Archive for the ‘Emergence’ Category

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Ophelia Bears Down on Harvey

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

As the last blast of hurricane Ophelia closes in on the Irish coast, blogger, researcher & journalist Brian McIntyre reflects on the cultural significance of the Harvey Weinstein shaming.

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense | 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:
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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.

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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.

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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 »

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 »

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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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…

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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

 

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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 – 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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

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© 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 »

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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
 
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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

Boomer iconicity

Friday, November 4th, 2011

A while back, while working on a side project — an eccentric re-periodization of the Anglo-American generation schema promulgated by pseudo-sociologists and lazy journalists — I realized that Lucy Van Pelt, the crabby "fussbudget" character in Charles Schulz's long-running "Peanuts" comics strip (1950-2000), is a Boomer icon.

How can a fictional character who remained a young child for half a century belong to one particular generation? My reasoning is as follows. The Boomers were born between 1944 and 1953, according to my schema. (True, the demographic post-WWII baby boom began in 1946 and ended in 1964; but I'm talking about a cultural generation.) Lucy's "birth" as a character, in "Peanuts," took place in April 1952 — she was a toddler, at first. Schulz allowed her to rapidly age until she was about eight; by November of '52, Lucy was pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. In the following strip, published in 1962, when the oldest Boomers were 18 years old, notice what Lucy's demand is.

Many of the other "Peanuts" characters (Charlie Brown, Shermy and Patty, Violet, Schroeder) were already eight when the strip began, in 1950-51 — so they're not Boomers, they're members of an older generation. Meanwhile, Sally and other characters who appeared after 1953 are members of a younger generation; they're in the same generation as Douglas Coupland and Billy Idol, so let's call them members (like Coupland and Idol) of the Original Generation X.

Linus and Pig-Pen are the strip's only other Boomers. However, unlike Lucy, who was blessed in the cradle with her cohort's self-absorbed complacency, Linus and Pig-Pen are weirdos, square pegs in round holes. Like a tiny minority of un-self-satisfied real-life Boomers (including Andy Kaufman, Fran Lebowitz, Gary Panter, Hakim Bey, Iggy Pop, Joey Ramone, John Waters, Kathy Acker, and Richard Hell), they don't fit into their own generation. Instead, they belong to a crypto-cohort, which Hell named, in the title track of The Voidoids’ 1977 debut album, the “Blank Generation.”

Back to Lucy, then. In what ways is she an icon of the Boomer Generation?

Pundits — beginning with Christopher Lasch — have described the Boomers as a “narcissistic” generation, and if Lucy is known for anything, its her self-importance, egotism, and vanity. She is constantly demanding that Schroeder or Charlie Brown tell her that she is pretty, and woe to them if they fail to do so. Also her selfishness; she demands to be the center of attention, at all times: "Thank you, dear sister, greatest of all sisters, without whom I'd never survive!" is what Linus must say before she'll give him a piece of toast.

Also like the Boomers as a cohort, Lucy rejects the authority of her immediate elders (hence the football-pulling prank she plays on Charlie Brown) and also sneers at her immediate juniors, of whose creativity and youth she is jealous. Her tremendous self-satisfaction is what Schulz is lampooning in those strips where Lucy sets up a psychiatrist's booth; everyone else, it seems, has a problem that only she can diagnose and fix.

 

As the Boomer cohort, now aged 58 to 67, faces the question of aging, who better to represent their situation than Lucy Van Pelt? After all, the retirement of millions of Boomers will leave the US economy in ruins. We need advice!

In the MetLife (Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.) advertisement shown above, the fictional Lucy gives her real-world, 60something avatar a pep talk. Her message? No matter what the cost to others may be, never release your grip on the football of financial security. Thank you, dear Boomers, greatest of all cohorts, without whom we'd never survive!

Posted in Americas, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | No Comments »

When products speak

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

 

The Alpha Romeo Giulietta tells us ‘I am Giulietta’ at the end of its ads. French Connection’s blouses and bags proclaim ‘I am the blouse’ and ‘I am the bag’. Nikon repeats the trope in its current campaign. And a recent ad for San Miguel lager reveals its narrator, at the end, to be the beer itself. They’re all examples of the rhetorical device prosopopeia – in which inanimate objects are given a voice of their own. 

A similar case is the Peugeot RCZ which ‘chooses’ and ‘owns’ its drivers rather than the other way round. It’s not strictly prosopopeia, as the car doesn’t speak in its own voice. But it’s in the same conceptual ballpark: the object or product becomes a living thing with subjectivity of its own.

Of course, talking, animated products have been bouncing around at the ‘fun’ end of advertising forever – think M&Ms, Cheestrings and Peperami in the UK. But to find this trope in the serious register of high-end advertising might signify a bigger change.

It could signal a break with the consumer-centred brand-led advertising of recent years – in which the subjective experience of the consumer is symbolically central. We know the story so well. Consumers are offered not a product but the return of their own authentic being: a chance to overcome alienation and find themselves in the brand – as in Nike, Dove, Coca-Cola, and countless other examples.

But Peugeot, Alpha Romeo, Nikon, French Connection and San Miguel have all transferred subjectivity from consumer to product in their ads. San Miguel plays on the shift with particular awareness – leading us to expect from the ad yet another tedious and portentous first-person self-description, yet another expression of ‘who I really am’, before surprising us with its relocation of subjectivity in the beer itself.

Perhaps what’s happening here is a reflection of technological advance – and the fact that products are becoming smarter, more intelligent and more sentient by the day. We’re already used to cars and devices that speak to us. Maybe we’re seeing the start of a new relationship between humans and products – in which we need to start listening to what they say.

 

© 2011 Louise Jolly

Posted in Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe | 1 Comment »

From musical score to critical noise

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Composers and sound designers have long treated commercial projects as they would film scores, but in miniature. It’s obvious to see why. Traditional scoring techniques do many things for film and other media. Scoring adds flavour; provides a sense of time and place; magnifies emotion; enhances activity and establishes mood. A mere hint of melody can even frame the present, foreshadow the future, or recall the past.

Scoring also serves the functional purpose of smoothing problematic transitions. It’s as if music possesses a sensory gravity that draws together disparate images, scenes, people and places. A deftly scored experience feels less a sequence of individual events and more like a cohesive, unified work.

Obviously, music is pretty magical stuff, and there is no question that for the modern storyteller, it remains a powerful tool.

Nevertheless, the proliferation of multiple, small portable screens, in tandem with the device-ification of all remaining objects, has changed (and will continue to change) how audiences navigate media. If our smart phones cause a distraction now, what happens when our homes and everything in them also become ‘smart’?

The primary effect is that marketers are increasingly forced to abbreviate narrative, and add brand-to-fan touch points that didn’t exist before (or if they existed, were ignored). Consequently, the notion of story has been stretched to its semantic limits.

Yet one noticeably interesting result of this tectonic paradigm shift has been the curious emergence of a new breed of sonic artisan.

The practice is called audio, music or sonic branding, and many have indeed recast themselves using this nomenclature. Others have adopted related verbal identifiers, but haven't updated their processes, because they think such phrases are simply new ways to give the same old thing a modern twist.

Personally, I believe branding with sound does require a different aural intelligence than is typically accumulated from a film or broadcast media composer’s education or experience. I frame the actual process as the development and combination of micro musical sounds into ‘critical noise’ assets. Unlike most commercial composition, the aim is not to support narrative, but to convey a message.

Rather, we employ sound to reframe an otherwise interruptive transition as an informational transaction. A navigation tone, such as a click of the mouse, for one example, confirms ‘command executed’.  A custom ringtone signals someone you know requests your attention. And a deceptively simple melodic logo has unzipped itself inside your brain. You can't really sing it, but its construction suggests it's bursting with symbolic data.

Indeed, in the same way the purpose and design of a traffic signal is different from painting landscapes, so too is the craft of sonic signification different from composing music to enhance dramatic action. Ironically, branded sound is designed to influence behavior and drive action from a potentially distracted audience, while an action score is composed to delight a passive, receptive audience.

This is why new musical solutions providers require not only musical talent but also the ability to research and analyse extra musical, culturally relevant data. Lacking these skills, we risk conceptual dissonance when our goal is immediate comprehension.

Additionally, these sonic assets are ‘critical’ because in an automated world, they are the first point of contact between a brand and consumer, and therefore increasingly synonymous with another more common signifier: ‘hello’.  

Unlike thematic material, when we use sound as a signifier, we intend to deliver a self-contained and instant communication. Sometimes, in the case of a consumer touch point, we only have seconds to do this. While that is just as hard to do as it sounds, it isn’t without precedent. But first, we have to think like a sonic semiotician.

I was fortunate to produce a 1.25 sec connect tone for AT&T. The communications company wanted to leverage the pause between dial and pick-up to identify itself using a non-verbal connection tone. Impossible? As it turns out, you can actually say a lot in 1.25 seconds. You can say: ‘Provided to by AT&T, a friendly and technologically savvy company.’

To understand how this might actually work, consider the possibility of guessing the title of a song from a snippet. Now, even more amazing, recall how a mere sliver of sound can evoke an emotional response. Anger, Love, Sadness, Joy. It quickly becomes evident that even a button-sized musical solution has the power to fulfill a marketing objective. And because branded sonic assets are often wordless, they become especially advantageous assets across a multinational customer base.

Of course, traditional film scoring techniques will continue to contribute to our enjoyment of stories. However, marketers will increasingly rely less on scoring and more on critical noise solutions that can guarantee immediate brand signification as a means to fulfilling a communications strategy or marketing objective.

In other words, the intelligent application of sound is more important than ever.

 

© 2011 Terry O’Gara

Read more about critical noise on Terry's blog.

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

Just Radical Enough

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

 

Banca Cívica is a recently created Spanish bank, originally an offshoot of the semi-public regional savings bank, Caja Navarra (CAN), which itself became well-known through its policy of allowing its customers to choose which charity would benefit from the interest accrued on their money (a first in Spain). However, while remaining linked to its mother institution, Banca Cívica has become a self-standing bank, which suggests that CAN is trying to expand beyond the limits imposed by its regional identity.

This (below), I believe, is a representative sample of Banca Cívica’s introductory campaign.

The campaign is mostly text-based, using messages in a typography and colours that imitate urban graffiti – so convincingly, in fact, that many people have taken them for actual graffiti. It should be however noted that this is ‘tasteful’ graffiti – words are correctly spelt, and the colours are Banca Cívica’s corporate colours – pink and purple, remarkable in themselves given their feminine connotations, quite unusual in the banking industry. This feminine connotation is no doubt connected to the way in which Banca Cívica defines itself as an organisation that is ‘different from other banks’ in its social concerns and its transparency.

In addition, the typography used to imitate graffiti does not resemble any forms usually  employed by graffiti artists, but rather is partially reminiscent of the typographies created by Spanish avant-garde designer, David Delfín, and ultimately of the source from which many Spanish designers have drawn, directly or indirectly: Javier Mariscal, well known for his thick traits and naive, child-like visual style.

Obviously, Banca Cívica’s target audience is not the graffiti artist demographic. But its target audience – 30 to 40-year-old urban upper-middle class – can aesthetically identify with a softer, more chic and palatable version of graffiti. Likewise, Banca Cívica provides a ‘non-radical’ version of solidarity and cooperation with which middle-class professionals can feel comfortable: the message being that capitalism is not incompatible with social concerns (in fact, this is the idea at the core of the entire notion of Corporate Social Responsibility).

An index of this ‘capitalistic’ conception of cooperation is the emphasis placed by the campaign on the first person singular: “I should be able to decide which charity”, “They should tell me how much they make from MY dough”. This is a trait which Banca Cívica inherited from CAN’s breakthrough strategy of allowing its customers to decide exactly which charities to sponsor. And again in Banca Cívica this trait signals a considerable difference both with respect to other banks and with respect to other organisations dealing with social problems, such as NGOs. The idea seems to be that the same individualistic, self-interested and demanding attitude that a bank’s customers have with regard to their own money can be applied to a bank’s social action: that transparency and customer choice also apply to charity. Banca Cívica’s campaign is meant to visually encode this idea by means of an aesthetic which can be described as alternative but not too much so – (relatively) innovative but not in a radical (i.e. threatening) way.

© Asunción Álvarez 2011

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

The politics of friendship

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Google Plus, posing a challenge to Facebook, puts a different cultural model of friendship centre stage – highlighting the political and constructed nature of friendship itself.

Facebook, broadly speaking, applies a democratic model of friendship. As with democratic politics, the idea here is to accumulate friends (read ‘votes’): the more, the better. Number is important – as with the democratic politician who needs to win elections. And friendship is about the crowd or network: the critical mass that brings power, recognition and validation in a democratic society.

As part of this system, all friends are equal. There’s nothing to distinguish the best friend from the long-forgotten acquaintance on a person’s Facebook page. The friendship group is an abstract accumulation in which every name carries the same apparent value.

But friendship isn’t always a classless society. What about the rigorous hierarchy children introduce into their friendship networks – where there’s a ‘best friend’, a ‘second-best friend’ and even a ‘third-best friend’? These intricate distinctions may fade as we mature beyond the age of five, but friendship remains tiered.

Aristotle believed that friendship involved inevitable acts of selection, inclusion and exclusion – and that true friends are rare. He also described the principle of ‘testing’ in friendship, which, to prove itself, has to survive ordeals and difficulties over time. It’s a minimising way to approach social life, at odds with Facebook-style accretion.

In fact, set against these ideas, the quantitative perspective on friendship tends to cancel itself out. Paradoxically, ‘many friends’ can end up meaning ‘no real friends’. According to this political view, a long list of Facebook friends would symbolise not strength but a weak, diluted social base. Friendship is instead signified by rarity and scarcity – the ‘select few’.

In democratic societies, however, there’s an in-built suspicion of the idea of the ‘select few’, which tends to be denigrated as the clique, coterie or cabal (all coded ‘aristocratic’). But it’s back – in Google Plus’s alternative take on social networking which applies just this model.

With its Circles and Huddles, Google Plus puts the selectivity back into friendship. And while its overt discourse centres on privacy – different audiences for different information – its boundaries also bring with them the more troublesome ‘unspoken’ of preferential hierarchies and exclusions. Do classical friendship structures inevitably end up conspiring against the codes of democracy?

Title and Aristotle references from Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship (1994)

Mark Vernon's essay on the uneasy relationship between friendship and democracy

Marmite plays with the idea of the 'select few'

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | No Comments »

Decoding Reality TV

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

 

Where did the Animal Planet network get the idea for Pit Boss, a series about little people who rescue mistreated pit bulls? According to a 2010 Multichannel News story, the network relied on a study, titled Truth Culture Decoder: Inventing Reality, which "uses a research methodology called semiotics — mostly used in consumer product development to study cultural trends — to help networks better predict the chance of success or failure of reality shows."

The Truth Culture Decoder was the brainchild of brand strategist Linda Ong (a former senior vice president of marketing at Oxygen) and semiotic brand analyst Scott Hamrah, who together form Truth Consulting. Ong tells Multichannel News that the TCD can be "a tool for networks to better hone into the trends that consumers are gravitating to on the reality front." (Full disclosure: The author of this post is a former colleague of Hamrah's.)

In the case of Pit Boss, which will return for a fifth season (at a rate of two seasons per year) on January 2012, the insight gleaned from the TCD, says Animal Planet president and GM Marjorie Kaplan, is that "people are looking to reconnect with their deeper, truer selves through the natural world, and animals are a medium for that." This summer, Ong and Hamrah released a Summer/Fall 2011 edition of the TCD. Its tagline: "Analyzing over 600 Unscripted Shows Across 40+ Networks. Now with NEW Decoder Index Scoring System."

For more evidence of the TCD's influence on reality TV, read Linda Ong's Simple Truth blog. In a 2009 blog post, she announced:

"Parts cultural anthropology, trend forecasting and cool hunting, semiotics research has long been used by consumer product behemoths to guide product development and package design. But media companies have yet to embrace this methodology. The ones that do will build their brands and drive programming, marketing and sales – because they'll know what consumers are often unable (or unwilling) to articulate via traditional methods.

We may not be able to read minds. But we can see the signs."

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | No Comments »

For the love of lycra

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Superheroes, cyclists and Trekkies all have one thing in common. Spandex. An inconspicuous anagram of ‘expands’ (though rightly so, since the fibre can reportedly stretch – prepare yourself – up to six hundred percent!!), spandex was invented by a man called Joe Shriver at DuPont in 1959. In the UK, it is almost generically referred to as Lycra. But the assumption superheroes wear spandex isn’t quite right. And that’s not because Batman, these days, wears Kevlar.

The earliest superhero comics (such as Superman in 1938) actually pre-date the invention of spandex by two decades. Dupont did, however, have a nice line in nylon stockings round about that time. Captain America’s patriotic array (1941) perhaps owes more to the tradition of hosiery than even he’s been told. Along with super-heroes and heroines, glam metal bands (Queen, Van Halen, Bon Jovi) and travelling contortionists have all helped stretch and sling spandex and its (usually aggressively trademarked) sibling incarnations off the historical trajectory and out towards the wastepaper basket of clothing history.

Except they haven’t. Not nearly. The re-birth of the contemporary Flandrien (or so s/he’d like to think) and its brutal alter-ego the ‘lycra lout’ has anorak-flashed spandex into the eyeballs of an unsuspecting British public once again. What maddens so many people – cyclists and non-cyclists alike – about this trend is the ludicrous aroma of accomplishment that somehow wafts from inside a vacuum-packed bicycle tight out on public parade. Men in Lycra will limb around art galleries and buy sandwiches ‘to stay’ and fetch kittens from trees and they’ll do it all wearing groinal cling-film that manages off-puttingly to show precisely nothing and absolutely everything at exactly the same time. It’s hard to launch a complaint against that kind of contradiction.

But the world of spandex is a wonderful and diverse place. Spandex also lies at the apex of contemporary culture’s anxious compounding of sex and idiocy (Diesel and American Apparel ad campaigns are a case in point), and the normalisation of the fetish that underlies the strange success of Zentai (full-body, skin tight garments that will help you look like Morph from Take Hart without the eyes). There’s a video out there that shows a pitch-invader in an all-green Lycra bodysuit outrunning six lunging security guards and escaping through a small panel at the side of the park held open for him by – wait for it – a compatriot dressed in an all-yellow Lycra bodysuit! I don’t advise you look it up, but I expect you will anyway.

The most interesting examples of contemporary spandexification, though, are those where the material breaks free of its functional imperative and holds its easy-on-easy-off knickers up to the wind. Spandex (or something like it) overlaps with art and architecture in Ernesto Neto’s colourful, tensile installations and Agata Olek’s crocheted fibre-art. Jean Nouvelle’s Serpentine Pavilion (2010) ended up as a sort of three dimensional awning, and solar canopies have an important role to play in the future of squeaky green dwelling. There’s Richard Serra’s wafer-thin boundary installations, too.

So we’re in for a stretchy future, and I for one am bloody excited. Not that I want city folk on their way to the office to carry on dressing like Alberic Schotte. I think they’ve met their match in the Zentai warriors anyway. The Zentai don’t take themselves too seriously, always seem to have anonymous pals around the corner, and are surprisingly sneaky considering how conspicuous they really ought to be. Practically the opposite, then, of Mr Specialized Allez. I’d call for a public ruckus, but a skirmish with so little friction would be too unsettling to properly enjoy.

© Gareth Lewis 2011

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

Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

This is about seeing Las Vegas through Antipodean eyes. I grew up in UK and I’ve been in New Zealand for thirteen years; I have bias. My move to New Zealand gave me new software. I’d like to show you the value, often overlooked, of reading culture ‘superficially,’ to deconstruct and then take the ‘superficial read’ more seriously.

Kiwis (New Zealanders) have a phrase ‘it’s bloody pointless.” They use it with gusto and pride when laughing at what they perceive as pretence. (For example excessive displays of wealth or the sight of an LA woman carrying a dog in a handbag.) New Zealand’s early pioneering history was all about celebrating being canny, frugal, cunning and almost mean. It took three months for ‘the boat’ to arrive in New Zealand from England with supplies. Being adaptable and making things work was an essential life skill. New Zealanders are uncomfortable about shows of wealth or excess – even today national heroes are understated and All Blacks (the iconic New Zealand rugby team) are often seen as ‘wooden’.

So as a by now cultural if not ethnic New Zealander, I look at Vegas for the first time and say “ it is big and mad, a party town designed for no reason in particular.”  I say the casinos are insane and all those clichés seem true. The place is like the postcard – what a pleasant change. In fact, it is more extreme when you get there – the signs are bigger, the scale is bigger and there are more people. A Kiwi read would be: “it’s even more flash than I thought””. To the average New Zealander the excess compared to the down to earth nature of home seems unnecessary, ridiculous, alien – yet irresistible.

As a semiotician one looks at Vegas and quickly makes some simple observations. I am not going to say anything revolutionary or challenging, Rather I want to remind us of what Vegas means to many of us.

Vegas is magic at many levels: money magic, impossible civilisation, the deification of money and the cult of the celebrity. We are used to working for money; as a result instant wealth is magical. Vegas means impossible civilisation, an ‘unplace’ place – an urban oasis in the desert. Vegas means everyday opulence. The sheer scale of the copies of global symbols (e.g. a third scale model of the Eiffel Tower) and the size of the casinos is abnormal and yet I got used to it. Vegas appears to deify money. The casinos use signs that remind us of Greek temples. They mimic an archutectural design language of authority. Vegas is also awash with celebrities and celebrity status. An anchor for all of this is gold – as internal decor signature for casinos and symbol for winning big.

For New Zealanders gold has different cultural connotations, which can help us understand their perception of Vegas as “bloody pointless”. “Good as gold”, for Kiwis, communicates the trustworthy, steady, everyday nature of gold as something that was part of the early society of mining towns. The phrase is often to compliment someone who does what they say. “I’ve done X”, reply “Good as Gold.”  New Zealand, like parts of the West Coast of America, had a gold rush.  In the early mining days gold was to be trusted in a hostile world. Early mining museums portray the extremely difficult circumstances early miners endured in mining settlements in and around Arrowtown. It appears the idea of gold as glamour or striking gold never took hold as strongly in New Zealand society. (Look, for example, at http://www.destination.co.nz/arrowtown/)

Hopefully the superficial Kiwi response “it’s bloody pointless” has more significance for you now. At the same time this short phrase summarises so much depth for New Zealanders, who communicate much with so little. Kiwiss aren’t ones for complex wordplay which can be taken to indicate that they aren’t as ‘deep’. it’s fair to say this stereotype of Antipodeans as more basic, at some level, holds true for most Western cultures. And the male language of behaviour in New Zealand is indeed about a doing which is much more important than saying. Many New Zealand men, for example, ‘do friendship’ rather than ‘say it’ – more Peircean groundedness than Saussurean arbitrary signification.

Western culture encodes at many levels an insidious mutually exclusive opposition between the ‘basic’ and the ‘deep’, privileging the latter term, But ‘basic’ or ‘superficial’ is a different kind of semiotic language – and it takes a time to understand.

Winner of the Hugo Boss Art Prize Hans Peter Feldman standing in front of $100,000 pinned to gallery walls

At a macro level, I have a hunch that the meaning of money is evolving as it becomes less tangible. So the idea of Vegas being pointless, at some level, means money is pointless. (Vegas = Gold = Money.)  George Ng commented on the Linked In Semiotic Thinking Group that Graeber turns the history of money on its head. Unlike the way economists view history, where most accept that first come barter,then money, and later credit, Graeber's contention is credit existed first then came money as a means to break up credit into smaller parts, which then led to social practice of bartering.

Since first developing these thoughts I’ve become aware of a company setting up a global barter system (http://www.recipco.com/) to make use of the idle excessive resource available to companies globally. It could be said that if they succeed they are changing the meaning of bartering from something done in Moroccan markets to something more corporate and respectable. Money will be replaced by the true direct measure of the resources themselves. If that happens, we face a new world order and money, truly will be pointless and perhaps Kiwis will have the last laugh on Vegas. “Money will be bloody pointless”. But what resource will winning casino chips get you there? Don’t we just replace one currency with another?

© Jake Pearce  2011

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Dynamic essentialism

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Until recently, the beauty category has been all about dualist metaphysics – constantly reworking the Cartesian opposition between mind and matter, culture and nature.

One main strand – exemplified by ‘disciplinarian’ brands like L’Oréal or Pantene – gives us beauty as the conquest of nature. Here, the brand performs the role of aesthetic policeman, whipping into shape nature’s unruly materiality.

Then there are the opponents of this approach – the likes of Dove – who flip it on its head, calling for the liberation of natural imperfection from culture’s rigid standards.

On the surface, there are two radically different stances here: the one pro-culture, and the other pro-nature. But in fact, both perspectives operate within the same metaphysical arena. Neither challenges the view that nature is raw and imperfect, while culture has the monopoly on aesthetics and form.

Today, that’s changing. Many brands now talk about continuity between nature and culture, moving towards an idea of aesthetic form as inherent to biological process – not as the superimposition of an external template.

As an example, we could take the rise of intelligent or adaptive foundations, often described as drawing out skin’s immanent beauty, rather than masking nature with a cultural overlay. Here, nature doesn’t precede art: it’s already art – just needing a little activation or elucidation.

This development sees beauty break with Cartesian dualism to find a new philosophical source in Spinoza. For this 17th-century metaphysician, there’s no opposition between nature and culture, only a single Substance that expresses itself in different ways.

Spinozan Substance can become thought or physical process: it doesn’t matter, as both follow the same patterns and dynamics, playing out on the same plane. And every mode of the Substance, whether it’s an idea, a person or a ‘skin type’, never stops trying to be itself as fully as possible, rather than pursuing an external ideal.

This idea of fullness of expression, rather than perfectionist teleology, has also become key in beauty symbolism. Beauty language now talks more about ‘revealing’ than ‘improving’ – as in the Spinozan idea that every mode of the Substance strives solely for the full expression of itself, not for externally-driven transformation.

But while Spinoza does give us essentialist metaphysics, he certainly wouldn’t have gone for Dove-style essentialism, which involves a static, anti-aspirational idea of ‘real beauty’ (self-acceptance, flaws and all).

Instead, his is a dynamic essentialism, in which essence constantly strives and aspires, but only to become more and more fully itself.


© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence | 2 Comments »

Structured eternity

Monday, August 8th, 2011

From the ancient quest for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ to today’s databases of digital death and afterlife services, we have been looking for creative ways to address the possibly biggest concern of mankind: transience.

This year’s Orange prize winner Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, as well as HBO’s hit TV series True Blood are just two prominent examples tackling the timeless curiosity and mystery surrounding death and myths of the afterlife from a contemporary viewpoint. If John Keats were to battle mortality today the same way he did two centuries ago, he would probably be tweeting profusely.

“The fact of the matter is that all of us today are creating a [digital] archive that’s something completely different than anything that’s been created by any previous generation,” Adam Ostrow points out in his TED talk After Your Final Status Update, in which he discusses the posthumous potential of the vast collection of posts and tweets we’ll leave behind us.

Besides mentioning existing online services that can arrange to deliver your prewritten notes, emails, posts or tweets after you die, he proposes an Artificial Intelligence system that could process the vast amount of digital content in one’s lifetime, resulting in a robot that would be able to continue living a life of its own after the person’s death.

However, how much of the digital content we create is actually an airbrushed version of our true selves? Not only do we strive to portray a consistent and well structured brand of ourselves online, our digital identities across various social platforms may vary depending on who is watching i.e. following.

What underlies this concern for digital reputation may well be a worry about losing control over it. Perhaps there is some awareness of the digital afterlife underlying the immediacy of sharing content, while privacy concerns reflect a fear that our social media interaction may be posthumously revealed like famous writers’ correspondence when we can no longer control it.

Taking Ostrow’s proposal for a digital ‘reincarnation’ in the shape of AI robots, what we are actually controlling could be a form of evolution, with or without us realising it. In fact, the House M.D. episode Private Lives is based on the assumption that even in the digital world “everybody lies,” by omission or otherwise, including the avid bloggers that seemingly give account of everything that goes on in their lives.

Hence, when we, consciously or subconsciously, decide to filter certain aspects of our life in the design of our preferred digital selves, we are dictating the features of a digital afterlife that could take our place in the shape of a robot or otherwise.

Yet, at the dawn of the Semantic Web, which will be able to create and interpret meaning independently of human intervention, it’s uncertain whether we’re as much in control as we think. Paradoxically, we may be creating self-sustaining ontologies able to assume a life path of their own.

In conclusion, the easier it becomes to leave an abundance of digital footprints, the more we are drawn into the anxious pursuit of perfection, restlessly structuring, multiplying and modifying our digital identities. Now we need to be even more careful – they may end up replacing us.

© Sandra Mardin 2011

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 Comments »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning  2011

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

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

 

July 2011

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

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

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Rebooting

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

 

In recent years, I've stumbled frequently upon a fascinating, somewhat difficult-to-read trope in US pop culture and edgier communications. It's an expression of a peculiar attitude vis-à-vis bygone social and cultural forms and norms, trends and fashions, movements and pop culture franchises — one which was far less common 20 or even 10 years ago.

This perspective on past forms and norms isn't nostalgic — i.e., though it admires the past, it doesn't do so earnestly. Underpinning expressions of this trope we do not find the notion that we're living in the aftermath of a lost Golden Age; the present, it seems, can hold its own against the past. Nor is this perspective or trope ironic — i.e., the past isn't celebrated with an edge of mockery or wink-wink knowingness; the present isn't valued more highly than the past. Neither earnest nor ironic, this mode of grappling with and making use of the past is best described as serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious.

Call this perspective or trope rebooting. Unlike nostalgia, which puts past forms and norms on a pedestal, and unlike retro, which reanimates an antiquated trend or style and forces its spiritless corpse to shuffle about pathetically (the technical term for which is kitsch), rebooting revives the spirit of past forms and norms, trends and styles — taking them seriously enough to make them relevant and contemporary… while playfully deconstructing, recontextualizing, and misappropriating them. I've mused aloud about the philosophical implications of rebooting elsewhere; here, I'll just point to a few examples of what I mean.

1. Rebooted pop-culture franchises like Batman Begins, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek. These recent movies aren't nostalgic, nor are they ironic. They are serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious. They celebrate the spirit of their originals, without succumbing to the anxiety of influence or seeking to establish a (mocking) protective distance. (Note that DC Comics is about to relaunch every single one of its titles — each beginning with issue #1.)

2. The artwork of Shepard Fairey, from his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" viral sticker campaign to the Obama "Hope" poster, appropriates the style of 20th-century political agitprop in way that is neither earnest nor ironic. [See images at top of post.] "I don't want to demean anyone's struggles through casual appropriation of something powerful — that's not my intention," Fairey has explained. His serious-yet-playful, playful-yet-serious approach is deeply unsettling; he has many critics. Like a more engaged Warhol, Fairey rejects the unspoken assumption that an artist must be original.

3. This Ben Sherman ad, which playfully references the suspenders-wearing style of the 1980s ska fad, without mocking that trend or earnestly glorifying it.

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Making Sense | 2 Comments »

Not so innocent

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The on-going trend for Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations is unmistakable. After Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, versions of Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and Jack and the Beanstalk are all in the offing.

The rediscovery of fairy tales clearly draws much of its lifeblood from the recent vampirecraze. But the fairy tale is as much about nature as it is about the supernatural: woodlands as well as witches play a starring role. And its revival reflects, not just an on-going taste for the otherworldly, but a change in the way we symbolise nature itself.

Film adaptations such as Red Riding Hood draw out the darker and more disturbing facets of the fairy-tale genre, moving away from Disney childishness and schmaltz into a sexualised and sinister register. In doing so, they echo the darker ‘naturalness’ coming to the fore in the wider cultural context.

When the idea of naturalness first became big in branding and marketing, it was very much about being clean and pure – no evil toxins or hidden nasties. Here, nature is sweet and childlike: an escape from the moral and physical pollution of urban life. The brand name ‘Innocent Drinks’ says it all, as does the stream of naturalness advertising that uses childish fonts and a faux-naïf copy style.

But emerging naturalness brings out a darker and more powerful vision of nature – akin to the sinister woods of Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood.

For instance, natural beauty products no longer have to be about pretty, attractive sensorials or pure, innocent symbolic framing. Extreme, challenging or even toxic ingredients are coming to the fore: snail gel, mushrooms, snake poison and bee sting venom all feature in recently-acclaimed products.

As with film’s current interest in the not-so-innocent fairytale, naturalness may well be returning to darker sources in northern European magic and shamanism. And this in turn reflects an environmental politics which asks people to rediscover their own natural environment: to stay at home, walk in their own woods, and look to their own local and seasonal traditions.

Of course, the escapist faux-exotica of brands like Herbal Essences is still around. But it now sits alongside an idea that the rotting mushroom or potent berry may be more effective and transformative still than the imported tropical fantasy or regressive Edenism.  

It’s clear that the cultural view of naturalness has taken on a darker edge, no longer just pretty and pure, but powerful and morally ambiguous. Like the fairytale, it walks a tightrope between the toxic and the therapeutic, rather than offering simplistic ‘cleansing’ from urban dirt.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | No Comments »

Local Alternatives

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Spring is at its height and the beer brands’ battle for the consumer mind and throat is becoming ferocious in Bulgaria. Here I’d like to look at two much discussed advertising campaigns. One is based on a clever idea realised by the Shumensko brand, part of the Carlsberg company portfolio, The other is a more problematic ad – for Zagorka, owned by leading Dutch brand Heineken. What the two campaigns have in common is a global-local axis of interest, but explored through very different signifiers. 

Nowadays neither of these brands remains exactly Bulgarian in terms of ownership but both still play to a local image and values included in it.  The flagship brands of the two owner companies – Heineken, on the one hand, Carlsberg (and Tuborg) on the other, feature ads that are recognizably international rather than local, deploying global codes of cosmopolitan lifestyle, football, music etc.

The plot of the current Zagorka ad demonstrates that almost everything that surrounds us in our everyday life in Bulgaria comes from different parts of the globe – the jeans are American, the boss is a Spaniard, the car is German.  And you actually interact with the whole world from morning till evening but at the end of the day you can enjoy the ‘Bulgarian’ beer. The slogan tells us that Zagorka is “a Bulgarian beer of world-class quality”.  Here we can see the direction of meaning creation moving from the global towards the local. The key signifier (see the picture, above) is an ordinary guy of today, who lives his life participating in a globalized world. Whether globalisation is right or wrong, if we accept it or disapproved of it , is not at issue here. It exists and the ad reflects that.

But something has clearly gone wrong in the attempt to communicate this message positively. Some forum and blog comments online have been scathing in their criticism of Zagorka’s approach to spreading the ‘local’ message.  It is well known that this is an old Bulgarian brand but now under foreign ownership and a local exemplar of globalisation. Zagorka has struggled in recent years and changed it campaigns, having prior to that deployed forceful (implicitly nationalistic) signifiers of Bulgarian identity and pride (see for example this execution from around 2006). There seems to be something at once half-hearted and intriusively exploitative about the current attempt to get the best of both worlds in relation to the global-local dichotomy. It doesn’t ring true. The protagonist doesn’t even look Bulgarian.

It was no surprise then, and very much in keeping with the drift of the online discussion, when an alleged forerunner of this ad was recently spotted on YouTube – using the same plot for another Heineken brand in the Slovakian market some years ago. Of course, the average consumer is not so anxious about the origin or the originality of the ad but undoubtedly any remaining engagingness the campaign might have had has been further compromised by the publicity around this. Here apparently is a potential formula for mechanically reproducing ‘localness’ globally wherever you go – and with its disclosure in Bulgaria a sense of anything authentically ‘local’ about the communication may have left the stage altogether.

The case of the Shumensko spot demonstrates the reverse direction of meaning creation – from local towards global. Drawing on the great success of Facebook in Bulgaria this ad connects the idea of people’s togetherness implemented in this virtual context with the social life in which a beer has played its part for many years now. So using black-and-white visual codes of the silent movie, Shumensko communicates tradition through a series of scenes from Bulgarian social life in the early 20th century – making humorous comparisons between these and Facebook activities such as ‘changing profiles’ (5 or 6 men are in serious fight), ‘joining an interest group’ (men plotting a rebellion), ‘writing on someone’s wall’ (two guys relieving themselves against Petrov’s factory wall). And so on. In relation to this last detail, there is something about a beer ad which shows two men outdoors pissing against a wall which, in defiance of all bland lowest common denominator global communication codes, triumphantly signals time, place, authenticity, comradeship, down to earth humour and a sense of the local which feels at the same time universal in its comic scope.

The spot finishes presenting people with thumbs up and the slogan: “Shumensko – The Bulgarian social network since 1882”. This hits the bull’s eye. Where Zagoska’s falters while attempting something similar, Sumensko achieves consistency, cohesion and texture in combining the global with the local – using local history, the brand’s tradition and presence in the local market and the Bulgarian success of Facebook to assert a localness which is confident and at ease with itself. All held together by a humour which is straightforward, locally sensitive and nuanced – and a dominant code everywhere communicating a relaxation and friendship for which beer is one of the best-loved universal signifiers.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011

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

Chapter 100

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

While Elton John has described Lady Gaga’s single ‘Born This Way’ as the ‘gayest song ever’, others aren’t so happy with it.

Ben Trott and Arturo Garcia, writing on the UK news site www.guardian.co.uk, accused the pop diva of betraying her commitment to the construction of gender and sexual orientation with a song that’s all about nature and authenticity – the way you’re born, rather than the performative choices you make.

It’s easy to see why the writers should feel this way. Lady Gaga represents many postmodern tropes that, for many, make her the inheritor of the Madonna-Kylie lineage. Her focus on costume, theatrics and self-creation seem to shout ‘postmodernism’ loud and clear. And if she’s a postmodern diva, all about identity play and self-construction, what’s she doing singing about being ‘born this way’?

But another look at her work shows that, in fact, she’s making a radical break with postmodernism.

First and foremost, she’s breaking with postmodern irony. Like Madonna and Kylie, she’s all about theatre and performance. But unlike them, she’s not interested in ironic role play and cultural citation. While Madonna ‘did everything with a wink’ (to quote her own phrase), Lady Gaga returns art to life-and-death seriousness.

When things go wrong on the Lady Gaga stage, they’re not hidden away or ushered back stage. If her feet bleed from dancing in high heels, or she falls off a grand piano, we hear about it. These failures and sufferings are integrated into her act, and into her myth, rather than glossed over as accidental misfortunes.

For Madonna and Kylie, performance is about professionalism: slick, perfect, ironic and managed. In contrast, for Lady Gaga, it’s about blood and guts, stumbles and falls, life and death. It’s become a well-known Gaga commonplace that, for the singer, there’s no such thing as ‘off stage’. She’s ‘always on’, living her art, grafting it into the visceral immediacy of life rather than playing with ironic citation and distance.

Another example is the performer’s Rilke tattoo, which reads: ‘in the deepest hour of the night, confess that you would die if you were forbidden to write’. Unsurprisingly, it’s been ridiculed as one of the most pretentious celebrity tattoos ever.

But the tattoo is significant in the light of her post-postmodernist performance mission, fitting in with her quest to return art to the life-and-death matter it was for 19th-century absolutists of the aesthetic (such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud or Wilde).

Returning now to ‘Born this Way’, it all makes much more sense. The psychedelic horror code of the video shows alien entities being born from slimy pulsating vaginal forms – indicating there’s nothing ‘natural’ about birth in Lady Gaga’s world. Instead, for her, birth is about artistic creation: the revelation of the radically new, and the emergence of unprecedented and unconstrained representational forms.

The same idea comes through in her mission statement, ‘The Manifesto of Little Monsters’. Here, she claims: ‘We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be, or to become, in the future.’

In the manifesto, as throughout her work, Lady Gaga invites fans into a limitless field of representational possibility, which she messianically terms ‘the kingdom’. And as part of this process, she’s constructed a new relationship to image that’s about futurity and birthing (moving away from the citationality and ‘retro fixation’ typical of postmodernism).

So Lady Gaga is significant today for bringing back an absolutist relationship to art, image and representation – moving these concepts away from retro irony, and towards futurity and revolution.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Link

Read the full text of Lady Gaga’s fan manifesto at
http://ladygaga.wikia.com/wiki/Manifesto_of_Little_Monsters

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

Enter the Samurai

Monday, April 25th, 2011


 

Wristwatch advertisements found in glossy magazines depict their male (and, in the case of tennis players like Maria Sharapova, female) subjects as modern samurai, of the type described in H.G. Wells's A Modern Utopia.

The protagonist of that 1905 science-fiction novel describes "certain men and women of a distinctive costume and bearing" who constitute an austere order charged with directing world affairs from behind the scenes. The samurai, "with faces strengthened by discipline and touched with devotion," are doctors, lawyers, engineers, authors, and other accomplished men and women; they wear simple black clothes, and travel the world lightly. In ads for watches manufactured by Tag Heuer, Bulova, and Breitling, we find today's samurai posed in airports and lofts and streets that could be anywhere in the world; they are ready for whatever happens.

Now comes a blog, Everyday Carry, dedicated to "a lifestyle, discipline, or philosophy of preparedness." EDC's readers submit photos of those small items and gadgets which they wear or carry on daily basis, whether to manage common tasks or for use in emergency situations. The astonishing panoply of minitools, cameras, flashlights, pens, Blackberries, lighters, and (yes) wristwatches on display at EDC suggest that the samurai ideal (as lifestyle, though most likely not style of life) is very much alive today.

Just don't try getting those knives through security, folks.

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Monday, April 18th, 2011

“Who’s afraid of Twitter?” asks an anti-Mubarak sign on a best-of-protest website, “Egypt you inspire us all” says another. Social and political change is in motion. Novel political placard ideas are evaluated online as if they were new ads or brand catchphrases. 

Brands repay the compliment. A model waves something like a burning draft card. This is John Frieda’s ‘Frizz Revolution’.  We want anti-frizz serum and we want it now.  More earnestly the UK Co-op’s website bids “Join the Revolution”, with social enterprise-style community projects and a retail offer ranging from ethical fish and fair trade chocolate to funerals. Backed by a history, since 1844, of “everyday people working together to build a business that would change the world”. 

After poll tax riots and no-logo marches in the past, protests against capitalism in general and bankers specifically, current public services cuts and increased educational fees in UK are contributing to a renewed culture of protest and dissent. Will media, from the BBC to Sky and News International, regard protest by what's called a new ‘lost generation’ at home as favourably as they have that in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? How will these glimpses of activist or revolutionary codes in brand communications, echoing daringly engagé ads put out by the likes of Fuji Film and Benetton in the 90s, develop this time around?

The World in 2011, The Economist’s look ahead for this year, predicted no serious disruption in Egypt or Libya (“Qaaddafi has held power for 40 years and will certainly complete 41 … he has removed all significant threats to his rule”). The prospects for UK, meanwhile, looked more problematic: “Deep austerity, the price for bank rescues and fiscal stimulus, will raise social tensions and spark industrial action”.  But “a national sense of inevitability", the prediction continued, "means most will grin and bear it”.

In December 2010 the UK media showed pictures of a horrified Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (AKA Charles and Camilla) cowering behind the windscreen of their Rolls Royce as protestors approached chanting, according to the Daily Telegraph, "Off with their heads!".  In true press parlance and unlike their counterparts in North Africa, these protestors were characterised as a 'mob'.  Evidently an ironically detached and, in typical English style, good-humoured mob if the chant's intertextual evoking of Alice in Wonderland is anything to go by.  Anyone intent on more serious damage or cutting closer to the royal bone would have opted for "Remember the Romanovs".  But by April 2011 with a Royal Wedding impending and the prospect of streets joyfully thronged rather than unrulily mobbed these dark concerns are at least momentarily behind us.

And the spark from North Africa could yet jump to Europe.  In what form, who can guess?  Portugal’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held on May 10th this year, is ‘A luta é alegria’ (The struggle is joy) which won on the popular telephone vote after being unanimously rejected by the TV expert panel. Performed by motley collective Homens de la Luta (People of the Struggle) this invokes for today the spirit of the Summer of ’68. In Ireland, like Portugal and in its own way UK a serious casualty of the crisis, there are variously calls to go back and reconfigure the Republic along the lines of the socialist principles some of the founders advocated back in 1921 and – at the other end of the radical spectrum – iconoclastic cultural productions from the likes of Limerick's hit band Rubber Bandits, who take punk bad taste to transcendent levels of carnivalesque awfulness (with possibly unwelcome product placement for Mitsubishi and the Honda Civic). However this pans out there are clearly alternatives around to grinning and bearing it. 

Commercial semioticians have been busy in recent years helping brands understand how they might engage with a now long list of concerns that emerged and were beyond the horizons marketers and corporations had been traditionally concerned with: social responsibility, fair trade, sustainability, co-creation and the power of social networks – now the aftermath of severe financial crisis and spending cuts.  In UK specifically there is today a lower prospect of children moving during their lifetime out of the social class they were born into than has existed since before the 1960s. Which might indicate to a neutral observer either a major systemic flaw or the existence of some kind of self-perpetuating elite with its own segregated health and education services and an indifference to democratic opportunities except the narrowest and most technical sense.  At which I hear a baying mob of media types nearing the street below my window chanting "political correctness gone mad!".  

We eagerly await the summer of 2011.  No predictions.  But in UK we always think it's nice if it's long and hot.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

(If you take nothing else out of this piece do check out the link to the Rubber Bandits video clip for 'Horse Outside'  (be warned it's catchy, you won't stop singing it in your head for 4 months) but I'd advise that you draw the line at 'Bag of Glue'.  Unless you like Rammstein – and if you've never heard of them please ignore this; you'll be better off for it).

Reference

The Economist, The World in 2011 (published late 2010)

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

Cognitive Semiotics

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Cognition and semiosis (meaning produced or communicated through signs) are mainly studied by two independent fields – cognitive science and semiotics. Cognitive science investigates mental processes and spans topics such as learning and memory, numerical reasoning, judgment, decision making and more recently affective processing. The bread and butter of researchers studying cognition consists of controlled experiments using quantifiable measures such as reaction time (the elapsed time between the onset of a stimulus and the subsequent behavioural response) and neuroimaging studies to understand cognitive processes at the level of brain activity.   Semiotics, on the other hand, is the study of communication, signs and sign processes.  

Cognitive semiotics, the brainchild of these two disciplines, is taught and researched at, among other places, the Center for Semiotics at Aarhus University, Denmark, which is closely affiliated with the university’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN).  Here I completed an MA in Cognitive Semiotics.  The discipline investigates meaning in general and explores, among other things, metaphors, categorisations, aesthetic cognition, narratives, and the neural processes causally implicated in semiosis. It also looks into how meaning is greater than the sum of the parts of cognition and semiosis, as entirely new emergent properties appear at the level of meaning that are not easily predictable rearrangements of the underlying cognitive and semiotic processes.

Although my own approach to cognitive semiotics relies heavily on quantitative approaches to the study of meaning such as statistical modelling this is not representative of cognitive semioticians in general. There are many views of what constitutes cognitive semiotics and as yet no single overarching paradigm. Traditional semiotics takes a macro-level view of meaning, in many cases relying on desk research. Although cognitive semiotic analysis may be undertaken in a similar manner (with additional insight applied from cognitive sciences), such analysis is usually applied to how humans encode and decode meaning as a micro-level phenomenon – without attempting to draw conclusions about higher-order cultural phenomena. These two perspectives may, however, also be complementary as, used in conjunction, they enable a holistic understanding of meaning, which has academic and commercial applications.

I will offer a glimpse into a practical application of a cognitive semiotic perspective here by looking at what’s called the peak-shift effect. This is a well-known psychological principle, originlly discovered during experimental studies of discrimination learning (learning to make different responses to different stimuli). Imagine a rat is trained to discriminate between a 1×1cm square and 1× 2cm rectangle as a result of being rewarded whenever it is shown the rectangle. After some training, the rat will have learnt to respond to the rectangle more frequently. Now imagine that the same rat is shown the same square (1×1cm) and a slightly different rectangle (1× 3cm). To which rectangle will it respond more favourably (the 1× 2cm or the 1× 3cm rectangle in relation to the 1×1cm square)? Have a think.

I hope you thought the 1×2cm rectangle would be favoured, given that the rat was trained on this rectangle. Surprisingly enough, that is not the case! In reality, the rat would respond more frequently to the longer rectangle (1×3cm). The rat responds more favourably to an exaggerated version of the training stimuli. The rat has not learnt to favourably respond to the actual rectangle used during the training, but it has learnt something profoundly more sophisticated. It has learnt an abstract rule of what constitutes a rectangle. The longer rectangle is more rectangle-like for the rat’s cognitive system. According to Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, eminent neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, the peak-shift effect is fundamental to understanding much of visual art, for example, how artists unconsciously encode the ‘very essence’ of something using the peak-shift principle (see Ramachandran & Hirstein1999 for an overview).

Here is an example of the peak-shift effect using the caricature of Albert Einstein. According to Ramachandran & Hirstein (1999), a caricature is created by unconsciously taking an average of all faces, subtracting this average face from Einstein’s face in order to maximise the difference between Einstein’s face and an average face. A skilled artist then amplifies this difference even more to create a caricature of Einstein that is more Einstein-like than a photograph of Einstein. The reason being that the caricature resembles accentuated features of Einstein’s face (e.g., hair, nose and eyes). In the jargon of neuroaesthetics and cognitive semiotics, a well-crafted caricature of an individual becomes a superportrait as it is usually better recognised than undistorted images of the same person. Cognitive semioticians have used this particular effect for investigating meaning encoded in cultural artefacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to brand logos or an on-pack illustration effect such as the Kellogg's Special K cereal box’s exaggerated female hourglass shape, further enhanced strategically by being placed at the edge of the box.

Once you are familiar with the principle, you will see, hear, taste, feel and smell peak-shift effects everywhere in popular culture. For an olfactory example, walk into the fragrance section of your local shopping centre during your next visit and sample some of the flowery perfumes – or the piped in fresh baking smell the extends far beyond the bakery section in any major supermarket.

The peak-shift effect is a universal and taxonomically widespread phenomenon, and it both moderates and mediates communication by exaggerating specific meaning effects. This is simply one principle that accounts for exaggerated meaning effects; however, meaning in general is usually influenced by numerous such principles, interacting with each other in unique ways. Cognitive semiotics provides a unique evidence-based framework for better understanding the nuts and bolts of meaning.

© Ajitesh Ghose 2011

Image Source:

http://www.portraitworkshop.com/gallery_caricatures_portraits/caricature_in_colour_marker_1.php

 http://integral-options.blogspot.com/2011/01/jeff-mason-thinking-of-nothing-is.html

References:

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hirstein, W. (1999). The science of art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 15—51.

 

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | No Comments »

Russia Today

Monday, March 14th, 2011

 

Secretary of State Clinton said recently that she fears that American channels are being outmanoeuvred by foreign English news channels like Al-Jazeera and without naming them their Chinese and Russian English counterparts. She declared this as if it was the height of effrontery that they should be on air at all. Russia Today gleefully reported a rather haggard looking Hillary Clinton declaring that: "We are in an information war, and putting it bluntly, we are losing that war. Al-Jazeera is winning”. She said that she had seen Russia Today and quipped that she had found it “quite instructive”. Walt Isaacson the head of an agency running Voice of America was blunt in warning in 2010 that: “We can't allow ourselves to be out communicated by our enemies.”

It is clear that we are living through an interregnum with the US indebted and embroiled in conflict. It is at a crossroads and its hegemony in doubt. If soft power has underpinned the legitimacy of US foreign policy then does the proliferation and influence of regional English language news channels signify the beginning of the erosion of this US soft power? Al-Jazeera has gained plaudits for its professionalism and the quality of its reporting. Russia Today is becoming increasingly assertive. RT on You Tube has now clocked up 300 million views versus only 3 million on CNN. So what are the semiotics of RT?

RT use a fascinating melange of signifiers. Firstly, the logo which is very slick with a meridian straddled amber globe (far less garish than that of NDTV) with a very bold black RT (like Korean Lucky Goldstar became LG), has coined a two letter moniker that effaces its origin. They seem to take a cue from the US channels in their use of dense, murky studio graphics (a slightly less crisp and lucid palette than BBC or Sky). RT are impressive in the suite of signs they impose in their programme sub branding. They have a slick deck of slides that flip round like an Apple app carousel to denote the range of documentaries on YouTube. Like Al-Jazeera and NDTV they also show in an ident sequence that has the alchemic power to transmogrify liquid information into solid news,  melting their logo which turns into flower and then spins into a cube.

Their sonic semiotics are also very contemporary – using heavy chugging Detroit sound for one of the their special report as well as making liberal use of what Philip Tagg calls ‘doomsday megadrones’ to add film trailer-like authority. RT’s brand tag line is Question More and they say they aim to ‘challenge viewers’.

What does it all mean?

Well this is about maximizing the bombast and the impact of visual address which increases rhetorical force. This means that RT gain an authority that belies their relatively short tenure. With an aggressive social media strategy, it looks as if they intend to leap over US channels by casting themselves, like Al-Jazeera, as fair brokers in critical global debates.

Russia Today are mordant in their coverage of American difficulties at home and abroad, focusing on their failure to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan for example, or attacking the corporate agribusiness in India.

What is so interesting about these channels is whatever ideological agendas – and Russia could be forgiven for resenting NATO containment and the US encroachment on their sphere of influence – smuggled into their editorial line, they are adopting the visual semiotic strategies of Western channels too, i.e. the graphical look of slick professionalism that signifies their presumed neutrality.

To garble Noam Chomsky, RT and channels such as Venezuela’s Telesur and CCTV are quite rightly suspected by the US of Manufacturing Dissent. It will be very interesting to see how US channels cope with this in the long term or if brand new channels will be launched in order to reclaim the US’s moral authority.

© Chris Arning 2011

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

Human or Humanoid?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Technology as we know it is, and will always be, lifeless. Whether it’s a household appliance or a particle accelerator there is no soul, no beating heart. It’s unlikely that technology will act as if it had a mind of its own, expanding and contracting like dendrites in the brain. Our bodies are truly remarkable. Our skin has the elasticity and resilience to conform to our changing bodies. It can heal itself when its get injured. It can acclimate to changing external temperatures by activating sweat glands or increasing heart rate.

The idea behind the Vibram Five Fingers shoe is that it enables the foot to perform better than any shoe that came before it, no matter what gel or air cushion technology any previous shoe delivered. The five toe shoe does so simply as a second skin molding to the feet and enabling the foot to flex and respond with sensory and kinesthetic awareness.  It does what shoes where originally intended to do – protect. But in this case to protect without inhibiting or undermining the action of the human feet. We place our feet down on the ground differently when we go barefoot versus when we stride in shoes – because, when we wear shoes, our foot is adjusting to the shoe, not to the ground. In a way, we truly are the technology.

On the other hand, maybe we’re not the technology.

The challenge with the Vibram Five Fingers ads and the website is that the human characters appear to be inhuman. The impression is contrary to the overture of the campaign. You’d expect that standing naked, bodies scarred for the world to ogle, would leave one feeling humiliated for life. Yet their expression and gesture indicates that they have no shame. Embarrassed humans immediately respond with downcast head and eyes. In a prolonged state of shame and embarrassment, a blank stare would result–a neurotic attempt to emotionally escape.

The decision to purchase any shoe is motivated by shame. This negative emotion is the primary motivation for willing our bodies forward and taking care. Shame allows us to evaluate our mortality and ourselves. It’s the emotion responsible for compelling us to look in the mirror and decide what steps have to be taken next. Shame is the emotion of self-improvement and dignity. It’s the emotion that tells us we need better shoes.

What separates the humanoid from the human is a light that shines brightly behind the eyes. In these characters there is no such indicator.  As the ad suggests, ‘we are the technology’ – a lifeless, shameless instrument for advertising and web interactivity.

© Michael Colton 2011

Make sure to checkout the website!  youarethetechnology.com

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Making Sense, Technology | 2 Comments »

Reading the Stars

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

In an attempt to undo perceptions of its self-isolation and abstraction, science discourse has begun borrowing symbols and metaphors from supposedly ‘softer’ or more ‘subjective’ languages, such as mythology, poetry or spirituality (as in Brian Cox’s BBC TV series Wonders of the Solar System, in which the science is peppered with mythological or religious contextualisation, and expressions of lyrical wonder). 

By borrowing codes from beyond its historic repertoire, science is engaging in a form of semiotic mea culpa, apologising for years, if not centuries, of perceived coldness, aloofness and pretend objectivity. 

The ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii offers a prime example of the scientific mea culpa in action.  Sacred for its mythological meanings, Hawaii’s 13,000 feet-high volcano Maunakea has become just as loaded with value for scientists – for whom it’s one of the world’s unequalled locations for astronomical observation. The volcano’s summit is now home to 13 global observatories, as well as continuing to represent a sacred bridge between earth and sky to Hawaiians.

These two discourses – the scientific and the mythological – might seem tricky to reconcile. But, at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii (the public face of Maunakea astronomy), they’re embracing each other with all the affection of long-parted twins. Everywhere you turn, the centre proposes a new parallel between ancient mythology and legend, on the one hand, and modern astronomy, on the other. For instance, while ancient Hawaiians chanted their Song of Origins, modern astronomers look into space to learn about the birth of the universe. Centuries ago, Polynesian explorers found their way to Hawaii guided by the stars; now, scientists look through their giant telescopes to guide humanity on its journey into the future. 

The ‘Imiloa logo provides a clear example of this attempt to re-humanise science.

 

The abstract, non-human dimension – mountains and sun/moon – doubles up as a stick figure, with this graphic itself subsumed under the anthropomorphic sign of the eye. The lesson: those strange-looking observatories, which have brought the abstraction of global science to the sacred particularity of Hawaiian myth, aren’t to be feared. They’re just prosthetic eyes: McLuhan-esque extensions of the human body itself. And all they’re doing is a technologically-enhanced version of what Polynesian navigators did to reach Hawaii in 300 AD: looking at the stars. 

The agendas underpinning this attempt to marry science and myth are worth looking into – as they affect science discourse beyond the specificities of Hawaii’s ideological challenges. Generally, in the current cultural context, science has to borrow from softer, more particularised and more ‘human’ languages to present an acceptable image of itself. Previous scientific fantasies of neutrality, abstraction and universality are now seen as threatening and dishonest (a cover for suspect agendas). 

But what if the very attempt to recast science as seamlessly continuous with the sacred and the mythological weren’t in itself another form of alibi? If he’d visited the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, Baudrillard would have seen it as an instance of the Enlightenment’s unstoppable mission to reduce otherness to sameness. From being an untranslatable and irreducible symbolic language, Hawaiian mythology has become a semiotic twin of modern astronomy. And, conversely, the strange dishes and spheres of the observatories have become assimilated to naturalised extensions of the human eye, their many mediations and alienations – infra-red, sub-millimeter, x-ray – denied. 

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Network: Ajitesh

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?
 
I am currently working in London, for Harris Interactive as a Research Analyst in the Advanced Analytics division. I deal with statistical/econometric analyses as well as research methodology in general. It really is not as dull as it sounds! My job is exciting because of the sheer variety of things I'm involved in, which, on any given day can span from conducting pricing analyses to questionnaire design. A large part of my work focuses on understanding the drivers of brand choice as well as contributing to innovation in behavioural economics. I have also delivered training in semiotics and more generally promoted a semiotic perspective on consumer behaviour.           
 
How did you first become interested in semiotics?
 
I have always had a keen interest in human behaviour. Why do people do the things they do? Early in my studies of psychology, I became increasingly interested in the field of social cognition – the study of social information processing, in particular the study of imitation. Whilst researching this field, I came across an article titled “The Dynamics of Interaction and Consciousness”, written by Svend Østergaard in the academic journal Cognitive Semiotics. This article introduced me to the concept of schematic representations – a type of abstract mental structure, which sparked my interest in Cognitive Semiotics – the study of how meaning is encoded and decoded in communication.    
 
You work with a market research organisation and an academic semiotics institute. Tell us about that double life?
 
Yes, even though I work as a Research Analyst full-time, I try to stay up-to-date with developments at the Center for Semiotics at AU by attending lectures and following research activities. I find that having this dual perspective is extremely rewarding. My academic expertise can be readily utilised for commercial purposes, although within the constraints of actionable commercial solutions, which is a tough challenge! I also find myself in the privileged position of critically appraising semiotic theories in light of observing “semiotics in action” in a variety of commercial research projects.  
 
 
From your experience of academic semiotics how would you like to see semiotics develop commercially?
 
I would like to see more recent developments from academic semioticians being adopted by commercial semioticians. Some of the most cutting-edge academic achievements include the study of signs and sign systems using neuroscience, artificial intelligence technology and predictive analytics. A general principle that unites these techniques is the potential for gaining data-driven insight into meaning and the study of signs and sign systems. Ideally, I would like to see some form of evidence-based semiotics being applied by commercial semiotic analysts, as this may not only increase the quality of semiotic analyses being provided to clients but also ensure a greater return on investment for these clients, helping to retain existing clients and attracting new ones with a disposition for systematic and scalable techniques.  
 
Tell us about the image you've selected
 
The image I selected shows the continuity between non-human primates and human primates. In my view, this is essential to cognitive semiotics. In order to genuinely understand the general properties and functions of signs and sign systems, one has to take into account primate behaviour and human evolution that led to symbolic information processing.
 
© Ajitesh Ghose 2011
 
Image Source:
http://www.sociosemiotics.net/events/2008/3rd-late-spring-school-semiotics

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics, Socioeconomics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: France

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

It’s for sure that Brazil is gaining importance in the French imaginary too.

In principle when you’ve been living in the charming but grey Paris, any warm and sunny place can seem a phantasmal Eldorado.

But this is not what is happening. Something is changing in the perception of Brazil and shifting from a residual and bluntly paradisiacal image, through a dominant appealing and exciting “culture”, up to an emergent aspirational “country”.

Brazil has always been a destination for the French. For holidays, of course. Its beaches and romantic exotic cities, as well as the natural and historical treasures attract both popular self-indulgent tourists and cultivated vistors from France who expect more. On top of this, local folklore, food, drinks and music, amazingly well marketed in France, are as much of an attraction as the geographical targets already mentioned.

Not surprise, actually, that this dimension of Brazilian appeal seen from France is basically grounded on a cultural distance which defines “exoticism”. Beautiful places, good food or music considered exciting because “different”. 

From this first point of view, it’s curious to notice how a more contemporary approach to Brazilian culture emerged based on the immediately sharable elements of the Brazilian universe. In this perspective Brazil is easily connected with football, architecture, contemporary dance and art… languages or activities which don’t demand a distant approach but which can be fully appreciated and practiced through empathy. A more picky audience, the one more sensitive to media exposure, sees now Brazil as an articulated culture, not “different” but “alternative” to the French one. This public discovers, for example, that Brazilian fashion exists – everybody can imagine how jealous of “fashionness” the French can be – and that it not only speaks through the spectacular over-colourful codes of what may be considered local or typical. The world of Andrea Marques (http://www.andreamarques.com.br/) and even more the one of British Colony (http://www.britishcolony.com.br/verao2011/) may be fully enjoyed and appreciated through the interpretative codes used to evaluate French fashion.

From a dominant and someway-cynical perspective, this turns Brazil into an articulated culture which is ready-to-consume, a sort of extension of an ever-growing globalized offer largely extending itself beyond the French boundaries. Products from Brazil are not first and foremost Brazilian any more – but “good”, “affordable” and then eventually Brazilian…

Consumption has undeniable negative aspects but it also brings a form of knowledge. And knowledge in its turn stimulates imagination. That is maybe how Brazil is turning out to be a interesting playground for the development of projects or even lives for people who now see it no longer as an “other”, or even as a “culture” but as a system where things can be done or grown. Emergent Brazil is a country where life, work, business… all these are also imaginable. It has become a place to be for French intellectuals and artists now directing cultural festivals in Recife or Fortaleza, students applying for to transoceanic MBAs, businessmen trying there what’s not possible here – and also for ordinary people.

This vision is nurtured by a projective and imaginative look. Surely another form of distance, but far from the one underlying exoticism and beyond the consumerist excitement, towards the fertile idea of “possibility”.

© Luca Marchetti 2011

Posted in Americas, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Germany

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

 

Brazil is indeed in a state of flux regarding its positioning in the German foreign culture map. At a time where the white spaces on the world map are beginning to disappear all together Brazil is one of the few ’uncharted areas’ with positively connoted expectations. Unlike Dubai or the emerging eastern European markets Brazil stands increasingly, from a German perspective, for a politically sound society with strong cultural roots – a positive example for democratic emerging markets.

In terms of Residual, Dominant and Emergent codes the main phases of Residual and Dominant are post-World War 2 to the early 80s and 80s to today, respectively.

RESIDUAL

A typical 2nd World country where modernisation is hampered by corruption and lack of democratic spirit/social equality.

Left and right wing governing attempts culminating in military rule.

All highly repressive, against not for the people.

Inhumane poverty on a grand scale and immense crime. 

In short: the worst of both the capitalist and socialist systems.

The cultural counterpart reflected in German popular imagery ist he local Brazilian lifestyle (sun, beach, bodies) and the best football team in the world which draws its abilities from the most impoverished part of the population.

The Ipanema view of Brazil seems almost unreal, a projection, possibly a remnant of a further past given the socio-political realities. It is much like Havana in the 50s & early 60s – a glamorous image that skews the social reality.

Compounded by Brazil’s geography from a German perspective: South America – the home of many Nazis (in particular Chile). The preponderance of German names in the region has an odd resonance in Germany. 

Many DDR politicians reported to have taken the same route after 1989 and the still unclaimed money of the former SED party is rumoured to be in South American banks. 

DOMINANT (codes consolidating since 1980s)

 In the late 70s Brazil became a major business partner to German industry and with the change of government in 1985 Brazil took a decisive step towards improvement: the hope inherent in any new democracy.

But still a democracy tainted by corruption and imagery suggesting poverty reminiscent of the middle ages: the favelas.

Brazil in the 80s and 90s echoed Spain in German media respresentations and popular consciousness. A poor country perfect to visit for summer vacation with its cultural icon Ipanema (Spain: Costa del Sol) but regarded as backward, corrupt and dangerous. Certainly not a place to settle or from which to expect modern developments.

Association: Brazil either wins the world Cup decisively or gets eliminated early – something unpredictable & unstable in this country (antithesis of the German self-image as thorough, reliable and possibly a little boring).

No significant presence of Brazilians or Brazilian culture in Germany. Therefore no way for Germans to form a picture seperate from books, media, set themes and conventions of Brazilianness in German received wisdom and popular culture.

So Brazilian culture is far removed from German mindset & self-image – singing & dancing prominently associated ith Brazil connotes holiday, the exotic, something remote from the everyday (Brazil as culturally ’other’ for Germans as Africa or Hawaii.

Paolo Coehlo opening a window on a different aspect of Brazilian culture – from 1990s opening people’s eyes to deeper intellectual and emotional potential in Brazil.

Another more recent development in the Dominant codes is awareness of beauty industry & importance of cosmetic surgery. Sao Paolo as a magnet for would-be models – with Brazilian surgeons reportedly practicing with girls from the favelas turning them into beauty queens. Brazilian surgeons ’enhancing nature’ versus perception of US cosmetic surgery as imperfectly concealing ist artifice (or not at all).

EMERGENT

Emergent Brazilianness in Germany is as yet unrealised. This is potentially rich terrain to receive new positive imagery associated with Brazil. But what’s in place, as yet, is mainly the potential rather than any detailed implementation.

Potential based on Brazil as the most dynamic of the BRIC economies. Further powered by the massive projected oil reserves on Brazil’s coasts (exceeded only by those of Venezuela). The prospect of massive injections of income, e.g. to fund social reforms, once deeper drilling is technically possible.

Any detailed cultural and semiotic analysis of Brazilianness in Germany today would look to identify the first empirical signs of the new emergent codes – in popular culture and in brand communications. This kind of bottom-up work sometimes produces surprises and highly creative left-field ideas. The logic of code trajectories in this area so far (Residual to Dominant to the first glimpses of the Emergent) suggests that new codes that would appeal in Germany might well function in these areas:

• maintaining and strengthening the idea of democracy

• oil revenues strengthening social equality and justice (overcoming the negatives associated with the Chavez era in neighbouring Venezuela)

• Brazilian artists and intellectuals becoming more prominent on global culture & thinking

• Brazilians as the beautiful people – stretching this notion culturally into the pursuit of the aesthetic

• Sao Paulo is a key player in the world’s most aspirational industry: beauty.

Brazil has a potent mixture of associations that can propel it to a new level that many other emerging countries lack – at its core is the perception that Brazil is NOT hampered by the lack of free expression and decentralised power that remains, in Western developed markets a cause for concern and caution in, for example, Russia, China and the Arab World.  

© Oliver Litten 2011

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global/Local, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: UK Notes

Friday, January 28th, 2011

 

Part of Semionaut's wiki experiment to identify emergent cross-cultural codes of Brazilianness, these notes follow the format in the project briefing.  The aim of these (and any other national inputs to follow) is not to be exhaustive or even provoke debate but to start the ball rolling and stimulate further observations and insights, particularly in the Emergent area.  Please add your builds below or send your own post for the Brazil mash-up to editorial@semionaut.net . 

INTRODUCTION

From a UK perspective the potential trajectory towards the ‘Brazilian Dream’ (see our briefing) is based on a deep underlying affinity for Brazilian-ness – delight in a perceived spontaneous & light-hearted grace, sensuality and creative accomplishment . Ways ahead will maintain and develop on these historically rooted positives.

RESIDUAL CODES

Underlying cultural archetypes:

Portuguese exploration & colonies, paralleling British maritime/colonial history – the Spanish were the enemy with popular historical narrative around that (Drake, the Armada), while the Portuguese heritage is not marked as oppositional/Other in that way

the brazil nut – traditional British favourite (alongside hazelnut, walnut, almond), association with Christmas when the nut cracker comes out

Leisure class travel and high life; pre- and immediate post-World War II era US film and music,  a generalized Latin code with seductive brown-skinned women and men, dance, romance; Flying Down to Rio movie (1933); something culturally not quite serious – exotica and novelty, “There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil” (Sinatra era swing  now refurbished by people like Harry Connick Jr., Robbie Williams, Michael Bublé).   Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’ – squarely in this tradition.  In 1960s this goes to cool jazz, something slinkier – Getz & Gilberto, Girl From Ipanema

Brazil & South American countries as off the map, haven for war criminals (Boys from Brazil novel and film); adventure, the extreme, a European not on the run goes here at his peril. Werner Herzog’s film Ftizcarraldo (1982). The Amazon – vast challenging nature. Then becoming idealized pastoral – authentic primitive culture and nature; pop star Sting posing with Amazon tribal chief.

Football the most prominent Brazilian theme (alongside the Rio carnival) for Brits. In the Residual Brazilians represented flair and silky samba skills (versus the punishing machine-like efficiency of the Germans). Good-natured poor boys learning their football barefoot on the beach and still known in adulthood and as celebrities by their nicknames. Flair and attack rather than organization and defence.

DOMINANT CODES

The favela code – pioneered in City of God (2002). Violence, extreme urban deprivation, massive gulf between rich and poor. Connecting to cultural energy, authenticity, roots, soul, affirmation – e.g. Seu Jorge

Football in the Dominant now more organized, not only associated with attacking flair. Brazil less clearly the greatest footballing nation. UK Premier League Brazilians not the best or most expensive players – Robinho didn’t deliver on his promise.

Perceived vibrancy, sexiness and preoccupation with the body – many stories around popularity of cosmetic surgery in Brazil. ‘Having a Brazilian’ = waxing to remove hair from pubic region.

Emerging powerful BRIC economy. (THE most vibrant and dynamic is more recent and still has some Emergent edge). Lula initially heralding swing to the left since echoed elsewhere in South America. Context of callapse of post-Thatcher economic and political agendas in UK leaving a vacuum in ideology and political philosophy. New alternatives to evolve in Latin America as in East Asia?

Ongoing thread of Carnival culture, joy. Enviable Brazilian ability to let go, be happy, enjoy life.

Brazilian embodied knowledge, combined with physical grace and a hint of spirituality – Capoeira. Also connoting rich cultural diversity, synergies.

EMERGENT CODES

Crossing the borderline into the emergent codes

More widespread exposure for more Brits to Brazilians living in UK. Effectively part of the new immigrant or transient working class (with other Latin Americans, East Europeans, people from the Middle East). Nothing challenges the stereotypes more than meeting real Brazilians (the cleaner who’s better educated than you are, the thoroughness and work ethic that sits beside a relaxed attitude towards life – an unfamiliar combination for North Europeans). Our picture is of tribute artwork to Brazilian plumber Jean Charles Menezes, shot seven times in the head by London Metropolitan police on 22nd July 2005 under the misapprehension that he was a Muslim terrorist.

Brazil as the economic star currently of the BRICs and on a morale and cultural upsurge with World Cup and Olympics coming. Important context here is that Brazil is perceived to be deserving of both these awards. Especially in the comparative context – UK media orthodoxy on the 2018 World Cup is that England deserved it but Russia got it. Qatar getting  the 2022 World Cup perceived as an outrageous (FIFA corruption) cultural anomaly. So Brazil’s success is in some way the last gasp of normality. UK cultural is configured to like Brazilians – it’s difficult at a discursive level in UK to NOT like Brazilians. Quite patronizing in some ways (viewing Brazilians as child-like e.g. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Brazilian pronunciation of ‘Brazil’ with final consonant like an English ‘w’ could have a charming child-like ring for an English ear.

There are gaps where UK could be receptive to new emergent codes from Brazil. Consistent with trajectories of change would be:

• a Brazil-specific manifestation of something which has the groundedness and versatility of hip-hop but is clearly local, coming from another place – not imitating U.S.

• a creative favela culture – City of God energy 10 years on expressed in craft, dance, music, literature, film

• a positive ethic of social responsibility and community which is non-PC, active, progressive and enlists widespread popular support (reconciling the opposition between a discredited hands-off market fundamentalism on one the hand and ongoing concerns about, say, the Chinese model of centralized state power and responsibility on the other).

CONCLUSION

Future opportunities will be about building from the positive base noted above in the introduction. In terms of economic, environmental, social and intellectual vision – expressed not so much in abstract as in in concrete forms (e.g. cultural platforms as potentially rich, cross-media and transforming as something like hip-hop) or new forms of governance and organization, e.g. at the level of cities, that engage innovatively with environmental degradation and social inequality. And help restore some joy and optimism to the poor, put-upon non-elite majority of Brits.

With many thanks to Gareth Lewis and Chris Arning.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Americas, Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Briefing

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

 

Here’s a Brazil wiki mash-up experiment where we share and combine notes on thinking in progress. It will last for 9 days, ending February 6th.

Please send us something about past, present or emerging representations of Brazil and Brazilianness where you are. This can either be a short spontaneous piece following all or part of the format below. Or add comments to build on any ideas about your local market published in someone else’s post in this series.  

Look for the Brazilian flag in our home page windows from now until February 6th – this is about building a critical mass of ideas, not debating, evaluating or selecting at this stage.

Please send your ideas to editorial@semionaut.net . We’ll combine all the input (at an editorial meeting in Sao Paolo on 7th and 8th February) to identify some highest common factor cross-cultural ideas for communicating emerging Brazilianness – as Brazil becomes the most economically dynamic of the emerging nations and looks forward to hosting the Olympics and World Cup. These hypotheses will then guide a number of more detailed programmes of semiotic and cultural analysis looking at media and brand communications in a group of key national markets.

Many thanks in anticipation for participating.   We'll publish selected inputs to give a flavour of how this is evolving. If you’d prefer what you send not to be published just tell us. Here we go…

FORMAT

1. INTRODUCTION – broadly how perceptions of Brazil have changed in your culture and where they seem to be heading (the best ideas will probably emerge from parts 2, 3 and 4 of the process below).

2. What are the RESIDUAL CODES & SIGNIFIERS of Brazilianness in your culture? Dated representations, echoes of the past, cultural clichés. Things that are still around but don’t really feel alive and current. Pick 3 Residual themes or codes and a couple of key illustrations for each.. Don’t expect to be exhaustive in your analysis. This is a group collaboration and building exercise. The initial posts will be just to get the ball rolling in each country.

3. What are the DOMINANT CODES & SIGNIFIERS of Brazilianness in your culture? The norms for today. Cliches and received wisdom that are still alive and healthy – the words and images that reflect and reinforce mainstream perceptions. Again pick 3 codes and illustrate each with a few key signifiers. Be spontaneous – don’t expect to cover everything. 

4. What are some EMERGENT CODES & SIGNIFIERS of Brazilianness. New thoughts and images that challenge the clichés and move things forward. Things that seem fresh. Where do these images come from? What’s the source of this cultural energy & what’s driving this discourse around Brazilianness forward? Again around 3 codes and around 3 signifiers per code will do it.

5. Reflection, conclusions, TRAJECTORIES OF CHANGE. What’s the pattern of change you are seeing in your country’s perception and representation of Brazil and Brazilianness? Where is that pattern (or those patterns) taking us. What does it’s logic and direction tell you about where it might be in 2, 3, 4, 5 years time? 

Add ONE KEYNOTE VISUAL from your country to illustrate something in the Emergent Brazilianness area. If you’re a new contributor to Semionaut and would be happy for what you send us to be published please include a maximum 80 word biography and a head/face photograph. 

We’ll post shortly some notes (following this format) of work in progress on Brazilianness in the UK.   Input from Brazil, China, India, the US and wherever you are will, we anticipate, follow that.

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

New Home New Language

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In Bulgaria the financial crisis has reduced the amount of advertising and encouraged an increasing focus on price and savings. However there are still strong signs of creativity in this local market, a good example being the campaign run by Baumaxx – one of the biggest retail chains in Central and Eastern Europe, which specializes in materials for construction, home repair and supplies.

Like the better known brand Ikea, Baumaxx focuses its communication on the idea ‘do it with your hands’ – but does so deploying a distinctive mix of low price messaging, a promise of shopping comfort and convenience and making it clear that the offer extends beyond furniture to a wide range of domestic goods. In Central Europe the TV spots use Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ playing behind an appropriate domestic narrative. In Bulgaria Baumaxx also uses distinctive local language and humour in its advertising.

After the summer season 2010 there was a little more time and probably some money for households to spend on renovating their homes. Baumaxx caught that wave and used it aggressively in order to respond to the increasing demand in the repair and maintenance sector in the months before winter – and to cut through the messaging clutter as there are a lot of players in this marketplace. An integrated marketing campaign deployed booklets, 7-second TV spots, radio spots, a massive billboard presence and the launch of a Baumaxx a group on Facebook. 

In the Bulgarian market the new and highly creative Baumaxx print and TV campaigns featured two young characters, one male one female, and a dynamic (even aggressive) hip-hop flavoured tonality. Such communication codes have been extremely popular in local advertising for fashion brands, telecoms and some food and snacks products – but were unknown till now in the big retail chain category. 

By way of illustration, Baumaxx advertising uses colloquial everyday phrases prominently in radio spots and as headlines in the print ads and billboards. In the print ad shown here Baumaxx points out different products which may be purchased as a good bargain, each one representing a different department of the store. The original elements in the ads are not the prices themselves but the presentation of home repair as a fun, energetic process which fits young people’s taste. Till now home repair was associated with older, family people. The whole message positions what used to be regarded as tiresome maintenance of the home as something easy and, with the support of Baumaxx, very much in the consumer’s control. Among other wordplays here deploying street metaphors, phrases taken from actual everyday language include “The prices break off” (Цените къртят), which also connotes something being ‘cool’ (Кърти мивки), and “Prices are concrete”/“Prices are iron”, i.e. the prices are low and solid and this is for sure [Нещата са бетон, железни са].

What we see here is youth codes beginning to mature and cross into categories that target an older life stage as the consumer target groups accustomed to more nuanced and culturally attuned styles of brand communication themselves grow a little older. In the case of Baumaxx a direct down-to-earthness which is part of the ‘cool’ cultural appeal of hip-hop, interpreted here through colloquial ‘street’ Bulgarian idiomatic language, skillfully combines creative appeal with a clear and hard-hitting message on value. The general principle is that at times of relative economic constraint there are ways of talking about price and value in a stylish, culturally connected, even quite edgy tone of voice – rather than having to go with just a crude, functional, stripped-down price message.

© Dimitar Trendafilov  2010

 

Links
 

http://www.vbox7.com/play:b8f69c16

http://www.facebook.com/pages/BauMax-Bulgaria/113068988755021

Posted in Brand Worlds, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

The Spirit of Youth

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

A new film from Sao Paolo’s Box 1824 analyses three stages in the youth culture revolution, culminating in today’s utopian mash-up manifesto for Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation.

We all want to be young, the voiceover begins. The video continues with a vertiginous collage of movies that depict the first steps in the liberation of the 1950s youth, blessed as they were by the gods of rock and roll. The film enthusiastically moves on, decade by decade, in engaging evolution.

We All Want to Be Young from box1824 on Vimeo.

The body of the film is comprised of movie scenes and numerous cultural fragments, gracefully thrown on the screen. This is perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the piece. Its high energy stems from something the world's greatest DJs have been familiar with for quite a long time: themash-up. The mix-and-match overlaps of cultural fragments define a new order of meaning, because not only are the images involved illustrative, but they also have a context background in our minds and in the mind of culture itself. The voiceover creates guidance in meaning, but the side stories are created by images 'stolen' from the cultural screen.

Beyond the aesthetic purposes of a DJ’s tricks, the most relevant essence of mash-ups arises when they are used to reveal peculiar kind of ethics; in this case: the youth ethics. As spectators of the piece, we experience a sense of guidance. We understand a sequence: the birth and evolution of the 'spirit of youth' along the course of time. 

 

The spirit of youth’s firstness: 

The seed of rebellion that had been planted in the 1950s finally breaks through in the 1960s, taking root in the 1970s.  In this time, the new idea of youth is expressed in firstness, striking the world with a new order which can only be felt, not yet explained. This is the moment when the idea of the 'spirit of youth' comes to fruition and begins to grow, in power and influence. At this point, although culture bears a strong expression of the 'spirit of youth', its signified is still vague; as vague and as powerful as the words of order that mark the birth of this new paradigm: Freedom, Peace and Love.

 

The spirit of youth’s secondness: 

The 1980s introduce the imperative of consumption, fascinating young people, who become voracious consumers. Now, after winning freedom of expression and gaining a measure of power within the system, youth not only becomes consumer, but is also consumed. The image of youth is systematically engulfed by market logic, and this phenomenon expands naturally over the course of the following decades.  We may say that this new idea of youth comes into secondness with culture.  Its relationship with the cultural order is by now intense, to the point when youth and culture cannot be told apart; the two have become firmly locked into a feedback loop. The notion of tradition becomes obsolete. Everything is being recreated.


The spirit of youth’s thirdness:

The plot thickens. The 'physical' exchange between youth and culture is intensified, in the 1990s and 2000s, when technology expands at the center of this system. More than subject and spectator, the youth is now the programmer and the program of the new order. While technology appears to be an encoded system for the grown-up world, youth regards it as something simple and natural.  Far from the revolutionaries and rebels of yesteryear, we have come to identify them as the 'digital natives', almost as a form of cult or an evolution into some nearly post-human being. 'Digital natives' handle information the way we handle our biological needs: naturally. But our wonderment is merely youth deification: it essentially disregards the challenges and troubles this generation goes through, finding itself in a world that dreams of soft, but is in fact much harder than it looks.

 

The manifesto of now:

On the other hand, we do handle information more naturally than previous generations did. In a way, we are the youth (or the idea of youth) in its state of thirdness, armed with the critical capacity to look at the system and at ourselves.

We have become a kind of metaculture; one that is able to analyse itself with the materials it gets from its very culture. We are the multifacet of punks, grunge kids, skaters, surfers, clubbers, hipsters, gipsters, and so many others. We get to experience whatever we want through our individuality, but we lack the authentic, the original. We have a full range of styles laid out to our convenience, and the only originality we get to experience is mixing and matching. These mash-ups are used to create new, aesthetically pleasant hybrids, but, in order to gain critical intelligence in the face of history, we must learn how to organize them. Only then will we be able to lead mankind into an actually new world.

This video does that. Young people today think of strategies; they reflect and integrate with the framework.  I am hoping the first global and pragmatic youth is able to really cause a fissure in human culture and finally realise the founding dreams of its spirit: Freedom, Peace and Love. It seems we now understand these words not only as distant ideals, in firstness, but as ideals which are now active and alive within culture, disguised as other words. Food for thought: could it be that the good old Freedom, Peace and Love are hidden in the buzz words: Individuality, Sustainability and Cooperation? In the end, it seems the spirit of youth has been helpful to everyone. Now that it is over 40, the 'spirit of youth' may finally be old enough to take the whole world in its hands.

 

© João Cavalcanti 2010

Posted in Americas, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Sequencing, Socioeconomics, Technology, Uncategorized | No Comments »

I am Saudi Woman, hear me roar

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

The image of women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the West, and the world generally, is strongly associated with being covered in black. Women were hidden in several ways — not only was a Saudi woman's face hidden but even her voice was not supposed to come out in public. In some segments of the culture, even a woman's name was not supposed to be mentioned.

Beginning with the education drive launched in the 1960s by King Faisal, many things have changed. The illiteracy of Saudi women was eroded and increasing numbers of girls went on to higher education. Some pioneers took up public positions as radio or TV presenters, as well as prominent jobs in various organizations. However, in KSA a woman was still supposed to obey her husband and support him without even taking any credit. She was supposed to bear burdens and sacrifices in silence.

Outside the home the Saudi woman could work as a teacher in girls-only schools or colleges. By the 1980s she could also have clerical jobs in ladies-only bank branches or hospitals. The medical field was actually one of the first sectors to open to women. After all, in a gender-segregated society, women needed women doctors to tend to them. But in all these professional environments there was a glass cubicle containing women as the restrictions on visibility remained dominant.

It took a number of economic and cultural variables as well as the personal leadership of King Abdullah to finally tip the scales. Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, made a point of pushing women to the fore on several public occasions — for example, by including speeches from women (who were still visually out of sight) at some events. Then he started to appear in photos taken at unsegregated gatherings — for example, when he attended the graduation ceremony of the medical school in Riyadh. This sent strong signals to men and women alike that women can come out now, and participate actively in life.

The media has played an important role in creating and feeding this movement. Saudi had female radio and TV presenters for quite a while, but in recent years some of them have become superstars. For example, because of her role as co-host on the popular TV show Kalam Nawaem (Softly Speaking; think of The View), Muna AbuSulayman [shown above; she's now head of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal's philanthropic organization], has been promoted as the 'Saudi Oprah.'

Saudi TV stations have started to compete in developing programs featuring high-achieving Saudi women., and the pages of Saudi newspapers are often splashed with photos of women, albeit always wearing the traditional abayah and headwear covering at least part of the hair. But even the abayahs are becoming more and more colorful and ‘visible’ (both in design and actual colors). They are going beyond being ‘covers’ to being also a personal expression of style. Saudi girls and women are now flooded with signals shifting their paradigm and giving a new code — 'The sky is the limit' — for what it means to be a ‘Saudi woman’.

This is not to suggest that all Saudi women are rushing out to seek a career; still, they are starting to see themselves and their roles differently. I've interviewed hundreds of women, and I'm struck by how differently their self-perception is today, compared with what it was a decade ago. The Saudi woman now wants to believe that she has an active role in her own life. How does she realize this new self-image? Sometimes through seeking to be a high-achieving career woman, but also through cooking or house-cleaning, or in allowing herself to indulge in little luxuries. Also, she's more insistent, now, on participating actively in family decisions — from which brands to select to raising the children, to choosing where to live.

In the KSA we're seeing the emergence of a media-created role model: super-women who attain the highest educations and go on to illustrious careers while remaining perfect wives, mothers, and devout Muslims. These and other communications that reflect the Saudi woman's new self-perception are generally more attractive than those that depict women as ignored, unappreciated, or weak. Saudi women are learning they can roar; it's interesting to see the culture shift in order to accommodate and encourage this movement.

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Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Beauty Codes in India & the UK

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Semionaut presents a back-and-forth between regular contributors Hamsini Shivakumar (India) and Louise Jolly (UK), on the topic of beauty codes in their respective cultures.

 

***

1. What makes the idea of perfect beauty so powerful in your culture?

Louise: The idea of perfect beauty is a powerful and tenacious myth in so far as it promises immunity to the decay and deterioration of the physical realm. Succeeding in the ‘perfect beauty’ game means you appear to have overcome disease, ageing and death, which are our greatest fears. So ‘perfect beauty’ is about control and power as much as sexuality.

Hamsini: In India too, the appeal of ‘perfect beauty’ is about control, power and sexuality.  It is about using the power of science and technology in the pursuit of personal progress. Today, a woman’s face and figure are proven to enhance her earning power and her social status and esteem. Perfect beauty is an alluring symbol of women’s empowerment, to acquire the kind of beauty that can get the world to dance to her tune.

2. What are the codes of ‘perfect beauty’ in your culture?

Hamsini: The key code of perfection here is flawlessness. Skin that is flawless — no marks, no spots, no wrinkles, no dark circles, fair, perfect skin. Hair that is thick, strong, supple, flowing etc., etc. Science and technology are being used to eliminate the flaws that stand between the woman and the ideal of perfection. This is the role of products and of higher-order dermatological procedures. To support this, now all hair care and skin care products use the communication code of ‘measurable results’. All ads are full of the demos and cut-aways of skin layers and hair shafts showing the ‘magic’ of science in action, followed by the results — hair is x% stronger, skin is x times fairer and so on.  

Louise: One code that’s noticeable currently in UK culture is ‘performance’. ‘Perfect beauty’ doesn’t just mean concealing imperfections with an external layer (for instance, of make-up or face cream). Instead, it’s about bringing internal processes to an optimum level of performance: for instance, boosting cell metabolism. In this sense, ‘perfect beauty’ is like a top-performing car engine, rather than just a flawless, pretty surface.

3. What are the codes of ‘real beauty’? Is it a strong alternative or counter-point?
 

Louise: Dove has created an understanding of ‘real beauty’ that’s all about psychological authenticity — revealing the real person underneath the skin. While it’s won many fans, the code faces two conceptual problems. Firstly, do beauty consumers really go for the idea of a ‘true self’, or do they prefer the mutability that comes with the concept of self-as-construct (a ‘pick and mix’ of identifications and fantasies)? And secondly, it’s hard for brands to sell products unless they’re offering some form of transformation or improvement. So Dove is now turning to ideas of clinical efficacy and expertise — as in its new global hair platform ‘Damage Therapy’ [example above].

Hamsini:  Dove’s campaign for real beauty never really took off in India and Unilever ran it in a very limited way here. While women here always acknowledge the importance of inner beauty for a woman, meaning not losing intrinsic feminine qualities such as caring, nurturing, sensitivity, that does not make a strong selling proposition for beauty brands — which are expected to aid in visible improvement or transformation of looks.

4. Are any brands or celebrities moving into new territory?

Hamsini: In India, the movie stars continue to be the aspirational beacons and icons and Aishwarya Rai [shown above] continues to reign supreme as the most beautiful woman in India. She is herself a vision of perfect beauty. The media often presents the woman of substance as a counter-point to the perfect and glamorous beauty of the movie stars. These are high-achiever women in various fields who are not conventionally good-looking at all, but focus on presenting their own looks in the most attractive manner. 

Louise: In the UK, American celebrities like Dita von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Lady Gaga have been very influential in shaping beauty codes. These icons challenge the opposition between ‘real beauty’ and ‘perfect beauty’ by offering highly constructed forms of beauty that remain idiosyncratic and unique. In other words, they’re neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘real’, which opens up another option for women: self-construction that doesn’t aspire to perfection.

5. Final thoughts

Louise: From what you say, Hamsini, it seems that science and technology are crucial to beauty discourse in India — almost as if the role of flawless beauty is to manifest the power of the technology you can harness (as much as technology just playing a support role to beauty). It also struck me that you brought up the idea of beauty as enhancing earning power and personal progress — so contributing to women’s success in public life. Yet, in an interesting contradiction, the media still distinguishes  between ‘beautiful/glamorous’ women and their ‘intelligent/successful/substantial’ counterparts — going back to the old opposition between ‘pretty’ and ‘clever’ in femininity.

Hamsini: Couple of things struck me as interesting in your analysis, Louise. The first is just how compelling the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty is in a capitalist, consumerist society — for various reasons. The second idea is that of beauty as power, something that is as old as mankind, perhaps — but now democratized and available to all women who have the inclination and the money. The third idea is to be able to choose your own ideal of beauty and remake yourself to that — an idea which requires the woman to have tremendous confidence in herself as a social leader. I wonder if in a hierarchical society like India, women will warm up to the thought of being so singular.

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Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

NASA Scientists announce…

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A new reason for germophobes to feel anxious!

In the US in recent years, anti-bacterial product advertising has moved steadily away from George W. Bush-style coding (military precision, a besieged mentality, the depiction of bacteria, germs, viruses as alien intruders) towards Barack Obama-style coding (efficiency, connective thinking, dialogue, reasonableness, awareness of complexity). To use language borrowed from Raymond Williams by Semiotic Solutions, in US antibac coding lately, overkill has been trending "residual" while underkill has been trending "emergent." Like the repressed, however, the residual always returns.

Purell's ad, released in record time after yesterday's announcement that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is alien to all other life forms as we've known them, is a perfect example of the use of satire (signaled, in this TV spot, by a tone of exaggerated portentousness) to reboot and leverage a played-out cultural or communications code. Overkill's comeback begins… now. Click on the "full story" link below to view the ad.

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Emergence, Semiotics | No Comments »

Meet the Herbivores

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Gender relations have emerged in Japan as a topic of heated debate, not least due to the emergence of what have come to be referred to as the ‘herbivores’: a generation of young men who shirk traditional notions of masculinity in favour of a softer, more gender neutral perspective on life. If media polls are anything to go by, up to 75% of all males aged 20-35 identify with the “herbivore” mentality.

A fiercely patriarchal society, the traditional Japanese masculine archetype is physically and emotionally strong, fiercely competitive, decisive and hardworking. A man’s path in life is to provide for his family and stay loyal to his employer, making the social and financial ambitions of both his society and his company his own. The aspirational man is to study hard, enter university, find employment at a well established Japanese company and slog it out until he is either retired or dead (in more than a few cases, from overwork). Women are objects to be wooed and wined with lavish lack of restraint, the extravagance of the chase being a measure of the man’s success and masculine prowess.

Enter the herbivore. Products of the economic turmoil of the post-bubble era, employment was never a given for them and a university degree could just as easily be a ticket to NEET-dom as a door to financial stability. With the demise of corporate infallibility the Way carved out for them by their fathers has come to appear increasingly precarious and in the relatively comfortable society that is modern Japan, suddenly the sacrifices entailed pose an unattractive risk. Coinciding with this shift has been the emergence of the imported notion of gender equality, which has seen an explosion in female ‘career women’ stealing coveted corporate posts and slowly diluting the long established male egoistic culture with the aid of a fresh new batch of sexual harassment laws. A lot has changed in a short space of time and true to the nature of humanity, so too has man.

Today’s herbivore no longer craves the protein of the corporate pay packet nor the status that derives from it. He shuns both the flirtatious hunt for female flesh and the desire to lurk amidst the smoky veil of late night gentlemen’s club dens. A ‘grass-eater’, he is more cool and casual on many fronts and much less apt to go gung-ho on pretty much anything at all.

Over and above this though, the exact perimeters of herbivore-hood are equivocal and there are as many definitions are there are subjects. Some typically observed characteristics include:

Lack of sexual aggression: AXE deodorants found 22% of a sample of 20yr old Japanese males to have never had girlfriends. Other surveys claim to have found 73% to have never had sex. Women’s magazines are alive with frustrated war stories of ‘fruitless’ rendezvous and Tenga’s Egg series of adult toys are breaking all sales records as they proffer a new culture of solitary pleasure

High risk aversion: in a society where risk no longer brings surefire return, both personal and financial risk is avoided wherever possible. You won’t see the herbivore taking on a hefty loan for a sexy new sports car, or wanting to drive it fast even if he did

Domestic focus: travel is less about exotic destinations and more about chilling in one’s own backyard. Family takes priority to the company or economy, the herbivore opting to head home after work while his father stays back late drinking with clients and colleagues

Keen hobbyists: traditionally female pursuits are no longer out of bounds — Saturday night may be spent cooking up a storm rather than spending up big at the hottest spots downtown

‘No sweat’ mindset: the herbivore is more cooperative than competitive. Ambition is aggressive, sweat is smelly and exertion is uncool

A distinct sense of health and hygiene: heavy smoking and drinking is out, cosmetics and self care are in. Fragrance and freshness take on a newly heightened importance as salons emerge as the new dark smoky room.

So is masculinity dead in Japan? Perhaps. But more likely it’s just hit an extreme spot in a process of long-term social adjustment. The rigidity of the masculine archetype has felt stale for decades now and despite the frustrations of parents and female counterparts, change in this case is probably not necessarily such a bad thing. Herbivores are certainly welcome to cook for me anytime.

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

The Sociability of Colour

Friday, November 26th, 2010

The way colour theory is taught is rapidly evolving. I remember the long and lonely nights I spent, years ago while studying graphic design, painting hundreds of colour wheels. My professors believed that the only way to learn the basic principles of colour theory was by doing such paintings until you got all the colours right. These practices are long gone, thanks to the emergence of online applications that not only discuss and analyse basic notions and expressions in colour theory, but also fledgling designers learn, create and apply colour principles to real projects.

One of the applications that is changing the way we engage with colour is Kuler, a free web-hosted programme designed by Adobe, which is all about integration of colour theory and its application to individual projects. Kuler is designed for experimenting, creating and sharing colour palettes based on predefined colour parameters by using an interactive colour wheel. Some might argue that similar applications have been around for quite a while, but Kuler is unique in its aim to popularize the mechanics of colour, by clearly visualising how it works and adding social features that allow users browse and rate other people’s palettes. It is like iTunes or Flickr but with colour. The user-friendly interface makes colour accessible to non-design experts, which helps to build a more sociable use of colour. Without a doubt, learning and applying colour theories via Kuler is a far more inviting and sociable experience than drawing innumerable colour palettes by hand.

The idea of a community based around colour is nothing new. ColourLovers was one of the first communities to be built around the idea of colour and pattern sharing. What differentiates Kuler from such communities is the way in which it puts the individual at the centre of a social experience. Kuler's interface and language — “my Kuler”, “my value” — invites active involvement, by creating a sense of belonging via personal contribution to the colour community. Kuler is also getting into the trends space, not only by the multiple associations suggested by its name but by adding simple interactive features that help users visualise what is going on globally with colour. When you get non-experts experimenting and socialising with colour, the potential for following and spreading colour trends across the world becomes a real transformation in how we engage with colour. Kuler’s interface makes invisible cultural dynamics of meaning and representation of colour visible, by opening up the ability to track colour trends, building a more precise point of view about design now, and bringing insights for future designs.

What attracts me to Kuler is not only what it does as a tool, but the thinking behind what people are doing with it, what people are getting from it, how people interact with it, and most importantly, what matters to people who use it. Kuler is opening new discussions around the theorisation and application of colour, exploring the visualisation of how people are expressing themselves through colour, and making colour schemes social. This application is opening a new path in the creation of contemporary politics of mapping and visualisation of colour experiences in a globalized world.

If Kuler wants to take the concept of community a step further, it might need to face the visual challenges of dealing with ambiguity, otherness and multi-dimensionality of the colour experience. Until then, Kuler is pioneering new paradigms in visual culture representation, and bringing the world of design and appreciation of colour closer to the non-experts.

Posted in Art & Design, Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies | 2 Comments »

Drinking Collagen

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

In China, Japan and Malaysia women are drinking collagen to fight the signs of ageing.  Slogans in Beijing and Shanghai departments stores promise: "Take a collagen drink for 30 days and have skin as soft as a baby's".  The Gilgamesh pan-Asian restaurant in North London is also promising to introduce collagen-infused dishes before the end of 2010. 

The inside-outside beauty dynamic becomes increasingly supple as the skin gets semiotically reconstituted as a kind of sentient membrane that allows traffic between inside subject and outside object worlds increasingly to pass both ways. If this traffic has, in one sense, an almost science fictional feel it is simultaneously underwritten by codes of natural authenticity.  So authentic and natural is the DHC China cosmetic firm's pale yellow juice, for example, that it comes with an explanation that the collagen is taken from fish – and a promise that the drink won't taste fishy. 

Posted in Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Technology | No Comments »

Collective Expressions

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Crowds are everywhere at the moment. Spontaneous gatherings are spreading like wildfire across advertising, cultural events, and publishing.

With social networking on the rise, there’s an obvious reason for communications companies to take an interest in the crowd. The rapid spread of viral sharing has found expression in the ‘flash mob’ genre famously adopted by T-Mobile in the UK, with the brand’s Liverpool Street station mass dance. Sony Ericsson was quick to follow with its mass procession of people on space hoppers.

It’s not just happening in the communications sector. More widely, crowds are now seen as sources of spontaneous expression, intelligence, and creativity.

For instance, The Wisdom of Crowds, a pop-sociology book by James Surowiecki, talks about how large groups of people, by providing a mass aggregate of opinion, ‘know’ more than individuals ever can.

And ‘meaning in numbers’ is even extending to the domain of personal care — previously the territory of the isolated beauty-seeker gazing in her mirror. An example is Vaseline’s global platform ‘Your skin is amazing’, with its ads [detail below] featuring hundreds of bodies intertwined into a ‘sea of skin’. 

Bringing collective expression into the domain of skincare represents a decisive shift in the way we imagine the body. For Vaseline, skin is now to be valued and loved as part of our ‘common wealth’ — a shared human treasure, rather than an individually-owned object of display and pride.

On the British cultural scene, the rising popularity of summer music festivals also demonstrates the new value placed on collective congregation and shared expression. This summer’s Big Chill music and arts festival was attended by Spencer Tunick, the photographer of vast gatherings of naked bodies — who took a panoramic shot of massed naked festival-goers. The crowd created and constructed within the bigger crowd of the festival — it would be hard to find a clearer expression of the theme at work.

Spencer Tunick’s panoramas of mass nakedness and Vaseline’s ‘sea of skin’ seem to be saying something very similar: forget the age of the ‘private’, and of individual discrimination — we’re now in an era when collective expression carries more weight. The theme of nakedness only adds to the implicit message: it’s time to strip away the illusions of individuality and separateness, and join in a shared humanity.

It takes us a long way from the 20th-century critical-modernist idea that the ‘mass’ was necessarily inert, passive, and stupid. Within this framework, intelligence or creativity lay with the ‘one’, or the small cabal: outsiders who used the margins to probe what was really going on.

But is the celebration of the crowd really such a radical departure — or does it simply reflect a new humanism? In a sense, rather than dispersing the ‘unified subject’ so heavily criticised in academia, the crowd revives it in a many-headed form. 

It’s true that the idea of humanity produced in the Vaseline campaign and the flash mob genre asks us to ascribe creativity, art, and expression to the many rather than to the lone genius. The underlying narcissism, though, remains the same, constructing humanity as a collective superstar, with powers and qualities worthy of constant marvelling.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 4 Comments »

Show Me the Molecule

Monday, November 8th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

In US shampoo communications, signifers of vigorous activity unseen by the naked eye are mainstream and routine. The weakest parts of hair cuticles are targeted and fortified by Aveeno's wheat-complex formula, one ad claims; as evidence, we're shown microscopic-esque Before/After images of one such cuticle. A Vive Pro ad boasts that the product nourishes hair with royal jelly — the efficacy of which is illustrated by a Table of Elements-style honeycomb, the cells of which read "Proteins," "Omega 3 & 6," "Glucose," and so forth.

Other products dive even deeper, down to the cellular level — where a shampoo's ionic, nanorobotic, or I-don't-know-whatic technology causes the cells within a single strand of hair to oscillate through rejuvenating vibrational motions. Not since Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulator and early Cold War sci-fi has vibrational magic-science been such a popular phenomenon. One L'Oreal TV spot (here's the Japanese-dubbed version) sends viewers speeding through a hydra-collagen protein/molecule, as though we're passengers aboard the miniaturized submarine in Fantastic Voyage. (Only even smaller, since the Proteus was navigating the bloodstream.) Alas, there's no Raquel Welch along for this ride.

What's next? Spooky action at a distance? Interactions between moving charges mediated by propagating deformations of an electromagnetic field? Quantum pseudo-telepathy? Maybe — but not until science fiction popularizes such concepts. However, this spring, when I saw Iron Man 2, in which Tony Stark uses a jury-rigged particle accelerator to synthesize a new element, I predicted that shampoo brands would hasten to make similar claims.

It took them a few months, but I'm pleased to report that Head & Shoulders has risen to the challenge with its latest print ad featuring Super Bowl champ Troy Polamalu. See below.

OK, the Polamolecule isn't exactly a new element. But it's a step in that direction — so stay tuned! There are sure to be more molecular breakthroughs announced via shampoo communications in 2011.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Emergence, Header Navigation, Semiotics | 8 Comments »

Globish and English

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

 

It’s fortunate for the English that they happen to speak American. But for that historical accident post-imperial decline would have been steeper, an economy devastated by fraudulent bankers (AKA “financial instruments of imponderable complexity combined with the effect of digital globalisation”) and printing more money (“quantitative easing”) would be in even worse shape. In this context an irritating English behaviour (shared by some Americans) is to over-complicate Globish, English's accessible lingua franca version, with obscure local references, ironies and wordplays. Even UK and US semioticians are prone to this before they evolve more global souls. The symptoms are linguistic dandyism, verbal tics, jargonistic Tourettes – emperor’s new clothes of showbiz quasi-science. Fact is if you don’t want to communicate you’re not a semiotician. Better be a mime artist or a hairdresser. Or a beautician.
 
If however, like me, you enjoy engaging with some of these deviations from standard Globish – if you’re planning a visit to London, for example – here are a few tips to help demystify otherwise unhelpful obscurities.
 
Pardon my French
 
This sketch takes some liberties with everyday obscenity. If this offends, don’t read on. Should you wish to experiment with phrases you fear may cause offence to English or American interlocutors, lapses in decorum will always be forgiven if you add the idiom “pardon my French”. And remember an American will not understand ‘arsehole’ – the correct appelation is ‘asshole’.
 
At the Bar
 
Traditional pleasantries for putting a London barman at ease include “Are your nuts fresh?” (eyeline to the peanuts not the groin) and “Do you have cold Pils?” (working in roughly the same figurative area while accessing the English affection for tasteless beer – works best with a subtle German inflection to the voice). At more fashionable lifestyle bars try ordering a cool new cocktail like Tiny Todger, the one inspired by Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s intimate observations on Mick Jagger’s penis in his recent autobiography – jump the queue at the bar and shout “Mine’s a Tiny Todger!” In this Jagger is an iconic metaphor for England today and perpetuates a trend initiated by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. We now know that it wasn’t WMDs or even regime change that lay behind Shock and Awe. Tiny todgers scuppered Rumsfeld and Condi Rice’s initial plan for Blair and Bush to do man to man combat with bin Laden and Mullah Omar in the desert, in a cage like the one used in Mel Gibson's  Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.  With the same Tina Turner “We Don’t Need Another Hero” soundtrack. It’s a tough call but my money would have been on Omar, unless Blair’s lisp triggered unconscious recollections of Mike Tyson’s. If the Cockney barman is female, try admiring her breasts and saying “tickle your arse with a feather”. She will reply “You what?” in feigned indignation, to which the appropriate response is “Particularly nasty weather”. Only try that one if it’s raining. Always remember that peanuts in bowls on bars in English pubs are 75 percent urine by weight. Try a sealed branded variety. How about Nobby’s Nuts?
 
nobby
 
Muslims, Chavs and Luvvies
 
Sexism, racism, ageism, antisemitism and homophobia are all punishable in England by ostracism from polite (‘luvvie’) society. It’s expected, however, that people will be casually and openly offensive about Muslims and the working class. According to official ideology the latter ceased to exist in 1986 yet they are universally recognised and publicly derided as ‘Chavs’, whose cultural positioning is below that of the Ainu in Japan, the Australian aborigines or the indigenous and largely demoralised Celtic native Britons – the Irish, Scots and Welsh. In bourgeois ideology Chavs are characterised by obesity, extensive tattooing and piercing, shaved heads and football shirts in the male, and ironic uncouthness, enthusiastic adoption of hardcore pornography signifiers plus feisty abnegation of traditional femininity in the female. A London-based Russian female semiotician (unscientifically and off the record) comments: “If you want to understand why so many English men are gay, look at the women”.  Chavs used to wear Burberry but Abercrombie & Fitch and Superdry are current brands of choice. Luvvies are everybody else – verbally articulate people with no sense of fashion or rhythm.
 
English identity, despite attempts at disguise, tends towards the Luvvie, Chav or Muslim.  After the military adventurism, crimes of bankers and current attempts to make the population at large deal with the tab for years to come, the systematic dismantling  (under the guise of necessity rather than political choice) of what remained from the post-World War 2 vision of a fairer social order – after all this it is wise to approach carefully not expecting too much in terms of optimism, ebullience, creativity, good will. 
 
The green shots will emerge in the cracks and the synergies. Traditional working-class solidarity, scepticism, resistance (helped by new media) to propaganda and escapist pap media, rediscovery of industrial and other forms of activism. The openness, tolerance, responsibility, shared humanity and progressive attitude traditionally associated with middle-class professionals – commitment to equality and fraternity beyond a fetishising of liberty alone (particularly the neoliberal distortion of this into economic liberalisation). From the positive Muslim perspective harmony, respect, active caring for those less privileged, a powerful alternative vision to the reductiveness of market individualism, materialism, image and lifestyle aspiration. For now just look out for a kind of Islam-respecting luvvie-chav synergising process. Slavoj Zizek’s First as Tragedy Then as Farce is a helpful start point. Remember when you see England’s Muslim-scapegoating front-page tabloid headlines that some of the forerunners of these journalists and press lords were Hitler sympathisers in the 1930s. And remember Roland Barthes who was probably at his most Englsh when he wrote in Mythologies in the 1950s that the best semiology is also SEMIOCLASM. This means vigilance and resistance at every turn, breaking open mystifying language and imagery, refusing to let it function as it would wish – to slide past our critical faculties by appearing perfectly ‘natural’ and uncontestable.
 
© Malcolm Evans  2010

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 5 Comments »

Check Mate

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Clever has the brains. Stupid has the balls. Smart has the plans. But stupid has the stories. Smart goes with the head. Stupid, the heart. This, at least, is how the world looks according to Diesel. Their recent campaign — prominent almost to the point of obtrusiveness — repositions foolhardiness as a virtue. By encouraging flippancy, and denouncing tact, Diesel places reason in the dock. Thing is, it’s a show trial. The jury are all wearing American Indian headdresses.

I’ve noticed a good deal of push-back against this campaign. Many of the people I speak with about it evince a kind of mild fury. At a time like this, how could a brand be so irresponsible? How could a brand be so downright…stupid?

And yet, that seems to be the point. It all fits rather nicely. For the Diesel philosophy to hold any ground at all, the campaign ethos needs to be as consistently idiotic as the message it’s promoting. Promote stupidity and in the midst of climatic and economic crisis? It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s perfect.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just the recklessness of the Diesel mentality that grinds on people. We’re being asked to admire the imprudent, to throw caution and our knickers (oo-eer) to the wind. Ads focus on reminding us of the appeal of daftness. But they steer clear of detailing the monotony of intelligence on which this endorsement relies. The elephant in the room arrives in the shape of a colossal cranium. And here’s where G-Star RAW come in.

On first appearances, G-Star’s recent output doesn’t seem anything special. Their greyscale image of a moody teenager can be routinely encountered on almost any London Underground platform. Upright he stands, hands behind back, delivering a seething screwface at anyone who catches his eye. To some, however (especially Norwegians, towards whom I’ve lately been feeling an inexplicable fondness), this figure will be instantly recognizable. It’s Magnus Carlsen, currently the world chess number two, officially declared a Grandmaster aged just thirteen.

He looks like he might have landed his first knockout blow around that time too. Carlsen’s face is wound into a tight ball of indignation. He looks about to crack. Smart — this coding is suggesting — can also be savage. This is an intelligence that spills into ire. What’s more it’s apolitical, undirected. G-Star have transposed the mindless irreverence of Diesel’s idiots and planted it on the face of one of the world’s most fascinating young prodigies.

Carlsen doesn’t clearly sit on the nerd table. Broaches, horn-rims and dynamite quiffs run up against a bruiser who looks like he eats polka-dot socks for breakfast. If Diesel want us to give the thumbs down to a certain version of nerdiness, they had better check the nerds haven’t got there first. Currently, they are relying on a quickly dating understanding of braininess to promote their own personal brand of horseplay. It’s this that makes the campaign feel so tired — not the counterintuitive radicalism that supposedly lies at its core.

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Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation | 1 Comment »

Icon Game

Friday, October 29th, 2010

Once upon a time, it was taken for granted that when a mob toppled and decapitated a despot's effigy/icon (when the statue of Napoleon on the Vendôme column was toppled in 1871, the emperor's head was said to have rolled away like a pumpkin), they could be regarded as active agents sending a message: We demand a form of government in which all political power isn't lodged with a single head of state. However, iconicity ain't what it used to be — and neither is statue-toppling.

At the center of the much-admired debut trailer for Fable III, an Xbox 360 action role-playing videogame released three days ago in the United States and today in Europe, a statue of Albion's tyrannical King Logan is toppled by Logan's brother, a revolutionary leader named "Hero" who is the game's playable protagonist. To the soundtrack of the Black Angels' "Young Men Dead," Hero (who dresses a lot like the forgotten superhero Fighting Yank) clambers atop the statue's head and fires his pistol into the air while glaring up at Logan's castle's ramparts. He's a free agent, and he's communicating a message — right?

 

 

Maybe not. These days, biosemioticians would have us believe that icons are meaning-bearing sign vehicles whose purpose it is — among humans and animals alike — to elicit or provoke, at a preconscious level, a particular space-time interaction. Ants, to employ an example favored by biosemiotics booster Thomas A. Sebeok, don't choose to "milk" aphids for honeydew, but are impelled to do so by the iconicity of the aphid's rear end (which, one should explain, apparently resembles an ant's head). From a biosemiotic perspective, iconicity is about cognitive modeling, not communication. Therefore shouldn't we posit that a despot's effigy first commands us to worship and obey the despot… and then, at some later date, commands us to oust and murder him?

Here in the 21st century, the notion that an icon can impel us to behave in a certain way sounds absurd. However, if I've learned anything from Significant Objects, an experiment in literary publishing and exchange-value manipulation that I co-founded in 2009, it's that we postmodern types are highly susceptible to the glamour of objects we recognize as totems, talismans, and idols. Also, the last time I saw a despot's statue toppled — I was working at The Boston Globe, in April 2003, when a colleague turned on the wall-mounted TV so that we could watch Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad get yanked from its pedestal — the message beamed into my archicortex was Meet the new boss, same as the old boss rather than Sic semper tyrannis. Perhaps it was because the Marines whose armored vehicle had done the toppling first draped the statue's head with an American flag, then quickly removed it — i.e., so the toppling would look like a local crowdsourced action as opposed to a foreign military one. Did Saddam's statue command the Marines to screw up an otherwise terrific piece of propaganda? At any rate, the statue seemed "almost to will its own collapse," as one scholar of iconicity put it.

Now that Iraq has turned into a Vietnam-like quagmire, and now that the excitement of Barack Obama's election has curdled somewhat, Americans aren't easily impressed by the toppling of despots' statues. The visionary creator of Fable III, Peter Molyneux, has anticipated this sociopolitical moment. He tells us that, in conceiving of the sequel to the more straightforward Fable II (2008), he decided that "the most interesting thing is what happens after the battle…. what it's like to be king." Only the first half of Fable III is devoted to overthrowing King Logan. In order to do so, Hero must gain the people of Albion's support, and then, during the game's second half, the player must choose whether or not to follow up on those promises. At the risk of losing Albion's approval. Hero must make decisions about crime, poverty, taxation, the death penalty… not to mention the threat of war with a Middle Eastern-style neighbor country. It's all too easy, in other words, for Hero himself to become a despot.

At which point, one assumes, laboring under an obscure but powerful compulsion, he'll erect a giant statue of himself.

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Clutter Panic!

Monday, October 25th, 2010

American lifestyle magazines and reality shows are relentlessly on-message, at the moment, when it comes to clutter. Forget any romantic notions about the artist/genius whose studio/office looks like a disaster zone, or the un-uptight family (e.g., the Sycamores in Frank Capra's 1938 comedy You Can't Take it With You, or George Bailey's happy family in It's A Wonderful Life) that collectively refuses to stress out about domestic disorder. The media's message today is 100% modern, all business: Clutter is never OK.

The aesthetic of the spa, which is evoked by the layout of magazines like Real Simple and Martha Stewart's Body+Soul, is a modernist one: spartan, lots of white space, restful for the eyes because there's so little to see. Le Corbusier described a “white world” of precision, clarity, and order, and a “brown world” that is cluttered and muddled; the former is modernist, the latter romantic. But the former is the aesthetic of Dabney Coleman's evil corporate boss in Nine to Five (1980); the latter is Lily Tomlin's heroic aesthetic in that movie. The former is the Death Star aesthetic of the bad guys in Star Wars; the latter is the Millennium Falcon/Tattooine aesthetic. Which side of the Force are you on?*

 

From the dominant cultural perspective, clutter is a symptom and sign of an out-of-control, excessive lifestyle. There's also a social class angle: yards littered with rusty vehicles, sprung couches, and lawn ornaments are the first thing to disappear when a working-class or poor neighborhood is gentrified. However, in recent years, the moral discourse around clutter — it dates back to the Puritans — has been medicalized, lent a scientific aura. The title page of a feature article (shown above) found in an issue of the magazine Weight Watchers speaks volumes about the mainstream anti-clutter position. "Getting a handle on clutter is the key to living better — and losing more [weight]."

As the author of the feature shown above puts it, "in the same way we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter." I'm pretty sure that this statement is what Aristotle would call an example of ignoratio elenchi, i.e., an argument characterized by a conclusion that does not logically follow from the stated premises… but let it pass. The dominant cultural theme is apparent: Men and women whose homes or workplaces aren't spartan and tidy are fatally, suicidally self-indulgent. In an economy that encourages workers to be rolling stones, it's forbidden to gather moss.

Many other magazine features, particularly in women's magazines, link clutter to psychological stress. In the same way we surround ourselves with clutter, one pseudo-expert after another warns, we overwhelm our fragile sense of wellbeing with mental clutter. Reality TV shows like TLC's Clean Sweep and A&E's Hoarders take this meme to its logical extreme: they visit the homes of obsessive-compulsive clutterers and, in doing so, encourage the viewer to ask him- or herself, "How close am I to being one of them?"

Despite my snarky tone, I'm not opposed to keeping one's household or workspace neat and tidy. Nor do I disagree that Americans consume too much, goods- and food-wise. However, marketers and others looking for an emergent way to signify psychological wellbeing or balanced lifestyle should think carefully before adopting the usual modernist aesthetic. A romantic, cluttered "brown" aesthetic is due for a comeback any time now.

* See Gareth Lewis's recent Semionaut post suggesting that in the UK it's not necessary to choose sides in the clutter vs. order culture-wars.

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Inevitable Parenting

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Last month, here in the United States, Fox TV premiered Raising Hope, a comedy series about Jimmy, a 23-year-old slacker who, with the unwilling assistance of his flawed family, must raise an infant daughter whom he previously didn't know existed. And today saw the release of the movie Life as We Know It, a romantic comedy about two single adults (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel) who reluctantly become caregivers to an orphaned girl when their best friends die in an accident. Out of what US cultural trend does this Hollywood meme — call it Accidental Parenting — spring?

Hope

We've seen variations on this plot before: Dwayne Johnson, in The Game Plan, is a playboy athlete who discovers that he has a young daughter; in Big Daddy, Adam Sandler is a slacker tollbooth collector who ends up parenting a friend's illegitimate child; in The Kid, Charlie Chaplin is a tramp who raises a child he finds abandoned in a trashcan. In these earlier movies, however, there is a certain amount of drama attending the accidental parent's decision whether or not to raise the child. In these new entertainments, the choice is a fait accompli. Now, the choosers find themselves chosen — by Fate, perhaps, or some other invisible hand.

This development is closely paralleled by the Keeping-My-Baby meme in US movies and TV shows. In the early 1970s, shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided, Mariel Hemingway played an accidentally pregnant teen who exercises her right to choose… and her choice was the one articulated by the made-for-TV movie's title: I Want to Keep My Baby. For the next 20 years, the decision whether or not to bring an unplanned and inconvenient child into the world was mined for dramatic effect in everything from the TV shows Murphy Brown, Beverly Hills 90210, and Party of Five to the movie Citizen Ruth to the 1986 Madonna hit "Papa Don't Preach."

A couple of years ago, without fanfare, the Keeping-My-Baby meme ended — and a new meme took its place. In recent movies like Juno and Knocked Up, accidentally pregnant young women keep their babies without deciding to — they just keep them. (In Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl's character won't allow the baby's father to say the word "abortion.") For whatever reason or reasons, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the American habitus — to use Bourdieu's term for that system of "dispositions" which influences our ability to make decisions at a pre-critical level — no longer permits any decision-making about abortion. Not even for dramatic purposes.

As Raising Hope and Life as We Know It would appear to indicate, we're witnessing a parallel shift, this year, when it comes to the Accidental Parenting meme. No matter how a child comes into your life, our mainstream entertainments would have us believe, you can not decide whether or not you will parent that child. Like death and taxes, in the US parenting is inevitable.

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Smart is the New Sexy

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

It is not the first time that an US sitcom has won so much popularity in China but The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) received unparalleled acclamation all over the country when Jim Parsons won the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series in 62nd Emmy Awards for his break-through performances as Shelton Cooper.

big bang

Young Chinese audiences are always big fans of US TV shows. However diversified programme types have cut the audience into smaller fans groups and only very few shows share widespread popularity across these segments. TBBT did not receive high recognition in its first season. The plot was considered a bit clichéd, centering on the relationship between a fat-witted blondie (Penny) and a group of boring, geeky high-IQ physicists. The turning point was the second season when the focus shifted away from the romance story to the geeks’ day to day life and particularly to Sheldon Cooper, a physicist with remarkably high IQ and very distinctive personality. By end of the scond season, TBBT was a huge hit and Shelton Cooper became the new role model for many young Chinese males, particularly the “home geeks” (Zhai Nan) who are characterized as follows:

–    Highly educated while lacking social communication skills especially with girls

–    Point-to-point day to day life (home – office), disconnected to the real world

–    Deeply involved in virtual communities, web surfing, online gaming, board games,
     comic books and cartoon animations. A China specific- interest is following their
     favorite US TV shows.

–    Involved and interested in IT technologies, products, tweaks and customizations.

–    Lightly obsessive-compulsive, self centric and emotionally vulnerable (due to one-
     child policy).

This generation was mostly born after 1980 and have lived through the era of the economic boom and one-child policy. They were ‘little emperors’ in childhood and have never faced any of the material shortages their parents did. They are smart, well-educated and ambitious. However when they get out of college they may encounter a wide gap between their expectations and reality. Harsh competition, soaring living costs and and an insubstantial welfare system mean they have to struggle for survival and this may consume their energy and passion for life. Hence many of them choose to immerse themselves in a small social circle with similar interests or values or escape to the virtual world to re-live their dreams. They live in a world of their own and feel happy to be seen as home geeks though the name implies a certain level of disapprobation.  

Contrary to the traditional image of geeks as boring, serious and somewhat idiotic in terms of social skills, TBBT depicts the life of home geeks as being actually full of fun, happiness and excitement. During their spare time these geeks live a colorful personal life, e.g. playing vintage games, reading comic books or doing weird and crazy experiments. They also hit on girls though often in an awkward manner. TBBT successfully refreshes the image of home geeks with which young Chinese audiences can find self-identification, while also featuring a happy, honest and simple life that Chinese viewers can long for as this has been missing from the hassle mundane life.

The influence of this TV show has already extended to multiple areas: The science facts introduced in the show have stimulated immediate Google surges, the T shirts Shelton was wearing become hot sale items, the “Penny knocking” and theme song are used as ring tones and message alarms. TBBT is establishing a lifestyle and will lead the embedded marketing among it’s followers – various props, gadgets, mugs, puzzle boxes that make appearances in the show could all have potential in this respect..

The US NBC TV show Chuck and UK Channel 4’s The IT Crowd also have similar settings involving home geeks. Chuck is more of a fantasy show in which the heroism is developed by the character’s special skills. It emphasizes that life changing (spy life, gun fighting, beautiful girls) will only happen with a huge transition from everyday normality. This small-time-people-goes-big scenario can only take place in dreams. The IT Crowd, employs extreme-sarcasm and black humor, both rarely adopted by Chinese youth.
 

 © Vivian Shi 2010 

 

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Unboxing

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

'Unboxing' is a viral marketing genre in which technology fans are shown taking products out of their packaging, commenting on each component as they go. There are thousands of 'unboxing' videos on youtube – all illustrating a strange cocktail of themes: the fetishism of unwrapping, the complex ethics of the gift, and the procured immediacy of the 'raw reaction'. 

See how Sony makes Christmas happen for a cool Maria Sharapova.

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iLOHAS

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Linking the iEverything phenomenon to LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) here's a packaging innovation already adopted by Coca Cola in Japan.  This is said to use 40% less plastic than other PET bottles. The iLOHAS bottle, brought to us by japantrends.com

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global/Local, Technology | 1 Comment »

Grafitti and the Grapheme

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Amble through Shoreditch or down Old Street in east London and you’d be hard-pressed not to run into one of Ben ‘EINE’ Flynn’s colourfully decorated shop-shutters. Since 2006 Flynn has been spray-painting solitary, emboldened, harlequin capitals across the rippling steel frontage of any jewellers or hardware store that will grant him permission. Middlesex Street now exhibits the entire (English) alphabet in one long back-to-back shop-front circuit. As the day’s trade winds to a close, the place starts to take on the surreally genial atmosphere of a primary school classroom. Somewhere along the line, the monadic alphabetic character has re-emerged as a significant cultural signifier.

alphabet

The 2007 paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections features a striking piece of cover art. The silhouetted hull of a cruise ship prowls towards us. A powderblue sunset sinks low in the background. You can perceive a lone figure standing at the deck’s edge. He could be admiring the view. He could well be about to jump. Title, author and statutory critical praise are printed in vivid whites and reds inside an oily black bubble of smoke gushing from the ship’s chimney. Even by industry standards (which are generally high), it’s a tight piece of production. 

Why, then, have the publishers of the 2010 edition (released in anticipation of Franzen’s new novel Freedom) done away with it altogether? What we get instead bears a conspicuous resemblance to one of EINE’s east London shutter works. A huge purple ‘C’ all but blots out the smoky white backdrop. A thumbnail image on the back cover suggests Freedom is set to reproduce this. We see a block black ‘F’, the title stomping in white capitals down the character’s backbone. The aesthete might think this retrogressive. And yet it feels right.

The study of the relationship between the ‘part’ and the ‘whole’ (or meronymic relations) has well-trodden roots in Euclidian geometry, Aristotle’s urban organicism and Nietzsche’s political thought. Aristotle, for example, understood the relationship between the individual and the city as a part-whole interaction. For him, the city was a natural organism. The relationship between the component parts (the Grecian subject) and the urban entirety was essentially the same as that which holds between the parts of a natural organism and the organism itself. 

Returning to the present, EINE’s experiment in meronymy makes a clear and certain sense in the context of London’s own endless splicing and congealment. Likewise, Franzen’s novels deal with that other restless organism: the all-American family. An emergent interest in the grapheme – the boldly isolated character – feasibly fits into an emergent cultural exploration around this question of parts and wholes. J.S. Mill – another philosopher who has written on this tangled relationship – outlined the idea of ‘emergence’: complex part-whole systems always retain the potential to generate fresh structures. In a typographic context such as this, that might mean new alphabets, new characters, and new ways of communicating through writing.  

© Gareth Lewis 2010 

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Tom Ford

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

A major international male icon at the turn of the 2010s Tom Ford represents unparalleled design and fashion flair combined with great business acumen. His personal glamour (a focus for both the male and female gaze) and critically acclaimed breakthrough from fashion and branded commercial communication into mainstream film directing with A Single Man (2010) makes him one of the most powerful and intriguing male symbols of his time.

Tom Ford Grey Vetiver

All the more because Tom Ford a) pioneers for gay men the discrete privilege long enjoyed by heterosexual males that one’s sexuality need not necessarily be core to the definition of one’s character & identity and b) stands aside, in terms of critical intelligence and comments on public record, from an unthinking commercialism and love of consumption proverbially associated not only with his chosen métier in the fashion/luxury industry but also with the Sex And the City era’s unholy alliance of postfeminism with camp male culture (‘you go, girl’, ‘shop, shop. shop’). A 2010 US public radio interview in the link below, for example, critiques variously the vacuity of a culture in which everything has to be regarded a ‘brand’ and the excesses of a beauty industry whose ‘posthuman’ norms attempts to nurture in young women, among many other altered perceptions, a belief that breasts which are traditionally breast-shaped, rather than resembling the shape of a blown up half-grapefruit, are defective and therefore in need of being ‘fixed’ by cosmetic surgery.

As an icon of contemporary masculinity Tom Ford also signals a cultural shift from the dominance to the Alpha male image to that of a more evolved leader who incorporates positive Omega male characteristics (independence, resourcefulness, depth, a pride which can manifest itself in ways other than conventional ego gratification).

© Malcolm Evans  2010

Notes: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121405891

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Nuclear Kitty

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Cleaner, greener nuclear energy is an emergent theme in the context of growing carbon and climate change awareness.  This 2007 article from Australia's "science of everything" site Cosmos looks at thorium reactor technology.  Thorium is safer than uranium and an abundant natural resource producing no byproducts than can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. The visual interpretation of the nuclear hazard sign here is a semiotic tour de force.  Eco-chic, greenwash self-ironizing nuclear kitsch (or all these simultaneously)?  You don't know whether to stroke it, eat it or give it a round of applause.   

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Social Networking & Activism in Saudi Arabia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Over the past 20 years it has been clear that Saudis, particularly the young, are falling in love with technology.   Given that until recently more than fifty percent of the population was under 15 years old, Saudi youth and their drive to adopt technology have become a considerable force. Cultural meanings associated with technology have evolved over the years through a number of stages. In recent months, in the hands of a new generation, it has even become the focus of a new kind of activism previously unheard of in the kingdom.

 

Distrust of technology characterized the earliest stages in this long process of change. The Arabian Peninsula under Ottoman rule was largely ignored, except for the power gained from controlling the holy lands.  So it declined culturally into something like a dark age.  When the oil money started to come in and people were able to afford some twentieth century technology, the initial reaction from the older generation was to be suspicious of the new arrivals, e.g. radios, to the extent of considering them the work of the devil.

Gradually, however, people started to embrace technology for convenience, comfort and a generally improved standard of living. Thus technology started also to convey status, accompanying the kind of wealth which was then necessary to have a car, television, VCR etc. at home. Then the communication of status evolved to include enthusiasm for technology as a sign of being educated, cultured and the kind of cool person who keeps up with what’s new. This process was accentuated with the introduction of satellite dishes into Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s around the time of the First Gulf War. This facilitated leadership on the part of the ‘cultured educated’ people in terms of connecting with the outside world, which signaled another significant cultural shift.

Even after modern Saudi Arabia was established, and the Arabian Peninsula came out of its centuries of isolation, socio-political forces had continued to keep the kingdom within a kind of a bubble. People were very proud of their heritage and felt it set them apart. The oil rush made them even somewhat arrogant about it. Satellite dishes allowed the Saudi masses to see, hear and really listen to the outside world.  Then came the age of the internet which further facilitated breaking through the barriers to connection with the outside world. The internet and wireless also facilitated more local connections as well as global ones. Young people in particular spearheaded this movement, which cascaded into other age segments. With these developments the idea of connection and mutual influence came increasingly to replace an us vs. them attitude and to be embraced for an enriched life experience.

A more educated generation better connected with the world started to feel the need to exert more influence to create the kind of world they wanted to live in. There remained, however, sociopolitical constraints on the development of grass roots movement – no unions or youth clubs, for example, and no large gatherings without special permission. So there evolved, in response to these constraints the technology-savvy ‘Soft Rebellion’ generation – using social networks to develop such movements and assuming a leadership role within them , albeit still in the form of virtual participation alone. Some initiatives did start to move towards more active participation, particularly via the setting up of charitable projects. The key requirement in these cases was to find the right sponsors – usually attracted by a smart use of technology to generate PR and word-of-mouth publicity.

A decisive moment of breakthrough finally arrived in December 2009 when Jeddah was flooded after a couple of days with very high levels of rainfall. Many of us, in the modern parts of Jeddah, spent the morning watching and marveling at how heavy the rain was. By late afternoon reports started to go around about the damage done in other parts of the city. The heaviest rain fell in the hills to the East of the city then came gushing down natural valleys where urban development had taken place. Videos were immediately posted in YouTube showing houses, cars and people being swept away by the force of what was dubbed ‘The Jeddah Tsunami’.

Anger mounted and was expressed in many blogs as people started to focus blame on municipal and local government. The turning point came that evening when a website called ‘Rescue Jeddah’ was set up. Rather than being just a site just for complaining Rescue Jeddah became a call to action. The young team who set it up called for public action to gather whatever resources could be mustered to provide immediate relief for all people affected. It also called for those responsible for the tragedy, to be brought to justice: that is the municipality and local authority representatives who authorized urban development in ‘natural valleys’ prone to dangerous flooding coming down the hills. Experts were invited to join their discussion posting presentations of their full analysis of the basic errors made in the urban planning of the city.

Overnight numbers of people expressing support for this initiative rose into the thousands. Videos and stories continued to be posted, further inflaming popular anger. Volunteers signed up and donations poured in. It was widely expected that the government would clamp down on this activity at some point. Instead, about 10 days later , the King issued a statement that exactly mirrored the language of the people (as expressed in this site and others). He indicated that he was ‘enraged’ by what had happened, that he had set up a special panel to investigate and that he promised to bring to justice every single person responsible. In Jun 2010 the local government honored the young men and women who led the public into an unprecedented relief effort where people waited in line, not just to donate, but to actually physically pitch in.

From virtual participation, in time, active participation may yet emerge.

© Habiba Allarakia 2010

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Living Autopsies

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Once, the body was text: a second surface for the inscription and production of identity. But now, a host of technologies and practices are cutting through this outer skin, opening up the body's third interior for all to see.

While postmodern codes of the body revelled in its outwardness (its ability to encode identity through costume and appearance), we’re now delving into its inner landscape, with airport body scanners, biometric market research and even ‘neuro lit crit’ all re-framing the body as ‘content’ rather than as ‘form’.

Showing how advertising is picking up on this drive to get ‘under the skin’, a recent UK Department of Health campaign to curb alcohol abuse features scan-like images of the ‘damage you can’t see’.

Meanwhile, last year’s BBC 3 reality TV show ‘Make my body younger’ put participants through a ‘living autopsy’, scanning their insides to reveal the impact of their unhealthy lifestyles.

The overt codes here draw on the Enlightenment discourse of anatomy and dissection, in which the opening up of the body stands for the heroic scientific elucidation of its dark secrets.

But, just as the Enlightenment theatres of dissection played to shock, disgust and fear as much as to noble scientific rationalism, so today’s ‘living autopsies’ find echoes in darker cultural material. For instance, films like Hostel, Captivity and the whole ‘torture porn’ genre provide a stage for the theatrical cutting (or more likely slashing) open of the body and the revelation of what’s within.

These films may seem worlds away from a Department of Health campaign – but, like all the examples mentioned here, they belong to a context in which the body’s interior is increasingly being put on display.  The theme is even extending to the nature-documentary genre, with the UK TV series 'Inside Nature's Giants' opening up animal corpses to look at them anatomically.

© Louise Jolly 2010

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Erotic Capital

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Erotic Capital.  Beautiful people not only get more (romantic and sexual) attention but make more money.  A new concept (in April 2010) to join the lexicon of emotional capital, cultural capital etc.  Derived from the work of Dr Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. Applied not just to the world of celebrity but public relations, marketing, television, the law and banking too.  April 2010 newspaper feature from UK.

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The Land of Mothers

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Is Russia really as patriarchal? Some signs from social advertising.

For almost a year Moscow citizens and it’s guests can observe this cute picture in the underground. This is a social advertising aimed at strengthening the institution of family in Russia. It quotes Francis Bacon: ‘Love to motherland begins with the family’. Matrioshka signifies both parts of the quote: it is the obvious sign of  ‘Rusianness’ and has well-known meaning of fertility.

The Land of Mothers

What is interesting here is  the gender profile of the family. The biggest, the central doll is female and there are just 2 male figures, the role of which is unclear. Is the bigger one a husband? Then he is presented in the subordinate position to his wife (significantly smaller, childish shapes, stays on the side). Or a son? In this case she is a single mother.

The picture may be interpreted as a reflection of modern life. Crisis of masculinity is a popular topic in Russia. It is usually explained by the events of 20-th century, including huge loss of male population during wars and repressions, peculiarities of communistic social system and global processes of feminism. The family picture with dominant figure of mother is almost a norm in contemporary Russian culture. 

On the other hand, old historical symbols are used in the picture. The characters are shaped and dressed far from modern standards. They are not Barbie-dolls, they are Russian dolls. This is how Russian people looked two centuries ago. The background reminds a tablecloth in great grandmothers’ kitchen. As a matter of fact, return to local traditions has been an important social trend of the last decade and national symbols have become very popular. In this context, the ad actually says ‘this is the traditional Russian family, how it should be’. Is this an example of how modern views change perception of the past? Or does this advertisement represent archetypal image of the Russian family?

Here are some links about matriarchal traditions and image of Mother in Russia:

http://eng.plakaty.ru/posters?cid=5&full=1&page=6&id=40
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Motherland
http://eng.plakaty.ru/posters?cid=1&id=773
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-66355314.html
http://www.berdyaev.com/skobtsova/veneratio_Bogomater.html

Notes:
Joanna Hubbs “Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture”
Ireneusz Szarycz “Morsels on the Tongue: Evidence of a Pre-Christian Matriarchy in Russian Fairy Tales”

© Maria Papanthymou 2010

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Double Exposure

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Middlebrow Enlightenment. Analysis of a Sun Chips print ad from U.S. showing how the ideal American woman is in search of a contemporary middlebrow version of enlightenment characterised by a clear un-anxious head, healthy heart, toned legs, tight abs and pretty toes.  How to "live brightly" according to a media version (Oprah, Eckhart Tolle) characterised here by cultural commentator Joshua Glenn. 2009 Hilobrow blogspot.

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