trains being presented as more energy-efficient (per passenger) and polluting far less compared to airplanes and cars.  The slogan “go green – take a train” (or such like) can be found in the arsenal of almost all rail companies. Probably one of the best examples here is the EuroStar Group (running high-speed trains from London to Paris & Brussels), among the first heavily relying on environmental efficiency topics.

b) City-to-city easy access with no hassle. Historically train stations tend to be located in city centers, thus taking a train promises passenger departure and arrival to the city center, no need to travel to the distant airport, spend time for check-in, security checks and other air travel related nuisances. The overall practicality of choosing rail transport is widely stressed.

c) The promise of comfort. Traditionally train seats (and especially berths) tend to be more spacious and comfortable compared to bus or airplane seating. Train passengers also can always easily stroll around the carriage, stretch, visit the dining car etc.

d) Beyond just transportation. Rail companies tend to advertise scenic views from the train window as something totally different than clouds seen through plane windows or highways with cars passing by. Train passengers are often promised to expect spectacular scenery. Probably the most successful examples of such branding of train trip can be seen from Swiss private railways running touristic trains (Glacier Express, Bernina Express and the like). Rail journeys just for the sake of enjoying picturesque natural beauty.

e)     Old-fashioned charm. The globalized world is usually about speed and air travel, so rail operators came up with a sort of contrasting idea to sell – the train journey portrayed as something refreshingly traditional. The passenger is offered not just a ticket from destination A to destination B, but the experience of the journey. An experience like a trip taken from a movie script of the old film or a diary of someone who travelled on the late 19th century Orient Express.

 Branding Unique Experience

The general argumentation behind taking a train is obviously only a tip of an iceberg, basically a shared visible ‘flag’. While at the end it inevitably comes to promoting only your company or your train, and here examples and possibilities are definitely much more diverse.

NTV-NOLA070

http://www.flickr.com/photos/trenoitalo/6652720499/sizes/m/in/photostream/

For instance just last year Italy witnessed an arrival to the domestic market of the new private rail company Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV). One of the main shareholders in the company was well-known Luca di Montezemolo (Chairman of the Ferrari Company). NTV’s initial project was to introduce totally novel high-speed train service (brand ITALO) between major Italian cities and, obviously owing to the persona of di Montezemolo, the new trains received the nickname ‘Ferrari of the Railyards’. Keywords like ‘Ferrari train’ appeared in the reports of all the major media (CNN, Spiegel, The Guardian, Forbes etc.) describing the new rail service. Italo trains were almost instantly praised for the level of comfort and service never seen in Italy before. As result nowadays even ordinary passengers, and especially visitors from abroad, would refer to the NTV rail service as being associated with the Ferrari brand. And definitely in this case the reference to Ferrari is rather symbolic and brings along quite obvious connotations and meanings favorable for the company exploiting such branding. However the funniest thing in this story is that NTV-Italo trains actually have almost nothing to do with Ferrari (maybe besides the choice of color and the persona of di Montezemolo). They were produced by French transport corporation Alstom. But does it really matter if NTV managers can maintain the Ferrari connotations?

Red Arrow

http://periskop.livejournal.com/464165.html

Another case concerns a train from the other side of the European continent – USSR/Russia. Probably almost everybody who lived or traveled by rail in USSR/Russia will know about the famous Red Arrow train from Moscow to Leningrad/St.Petersburg. It is a case where one particular train became a brand and an easily recognizable symbol. For a start, all the carriages of the train historically were painted in a unique dark-red livery, plus every carriage has the name of the train written on the side, so that anybody who sees this train even from a distance will be able to recognize it  (a sort of Jakobson’s visual sign denoting a particular train). Secondly, the Red Arrow train has a rather symbolic train number – 001/002, in a way symbolizing importance (i.e. being the first) of rail connections between two Russian capitals. Thirdly, during the departure of the train a special song is played throughout the station, so it is not just about livery, color or number, but also about auditory signification – letting everybody know that it’s time for the departure of train #1.

There are dozens of examples from all over the world illustrating rail companies’ deliberate branding of some of their products (like a particular train or high-speed service), branding which in a way creates a recognizable symbol, a sort of assurance of the very special travel experience a passenger will get the minute he or she boards the train. So next time you plan to travel by train make sure you pay attention not just to your ticket and departure time, but to a ‘story behind your train.

© Taras Boyko

 

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Short List – Matthew

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

PLACES, COGNITION AND ADVERTS

If advertising were a singularly effective form of communication, opinions about products and services would be homogenous across the audiences that viewed the advert.  This does not seem to be the case; likely because there are forces (in the form of opinions) working outside/against those very adverts.  Advertising must constantly work to combat these outside forces in order to homogenize the opinions of the audiences it works on.  The place where we can vividly see this at work is in tourism advertising.  This is because it is in consideration of places that people, for better or worse, tend to have and hold a largely monotone opinion – a sort of synthesis of various opinions and stereotypes that one collects when exposed to information of that place.

Very often advertisers of place must combat this barrage of negative opinions.  We can imagine that in light of the recent knot of political circumstances the country has been in, it would be very hard for any marketer of place to create an effective campaign for Afghanistan, despite the fact that (surely!) the country must have a certain degree of natural beauty and charm to it.  Such a person would have to create an advertising campaign that in some respect could combat all the negative associations of that place; near ten years of war, a link to terrorism, a key component of the opium trade, internal strife, and very oppressive members of their society.  This extreme example very clearly illustrates the problem in marketing place, but what about a potential solution?

Italy has not in the recent years held the countries that formed Yugoslavia in highest regards.  It might be that the proximity allowed Italians to witness the worst of the eastern bloc without being in it, or it might be that the very same proximity brought many Yugoslavian immigrants to Italian shores.  How this came about is not terribly relevant; what is to the point is that Italians still associate some of the countries with that rather bleak period of their history.  It is sad to say, but to a certain extent the rather vivid memory of Tito and ethnic tension still lingers in the memory of many Italians.  Such opinions disregard how very much those countries have changed since 1991.  It is the responsibility of these countries and more specifically of the marketers of place responsible for the tourism therein, to attempt to change the opinions therein.

Fiume

Carnival at Rijeka, Croatia, spectators included

Let us for a moment consider just a few opening shots of a video that, although not geared specifically towards Italians, is still used to promote Croatia to an Italian audience.  The video is in fact a part of Croatia’s official Italian language tourism page.  The video begins in a rather straightforward manner; a few opening shots of the sea by which many tourists will arrive; the very same sea, we are shown through the images of people in seemingly traditional dresses working on boats, that seems important to a Croatian identity.  It is interesting to note the presence of a white and black stripped shirt; an object often associated with Venetian gondoliers.  We are soon shown the eagle’s eye view of the city, and from their we know we have arrived.  The next shot show a gate, presumably a city gate, opening to release a group of tourists.  It is at this scene where the video becomes rather interesting, for it continues to follow this group of tourists around as they explore Croatia.  This is a splitting from a normal stylistic point of tourism advertising.  Normally in tourism adverts tourists are expunged completely; in that people consider tour groups to be a nuisance in real life, in most brochures and commercials they are either removed or kept to a minimum as not to detract attention from the monuments which are meant to be exhibited. In fact, much of the rest of this commercial has the figures of tourists expunged in a similar manner.  As an occasional alternative, certain tourism commercial will prominently feature one tourist from whom the viewer can, for those few seconds, live a brief vicarious vacation meant to form an appetite for that place.  This, however, is different; the next few shots are littered with dozens of tourists engaging in what are very obviously tourist activities.  For the most part, they herd around in groups and take pictures of monuments.  So if the conventional wisdom argues that the opposite should be done, why has Croatia chosen to do this?

The answer would appear to be to convince the viewer that Croatia is indeed a place where a multitude of tourists visit.  Showing the city devoid of people would perhaps showcase the beauty of the city and its monuments in a certain light, but it would as well make it seem abandoned and thus somewhat eerie.  This of course would not be a very good marketing point.  Doing it instead in this manner showcases the liveliness – and at the same time showcases the safety – of tourism in Croatia.  When a person cognizes a place it is difficult for them to do such in any form that resembles a totality.  Places, complex as they are, do not sum up easily; thus a person is obliged to think through the catalogue of opinions she or he may have of a place.  For this reason, it becomes rather beneficial for the marketers of place to constantly insert new and fresh opinions into a cultural understanding.  This both widens the catalogue of impressions a person may have of a place while perhaps diluting away the negative understandings that have been unfortunately maintained throughout the years.  What the advertisers of Croatia have done in the commercial done is beneficial; in a country that still tends to bear the burden of an unpleasant recently history, such a demonstration seems absolutely necessary.  The effort is certainly laudable.

© Matthew Campanella

 

 

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semionaut Award Winner 2014 – Hannah

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

 

IS THIS HEAVEN? REFLECTIONS ON BARTHES AND FACEBOOK

It was before Photography that men had the most to say about the vision of the double. Heautoscopy was compared with an hallucinosis; for centuries this was a great mythic theme. But today it is as if we repressed the profound madness of Photography.[1]
                                                     Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980)

 Never before could we see ourselves at a distance so accurately until photography. Seeing double was a great gestalt and heautoscopy was a great mythic theme that has since subsided with the rise of the photographic image. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida a hundred years after the rise of photography and now, in 2013, mirror images of the world and of ourselves are everywhere. Second Life boasts actual avatars while Facebook is more popular and heavily relies on photography. Perhaps now that the Internet and social media have taken photography to new heights, “the vision of the double” as myth should rise out of repression. The “profound madness” of photography graduated into a mere age of appropriation with its mythic heritage extraordinarily passé. However, Barthes’ admonition is just as powerful in today’s image-based culture.

HoelGraphic

Facebook

 Facebook launched in 2004 as a reservoir of digital people—essentially doppelgängers. A year ago, there were just under a billion Facebook users.[2] That’s a lot of phantom images and biographical info that contribute to this online analogue.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, stated a rather jarring proclamation: “You have one identity […] The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly […] Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[3]

Facebook has become a necessary evil. Those with the most integrity refrain from the social network altogether. Zuckerberg’s idea of branding the person may be the modern way but this does not disarm Zuckerberg flipping what is madness into its opposite, a mark of integrity. It’s no secret that those not so discerning (myself included) give something away when we use it. “I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing.”[4] Everybody knows we are posing. What we give away is more than biographical information and family photos. It is the stuff of family albums. We all know that it is “imaginary” but we don’t just lend ourselves to the social game, we place our lives in an open market, making them incredibly vulnerable.

I depend on Facebook for evidence. A moment happens and if it’s not there amongst the relationship statuses, events, and photos, did it happen? “No doubt it is metaphorically that I derive my existence from the photographer,” writes Barthes, who admits his metaphor but where he nonetheless experiences “the anguish of an uncertain filiation.” An unknown person is prying and will use the tentacles of my (profound) self as bait. Facebook and real life are too often mutually informative, making Barthes’ use of ‘metaphorically’ wrought with slippage.

Zuckerberg’s admonition that we should all have only one identity is absurd and illogical. I funnel a portion of me online, my “one identity” by siphoning off myself into the Internet where it sits like a phantom limb, “but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy.”[5]

Facebook presents a completely schizophrenic paradigm: a digital medley meant to comprise a whole, the newest gestalt: biographical statistics, thoughts, geographical locations, media, the timeline, and of course photographs and selfies—all meant to comprise my singular identity while hopefully safeguarding my profound self.

Death by Instagram

 Instagram (bought by Facebook) places me into historical context as if I belonged there. Twenty vintage hazes offer my everyday digital images the antiquated appeal of the good old days—back when we used film and color saturation faded from time. Instagram mocks today’s nostalgic longing by suggesting that we are all old souls and that our quotidian snapshots were already remembered and safeguarded as familial relics—just as our grandparents were. Facebook may be mad but it’s lost its sincerity, making it less virile to our psyches. Instagram barely clings to sincerity, mythologizing our image in the way a painting once could.

The camera trespasses upon the living and the photograph lingers as a ruin. In a search for something authentic, the Millennials made themselves more dead—the photograph with a vintage haze. Furthermore, a posed photograph boasts the anticipating subject, one who opts for paralysis. By these terms, today’s selfies are none other than metaphorical public suicides.

Facebook’s white glow, timeline, news feed, and updates volunteer the artifice of life while the “home” button is a click away, a digital Oz. Is this heaven?

© Hannah Hoel

 

Footnotes

[1] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 12-13. Print.

[2] Yung-Hui, Lim. “1 Billion Facebook Users On Earth: Are We There Yet?.” Forbes. 9 30 2012: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

[3] Zimmer, Michael. “Facebook’s Zuckerberg:”Having Two Identities For Yourself is an Example of a Lack of Integrity”.” 14 05 2010: n. page. Web. 30 Nov. 2013. 

[4] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. 11-12. Print.

 [5]Ibid.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | 1 Comment »

Short List – Celeny

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

 

THE LAYERED GAZE OF THE MEGALOPOLIS

To identify a space is a challenging undertaking filled with problematic notions of graphing, naming and containing a territory. Yet to identify a memory or moment created within a space is a more plausible endeavor. One of the powers of physical space is its unyielding ability to create a temporary and temperamental place. But it is the inhabitants that give birth to the settlement itself. Cities, on the one hand, often make one feel small or insignificant, while on the other, they also make one feel enlarged and intoxicated by its growing space. In this short paper, I will use China based photographer Jasper James’s photographs of cities through the silhouettes of people to explain how these images that combine cityscape, portraits, and one’s individual existence metamorphosis into one; how they become an invitation to see the world differently.

With humble and distant observation, James’s “City Silhouettes” series is taken in Beijing, China, one of the most populated megalopolises in the world. The density and immense traffic of human encounters on the daily basis is here staggering. However, these images give the viewer a chance to have a singular moment with one person in the foreground while simultaneously seeing the habitat of over 20 million residents in the background. The silhouettes function as a portal between the mind and the moment (of seeing), the occupant and the occupancy, the organic person and the inorganic structure of linear city architecture, and so on. Using three superimposed layers to make the photographs, James emphasizes the person, the city, and the sky and in each image declares the illusion of chaotic solitude or the multiple nature of each individual.

JasperJames1
Figure 1.© Jasper James

In Figure 1., we see a woman looking down upon the city with a nurturing and pensive yet determined tone. A major color spectrum can be identified: from the darkest black to the palest white. The lighting seems similar to the sky when reaching dawn and the fading of the layers causes the building structures to blend in displaying a hue of softness, a misunderstood lightness and overall vulnerability. Perhaps this is the woman’s perspective of the municipality, of her lived experience, and simultaneously her moment of genuine experience of the city. But the more general question that arises is this one: How does this images relate to any urban person’s lived experience? Simply put, we all see reality through our own eyes. The magnitude of any city can never camouflage the magnitude of the self. Moreover, the identification of each silhouette is vague enough to allow anyone with a vivid imagination to slip inside its shadows and fill in the void. James has concurrently revealed, first, how small we are as humans in a metropolis and, second, how big we are as individuals in a metropolis. He questions the viewer to decide for herself or himself which of the two unveilings to scale at that particular moment of seeing.

JasperJames2
Figure 2.© Jasper James

In Figure 2. James’ image of the urban child is a muddled message to decipher, with conflicting tonalities between a lost child pleading for help and a curious child enamored with its concrete fortress. Is this surrender or praise? Is the city a welcoming haven for a child or brutal fast lane? This particular moment captured by the image suggests both polarities of experience. In addition, the sides of the image are blurred which in turn gives the outline of the child a highlighted contrast and sharpness. If this is the child’s perspective, is it steered within parameters? Are there limitations to what the child can see? Or else, what can the viewer see through the child? Is the child enchanted by the colossal constructions or just forgotten among monuments of business world? James’s use of contrast gives way to interpreting the shapes of emotion within the physical layouts, where the only way to go is up. The buildings rise as the child rises too, and the movement is not only captured but also suggested as limitless..

Each photograph thus has a variety of colors from the full spectrum allowing for layered and multiple interpretations to emerge. If the colors were pastel, the images would seem lighter in tone and expression; if the images were in monochrome, the messages would lack certain depth. The use of color and fading with the white to black spectrum gives them a realistic documentarian tone. The city then also becomes multi-layered space and a multiplicity in itself. Some people allow for a city to drive them: drive them mad, drive them to success, drive them away, while others remain as they were and become interiors of the city. James portrays the insight of the separate: the endless particles of the mass that form megalopolis. In a city like Beijing, with limited spacing capacities, the photographer has achieved a way to represent individualism using just light and angle. As a creative resistance to territorial assault, James manages to make the viewer briefly experience the dizzying inertia of a city; a moment in which a viewer, that is, human figure, can for a second exceed the scale of a megalopolis. I think that James’s photographs operate as superior ads for the city, providing a fresh image of Beijing, one where art perfectly folds into superior marketing.

© Celeny Gonzalez

 

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Asia, Culture, Making Sense | No Comments »

Short List – Arief

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

 

POP MUSIC GONE POSTMODERN

Read about the contemporary popular music industry, or begin such a discussion with just about anyone who’s been paying attention, and chances are the following three topics prominently feature: Miley Cyrus’ public image transformation from clean-cut Disney creation to bares it all uber-twerker, the fallout following crooner Robin Thicke’s summer smash ‘Blurred Lines’ that has seen it banned by more than 20 student unions in the UK among other controversies, and just about anything that Lady Gaga has been up to lately. What will be noticeable about these conversations is that each of the aforementioned are held up to represent the over-the-line excesses of mainstream pop music, eliciting some sense of moral outrage through performances heavy with cultural appropriation, sexual politics and unabashed explicit vulgarity. Meanwhile, some passing acknowledgement of their actual music will be met with, bar the professional critic’s work, varying degrees of nonchalance; a feeling most are likely to take towards the industry as a whole.

1CADC3C1

© 2013 Kevin Mazur/Wireimage

A developing point from these examples is that the ensuing reactions can be traced to a branding template of sorts, widely adopted by fellow pop artists, one that sees elements of subversion and provocation performed in individual or body of works. On the one hand, blatant performances guided by appropriating such ideas should not really come as a surprise when much of society now gets their music from a competitive and ephemeral online environment, particularly when considering that views on an artist’s Youtube video count toward their music billboard rankings. It only makes sense for an artist’s image to intrigue by raising the proverbial eyebrow, at least from both an economic and attention-grabbing standpoint.

Moreover, while provocative music augmented by subversive and countercultural imagery has been prominent of late, it is not a recent development. Just think of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty’ (2002), Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ (2011), Gwen Stefani’s 2005 flirtation with the Japanese Harajuku image, and Adam Lambert’s performance of simulated oral sex at the 2009 American Music Awards, to name a few.

On the other hand, however, such formulaic branding inclinations and attempts to translate seemingly countercultural performances into mainstream cultural mores suggest a wider phenomenon at work, one steeped in the cultural discourse of media development. It is also something that has been somewhat shrouded in quiet abandon in terms of being a resultant commentary point. The one that I refer to would be that of the postmodernist stance toward the mass media. A view outlines an apparent saturation of popular culture commodities over the public sphere that results in cultural products being structured and realized around the simulation aspect of signs and appropriation of images, according to a concept of ‘hyperreality’ first posited by Jean Baudrillard.

To demonstrate how this might be so, I will explain through the example of Lady Gaga – to be regarded from here as a cultural product – to illustrate just how this postmodernist view is reflected within the current pop music scene. Gaga has navigated her career with a well-fashioned understanding of effective brand communication that not only draws upon postmodernist cues, but also reflects the transformation of the cultural milieu in which it operates.

Gaga1

© Interscope Records

Her personal brand can be seen as having been carefully crafted to uniquely differentiate herself as a musician and enable her to achieve great commercial and critical success. Brand Gaga has become a distinct cultural product insofar that her music and image have reached a height of success and popularity that even her fans have been assigned the moniker ‘Little Monsters’. A following examination of the cultural cues that Gaga has leveraged for her branding success is enlightening as her persona and artistry is heavily informed by Baudrillard’s view of the consequences of a media-saturated society, where entertainment & communications technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the banality of everyday life experiences through the simulation aspect of signs and images within mass media.

Gaga2

© Getty Images

Such logic is apparent in Gaga the cultural product. By her insistence, she is first and foremost a ‘performance artist’ and imagery is crucial. Undoubtedly, Gaga is notorious for her outlandish public appearances. She embodies a ‘designer ideology’ where style predominates almost at the expense of substance and meaning. For example, her every public appearance in a bizarre-looking outfit makes her a consumed item, from which numerous mainstream media stories are produced. Even her corpus of work reflects this tendency, particularly her early works when she first blazed onto the pop music scene. She focuses upon themes of fame, materialism, narcissism and sex. For example, her first single, ‘Just Dance’, appears to concern with no more than the idea of hedonistic excess while another, ‘Poker Face’, explores the idea of engendering a misleading perception in social interactions.

Lady Gaga further exhibits this postmodern ‘hyperreality’ notion by facilitating a display of ‘radical implosions’. The postmodern perspective dictates the concept as autonomous realms like culture, economics, art and politics collapsing into each other and erasing previously defined boundaries. Similarly, Gaga seems to break the boundaries between image, spectacle and everyday life. Her emphasis on style, combined with her professional persona, leads to a difficulty in maintaining a meaningful distinction between art and popular culture.

It is interesting to note, however, that Lady Gaga’s overall brand communication not only suggests the evolution of wider popular culture toward a hedonism & superficiality created by designer ideology and upon which current pop music finds itself positioned, but simultaneously is crafted as social commentary to warn against this development. This is, importantly, where her counterculture performance template digresses from her contemporaries. She straddles the fine line between commentary and self-participation by creating a narrative so hyperbolic the aim of eliciting debate and introspection that, upon further inspection, none of the other current artists seem to similarly suggest in their performance of counterculture.

© Arief Fauzy 2014

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Diversity Act III

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

Act III.  Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité

A Google search for a definition of ‘diversity’ first produces the following, from the University of Oregon, a liberal mission statement verging on a spiritual affirmation – where mere tolerance gives way to an embracing and celebration of an abundance of positive human differences: “The concept of diversity encompasses acceptance and respect. 
It means understanding that each individual is unique, 
and recognizing our individual differences.  These can be along 
the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies.  It is the exploration 
of these differences in a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. 
It is about understanding each other and moving beyond 
simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the 
rich dimensions of diversity contained within each individual”.

‘Diversity’ like ‘sustainability’, I wrote in the first part of this sequence, is a buzz word of today which was rarely heard in its contemporary sense a decade ago. In the context of commercial cultural work I first heard the term earlier, at the end of the 1990s, at a semiotics inspired workshop – as part of a Rainbow Nation related positioning opportunity for a South African drinks brand (symbolically a long way on from the still chronologically recent era of Apartheid) where a reassuring underpinning to this new pluralism and tolerance was provided by the notion of the natural gene pool’s unparalleled diversity in that part of the world.

Sanex

This rhetorical rooting of the historical and ideological in the eternal givenness of nature is a central ploy of commercial messaging and popular culture, as identified in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, the pioneer semiologist operating in these areas.  As I write a TV advertisement for Sanex Bio Response deodorant illustrates wonderfully how far this discourse of natural diversity has come in the meantime, combining with that of ecological sustainability. The visual of this TV execution is, in 2014, accompanied in UK by a different v/o script to the one in the film online: “Your underarm skin contains a diversity of natural bacteria essential for keeping skin healthy. If that diversity is disrupted it can affect your skin’s health. New Sanex antiperspirants fight odour-causing bacteria and leave a beneficial mix of bacteria keeping skin healthy”. This latter point is illustrated by a microscopic close-up revealing an underarm biosphere and hosts of beautiful naked women and men doing a Leni Riefenstahl style routine albeit more ethnically diverse, no longer in the cause of Herrenvolk or Kraft durch Freude but now, resoundingly, for personal freshness and diversity.

The prescience of semiological (or semiotic) analysis is heralded in a text by Roland Barthes from as early as 1955, in which he speaks in support of cultural diversity and specificity in a language which would chime happily with the ways in which we have learned to speak of diversity today. In his essay, reprinted in Mythologies, on a high profile photo exhibition brought from the US to Paris, where it was entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’, Barthes critiqued the whole tonality of the event for falsely universalizing a Western middle-class construction of life (received wisdom and imagery around birth, death, love, work etc.) and lacking sensitivity to the true diversity of experience and culture in these areas, notably those differences reflecting injustice and inequalities between rich and poor countries.

BarthesFamily

The myth of the exhibition, Barthes writes, functions in two ways. First the exoticism of superficial differences – the diversity (diversité in the original French) “in skins, skulls and customs” evoking a Babel-like heterogeneity. But then, beneath the surface, the essences and universality of the human condition are sentimentally and misleadingly projected – asserting a shared ‘nature’ at the cost of losing the diversity which is the true stuff of history and the differences on which an authentic rather an exploitative and sentimentalised humanism would be focusing. Barthes’s example of birth here can illustrate the general principle: “True, children are always born, but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the ‘essence’ of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth”. ‘Diversité’ is a word Barthes deploys in this piece three times in all, at key points in the argument.

It’s a safe bet today to assume that brands are commissioning semiotic and cultural reports on how diversity is being communicated in different global markets and cross-culturally (these three Semionaut pieces have presented a mosaic of diversity stimulus currently operating in UK culture specifically, but much carries over to or from other places of course). This kind of cultural and brand intelligence into meanings and modes of communicating diversity would be a no-brainer for some obvious candidates (Nike, Dove, HSBC, Virgin, the great metropolitan hubs like London or New York, yoghurt or beauty brands looking at the diversity of ‘good bacteria’ and categories looking to exploit other areas of scientific research in the microbiome). To some degree, as a mainstay of cultural and corporate thinking in an increasingly global market and increasing internal heterogeneity within local cultures, diversity semiotics must be, however, a topic of serious interest for all brands going forward wherever they are – impacting not only on the external consumer projection and interaction but also on internal corporate cultures. It goes without saying that digitalization and social networks, displacing the old media pillars of cultural unity and relative univocality, communicate and feed back into all the pulsing life of diversity and mindfulness around difference that we have been exploring here. And social networking tools like Facebook or Twitter are well advised to adapt semiotic methods to make sense of their own big data sets in understanding and harnessing opportunities around the same set of cultural phenomena.

Davos

Even a cursory analysis of the Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes of diversity and the main trajectories they follow would reveal one major theme, pretty much eclipsed from the late 1980s through to the 2008 financial crisis, which brings us around in some ways full circle to the values of justice, equality and myth disclosure informing the work of Roland Barthes in Mythologies. The biggest emergent theme in diversity, one which Roland Barthes would have appreciated and which is now moving into the dominant mainstream of thinking, is is about equality and fraternity, the values that seem to have been left behind when liberty was reframed (and fetishized to the exclusion of the other two) as economic and regulatory liberalization – with what appears, given the wisdom of hindsight after the economic crash of 2008, to have been a charter for the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer with social mobility, in countries such as UK and US (Brazil and some other emerging markets being honourable exceptions in this respect), virtually grinding to a halt.

On that Oregon list of diversity dimensions (above) some are familiar and in the comfort zone, especially in Western societies although globally things move in this area at different speeds, even in different directions. This liberal comfort zone embraces diversity in race, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, age and religious beliefs (barring a somewhat hasty default populist connotation of ‘terror’ that goes with ‘Muslim’, in which the Islam/Islamist verbal connection is no doubt a factor).

Less familiar, perhaps, therefore retaining an emergent edge, is the notion that socio-economic status, 
political beliefs, or other ideologies (all on the Oregon list) are also dimensions to be taken into account in embracing diversity. But in the wake of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, with an increasing emphasis now on inclusion, the detrimental social impact of a widening rich-poor gap, and the evolution of ‘sustainability’ meanings from an exclusive ecological focus in the past to the emerging emphasis on social sustainability (where the discourses coincide with emergent diversity concerns, as maintaining natural diversity overlaps with ecological sustainability). And this is no longer just about small groups of radical activists or semiologists sniping from the sidelines about bourgeois popular culture. These are concerns reflected in big corporations such Unilever signaling a major shift in philosophy and global activity from a bygone unmindful focus on consumerism and growth at any cost, in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Davos 2014 agenda for “Reshaping the World” and in Obama’s January 2014 State of the Union speech touching on fairer distribution and closing the wealth gap.

As I drafted this, on the morning of  28th January 2014 the voice of Pete Seeger, who died the previous night, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m convinced that sooner or later the people of the whole world will have to do something about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, while middle class people like me have to be concerned about the consequences of speaking up and rocking the boat”.  After a long time in the wilderness for this discourse it felt again exacty of the moment. The programme played out with a snatch of Pete Seeger’s Turn, Turn, Turn adapting the words of the preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season/ And a time to every purpose under heaven”.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY

I’m arguing the virtues of 12 Years a Slave, with the Semiotic Monkey, who is mischievously taking the side of Django Unchained and pretending to be a fan of Tarantino’s triviality, condescension, aestheticised violence and general semio-perversion. Comparisons like that are odious of course (we share a distaste for loaded binaries preferring on principle Saussure’s differences without positive terms or a Jungian discipline of owning one’s own shadow) but we’re having fun. Long live: realism however harrowing; Steve McQueen’s lingering moments of visual beauty (perfectly timed – slightly too long for commercial cinema, too short for art house self-indulgence); suffering and endurance; the human capacity for corruption – those Southerners are the great granddaddies of the people who won’t let Obama close Guantanamo; Enlightenment values and commitment to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité; an integrity and authenticity that leaves in 12 Years a Slave plenty of room for odd chiaroscuro moments of mawkish musicality and a Brad Pitt career-low performance dispatching in one bravura gesture suspicions of any disempowered embedding of the film in Clooney Brangelina relatively cosy Hollywood liberalism.

The Semiotic Monkey switches the chatter to the Rainbow Nation and produces a battered copy of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s What If Latin America Ruled the World from his rucksack.  He shows me the passages around page 390 showing the 2010 analysis of race and income in South Africa, and the same old same old underlying the rainbow myth: “The numbers tell us who in fact run the country. They also reveal what did not change: political liberation from apartheid in 1994 coincided with economic liberalization in 1995, meaning the wealth accumulated during or as a result of apartheid remained in the same hands. […] Those who benefited from the spoils of racism kept their profits, and continue to benefit from them even though apartheid is officially over”.

The Monkey then offers the opinion that redistribution of wealth would undo some of the socioeconomic, political and ideological diversity the Oregon definition is so keen for us to celebrate. Embracing the human riches implicit in socioeconomic diversity is what that old English Hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ is about – “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them high and lowly/ And ordered their estate”.  Share the wealth fairly and you bugger the whole diversity beanery. End of escapade.  Ultimately ‘diverse’, he says, is just a code word for ethnic, gay, disabled – a liberal positive sounding sop to the marginalized. Like ‘community’ it’s a piece of pastoral and exoticism, a word you never hear applied to bankers or the Old Etonians who run UK Gov and local government in London.  Thomas Pynchon, Proverbs for Paranoids: “If they get you asking the wrong questions they don’t have to worry about the answers”. But we are getting closer to the nub of the right question now, and the whole diversity shadow play has, believe it or not, done a lot to help us get there. Never either/or. Always both/and.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Diversity Act II

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Act II Reconciliation Commission

This is a continuation of some exploratory warm-up writing carried out in preparation for more formal work in progress, for ESOMAR, on diversity culture and semiotics. The thoughts in this section were triggered in part by Linda Colley’s recent book Acts of Union and Disunion, which explores Britishness and the mosaic of identities it brings together. Apologies for the indulgence here in family and Welshness. Being Welsh is a vocation, unfortunately, a bit like being  Russian. Luckily we are very badly placed to ever start a nationalist war against anybody. I have tried to limit my rumination in that direction to matters strictly relevant to diversity. As a student in the 1960s, when Conservative politician Enoch Powell ranted against immigration and foresaw race wars and “rivers of blood” ,I briefly ran a campaign to offer extremist English people £10 each in cash to help them repatriate to Germany – leaving the native Britons, the decent open-minded English and our friends incoming from around the world to create the happy heterogeneity which at last came to fruition in the new diverse London emerging triumphantly at the 2012 Olympics. 

As I started this piece my partner Hester, who voices documentaries, museum guides, advertisements, corporate training videos, cartoons and computer games, asked me what I was writing about. When I replied ‘diversity’, she said “Oh, that’s a word I have to say all the time” and she asked “What does it mean?”. It’s a moving target. If you talk about it in the abstract you miss it altogether, hence the need to concretize diversity in some kind of living mosaic. It’s at the core of ideology today – and ideology is something we live and breathe not just something we profess or have safely parked in our heads.

For my Semiotic Monkey (see Act I for an introduction) every day is a diversity field day, my home life being partly in France and my working life in UK as a jumping off point for semiotic training and analysis carried out around the world. I have noticed here in Paris that what estate agents in England call the ‘master bedroom’ (where the master beds his servants, presumably, including the wife – ‘her indoors’ in common English parlance) is known in France as ‘la suite parentale’, connoting the civilized discretion of an ensemble of spaces occupied by equal partners in caring authority and still active intimacy. It takes all kinds. I enjoy very much being French on a part-time basis but like many I keep a tally of the days I spend here (and never do an iota of work) so I don’t come even remotely near that magic 178 days number where you become eligible for French income tax. An Englishman in the South of the country told me that more than half of French people in employment are civil servants. So each one of them needs a proper productive person to look after him/her.  Or so the Englishman said – I gave him an indignant look.  As he left he retorted “If I want to support my own French civil servant I’ll buy one in a pet shop”.

I seem to remember, as a schoolboy in Wales, hearing that a condom (which in UK we called a French letter) was known in France as an Englishman’s overcoat. Apparently when syphilis appeared and spread through Europe like wildfire after being brought back by Columbus’s sailors from the New World (allegedly – sailors get a bad press and tend to attract a lot of knee-jerk prejudice, my dad was a sailor in the war) each country referred to it as something characteristic of and potentially contracted from the country next door – so in England ‘the French disease’. Now that’s what I call diversity.

Or rather its antithesis, paranoid and intent on living with loaded binary oppositions. I would recommend to anyone who suffers from this loaded binarism malaise Robert Johnson’s book Owning Your Own Shadow. That’s Robert A. Johnson not the one who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. But Robert A. is every bit as insightful as Robert was.  And if you approach that dodgy loaded binarisms problematic through psychology it’s a lot more interesting than doing it through Derrida, who reads like a combined user guide to origami, sudoku and crossword puzzles written for bonobos. Which, not believing in loaded binaries, I think is a good thing.

My great uncle Arthur Wynne invented the crossword puzzle – a family myth I was delighted to find confirmed as true in Bill Bryson’s book on American English.  We are all sitting here waiting patiently for the royalties. My great aunty Nansi, a distinguished Welsh harpist who travelled the world, met Robert Kellogg when in America and, the Welsh word for cockerel being ‘ceiliog’, suggested to him that this fortuitous homophony would suggest the cockerel as a very good symbol for his delicious new-fangled breakfast cereal. If you don’t believe me read her autobiography Cwpwrdd Nansi. I’ll send the Semiotic Monkey over to translate.

MobileMadoc

‘Welsh’ means ‘foreigner’ in the English spoken by the German invaders when they came over and stole the country from the aboriginal Brits. So it is a national identity playfully posited on internalised otherness and originary diversity. At Semiotic Solutions, in the early days of commercially applied semiotics I had my own special mug with a picture of a sheep on it and “Happiness is knowing that you’re Welsh emblazoned”. I remember that with great affection – anyone who was there will know I don’t mean this ironically. For anyone who wasn’t there I should explain that the Welsh (like people from New Zealand and the Falklands/Malvinas) are believed to have a more than passing or casual interest in sheep. The Welsh do diversity beautifully. Our Prince Madoc of Gwynedd and his crew landed at what is now Mobile Bay in Alalbama a very long time before Columbus did, leaving the New World unconquered, instead assimilating nicely with the indigenous peoples.  The princes of Gwynedd tended to be 7 or 8 feet tall. I wish I had a penny for every time in my life that anyone has asked me “What’s the weather like up there?”  Not that I’m implying a right of any kind to the Authentic Prince of Wales title – that would be treason which may still carry the death penalty in England. And the family’s still waiting for the cheque from Kelloggs. We’ll be swimming in yummy nutritious Coco Pops for generations!  The coming flood of grace, bounty and booty feels biblical in its scope. I’m planning to keep my head on for that.

For Act 5 of this unfolding drama Semionaut is asking people from around the world, in a few words, to answer these two questions: 1) What is the one big thing you remember most in your personal history and experience of diversity? 2) What’s the intriguing emergent thing in your mind right now about diversity as represented in the culture you’re closest too. Answers please (+ one image by way if illustration if possible) to editorial@semionaut.net  Plus a maximum 80 word biography, if you’re not already part of the network, and a face/head photograph of yourself to join.

© Malcolm Evans 2014

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Diversity Act I

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey

When I’m training people in commercial semiotics I use as an imaginary prop a character called the Semiotic Monkey, who sits on your shoulder and lets you be the virtual consumer or sample cultural superbeing to whom he has total telepathic access.  So while you walk around being your normal self – interacting, working, playing, falling in love, getting cross, running your culture’s cognitive, communicational, behavioural and prejudicial software – the Monkey looks on dispassionately gathering data, doing pattern recognition, thinking about theory, being relatively objective about the things you tend to get worked up about, and scratching her/his fleas.

I say ‘her/his’ because your own Semiotic Monkey can be configured as you will in terms of gender, ethnicity, cultural orientation etc. and in essence is inherently and ineradicably diverse, defined by inbuilt difference in motion rather than static unitary identity – in all things, as in its defining sexual preferences, Bonobo-like by virtue of an enthused (not to say crazed) plurality of tastes and practices.

As an expert in meaning, connotation, context (Hamsini Shivakumar, citing conceptual sources deep in Hindu culture, calls context “the meaning behind the meaning”) and in culture itself, the Semiotic Monkey is naturally drawn to the word ‘diversity’ today.  Diversity, like sustainability, is one of those resonant abstractions that capture the flavour of our times. Rarely heard in everyday usage 10 years ago it’s a word, in polite company, we all now have to at least pretend we understand.

It is a term with wide-ranging connotations which tend, on most occasions, to be emotionally charged because diversity sits on an ideological fault line (or, across cultures, a variety of them). For an instinctive conservative, an aficionado of tradition and clear-cut identities, talk of diversity can trigger anti-liberal and anti-PC warning lights. These in turn prompt a girding of the loins to combat perceived social evils such as out of control immigration, people being encouraged to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, or the spread of same sex marriage. As I write an anti-EC UKIP (Independence Party) politician has been holding the spread of gay marriage responsible for the divine retribution visited on the British in the floods and storms that ravaged the land like a plague at the end of 2013. While others, of course, are more inclined to attribute this to climate change or the notorious vagaries of the weather in this part of the world.

SemioticMonkey2

Conversely the d-word becomes a rallying call for tolerance, openness, equality, community and collaboration – for a warm liberal construction of humanity. An anthropologist from planet Zog would need only to search ‘diversity’ on Google Images to download that chunk of our global cultural software instantly. Try it, but don’t OD on benevolence and goodwill – and may the exercise help you on your personal journey towards effective cliché management.

Locally that visual and verbal language of positive diversity will have, at any point in time, its own rash of bugbears. In UK as I write media are engaging variously with: a need for affirmative action to recruit black and minority ethnic (BME) officers to restore balance to a police force increasingly seen to be out of tune with the communities it serves; the Liberal Democrats’ apologies to female party workers alleging sexual harassment over a number of years by a senior organization figure, Lord Rennard; a premiership football’s team’s sponsor withdrawing its financial support because of a supposedly anti-Semitic celebratory gesture by French striker Nicolas Anelka; and President Putin’s assurances, ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, that it’s not gay people themselves the Russian authorities object to (in English ‘gay’ is semantically a fascinating signifier to unpack) but the activity of  promoting homosexuality among young people.

It’s a sign of how times change that this ‘promoting homosexuality’ argument, now decoded by UK media as a sign of a culturally neanderthal homophobia in Russia, was itself deployed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s in Section 28 of the Local Government Act designed to combat the activities of teachers intent on upholding diversity (or whatever they called it in those days) as an alternative to institutional heterosexism in schools. I felt at the time that the Thatcher regime may have been secretly getting a little warm under the collar about school teachers and polytechnic lecturers in places like Camden and Islington having plans to try to make homosexuality compulsory. They had to be crushed by any means, as did the miners. One great Margaret Thatcher myth was that of the greengrocer’s daughter, with all the sentimental petit bourgeois ideological baggage that entailed. If we perpetuate that unitary myth in any form today we overlook a great diversity opportunity to also acknowledge that Mrs Thatcher was the property developer’s wife and the arms dealer’s mother.

All this is just in the last few days, a fraction of the corpus that would need to be looked at for a current semiotic and cultural analysis of the diversity theme in UK media alone – with Nelson Mandela’s funeral and its reprise of history still recent news, trials in progress in the background of once loved TV and radio personalities for sexual abuse committed many years ago when standards were evidently perceived less stringently than they are today (is a future time imaginable when paedophilia will be normalized again, perhaps as part of positive diversity, as it was in classical Greek culture?). And the arrival of blockbusting Hollywood movie 12 Years a Slave directed by black Briton Steve McQueen. Why do black British actors have to go to America to succeed? Why aren’t they being spotted by the BBC. for example? Are their parents sending them to the wrong schools by any chance? Could they perhaps be exercising their freedom of choice in education a little more responsibly?

Meanwhile still in the background there rumble on in the Anglican Church, that relic of an earlier imperial phase of globalization, corrosive debates around the ordination of female or gay priests and bishops that stretch to near breaking point the ideological bonds that can link places as diverse as the West coasts of Africa and the United States through the historical mediation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To say nothing of Islamophobia or what’s coming out of the Roman Catholic woodwork, the discussion around holding the Church and its sexually predatory priests accountable, and compensating their victims.. Who knows ultimately the truth behind any of this diverse traffic of culture and semiosis?  Not the Semiotic Monkey, that’s for sure. He observes, reports, keeps an open mind.

Act II will follow shortly

© Malcolm Evans 2014

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Day-Glo Love RIP

Friday, January 17th, 2014

DayGlo1

I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, IT’S JUST THAT THE ANTIPODES ARE EMERGING FROM SOMETHING OF A FLUORESCENCE FEST; a cavorting carnival of day-glo where, around every corner, something harmfully orange or green lies in wait to colourfully mug you.  But, scratching beneath the surface, this brash urban grammar is semiotically rich. Ramrodded into a semiotic square, it might look something like this:

DayGlo2

OFFLINE NOTORIETY:  With the likes of Tumblr elevating fashions and personalities out of obscurity, fluoro is the offline equivalent.  Just as night athletes and workmen leverage fluorescent strips to achieve high vis standout, and a highlighter pen is used to illuminate valuable text, fluorescent fashion and goods yield instant personal notoriety in a culture that is saturated with aesthetic noise. A little bit loud, a little bit lary.  This power of saliency was recently exploited by Australian Aboriginal artist, Reko Rennie, who covered the façade of a prominent Sydney building with the traditional geometric markings of the Gadigal people.  Using a strikingly fluorescent colour palette he defiantly foregrounded the issue of Aboriginal land rights and more broadly re-illuminated the ongoing suppression of Australia’s first people.  Widespread embrace of fluoro by youth may also reflect a generational chink in the armour of Antipodean Tall Poppy culture.  A recognition in youth circles that individualism, entrepreneurialism or overt displays of success no longer contravene the right to belong.   Here fluoro codes a kind of collective individualism.

DayGlo3

MANIFESTO:  The conspicuous absence of fluorescence from classical art (to be fair, fluorescent paint was only conceived in the 1930s), and its growing incorporation into the contemporary scene (e.g. Archibald prize winner, Adam Cullen’s controversial work) highlights the power of day-glo to disrupt convention and to earmark acts of transgression.  This is rooted in a historical association between fluoro and rebellion: 90s rave party glow sticks, the death-head lunatics in Batman Forever and the anarchic punk of Rubella Ballet, all delivering fat doses of day-glo and inciting us to rise up in the urban malaise.  In this light, fluoro is a handy visual mantra for youth agitators, serving as muse, catalyst and weapon.  In rude health, an orange fluoro blouse phatically arrests the gaze of innocent bystanders and, on a good day, conatively precipitates protest (averting the eyes, mental scorn, polite tutting, wild sarcasm …).  This consolidates the wearer’s role as outlaw and plots them in opposition to conservative aesthetes, critics and would be oppressors.

DayGlo4IRREPRESSIBLE VIBRANCY & A MATURING RELATIONSHIP WITH REALNESS:  The sheer visual physicality of fluorescence – its uncompromising capacity to excite the eye – can also lend brands and consumers brutal cut through in an era where bland Apple minimalism and the dull, earthy tones of the organic and real food movements dominate the aesthetic register.  Shopping for natural or healthier alternatives in the supermarket, we’ve been bogged in a pious quagmire of squalid browns, reproachfully scratchy cardboards and the wiry evil of burlap (a hair shirt for your sins?).  However, brands like Kiehl’s and Nudie successfully leverage fluorescence as an index (and icon) of the vitality of nature, transmuting some of its raw photosynthetic power or feel-good emotional vibrancy.  Emitting radiation (light) at a higher frequency (energy) than that absorbed, fluoro packs literally bombard the eye whilst promising to wake us up with a natural burst of energy.  In the wake of brands like these, the discourse of natural emergently shifts from atonement, renunciation and miserliness to exuberance, vitality and abundance.  Fluoro packaging has a semiotic field day, symbolising rebellion against the worthy brown dogma, whilst channelling its alternative via mimicry and direct action.

DayGlo6

PRO-ACTIVITY & BLINDING OPTIMISM:  The earlier onset of fluoro culture in New Zealand relative to Australia mirrors the economic gap between the two nations.  Hit harder by the latest wave of economic turmoil, New Zealand youth appropriated fluorescence en masse as a symbol of counter-cultural optimism and proactivity in a climate of fiscal nay saying.  Fluorescent goods helped them to summon the playfulness, excess and abandon of 80s day-glo fashion or the gay naivety of fluoro kids toys, carving out an emotional solace beneath dark economic clouds.  Merchants also got in on the act by daubing shop fronts and interiors with day-glo paint, unwittingly evoking corporate neon signage that blazes from the high rises of urban power centres; a message of economic might to quell consumer jitters.  

DayGlo5CHROMO SOLIDARITY:  Social media has undeniably fractured the consumer landscape, empowering a degree of personal experimentation that was hitherto inaccessible to the herd.  An infinity of digital blogs feed a kaleidoscope of hyper-personalised pursuits: from tea ceremony to dogging.  But fluorescence entered this heavily splintered world and brought a lick of agreement.  Appropriated by legions of youth, fluoro fast became a signifier of tribal solidarity, not dissimilar perhaps to the visual language of bioluminescent jellyfish.  Summoning a heady mix of optimism, transgression and unabashed playfulness, day-glo love united a generation coming of age.

© Rob Engels 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Thumbprinting a Brand

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Indian consumers tend to suffer guilt attacks whenever they ‘selfishly’ consume something individually all by themselves. There are three things that make them shell out big bucks. The product should be used or consumed not by the individual alone but by the whole family, it should be seen by a lot of people and it should endure. Cars, homes, jewelry are the obvious candidates for satisfying these criteria. Audi and BMW have been runaway successes in an otherwise depressed market and the relatively high ticket size hasn’t been a deterrent. All these things are up for public view and not for private individual consumption.

kurkurechaitimeachievers

Family is prioritized over the self. The individual is submerged in the family collective. And even that collective is robbed of its specialness in the crowd of billions. Specialness of the individual must be reclaimed. And that’s what happens.  No two cars are of the same make remain the same after they have been driven out of the showroom. Each will be personalized in a hundred different ways. It will bear testimony to the owner’s spiritual leanings, his significant others and also his diagnosis of vulnerable points in the vehicle that need to be bolstered in the event of a collision. Tailored clothes continue to command a good market share even when ready to wear is a convenient and cost effective alternative. The neighbourhood tailor (who is very far in accomplishment from the finesse of the bespoke) can be instructed to stitch trousers with your particular preference of five pockets regardless of the fashion of the day.  Apparel brands are creeping in but are yet to establish that understanding relationship that the neighbourhood tailor has with the customer.

It may seem paradoxical but it is logical that the individual would want to extract himself when the force of the collective impinges so strongly on his identity. Individual stories have to be told. Some brands have been clever enough to leverage this desire to make our faces stick our stick out in the crowd. You as an individual featuring on a bag of crisps or having a shade of nail polish named after you is an ode like no other.

SB2

Even if it is a mass produced product, at level of consumption it does not have to be like all others of it’s kind, part of a uniformity. For a long lasting relationship with the Indian audience, it is important that there be room for the individual to imprint his particular signature on it. Brands who have inadvertently stumbled on this, have been happier for it.  Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles is a case in point. It was the first instant noodle brand and somehow it claimed so much heart space that there has never been a strong second competitor in the thirty odd years since it arrived. One key reason could be that consumers spontaneously detected space for making it their own via standard instructions kept to a basic minimum. A noodle dish could be made soup style, dry scrambled egg style or in any other creative way. This gave even the most challenged cook the confidence to conjure up his own recipe. Some person in every office is famed for ‘his’ Maggi. It has even been elevated enough to feature on the menu of some youth hangout cafes. There are roadside Maggi stalls with significant fan followings.

The ability of the Maggi brand to interweave itself with an individual’s identity and life space has been celebrated by the brand in a campaign that gave consumers a platform to share their Maggi stories from when this instant noodle was an integral part of their life events, usually when they were students or as young couples with limited culinary skills. When a brand succeeds in establishing a relationship at that life stage, it will always enjoy a powerful nostalgic connection.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Semiotics | No Comments »

Pretty in Scarlet

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

While having the reputation of a timeless classic in the Western world, red lipstick was considered outdated by Russian females for a long time.  But new generations grow and times change. According to street fashion pictures and cutting edge beauty blogs, red lipstick has been getting back in fashion. However, unlike the 1920s (the triumphal age of red lipstick) a woman with scarlet lips is not trying to convey the image of a femme fatale. Hip youngsters combine it with old-school eyeglasses and skinny jeans and manage to maintain the status quo of  infantile Millennials. What’s behind this emergent trend?

A kiss from the USSR

 Red is a well-recognized colour of communism and the Great Socialistic Revolution – it has a very strong cultural legacy

• The younger generation (18-24) tends to romanticize the Soviet period as an epoch of utopia that they’ve heard a lot about but never consciously witnessed

• Young people’s attraction to the the utopian ideals in Russia matches the Western vintage mania and this combination results in imaginative nostalgia

• Being a reference to the Soviet past, red lipstick has become a clear symbol of this artificially created nostalgic play

RedLipstick2

Reverse femininity

• The traditional idea of femininity is based on tender (in most cases pinkish) shades and is rooted in such image attributes as modesty and fragility. This is determined by the submissive character of a woman in patriarchal Russian society

• Red lipstick is connected with the active role of a woman and at the same time is a typical womanish attribute: unlike neutral make-up it doesn’t make women closer to men to demonstrate the gender equality. On the contrary, it becomes a manifesto of the female identity without connotations of submissive femininity

• Gradually and slowly the role of a woman in a modern society shifts, and red lipstick becomes a statement of emancipation and independence

Passive aggressive

• Spending their teenage years in a time of relative stability and booming consumption, younger urban females are the children of plentitude. Satisfied with their life opportunities, younger Millennial girls were never forced to become go-getters and are rather passive in their social communication

• Looking prominent and aggressive, red lipstick enables young females to beat their fear of going unnoticed and increases their self-confidence

• Red lipstick is a code of libertinism and sexuality. Consumers feel no longer obliged to act and to speak: red lipstick speaks for them and reveals their desire to participate in dialogue with the opposite sex

RedLipstick3

Opposing the dominant ‘natural’ trend

• The natural look is a dominant beauty trend, recalled by the vast majority of female consumers and socially approved due to its neutrality

• Unlike previous generations, for whom communal ideas (and social approval) were always much more important than personal preferences, young females see themselves as individuals and look for the instruments to communicate their unique choice to the public

• Young beauty trendsetters, who are especially driven by the idea of distinctiveness and WOW-factor potential, want to oppose the popular conventions of natural make-up and choose exactly the opposite

In  conclusion and in summary, the red lipstick trend is determined by relatively new need states relevant to leading edge female consumers, the younger representatives of Generation Y.  Though showing some similarities to their Western peers, Russian youngsters are special. The particular character of their consumption drivers is obviously rooted in Russian culture and local specifics. These include such phenomena as utopian imagination, the shift in gender roles, and an individualism which, in contrast with an earlier generation of go-getters, combines for Millennial girls with a new kind of passivity.

© Marina Simakova 2013

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Decoding Democracy

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Last year, on February 21 three Russian girls under the name of ‘Pussy Riot’ gave an avant-garde performance, staging a piece of radical action art. They appeared in the main cathedral of Moscow, wearing colorful tights and masks, and tried to sing their ‘punk-prayer’ or better to say punkish  pray-in  to the Virgin Mary. The action was based on using some codes of traditional prayer, combining it with typical words from left-wing manifestos – to the accompaniment of raw garage guitar riffs.

The intention of the performance was to decode the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour that has recently become a symbol of corrupted clergy, who together with the state officials converted religious happenings into the kind of high-class leisure activity, half entertainment half political congress. These girls – a philosopher, a poet and a visual artist – objected against this wicked transformation. So they decided to speak, and the message was clear enough to many – from honest priests to the common people. Unfortunately the voice of postmodernity, which sometimes sounds loud enough to be heard, in this particular case was too noisy for the system. This is especially tricky since any system in essence deaf implies a serious need for amplification as well as up-to-date hearing devices.

Quite soon the girls were apprehended, brought in by the police and accused of extremism – inciting the flames of religious hostility and hatred. The Russian Orthodox Church also found that the performance art was a blasphemy. The criminal case against the three young girls was publicized all over the world, and in the West they were treated like victims of a kind of political barbarism, inherent to Russia and its rulers. Yet here, in Russia, it’s vice versa: ‘Pussy Riot’ and their action symbolize freedom. Freedom of expression. Freedom of belief. Freedom of art. Freedom of personal choice and responsibility, which is much stronger and vital than democracy. This is probably one of the universal points where democracy starts, and this is definitely the point of no return.

When people lack something – from bread to democracy, they start to search for a substitute. And if they do not find it somewhere around, they create it. It’s not that bad – at least the idea remains living. So, the Pussy Riot case inspired and fostered a fresh semiotic space, including innovative words and Internet-memes, fashion, ads and virus ads. Although an anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical band, opposed to branding as an ideology, ‘Pussy Riot’ as a symbol got easily transformed into a myth – fashionable, popular, emotionally engaging and reflecting the needs of specific target audience. It hasn’t reached the status of the brand, officially registered as intellectual property but Pussy Riot become a cultural phenomenon, an intangible asset available for free use.

The market, actively soaking up and using available myths, had to respond, despite the fact that a lot of international corporations state that they are neutral to politics and religious issues – this is the matter of business and an element of their politics. Yet, it turns out that in some situations consumers might take this into their own hands and started to influence various markets, some even unconsciously.  This might lead to a very positive finding.

The market is obviously a system itself, having its laws and rules and existing due to the law of supply and demand, a match between opportunism and hedonism. It’s common to consider that all decisions are subject to producers. They can conduct a market research study and get closer to their consumers if they are willing to. Anyway, they are the end decision-makers – they decide what to produce, where to sell and how to promote it. However, consumers may have a great impact on the semiotic landscape. If consumers are active enough and the symbols are strong and recognizable, they can even interfere in the world of brands and products quite freely and straightforwardly.

PussyRiot2

For example, IKEA organized a contest ‘Become an IKEA magazine face’, based on a poll on-line. No need to say that the picture below gained the majority of votes. IKEA decided to excluded these participants from the contest together with the picture submitted. Certainly, most consumers were disappointed: the winner they personally chose was rejected.

PussyRiot6

Meanwhile activists have used advertising sites to display political art work possibly half disguised as intriguingly unbranded ‘teaser’ ads (see the icon image) and smaller more courageous companies decided to let it go – to satisfy consumers’ needs and play on the territory, in some sense selling the signs of democracy. The following pictures show such an attempt from SKN – a company that provides air conditioning services and installment of air conditioners. These are the images used for an on-line promotion. The slogan is ‘When things are getting hot’ (or, giving a more accurate, almost verbatim translation ‘For hot situations’). An easily readable parallel for the Air Con installers.

PussyRiot4

There is also a night club ad, on billboards, which uses the image of a girl wearing a pink mask. Kitschy enough but the interesting part is that there’s neither the name of the club, nor the contacts given – just the address. This seems as intriguing as a members only club, where Victorian gentlemen talk freely about politics and women!

PussyRiot9

Such collections are usually called collaborative and are treated as co-branding initiatives. However, they usually appear as a result of long negotiating process. These below covers for iPhones. Of course, they are available in different colors.

PussyRiot5

Lots of stores offer a variety of symbols and interpretations on Pussy Riot t-shirts. These are becoming almost trendier than Vivienne Westwood – and definitely more unique than Zara.

PussyRiot7

Quite recently a German lingerie brand uploaded a quite provocative viral video on a similar theme.  This actually contradicts Pussy Riot’s radical left and anti-sexist ideas by showing a barely covered young woman strolling along Moscow’s streets in winter. Nevertheless, liked or disliked, approved or disapproved, it was immediately spread via thousands of Facebook pages and blogs.

Who’s next in this Pussy Riot marketing quest?

The concept might ideally fit the Converse brand, to give one example – both in terms of ideology and category relevance. Let’s say, if Hunter S. Thompson, the father of gonzo and famous Converse-lover, were alive, he would definitely agree to star in a Pussy Riot-style ad. Whatever emerges betting shops could probably earn a lot by accepting bets for the names of new players. The task seems definitely risky but worth trying.  And it’s not 100% brand opportunism: it does keeps front of mind how democracy looks in the era of information and in one particular country.

© Marina Simakova 2013

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Beauty Serums

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

 

Serums have become the new elixir of beauty. Almost every brand has a serum product and they seem to be the staple of many a beauty regime. The semiotics of serums reveals a very skilful blend of semantic, packaging and product formulation codes. Serums tend to retail for over £30 for a tiny bottle, so how do the manufacturers justify the high price point? I would argue that it is a combination of factors.

First the semantics of the word serum itself is replete with positive connotations. It is a word that sounds smooth, it is onomatopoeic in the way that vindicates Jacobson’s critique of Saussure’s contention that all language is arbitrary. The sibilant ‘se’ leads into the cossetting cosiness of the ‘rum’, sumptuous to pronounce and to countenance.

Secondly, serums play upon the two sides to the beauty industry. On the one hand there is the perpetuation, and petrification of good looks. On the other side there is the fight against the onslaught of attrition, derma-abrasion and of course anno domini too.

So the positioning of the serum is essentially Janus faced. It promises to immortalize your beauty via the alchemy of the mythical elixir on the one hand. The clues are in the brand names of Elixir, Immortelle, Forever Young and Ageless. The truth of this proposition is reinforced by the idea of a truth serum, something that forces us to be sincere and the connotative links between beauty and truth traced back to Platonism and notions of Platonic forms – serums, it is insinuated help you access this deep ontology of truth.

On the other hand, serums are also a form of vaccine, or an anti-serum used for inoculation. In the case of serums on the market they are inoculating against the disease of decay and entropy. These underlying discourses are reinforced by the packaging codes in the sector. Serum packs tend to emphasize the preciousness and daintiness of the products as beauty unguents but also stress the concentrated nature of the contents, as if nutritional value had been crammed in with geological force. Serums are the royal jelly or caviar of the beauty world and packaging cues this in spades.

Analysis of serums packaging is as indebted to design thinking as to semiotic thinking. Serum packs draw upon such tricks as symmetry, golden ratio, contour bias and emotional design in order to attract customers and to buttress the high price point. There is also a subliminal link between miniaturization and premium technological efficiency that is coded through designs. As research pioneer Louis Cheskin discovered, customers tend to transfer the forms and meanings they encounter in packs to expectations of the contents. This is more important as ever more time poor consumers ruthlessly scan shelves for brands that catch their attention.

There is much to admire in serum packaging Just in terms of outward sculptural form serum product packs brands inflect category codes in a plethora of ways, some borrow from the perfume, food or technology categories or mimic objets d’arts. If you are a ‘pack rat’ (as they say in the US) or just fetishize packaging, then you’ll want to feast your eyes on some of these examples above. These packs are not prototypical of the category norm but I think do represent the variety and the imagination placed within this category. They are also a good showcase of why the siren call of beauty serums has been answered to such lucrative effect.© 

Chris Arning 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Categories, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Scopophilia Supercut

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

 

I came across a terrific piece of edited video, called a ‘supercut’ (defined by Slate Magazine as “a video mashup that focuses on a specific word or element in a series of videos and remixes the multiple sources into one video montage”). There are hundreds of these supercuts on YouTube, some of them extremely popular. This particular one collects short scenes from movies that show the ‘back-to-the-camera’ shot. Doesn’t that sound silly? Well it’s not: it’s spectacular, and extremely moving. There’s a HD version on Vimeo, so go on and have a look. I’ll wait.

http://vimeo.com/63718300

See what I mean? Phenomenal. So many great movies there!

This Supercut offers two primary sensory texts: the visual montage, and the musical track. Naturally, one informs the other: film music theory tells us that visuals are there to tell us what to be thinking about, and music is there to guide how we should be feeling about what we’re thinking about.

In this case, the framing of the foreground character (usually, the back of their head) instantly suggests that the music is providing the ‘soundtrack of their mind’, and that we’re being offered a synaesthetic sense of their mental engagement. The music starts off as very simple, but soon starts to become more complicated. As it does so, our understanding of the complexity of the characters grows, as well as the true complexity of the scene in front of them.

As the music swells, we also understand that we’re also watching an unfolding relationship between the character and the action in the background, which is the true subject of the character’s gaze. Although there are sub-themes that run through the clips (stage performances, Asian landscape, military dominance, doors and window opening, natural cataclysms, etc.), in most cases the background is spectacle: something wonderful, or awe-inspiring, or terrifying, or overwhelming. As the music grows fugue-like in complexity and repetition, so the emotional scale of the background image seems to grow.

At some point we realize there are two spatial levels of scopophilic relationships: one between the character and the spectacle, but another between us and the character. In one early scene (Baraka), the camera pans into the head of the character, but for the rest of the montage, we remain firmly behind the character. Our relationship with the character becomes complex in its own right: are we protected from the spectacle by their foreground stance, or are we being distanced from it? Are we being invited to empathize with the character, seeing what they see, or are we being removed from it by the distraction of the character’s foreground presence? The character is vulnerable, with their back to us, unprotected – yet in many cases the threat we pose to them pales in comparison to the threat they’re facing directly. Their vulnerability is also tempered by their anonymity, since we never see their face.

Many of the images, buttressed by the music, communicate a sense of isolation and loneliness. Even with many of the images that show two characters, the engagement of each character with the spectacle in front of them suggests that each is lost in a singular experience, that there is no true connection between them. Towards the end of the montage, it’s tempting to see some hope in the couples shown: Tyler and Marla share some handheld connection in Fight Club; Luke and Leia share a chaste but genuine moment in The Empire Strikes Back. But in both cases, we know better: Marla has fallen for a psychotic schizophrenic, and Luke’s interest in Leia will remain forever chaste – in each of those scenes, the connection is a lie.

And yet, there is unity in the montage. The only thing all the spectacles have in common is that they’re all being observed by the character/s. They all share objectification – spectaclification? – since they all sit just outside the character’s immediate orbit. The character is not in their scene, but always just outside it. Only their gaze connects them, and this helps us understand why the music is a non-diegetic soundtrack to their mind: it’s the sound of them trying to figure out what their view means, at the distance they’re at, while we’re using the same music to try to figure out what our view of their view means at the [even greater] distance we’re at.

The music is God Moving Over The Face of the Waters, by Moby, who, by the name he gave it, was well-aware of its potential for the profound. The repeated piano motif, which starts the piece and then continues through as a rhythmic counterpoint to the orchestral melody, acts as some kind of kinetic anaphone for (a) the white-cap ‘Waters’ of the track’s title, but also (b) the simple, desperate, and banal repetition of our own merely human lives. When you listen to just that one part, you can hear that sometimes we’re in sync and sometimes we’re out. The orchestral melody, with its deep bass sub-oceanic movements, is the voice of God, hinting at some larger truth . . . some just un-graspable, just outside-our-reach understanding of what it all adds up to, as a singular whole. Here the double-spatial levels of relationship gives a sense of hopelessness: if they can’t figure it all out and they’re that much closer to the spectacle, what hope do we have of true insight, since we’re that much further away?

And yet, even from our distance, we perceive and appreciate the beauty of the visuals and of the music, and of their combination . . . so perhaps there’s hope for us after all. Perhaps we need that distance, that perspective.

Lastly, if nothing else, it’s a great clip to remind us how cool Event Horizon looks! Time to dust that one off for a revisit.

(with help from students of the 2013 Georgian College Research Associate Program)

© Charles Leech 2013

Posted in Americas, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics, Sequencing | No Comments »

Waffle

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

Each country or region has its own specific dish, cuisine or just product to be proud of. And it is nice to be this way because otherwise planet Earth would be the most boring place in the universe. Italians have their developed coffee culture although they don’t actually produce it, France is top-of-mind in wine industry while some other countries are not worse exporters, and in Japan together with the famous sushi they have highly venomous fish as a delicacy. The Balkan countries have a lot in common in terms of food and drink in spite of their different languages, religions, and the unequal access to the sea which characterises this part of Europe. For instance, the population consumes bread in very large quantities. not something especially significant in itself but it bread does provide some interesting cultural by-products.
 
 
One of these is represented by the furious competition in the waffle market in Bulgaria. A waffle here is not in pancake-like shape as in the European tradition, but it is made in a sandwich-like structure, in bars-like forms, with different ingredients – predominantly peanuts and a lot of chocolate, and very often consumer prefer them in bigger packages since one piece is never enough. Prices are low and the number of the brands is unsurprisingly increasing. In fact, a lot of multinational food producers have developed local brands of waffles and a lot of local producers have had in their disposal old, well-known brands targeting predominantly young people on account of their mobility and desire to eat something in a hurry which could be nutritious, ergo – the waffle substitutes for a slice of bread, a croissant or some other snack
.
What is curious, however, in the segment in question is packaging. In last couple of years the waffle business in Bulgaria has become, just like the Internet, a platform for information democratization in a highly socio-semiotic manner. Since production is relatively cheap, almost anybody could invent and launch his/her waffle brand (mainly by outsourcing) in order to say something to the world by means of packaging. Sometimes brand names are ironic and mocking (addressing particular people or a nearby town micro culture) or a modern pun, but certainly tending towards the ubnconventional.
   
The communication power of packaging nowadays is well known but we always talk about its commercial side because it is supposed to sell better. Small regions, towns or even groups of people have the opportunity to express their social or political position by waffle packaging along with funny names and frankly stupid messages. Thus, apart from waffles with local names, just like marketers name the local beer or rakia (brandy) brands, we could find waffles called “Vinkel” (i.e. Shaped iron), “Khriza” (Crisis), “Spoko” (Take it easy! – in urban slang), “Jakhuzzi” (Jacuzzi – connected with ‘very private confessions’ of one local fake millionaire and show star, calling himself Mityo “The Pistol”), “Boretz” (The Wrestler, which is a play on the name of the leading brand in the waffle sector “Borovetz” and the association of that word with “mug”), “Boiko” (which is the first name of the former prime-minister), “Svejest” (Fresh –even though there are no anyrefreshing ingredients in it), and even “Sotichgol” (Stoichgoal – reminding us of the Bulgaria and Barcelona football legend Hristo Stoichkov) or “Oralni Strasti” (which means Oral Passions and which was banned soon after its launch not because of the ridiculous name, but because of even more absurd and misleading claims on the package such as “It diminishes the stress” and the like.
 
The packaging of thee brands is accompanied by relevant images and usually very expressive colors because each brand (insofar as ‘brand’ is a correct term at all in this case) tries to compete in shouting with the others. Most of them are short-lived but the social effect in terms of buzz generated is a point to note. Considered all together everything mentioned above might remind us of remind us of the Roman principle ‘bread and circuses’ in a contemporary „micro” micro version. One reason for attention attraction is  the product’s formal difference in relation to bread itself – another, more impactful, is that the packaging serves as message bearer on an equal footing with the regular billboard.   
 
© Dimitar Trendafilov 2013

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

Theorising Cricketainment

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

A critical semiotic analysis of the IPL-cricket brand and its implicit code of engagement with its audience/consumers throws up interesting perspectives. IPL was conceptualized by its creators as a hybrid concept for a country and audience that is very open to hybrids that mix up very different elements into interesting mixes and cocktails. So IPL was a version of the T-20 format of cricket that blended cricket with Bollywood style entertainment and American sports management concepts of league teams owned by business people, with the cheerleaders thrown in for good measure. With the scandals and excesses increasing year by year, after the sixth season, it might be helpful to use semiotic thinking to decode the very identity of IPL that lends itself to such; more importantly, how would audiences and fans be impacted. Can semiotic thinking shed some light on these aspects?

From the mass Indian audience and fan’s point of view, what is IPL-cricket? Is it a sport, a game viz cricket? The implicit but well understood culture and category code of a sporting fan’s engagement with the sport of his choice is of fair play and faith that the game is not rigged in any manner. In any sport, the rules of play are well defined, there are rule-enforcing policemen viz the umpires and within that framework, the contestants – the top sportsmen, high performers that they are, play to win. So, from a ‘sport’ framework, spot fixing and allied match fixing with the brazen involvement of the underworld and cheating sportsmen are anathema. All sports, everywhere, have their scandal stories when big money is involved, along with the fallen idols. But it is understood that the ‘governors’ of the sport will do what it takes to clean up the game of the ‘sleaze’ so that the sports’ fans and sports lovers can enjoy their beloved game without loss of faith or doubt. The credibility of the sport cannot be compromised, else all will be lost.

Or is IPL-cricket, cricket really? If it is cricket-ainment, then does it belong with other forms of televised entertainment and thus virtual realities? In the world of entertainment, everything is make-believe anyway. Even ‘reality’ shows are staged and ‘live’ performances are pre-recorded. The audience knows this and aligns their expectations accordingly. In the ‘entertainment’ frame, everything is staged and created for effect. Why not the matches too? Why not have the matches strategized and co-ordinated to keep the audience guessing and waiting for more, like the script writers do for TV content? And if the sportsmen are akin to actors and stars performing their part in a pre-arranged script, then how does it matter if they cut a side deal for a little bit of spot fixing, for some thrills and extra cash? In a strange way, there is no cheating or dishonesty or problem with the brand, because the brand is delivering what it promised to its audience, viz, entertainment to the max – with sideshows of scandals, controversies et al to add masala and spice to the entertainment. After all, it is showbiz and in showbiz notoriety and infamy sells as much as genuine performance.

Or as a hybrid – that is a mix of both sport and entertainment – like cross-cultural marriages, fusion food and fusion music, does it have its own rules that it should be evaluated against? Then what are those codes and rules of engagement for a hybrid? Clarity of identity and transparency in rules create simplicity of understanding and consequently trust. That the transplanting of American concepts into the Indian soil creates all sorts of confusion and unanticipated outcomes is clearly evident from the six seasons. Cheerleaders become equivalents of item girls in movies, but when required to perform live in public, need to adopt public behaviors that fit in with Indian cultural standards of modesty in public places.  American style free market capitalism in the management of the economics of IPL-Cricket, when transplanted into India’s unregulated or lightly regulated sports market has led to visible and gross excesses of cronyism that gallop unchecked.

In economic terms, clarity brings efficiency via simplicity. The first value add of branding to a marketed product is to create a trust mark that its consumers can rely on to define their expectations so that they can know for sure that they have got their money’s worth. Or as a TV audience, they have got their time’s worth.   In a world of consumer choice, when the consumer-audience wields the power of the remote control, clarity in defining the brand’s identity, the category classification that it belongs to and hence the codes/rules of engagement with its consumer become a necessity, not something that can be denied, overlooked or glossed over. Declining viewership ratings may be the first sign of an underlying, fundamental identity issue which has not been addressed. Semiotic thinking can lead the way to strategic brand management.

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2013

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Prologue to Semiofest

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

 

Editor's Note. Clear concise communication of what benefits semiotics can offer potential clients in the context of market research has long been a key challenge for commercial suppliers of applied semiotic and cultural analysis. Looking back on London's Semiofest 2012, the first annual gathering of commercial and academic practitioners, and looking forward to the imminent second Semiofest in Barcelona in May/June 2013, this article explores a number of questions still calling out for answers in terms that can be immediately convincing and persuasive for the non-specialist. This piece is much longer than anything we normally accept for publication (our essays average 600 words or so) but its timeliness and wide-ranging character make this an irresistible Semionaut proposition as stimulus for thought. One of the keynote presentations at this year's Semiofest is entitled "Making Semiotics Useful".  That's also, implicitly, the challenge of this paper: how do we persuade people that this stuff, in all its varieties, is actually useful, comprehensible, good for something? A challenge which must, surely, speak ultimately not just to the commercial applied semiotician but also to the academic trying to persuade students of the value of semiotics-based studies and justifying research funding.

 

Purpose

After having attended Semiofest 2012 in London, the first global conference on applied semiotics, we have some confidence that we, as semioticians, are in a position to evaluate the global practice of semiotics in a marketing context. We are in a position also to define a range of practices and better define the term such that all applications fit within.

 As semioticians, the barrier to our future success depends on our ability to simply articulate the definition of semiotics and the value it offers in business context. In order for it to be simple to understand, we must describe it without using words like synchronic, diachronic, discursive, etc. This document is an attempt to define the state of the practice to us and to the larger arena of marketing, branding and product development. The benefits of which is that we might manage perceptions of semiotics, take advantage of the opportunities as well as sell semiotics more effectively.

Background

The creators and organisers of Semiofest are clearly on a mission to unify the global semiotics community, encourage the sharing of ideas, and increase the commercial value. To date, semiotics has been difficult to promote. It has been hard to define and package nicely into a digestible proposition that all marketers can comprehend. There is just enough information out there to make it both intriguing and confusing. The promise of having a sound methodology for uncovering the meaning of signs appeals to many, but has caused its traditional definition and application to be altered, adapted and fastened onto other insights gathering disciplines (such as neuro-design, brand strategy, design strategy and traditional marketing research).

Definition and clarity about semiotics was also a challenge for the global audience of practitioners and academics at Semiofest 2012. During the event, we as a community were unable to articulate it in such a way that it served people for the variety of disciplines that find its usage meaningful. But failure to better articulate and manage the perception and relevance is a liability to all that seek to make a living from applying the ‘science of signs’ in marketing, branding and design.

A Definition of Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of decoding and recoding meaning by understanding the signs and codes manifested in culture and absorbed or expressed by each human being. The identification and interpretation of signs and codes allows us to understand the meaning and relevance of concepts and objects without the problematic task of asking people directly what matters to them. Rather, those signs and codes are confirmable by a process of deductive pattern recognition as well as use of the semiotic square for proving dichotomies between patterns that align with a common denominator of meaning. If the dichotomies do not make sense, then the quality of insights will be held in question.

It appears as though the application of semiotics can be matrixed from the decoding in insight gathering to recoding of signs in product and brand development and from the psychological analysis of human perception of the sign to the anthropological analysis of sign meaning in culture.

Schools of Semiotic Thought

We are a signifying species and we project meaning onto the objects around us. Those that follow the logic of Charles Sanders Peirce believe signs are universal and that everything is a sign. Whereas those that follow the logic of Ferdinand De Saussure believe that the meaning of a sign has purely to do with its relevance within a culture.

The Peircian approach lends itself best to an understanding of those instantaneous assessments (unconsciously or consciously) we make of objects in our world. Signs, according to Peirce, can be anything — a hand gesture, a facial expression, the painting of the Mona Lisa, the steam that comes off a hot pot, or the crucifix. The meanings of signs then, include cultural effects but also are perceived in a way that precedes culture, impacting us all the way down to the neurological and animal level. Sign interpretation reflects our self-perception, triggers unconscious emotions and stimulates our salivary glands. With this point of view, Peircians tend to focus on perception and the immediate impact and amplitude of the sign on us psychologically. The dominant themes in culture are compelling to Peircians, because they appear to confirm universal truths (or at least points of view that seem to be revealingly widespread and consistent across cultures) about the nature of perception in all human beings.

According to Ferdinand De Saussure, the sign is a symbol — already an abstraction deriving its meaning from the broader cultural signification system — the world exists because we determine it. It appears Saussure did not concern himself with questions about the nature of perception and the deeper unconscious in his definition of semiotics. Therefore semioticians following Saussure function more as anthropologists studying the communications, traditions and relationships exclusively in culture. They focus not on the immediate impacts of the sign, but rather on longer-term impacts of signs on culture. Commercial semioticians inspired by Saussure tend to see dominant themes as all too common and ultimately inclined to lose their appeal and saliency for people, triggering a creative challenging to produce ever more innovative brand communication.

For all semioticians, branding is a comfortable fit for professional application because branding is really a process of attaching meaning to a product. If a brand is successful in attaching meaning to the product and branding persuades people to buy, then they consume the sign and its meaning by consuming the product. However, due to these foundational differences in semiotic theory, Peircian and Saussurian semioticians have drifted apart, to separate hemispheres of the brand development process. The implication of this basic difference has a tremendous impact on the marketability of semiotics and the confusion about its usefulness within the industry. If we can articulate how and why each is practiced distinctly as well as identify areas for greater integration, the coherence of the offering will improve.

Peircian semiotics leads naturally to its application in synthesis phases of brand development (bringing the brand to life). Peircian semiotics and brand design share something in common. They both tend to favor the perceptual experience and immediate reaction of the consumer to the brand and product. The focus tends to be on the make-up and appearance of the physical object or artifact. Merely the idea of making design beautiful implies that there has been special attention given to the composition of elements that make up meaning. Therefore, Peircian semioticians often act as consultants in the optimization of design such that the composition of signs immediately triggers the intended response. The response may have to do with amplifying cultural relevance. But it may also have just to do with amplifying such immediate and primitive responses as salivation or emotions like anger or joy.

Saussurian semiotics leads naturally to its application in analysis and insights gathering phases of brand development. It could be due in part to semiotics staying true to its roots in abstract areas (linguistics and cultural anthropology). Saussurian semiotics tends to be used for the purposes of brand meaning or product benefit innovation. Saussurian semiotics has become applied in business application as a detection system where, through the identification of residual, dominant and emergent themes, it tracks the movement of an ideology. Saussurians thus tend to be somewhat removed from brand expression phases, because there is less focus on the nature of perception of discrete signs —the focus in more on abstract themes and codes. Semioticians that lead by cultural analysis – that is of the abstract symbolism and language – will naturally produce output that must be handed off to someone else for design translation.

Developing an integrated practice

At best, when we are uncovering insights that pay dividends, semiotics would be used end-to-end to decode meaning in culture and recode meaning to create meaningful, persuasive brands. Therefore, integrating what is best of Peirce and Saussure, promises that holistic solution.

If we are addressing the longevity of a brand that, in theory, should transcend cultural shifts, then we have to look at more universal truths. Also, if we are developing a brand in which the needs of the consumers are less about the reflection of identity and more about the resolution of deep visceral and emotional needs (such as in pharmaceuticals), then using Peircian semiotics to find universal signs that communicate the way the product or brand will resolve those needs is critical. It’s less about how one identifies with the product and more about what that product will do to rescue that individual. Perhaps the best semiotic insights will integrate both schools of thought to address both the primitive, deep unconscious and the more superficial collective unconscious – in effect, a semiotic square that integrates the psychological component and the cultural component.

Likewise, Peircian semioticians who have traditionally worked on brand expression should consider Saussure and exploration of cultural ideological shifts so they too can be involved more upstream during brand meaning and product benefit innovation projects. Spending as much uncovering cultural ideology shifts as in the nature of perception will enable Peircians to develop signs and code that fascinate consumers versus just giving them the assurance that the brand is fulfilling their needs.

What is a Commercial Semiotician?

A commercially applied semiotician is often not a singular occupation. It is a sub-occupation of an individual who is delivering to market an offering in which semiotics adds value. These are perhaps those trained in an array of qualitative and quantitative consumer research techniques that have extended their practice into cultural analysis. These might be design strategist who has recognized the value semiotics brings to demystifying the design making process and in providing logic for converting brand meaning into strategically codified design. Those that are classically educated semioticians might argue that those who stake claim are not true semioticians and part of the cause of the proliferation and dilution of its credibility and reputation. In truth however, those who do practice semiotics commercially, but thoughtfully and dutifully, who are molding and adapting the science to support their work are doing so, partially out of a desire to make a living in a burgeoning field they feel passionate about.

Being a discerning fundamentalist may be a luxury in which the semiotician is a devoted academic and not necessarily compelled to make the discipline marketable. So to many the commercial application of semiotics that originates in the European (Saussurean) academic heritage may appear to be an exclusive right as well as a premium offering reserved for the minority who are recruited by businesses with the forethought, patience and financial resources to afford to explore cultural context broadly and map out opportunity spaces for product and brand meaning innovation.

So is semiotics a methodology that can be adopted wherein rigor is maintained by adopting certain frameworks and procedures or does the semiotician require some formal training and verification?

The Barriers of Semiotic Pedigree to Marketing Application

At Semiofest 2012, one of the few top marketing experts with experience on the client side stressed how important it is for semioticians to use more common language and make the practice more accessible.

The legacy of semiotics has traditionally been academic. While it is the substance of its worthy esteem, it can be a liability if the sophistication of the offering disillusions prospective clients. The challenge then is how to keep the intellectual engine running strong, but silently ‘under the hood’ so the client can eventually take the wheel and drive forward with greater vision and clarity. If the client cannot convert the insights into more compelling brands and products, then the mainstream, commercial value of semiotics shall remain in question. Our ability to make it attractive requires that we very simply define it applicability and the benefits as well as where they fit within current conventional practices of building brands. Certainly there will be some compromises to be made in order for it adoption to increase.

Many of those who understand the power of semiotics perceive it as a premium offering for those with the luxury of spending time and money, beyond reacting to current demands from consumers and threats from competitors, exploring emergent themes to proactively insure the future relevance of their brand and products.

But expanding the market for semiotics has begun to take shape. In the U.S.A. semiotics is being used to improve the coherence and desirability of brands in their current state. Middle marketers and business unit directors value semiotics for its ability to fix brands with fragmented meaning and whose stewards have lost their way. In contrast to its luxury version, the desirability of semiotics has to do with enabling brands to deepen bonds by way of the gravity of dominant cultural themes. In fact, the emergent, intriguing cultural theme might be perceived as a somewhat risky — an untested territory of meaning. For better or for worse, dominant themes appeal to brands seeking to increase their market share in the now and who are unwilling to jeopardize their share of the category in its current state.

If appealing to the mass market is the prize, what then is the added value in rigorously decoding meaning and looking for patterns? The answer to this question requires a shift in perception and an expanded role of semiotics. In addition to operating as only an outside consultant, contracted as an analyst who informs meaning, the semiotician can further add value as a synthesist who curates meaning. In this form, the semiotician is not an outside consultant. The semiotician is rather an internal steward, insuring that the deployment of brand codes and signs are precisely meaningful and resoundingly desirable…despite the revolving door of and distance between brand stakeholders.

In fact, the ability to do so has been the pain point of many business unit directors and global brand managers seeking to build brands with the utmost care but then unsure about how well those insight will be interpreted by different agencies or others responsible for bring the brand to life in a meaningful way.

Design and Semiotics

In partnership with the designer, the semiotician can make inroads into brand expression and activation both as manifestations of brand meaning and purpose. Deeper integration of semiotics and design will enable the semiotician to become an expert in the deployment of brand design-encoded meaning that also carries with it the important cultural and consumer insights.

In general, however, semiotics for business application has been leveraged in pre-design phases and more upstream business and brand strategy planning. The challenge with this approach is that, because it connected with linguistic semiotics, there has historically been less of a clear and obvious link to recoding brand expression and design.

If this is true, then the designer is the semiotician’s ticket to greater prosperity in the business context, especially where semioticians benefit from insuring that coded meaning finds its way to the street to reflect back on to consumers what they initially found meaningful and sensorially captivating. The semiotician needs the designer to fulfill their proposition and ensure the semiotician’s insights pay dividends. Part of the promise of success in marketing application has to do with the ability to recode and see to it that meaning is re-engineered for brands. The creation of precisely meaningful design is the best semiotics can do to start to visibly demonstrate ROI as well as expand the practice into other levels of the marketing community. In order for the business application of semiotics to expand, the designer must play a larger role because they are intrinsically more connected with the brand delivery machine and the day-to-day design projects required to bring semiotic insights to life.

Conversely, semiotics offers the designer something in return — to legitimize and give structure and voice to the previously quiet and unconscious process of the designer (who might just be the most marvelously equipped to decode meaningful signs as subtle as those that show up in typography and letterform structure). With meaning decoded, the integrated team has the potential to elegantly orchestrate precisely meaningful design solutions.

The ability of the designer to function in this different, strategic capacity  (distinct from the designer who is craftsman) requires they have a unique identifier – design semiotician. To earn this definition, the designer will have many added responsibilities. They have to become, as Tim Brown from IDEO describes, T-shaped – vertically integrated, with the creative gifts of a craftsman and horizontally integrated with the ability to recode semiotic insights (and business objectives) into desirable, meaningful design.

Before going forward, we must clearly articulate the differences between the design semiotician and a traditional semiotician, although the functions of the two often overlap. Any time a traditional semiotician is decoding an advertisement and looking for patterns in relation to other ads, they are behaving as a design semiotician – although the design semiotician will often be treated as a specialist, deconstructing such an advertisement to understand the meaning in details such as letterforms and photography style.

The design semiotician is both decoding visual language and recoding design solutions. The design semiotician is as different from the traditional semiotician as an archaeologist is from an anthropologist — regarding physical artifacts as crystallizations of consumer culture, such as competitive pressures and consumer desires. If life were a movie, the design semiotician is watching that movie with the sound turned off — the component of language is not a leading consideration. The design semiotician is paying more attention to immediate perceptions and emotional appraisals of signs and codes. Whereas the traditional semiotician is paying more attention to the way signs and codes reflect broader culture relevance and ideology. The design semiotician is a specialist, well suited to evaluating the quality of persuasive marketing, paying particular attention to the amplitude and theatricality of designer-choreographed signs and codes. While the traditional semiotician is paying particular attention to the context of signs and codes in culture, the design semiotician is considering that same context in addition to the context within category in which those signs and codes solicit.

In the United States, design semiotics has emerged as companies have recognized the importance of controlling the expression of brand meaning across a vast field of global brand stakeholders. Semiotics has become the backbone of the design strategist who is tasked with insuring that design expression born out of business strategy and consumer insights is as true to life as can be – and that there is someone who can create a master plan for understanding how to deploy the use of signifiers and codes.

Despite the benefits of deeper partnership and integration between semiotics and design, there remains the challenge of how to insert this expertise within the well-established, conventional chain of strategic brand communications. Those who traditionally function at the translation point between brand strategy and brand expression (the brand strategist on one side and the creative director on the other) may not be so willing to share the space. Yet there has heretofore existed a blind spot between wherein the insights are recoded and deployed in such a way that thoroughly informs the creative director as well as any other brand stakeholder responsible for managing the expression of brand meaning.

Perhaps a larger challenge to the adoption of design semiotics has to do with the unease designers feel about the demystification of the design making process. Historically, the designer has been entrusted to use their artistry to create products and brands that sell. But as the stakes rise in categories, the mysticism must be replaced by measurable and manageable design. Semiotics (decoding and recoding) has generally been well received as a form of verification and valuation of design’s efficacy.

If we can surpass the challenges stated above, design integration could create unforeseen opportunities for semiotics to add a discipline about the strategic deployment of signs and codes in the marketplace. For example, one of those opportunities has to do with capturing the interest of the shopper. Especially since the design semiotician can be to the traditional semiotician, what the marketplace is to culture. The design semiotician, (as one who has experience addressing the immediacy and amplitude of impact of signs and codes) can provide an expert point of view on the optimization of designs that rise above the noise and chaos of the store.

To do so, the semioticians must understand the rules of engagements in the store, the tactics of the competition as well as how to manage perceptions of the brand portfolio at the shelf through a visual strategy. Semioticians must also understand the conventions about how particular product and brand benefits are communicated through design—How is authenticity communicated, how is luxury communicated and how much do brands have permission to deviate, differentiate and still communicate coherently?

On The Quality of Semiotic Insights

Making semiotics more credible and worthy of the confidence of skeptical marketers was a pattern of its own at Semiofest 2012. Several semioticians, in one form or another, presented methods of making the quality of semiotic insights more measurable and parameters for pattern recognition more autonomic and controlled. There were attempts to truly capture consumer self-disclosures (without the consumer’s awareness that they are being watched) from an N the size of total population of consumers the end product intends to serve.

Thus far, the perception of relevance and truth of semiotic insights depends on the quality of demonstrable pattern recognition and deductive logic. To this point, semiotic insights based on the analysis of a single advertisements is largely debatable.  Historically, semioticians have also relied upon a framework of dichotomies (the semiotic square) as a logical proof. If the dichotomies fit, then the range of meaning is presumed to be true. But there is still risk of some subjectivity. The challenge for semiotics is in creating a stronger reason to believe by providing greater evidence and proof that the decoding of meaning is logical and scientific.

Semioticians are also trying to harness and deconstruct the mechanics of sign significance shift so that we may ultimately become better at forecasting emergent themes and innovation opportunities.

There are also attempts to quantify the results with software that scans images, thereby providing proof of consistency in evaluation and scanning methods and removing subjectivity.

ROI of Semiotics

During Semiofest 2012, there was an effort not only to understand how to measure the quality of semiotics, but also to discuss the perception of reward the client perceives it to offer.

In order for return in investment to be insured there is, at best, some physical manifestation of semiotic insights that creates interest and sales. Traditional commercially applied semioticians are doing the immensely important job of understanding what is the kernel of meaning. But they are somewhat handicapped in terms of being able to evaluate the ROI if they are handing off their findings to the client. But often times, the brand development team, for whatever reason, fails to deliver on those insights. The traditional semioticians often work with creative teams to insure insights are translated effectively. But there is a limit to what can be supervised. The best these semioticians can do is inspire and empower creative teams to carry semiotic insights through to all brand communications. They are not prescribing specific element but rather outlining what elements within a range are ‘on code’.

To earn semioticians entrance into all phases of the product or brand development process requires that they cut their teeth in the broader milieu of the marketing organizational culture, using familiar marketing language and sharing in day-to-day brand deployment challenges. Semioticians have to be somewhat flexible, willing to adapt and simplify their methods to serve the needs of clients. Semioticians have to explore the category almost as much as they explore culture. They have to understand how the shopper is different from the consumer in culture. And they have to understand how to strategically deploy brands, balancing the use of culturally meaningful signs and codes with brand equities and visual signs of competitive gamesmanship.

Semiotics versus Traditional Consumer Insights

Over the past ten years there has been an increasing amount of research addressing the shortcomings of consumer insight gathering by asking the consumer directly about their unmet needs and feelings.

If there is a gradually increasing skepticism about self-report based consumer insights, then perhaps this explains the apparent appeal and attractiveness of semiotics. The promise of semiotics might be that the sign is regarded as an undeniable manifestation of those things that are meaningful to people and can be decoded and analyzed to uncover consumer values, while side-stepping the risks associated with asking the consumer directly about what they want us to believe matters to them.

While the ability to collect thorough consumer self-reports may enable brands to offer the consumer a degree of satisfaction or fulfilment, such insight does not enable these same brands to use this insight to guide them toward defining new ideological spaces that will fascinate the consumer and truly differentiate from competitors. In theory, if all brand meaning were created around fulfillment, then brands and categories would actually begin to converge in meaning around the commonly held motivations that bring people into the category – rather than differentiating from each other, to which brands commonly aspire. By using semiotics to understand human behavior and manifestations of cultural ideology, there is an opportunity for brands to identify opportunities for social disruption and finding true white space.

Another important theme in this area of semiotics versus traditional qualitative research is that self-reports do not always reflect purchase behavior. There has been a growing tide of thought-leaders who have warned us about this. Most of human experience of the world and appraisal of surroundings is processed at an unconscious level. For example, if a consumer has negative feelings about body image or financial status, we draw upon those when seeking that miracle product, yet we do not bring to the store shelf, the full weight of those emotions. On the contrary, we find ourselves delighted and intrigued by the proposition as well as taken by rational consideration about the choices. If this is true, then the best way to determine meaning is not to ask what the consumer feels. If we aren’t to ask the consumer directly, our options are either to use neuroscience to get inside the black box of the human brain to track down the powerful origin of purchase decision processing (a venture which has not yet been perfected or embraced) or we can evaluate the way that meaning and identity have been reflected in culture, precipitated in the signs and codes that resiliently withstand the test of time.

Semioticians would like you to believe that, unconscious or not, the intent and desire of people can be interpreted in aggregate through the analysis of culture and the identification of patterns of meaning decoded from human artifacts. Part of the risk of direct interface with consumers is that we can only assume the relevance of meaning to the culture or likely users. The attractiveness of semiotics to marketers likely has to do with the ability to uncover consumer insights about meaning and desire with an N so large, it undoubtedly reflects the full span of the bell-curve of the target audience. Uncovering meaning in culture promises sales volume.

Traditional consumer insight methods (i.e., ethnographies and focus groups, where consumer are asked what they need and want) can make a claim that semiotics cannot — providing marketers with the assurance of knowing that the insight came directly from the consumer’s mouth (however well that insight reflects purchase decision). Also, referring to semiotics as a true science is debatable. Absolutely, there is rigorous deductive logic, but we can never 100% guarantee that our analysis is without some subjective bias or perceptual fixation. We can never be absolutely sure that a process of uncovering every rock along the evolutionary path to contemporary relevance confirms the historical context of meaning we may have identified. Adding rigour, process and transparency constitutes one more key challenge and opportunity among the many currently facing commercially applied semiotics.

Continuing the conversation

There is no conclusion, as such, to this piece. With the second Semiofest imminent this summation of the state of play right now is deliberately inconclusive, spontaneous, open-ended. One of the keynote speeches for the up and coming 2013 fest, as the editor's note prefacing this piece indicates, is “Making semiotics useful”.  Maybe that’s a key dialogue we ned to engage with right now. In the spirit of making that undeniable usefulness for clients a reality please join the conversation. Starting with short responses in the dialogue boxes to this current piece – or further essays submitted to editorial@semionaut.net picking on some of the points raised here for discussion.

© Michael Colton 2013

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Experts & Agencies, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Vodka’s Enfant Terrible

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

A new interpretation

For a long time, Absolut Vodka dominated the vodka category. Eventually Grey Goose found a gap for innovation. Analysis of the vodka category enables definition of the following Residual, Dominant, and Emergent visual codes:

To keep this analysis concise only the leader of each category is shown below:

Originally, the vodka category drew on Russian and East European dynastic aesthetics and cultural cues to convey tradition and massivity/bulkiness (the Residual codes of vodka). There was then a period where Absolut focused on purity, which was symbolically prominent (the Dominant code). Grey Goose signalled a rupture by opening up the vodka category to a characterful interpretation (the Emergent code).

Tradition versus Character

Sobiesky (Residual) and Absolut (Dominant) packaging can be organised according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of tradition, which claims vodka as a national treasure, and on the other side is the pole of purity, which stresses vodka freshness and transparency.

Whilst textual codes, the Slavic writing on the Sobiesky bottle and the long text of Absolut, characterise the traditional category, Grey Goose subverted this by using image-based signification: a vivid interpretation of Frenchness communicated through the Tricolor colour coding and a drawn illustration of flying geese above a moving sea (the grey geese of foie gras and the nationally typical coastal/ maritime associations).

As such, the move from emphasis on textual to more arresting visual codes enables Grey Goose to keep the codes of purity – the use of the blue, the fresh air of the sea – whilst freeing it from the traditional cultural cues in order to create a characterful interpretation. Relieved from vodka’s historic heritage, the bottle shape moves from the established sense of the massive and substantial to a more refined wine bottle shape.

Purity versus Craftsmanship

Purity is a current cliché of the vodka category and the key feature of Absolut’s brand differentiation. Yet Absolut’s purity is of a particular type, an intrinsic one. The bottle’s connotations of chemistry symbolize the concentration of an extremely sanitary liquid.  In contrasting with this intrinsic purity, Grey Goose cues an extrinsic, ‘crafted’ purity. Drawing on a sophisticated version of the codes of purity, Grey Goose displays a refined artistic graphic, a delicate alliance of blue and grey tones, and the aforementioned elegance of the wine bottle.

As a result, Grey Goose brand differentiation could be summed up by the semiotic square below:

Some thoughts on further innovation…

The theme of purity could be revisited through the use of raw material culturally encoded as ‘noble and pure’, such as organic white roses, to create an ‘ultra pure’ vodka and step even further away from the Absolut chemical purity.

Cueing on the precedent of Lady Gaga’s first-ever black perfume, the purity of vodka could also be distorted into innovative dark vodka.

Powerful, the theme of craftsmanship is opening the way for more global interpretations. One might imagine a Brazilian vodka made from Amazonian fruit. 

© Sophie Gomez 2013

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

Rediscovering Old Age

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

 

Whenever you meet clients in India, it seems that every brand is striving to be youthful and wants to target 18-25 year olds. The rest of us on the wrong side of this age divide might as well make ourselves scarce. Any ad review over the last ten years will only showcase young people and older people, if they exist, will at best be middle-aged parental figures, representing irritant authority against whom the youth kick off to make a point. They were either judgmental mother in law like figures, inspecting the home of young couples to see whether their kitchens and bathrooms were being kept up well or simply uncomprehending of the ways of the young generation.

In the past couple of years, there has been an interesting shift. Old people have made an appearance, first in advertising for financial products such as pension plans and now making inroads into sectors such as telecom which were bastions of youth. The old people are emphatically old – very wrinkled and proceeding towards being bent as well. The physicality is where the archetype parts way with the character. They mostly do not conform to the archetype of the wise old man/woman and nor to the covert social take of being strange and cranky.

This is a significant shift in a culture that is beginning to idealize youth. The balance of power has tipped in their favour of young people as they are more economically empowered, making more money than their parents ever saw and also being inherently tech savvy and therefore better able to negotiate the world today.  Traditionally, moving towards maturity and old age was revered and somewhat eagerly awaited. With advancing age came all the privileges of enhanced status and authority reflected in being consulted by the young on every decision and putting the seal of approval on every purchase. Advancing old age meant that it was pay back time for the young, where any good kid was going to dutifully serve and put the elder’s wish before his while the old cultivated a detachment from worldly affairs and a move towards spirituality.

Against the backdrop of this shift, advertising’s sudden engagement with the old and this moving into the foreground of collective consciousness is intriguing. Post tipping of balance of power, what codes govern old age? Perhaps when there is an ambiguous space the imagination runs free. Collectively there is a need to re imagine old age. The contours this reimagining has taken are interesting.

In this imagination, as reflected in advertising, the old are not moving towards either detachment or spirituality. The mood is light, marked with merriment. While the physicality is exaggeratedly old the behavior is emphatically like that of a teenager.

Portrayal of the old as carefree and a tiny bit irresponsible is reflected in a health insurance ad where the son is evaluating a policy and wants his father’s opinion but the father is too busy listening to rap on his iPod and would rather talk about the music than insurance. Or in a bunch of oldies giggling like school girls, cheating at cards and planning a birthday surprise for their brother; again from an insurance ad.

Another theme that gets repeated is that of romance between the old, which is particularly interesting as old couples in India are expected to be done with overt expressions of romance by the time the children come along. Buying diamond rings for your wife in your old age especially when it is preceded by a lifetime of restrained consumption is  intriguing; as is an awkward old man giving his dour wife a rose on Valentine’s day when the cultural norm is one of functional choices and practical transactions between couples.

Reimagining old age is fertile creative territory for the agencies in India and perhaps it is media validation and way forward for those living in changed times. Or maybe an acknowledgement of those who have the big bucks and a history of being consumption deprived.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqg8pVOTooY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N2PRuuYVsA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lb6Ky4PdHw

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Asia, Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | No Comments »

Modern Orientalism

Monday, January 28th, 2013

 

Eccentric aristocratic Orientalist travellers of the 18th and 19th century sought a contact with the Middle East that could express all that they denied themselves at home. Slowly lifting the veil, the artists soaked the meeting between East and West in pathos and mystic eroticism.

By comparison, the 21st century has seen political institutions in the west aggressively tear away the veil, to de-veil rather than un-veil. Yet the Middle East withholds. However many drones map the terrain, Osama Bin Laden eluded capture, Afghanistan resisted peace and Iran’s nuclear aspirations continue. We’re used to seeing the region ‘from above’: hidden bunkers, caves, WMDs, the evolving border between Israel and Palestine. Total revelation. Faced with this nakedly pornographic interrogation of the region, Shafik Gabr’s East-West initiative has drawn on the adventures of Orientalist travellers as inspiration for renewed dialogue. 

Shafik Gabr Foundation advertisement in the Financial Times

To dress the walls of an area for future dialogue between East and West (capitalized, East and West) with Orientalist art seems itself, paradoxically, to be an instance of an intellectually more established form of orientalism (in the critical Edward Said sense) – and to reinforce the polarising Language of Civilizations. We need to be smarter than this. Orientalist rhetoric (in the Said sense) is still pervasive and relevant. Economic development and technological advance has somewhat leveled the power differential between Europe, the USA and the Middle East. But popular depictions of the Middle East too often foreground an imported Western Liberalism and use this as a standard from which to interrogate social relations in the region – with all the familiar received iconography around oppressed women in hijabs or burkas lowering their eyes, suicide bombers dreaming of the virgins that await them in paradise and so forth. Despite honorable intentions books by exiles, such as The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran, are written specifically for a Western audience and the narrators neatly extricate themselves from the Middle East. In a sense, Western Liberalism itself becomes the narrator.

Listening to coverage of recent revolutions in the region, you’d be forgiven for thinking Facebook toppled Mubarak (the BBC screened a 2 part documentary in September 2011 entitled How Facebook Changed the World) do. Widening access to technology and the Internet across the region is crucial, yet it does not represent an essential disruption. Life and struggle in the Middle East continues refracted through the technological medium, and it’s a refraction the West too undertook. The modern Orientalist believes that Middle Eastern identity straddles a contradiction between their traditional cultural values and economic advance, yet Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadija was a prosperous businesswoman. It’s clear we have a lot more to learn.

This photo by Mehraneh Atashi, taken in a traditional exclusively male (strong man) gym in Tehran, shows one way of easing the discourse out of the semiotic monopoly of a Western Liberal viewpoint. The points of reference in this picture are familiar: technological perception, gyms and mirrors. Yet the experiential substance of it – the content – eludes and intrigues us. Crucially, the photographer’s reflection in the mirror (bringing the frame into the picture) asserts her status in the narrative, rather than taking her out of it, while drawing attention to representation as a production of meaning rather than neutral recording or eye-witnessing.  As more of the dots across the cultural divide are connected, a common cross-cultural discursive framework will emerge. It’s in the fast paced realms of pop culture and technology that these commonalities are most likely to appear.

Rather than clearing our (the West’s) own podium, or ‘letting’ the East speak, the next step is much simpler. The public space will not precede dialogue; rather, dialogue itself will create the public space. It’s simply a case of listening and collaborating – thus not getting left behind.

© Kourosh Newman-Zand 2013

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Fifty Shades of Spem

Monday, January 28th, 2013

 

One of my favourite pieces of choral music has hit the mainstream lately: Thomas Tallis’s 40-part choral motet Spem in Alium has exploded in popularity due to the role it plays in EL James’s erotic bondage trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. Current public opinion on this combination ranges from bemusement and puzzlement to gratitude (on the part of record companies), but I haven’t been able to find any decent explanation for how – or even if – these two texts work together. So let’s fix that.

First of all, the texts themselves.

Spem in Alium is a Renaissance motet, composed around 1570 by Thomas Tallis. In choral music circles it’s quite famous for a number of reasons:

For starters, it’s simply spectacular, if you like that sort of thing (I do). It starts small (one ‘voice’) and ends big (all 40 voices), and in between is a lovely, rich, surging, swirling, immersive, infinitely-complex texture of harmony and melody. Normally, it’s the kind of thing you’d like to wake up to on a lazy weekend morning (you might not notice it starting, but you’ll certainly be awake by the end).

It’s also famous because it’s rarely heard or performed live, since it’s written for 40 separate parts. It’s a crazy number: most choral music is written for 4 parts, and sometimes 8 parts if the composer was feeling unusually ambitious. 40 parts usually means a minimum of 80 singers, and that’s tough to arrange in this age. As a result of this low profile on the live stage, Spem in Alium has been the secret handshake of choral music lovers for ages: not as well-known or as popularized as, say, Handel’s Messiah, or any of the Requiems. Spem is the shibboleth of High Anglican choral snobs.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a 2011 novel written by EL James, and it has two sequels (Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed). The novels are a massive success and currently hold the world record for fastest-selling paperbacks of all time. They’re also famous for bringing sexual bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (‘BDSM’) into the mainstream limelight, inspiring reams of articles and opinions on why this seems to have defined today’s zeitgeist – especially for housewives and middle-class mums.

But for now, let’s not go there: let’s pause on the fact that the dominant male character of the book, ‘Christian’, likes to play Spem in Alium while he has BDSM sex with the submissive female protagonist, ‘Ana’:

"The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …

"'What was that music?' I mumble almost inarticulately.

"'It's called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.'

You can imagine the classical music purists howling in outrage: how DARE a trashy pop-culture beach novel drag Tallis’ most celebrated work into the muck! Shock! Horror! Indecency!

And yet, it makes perfect sense when you look at it carefully – semiotically.

First off, there’s the issue of narrative congruence, or, in this case, ‘ironic narrative congruence’ or ‘deliberate narrative dissonance’, where the shock of placing a sacred text like Spem into the context of BDSM is precisely the point: if Fifty Shades (and BDSM) is about pushing boundaries and exploring the forbidden, then fifty shades of Spem is a perfect example. How dare they? Exactly.

But is it truly ironic? There’s Philip Tagg’s ‘genre synecdoche’, where an imported, re-contextualized musical reference can bring the connotations of an entire culture into the picture for semiotic mastication. How fascinating, to consider how music like Spem in Alium affects our experience of [reading about] BDSM! The music is transcendent, sublime: it transports listeners to a higher plane of consciousness, away from the corporeal and closer to the divine. BDSM, like all sex, tries to accomplish the same: transcending the physical (through the physical) to ecstasy, to touch the divine. Spem in Alium is also about discipline and control: breath, voice, diaphragm, timing; BDSM is entirely about control (who delivers pain, who receives pleasure). EL James knows this, with her description of Ana being “lost in him, in the seraphic voices”.

Although they’re sung in Latin and indecipherable in the music, the words of Spem are congruent with the narrative of the BDSM submissive: “I have never put my hope in any other but You . . . who can show both anger and graciousness . . . be mindful of our lowliness.” Spem fits Christian’s god complex (his name is no accident, either).

Musicologically, Spem is a kinetic anaphone (Tagg) for any kind of ecstatic sexual experience: immersive, sensuous, emotional, ebbing, flowing, teasing, climaxing.

And in the story, Christian’s knowledge of Spem gives him instant cultural cred. He is the grown-up, sophisticated adult version of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, having graduated from raping and Beethoven (both oh so crass).

Claudia Gorbman talks about ‘mutual implication’, which is one of the hallmarks of intertextuality: when you put two texts together, they affect they way each is perceived in culture. Sometimes this effect is small, sometimes it achieves massive cultural synaesthesia, where an entire generation is unable to, say, hear music like Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries without visualizing the Huey helicopters from Apocalypse Now.  Synaesthesia can only happen when there are deep narrative congruencies in the combined texts to support and inform the initial shock of unexpected juxtaposition.

But some multimedia text combinations are harder to lodge into people’s minds, and I doubt whether the music of Spem in Alium will become synaesthetically fused with BDSM imagery just through the written words of EL James on paper or Kindle screen . . . but just wait: the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey is already in development. The music credits will hold no surprise, and then we’ll really get to see ironic narrative congruence in action.

© Charles Leech 2013

Posted in Americas, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Russians in Films

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the way foreign directors represent Russia in films and the codes that were supposed to bring a Russian setting to life. These movie-makers must have read some pieces of classic Russian literature: the majority of signs and symbols that are supposed to connote Russia turn out to be a director’s representation of the codes rather than the codes themselves, a web of signifiers realising an imaginary Russia.

Most of the codes have been repeated endlessly becoming clichés easily recognized Russian audiences, making the cinema burst out with laughter. The limited number and repetition of these codes exaggerate the ‘Russianness’ of the context and put the story in another dramatic perspective: grotesque. The grotesque is still common on stage as a respected classic Russian drama school approach, so it happily lives within the theatre, rarely appearing elsewhere. The Russian spectator does not expect to see the grotesque on screen, nor did the Hollywood director, I suppose, intend to use this style of representation on purpose.

This study will deconstruct myths about 19th century Russia, as shown in films and appearing in popular culture.

Apart from the usual exaggeration, you can notice the lack of understanding of the difference between the nobles and the peasants of pre-revolutionary Russia. There was a huge cultural gap between these two classes in customs, traditions and beliefs, determined by serfdom, which existed in the country for several centuries and was eliminated only in 1861. Once can find a limited overlap between the cultural systems of the ‘noble’ and the ‘peasant’ worlds, but in general they were like two planets in one galaxy, where the Tsar was certainly treated as a sun. Although stressing the point of difference might seem intolerant in today’s multicultural reality, it is necessary to be accurate with the description of the way people lived, at least for the sake of future generations. As George Santayana once said, ‘Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it’. So, it’s better to clearly see and depict social segregation and its consequences, i.e. its impact on the nature of symbolic systems, instead of mixing all elements of national/cultural specifics in one pot.

Let’s look at some examples. The following codes are always shown in films in the context of the Russian noble class of 19th Century:

Code #1: Lots of fur: fur coats and fur hat

Why true: Russians did wear fur to keep warm.
Why NOT true: Nobles of 19th century chose fine silvery sable, which looks different from other furs and is rarely shown in films; big and heavy fur coats were popular among merchants and their wives, but not the nobles.

Code #2: Drinking vodka

Why true: Vodka was very popular in those days and its production was also in hands of nobles.
Why NOT true: Pure transparent vodka was never drunk those days, it was used in production as a base for creation of more delicate drinks. People preferred to make and drink berry and herbal ‘vodkas’ differentiated from each other by colour and taste.

Code #3: White sky

Why true: In winter when snow is all around – on the ground, on trees and in the air – the sky may be covered by clouds and seem absolutely white. This weather is typical when it’s not that cold outside but at the same time quite wet.
Why NOT true: Back then when winters were very frosty and cold the most common weather was ‘frost and sun’, as Pushkin described it – bright blue sky, no clouds and the ground covered with shiny sparkling snow.

Code #4: Woman’s hair in a plait

Why true: All peasant women wore plaits which were treated as marks of beauty. Besides, by plait thickness and length, men judged woman’s physical strength and health.
Why NOT true: The plait was typical for the village women: on the one hand, peasant women needed to prevent their hair from getting in the way when they were working in fields or at home; and on the other hand these women needed a symbol of beauty they could display. Noble women wore plaits in the 15th century but later on they preferred more complex hair styling. Being subject to French fashion they never let their hair look loose or hang down freely in a plait.  


Code #5:Ice-skating

Why true: Was popular in big cities, took place on the surface of the rivers, and Russia is traditionally a land of rivers (that’s why actually all roads in the country are known to be in a very bad condition: there was never a need for them and native people still have not developed skills in road construction).

Why NOT true: A river’s surface is not smooth, so skating was not as elegant as ishown in films. In  the19th century only two artificial skate rinks existed, in St Petersburg and Moscow. Sledging, incidentally, snowball fights and building a snowmen were more common and easier to do.

 

Code #6: Three, as a rule black, horses drawing a coach

Why true: Russian ‘Troika’ (literally: ‘three’, i.e. 3 horses) is a symbol of such phenomena as freedom, the inner search and a long road ahead. In reality, this was also one of the most popular forms of carriage.

Why NOT true: Other kinds of carriages also existed and were commonly used: nobles could use even 6 horses pulling their carriage. A troika with black horses is more of an exclusion: breeds of white, brown and grey horse were more widespread. ‘Apples on grey’, horses of light grey color with yellowish spots,  were the true Russian luxury.

Code #7: Flowery shawl

Why true: An authentic example of folk craft, manufactured since the end of 18th century. This unique rural Russian fabric patterning is still available, and trendy among hip young women.
Why NOT true: Never worn by noble women, only peasants.

 

Code #8: Big colourful onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches

Why true: There are some famous churches with colourful onion domes (especially popular with tourists). in Russia’s big cities.
Why NOT true: None of these ‘colourful’ churches had the status of  a major or state cathedral. The latter were big and brutal, without the playful image of picturesque ice-cream-like domes. Moreover, small, white stone and wooden churches played a more significant role in the religious life of Russians of those times: so if a person felt like having an intimate rendez-vous with God, he or she would have preferred to go to a small church and hide from the eyes of others.

This list could certainly be extended.

All these codes may be discovered in such films as ‘Onegin’ starring Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes, British TV-series like ‘Crime and Punishment’, several adaptations of ‘War and Peace’ and coming soon ‘Anna Karenina’ directed by John Wright.

My favorite personification of Russia is Princess Sasha from the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece ‘Orlando’. She’s absolutely amazing wearing her fur hat with giant fake sapphires, a thick brunette plait and with a possessive look in her eyes. Yet, it’s not difficult to see that she’s 100% French: she has absolutely non-Russian facial features.

This is a perfect example that it’s not enough to be aware only of the cultural codes, and that three things are much to be desired – real attention to detail, consistency with historical truths and contradictions, and a sense of proportion.  

© Marina Simakova 2012

Posted in Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Violence of the Dispossessed

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

The steady Indian economy has ensured that its citizens are relatively more secure in a world, where the societal formations have been destabilised by economic uncertainty. India also has the distinction of being the largest democracy and a pacifist power, often being accused of being a soft state. It displays little aggression in sports with enthusiasts attributing it to lack of ‘killer instinct.’ This historic lack of testosterone combined with family values and warm security should point to a society which is generally peaceable. But that is not so. Indian society is simmering with conflict. There is a war within – a war of the genders.

Violence against women is at an all time high even as women are now more literate, economically independent, empowered and liberated. And this is the woman that men cannot locate in their lexicon and paradigm of understanding women. For reasons of moral virtue men have always been told to look upon women other than his wife as mothers or sisters. But the modern Indian woman does not look anything like the mother or the sister that he has known. He cannot process this liberated and somewhat westernised woman. He does not know where to place her in his world and what to call her. There is no word for it.

The Indian man’s first brush with westernized women, was the white English woman. She was attractive and a sexual object. His lust for her did not disturb his moral virtue. She could remain in his fantasy because her otherness was so distinct that he never confused her with his mother or sister. Her relatively easy relationship with the opposite sex fuelled his fantasy but never disturbed his world because she was alien and distant. His fantasies never translated into action because he was intimidated by her. She was powerful as she belonged to the white master. He knew how to address her. She was ‘Memsahib’ and master was ‘Sahib.’ She merited an additional prefix of ‘Mem’ meaning English which was shorthand for all western values. Permissive values and women after all don’t go together. Such a qualifier for men is really not needed.

Closer to the colonial times, this nomenclature applied to the Indian elite. But as the colonial hangover receded and new contemporary Indian identities emerged, transfer of these values to the Indian context posed a problem. How does the common Indian man make sense of this woman who exhibits Memsahib like behavior and sartorial preference?  The physical attributes of the white woman like fair skin, slim figure and height still inform his ideal of beauty but his sexual reverie is rudely interrupted when he finds that the incorporation of the other has gone beyond the external. She inspires the same intimidation but this time he cannot accept that she is unattainable. He is enraged that once again the elite have cornered the prize. The liberal metrosexual man who is comfortable with her new identity is desired by her. This feels like betrayal because it comes from the brethren. The toiling, struggling masses have once again been left out with no recourse but brute force. The Sahib has walked away with the Memsahib.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Hedging semiotic bets

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

 

I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do a project on premium beauty last month. This involved a field trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (still colloquially known as Saigon). While analysing beauty archetypes and immersing myself in glamour magazines and visual culture I was struck by the creeping influence of an array of new beauty looks which play with mixed racial identity in an ambiguous way. This is a semiotic hedging strategy for a region which is becoming increasingly sure of itself and aware of its growing hegemony, whilst still vestigially in thrall to the West.

Those who track such things know that the beauty archetypes have been becoming more Asian for years. In 2006/07 Shiseido launched Tsubaki in a lacquerware looking bottle touting the uniqueness of Japanese beauty. A brand called Ichimaki did the same thing. At the same time the Kao brand Asience released a cringeful and starring actress heavily insinuating the superiority of East Asian over European women. No longer are leggy blondes fawned over in quite the same way as they used to be; except perhaps in hostess bars! Far from seeking to be European, the pellucid, almost sepulchral North East Asian look seems to be favoured. Cosmetic surgery is booming and generally deployed to widen eyes, mitigate the epicanthic lid and lengthen the nose bone. Whilst this may have been originally motivated by a desire to emulate Westerners, this has been appropriated as an East Asian look in its own right.. This represents a paradigm shift from the round faced and fatter cheeked Vietnamese beauty of the 1980s and before. In Vietnam this is being driven by Korean (and to a lesser extent Japanese) visual culture with slick premium beauty brands such as Ohui, Lenarge and others. In this, Korean K-Pop, soft power and brands work hand in glove with one another.

Anna Truong

So, we have this general drift towards celebration of East Asian beauty. At the same time there is this penchant for mixed race models. I conducted a similar project in Japan 5 years ago and was struck by the popularity of so called ‘haafu’ (Eurasian half Japanese, half European models) even though they were still exotic  and marginal curiosities it seems back then. In Japan the stigma of not being totally Japanese is gradually falling away. There are now famous ‘post race’ tarento such as Rora who are a Japanese, Russian, Bangladeshi mix. In Vietnam, a more conservative less ‘postmodern’ society, Anna Truong is a popular half Vietnamese, half German model and daughter of a famous singer noted for her warm and classy Eurasian beauty. Now what we see is the so called the Eurasian look being used alongside the more refined, more racially distinct and paler Korean look.

The mix is becoming hard to trace. Asian women who have been enhanced or are made up to have a more European look jostle with Europeans with black hair and the sort of skin that approaches a pallor of Japanese skin along with genuine Eurasians. This places the latter group – perhaps previously ostracised – in the ironic position of now being able to accuse ‘full blooded’ models of seeking to ‘pass themselves off’…

Za advertising

So, if we consider some of the images chosen here we can see how this shift is playing itself out in practise. The Za cosmetics print ad features two models dressed as flower power exiles. They have the rosy pinkish complexion and broader cheekbones and the auburn highlights popular in East Asia but note their Amazonian stature and cosmopolitan aura. The ad perfectly captures the vanillarized ambiguity of these looks – impossible to pigeonhole, easy to accept. They paddle off a miscegenated atoll somewhere in the territorial waters of ‘Ocean Eurasia’ but refuse to be pinned down or reveal their definite co-ordinates. Occidental Caucasianness is becoming a twist or garnish to spice up looks, rather than adopted wholesale.

This Lancome ad I saw outside a shopping mall in Saigon and in a fashion magazine is another significant cultural text. The two models adopt an identical gaze, as if the art director could not decide which to use. The double appeal of Caucasian and East Asian is the key here. This is also what all mixed race people have always known; we’re always ‘double’ in consciousness and heritage, never half. The beholder is meant to mix the identities in the mind like colour palette on an easel.

Lancome advertising

An experiment by Gillian Rhodes a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in 2006 found that when Caucasian and Japanese subjects were shown photos of Caucasian, Japanese and Eurasian faces both groups rated the Eurasian faces as most attractive. A hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is that these faces are preferred because they signal genetic diversity, a vital marker of reproductive health..

As someone of Caribbean heritage who lived through the 1980s in the UK when being mixed race was not embraced in the quite the same way it is now, I am stunned at the ubiquity of mixed race models, particularly Caribbean/white mixed in UK advertising and on TV by mainstream brands like M&S. Miscegenation has become the darling of brand guardians who seem to think this ethnic daring boosts credibility with a progressive population, who may have their prejudices (and as we know from the muppet opera Avenue Q ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’) but who want to believe in a world where exotic beauty trumps race. Of course the Obama phenomenon would have fed this trend. In East Asia the decision to use these models seems less political than strategic. From the semiotic perspective, this reveling in gradations is a sort of aesthetic rapprochement. The Eurasian look seems to square the circle, blending proud celebration of Asian skin with a dash of Caucasian exoticism. This also helps manage the tension between the desire for cultural capital and class mobility and the need to be anchored to an East Asian root. 

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Chocolate Vietnam

Friday, November 9th, 2012

 

This Vietnamese chocolate pack is a perfect juxtaposition of globalized visual culture and the extraction of semiotic cues of local influence. As ethnographer Arjun Appadurai wrote: “The central problem of today's global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization… What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way…” (p. 6; Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture). This dialectic drives branding and design codes.

The excellent paper by Thurlow and Aiello (National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry Crispin Thurlow and Georgia Aiello, Journal of Visual Communication, 2007) on aircraft tailfins showed how global kinetic motion vector motifs can be hybridized with local avian mythology to create national airline brands that also successfully conform to an international design idiom. A similar thing is happening here. Chocolate has for a while been becoming much less a sweet confectionary and being seen as a gourmet foodstuff. The cocoa bean usually rendered in faux naïf illustrator (as if straight off a Linaeus etching) style has become a staple image in the brave new world of bean to bar new chocolatiers. The Marou pack cleverly combines this with subtle cultural cues. The brand descriptor and historicist font used for the title is a contrivance of Gallic savoir faire. The title Faiseurs de Chocolat – is ‘made up’ French (it should be fabricants) and the square cartouche reference vaguely fin de siècle France luxury goods.

To the uneducated observer (which I still consider myself to be after only a two week stint), the main design influences in Vietnam are Vietnamese re-creations of broadly Chinese design and a re-imagined colonial France. This stunning chocolate packaging from Marou subtly references both of these traditions whilst arguably forging a delightfully charming Vietnamese confection. The building that houses the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City would probably be a good example of this type of hybrid form. It is a pleasing mix of Chinese and French influences with the splayed eaves and roofing characteristic of pagodas, engraved calligraphic panels, and the cloud and transom patterns in balustrades, but with the shutters, balconies and neo classical influences of French architecture. This 1937 building, is an example of forging something distinctively Vietnamese out of semiotic resources available.

Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

The colouring of the pack is interesting too. The ochre yellow is ubiquitous in Hanoi and in the South. This stucco seems to be used on all the old French colonial houses. Significant now of faded grandeur, it is arguably used to re-orientalize Vietnamese products for the Viet Kieu, South Vietnamese exiles who crave romanticized views of Vietnam they had to leave behind in painful circumstances in the 1970s and because they do not now recognize their country.

Vietnam is a country still quite divided between North and South living in the shadow and the trauma of two bitterly fought colonial struggles. The North via photography and other elements martially commemorate their struggle and eventual triumph against massive odds. The South who lost the war – but appear to be winning the peace – are nostalgic about remembering what was interrupted and purged in 1976. Being publicly nostalgic has only quite recently become a possible trope in Vietnam. As cultural anthropologist Christophe Robert comments: “Indulging in nostalgia is akin to dilettantism and bourgeois loafing…After independence and reunification of the country had been achieved. Nostalgia for the bad old days was inappropriate. In political terms, and especially in Saigon and southern Vietnam, nostalgia could potentially open the door to revisionist accounts calling into question the brutal means- and the authoritarian governance of the Communist Party.” (Robert, p. 408)

When it comes to the luxury goods there is a demand from more discerning old money in both Hanoi and Saigon for nostalgia in art, interior design and packaging. It seems that the two Frenchmen who set up this brand wittingly or unwittingly tap into this vein whilst also auto-orientalizing Vietnam for foreign visitors. I picked this item up in the Sofitel in Ho Chi Minh –; at 131,000 dong, (about $5) it is definitely a chi chi item you wouldn’t find it in a normal supermarket. My cultural anthropologist colleague Christophe Robert believes that this pack would appeal only to the very pinnacle of the social hierarchy in Vietnam, those with both money and symbolic education to be able to appreciate the references. Aside from being beautifully and artfully put together, this pack seems to be a semiotic text that shrewdly pushes the right buttons both with overseas Viet Kieu diaspora, nostalgia craving rich Vietnamese and easily impressed, time pressed foreigners like me looking for swift souvenirs.

© Chris Arning 2012

References

Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture (1990)

Robert, Christophe ‘The Return of the Repressed: Uncanny Spaces of Nostalgia and Loss in Trâ`n Anh Hùng’s Cyclo’ Positions 20:1 (2012)

Thurlow, Crispin and Georgia Aeillo, ‘National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry’, Journal of Visual Communication, (2007)

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense | No Comments »

The truth is out there

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 

For almost a century Russian society lived in the sweet dystopia called Soviet communism. No private property, no economic choice, limited contact with the world outside created a feeling that there was one kind of reality, the one Soviet people lived in, and no alternative to it.  Even those who refused to believe in Soviet ideas and opposed state ideology faced a total absence of choice in their daily lives. There were ’bread’, ‘milk’ and ‘vodka’ – commodities rather than varieties or brands. Back then it was as if Individual preferences did not exist. 

Then came the collapse and a new era began. The Russian market burst out with foreign brands and products – and Snickers, along with many other sisters and brothers from the US and Western Europe, conquered the local commodities. This led to a massive and fundamental change in consumers’ mental and visual representation of product reality. With the fall of the Iron Curtain also came a loss of the connection between signs and their hitherto inherent meanings.

Previously ‘milk’, for example, had been a universal signifier that mirrored what was perceived to be the true nature of the signified, or at least the mental representation of the thing called ‘milk’ had never been diversified into branded ‘Danone-milk’ or  ‘Country House-milk’. It stood as the one and only ‘milk’ – as a category, as a product, as a substance, as a word.  With the emerging brands and varieties a tempting world of alternatives opened up to people, now consumers. As we all know, the fruit of temptation can make the gates of Eden close forever.

So gradually Russian consumers got used to the market economy and consumption became one of the most common and pleasurable vices.  There is, however, something that makes the satisfaction of ownership incomplete – a longing for true meaning. 

Through past experience the majority of Russian consumers learnt that there could be only one true product, unbranded, the one that actually gave birth to the whole category. The situation where the product on sale coincided with the generic notion of milk by name, along with a general absence of alternatives, coincided with a pervasive perception that somewhere there is  a certain space of ‘truth’. In this space any meaning ideally matches the sign – they are a priori linked with each other and there is no way to detach them.

No need to say that Roland Barthes’ theory of simulacrum is not taught at schools. Most people think that the idea of a thing is the thing itself and this thing has it’s one and only essence. The one and only name of the thing is treated as the part of its one and only identity. In this case everything is measured in the grades of ‘truth’: the closer a branded product is to the ‘Milk’, the more truthful and the better it is (since ‘Milk’ itself is the absolute best).  

When buying a pack of milk, the Russian consumer always tries to estimate whether this product is true or not. He makes the choice hesitating and continues to hesitate while drinking it. Every new product gives a glimmer of hope that finally this is the one, the true milk, but unfortunately there’s no proof.

Again and again consumers search for the true and the criteria of truth vary from person to person. Consumers try to remain ‘true humans’, ‘true men’ and ‘true women’, ‘true friends’, ‘true lovers’ and to choose the ‘true product’. Producers struggle to fit consumers’ image of ‘true’ and construct a system of signs and symbols that could be decoded as the elements of true nature.

This situation determines the success of the private labels available in retail. Signs that connote to Soviet times are also perceived very positively. For example, one of Valio’s campaigns was completely based on the idea of truth: big sky blue stickers in metro announce ‘Pure truth. Pure milk’.

Claims about real, authentic, essential, pure, natural products from childhood are everywhere. Yet, in consumers’ minds there’s always a seed of doubt: what if in the today’s market reality there’s no truth at all?  

© Marina Simakova 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Two Types of Garishness (3)

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

 

Revisiting the analyses of the Russian and London Ambassadorial interpretations of garishness from a triumphant summer now dwindling into damp autumn there follows a brief methodological retrospective on our articulation of the sartorial codes. Roman Jacobson’s communicative functions are a most useful way quickly and effectively to audit the different thrusts within the uniforms discussed. This analysis will also reveal in more rigorous terms how and why there are two types of garish that are actually quite diametrically opposite in their rationale and efficacy but that both work quite successfully.

Jacobson wrote that there were six elements in each communication situation and six functions that accounted for them. Let’s look at the two sets of uniforms individually in the light of this model. With ratings out of 10 for utilisation intensity of specific functions.

LONDON AMBASSADORS UNIFORM

ADDRESSER (EMOTIVE) – 2 low use of this function since there seems to be little celebrating London in the design, this seems subordinate to the phatic and referential

ADDRESSEE (CONATIVE) – 5 medium probably not designed to communicate any particular messages aside from friendliness, this is where the design most falls down

MESSAGE (POETIC) – 2 low use of this function, any protrusion of signs purely incidental and due to their cack handed nature rather than any purposeful intention

CONTEXT (REFERENTIAL) -7 high use of this function, referring to the Olympics context, the 2012 livery, intersecting lines and wayfinding colours

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

CHANNEL (PHATIC) – 8 high use of this – making eye contact with the visitor to London to attract their attention

RUSSIAN FEDERATION UNIFORM

ADDRESSER (EMOTIVE) – 8 high use of this function since it seems to be a very proud effusion of Russian visual culture though difficult to decode by foreigners

ADDRESSEE (CONATIVE) – 5 medium function, probably designed to show the forcefulness and richness of Russian culture though not the Asiatic genealogy

MESSAGE (POETIC) – 9 very high use of this function because patterning is not so common in Olympic track suits and with the white sash very palpable use of signs

CONTEXT (REFERENTIAL) – 5 medium use of this – does not refer to the Olympics as much as a casual celebration of Russian culture regardless of the setting

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

CHANNEL (PHATIC) – 8 relatively high use of this – the eye-catching contact is part of the poetic appeal

Hopefully this short analysis shows the power of semiotics in revealing nuance and savvy underlying what looks like mindless cacophony in two types of Olympic garish.

Interestingly, these versions of garish work in almost diametrically opposite ways. The London Ambassadors’ uniform has a low emotive (does not communicate London in any way) and poetic function (hotch potch of signs) while the Russian Federation uniform scores very highly on both emotive and poetic functions. Both of the uniforms privilege the phatic but the former stresses unthreatening bonhomie to addressees whereas the latter plays a subtle gambit for Russian power to assert itself in a multi-polar world.

So, in conclusion, we saw these two types of garishness at London 2012. Both were designed to project soft power but one did so (perhaps unwittingly) through the lack of design in its composition but with a universal recipient in mind. The other seems like the result of emotive nationalism, is highly indigenous and poetic in composition, was created to make an aesthetic statement flying in the face of international pundits.

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Reserved Meaning

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Using different drinks glasses as a way of explaining codes and cultural meanings is a well-established routine in the discourse of commercial semiotics. Monty Alexander first introduced this at Semiotic Solutions and Australia’s Jake Pearce has more recently adapted it on a short YouTube film. Pearce introduces semiotics by using an obvious everyday example – demonstrating the differences in perception that arise between witnessing sparkling wine being drunk from a beer glass and seeing someone drinking it in a more properly ‘meaningful’ way from a champagne glass. Jake Pearce goes on to argue that the confusing sensation of seeing champagne in a tankard, like seeing a mature man wearing bright red lipstick, is an error in the continuum of meaning – of the sort that semiotics can help you avoid in actual commercial communication in any form.

"I'm in the wrong place on the semiotic expert continuum"

I enjoyed Jake Pearce’s performance since nothing in the world seemed more stable than his examples. But this impression lasted only a month or two. You may understand my surprise when in at the beginning of the winter, the season when dark beer usually comes out on the stage, the local Bulgarian brand Zagorka (owned by Heineken) launched new 360º campaign promoting its variant of stout beer but with an explicitly wine-like style message. This brand new product was called ‘Reserva’, offered in a limited edition and for a limited period (“only this winter”) – and its distinctive feature was the blueberry taste.

It should be noted that in Bulgaria people involved in food and drink industry are clear (or maybe were clear) about the taste preferences of the average consumer. Everything should have a consistent, strong taste – black strong coffee, fiery alcohol, etc.  Briefly, beer is nothing, but beer, and the perception of the local consumer was seriously challenged especially by the TV commercial. In the spot we could see beer bottles put on familiar wine shelves with date plates on them displaying years in the near future – 2015, 2016 and so on. Then a hand picked up the bottle and filled a wine glass with the beer in question.

The Reserva case was made even more complex because in previous years dark beer in the local market had been rather exception rather than the rule, although with the arrival of this different kind of taste and sensory experience a few dark beers had taken their place on the shelves. The most curious fact was that the overall message put together by different channels tended to accentuate he wine reference as an interesting tool for distinguishing such an extraordinary product from the beer category as a whole – but without positioning it as wine, since after all it was actually still a beer.

I don’t know what Jake Pearce  would say about this, but I appraised this marketing move as daring and potentially paradigm-changing.  Pearce’s argument is completely supported by the U.S. professor of malting and brewing science Charles Bamforth, who dedicates a whole book to the topic of  Grape vs. Grain (Cambridge University Press, 2008), aiming to demarcate clearly the origin and cultures of the two drinks. Bamforth even aspires to give brewers and the world at large a different perspective on beer and to underline its inherent qualities and heritage, in spite of beer’s “outrageous advertising regimes” and unequal battle with the originally French and precious derivation of wine’s image.

Returning to semiotics, we should remember the principle that meaning is fluid and that nothing is ultimately stable in culture, including the world of alcoholic beverages. Semiotics also teaches us as that if you are presenting something new you should use something close and familiar as a meaning bearer, otherwise your idea will lack some kind of skeleton or face.

That is why I found the Reserva ad semiotically provocative – it positions the product not against wine, in its taken for granted sense, but superimposed on wine (working through a sort of mimicry) and by doing so it draws on the exclusivity and higher class image of wine.

Probably, in a global context, the ad is neither totally new nor original in its attempt to stir up the beer market. In the upcoming winter season Reserva won’t even exist any more in the Bulgarian market place. But in the sprit of above and potentially taking the beer-wine crossover into new diemensions, Charles Bamforth writes: “I believe that the brewer has much to learn from the winemaker”, not least perhaps in moving the beer category forward to a point where it can begin to be associated with a wholeseome lifestyle of health and longevity.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

Posted in Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Two Types of Garishness (2)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

This comparison of two types of garishness at London 2012 started with the official Russian Federation Olympic uniform by Bosco. Now let us turn to the delightful confection of the Team London Ambassador’s uniform. This has been described as looking like a cross between Percy the Pig and Butlins (classic British popular holiday camp) on acid. Ambassadors were London volunteers who greeted Olympic visitors.

Even Boris Johnson felt the need to apologize for the uniforms on their unveiling in 2011. 'It's quite striking, isn't it? I hope you don't feel too ridiculous. We need to overcome our natural British reserve and be a little bit more like the Australians!’ ‘Whoever designed it needs a prize. It's positive. It's optimistic.' As usual, Johnson’s facetious, bumbling obfuscation and bluff sophistry just managed to mollify critics.

Where I think even he went too far is when he proclaimed. 'It's in extremely good taste and style, and typical of London.' Er Boris, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Oswald Boateng perhaps; M Solutions based in Enfield, not so much.

So to some sort of an analysis. Firstly the colour matches that chosen for the logo, pink and magenta, to match the visual identity of London 2012 chosen for venue décor, wayfinding signage, and used for the bunting festooning London. The 70,000 Games Makers volunteers manning the stadia and ferrying around the delegations wore purple and dark orange styled by Adidas. London Ambassadors uniforms in contrast were magenta and pink. So what does pink mean today? Well, as I wrote in a piece earlier in the year the colour pink is probably more freighted now with connotations than almost any other colour. In a vibrant, chromophile’s world it has come to mean: injunction to enjoy, to consume and the capitalistic progression. There is nothing to symbolize London on the uniforms, but pink could be construed as representative of Britain: signifying casualization of labour and moral permissiveness eroding the redoubtable empire red that used to characterize the UK.

As for the magenta, the other colour, Darius Monsef in his book Colour Inspiration writes of two stripes in a rainbow flag that “a magenta (pink) stripe at the top of the flag represents sexual attraction to one’s own sex… Lavender (purple) represents sexual attraction to both sexes”. Although the Ambassador’s uniform appeared in a different context the combination of ambiguous pink and coquettish magenta served to make these Ambassadors seem non-threatening, scripting them as jaunty helpers.

There was nowhere near as much attention to detail as in the Russian Federation uniform, which for all its apparent garishness was exquisitely patterned. The ambassador’s uniform, in contrast, was sloppily put together.

The criss-crossed lines sewn into the chest reflect the energy lines emblazoned on Olympic venues, podiums and medals. On the Ambassadors shirt, however, they are an ugly scrum of rectilinearity, dividing colours. They make the uniform look harlequinesque without any of the knavish charm of that aesthetic. The i badge information set in an awkward off set blotch standing on the breast again looks obscenely clumsy. The gratuituous looking badge on the left shoulder with the Team London lettering on it.

With so much criticism directed at budget overruns at the Olympics, the Mayor’s Office may have intended to produce a cheap and cheerful uniform to deflect criticism. In the event the visibility of the uniforms brightened up the streets and created a festive atmosphere. It has been reported by Visit Britain that some overseas visitors were put off coming to the UK by stereotypes about the English being stand-offish/unfriendly. Certainly the costumes would have served to combat these impressions by deliberately placing the London Ambassadors in a subordinate, entertainment function through the over the top uniform. This was a garishness designed to disarm and to charm.

© Chris Arning 2012

The third part of this analysis will contain summary conclusions and a methodological filtering of the two uniforms and their styles of garishness through Roman Jacobson’s communication functions model.

Posted in Art & Design, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Two Types of Garishness (1)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

I thought it would be worth looking at two types of garishness at London 2012. Garish is defined as obtrusively bright and showy. Synonyms: gaudy – showy – loud – glaring – flashy. I think that the official Russian Federation Olympic uniform and the GLA volunteer London Ambassador’s uniform both qualify. I thought it would be worth interrogating what sort of garishness it is and how it functions in both cases. What does this garishness communicate, what does it communicate in each case and why.

The conclusion would be that once we start to look at the different communication contexts, we can better see that the garishness performs different semiotic functions.

Russian Federation track suits by Bosco. They have been polarizing. Certainly, in the UK, when the first Russian athletes arrived at Heathrow in late July, they were slated by the press who interpreted them as an example of shameless 80s retro, evoking stereotypes of tasteless tracksuits, mindless away kits, insinuating unpleasant things about Russian taste. A friend of mine was roundly lampooned by his friends on his Facebook profile for having bought one as an ironic souvenir of his trip to the Olympic stadium. It was described as ‘minging’, and another quote described it as “the single worst piece of Olympic fashion” and “pikey sports kit”. This is a predictable English reaction based on our design prejudices that lean to sober and understated design leavened with a good deal of class hatred. I do wonder what Russians think of it? It seemed that the Russian athletes stepped out into the stadium with great pride and apparently it has been a popular fashion accessory back home in Mother Russia.

Unlike other tracksuits this one uses an ornate patterning device that catches the eye. The pattern is immediately identifiable as having an oriental, Levantine from my best guess, probably Ottoman influence. Matching the red stripes on the sleeve and waist is a sumptuous tangle of curlicues, paisleyesque, roseate and heraldic motifs all deftly interlinked together in a rich tapestry. According to my Russian colleague Masha Papanthymou, a main reference in the design is an ornamental so called 'Turkish cucumber', with Persian or Indian roots, which has of late become quite popular in visual culture, in a 21st century Russia still trying out new identities.

It has been popularly used in kerchiefs and scarfs and used by designers such as Denis Samichev on i-Phone covers as a nascent sign of Russianness. Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes discusses the perennial oscillation in influence between European oriented St. Petersburg and Asiatic Muscovy. Figes comments on the sympathy for all things Oriental in the Russian bourgeoisie in the 19th century: “the significance of the Eastern trace in Russian art went far beyond exotic decoration. It was testimony to the historical fact of Russia’s descent from the ancient cultures of the Orient.” (p.392). Vladimir Stasov researched the influence of Persian and Mongolian motifs in Russian lettering in Church manuscripts showing that Russian scribes had adopted nearly all of the rhomboids, rosettes, and checkered patterns later osmosed into Russian folk visual culture. So we can see from a Russian perspective that this track suit is not just kitsch Soviet retro; it is a fecund inter-textual reference to Russia’s history. Something similar has been happening in Turkey with Ottoman motifs in the last few years – becoming more comfortable with celebrating this through scarves & interiors.

What I like about it is that whilst it does play to a Russian love of grandiloquence and sentiment it also expresses something unique about Russia totally absent in the insipid anonymity of the horizontal Russian tricolore that will probably be forever associated with topsy-turvy transition period after the 1991 coup and short lived CIS.

As emblems, the bear or phoenix would be too vainglorious, so the sumptuous red with white tessellations smuggle in what a condensed symbol would do rather too overtly. This is reinforced by the bold lettered sash RUSSIA across the chest printed in grand, vertically imposing lettering. This is a new and interesting expression of Russian soft power and the team’s decent medal haul at London 2012 would have made this clear. Certainly Putin was a keen cheerleader for Russian success at the Games. The promotional imagery on the Bosco website, blonde Russian athletes, gazing Social realist style across the wheat fields of the steppe also shows a clear and proud rhetorical thrust.

© Chris Arning 2012

This analysis will continue in Part 2 with a look at the UK’s own take on garishness – the Team London pink and magenta Ambassador’s uniform.

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

No dress code for food

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

 

Food voyeurism seems to be a global phenomenon going purely by the number of food related shows from all over the world that are on air. In India we consume them all with gusto. Never mind if most us in India are totally unfamiliar with many of the ingredients and certainly have no idea what a terrine or a béchamel sauce may be. Unfamiliarity with an Enoki mushroom does not keep us from participating in the drama surrounding it on Masterchef. We are learning how the other side eats and we are learning to consume food visually.

Food presentation is something fairly alien to us in India. The kormas and the curries are just one mass which see nothing further by way of presentation than garnishing with finely chopped coriander. Even in garnishing the repertoire doesn’t extend beyond coriander or perhaps coconut and on a really good day it could be fried onions, all on a consistent background color varying between pale yellow to reddish yellow. Compared with the food art that other cuisines are given to, Indian cuisine can be described as visually limited.

This visual poverty seems a little odd for a cuisine that uses a rich array of spices and has a multiplicity of expressions, with each region having a rather complete & distinctive set of offerings. It is rich and imaginative in every way except that it refuses to romance the ingredients and will not dress up charmingly to lure the diner. A carrot will submerge its identity amongst five other vegetables and no vegetable will attempt to hog the limelight by posing as a flower.

Food on the table is good enough. It does not need hard sell. For a culture that believes each grain is a manifestation of god, demanding that food look pretty would be blasphemy.  Grains, vegetables, spices themselves are treated with respect even in a busy bazaar. They will all be washed and polished and arranged into geometric heaps. Every transaction with the customer disturbs this arrangement but it is carefully restored. It is much less efficient than simply putting it in a heap or displaying fruits & vegetables in a cardboard box.

Food demands respect. The equation between the diner and the food is fairly clear. Food does not have to try too hard. In fact it will be romanced by ornate containers. The only points of embellishment are the plate and the containers. The great Indian thali does not woo the diner but the food itself.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Asia, Categories, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

A saint was bathing in the Ganges when he came across a group of family members on the banks, shouting angrily at each other. Smiling, he turned to his disciples and asked them why these people should be shouting in such a way. Nobody could provide an answer.

"But why shout at a man who stands just a few feet away? One might just as well tell him what one has to say in a more gentle way", the saint went on. "When two people are angry at each other, the distance between their hearts grows. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the louder they will have to shout in order to bridge the great distance between them. And what happens when two people fall in love? They don't shout at each other but talk softly, because the distance between their hearts is very small, or does not exist at all."

When I was growing up in the UK, there was a series of ads for Safestyle Windows in which a nattily dressed and strangely ageless gentleman would puncture my enjoyment of Countdown to tell me that I would be just mad to pass up his unbeatably-priced uPVC double-glazing. Eagerly awaiting the next numbers round and less than convinced of the functional and emotional benefits of purchasing such a product, I would wisely turn a blind eye. Besides, the guy was always shouting at the top of his voice and didn't come across as a wholly credible recipient of what would have been nearly an entire month's pocket money.

Source: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2005/11/prweb314653.htm

The Safestyle ads have recently returned to our screens in UK, but alas they now lack bite in comparison to the operatic excesses of Go Compare's Gio Compario. For several years now, UK television audiences have been bombarded by this masterpiece of the irritating squall, arguably the single most annoying campaign of the century so far. To those readers in other parts of the world who remain ignorant of Gio's decibel-crunching vocal delivery: how we envy you. For heaven's sake, don't follow this link.

But the Comparioseries is not merely annoying – it actually sounds louder than the ads which show before and after it. It literally shouts over the top of anything you might be doing, saying or thinking. Online sources suggest that the series has been a resounding success for Go Compare, as hapless audiences struggle to rid their minds of that refrain. As ever, the lack of a control makes it impossible to measure how much of this success is down to the intricacies of the campaign rather than the huge media spend itself, but brands looking to follow suit would do well to think twice before reaching for the megaphone.

As our Hindu saint divines, shouting is inherently antagonistic and alienating. Few things say 'I don't care about you' like a raving monologue. Indeed, as if to illustrate the metaphor, a new instalment in the Compario series sees a vengeful neighbour (played by the nation's own Sue Barker) blowing up the protagonist, as the verbal aggression of earlier episodes inevitably escalates into actual physical violence.

No doubt disciples on the banks of the Ganges were at some point also schooled in the other great signified of the shout: madness. If not, they need look no further than the sports betting category, where the shout is fast being adopted by all-comers as the register of choice. Ladbrokes leads the way with the grotesquely exuberant wails of real-life football commentator Tiziano Crudeli, whose screams of "2:1, 60 minutes, 2:1!!" understandably leave fellow match-goers perplexed. In my Countdown days, I could sleep easy in the knowledge that Safestyle were the crazy ones – for offering such recklessly low prices. But in this latest series of ads it is we the public whose madness is presupposed and indeed encouraged. Without any intrinsic benefits to communicate, the plan boils down to this: act crazy and hope it starts to rub off on everyone else, in an open invitation to us all to lose our minds in a great, mad carnival of negative-gain consumerism. Technically, one might say that the shout serves as a means to disavow the voice from the message it delivers, cleverly diverting the audience's attention away from the impotency of the latter in the process. One might also suggest that for all their bluster, there is a certain desperation in these ads, as they make a tacit (well, actually very noisy) confession of their own absurdity to the high priest of advertising.

Source: http://www.prweek.com/uk/news/1084440/Ladbrokes-game-on-SapientNitro/

 © Tom Lilley 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semiotics as Art: Ryan

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Paul Ryan, “Threeing & the relational circuit” (1970’s – ongoing).

In the first ‘Semiotics as Art’ Kosuth said: “Works of art are analytic propositions”.  So what of an art practice that’s all about investigating & formalizing “positional instead of propositional relationships”?

Paul Ryan (1943) is a New York based video artist and associate professor of Media Studies at the New School. Once assistant to media-guru Marshall McLuhan, full blown C.S. Peirce & Gregory Bateson adept, his work on Threeing & the relational circuit, for me, is quite spectacular as it does something I’ve not witnessed elsewhere: it lets you experience, feel Peirce’s first, second & thirdness. As semioticians we tend to think about those categories, we try to envisage them, work with them … but have you ever tried sensing their affective power?

3D Relational Circuit © Paul Ryan

 The relational circuit & Threeing.

The diagram below was taken from the paper “The sign of itself” by Paul Ryan as a 2-D rendering of the 3-D relational circuit shown above.

 

© Paul Ryan

There are six positions: a position of firstness, one of secondness, one of thirdness and three in between positions. What it does is create a continuous topological circuit in which a change of position changes the relationship. In his book “The Three Person Solution” Ryan states: “Orientation means assigned direction. In the Relational Circuit, the six positions relate to each other without the need to assign direction, that is, no up or down, left or right, front or back”. No hierarchy but heterarchy. A formal figure that once enlarged & put on the floor allows the actual practice of Threeing:

Threeing is a way of being with two others. A formal collaborative process in which two against one dynamics are precluded. A yoga of relationships for three people where participants take turns playing three roles: initiator, respondent and mediator. The initiator works in firstness, being such as she/he is regardless of any other. The respondent works in secondness, reacting to the initiator without rhyme or reason. The mediator works in thirdness, finding patterns that mediate the interaction between the initiator and the respondent.

The idea is that people use the relational circuit outline to move into the space it automatically creates and change positions via the continuous paths, with only one single person allowed per position and no predefined rotation, start or finish. The person which takes the position of firstness will become the initiator and so on. Ryan developed both a verbal and nonverbal practice of Threeing as well as a way to create the relational circuit alone through the use of video. The application of the practice is legion. It has already been used by public school teachers learning about sustainability, engineers searching for new jobs, professionals addressing climate change & those are but a few of the examples Paul Ryan & co. have already worked on. Conflict resolution, team building & so many other applications come to mind.

Of course there’s no circuit around Kosuth’s statement. Paul Ryan’s work currently on show at dOCUMENTA(13) – one of the biggest European art exhibitions held only every 5 years in Kassel (Germany) – cannot escape the propositional nature of art. But I doubt he’s trying to. When asked “What are you working on now?” Ryan answered “I'm trying to imagine what it would be like if every member of the human species knew how to three.” (from his artist’s notebook “Two is not a number” published for the exhibition,)

John Updike said: “What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit”. Ryan does just that & more. The work is difficult to categorize, hence the interest!  Art that has practical applications is quite unique – so is using semiotic theory as the guiding principle of a relational Yoga.

For those who would like to read up on Paul Ryan’s work & writings:

On his website you'll find workshops for threeing, with positional diagrams explaining how it all works as well as his paper “The sign of itself” and his revised paper on “The Relational Circuit”. He’s been published in semiotica “Gender and Threeing, Ecology and Cyberspace”, in the American Semiotic Society Journal Bateson, Peirce and the Threeperson solution et al. For those that have the time there’s an hour-long interview from 1995 on youtube where Ryan tells some brilliant anecdotes about McLuhan, Bateson and others here.

© Thierry Mortier 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Sequencing | No Comments »

Fachgynan (2)

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

 

The cupboard on top contained the food – in tins and jars, the shelves lined with the Daily Mirror, our newspaper of choice. On the side of the cupboard above the settle was the calendar, courtesy of ‘Hughes Bros, Llansilin’, who operated the local garage and bus service. Later on there would be a second calendar, a bit more fancy this one with smaller date pages and a photograph of some well-known Welsh beauty spot above it; this was from Criddle & Co, who supplied our animal feed. I think we had the Menai Bridge up there for a year.
 
 
There was a lot of time to notice all these things because that kitchen was the centre of our world; we ate, played there and did homework in later years. Dad took his daily after dinner (lunchtime) nap there so we soon had to learn to be quiet OR ELSE…… Oh and it was also our bathroom. There was only one tap in the house so anything to do with water had to happen in the sink. Hot water was in extremely short supply so we soon mastered the art of washing from head to foot with a couple of pints of water. This came in very useful may years later when I started travelling and hitchhiking and had to manage without baths and showers at times. Bath night was a Sunday night. A small tin bath when we were toddlers, replaced by a 4ft tin bath as we got taller. There were never more than a couple of inches of water in either size of bath. Lynda first, then me, then David, poor lad! I think Mum used to sneak a bath occasionally when there was no-one else around, but Dad never did. He used to strip to the waist and have very noisy washes, with Lifebuoy carbolic suds flying everywhere. If he was in a good mood, he’d even start singing – his voice wasn’t at all bad. It would be some song we had heard on the wireless – I think he fancied himself as Eddie Fisher. What happened below the waist will never be known! I think there was ritual foot washing from time to time but I don’t know about anything else.
 
The kitchen table was not only the centre of our universe; it was also the centre of the universe for Siannie, our fox terrier. She lived in a wooden crate under the table. This also seemed perfectly normal.
 
Beyond the cupboard behind us was the back door to the yard outside, thick planks nailed together and covered with some ancient brown paint that had separated into a shiny reddish under-layer and a crusty, bubbly dark brown coating on the top. It was closed with a latch and there was a big, old-fashioned lock below, which we didn’t generally use. The other exit from the kitchen was up two high stone steps to the original kitchen/living room which by our time had been improved by the installation of a 1940s fire grate and the inglenook covered over with tine sheet and wallpapered. The stone step was useful as an occasional seat and the Shoe Box was kept on the middle step. It contained shoe brushes and two tins of Cherry Blossom polish – black and brown.
 
We played and played in that kitchen. Plasticine was guaranteed to keep us busy, plotting out fields for our plastic farm animals, making troughs and shelters for them. The Plasticine would get too soft in our hot little hands to make any serious structures or models, so our creations weren’t very interesting. In time, all the colours would merge into a nondespript grey and small pieces would escape from the table. For many years, the patchwork kitchen floor was also decorated with flattened grey Plasticine patches that had set rock hard on the rough concrete surface. All Mum could do to clean the floor was slosh the mop over them. Later, we read our comics there then progressed to reading books. I can remember the day I read my first story, that was all words and no pictures. It was a short story in a women’s magazine and it was about a pair of pink shoes, pictured at the top. My world was populated by black, brown or dusty grey shoes, so I was so desperate to learn about these pink shoes. I probably didn’t get half the words and I probably didn’t get the story at all, but I was off the starting block and started reading anything that came to hand after that.
 
There was no electricity in the house for the first 7 years or so. We had a brass oil lamp in the kitchen. The draughts in the room kept wafting the flame onto the lamp glass and cracking it, but fortunately, the diameter of the lamp fitting perfectly fitted the rim of a 1lb jam jar. Mum would put the base of a jar into boiling water, a perfectly circular crack would appear and the base would drop off leaving a clean, but lethal edge. We knew to keep right away. But thankfully we did have that source of lamp glass, otherwise the lamp would have been useless. We were given a Tilley Lamp later on, which was much brighter, but often ran out of the meths to prime it so we relied on that old oil lamp. The wireless ran on acid batteries, so we did get news of the outside world and listened to Children’s Choice on a Saturday morning and Forces Family Favourites on most Sundays.
 
 © Myfanwy Jones  2012

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Sequencing | No Comments »

Ugly duckling grows up

Monday, August 20th, 2012

Charles Peirce the forefather of semiotics once wrote: “Symbols grow… They come into development out of other signs, particularly from icons… A symbol, once in being, spreads among the peoples. In use and in experience its meaning grows.”(From C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers, published in Danesi and Perron, 2003, p. 64)

Peirce identified an icon as a sign “which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not” (ibid, p.52). This is actually an uncannily accurate description of the 2012 logo prior to the Olympic Games. When it was launched it was a sketchy emoticon or empty cipher, voided of significance, and only negative meanings were viciously stuffed into it by cruel commentators. It became a proxy for sloppy failure in a soon to be Broken Britain. It is fair to say that circumstances have somewhat changed and this botched gestalt has grown into more gracious acclaim.

A true symbol in the Peircean sense involves meaning becoming engendered in a general mind or community of enquirers over time through habit. In one revealing passage, Peirce talks about a symbol as “the making of a contract or convention… that is, a signal agreed upon…because it serves as a badge or shibboleth”. This is particularly true of branded logos as they are condensations of meaning that need to communicate to a massive constituency. I believe this has been the case with the 2012 Olympic emblem. I would argue significantly rehabilitated in those two fateful weeks in July / August 2012. So what has changed the contract about this sign?

What changed of course is that we have just had 2 weeks of a soft power injection into the UK through the good natured competition in London – and a whole host of meanings and images have become associated with the Games which Jacques Rogge declared as ‘glorious’. Whatever you may say about the substance of the signs, this Olympics was exceedingly well branded. The emblem formed the back drop to swimming medal ceremonies, was on the scoring screens in the Excel Arena in the centre of Basketball arenas and boxing rings, on the floor of the gymnastics mat and even on the protective girdles of Taekwondo fighters. Everywhere athletes struggled, triumphed, choked, celebrated, commiserated it said, this is London 2012. Most impressively, it really came to life in material form. It was engraved on the side of the Olympic torch and the cauldron at Tower Bridge, embossed on medal podiums during victory ceremonies and in bevelled splendour on the back of the medals too.

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece in Admap to the effect that the 2012 logo was a brave departure from previous Olympic logos in terms of using metaphor rather than cultural chauvinism, but the vague motif of jaggedness and electricity had no context in which to live and grow in people’s minds. It was slated. London Design Museum founder and pundit Stephen Bayley described it as 'a puerile mess, an artistic flop, and commercial scandal'. Others compared it to Lisa Simpson performing fellatio. Then there was a scandal with Iran accusing the logo of spelling Zion, threatening a boycott. It was roundly ridiculed online and became the logo all people loved to hate.

I wrote: “To many the logo feels maladroit and sloppily put together. It is certainly true that the lurid colours made it an easy target for criticism”. The response of London and LOCOG was measured. Ken Livingstone indeed predicted it would ‘grow on us’.

Now that there is some substance to London’s stewardship of the Olympic flame (a very well organized Games, with no negative incidents, mostly packed stadia and some World Records), what looked cack-handed, cheap and tenuous back in 2006 now looks positively transgressive, highly differentiated, a token of British eccentricity.

The 4 Ms logos from the modern era: Mexico 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, and Moscow 1980 may look more polished, but London 2012 is joyfully idiosyncratic. Its design peculiarties (foregrounding the Olympiad year and making it the primary motif engulfing the Olympic rings within, using an urban design idiom rather than indigenous folk art) are now more forgivable. The emblem also seems to mesh quite nicely with the spirit of the Games: from the way LOCOG cheekily tweaked IOC protocols and deployed self-effacing humour both in the opening and closing ceremonies, Thomas Heatherwick’s inventive flame, through the festive bonhomie of the volunteers, the carnival atmosphere during events and the use of chivvying music in interludes. The Games of the XXXth Olympiad in London have had a fun, exuberant feel to them. The rambunctious defiance of the logo seems somehow fitting; and not unworthy as a mnemonic of this Games that defied skepticism with phlegmatic unfussiness. Even if it is a somewhat arbitrary sign it now captures those memories. The Team GB Lion has superseded it in populism but that's another story.

It is true that the logo did not make an appearance in the ceremonies as it has done in many previous ceremonies. One would have thought that the technical capability of diode effects available in the Olympic stadium would have been sufficient to bring the logo alive. Danny Boyle clearly found it surplus to the story he was telling and LOCOG did not insist. However, it has found its presence into the Olympic spirit in other ways. You could see it scrawled on restaurant boards and on walls as well as on merchandise of all types that people were sporting with pride. It has been adopted affectionately almost in spite of itself as an awkward emblem because it has come to represent verve and a successful cultural moment. Lampooned and satirized it may still be but it never represent failure of vision, sloppiness or seen as lacking originality.

If there is something I do admire about being British it is about being a good sport and not taking oneself too seriously. This plucky, unpromising logo now basks in the reflected glory of the last fortnight of British success and international plaudits and it has accreted connotations to match. A true example of how signs can outgrow even unpromising beginnings through cultural re-appraisal. I wonder if Peirce would like it?

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Fachgynan (1)

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

 

The old house had been a ruin in the early 20th Century. Then it had been restored after the First World War using, it is said, recycled timbers from ships dismantled after the War. That seemed the best explanation for the fact that the main purlin was too short and was bolted to another with a 3ft overlap above the top of the stairs. It also seemed to explain the curvature that created a hump in the middle of the roof.
 
 
The house was designed for occupation by the farmer and his family and the farm labourer. Because all the work was done manually or with horses in those days, even the smallest farm had to have a labourer. The house was exactly like many others, of a design that children always drew – walls, roof, four windows and a door in the middle. It had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. In Fachgynan, the front door opened into what was originally the only communal living space to the right, with the steep wooden stairs directly ahead. The main room would have had a large inglenook fireplace where all the cooking was done, probably a settle by it for people to sit by the fire, and a table and chairs in the middle of the room. There would have been shelves and cupboards in the alcoves either side of the inglenook and in the space under the stairs.
 
By the time we moved there in 1952, the living space had been extended into the animal quarters next door. The alcove to the right of the inglenook had been knocked through and the small stable or whatever it had been was converted to a kitchen. There was a small high window at the back of the kitchen with a Belfast sink below and an enamel draining board to its right. At the centre of the left-hand wall was a small, cream-coloured Rayburn, with top and bottom oven to the right of the firebox, hotplate above and an old-fashioned integral boiler on the left. The boiler had to be filled with buckets from the tap. The black enamelled flue pipe rose straight up from the rayburn then turned into the chimney in the wall. That length of flue pipe was an important source of heat. Dad would warm his frozen hands on it when he had been out driving the tractor in the snow and Mum would pin socks and underwear around it to air them. It was even used to iron collars in the days before we had electricity.
 
 Opposite the rayburn, on the right-hand wall was the kitchen table, the centre of our universe for quite a few years. Dad’s wooden armchair was in the space between the table and the draining board, the best place, away from the doors and out of the draughts. A little oak settle on the opposite side was where we, David and Myfan, sat, the solid wood panelled back and seat giving shelter from the draughty doors – none of the doors fitted very well! The baby, Lynda, was safely imprisoned in an old-fashioned wooden high chair contraption and Mum used to perch on a stool with her back to the Rayburn, although I don’t remember her sitting down much at all.
 
The only water supply was provided by an old brass tap attached to the wall above the sink. It brought in cold water from the spring near the house. The waste pipe from the sink was a plain lead pipe – no u-bend – that went through the base of the wall and emptied into a small stream behind the house. This was on the north side of the house so there would be a constant icy draught coming out of the sink too.
 
The kitchen floor had been intended to be laid with red quarry tiles, but they obviously ran out of them about half way in, so the sink end of the kitchen was a patchwork of concrete of different colours and textures laid, obviously, on more than one occasion. I remember studying the floor quite a lot, looking at all the different patches but it was many years before I realised that this was not a normal floor. It was perfectly normal to me. Because the kitchen was located in the outbuildings, the ceiling was formed from the old hay loft; wooden rafters laid with wide sawn planks above. These planks were very old and gaps had opened up, so we might be treated to showers of dust and old cobwebs when the rodents were running around above, especially when the cats were chasing them. Mum fixed that by having hardboard panels nailed to the rafters.
 
Behind our settle was the one and only kitchen cupboard, which sat on a large old chest of drawers. The bottom two wide drawers had taken out and replaced with cupboard doors to create the Shoe Cupboard. Inside was always a huge jumble of shoes and Wellingtons, which got bigger over time – we never threw out old or worn-out shoes. And, in time the mud that came in on the footwear seemed to turn to dust and coat everything a uniform shade of grey so only the newest, cleanest ones could be quickly identified. The two short drawers above were Mum’s drawer and Dad’s drawer respectively. Dad’s drawer was a forbidden place where he kept his diaries and what little paperwork there was in those days. He also kept his sweets in there, but these were invariably extra strong mints so there was never any danger of us helping ourselves to them. Mum’s drawer was where everything that wasn’t to do with food was kept. It was one big tangle of lots of different knitting wools and cotton, caused by constant rummaging looking for safety pins, buttons, pencils, first aid, or any other small item that had no other logical place to go.
 
 © Myfanwy Jones  2012

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Sequencing | No Comments »

Network: Jonathan

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

 

Where are you, what are you doing?

I am based in the city of Nottingham, where I completed my PhD in Art and Design in 2008. I currently have an eclectic mix of work, which includes Nottingham University Bookshop, public art projects, professional research and writing in art and design practice, publications, teaching and conference papers, including Unmapping the City (2008), and a paper for an Art and Politics conference at the University of Nottingham in May of this year. I also do commercial projects for Create Research (most of my recent publications are on the site), a collaborative platform for investigating the cultural dynamics between research, learning, knowledge and networks [Please add your comments to the current material on the site, which in a nutshell is designed to evolve into a creative ecology or assemblage via the connections and interactions between all four platforms] 

                                                                            Freeze (2006)

What attracted you to semiotics and why did you move on?

The attraction of semiotics was its capacity to analyse, diagnose and above all create meaning(s) through different cultural registers, something which I first encountered, albeit briefly, at Semiotic Solutions in 1998, when I was asked to identify emergent codes with the potential for overcoming strong resistance in 18 – 25 year olds to investing in pensions, the problem being that there was a high level of distrust in financial institutions due to media coverage of bad practice in selling pension products (sounds all too familiar). The experience of Semiotic Solutions was to expose me to the potential of creativity per se, which subsequently led to a move into more overtly material forms of practice in art and design, and by 2002 I was embarking on my MA in Contemporary Art. As my visual practice evolved I became interested in what is problematic in representation and resistant to definition. The dynamism of Deleuze's 'materialist semiotic' offers a 'new image of thought', which for me opened up the possibilities of the sign's materiality as event – things made a come back so to speak, and the non-discursive field of practices, actions, materials and techniques came to the fore. 

Why should semioticians read Deleuze and what should they start with?

I would be reluctant to say should, and with Deleuze it's more a case of do, hence his appeal to artists who aim to critique rational systems in and through their practice. I would say that Deleuze is worth reading if you are a semiotician who is open to the possibility that there might be a different kind of mind independent sign, that is, the material expressions of things themselves. In this respect, Deleuze connects expression to firstness in Peirce, and proposes that affects have a real and autonomous existence. What this requires us to do is encounter the sign as event, a lighting strike, a peacock's feathers, a sunrise, a movement from one state to another, hence Deleuze's recourse to experimental cinema as a technology for expressing the affectivity of the non-human perspective. Try A Shock to Thought; Expression After Deleuze and Guattari (2002), or Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (2006) by way of an introduction.

What are you currently working on?

An essay for the Wellcome Trust, which develops an art historical and cultural context for the artist John Newling's Moringa Trees project (commonly known as Miracle Trees). The essay will deploy an early translation of miracle as semeion 'sign' in the bible, as a basis for situating the materiality of the tree as a thing with a life of its own. Arboreal thinking lies at the root of representation of course.

Materiality, Objects, Stuff; describe your current involvement to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy?

It's about not thinking too much, get in touch with things, pick them up, feel them, experience texture, sensation, weight. Take up cooking, I used to work in a patisserie and still bake cakes every week, and sometimes to order for friends weddings and the like. Go for a walk but make yourself look in unusual directions, or simply write more often with a pen or pencil, make marks and forget about their meaning. Call me old fashioned but I am weary of information overload and find reassurance in the immediacy of things (maybe it's because I just turned 40). The more I encounter the world of stuff the more I edit out the virtual detritus of everyday life, and in turn I appreciate computer time as a higher quality of experience. If all else fails read The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, it's full of meaningful work, and semiotics doesn't get a mention.                                                                                                              

Final thoughts?

Technology is an overused word and often overrated and yet why do we hear so little about the application of technology to non-technical things? A problem we face as a culture is a severe lack soul technology. Or maybe we should not be making the distinction between the traditional or emotional and the technical. What gets lost in a means to end culture, especially one fixated on consumption, is the ethical constitution of aesthetics, that is, the time honoured philosophical question of 'How to live?' There is a certain craft involved in approaching this question, a technique perhaps, one which entails the re-combination of all that was fragmented by the shift toward a modern, industrial society but in radically different As Marx once said 'We erect our structure in imagination before we erect in reality'. Could a materialist semiotics have an important role to play in reverse engineering the established dialogue between reality and imagination? In other words, given the infinite possibilities for creation, why is there so much stability of form?

© Jonathan Willett  2012

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Vicky Bullen,CEO of Coley Porter Bell wrote an interesting piece on the Union Jack where she looked at its use in branding and a poll on how consumers feel about it.

Refreshingly, she focused not on the cultural meanings (xenophobia, patriotism) in the flag but on the visual signs that make it up. She writes:

“In pure design terms much of its power derives from an optical illusion… this has created a dynamic, multi-layered design which draws the eye in to the intersection of the three crosses and rewards it with all sorts of interesting shapes and angles”

If you look at international flags there are some rudimentary schema through which they are arranged. For instance, many flags follow France with a tricolore schema with three equal vertical strips, others with three horizontal bands. Some flags have a central unifying area to which the eye is drawn – Japan, Korea and Brazil would be prime examples. Other flags create schema that compartmentalize information like the Stars and Stripes. Some flags have a central line and an isosceles triangle off left, South Africa, for example – there is an off-kilter messiness to these which is not really compensated for by visual complexity and involvement. I hope I do not come across as a chauvinist but the Union Jack does complexity and dynamism in spades.

What the Union Jack does brilliantly is to simultaneously combine symmetry, or at least balance, with an interesting tension. Involving a series of intersecting lines, it has both a centrifugal and a centripetal force to it. It forms a rough schematic and is segmented into four sections but at the same time these are cohesive. This connotes both segmentation and a central axis of unity.

In a sense this is visual metaphor for the reality of the Act of Union, an uneasy co-existence of identity shards. A comedian recently said that it is a country no-one really wants to be part of. The English are phlegmatic, the Welsh simmering with resentment and the Scots positively contemptuous. Only half of Northern Ireland cares about the Union and that is only really to piss off the Irish Republicans in their midst.

The Union Jack is one of the few flags that seems to disrupt its own bounds. It aspires to break through its borders and even out of the 2D flat plane, creating a sense of outward protrusion and impact. It is brilliantly centrifugal and this combines with depth of field because the diagonals are layered underneath the cross to make it a much more engrossing semiotic phenomenon than most other flags – those, for example, which direct your eye to a single symbol, divide the plane up into three equal orthogonal segments or are partitioned into stripes and carve out a special corner zone.

All of this means that the Union Jack (or Union Flag, to give it its proper title before I vex vexillologists out there and you start to correct me) has high semantic density.

“The semantic density of something is the measure of how much information it conveys in relation to its size or duration. The higher the semantic density, or the more semantically dense something is, the more information it packs into the given space or time.” (Andy Bradbury, Neurolinguistic Programming). I always like to give the examples of an average Indian street sensorially – semantically dense – also I like to think that Japanese culture is probably the most semantically dense on Earth. If you were to download the whole of Japanese culture into a digital file (with Tokyo’s dizzying annual output of magazines, films, music and books) it would be very heavy!

Without wanting to get too technical, there are different types of semantic density, pertaining to the way meaning pools on, say, a 2D frame. The litmus test is what will distort the meaning. Sometimes meaning is condensed in a cultural symbol, (symbolic density) sometimes distributed in the schema, as with the tessellations of Islamic architecture – schematic density. Sometimes meaning is distributed through the entire visual field. Where some flags have one density type, the Union Jack seems to be finely poised between density types, keeping the eye busy flipping between them.

The flag hints at schematic density via indexes of the diagonals pointing like arrows whilst also imbuing the flag with transgression through breaking framing of the flag (a mereological density), through spilling over the cordon which most flags respect.

It is also a flag brilliant suited to inflection, which brands have only just started to see the potential of. Both Innocent and Sainsbury’s have seen the explosive potential of the Union Jack to render their messages more dynamic and seemingly youthful in their thrust. To be fair, this sense of explosive potential has always lurked latent in the Union Jack and is definitely one of the reasons it has become both a counter-cultural and a xenophobic symbol. At the same time brands like Ryvita can, in this fetching limited edition pack, exploit the wrapping, ribbon-like qualities of the flag.

The closest parallel to this uptake of the national flag is that of the humble Canadian maple leaf – which becomes much less humble in the hockey team logo context! The Union Jack has almost gone the reverse route – becoming more homely as required. Bullen notes the flexibility of the Union Jack (whichever fraction of the flag used it is instantly recognizable) and its iconic density – it is a flag easily inflected and sampled from, which is also true of the Maple Leaf. As a nation we’re not as comfortable with the flag yet as Canadians are with their flag. There is antipathy towards some of the Union Jacks’ anachronistic connotations while the Maple Leaf was crowd sourced in a national competition so is more indigenous. Even so, it is worth exulting in the Union Jack’s inventive design if nothing else.

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Semiotics as Art: Kosuth

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

 

Joseph Kosuth, “one and three chairs” (1965)

The relationship between semiotics and art has always fascinated me. Talk to a museum director about the semiotics of art and there’s a chance you might get a sneer. Too eager to reach for the gun of “meaning”: “Art isn’t always about what it means”. Talk to a semiotician about the art of semiotics and there’s a chance you’ll get a sneer again. “it’s more science than it’s art, there’s a methodological approach”. Don’t get me wrong. The museum director has an interest in semiotics and has read up on it. The semiotician has an even more pronounced interest in art, having found that nearly all semiotic thinkers (s)he studied, at some point, tackled the ‘semiotics of art’. So there’s already that: the preposition used already conjures up a judgement of perspective. Semiotics in art, of art. What fascinates me even more though is semiotics as art. Numerous artists have done it. The best known in both spheres, as far as I can tell, is Joseph Kosuth. American conceptual artist, thinker & writer who brought us ‘One and three chairs’ in 1965. He was just 20 at the time. I’m quite certain you know it, have seen pictures of it or perhaps seen it live. The work presents itself in a threefold, with a life-size photograph of a chair, the actual chair in the same spot as it was photographed in and a blown-up photograph of a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’. Admittedly I’m guilty of having used it in the past to explain what semiotics is all about. There are worse examples to explain signifié/signifiant/ référent with, but is there more to it?

Well, for one: it makes me smile.

It makes me smile every time I see it. Which is quite something in itself. It also makes me think about both art & semiotics, every time I see it. Apart from the numerous reproductions, I finally saw it for the first time live @ the London Frieze Art Fair in 2010. It didn’t have the chair from the photograph used here, but it was the same work. The actual work exists as a piece of paper with instructions how to install it and a copy of the dictionary definition ‘chair’ signed by J. Kosuth. It’s up to the curator or gallery owner to set up the work. In Kosuth’s own words:"It meant you could have an art work which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren't important." (1) Together with Marcel Duchamp, Kosuth is one of the godfathers of conceptual art, nay, of art as we know it today. The reason being their profound questioning of the relation between presentation, concept, idea, meaning. ‘One and three chairs’ became a seminal piece after Kosuth published “Art after philosophy” (you can read it on ubuweb here)

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context – as art – they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.”(2)

Kosuth investigates what it means to make art, to experience art, to think about art, to see it as a global model for language and culture. If you substitute the word ‘art’ in most of his writings by ‘sign’ you’ll find yourself reading a text on semiotics. Which for semioticians might not be such a revelation, but remember stating the obvious is always a retrospective action.

If one wanted to make a work of art devoid of meaning, it would be impossible because we’ve already given meaning to the work by indicating that it’s a work of art” (3)

At the time, Kosuth’s work raised a lot of questions and he got his fair share of criticism too, but that was what he was after. Raising questions. Using text as art was already questionable, using photography just as much, let alone using both in the set up discussed here. There’s a great focus in Kosuth’s work & writing on the ‘agency of the artist’ where the work of art is dependent upon the art context and the denomination as art by the artist. For me that’s semiosis, pure. A sign dependent on the context and its identification by the user, with the user as its relational agent. Where Kosuth quotes Wittgenstein in ‘Art after philosphy’: “The meaning is the use” I just read Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio in ‘Semiotics unbound’: the meaning of a sign is a response. (4)      

For me, Kosuth is the perfect answer to any museum director that wants to deny the meaning or function of art, even if the latter does it in jest. And, although, I’ve not come across a quote or text where Kosuth refers to his practice as a semiotic one I cannot see any difference in his investigations. Can you?

If you want to read more about Kosuth this is a nice start: Moma – Kosuth

(Another article, Semiotics As Art: Paul Ryan’s relational circuit & Threeing will follow in the near future).

(1) Siegel, Jeanne: Artwords. Discourse on the 60s and 20s. (Ann Arbour/Michigan 1985)

(2) Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(3) Joseph Kosuth, “Introduction” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(4) Introduction of Semiotics Unbounded, interpretive routes through the open network of signs (UTP, 2005)

© Thierry Mortier 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Pretty in pink – on steroids

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Queer femininity is now claiming a major place in popular culture, with stars like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj rising to quasi-messianic status with their millions of fans.

So why are they queer? It’s not just the obvious: that both leave their sexuality open and ambiguous, with Nicki Minaj even accommodating a gay male persona, Roman, amongst her host of alter egos (her animus, Jung might say).

It’s also that they’re both female drag queens – who push the constructedness of femininity to the point that its artifice becomes the main feature, rather than behind-the-scenes scaffolding.  The idea is no longer to be pretty or sexy. Both Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga venture way beyond pretty – going into the domain of the comedic, the silly and the outright monstruous in the name of image construction and performance.

But the statements both artists perform under the banner of femininity go even further in troubling cultural norms. Neither rebel against femininity in a simple sense. We could instead call them ‘hyper-conformists’ – obeying cultural pressures on women to be glamorous and sexy, but taking those norms so literally, and carrying them so far, they end up imploding.

It’s interesting that both stars are loved by little girls. The Barbie-loving girls (Barbs) who follow Nicki Minaj get to see the ‘pretty in pink’ fantasy culture sells them – but steroidally pumped-up and overblown. It’s a queer aesthetic opening doors to the fantastical and rebellious possibilities at the heart of conformity itself.

Follow Semionaut on Twitter @semionautfeed

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | No Comments »

Child’s Play

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Lately, it seems as if there’s been an increased blending of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ worlds, particularly in health and personal care, entertainment, and play and gaming.

 

But this blending is not complete- across categories there’s a membrane between what’s considered ‘adult’ and ‘child’ territory, and this membrane has become more permeable- at least in one direction.

Consider the trend of juxtaposing the simple joys and iconography of childhood with products purchased by adults. Target, JC Penny and other brands have recently tapped into the sweet simple pleasures of play and discovery, presenting candy-colored worlds full of lightness and surprise.

 

There are also Tide Pods, which are brightly colored single dose pods of Tide laundry detergent housed in a ‘gumball’ tub. Unfortunately, young children (who are cultural decoders in training) are reading these codes and mistaking the detergent for candy. But, there is no mistake in terms of how this is branded for adults. The advertising, form factor and color of the product lead us to the realm of the child. Infusing childlike fun and wonder into an adult realm defined by efficacy can be revolutionary- Tide Pods are a runaway product.

This approach dimensionalizes brands and offers up resonance in a consumer world where adults now have more permission to engage with ‘the child inside’ (albeit within the loose retro construct of an uncomplicated idyllic past and aesthetic). But, expressing the child in the adult feels more comfortable than accessing the adult in the child; it’s important to remember that the membrane still exists and the permeability feels more appropriate when it’s unidirectional.

For example, for a long time social anxiety about this has bubbled up in the realm of cosmetics. Children must remain a bit innocent of the trappings of culture. This links to key cultural beliefs about the sacrosanct nature of childhood prevalent today. Children must be children, and even in our evolving world of kidpreneurs, child activists, artists, family decision-makers and child transgenders, childhood is still a very defined state of being with key emotional resonance for adults.   Even without the danger of product misinterpretation, the idea of children tapping into ‘adult’ territory is more squirm-worthy and often relegated to the space of play or humor to remain palatable.

 
© Ramona Lyons 2012
 
Follow Semionaut on Twitter @semionautfeed

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | No Comments »

Beauty Calls

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

 

“Vicky knows that she has only three seconds to make a good impression”. This is what one of the Head & Shoulders ads says and stunning brunette Vicky shakes her hair in front of the young handsome guy’s face. The voiceover continues to persuade us that her hair is beautiful and healthy.

The perception of beauty is like a religious sense – everybody has it inside but few could define it straight away. It embraces philosophical notions and varies from culture to culture. One thing that seems stable is that beauty is perceived to provide pleasure – but it is not taken for granted that it is something ‘good’. In this regard, the most significant thing is that advertisers and mass media constantly compete to display and represent beauty in better ways. They use art, top models, different inspirational metaphors, slow motion effects, show some elements of nature etc. in order to impose themselves on our perception of ‘beauty’ or (if we can signal and elevation of individual physical manifestations to a higher level of abstraction) of ‘beauty-ness’.

This topic becomes increasingly dramatic when the ‘beauty’ is turned into a focus for social and even political discussion. Last year a renowned Bulgarian plastic surgeon met wry face of the local authorities demonstrating social consequences of his work. He had started a billboard campaign in spring – it was not his first but it was in a different style to previous ones – including a number of different images displayed in the city center of Sofia and other big towns in the country. The images portrayed various good-looking girls drawn in American 1950s style, looking much like Coca-Cola imagery, for example, from that time. The connotative meaning seemed to be deliberately chosen because in the epoch in question American women were mostly housewives whereas Bulgarian women worked on equal terms with their husbands to build together a future Socialist Eden. But the more curious thing was the headlines accompanying the beauties on the billboard, such as “I’m in love with myself” and “I’m too beautiful to get a job”.  All of them had  the same tagline – “Thank you, doctor Enchev!”.

At the beginning of June 2011 the ethical board of National Council of Advertising Regulation denounced the whole campaign as ‘uneducative’, ‘offensive’ and an act of ‘discrimination’. Naturally, quite a few bloggers and concerned citizens directed some peppery remarks toward the doctor’s message, and even named the pictured women as the ‘jobless ones’. As a result the authorities pasted yellow patches on the second half of the poster headlines with a black ‘censored’ sign on it. This was the first example of overtly banned advertising in Bulgaria for many years – except for the usual issues around tobacco and alcohol ads placed near by schools, or TV spots screened at inappropriate times of  day.

The story did not end here. The free market had its say as the surgeon had paid in advance for several month of billboard exposure and the images stayed around until October. Thus the censorship sign served only to enhance the impact of the advertising and attract the attention of passers-by. There were some who even thought that the ban was an ad agency’s trick and pointed to the billboards as a clever promotional plan.

So, the social perception of ‘beauty’ turned out to be a tricky matter.  Obviously everyone rejected the idea that there was no link between work and looking, maybe because even models sell their appearance as ‘labour’ in a sense. The campaign, in fact, was justified by the doctor as “jest”.  But eventually the jest doubled up its effect. The sluggish efforts of the authorities at censorship only increased the buzz around the ads. There were several articles in the media dedicated to the case and widely publicizing the phrases hidden bybthe censorship stickers. As to the ban itself, it attached different kind of connotation to the main message and in extremely high degree brought the much-hated times of socialistic censorship back to consumers’ mind instead of, as intended, protecting his and especially her best interests. 

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012            

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Japanese language comes out to play

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

If the kanji script can be said to be the heart and soul of the Japanese language, and the socially contextual honorific language its social conscience, then gitaigo would be the funny bone or at least the limbic system!  Gitaigo (literally meaning onomatopoeic expressions) are doubled syllables such as puru puru, giri giri, tsuru tsuru or kira kira. These words, which can sound like names of Chinese pandas or Thai gogo girls, are used liberally in daily conversation by all Japanese people and appear in manga and in Twitter feeds.

Gitaigo act either like adverbs letting us know how things are done, how someone feels or the general atmosphere feels. As Seizo Terasaki puts it: “After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are in a sense raw. Moya moya, doro doro, gocha gocha, bara bara, fuwa fuwa – no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own…” (Nihongo Gitaigo Jiten: An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, Tokyo: Plus Alpha, 2004).

They introduce a disruptive emotional component into Japanese. Depending on the context, this can be a sense of whimsy or a brutally direct and visceral rawness. For instance uki uki means a sense of excitement and the hard k between the two vowels seems to convey this. Beta beta means sticky and the hardness of the t seems to convey that sense of icky glueyness. Mecha mecha means messy and seems to convey this sense of disarray, particularly when contrasted with a mellifluous gitaigo like tsuru tsuru meaning smooth. Chiku chiku describes something prickly, and lo and behold is spiky to pronounce too. Niya niya means to smirk and there is something distinctly smarmy about the sound too.

This is because these are all examples of what Roman Jakobson called the iconic in language. He claimed that Saussure’s vision of arbitrariness missed out on the aspect of language that words such as smash, svelte or staccato evoke. They somehow innately resemble the concepts that they refer to through their sonic attributes, so are not totally arbitrary.

Gitaigo also confound expectations about Japanese being po-faced and serious in the sense that they are emotive (in the Jakobsonian sense) words, conveying in a very direct image the addresser’s feeling about something. Superficially, this seems at odds with the highly context dependent and often subtle, euphemistic way the Japanese usually attenuate emotions in language.

In this sense, gitaigo can be likened somewhat to the imagist epiphany meant to be elicited by the best haiku – evoking an emotion with a jolt in a matter of syllables…

As with much in ambiguous Japan, there are many potential interpretations and the use of gitaigo can seem also to be a phenomenon related to the love of children and the basics of childish nonsense language. After all, we start our journey towards mastery of language through baby talk such as baba, mama and the like and then move on to more complex syntactic constructions. Perhaps Japanese reveling in the gitaigo is also (just like the mania for kawaii, regressive fantasy, widespread desire for childhood regression and doting on kids) a facet of this desire to leave adulthood.

In advertising, gitaigo are widely used to convince the Japanese that they will feel a certain way or think a certain way if they purchase a certain good or consume a certain experience. Strawberry juice will be tsubu tsubu meaning pulpy and natural.  The beauty and skin care brands promise a brand that will leave your skin feeling puru puru (plump) and tsuru tsuru (smooth). Pillows, bedspreads or female breasts (depending on the magazine) will be fuwa fuwa (soft). Mobile phones designed for older people, with large displays and buttons, are called raku raku (meaning leisure).

the raku raku phone

To summarise, gitaigo are a vindication of Jakobson’s insistence on the importance of the iconic in language, an example of the whimsy, play and ingenuity at the heart of Japanese culture, and proof of how visceral words can give brands a rhetorical flourish.

© Chris Arning 2012


Follow Semionaut on Twitter @semionautfeed

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Of Marriages & Products

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 

I love our Big Fat Indian weddings. The colourful mandaps and the phera-chori, the mehendi and the mithai, the glittering bridal nathni and the bridegroom’s shehra, the kanyadaan and the bidaai – all of these are exciting yet intimate moments shared between family and friends.

Does the rest of India also love it? Perhaps it does, both in real and reel life. The two-decade long obsession and popularity with the elaborate Indian wedding is easily apparent in Bollywood movies and satellite television, attracting audiences by the millions. The import of this is not lost on the image-makers branding the Wedding as a luxury product to be consumed in vast proportions.

One often sees advertisements using the backdrop of the Indian Wedding against which to position their products. From sarees, jewellery, suit materials to bank insurances, from lifestyle accessories to food items – Indian weddings have them all.

Let’s do a flashback scenario in a stereotypical context where a young couple is shown nodding to the formalities of the insurance policy. It is almost impossible to get anyone on a rational platform today, leave alone explain benefits! It is, after all an image driven society! Today, many related products with or without any matrimonial implication ride on the Indian wedding as a backdrop. The question is not whether these ads are successful or not, but how marriage as a sign helps connects people to products and brands.

Other products like the fairness cream; – e.g Vicco turmeric or the Raymond suitings too have explored the wedding themes. For example the jingles of “banno teri ankhiyan” that were played in the oldest Vicco ads were an anthem in those days and all one could remember were around twenty women applying haldi to the bride. Also, the Titan ad showing a young girl playing piano for her sister was designed along similar lines. More than the brands, the jingles; the context; the gaze; the expressions have not been forgotten.

A recent survey shows that there is an increase in the new age ‘live in’ relationships. Well, our advertising certainly seems to be replaying the good old stable institution of marriage. One wonders if marriage has become as much of a ‘product’ as are the brands themselves. Either ways, the brands are laughing all the way to the bank! Marriage anyone?

© Heta Trivedi 2012

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz3o1PS7IFo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BRYGTqouuE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvx8pB9Ivoo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZq10WlFQlk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3jEffr4mWQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_As8OycpY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOeUssxuz5U

 

And brush up your wedding vocabulary:

Phera – Rounds taken by husband and wife around the sacrificial fire

Chori – Structure made of wood or steel under which the rituals of a Hindi wedding take place

 Sehra – Garlands of flowers covering the face of the bridegroom

 Mehendi – Henna applied on hands and legs of the bride during wedding

 Kanyadaan – the ritual wherein the parents of the bride give their daughter to her husband

 Bidaai – the ritual where in the girl says good bye to all her family members while leaving from her home after the wedding

Banno teri ankhiyan – a famous song in Hindi language that is sung during weddings

Haldi – Turmeric

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

The return of trivia

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

In the late 20th century, postmodernism made a big deal out of small things – turning trivia into an object of cultural fascination in its own right.

One reference point in the postmodern rise of trivia was the ‘Royale with cheese’ scene in Pulp Fiction (1994). Here, the characters played by Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta take a break from plot-orientated dialogue to discuss the right European name for a quarterpounder.

In many of Richard Linklater’s slacker films of the same era, characters also constantly drift into talk that has nothing to do with action. It’s talk for the sake of talk: chit-chat, trivia – untethered from any bigger meaning, action or narrative.

This fascination with trivia led to one of the defining ideas of postmodernism: the end of the ‘grand narrative’ – the big story which subsumes trivia rather than letting it wander free.

But moving into the 21st century, and trivia was supposed to have died a death. The momentousness of 9/11 and a new climate of seriousness put paid to this dalliance with the untethered nuance.

But could it be making a return? A number of cultural products now seem to be rejoicing in the trivia that surrounds us – especially, just like postmodernism, in the micro-ebbs and flows of language.

First, we’ve got the youtube meme ‘Shit girls say’, which has now spun off into ‘Shit guys say’, ‘Shit New Yorkers say’, ‘Shit Scots say’, and many many many more. These clips are collections of linguistic mini-tropes – closely observed inventories of the tiny turns of phrase people use.

Then we’ve got the cult site STFU, Parents – which simply inventories tracts of parental discourse on Facebook (organised into codes like gross-out, sanctimony and so on), each accompanied by an ironic commentary.

There’s also the popular UK blog The Middle Class Handbook (featured on Semionaut here), with its eagle eye for linguistic trivia and tiny turns of phrase. For instance, did you know the correct middle-class way to get someone off the phone is to say ‘I’ll let you get on?’ And that people are now ending emails with the single demand: ‘Thoughts?’

This return to trivia has a lot to do with the rise of social media. With vast tracts of trivial discourse coming our way each day, it makes adaptive sense for culture to turn it into fodder for analysis, copying, recontextualising, pastiching and interpreting.

And as high-concept advertising surrenders some of its supremacy to social media, it’s also likely that semiotics as a discipline will need to turn its attention to tiny details of discourse and language. Clients may increasingly want interpretive keys to the micro-tropes flooding Facebook and Twitter.

An outstanding lineage of famous detail lovers can show the way. Flaubert copied the micro-tropes of the 19th century bourgeoisie into his Dictionary of Received Ideas. Proust was another close observer of tiny nuance. Benjamin too was a lover of details – wrenched out of context and interpreted in startling new lights.

As social media counters the big concepts of traditional branding with its welter of discursive fragments, these writers may well have something fresh to say to us.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Why all the Pinterest?

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

 

The latest online media phenomenon is called Pinterest. It’s a kind of online scrapbook where users can upload or ‘pin’ their pictures of interest, categorizing them onto boards and, importantly, share for re-pinning. Pinterest’s mission is to ‘connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting’. Of course, the site connects to Facebook where pins are further shared, and it works as a mobile app for photographing and commentary, as well as online.

Although it launched 2 years ago, Pinterest only really grabbed the mainstream attention of its predominantly US and UK users towards the end of 2011. According to Comscore, it is the fastest site to reach 10m unique users in the US (Jan 2012). The site is also extremely influential – it is now referring more traffic to other websites than Twitter.

What makes the site interesting is who uses it and why. Interestingly, 80% of Pinterest’s users are female and the categories range from holidays to décor to apparel. Some of the most liked or most re-pinned images include step by step guides to hairstyles, sun-kissed beaches and cute baby pandas.

Brands have started using Pinterest, taking advantage of the ‘Earned’ value it offers and the buzz around it. For example, BMI Airlines ran a sweepstake style competition – they created different boards including numbered pictures showing different destinations. If users re-pinned 6 of these pictures onto their own boards, they were entered into a sweepstake to win free flights. The sanpro brand, Kotex, identified 50 influential women on Pinterest and sent them personal gifts, based on their interests expressed on their boards. The result for this low-interest category was 2,000 interactions and 700,000 impressions. A case study can be seen here.

Fashion house Oscar de la Renta pinned images from their bridal fashion show live on to the site – it has attracted almost 17,000 followers in less than a week.

The site’s appeal is its simplicity, unlike the more geeky Delicious or Pinboard. And it’s interesting that whilst every other new site or app seems to be designed for mobile, browsing Pinterest can really only be done on a desktop or tablet. The site embodies yet another way for people to express ‘Brand Me’ in the online world.

© Jo Peters 2012

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Technology | No Comments »

Blood on the tracks

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

 

Virgil ('Gus') Evans is a Senior Mole at a famous Mid-Eastern secret services provider. Yesterday Evans took time off from his other duties as personal bodyguard to a famous head of state N* to give us an exclusive glimpse into blueprints for his brand’s revolutionary contribution to the new generation of underwear bombs competing clandestine R&D facilities globally are racing to develop.

“Consumers are going to love the torque, elegant lines and intelligent safety features on this one”, Evans avers, “Though when you’re up against a joint venture as lavishly resourced as that CIA, Saudi and Al Qaeda double agents' innovation team nothing’s a foregone conclusion. It’s going to be a game of at least two halves. It may need to go to extra time and penalties. Only the strong will survive. The word on the street is that they also have the backing of a shape-shifting media organization code-named Viz, which has ambitions to create a global shadow state at least as evil and all-embracing as the now defunct Murdoch empire, both having emerged originally in the wake of the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident and the escape at that time of two lizard-like alien siblings known as Richard and Rupert”.

Meanwhile Semionaut has learned independently of another emerging competitor in the lingerie bombing marketplace. The legendary tensions between the Pentagon and the US State Department have erupted again with a NASA-led competitor to the CIA-sponsored device, the one which hit front pages around the world this week. The NASA version, visually directed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and based on the famous cone bra modeled by Madonna in the 1980s, has been secretly engineered by the now centenarian Nazi rocket team (led by Werner von Braun, whose death was faked in 1977) which first put the Americans into space. Our younger Semionaut readers may want to bone up on the history of this team in Tom Bower’s brilliant study The Paperclip Conspiracy (1988) and in The Right Stuff (1979), where Tom Wolfe describes them carousing with frothing steins of Bavarian beer and thumping out iconic Nazi ditty ‘The Horst Wessel Lied’ on a piano in the back room of a bar at Coco Beach Florida while the first Americans walked on the moon.

SS Major Werner von Braun models a revolutionary exploding plaster cast

Evans recounts to me the story of a night he spent in a tent at Coco Beach, in almost unbearable heat and humidity, in July 1979: “Skylab was due to crash to earth around the 10th or the 11th. In those days we weren’t as blasé about such technological detritus as we are now. Devo, who among other things accurately predicted the totality of mind-numbing neoliberal culture and ideology, had actually written a protest song about space junk. Thus forewarned I was in that tent because I thought the safest place on earth to be was probably near Skylab’s original point of departure, Cape Canaveral. Rationally this made no sense at all and there’s a mathematical tool to prove it, the Poisson Distribution. But try telling that to an intuitive creative person like me. In the end we go with the metaphors and narratives. The love marks, Flower Bombs, the loaves and fishes. Neuroscience and MRI scans have taught us that Descartes was wrong anyway and the multifarious hues revealed by brain imaging are now almost exclusively postmodern, except in the more primitive limbic area as yet properly understood only by marketing people. The trouble nowadays is that we’ve forgotten most of the important things and we’re going to need to relearn them. While what we remember and clutter our heads with is mainly diversionary rubbish”.

By now we’re nearing the last lap of our journey from my Ecole Normale Superieure HQ in Paris to the Benllech campus in Anglesey, North Wales. Our super-hi-tech Virgin Pendolino train corners steeply. I lean into Evans, who’s in the window seat, as the carriage tilts almost horizontal. “The trouble with these things”, says Evans. “is they’re like Superbikes. Soon you’ll have to wear thick leather pants with reinforced knees to ride in them. And those are going to muffle the impact even of a 4G underpants bomb. Leaving, even on successful detonation, only mild discomfort for the wearer in the trouser area and at best some minor staining to the upholstery. Given the current economic situation I think Branson should pay taxes in the UK anyway where he's from, fair play, not on Necker or whatever that luxury island's called, where he’s the emperor. Like Judge Dredd. What kind of challenger hero do you call that, notwithstanding all his look-at-me extreme sports palaver with balloons and what have you? Who does he think he is, Harry Potter?”

As we leave Stafford far behind and approach Crewe the mobile phone signal is down to a single bar. Time to file this. Better a cliffhanger than a meaningless catastrophe just around the next bend. 

© Opal Cerdan 2012

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

Tell no-one

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Secret cinemas, secret restaurants, secret supperclubs, secret guerrilla cake sales, underground knitting networks….the language of secrecy pervades British culture at the moment. Even chains like Starbucks have their own secret menus known only to the few.

The question is: why the emergence of this craze at a time when the predominant cultural ideology is openness and sharing?

The easy answer is that it’s a backlash. We’re sick of having privacy invaded and ‘specialness’ undermined by everything being visible all the time. So the cult of secrecy comes in as an antidote to all this over-exposure.

Even so, the paradox remains. If you look on the Secret Cinema website, you’ll see its strapline is ‘Tell no-one’ . But the navigation menu then invites us to sign up on Twitter and Facebook, and read the latest press coverage. So someone’s clearly telling someone.

The paradox intensifies when we note that it’s usually sharing on social networks that makes these secret clubs possible. Often you can only find out about them on Twitter or Facebook.

This suggests that social networks create symbolic value by hiding information in plain view, as well as by offering opportunities to share. The quantity of data they offer has become so vast that only those who are truly ‘in the know’ can reach what really counts.  The fashion for secrecy reflects the fact that there's now a new elite – those who can find their way to the information with the highest symbolic value. He or she who knows, wins.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

Semiotics and the interface

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The fields of semiotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), and user experience have flourished in the past years, mostly exclusively of one another. Each has evolved into fields of study for both business professionals and academics–semiotics from academic roots, user experience from business, and HCI from a mix of both. Many thinkers have tackled the subject of semiotics and the digital experience with impressive rigor, but few have applied their insights to a strategic business setting. As user experience and interface designers focus on delivering comprehensive documentation to their clients, there is a disconnect between business objectives and how the proposed design speaks through its interface.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can define “interface” as anything that filters information and re-presents it in a meaningful way. The implications of such a broad definition are that the interface is something that both provides access and mediates information. As such, this interface is an active force and influential factor in the relationship between objects and their representations.

In the results-focused world of user experience and interface design, it is easy to forget the nuances of meaning amidst interface and experience. The end goals of user experience and interface design are to create a means by which users of software can access information in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and serves the objectives of the software creators (or a brand). In certain cases, these two objectives can conflict with one anther.

Take for example a financial services company whose audience includes a segment with particular interest in travel. They are older, retired people with the leisure time and money to take vacations around the world. The brand’s website is focused mostly on product offerings, which are of fleeting importance if they are not linked to core audience interests. There is a conflict between the business, which wants to sell products, and this audience segment, who want to know how best to allocate funds to leisure activities. The company needs a way to communicate with its audience in a way that is meaningful for them, within the context of their interests. This is a semiotic challenge, but brands seldom think about business problems in terms of meaning production.

The company might go about solving the problem by adding some travel information on their website, writing a couple blog posts on popular travel destinations, and starting to talk about travel on Facebook. This approach is short-sighted, specifically because it does not consider is the entirety of the digital experience. It changes the interface at a few touch points but fails to positively affect the more wide-ranging brand interaction in a way that an approach informed by semiotics might. Perhaps a better approach would be to reframe certain products within the context of travel and leisure, without specific attention to a particular channel. The difference is that the second approach is integrated into all the brand’s interfaces; it’s a systemic change rather than a manipulation of limited touch points.

I see the main benefits semiotics can provide in a business setting residing in this idea of contextual manipulation. Business and design problems are rarely so singular and isolated to warrant limited solutions; however, at the same time, companies are hesitant to entertain systemic changes because of budgetary reasons or the anxiety caused by thinking about their brand as a constantly evolving entity. Professionals who are influenced by semiotics should work to better establish a theoretical framework that makes sense to clients and can be executed in a business setting. They should elucidate how their colleagues are actually semioticians, even if they don’t articulate it or even know it. The first step toward incorporating semiotics into a business setting is to strip away its esoteric qualities.

This topic will be explored further in a forthcoming essay

 © Thomas Wendt 2012

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

The death of dubstep

Monday, April 30th, 2012

I’m not an expert on dubstep, but I've encountered it out and about, and it’s been an enjoyable romp… but now I hear it’s dead.

Why? Because dub has hit the mainstream, and we know this because dubstep’s darker, discordant, bass-heavy electronica sound showed up a few months ago in advertising for Resident Evil, McDonalds… and Weetabix, of all brands. This represents a key transformation of dub style that’s been resented in some quarters- Twitter and the blogosphere have lit up with fury—dubstep is dead! DEAD I tell you!

Of course, the question is, why does an association with some mainstream brands= death for the dub sound, rather than an association with dubstep= freshness for brand executions?

Though the use of dubstep in a mainstream venue such as advertising can feel troubling to fans because it challenges subcultural ownership of the sound, this is also about the specific brands with which dubstep is being associated.

Resident Evil – well, yes. The connections between gamer culture, tech, utopia, and darkness (thus the ever-present threat of dystopia that comes with surges of innovation and technology) are all there and fit dubstep’s dark electronic sound.

But McDonalds? Weetabix? Using dubstep to represent these brands is a classic example of inverting key brand codes to disrupt and redirect consumer expectation. Each brand has varying levels of success with this approach.

McDonalds fails to bridge the gap between brand and sound

Despite their current call for adults to 'revolt and embrace lunch again', the core McDonalds brand is broadly defined by the promise of consistency, and satisfaction of simple, at times childlike pleasures and expectations. In the ad, this is manifested via easily recognizable components- a skater park shot with crystalline clarity on a bright day, and two young guys just hanging out and enjoying their Chicken McBites.

But, this execution also features a dubby remix of the McDonald’s jingle and the two guys (Bones and Aaron- ‘extreme street dance’ celebrities) in a playful dance battle over the box of McBites. The dubby McDonalds jingle sounds somewhat McDonalds, somewhat not. The ‘extreme street dance’ style can only be described as making the body move in ways that don’t seem possible for human beings- again, familiar, but different. Both elements bring an air of the extraordinary and unexpectedness to the execution and McDonalds.

But the thing is, these two components are presented as normal in this light, bright McDonald’s world, despite their unexpectedness. Even when it’s shown that the McBites inspire the street fight (essentially, the product making consumers do extraordinary things, catalyzed by the presumed deliciousness of the McBites), there is only a tenuous conceptual bridge for the viewer.

By including these elements as just another everyday aspect of brand, the ad drives cognitive dissonance. How does the multi-textured dub sound and spectacle of Bones and Aaron moving their bodies into eerily impossible contortions correlate to the home of the Happy Meal or even Chicken McBites’ ‘great homestyle flavor’? Bones and Aaron are ‘home grown’ in a sense, self-made street performers known to a specific youth target- but since street dance is already their thing, the premise of the ‘product as catalyst’ falls down.

Weetabix lets the new sound create a new world

In contrast, Weetabix maintains break-through, and skirts the dissonance caused by code inversion by framing out the dubstep moment into a more complete space of fantasy and performance facilitated by the brand.

Here, dub is used to signal a shift from the real to the unreal.  Framing, light quality, over-the top editing and the animated dancing teddy-bear crew make it clear that we’re viewing an alternate space where the rules are different and little girls dubstep powerfully. The execution is free to expose and explore new and interesting terrain for the brand (particularly energy, exuberance, joyful play), and celebrates dubstep along the way. The result broadens, rather than directly challenges brand expectations- since it’s acknowledged that there isn’t really a relationship between Weetabix and dub, but one is being created.

I do think there’s a thought and lesson for brands here- understand the bounds of brand stretch, even in the case of code inversion – don’t ‘kill’ culture –  find a way to leverage it that makes sense for the brand.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

The part-time psychopath

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The  late 1980s and 90s were a golden era for psychopaths in culture. Psychopathy had become more widely understood and provided a fantastic popular vehicle for thrills in both fiction and film.

In fact, this portrayal of the psychopath as obsessive and homicidal – in movies like Jagged Edge, The Silence of the Lambs, or Cape Fear – was simplistic. In the last ten years attention has begun to turn to corporate psychopaths who may be behind disasters like Enron and even the latest global economic crash.

Now there is a new twist – psychopathy as a spectrum, and the notion of the ‘semi-psychopath’.  Take an example from Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science documentary series. A recent episode covered good and evil, and one of the case studies was Dr James Fallon, a neuroscientist and world expert on the psychopathic brain. He had identified structural features in the brains of psychopaths that were quite unlike ‘normal’ brains.

After realising that he was distantly related to a serial killer, Lizzie Borden, he decided to scan the brains of all his family members. There was one person whose brain had features consistent with psychopathy – his own. Neither he nor his family were entirely surprised as he had always been aloof, rather cool, and occasionally strangely intimidating. Dr Fallon hypothesised that the reason why he is not dangerous is that he had a wonderful upbringing.

John Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, concludes that you can have ‘semi-psychopaths’ – people who are a definitely a bit psychopathic but not totally unsympathetic. Ronson also suggests that psychopathic traits do overlap with leadership traits – for example not being overcome by your emotions – and that it is crude reductionism to call people with these traits psychopaths. Ronson agrees with Fallon that the difference between a criminal psychopath and a corporate one is simply upbringing.

Dr Fallon pops up again in a viral video clip after scanning the brain of Eli Roth, the director of horror films Cabin Fever and Hostel. Roth also has some ‘complicated’ results – if not unexpected given his profession – he has no emotional reaction to images of extreme violence. In the clip Fallon compares him to ‘Don Corleone’ – all the right instincts towards close friends and family, but a very different attitude to anyone ‘outside the tribe’. ‘Am I psychotic?’ asks Roth, probably rather disingenuously as he surely understands the difference between psychosis and psychopathy. This is when Dr Fallon utters a telling phrase. He tells Roth he is a ‘good psychopath’. His justification for this phrase? That psychopaths are essential to human civilization because they ‘make things happen’.

Roth, clearly having a great deal of fun with the idea, recently tweeted: “Someone called me an hour ago and I had no idea who it was. We talked for ten minutes. #parttimepsychoproblems”.

We are, perhaps, at a remarkable moment where psychopathy is being redefined in a much more nuanced way. It is now a spectrum, or even a matrix, of traits – and it is no longer synonymous with evil.

One of our most prominent pop culture figures, TV talent show supremo Simon Cowell, can thank his prominence to character traits not inconsistent with the more neutral elements of psychopathy. The fact that his company is called Syco suggests he may not only be aware of this but have a sense of humour about it.

This domestication of the psychopath may be part of a passage to a better society in which the nuances and ambiguities of human nature are much better understood. Or it may be playing with fire.

Talk to a forensic scientist and they will not be happy. For the experts dealing with people who have committed the most gut-churning crimes, a psychopath is not someone who merely has certain brain furniture. What actually makes a person a psychopath is the upbringing that has shaped them in addition to that brain furniture. Eli Roth and Dr Fallon might be disappointed to hear it, but according this definition they are not real psychopaths.


The author of this post asked to remain anonymous.

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

Shinkansen & the Myth of Progress

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

What travels with the stealth of a Lexus and at Formula 1 speed and has a hospitality trolley? The Shinkansen, literally meaning “new trunk line” but very quickly dubbed bullet train by Western pundits, is an important semiotic property in Japan. The Super Express is a talisman that keeps Japan moving literally and mythically.

According to Wikipedia: “The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world's busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers a year (March 2008),[4] it has transported more passengers (over 4 billion, network over 6 billion)[5] than any other high speed line in the world” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen.

These sleek trains were inaugurated in 1964 – a blue riband year for the Japanese in that it, very much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seemed to set the seal on the Japanese post war resurgence. Travelling at over 210km per hour, it was by far the fastest rail transport then available and must have impressed travelling visitors as to how far Japan had come. Whilst no longer on its own as the fastest train in the world (the French TGV is faster and China have a Maglev which travels at 420kmph, though the Japanese still hold the record for the fastest ever maglev), the Shinkansen is still a paragon of silent speed and service, with spotless safety record.

Japan has a fleet of over 1500 Shinkansen trains that criss cross Japan every day taking Japanese businessmen from Tokyo to Osaka or reuniting families over the Golden Week or Obon holidays. The speed and perfect punctuality of the Shinkansen certainly seem to the outside observer as a reminder of the robust infrastructure underpinning Japan despite the long term recession and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak. It is the most palpable sign of technological prowess in a country that has lost some of its reputation for being vanguardist and visionary. It almost seems as if the Shinkansen train functions as an eternal rebuke to these doubts. It says something that the names of these trains depending on how often they stop on the trunk line, NOZOMI (meaning hope), HIKARI (meaning light) and SAKURA (cherry blossom) represent positive and galvanizing messages to the Japanese passenger and the public at large. The Shinkensen is a project that subject to continual renewal – the trunk line has just been extended into Kyushu and there are plans to build and extension to the most Northern island of Hokkaido as well as to upgrade the Tohoku line to faster speeds.

As goes the Shinkansen line so goes progress in Japan.

What is most noticeable about the representation of the Shinkansen is the idea of forward progress through sleekness and contemporaneity of its plastic design profile.

From the needle like fierceness of the grey and blue 500 series to through the latest pantograph platypus billed 500 series to the outrageous, exaggerated nose cone of the E5, the design of Shinkansens, despite owing partly to aerodynamic logic is becoming increasingly aggressive; each design seeming to outdo its predecessor. The E5 being advertised as “Made from Dream” is actually positioned as more like a transatlantic or private airliner than a train – the seats will be lavishly upholstered and service to match – it is true that Shink travel has the best of flight without the hassles.

Advertising by JR lingers languidly on the flaring and scalloped flanks of the train nose cones. The new 700 series and the coming E5 have become the centerpiece of promotional work that focuses not on where you’d want to travel but simply on riding this train. A pamphlet for a season ticket shows in aerial shot the immensity of the front section – like a sperm whale’s head with the sly concision of the canopy hood set off against the albumen like fuselage looking like something out of Star Wars.

Another JR poster shows two E5s gracefully passing each other against a black background almost like two automated swans gliding on the tracks. Grace and functionality: two underlying values that are most prized in Japanese aesthetics.

The thorax of the beast is very rarely shown. A semiotic perspective would suggest this is because the sinewy, muscular design of the Shinkansen seems totemic of the notion of forward propulsion. Shinkansen is an index for the future or at least a very strong metaphor for forward progress and a belief that the future is bright. On the pamphlet showing the E5 the arrows, pure indexes (as Peirce said, the sign that signifies not be convention but by blind compulsion), relate to the idea of speed but also to the idea of a smart card being a progressive idea for the new generation.

My recent trip shows that the Japanese government and local tourist centres are assiduously promoting domestic tourism. Shinkansen ads in 2012 carry a new slogan that say (Nihon ni Tsunagou – “let’s join up Japan”) and on the flank of a Joetsu line Shinkansen was a message of hope to stricken prefectures of the Tohoku region. though Japan already perhaps the most comprehensive train coverage in the world.

There is clearly a lot of goodwill towards the Shinkansen in popular culture. You can buy Shinkansen chocolates in long tubes at station shops, there is also a book and DVD made for children that goes through the chronology of the Shinkansen, the successive series and how they are assembled with a cockpit view. There is even a Shinkansen museum, I believe in Nagoya, where you can see the original 0 series snub nosed 1964 trains and learn about the background and the original blueprints.

Whilst there has been some disruption to services and may be some trouble on the line ahead, nation Japan does not seem to be hitting the buffers quite yet and the Shinkansen – a bullet (train) that tapers at both ends – is a powerful semiotic force that acts as both persistent proof of this and as a motivating impetus into the future.

 © Chris Arning  2012

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Emergence, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Technology | No Comments »

Vehicle body art

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

Vehicles on Indian roads talk. Almost every vehicle is embellished either with images on the body or with accessories within. There is  general disapproval for the plain vanilla factory made look. It is a rather inviting tabula rasa on which story of one’s identity must be etched. After all, buying a car is a milestone and historically it does mark the class transition from belonging to the plebian crowds who access public transport to becoming somebody who can afford their own private means. The nature of the images and the embellishment do tell you many stories. Stories about the life journey of the owner; how they got there and what they feel about it. How space is shared or rather grabbed on the road can be read as a mini snapshot of the class dynamics of this society.

I will pick up two sets of vehicles and two popular images and embellishments typical to them. Privately owned cabs which are leased out to the driver and the mid range sedan which are favored by those who have recently risen above the harried middle class.

 Privately owned cabs for all practical purposes belong to the driver who works them hard so that he can have money left over after paying the daily lease sum and the fuel & maintenance costs. While on the face of it he can pull off a certain amount of status & posturing within his community about practically being the owner, the joy runs a bit shallow. He finds himself working harder & harder to beat the terms of the lease and save himself a respectable income. This pseudo ownership is nothing but a cuckold. The vehicle being experienced as a cheating girlfriend rings true at many levels. In a society where ‘ownership’ of a heavily bedecked woman lends status gives further credence to this parallel. Each cab is lovingly decorated with colorful tinselly frills and the stickers with sad romantic couplets complete the story of the driver being the jilted lover – all because he spends such long hours on the road. A pair of heavily made up blue eyes painted at the rear of the vehicle is significant at many levels. It is blue signifying the much desired white woman fantasy complete with all its loose morality associations. It is placed at the rear where it is looking on at the vehicle behind – at the ‘other’. The eyes seem to guard the rear alluding somewhere to the vulnerability experienced on the road. Is it the vulnerability of the pretender?

In contrast the theme of embellishment of the sedan alludes to the sense of snug security of those who have just arrived. The car is a protected cocoon, sealed off with its rolled up windows & tinted glasses warding off unwanted eyes looking in. Comforting softness of this world is further accentuated by velvet cushions and soft toys placed on the parcel tray, looking out at the world through the rear windscreen as though mocking the sweat, dust and grime of the road. It mimics the untouched innocence and hyperbolic snugness of the nursery.

When these worlds come together, predictably there is mayhem which is known as Indian road traffic; also known as the most dangerous sport in the world! [Apparently it is drawing visitors from round the world as an extreme sport.] When the soft, pink cushioned world of the sedan mocks the violated fantasy of class transition, testosterone is bound to flow. The rash and aggressive driving of the overworked cabs in turn mocks the fragility of the cushion & soft toy brigade. And the troubled co existence of the classes and masses that have been denied transition continues.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Escape the Map

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

 

There's always been something slightly sinister to Google Street View and it isn't just the surveillance aspect. Perhaps it is the perpetually sunny sky (Street View vehicles cannot operate in the rain) or maybe the navigation commands that never quite feel intuitive. Google Street View makes no effort to replicate the motion of how we typically experience the city — on foot or by car. A mouse click to the arrows on the ground jerks you forward at a distance far longer than the average stride. With a gravity of its own, impossible weather, and a population of spectral faceless beings — blurred to protect their identities — it is not a world anyone would ever like to live inside.

Maybe your image exists in Google Street View already: blurred and frozen in time. "We call them echoes," says the mysterious woman in Escape the Map, the interactive video produced by Mercedes-Benz. She warns that "time works differently here" — you might find an image of yourself from four days or four years ago… but "relax."

In the film, you are navigating a vehicle through a representation of Hong Kong on Google Street View. The woman — Marie — has just removed a mask that disguised her to look like the other blurry-face people outside. Now she sits in the passenger seat, offering instructions to "escape the map." You risk getting captured by the camera, which will turn you into one of the hopeless blurred people on the streets — faceless and trapped in motion like the victims of Pompeii. Google Street View is never named, but director Carl Erik Rinsch (soon to make his feature film debut with 47 Ronin) exploits all its familiar quirks. A character appears badly rendered and you instructed to "put him together" to advance. Giant red pins that look like Google Map markers come crashing from the sky.

Google Street View could be a geospatial corollary to the Uncanny Valley hypothesis (which suggests that as artificial life grows more lifelike, it also seems eerier, more "uncanny"). In the Mercedes-Benz making-of video, the team explains how they mimicked Street View's aggressive navigation and used green screens to replicate its world. Interestingly, they point out the final touch was to "recreate the harsh midday light of the application." How ironic that advanced technology was employed to create the appearance of sunshine in Google Street View. It is unreality presented on a computer screen as the world outside our window.

 

 © Joanne McNeil 2012

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

The grandiose semiotics of TED

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Many semioticians turn to the ideas forum TED for examples of emergent thinking. So maybe it’s time we looked at the semiotics of the TED phenomenon itself.

TED prides itself on ‘radical openness’: it talks a lot about community, accessibility, networks and dissemination. But its linguistic and visual codes are instead steeped in anti-democratic ideas of the individual genius and virtuoso performer.

The shadowed stage, the dramatically-illuminated speakers a-flow with (the signs of) passion and inspiration, the rapt audience sitting in the dark….it all seems so Romantic and narcissistic for a forum that’s trying to claim the contemporary terrain of ‘community’ and ‘accessibility’.

The language of TED too brims with the grandiose: everything is ‘remarkable’, ‘inspirational’, ‘extraordinary’ , ‘world-changing’. And individuals as well as ideas qualify for these epithets. In an age of communities, networks and crowd-sourcing, why is TED still able to sell the idea of the impassioned, inspired genius?

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Biking displaced

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

 

‘Roadies’ is a reality show running into its ninth season in India.  Any show that runs into its ninth season has enormous mass appeal and this one has got youth cult status. It started with a bunch of boys doing tough ‘tasks’ involving much physical endurance, hitting the road on their bikes and essentially surviving physical odds as well as political challenges of group dynamics.  It is built on the classic ingredients of masculine appeal which cuts across every adolescent or middle aged man’s fantasy of biking, road trip, tough ruggedness and brawn.

What provides the twist in an otherwise timeless tale is the personality of the host and creator of the show – Raghu. His process of screening and audition to select contestants for this reality show seems to be close to what in India is called ‘ragging’ and in some other cultures is called ‘hazing’. The aspirants go through, besides a group discussion and elaborate form filling, a personal interview.  Raghu – short tempered, volatile, politically irreverent and liberated from any kind of political correctness that being on television demands – puts the aspirants through hell. He zeros in on their weaknesses, false selves, paltry defensiveness and posturing and proceeds to dismantle them ruthlessly in a bid to reveal their ‘true’ selves. Physical challenges such as doing knuckle push ups or head stands are employed to take the aspirants out of their comfort zone in order to break down facades.

The intriguing bit is why are there thousands of young people in every city lining up to go through this experience which for most ends up being public humiliation on national television? They want to go through this and for most it is a test by fire that they want to go through; expecting a stronger and perhaps a ‘real man’ emerging at the end of this experience. They want to be judged and want Raghu’s verdict on who they are and what they are worth.

Raghu does not come across as a bully but more as a tough father delivering home truths intended to chisel and bring out the real man. Clearly this brand of parenting which is directive, ruthlessly disciplining and offering a certain amount of authoritative resistance that an adolescent can go up against and resolve his final bits of identity formation which have gone missing. Obviously traditional patriarchs are being missed by the kids. They have nothing to go up against and test themselves and the limits. Is there an overdose of non-directive, organic ‘discover for yourself’ feminine nurturance which does not make enough use of parental authority?

When ‘ragging’ or ‘hazing’ are experienced as rites of passage; what does it say about this generation’s life experiences? They have to search far and wide for a piece of resistance against which they can sharpen their identity and sadly this is the defining and toughest experience of their lives. This reality show has some very real responsibilities. The host is the guiding light and fills in for fearless authority figures while a staged road trip is a simulated coming of age experience for a whole generation.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Luxury: a journey of discovery?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

I recently watched a lengthy spot for Cartier, 'L'Odysee de Cartier, that made me consider what luxury brands are trying to tell us today. 

In the Cartier piece, a leopard/panther avatar breaks its carapace of diamonds, journeys through time and space, and explores a magical, bejeweled world. This world is marked by a seemingly omniscient and global view of Cartier’s past: horse drawn carriages, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal (balanced on an elephant’s back), vintage airplanes, and iconic French architecture. Interestingly, these spaces are populated with jeweled exotic animals- magical living entities hidden from common sight. The leopard’s tour of these spectacles is drawn together in a loose narrative ending in communion with a woman gowned in red. She strokes the leopard, and diamonds gleam where her hand has left its fur. They’re old friends, it seems, even lovers.

But ultimately, what does all this tell us about the world of Cartier? This world is defined by selective provenance; it claims cultural authority (to say what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) from a mythologized history of exotic lands and treasures drawn from both mysterious natural phenomena and the heart of culture. Importantly, it’s a place where the unknown, secret life of these things is revealed to those in the know.

In this world, luxury is the experience of discovery driven by a specific kind of knowledge. This knowledge is presented as secret knowledge, and the journey to discover these things a heroic and even sacred one (the musical theme has a hand in this, as the tremulous violins in the beginning tell me to anticipate something revealed, the mournful cello later underlines the arduousness of this journey, followed by a children’s choir soaring above).

And, what’s the role of the consumer in relationship to Cartier? Through Cartier, the luxury consumer is cast as a cultured explorer, a person who enjoys confirmation and articulation of their particular strain of cultural capital, but also strives to transcend a conventional understanding of these things. However it is really more ‘armchair explorer’ – the consumer is not necessarily an intimate, the leopard roams alone (despite its affection for the lady in red).

The sheer grandeur of the Cartier spot (one cannot ignore the grand format brand statement) reminded me of another spot by Louis Vuitton launched a while back, ‘The Spirit of Travel.’ In deep contrast to Cartier, the LV piece locates LV’s authority (to establish what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) in the brand’s ability to articulate the subjective nature of discovery. Also shifting through global time and space, LV represents its world through fine details: the glow of light through the pages of a book, the shimmer on a water’s edge, fog flowing over an ‘Asian’ waterway- all through impressionistic photography implying individual sensory experience. Here, sensory and personal experience clearly trumps externally constructed experience and spectacle (though of course it can be argued that subjectivity at this level is still just another trope, box and definition to be checked off).

So what’s luxury in the world of LV? Being able to discover your moment ‘in the moment.’ Importantly, LV tells us quite directly that it’s an experience of discovery driven by self-knowledge. Here, the LV consumer is a devotee to this pilgrimage and escape into self. 

Both Cartier and LV instruct luxury consumers on the importance and nature of discovery and how to, well, discover it. Despite its ‘wild’ leopard avatar, Cartier is more the starry eyed curator at the Louvre, lifting the curtain just a bit for a special glimpse of wonder. In comparison, LV is a spiritual guide, a more intimate relationship to consumers overall.

But this is not to say there aren’t real commonalities here- each brand highlights a particularly western (post-colonial) politic of desire- since part of this ’journey’ is an exotic experience that speaks to the ‘foreign,’ the strange and other. 

And, ultimately, both tap into fairly residual themes (the ‘cultured’ connoisseur and imaginative adventurer, the spiritual-Buddha traveler) and leverage the journey metaphor to frame a foundational perspective on luxury present within contemporary cultural consciousness. Both brands tell us that luxury is part of a noble and meaningful adventure, and that discovery- wonderful, fleeting, and rare- is an emotional space attainable through each brand’s distinct exploratory path.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

 

 

 

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Women on the case

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

 

Women on the case: A new winning formula for primetime TV drama

Is it really surprising that women writers and directors bring stories to life very differently than males?  

In her Observer article form Sunday, 26th February 2012, "Women on the case: a new winning formula for primetime TV drama," Maggie Brown highlights the success of UK TV programs "shaped by women".  It's not just the writing, but the direction of these programs that is striking a different chord and in effect, shifting the way dramas are evoked.  Pippa Harris, executive producer of Call the Midwife said, "…it is leading to a shift in dramas we're seeing." She explains how the director, Philippa Lowthorpe, "was instrumental in setting that mixture of grit and warmth from the first episode." Grit in terms of graphic detail is very different in these shows – they rely less on the gory details and more on the personal context of the characters.  

The way women write both male and female characters is also making a difference.  Another producer, Paula Milne points out, "Our default position as women writers is that we give women equal weight to men. I think we also write male characters differently, as husbands, lovers, sons."  In these female-directed programs, the focus is on depicting the characters' lives as a whole, detectives not as just crime heroes, but people with personal pressures and stresses that go beyond the role.

These stories go beyond the gore in a graphic way, recognising that the worst terror is not necessarily the "exploding organs," but the emotional pain of death.  

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

A bag is a bag is a bag

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Handbags are mysterious to men and profane to their mistresses. They are an accessory for almost every woman, whether young or matured, Christian or Buddhist, rich or poor, modern or conservative.  They are universal and at the same time very personal, even intimate. Peeping in one’s bag or borrowing might be acceptable but not encouraged and only trusted friends and close relatives are allowed to do so, mostly under the owner’s control. Handbags are powerful icons and heroines of modern times stand behind ‘IT bags’ as godmother.

Why are handbags so important?

Many women strongly identify with her handbag and some develop an almost symbiotic relationship with the bag and its content. Others have a more playful and flirtatious relationship with it. They change their leather or linen companion according to season, occasions or mood. The bag bond can be born when falling in love at first sight of blinking sequin or playful fringes or result from a more rational strategy of comparing sizes, materials and styles.

Certain items such as keys, purses and care products can be found in almost every bag, other personal items such as breast implants or a fruit knife might be a surprise to an indiscreet viewer. A bag is a bag but is also unique at the same time: “My bag reflects who I am and what is important to me.” A bag can match your dress – but first of all it matches yourself. Bag owners can be characterised regarding what their bag contains inside and what they express outside, what a bag tells about their personality and their social identity.

The ‘mistress of the bag’ is in a power position and in control of her bag and its content. She highlights the non-emotional character of her relationship with the bag and treats her bag as her property that often feels neglected or even maltreated. She doesn’t want to compromise and demands a lot: ““I like to be in control and must admit that I treat my bag like a slave: it’s always with me and has to do what I want it to”.

The ‘expressive hedonist’ enjoys her ownership of (often many) bags. The bag represents her style and fashion consciousness – whether in the form of prestigious luxury shoppers or the latest must-have bags. She feels reassured and entertained through her steady companion: “One may understand who I am from both my bag and by its contents. My bag is the mirror of myself”.

The ‘protective dependent’ has a strong and very emotional relationship with her bag.  She is in need of comfort and security. Her bag looks individualised, caring and exciting from the outside and often chaotic in the inside caused by various layers of more or less helpful tools, notes, souvenirs and good luck charmers required to be next to her at all times: “If my bag gets lost my world would tremble.”

The ‘capricious passionate’ wants her bag to make her happy and light-hearted. She has a rather flirtatious relationship with her handbag although she might be looking for ‘real love’ in her very heart. She can fancy the pink patent leather shopper during the day and the golden clutch in the evening: “I bought this bag because it makes me feel good”.

Every bag has its own character and reflects the character of its owner. A bag is nothing less than a practical container filled with helpful tools and personal treasures and a mobile miniature version of a woman’s world at the same time. The bag is the steady companion who never lets you down, supports you to deal with any eventuality and allows you to either hide or to make you noticed. No wonder women can’t do without it. 

 © Ute Rademacher 2012

Posted in Categories, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

 

There are many different coding schemes to collect and discern semiotics, and included in that is my METTA method created as part of my research on nonverbal communication. You can decide the value of METTA after reading [here]. As important as a coding scheme is, I have yet to find one that is complete and encompasses the entire semiosphere (the ‘signs’ that are all around us) that at the same time is not overbearing and time consuming. 

Sure, for example, METTA helps identify all the nonverbal signs but even this is incomplete for a thorough analysis when used solely for denoting specific (digital) or variations (analog) of nonverbal cues and elements. Simply denoting the sign, a gesture for example, is a start but by no means an end. The connotation of the sign, the gesture in this case, is necessary for a full understanding. Luckily for me, Jakobson is in my corner with this as he states, “It is not enough to know the code in order to grasp the message… you need to know the context” (Chandler 2002, 182).

The 3 C’s compliments the METTA method the study of semiotics and nonverbal communication. The 3 C’s represents Clusters, Congruence, and Context. Combining this analysis along with other coding such as Morris’s Model (as discussed here) or METTA will help a semiotician understand all nonverbal signs that are present during an interact.

Clusters: Although identifying, or denoting, individual nonverbal signs is important, realizing they do occur in a vacuum and contrastly exist in conjuction with other nonverbal signs contributes to a proper analysis. An example includes determining someone is uncomfortable not solely on lack of eye contact but in addition the shoulders are slumped, the person is fidgeting with their wedding ring, and uttering repeated “umms” while answering a question.

Congruence: Something important for people interested in the semiotics of nonverbal communication is the words spoken. Yes, nonverbal communication research explores the role of all the various nonverbal elements and cues but it does not do so at the expense of the verbal content. Congruence reminds the semiotician to consider the nonverbal actions and elements along with the words being spoken. 

An example of congruence is stating you are willing to help someone with an assignment and you move your seat closer to them to look over the work they had already done. Here, your words of offering assistance are congruent with your movement.

An example of incongruence is when asking someone if they are upset and they respond “I’m fine,” however their statment is in a sharp, quick tone; their brows are tense as are they lips; while their arms are crossed across their chest. 

Do you think they are “fine”? 

Most of us have heard the statement that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, right (read more on this here)? It is true, however in certain situations. It it is referring to situations like the example I just provided- where the spoken words are not congruent with the person’s nonverbal actions. In situations like these, the nonverbal actions consistently tend to be more truthful. 

Context: The context involves the environment the interaction is taking place as well as the history between the people, and the power structure. Context can give the same gesture, say finger pointing two completely different meanings. In one context, it can be part of anger or scolding, while in another it can represent acknowledging someone. See the photo below and I would bet, regardless of culture, you can differentiate between the two.

The 3 C’s of nonverbal communication helps provide a research and anyone who is interested understanding nonverbal communication the meaning and importance of nonverbal cues and elements. It helps prevents premature and incorrect conclusions being made as it allows you to look at all the ‘parts’ and see a more accurate ‘whole.’ 

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Posted in Americas, Australasia, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Machines, music, meaning

Monday, March 12th, 2012

From rail rhythms in rock, to drill bits in glitch hop and dub step, the use of machines to make music is not a new idea, although their influence may not always be apparent to our ears.

In one very clear link, music refers to the sound-making device itself, as when Tchaikovsky employed cannon fire in his 1812 Overture. Certainly, cannon fire can be said to be dramatic, and because of its powerful effect, it signifies a warning to potential invaders, as much as it should also produce feelings of patriotism in a loyal nationalist, as was the composer’s intent.

Tchaikovsky also chose to use an actual cannon for the sound of the cannon’s roar, rather than engage traditional instruments to mimic explosive blasts. That is to say, as with words or images, sometimes the power of abstracted sounds lies with their direct or common associations. Likewise, sometimes a sign only points in one direction.

However, also like language and imagery, and depending on context, abstracted sounds lend themselves to a variety of uses, which resonate well beyond literal interpretation.

For instance, the clock at your bedside simply indicates the time of day. But when embedded within the score for a game show, such as Jeopardy or Countdown, we do not so much as note the time as we become aware of its passage, and all that such passage implies. We may thus find ourselves empathizing with an indecisive contestant when a looming deadline must be beat. In the case of Countdown, if we remove the clock from the main theme, all we have is an exciting musical prelude, but otherwise lacking any real sense of urgency.

For another example, trains have long had an influence on modern music, either as a literal effect, or as a source for a powerful rhythm. However, in ‘This City Never Sleeps’, the band The Eurythmics employ the sound of London’s underground towards another interesting result. For whether we notice it or not, the lack of crowd murmur within the sound sample imparts upon us a feeling of loneliness. So that no matter where or when we listen to this song we are transported to a particularly empty place in both our hearts and the middle of the night.

In the same way, consider the Cha-Ching opening of a cash register in Pink Floyd's ‘Money’. The register alone might set the physical scene of a shop, but it’s the incessant looping of the sound that produces a feeling of obsession, and thus, before a single word is uttered or sung, the music is instantly framed as a missive on consumerism or greed.

Even if we dismiss mechanical rhythms as primary influencers, industrial products have been responsible for not simply contributing novel sounds to music, but for seeding several modern genres. One needn’t even point to electronically powered music for an obvious example. What would calypso be, for instance, but for the empty steel oil drum?

Generally speaking, the use of machines in music have historically suggested that we are collectively more modern than we were yesterday. But since mankind’s most recent mechanical fascination is with an otherwise silent device –the computer – one wonders what impact it will have on music of the 21st Century? Will silence become the new indicator of modernism? Or will this silence force us to reconsider our own biological rhythms and usher in a new bio-musical age? Or will the computer’s easy capacity for copying and combining thrust us towards an ever increasingly paste modern future?

Of course, any answer would only be guesswork, but we can be certain that otherwise reticent machines will continue to find new ways to speak to their human designers through the language music.

© Terry O'Gara 2012

Read more about music and meaning on Terry's blog Critical Noise.

Posted in Americas, Culture, Making Sense | No Comments »

Music For A New Society

Sunday, March 11th, 2012


Semionaut sleuths and photographers have been given exclusive access to a weapons research facility run by a major secret constituent of the now old New World Order in an undisclosed tier 2 emerging country.  Where organic Jesus drones manufactured from genetically modified driftwood are being miniaturized in order to mount an attack on R&D facilities in an unnamed third country believed to be close to developing an independent nuclear weapons capability. “It’s a race against time”, says secret service spokesman David Cameron (that’s a David Cameron, obviously not the one everybody’s heard of – common name, common guy, lots of common guys), “We have Jesuses in Petri boxes right now shrunk to one quarter life-size – but we need them in the full nano dimension, at least 3 months before the enemy is ready for a nuclear strike on the city of T* (full name withheld).

A Petri culture of  one eighth life-size organic drones

Behind this specific smart weapons programme is the intention that enemy recognition of the nano-attackers, easily identifiable as Jesuses in electron microscope blow-up, will lead to the PR disaster of a revenge strike on a diversionary target such as Santiago de Compostella, Lourdes, the Vatican City (where Pope Ratzinger arguably has it coming, given his alleged dalliance with the Hitler Jugend and his predilection for Gucci slippers), or Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, which has a rich Catholic heritage and hosts the sixth Summit of the Americas in April 2012.

Barack Obama, noncommittal so far on the rights and wrongs of this new weapons development, continues to play the HOPE card while still musing on the conspiratorial dimensions of that perennial Osama/Obama semantic Sudoku-like conundrum and so-called coincidence.  Don’t buy it. The unconscious only ever hears ‘hope’ as ‘mañana’, a perpetual IOU spiking the libidinal economy, like an inverted credit bubble of love. Living in hope is synonymous with living in fear. The unconscious recognizes none of these piddling distinctions.

As the Semionaut guys were leaving the building, with ZZ Top’s ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ laying down a vibe of fuddled baby boomer menace in the background on a vintage analog music centre, Cameron told us: “Don’t pay attention to any of this. It’s just a cover, a Brechtian Verfremdugseffeckt.  The real stuff, off the record, is still going on at Bletchley Park with the same British boffins who developed radar, the Spitfire, the Bouncing Bomb, the Mini-Cooper and the Dyson Ball Barrow. They've kept going all these years, consuming industrial amounts of probiotic yoghurt and megadoses of Creme de la Mer. The Iranians reverse engineered that stuff at an underground facility back in '07 but our boys got in under cover of darkness in a rubber dinghy and managed to get out with minimum casualties and 8 or 9 kg of it complete with the little plastic spatulas that prevent its purity and efficacy being compromised by any animal fats or other residual bodily emissions on your fingers".  

Cameron cleared his throat: “So tally ho, we know where you live but we won’t kill you. At least not till we get some scale on the drone technology. As John Cale says in ‘Damn Life’ (on Music For A New Society, 1984, the best album ever by a long chalk) ‘You’re just not worth it, you’re just not worth it’.”  

With a final glance at his Patek Philippe, Cameron adds: "Time moves on. Some of us have school fees to pay. And bigger fish to fry.  An associate of ours who's an alcoholic and former spin doctor for Tony Blair was using the toilet at MI-6, our British counterparts, recently and heard two guys in the next cubicle whispering that Julian Assange and Slavoj Zizek have been talking to Kim Jong-Il on a 3G ouija device with automatic Facebook and Twitter feeds. They'll have their own nanobots sowing terror within 6 or 7 years if we don't get on that case now.  I for one couldn't sleep at night if I thought my children, a little further down the line, could be threatened by these things being in the hands of madmen, perverts and some random Yugoslavian post-Lacanian Stalinist philosophy freak with an attitude problem.  Not on my watch, baby."

© Opal Cerdan 2012

Our featured picture on the Semionaut home page is of a more advanced next-G Jesus nanodrone wearing the hi-tech leisure suit by which M* agents are now able recognise each other in public, obviating the need for confusing and time-consuming code words, secret handshakes etc.

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

More cruey, more cuitey

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

The white ‘Raw Bloke’, the Aussie bushman, the tough man is a’dying in Australia. At the same time Australia is leading and impacting on global ‘sophisticated society’ in terms of culinary influence such as fusion cooking. In fact – I’d argue stereotypes of Ozzie aren’t enough – the bushman is much more bushman and the urban male much more urban.

Why is the ‘pure, white’ bush bloke culture dying? There are a variety of reasons – immigration from Asia, (Australia is more multicultural) rural depopulation and lastly the money is flowing to the town not the country.

Australian bush boxing is an iconic example of this dying culture but it is not going without a fight.  The legend Fred Brophy has “been bitten by snakes, shot by a double barrelled gun, had mi’ face imploded by a knuckle duster but I’ve achieved mi’ dream of having a boxing tent that goes around the outback…it’s a tradition that goes way back to the original miners…”

The basic idea is the tent turns up and anyone can challenge a professional fighter. (6-10 fighters tour with the tent) Women box women. it’s not just a man’s game. 

At Birdsville, NSW (population 150) the annual boxing tent is the highlight of the outback calendar with 1000’s of people flying in for the celebration of beer, boxing and BBQ. As attendees say “It’s the event of the outback year”; others go further “I live for Birdsville”.

Recently Fred was awarded the Order of Australia (OAM) for his services to Birdsville and for keeping an icon of Australia alive.

The ‘bush word’ for food is “tucker”. Australia used to pride itself on producing simple “tucker,” it was a badge of authenticity, honesty and equality at least up until the mid 80’s. A BBQ epitomised “tuckerness”. And yet it was Australian chefs who invented the concept of fusion food (starting with fusing Anglo-Saxon and Asian foods) – in many ways this kind of food (at least until 5 years ago) became synonymous with sophisticated dining – it said “I know the world well enough to break the rules of purity of cuisines.”

So let’s think about this. Food the most basic and key badge of a society – is becoming more sophisticated at the same time as a significant part of the population is fighting for “tucker” survival. Le cru et le cruit are becoming more ‘cruey’ and more ‘cuitey’ a la meme temps.

Eat that Levi.

© Jake Pearce  2012

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Natural Capital

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Recently, after I wrote a piece of copy on Corporate Responsibility for a global company, I was asked to take out the word ‘fair’ on the grounds that it was ‘too philanthropic’. I was surprised: don’t ‘fair’ and ‘philanthropic’ mean something quite different? We generally think of ‘fair’ as referring to an abstract system of equality and justice, while philanthropy is more about the subjective, personal feelings of the donor.

Perhaps my client put the two concepts together because, however contrasting, they’re both now inimical to the way Corporate Responsibility is heading. While justice and philanthropy may carry different meanings in ethics, they’re equally ‘in excess’ of the corporate world's newly internalised and systematised take on ethics.

Broadly speaking, the language of Corporate Responsibility now describes ethics as a direct profit driver, integrating it into core business activities. It's an attempt to 'own' ethics, remedying the way it's previously stuck out like a sore thumb in business symbolism.

For example, residually speaking, Corporate Responsibility is about ‘philanthropy’. In practice, that means companies give money to their favourite charities. It’s an add-on: a nice thing to do that’s more or less arbitrary and subjective. It has only a tangential and inessential relationship to business.

Dominant symbolism sees a turn from philanthropy to justice. The idea of Fair Trade comes in – casting doubt on old-fashioned ‘charity-giving’ as top-down, patrician and unsustainable. Companies start offering consumers ethical options, based on giving suppliers and workers a fair deal and fair conditions.

It sounds good – but ideas of justice and fairness still don't fit. They continue to trouble business by referring to an ethics grounded and legitimised outside the corporation itself. After all,  ‘fair’ applies to everyone, everywhere: it’s an idea based on a transcendent, public and shared sense of what’s right and wrong.

Just as old-fashioned philanthropy represented something ‘in excess’ of profit (subjective feeling), so does the idea of fairness: it belongs to a public language that’s not reducible to the corporate realm.

The emergent term in Corporate Responsibility – ethics as a growth engine – seeks to cut off these uncomfortable ‘sore thumbs’ (philanthropy and fairness) and integrate ethics into the internal symbolic system of business. Now, companies are talking about ethics as the way they’re going to drive growth – not as a nice add-on (philanthropy), or as an incursion of public value systems into their thinking (fairness). From now on, ethics isn’t going to be anything ‘other’ to business: it’s going to be reclaimed as inherent.

For an example, we can turn to a concept now in vogue in Corporate Responsibility: ‘Natural Capital’.

‘Natural Capital’ means seeing the planet itself as an asset: we can either tend it carefully so we can live sustainably off its interest, or just erode its capital worth, as we have been doing. The symbolism here also means seeing the earth as a ‘service provider’ which gives companies the air and water they need to do business, just as Apple supplies them with laptops.

What’s interesting about the symbolism here is the way it erodes all distinction between ‘ethics’, ‘nature’ and ‘profit’. All terms find themselves reduced to the language of the corporation itself, which can now claim independence from external symbolic systems and values.

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Print is dead, long live magazines!

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

 

We all know print is in decline and as a medium it is unsustainable.

However, these days the business of newspaper publishing comprises print, web and apps, and it is a tale of two trends. Whilst the US and Europe are experiencing a decline, the emerging markets are showing signs of growth with LatAm expecting the largest increase of 4.7% over the next 4 years. The burgeoning free newspaper market is also seeing growth in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.

Talking of free, paywalls, or ‘value gateways’ as News International calls them to sweeten the pill, haven’t proved to be the most successful model for online news as people expect their information from the internet to be free

But interestingly people do expect to pay for their mobile sources of information and entertainment. Apps like Flipboard aggregate news from multiple publishers where you can build your own ‘news playlists’. Apple has launched Newsstand on the iOS 5 (although typically they retain all the data). The new Facebook apps allow publishers to be exposed to a wider audience via exposure in the Ticker and on your newsfeed; The Guardian app gets over 1 million page views a day from Facebook. With the increase of information sharing editors or curators are being superseded by friends or ‘people like you’.

Ever since Esquire launched its Augmented Reality enabled edition 2 years ago, magazines have been looking for different ways to engage their readers on multi platforms by innovating and diversifying their offer.

Vice started life 17 years ago as a niche free magazine in Canada and now has over 30 local editions, it runs an international creative agency, an IPTV channel and even a pub! The Reader’s Digest meanwhile makes only 20% out of actual publishing – the rest is from financial & other services. Meanwhile in China, Vogue and local women’s fashion glossy Raili regularly publish editions of 350 pages and have even created TV shows.

Contract and niche magazine publishing are thriving. British photographer Rankin has just launched a new bi-annual, Hunger, whilst ‘We Love Pop’ is a new title from Egmont. Even Conde Nast’s Style.com has launched in print and the BBC has just sold all their titles to a Venture Capitalist so business can’t be all bad.

Magazines are often regarded as an indulgence, a private time away from the glare of the screen. But there’s another reason why magazines may survive. Increased micro-targeting online from both editors and advertisers doesn’t allow for serendipity – as this respondent (IPSOS 2011) research recognises:

 “with magazines, you might stumble across an interesting article or an amazing image that you wouldn’t have seen online”

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, an internet advocate, agrees that the internet doesn’t match the ability of printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. This presents an interesting argument in defence of ‘stumbling across’ the printed page.

Ultimately, the media owners who survive will be those who offer a unique service to brands, enabling them reach their discrete communities of loyal readers. With insights into their readers, publishers and brands can partner to co-create impactful content with the resources of editorial and in-house creative teams.

© Jo Peters 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

In the previous article on Hermes, starting with cultural origins in ancient times, I took note of the figure of the deity as a channel of communication and as a message. Here I want to focus on more recent times and ‘culture capital’ – specifically how marketing and advertising scoop up ready-to-use forms from history and universally recognised traditions as well as from local legends and myths in order to connect stories and symbols with their products (goods/services) and in such a way as to grab the attention of the potential consumers. This is clear demonstration of a principle, defined by Russian semiologist Yuri Lotman, who maintains that ‘old texts’, which circulate in culture, are there to be appropriated in terms of what exists on the surface and then refreshed by means of new codes.  

In the case of Hermes, on the basis of some limited research (which we invite Semionaut readers to supplement) on uses of the name and figure in modern trade and advertising,  it appears that in the mass consciousness in the most cases the deity remains the one who rapidly delivers messages and objects from one point to another. His most usual physical attribute – the wings (whether on his hat or sandals) is the most exploited symbol, preferred among the shipping and logistic companies. In Bulgaria we note a small difference, maybe because we here are close to the Hermes’s area of origin and operation, in that we see his attributes and name incorporated into tourist agencies and one well-known publishing house. Obviously for the locals the deity also has meaning of transfer.

But there are some curious exceptions, for example the use of the caduceus (Hermes’s sceptre) and serpents in logos as a reference to the medicinal skills of the Greek god. There is also one case from the not too distant past where a famous typewriter brand was named ‘Hermes’, clearly alluding to the god’s connection model with the invention of writing. Like the use of his name of publishing house this has a connection with transfer of knowledge and wisdom by means of some kind of medium – language and books. In a sense, time is a medium as well and as we saw in the earlier piece, time and space are mixed together when Hermes does what he does – moreover, he is among the immortals and his actions are set in the mythologically timeless.  

In contrast with all these relatively easily decodable meaning, among the richest and most eloquent examples for the use of this mythologeme in its full brilliance remains the name of the French luxury Hermès. This company was established in 1837 by Thierry Hermés and is today one of the major players in the fashion and luxury business alongside such brands as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The Hermès offer includes perfumes, jewelry and various accessories but the main products which bring the fame of the company are bags and sandals. As we might presume, the brand;’s communication deliberately emphasizes the connection between these products and the deeds of Hermes as messenger wearing winged sandals, one of whose main attributes is a bag. From this point we could decide that the company does not count only on the coincidence in the names of its founder and the one of the Greek deity. Moreover, in the creation of the visual identity (predominantly in its logo) Hermès has always been prepared to access tangentially other symbolic accoutrements of the deity. A historical execution of the logo (above), for example, puts the main element – a cab with one horse in front of it – above two images of the caduceus (placed on the left and on the right side, with wings and interlaced serpents added). In this way we have an opportunity to observe the mythology in action – in new context but with the message adapted to the perceptions of a contemporary consumer audience.   

We would love to hear comments below about any other variations on this broader theme of how Hermes symbolism has been and is deployed by brands.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Creativity in Business

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

Our understanding of innovation and creativity is accelerating in this age of technology and openness. And from a corporate point of view, there is a thirst for answers … what is the “magic formula” of creativity in business? How do we innovate to maximize profit and competitive potential? How do we do so faster and faster? What is the right management model for innovation? How do we stay true to brand while being open to outside ideas and influences (which have been clearly demonstrated as critical triggers to new ways of thinking and doing)?
 
A New York Times recently published article “The Yin and Yang of Corporate Innovation” by Steve Lohr, reminds of the intrinsic link between identity and creative behavior. The Apple model – “more edited, intuitive, top-down” – versus the Google model – speaking to “the power of data-driven decision-making, online experimentation and networked communication.” 
 
Does great innovation come from play or science? And how significant are the “ways of being” of each of these two brands on talent recruitment?
 
Lohr suggests that invariably, these two different creative archetypes will begin to converge and adapt. The question is, where will it go?

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Monday, January 30th, 2012

 

Open Your Eyes- Nonverbal Communication Is Everywhere!: Using Semiotics to be aware of nonverbal communication using the METTA method

Nonverbal communication is everywhere.  Looking at nonverbal communication from a semiotic perspective, and how each nonverbal cue and element is a sign, such signs are everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.  Juri Lotman calls all the semiotic signs around us the “semiosphere” and if they are everywhere and all around us, it is easy to lose sight of some and also over-emphasize some to the detriment to others.  Additionally, if these signs are everywhere, it is important not just for semioticians to study semiotics, but everyone.

Imagine you are watching a movie and then watching the same movie with the 3D glasses you see above.  Everything is still the “same”, but you see each sign differently.  You become more aware of each cue and element and each becomes more vivid.

My METTA acronym, as used for my research, does that for nonverbal communication- it takes the gestalt nature of nonverbal communication and allows the “whole” to be viewed through the parts that make it up uniquely in that specific situation.

 METTA represents Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance.  This article will briefly explain each through the perspective that in any given interaction, there are numerous nonverbal cues and elements present that affect both you and the other person(s).  Being aware of these cues and elements can help you engage others in a more accurate way you intended to communicate, as well as understand the thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions of others.

Movement- Movement, or body language, is what comes to mind when most people think of nonverbal communication.  Yes, it is very important; however it is just one element.  By the way, if you think body language is 90% of the way we interact with others, I insist you [read this].  Movement includes: hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture, eye gaze and contact, head tilt, head nodding, and body orientation.

Keep in mind when studying and observing body movement, it can be both strategic and non-strategic.  This means, for example, some gestures are done purposely such as crossing your arms to display defiance, while other gestures are done unknowingly such as touching your neck or hair when nervous.

Environment- Easily forgotten and overlooked, this element plays a critical role during interactions.  The environment includes: the location, the room layout and design, distance, and time. Consider the difference of having a meeting at a coffee shop compared to the corporate boardroom and the different ‘message’ it has associated with it. Also, based on where you sit effects the situation too.  Research has shown that people tend to sit across from the other person during a competitive interaction and will sit side by side during a collaborative interaction.  Also the type of table is important- a study I conducted with experienced mediators, professionals who try to help find understanding and work out their differences, prefer to use circular tables compared rectangle tables.

Distance and the space between you and the other person have various meanings based on your relationship with the other person. When determining proper space and distance between people, think about how the last time you encountered a ‘space invader’ and how uncomfortable it felt. 

Chronemics, the study of time, reminds us how important time is based on length, such as how long or short th time is for which you are speaking.  Speaking and listening time length plays a pivotal role in developing rapport.  Consider the difference between making preliminary “small talk” first and going directly into a negotiation before even asking the person their name.  An important metaphor for time is TIME IS MONEY. However do not forget that it is not the only way time is perceived.

Touch- for the majority of my research in haptics, or the study of touch, I limit touch to shaking hands.  Consider the first impression, specifically during professional interactions, you have with another person.  Your handshake is part of your greeting.  Is your handshake bone-crushing or the other end of the extreme, flimsy like a dead fish?  Also, notice how some people will shake the hands of only certain people in room- think about the impression that has on others.

Tone- Yes, the saying “It’s not what you say but how you say it” is incredibly important but it does not mean the actual words are not important.  Research on voice tone has indicated a correlation between decibel level and perception of the speaker lacking confidence, being assertive, and being aggressive.  Tone variance and valence can be subtle yet a great opportunity to understand a person’s attitude and emotion.

Appearance- Often I say the first step to looking good is looking good.  This means putting a genuine effort into your appearance is important as research has shown our first impression is often made prior to speaking.  Dressing inappropriately for the situation does not just mean under-dressing but also over-dressing as well.  Wearing a business suit to an informal meeting could send negative signals just as wearing ripped jeans and thongs (that’s flip flops for my North American audience!) can. 

METTA has helped and still helps me not only with my PhD research but also in the everyday context including my law enforcement work, mediation sessions, consulting jobs, and other daily interactions. Just like when you put on the 3D glasses and the movie’s content doesn’t change but rather gives a clearer, more vibrant picture, the same is true with METTA. The interaction remains the same, however now you will be able to see things in a clearer way that allows you to encode your message more accurately while also being able to decode the nonverbal elements and cues that are present.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Learn more about semiotics and nonverbal communication by following me on twitter: @NonverbalPhD

This article is part of a series for Semionaut.net explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Cathy

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

 

Heads Up Down Under

Where are you?

Since mid-August 2011, along with my husband and our two young chuldren, I've been back from UK in Australia and living in Sydney. Currently we are in Palm Beach, at the tip of the Pittwater Peninsula, approximately 40kms from the CBD (central business district). Renowned for being the rich and famous’ holiday home paradise, at the northern end of the surfing mecca strip that runs all the way down to Manly (40 mins south on the L90 express bus) and the filming location of TV soap ‘Home and Away’ – us Maisanos arrived all white-skinned, smelling of SPF 500 and sought out a reasonably-priced beachside cottage to rent that we remain captive in between the harsh sunlight hours of ten til four daily, enjoying Tin Tin on PS3. So we are not exactly rubbing shoulders with the celebs yet.

With the commencement of the property decline twelve months ago, many Aussies are frantically trying to free up second homes. Neighbouring properties are plastered with large ‘for sale’ boards and according to estate agent reports, are undergoing massive price reductions. For us though, the price tags still beggar belief and we soon feel as fish out of water and a long way from Hastings, East Sussex (our UK home).

Our first four months were spent just south, near Avalon. It’s different again. ‘Posh hippie’ best describes it. Educated, international, married to the surf and sand over 55 set with teenagers looking like the offspring of Hawaii’s watermen.   Intermingled with it, is the ‘Tradie Elite’ – the tradespeople who have cashed in on a decade of renovating homes all over Sydney. Once these two types wouldn’t have lived within a five minute 4×4 drive of each other, but they mingle well and with many people barefoot and/or wearing white floaty kaftans or sleeve tattoos on golden bronzed skin they look alike too.

So why the return to Australia?

There’s nothing like an ageing mum’s illness to call you home for one. The want for our children to experience being ‘little Aussies’ and for us to reconnect with our homeland after ten and a half years living in the south of England.

What have you been doing so far?

I would like to see as much of eastern Australia as possible in twelve months. Whilst yet to step back into paid work in semiotics and ethnography, the home schooling of life in Australia has begun. Travels thus far include Brisbane, Queensland’s Gold Coast, Canberra (the Nation’s Capital) and the New South Wales Central Coast. Yet to return to Melbourne, our home city, but feel that we will save the best for last! Tasmania is an absolute must too.

From your semiotic & ethnographic perspectives what are the immediate changes and continuities that strike you after a number of years away?

·      Lessened tolerance of others (‘she’ll be right mate’, ‘give everyone a fair go’ not as much as one might think – blatant racial and gender discrimination may reside within conversation; Australia has lowest employment rate among western world for employing people with disabilities; no solution for Asylum Seekers)

·      Strengthening of Aussie Dollar has evoked some newfound arrogance: some think the bubble won’t burst, others are less confident. (Beginning to tuck in on the spending. Retail downturn now evident. Brands feeling the hit now – eg. Surfwear giant Billabong stock plunged 44%)

·      The mining sector regarded as the ‘liferaft’ for nation’s economy (but poses serious risk for pristine environments where soil is described as so pure, ‘you could eat it.’)

·      Traffic congestion increase (families now with average 2 to 3 cars; cargo shifting off the railways and onto the roads) 4×4 is king. Driving is aggressive

·      Obesity figures now higher than the US

·      Kids Master Chef massive here

·      Indigenous culture taught in school beyond mere lip service, to understanding regional tribes and native language

·      Skin care clinics and pathology centres line retail high streets

·      Doctors’ consultations cost more! Rebates seem less

·      Surfboards made in China and sold for half the price of Ripcurl and outrage ‘true blue Aussies’

·      Fifteen year drought broke and rains are heavy, often lasting days. Storms are wild. Ligtning blinds. Thunder deafens.

·      Glamour set no longer reside in magazines’ ‘social pages’ but party pages, rarely promoting good causes and fundraising

·      More obsessed with home renovations and housing prices (irony in that Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby has just finished filming here – a story with themes of greed)

·      Twitter, Facebook obsessed (feels even more prevalent than in the UK)

·      ‘Frugal’ and ‘second-hand’ are not words we hear or see written much in articles

·      Seeking out ‘white heritage’ within Australia has developed (eg. Ancestry.com is big; TV series ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My House?’)

And your lingering impressions?

Warm skin; Passersby smiling; Fresh fruit shops; Divine mangoes sold roadside in boxes of 20 for £10!; Rarely feeling apologetic: ‘No worries’ rules in language; Daily ice-cream; A-grade cafés; Free parking still exists in places; New buildings and sculptures within new cityscapes; Minimal to no black worn by cityworkers; Bush blossom; Frangipani petals and Jacarandah blue petals as ground covering; No colds and flus in January and Selleys BBQ wipes products for cleaning the barbie!

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Blue: the grown-up face of green concerns

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 

How best to banish those January blues? By tackling the problem head-on, perhaps, with a brief note on the semiotics of colour.

A recent article in The Economist makes a pertinent observation about the motor industry’s colour of choice when communicating its green credentials – isn’t it interesting that it’s not, well, green? Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and (most notably in the UK at least) Volkswagen all favour blue when it comes to matters environmental.

The colour blue has about as many direct and associative meanings as it has shades, but in the commercial world at least, one thing is clear – when it comes to corporate identity, blue is a safe bet. Among other things, it lends gravitas and austerity to Barclays and a slew of financial services brands; it connotes cool, clear thinking at IBM; and it has become the de facto colour of social networking thanks to its adoption by Facebook and Twitter. In combination, these codes help elevate the colour blue to a potent signifier of collaborative professionalism – what organisation would not want to project that about itself?

A recent brand renaming exercise at a previous agency saw a client spend tens of thousands of pounds over several rounds of research, only to pull the plug, resolving instead to “just stick the existing name in blue”. Blue, it seems, was the only thing that everyone could agree on – when making the right decision seems hard, choosing blue at least mitigates against making the wrong one. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, and neither did the guy who chose to write the logo in blue.

Here in the UK, boardroom scenes in the TV series The Apprentice are colour graded to enhance blueness, presumably in the hope of encouraging audiences to take more seriously ‘Captain of Industry’ Lord Sugar and his pageant of hapless wannabes. Watching the show won’t teach you much about making your way in the workplace, but it will leave you in little doubt that Blue Is The Colour Of Business.

When powerful commercial codes of blueness are yoked to the elemental associations of pale blue with the life-giving forces of water and sky, it is clear why blue should become an irresistible choice for organisations keen to demonstrate that they are serious about getting green. Perhaps the shift to blue is also a belated sign of a cultural change that has been underway for many years. The green movement is growing up: no longer the reserve of a niche of dedicated ‘cabbage patch’ activists, it is now big business, with major organisations increasingly embracing it as a core element in sustainable strategy.

Source: http://thinkblue.volkswagen.com/blue_projects/blue_symphony

 © Tom Lilley 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

6 Theses on Pinkification

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

 

Don't know if you’ve noticed but pink is everywhere in the semiosphere at the moment. There is a glut of lurid slap on every merchandising surface. It hides in typography with grey blue tints and appears as blocks of background colour.

Here are 6 theses on pink:

1.    Pink is the new orange. If the 1990s heralded Orange as the colour of the growth decade and a shorthand for progressive premium quality, is pink the more knowing and complicated hue for an era of sluggish consumption, a less optimistic more jaded shade of the future? Are we following Japan where pink has been the colour of kawaii in a country in hock to saccharine tweeness and where femininity combines the soft mothering and sexualized within broadly the same colour palette?

2.    Pink is the new solicitude. The colour has become a lazy shorthand for cordiality and attunement to customers. It says: ’We are clued in and brand-conscious’. Interesting for me in this context is the dramatic shift from red to bright pink in “For sale” signs in Central London for the post Christmas sales, almost as if the frequency with which struggling retailers place items on discount makes the less shrill and aggressive pink more apt. Pink, shorn of purely girly connotations, is in a very strong position as a default colour; it has arrogated to itself a whole range of communicative contexts. If we use the Roman Jacobson communicative functions framework, currently pink seems to have a footprint that covers the referential (to all the pink connotations of femininity), the conative (hedonistic prodding) and the emotive (the desire to be playful on the part of the communicating entity). It is also very phatic (gregarious contact with the viewer) holding the attention.

3.    Pink is infinitely adaptable. Pink bends the communication context to its corrosive will. It is the dominant colour for the 2012 Olympics where it is used as a neon substitute to signify the electrifying, youthful energy. It is used in other government communications where it would have been frowned upon in previous years, notably in Community Alcohol Partnership, Business Birmingham. It seems to have become the hue of young, consumerist exuberance hue alongside bright yellow for music media titles such as We Love Pop to Viva but is also the colour of choice for magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall uses the same yellow pink colour scheme for his new vegetarian cookbook. Brands such as HMV and T-Mobile use it as their signature colour but it is also becoming more acceptable for luxury brands to use with marques such as Swarovski and Storm using it prominently in recent print advertising Professional services have also fallen for the lure of pink with even upstanding legal firms such as Maitland Walker opting for the colour. Pink seems to be all the rage at the moment – the ultimate backlash against all types of chromophobia.

4.    Pink is becoming more variegated and nuanced in its sub codings for femininity. There is the lurid bright pink of Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Jordan. In this context, pink is the burlesque of knowing, self-parodying play with an alibi and self-empowerment to the earnest livid red of the Mae West striptease. It has become the colour of giddy hedonism. An event called Ultimate Girls’ Day Out, a jamboree of fashion, giggles and make overs – a sort of hen do in a marquee – uses the colour on its website. Then there is the rose coloured pink of vulnerable matronly femininity of such as sanitary towels, pregnancy tests and pessaries. In the UK, Superdrug seems to use pink to position itself as the more girly and accessible alternative to Boots through use of pink. This is pink as squeamish and vulnerable. Then there is the lavender of purple shades of more mature womanhood such as used in the film poster for the Iron Lady. This is pink as imperious, sagacious womanhood, Laura Ashley without the chintz. Again, this is not all startlingly new but as pink becomes more prominent coding of meaning becomes more explicit.

5.    Pink is both the sign of soft, emotionally intelligent masculinity as much as it is aggressive femininity. In terms of the latter, pink has become the testosterone wash of emasculation in a culture of ‘misandry’. In Katie Price’s TV show, one scene showed her forcing male contestants to strip down to lurid pink briefs. The loud, pink office shirt has long been a sartorial signifier of what could be called ‘brave intimacy’. An emergent male quality. Interesting in this connection is the recent emergence of pink as sports strips. Everton FC now have a pink away strip. The Juventus away kit and Stade Français’s rugby team’s shorts are also pink. Does this indicate that pink is on the one hand becoming the new grey and not worthy of notice, on the other a sign of strength?

6.    Pink is contentious and ambivalent in the context of feminism and femininity. It is both the cladding of the new Amazonian media monstrosities mentioned above and the wry, scurrilous spray paint of their detractors. A range of recent books decrying the state of womanhood all use pink – presumably ironically – in the cover art. Living Dolls by Natasha Waters, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy all use pink either as the typeface colour, background or as an accenting colour in their paperback editions. Is pink double coded, or even polysemous or are these authors thwarted by their desire to position their books as current and funky? I fear they’d be upset by the insinuation. There is certainly great ambivalence towards the colour. PinkStinks.org.uk has been set up to expose and excoriate the prissiness, princess culture. Recently on Facebook, there is a popular video showing a little girl astutely decrying the marketing of pink to girls. 

 © Chris Arning  2012

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

The engine electric

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

The rise of the electric car is reinvesting the modernist symbolism of electricity with new meaning.

For example, electric-car symbolism (e.g. Renault, BMW) often uses illuminated urban landscapes to reconnect with the optimism and exhilaration that surrounded electricity in the modernist city.

In the late 19th century, electricity replaced gas lighting in cities, symbolising the urban conquest of night, darkness, and the limitations of nature. It freed city-dwellers from the cycle of day and night which dominated the daily rhythm of their rural counterparts.

Until now, codes of sustainability have largely urged a return to natural finitude. They’ve been all about ‘knowing our limits’, understanding that nothing is endless, and returning to natural, seasonal cycles.

But with electricity promising potential renewability, and thwarting the whole principle of finitude, electric cars are going back to modernist meanings of electricity as infinite and limit-transcending. Ads for electric cars often show glittering cityscapes, or neon signs, rather than the natural environment that’s being ‘saved’.

The cultural interest of this story is such that ‘electricity’, as a theme, is now spilling into other sectors beyond cars. Blackberry’s night bikes campaign

the recreation of the Tron bike

 

and Beyonce’s perfume Pulse

all show that electricity is an idea that’s very much in vogue.

The symbolism of electricity today gives us a 21st-century twist on the 19th-century story of emancipation: a return to a world in which resources are limitless, the lights don't have to be turned off, and there need be no end to the story of modernity and progress.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator describes Gatsby’s house, ‘lit from tower to cellar’ in the middle of the night, as being ablaze like the World’s Fair. This modernist dream of transcending the night – through spectacular and limitless expenditure – seems to be returning in the new cultural centrality of electricity.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

American Masculinity

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

 

American Masculinity, Shown in All Its Angst – by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, published November 30, 2011

In her article, Melena Ryzik notes a theme in movie nominees (starting with nominees for the Gotham Independent Film Awards announced on 28th November 2011): whether struggling single fathers, real-life men searching for their place in history, fictional figures facing uncertain futures, “the existential crises of men” seems to lead the way once again.

Is this a reflection of the lengthy development cycle of films (and therefore, a delayed reflection of what’s really going on in culture)? Or is this simply a reflection of what the author refers to as a Hollywood “brofest”?

Posted in Americas, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | No Comments »

Extimacy

Monday, December 5th, 2011

 

 

The close-up shot is currently a popular visual trope in advertising and media, with examples abounding from all sectors. And as the camera gets closer and closer – in particular, closer and closer to the human face and body – it seems we’re dealing with a new way of saying ‘this is real’.

Brands have long sought proximity to consumers, exploring different ways to express the idea of authentic engagement. But it now seems their quest for authenticity is relying on ever-increasing levels of physical proximity and intimacy.

(Nike homepage)

So what does the physical proximity of the close-up signify? And how does it fit with today’s cultural landscape?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the cultural ascendancy of science is a relevant factor. For personal-care brands in particular, that means a shift away from images of psychological authenticity (confidence, self-expression) towards the representation of physiological detail such as cellular process and biological structure. So the camera needs to zoom in much closer than it has done before.  

This symbolic dimension of the close-up could be dubbed ‘ethical naturalism’: a representation of natural and biological processes that’s far from morally neutral. Instead it’s invested with a sense of awe, placing a burden of responsibility and care with the consumer. ‘See how fascinating and wonderful the skin is – doesn’t it deserve the very best moisturisation?’ Displayed as remarkable phenomena, bodies need to be carefully looked after: the close-up shot of skin or hair implies an attitude of wonder, care and respect.   

 Vaseline’s platform ‘Your skin is amazing’ provides a typical expression of ‘ethical naturalism’, and unsurprisingly, makes extensive use of close-up photography too.

Also driving the rise of the close-up are social media. The close-up is, in a sense, a metonym for social-media culture, symbolising the over-exposure and intimate revelation made possible by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With brands keen to participate in this world, it’s not surprising that they’re using close-ups to ally themselves with it.

Both these approaches to the close-up – ethical naturalism and the rise of social media – can be united under the Lacanian term ‘extimacy’. For Lacan, the most intimate aspects of experience are ultimately external or other to the subject, just as the intimacies of social media and of biological naturalism re-locate inner ‘truth’ externally. Extimacy seems to be one of the key tropes in advertising today, which is finding a new aesthetic focus in the externalisation of the intimate.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Kolaveri Di

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

 

Why this Kolaveri Di? This Tamil-Indian song has garnered  a still snowballing 5.5 million hits  in less than a week of release on 17th November 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR12Z8f1Dh8

The funny thing about a viral is that – like news, it is time-bound, and after the initial buzz, fizzles so completely that you later wonder what it was about. 

Kolaveri is relatable by all – and yet not quite one's own lingo. Most of it is understood yet leaves something incomplete to the Indian imagination.

Tamil is the not-quite-other 'other' to the rest of India. A Dravidian language spoken in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil, and its brethren Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada form the  base of  the regional film industry. With a glancing acquaintance with Northern India's Bollywood, the two worlds rarely come together or collide. They could belong to different planets – going by the stars, sets, stories, music and fans.

Until Kolaveri Di.

The seamless social network  and the vast Indian demographic dividend of the 65% less-than-35-years youth segment have finally made out with one another, cutting across regions. 

In the Indian world mediated as it is by twenty two official languages, Kolaveri uses 'only English' – in Tamil. And this is the patois spoken in more urban homes today. Where the  nouns and adjectives, in English, are strung together by the grammatical 'if’, ‘but’, ‘the’, ‘and’ and ‘is' in the tongue spoken by the parents. ‘Windanu shudda kar de’ (‘shut the window’ – in Punjabi), ‘Moonu-white-u’ (‘the moon is white’  – in Tamil), ‘Bread-e butter dao’  (‘give me buttered bread’ – in Bengali) is what the nextgen feels totally at home in. 

Kolaveri sublimates and air-conditions the stereotypical broken heart, moon, holy cow, white girl with black heart – in Tamlish, and hits the sweet spot at multiple points. Why has this Kolaveri Kolaveri Kolaveri di exploded as an anthem of a cynical youth-gen fed 24/7 through dozens of channels and the internet on an over abundant supply of  West and East – Lady Gaga, Bieber, Antabella, and the now jaded Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Pritam, and worse, Punjabi Bollywood?

Dhanush has given multiple interviews in the last few days expressing surprise at the song's success because he says he is not actually a singer (he is a Tamil film actor and son-in-law of the Tamil super-god-star Rajnikanth). My dad, a Hindustani classical musician, laughs this off. After I got him to hear Kolaveri, (he enjoyed it), he said do not underestimate a South Indian's command over 'sur' (melody) and 'taal' (rhythm). One more of those wonderful beliefs we all live with, north of the Sahyadris. 

The entire filming of the video is as if in the studio – right out of the reality show genre. The expression on the face of the music cast is poker-faced and vacant, not unlike the faces of the artists, waiting in the wings to go on stage of a  highly theatrical and impassioned drama.

For now, let us leave the ensemble reveling in the encore.  

Pa pa pa ppan,  pa pa pa ppan, pa pa ppan ppan pa pa ppan

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence | 4 Comments »

Private Dancer

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

 

As a teacher I dreamed of starting lectures from 2 or 3 different places simultaneously. Then converging in the middle and stopping.  A different approach from beginning, middle & end. Having never followed through then I will now – starting with the Beatles, Kant and cultural materialism.

Last weekend I watched Scorsese’s film Living in the Material World.  With no professional detachment. I grew up in North Wales (not far from Liverpool) to the sound track of the early Beatles so there was emotion & recollection at every turn in the story. Next morning, I woke thinking about: the huge cultural influence of India on the Beatles, especially George; Olivia Harrison’s words on what makes a marriage last (mainly not getting divorced but more, worth hearing), inspiring anyone with bodywork dented by life’s ups and downs; how George, recovering from cancer, survived an assassination attempt more savage than the one on John Lennon. The casual honesty and integrity of the Beatles in their early days.  Viewing media constructs of themselves detachedly as almost autonomous, with puppet lives of their own. Their ability to be themselves and say what they thought (Lennon’s spontaneous comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus).  And in UK today a certain timidity, conservatism, young people constrained again to fit a mainstream ideological mould.  It was also Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, when a minority wear artificial poppies to commemorate UK military deaths. I don’t remember ever wearing one, nor did my older sons (now 25 and 30). But school pressure this year on both my younger children (aged 9 and 11) to wear the symbolic poppies. Pressure also on FIFA from the English football authorities that England should do likewise in their international against Spain at the weekend, with UK government insistence that the poppy was not, as FIFA maintained, a political symbol. How about your own symbolic flower, FIFA, commemorating deaths of civilians globally at the hands of military forces, including British bombers and invaders? I guess, from the official UK viewpoint, that wouldn’t be political either? Enlightenment trajectories in reverse – kids pressed to wear poppies, musically abusive X-Factor culture, pop controlled again by formulaic, super rich middle-aged impresarios as before the Beatles. Slavoj Zizek would say: “It’s ideology, stupid!”

Second point of departure is Zizek’s 2011 discussion with Julian Assange about democracy today. No better antidote to the eroding ideological drip. Zizek’s abnegation of postmodernist jiggery pokery in his endorsement of Wikileaks whistle-blowers risking torture and death to publicise war crimes and human rights outrages.  Done by ‘us’ (from the viewpoint of the US-UK-Israel axis) not by the more familiar manifestations of ‘them’ – be that 24-hour rolling Nazis on the History Channel, historical communism, Islamic extremists or the human rights neglecting contemporary Chinese (let’s occlude Guantanamo and Wikileaks-disclosed outrages for another self-righteous moment).  Zizek and Assange’s clarity about the distortions and cover-ups by mainstream media. What happened to relativism and living with contradictions? Assange’s identification of potentially powerful agents of disruption and change in digital specialists mainstream institutions depend on to implement their strategies and who, informed by online sources and their own networks, don’t share the official media values and ideologies disseminated by and in the interest of those very institutions. Finally, Zizek quoting Kant on ‘public’ versus ‘private’ uses of reason. The ‘public’ being a quest for understanding in the human interest as opposed to ‘private reason’ in which expert knowledge is put to the service of private interests or existing power structures (e.g. expertise in crowd behaviour deployed for controlling demonstrations). Zizek makes the point that the biggest threat to the Judaeo-Christian heritage/Western civilisation today is not, as received wisdom avers, Islam, but. the silencing of public reason – via an assault on disinterested education and research, and increasing emphasis on knowledge/expertise dedicated solely to helping established power and interests work more effectively. Listen to Zizek (about 70 minutes into the film) – he makes this point much more eloquently than I can.

Third point of departure – cultural materialism, specifically the work of Raymond Williams. There’s a potted history of the current commercial application of semiotics originally developed in UK in the early 1990s, where the author introduces Williams's Residual-Dominant-Emergent mapping to the team at specialist agency Semiotic Solutions as a way of analysing trends in brand communications viewed in cultural context  – into what looks dated (Residual), what’s mainstream (Dominant), and what’s new & dynamic (Emergent, with its predictive power to help brands future-proof their advertising and other communication). This became perhaps the most familiar ‘tool’ of the current iteration of brand semiotics. Raymond Williams, a Marxist cultural critic, must have turned in his grave at this piece of conceptual hijacking.  Now something springs from the earth like the hand at the end of Carrie. Added Value’s Sam Barton has sent a preview of his fascinating Masters thesis in Material Culture, on the business of brand semiotics. One of Sam’s many inspiring insights comes from going back to what Raymond Williams actually wrote. In context. the dominant culture “selects and organises” information that comes from outside itself in such a way that it remains current, making it difficult for anyone to think outside its parameters.  The emergent represents new practices outside the dominant, which the dominant will assiduously attempt to transform and assimilate into itself for as long as possible – to arrest the breakthrough into more progressive forms of social and economic organisation. So the applied commercial ‘tool’, as Sam Barton argues, is actually a “brutal inversion” of Williams’s original Residual-Dominant-Emergent formulation – a case study in how the dominant works to arrest a movement towards the emergent. And, one might add in support of public reason, a beautiful and symmetrical example of an ideological appropriation springing around to bite itself in the backside.

Midnight approaches for Faust. “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi”. The show must go on.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Holy Jolie

Monday, November 14th, 2011

She’s celebrity culture’s Mother Goddess – prolifically giving birth and adopting, making space in her family for all the world’s children. And now Angelina Jolie has taken her healing aspirations further with her directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey – in which the main character, a Muslim woman, falls in love with her Serbian rapist.

But in a very public row, the survivors of mass rape in the Bosnian war called for Jolie to be stripped of her title of UN Ambassador of Goodwill, saying that ‘a love story couldn’t have existed in a rape camp’.

I responded to the symbolism made visible in this drama with a performance art piece entitled Holy Jolie. The piece was also inspired by another news story which came out at the same time: a temple in Cambodia, where Lara Croft was shot, was renamed the ‘Angelina Jolie temple’ by its leading monks, in an attempt to save it from ruin.

The combined stories struck a chord for me as an artist born in Bosnia and sensitive to the often absurd power dynamics shaping the realities we live in. In Holy Jolie I combined images of Lara Croft and codes surrounding victimhood to create an impossible temple raised to the modern UN goddess.

On the altar of this archetypal mother-figure, I offered many Bosnian children, ‘more than she ever wanted’. (After the war there were many unwanted children as a result of forced pregnancies in rape camps, recognised by international courts as a crucial part of a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing.)

I wanted to make the point that the shame of rape cannot be transformed into language – least of all into the soothing resolutions of the Hollywood Imaginary. For Bosnian rape survivors, the symbolic blockage is double. First, they can’t talk about their experiences as their trauma lies at the limit of representable human experience. And second, even when they do try to tell their story, no-one, in Bosnia’s patriarchal society, will listen.

As a post-colonial, post-war and deeply traumatised country, Bosnia offers space for international cultural interventions which in other settings simply wouldn’t pass. When Jolie, as a personification of Hollywood power, decided to delve into this subject, she did two things. Firstly, she shed an important spotlight on one of the most traumatic events in European history since the Second World War. But secondly, she disregarded the experiences of thousands of raped women.

Like an elephant in a china shop, this film bursts into a sphere of national trauma, enacting a fantasy of healing and romantic redemption that’s wildly off the mark as a piece of narrative. Predictably enough, Jolie brand power won over the Bosnian cultural elites who were completely smitten by her unexpected appearance at the Sarajevo Film Festival in August this year. Another award was bestowed, while the controversies around the film didn’t even get a mention.

The film that will be offered to mass audiences in December will super-impose Hollywood ideals onto a reality that’s beyond conventional narrative. In my performance, I naively pray to the Goddess to take our shattered pasts and futures and make a good film out of those. I don’t believe the prayer will be fulfilled anytime soon.

 

© Edina Husanovic  2011

Posted in Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Global/Local | No Comments »

Ballad of a Thin Man

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

Who is this guy? What’s he doing on the front page of the Financial Times (29 Oct 2011)? Do look at him in context but please don’t tell me the answer. My inquiry is a rhetorical question in the manner of Roland Barthes's “Who is speaking?” and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain" or "Ballad of a Thin Man".

Why so miserable, mate? Don’t worry, we say idiomatically in England, it may never happen. Sure Zegna’s an Italian brand and the main front page headline on this day (“Italy spoils mood after EU deal”) concerns the threat of the nation joining Greece on the slide to Eurozone default. But even that wouldn’t be as bad as the facial expression suggests. Is this the absolute end of the road for European serotonin depletion culture as a whole, the worst case payback scenario made flesh for all the serial Ecstasy poppers from the old Rave days? Or is Zegna working on a new migraine therapy? Is this what you hold in your bag, so gingerly distant from your new tweed slacks – as if the brown polish that made the shine is as yet imperfectly dried, might still come off and leave a nasty stain? In this same week it was announced that because of Italy’s debt crisis the launch of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s new collection of Neapolitan love songs would be delayed (Silvio famously claims to have learned everything he knows about working a crowd from his time as a singer on cruise ships). Are you an executive at Berlusconi’s record company by any chance? Is that bag full of unmarketable CDs?

Does the seriousness underwrite a Northern rather than a Latin Italianness – Protestant Ethic 24/7 Zegna as the most understated of the Italian luxury brands, safe for the undemonstrative middle-aged business male (NOT Gucci or Versace, almost Jil Sander-like, capable of just about of passing for German if Italy did collapse into chaos and one needed to get across the border quickly)?

Or is this just romantic melancholy/agony, eyes fixed half focused on a lost love, quest, formula – whatever the Absent One is which inaugurates the movement of desire. Out of this torpor is something about to stir and twitch to life? Meanwhile does your resemblance to posh English actor Jeremy Irons when he was younger trigger a protective response in women? Is this why you look like your mum just dressed you, brushed your hair, put the stuff in your hands that looks as if it didn’t belong to you and you’re pretending for some reason it’s not there? Under the coat with solicitously upturned collar (lapel then firmly patted down by maternal right palm) and under the cardigan is there another jumper, this last one tucked neatly into the top of your trousers?  Layers. Jacket belt tightened snug across your tummy. To make sure that nasty headache isn’t made worse by a snuffle or a chest cold? Did they send you away to boarding school too young? Is this mood all about the recoil? Will you show them?  The other front page story, to the left of this picture, is “Cameron argues more women in the boardroom would lead to a curb on pay”. So what’s the game? Does your appealing helplessness qualify you as some kind of feminist icon?

But hold on. There’s a retro vestimentary code working here – an incongruously pristine version of old-style adventurer, explorer, robust masculinity conquering the worst nature can throw at it. Banker as hunter – as here below in a preposterous (are the people this is talking to on mental life support?) FT ad from the same day. Is this what that Zegna far away look’s about? New frontiers, challenges, horizons. Perhaps not. Just a touch too sad, sulky, depressed for that. Did your friends and colleagues stop sponsoring your heroic exploits for charity?  Did they start clicking the button that says “Pay for your own extreme sports holidays and redirect me to where I can donate for social inclusion, fairness and redistribution”?

The branding and the end line: “Ermengildo Zegna – Passion for Life”. So where’s the passion? Are you a metrics consultant? Is this about calibrating intensities of apathy or misery?  Nothing that can't be measured is worth tolerating, remember?  Or is this the contradiction that will spark a new Zegna brand myth? Abject machismo? Eternity measured out in coffee spoons? The effable ineffable? Is this deconstructing how business jargon has battered the word ‘passion’ to an entropic emotional and semantic pulp? A plea to divert the energy out of stereotypical hyperbole and back where it belongs. Give unto the corporation what is the corporation's. Passion for life.

Finally return to look at this in its media context, the front page of the FT. What does it look like? Different there – like an energy oubliette in the bottom right corner, a discordant slate tombstone. A contemporary visual echo of the obituaries that used to appear on the front page of the London Times in the days when today's great private media monopolies were just a glint in Satan's eye. Obituary for what? A way of life? A brand? What is the meaning of this thin man?

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

I often explain, for me, the m