Archive for the ‘Fuzzy Sets’ Category

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Mortal Archetypology

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

 

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

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

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

MortalArchetypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally on the subs bench…

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2016

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

Adele Revisited

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

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

 

 

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Hello from the Other Side

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Subodh Deshpande 2015

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

Sound & Music Semiotics

Monday, July 6th, 2015

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

Maximalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:

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

© Chris Arning 2015

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

Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

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

Network: Ryan

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

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

Tell us about your DJ Electric Eel project

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

Eel1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eel2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about the DJ Electric Eel project:

http://djelectriceel.tumblr.com/

© Ryan Hu

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

Diversity 5: Thierry

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

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

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

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

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Diversity 5 – Improv/Jam

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

 

 

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Ribbon of Victory

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

GeorgeRibbonPacks

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

GB_Manicure_Ad[1] copy

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

© Marina Simakova 2014

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Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

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

Trinary

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

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Codes of Crimea

Monday, March 10th, 2014

 

GEO-SEMIOTICS – THE CODES OF CRIMEA

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

Crimea5

Pebble memoirs

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

Swallow’s Nest

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

Soviet artifacts

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

Crimea4

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

Life in the wild

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

Diversity in peace

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

Text © Marina Simakova 2014

Photographs © Olga Zeveleva 2014 – with thanks

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Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

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Short List – Troy

Monday, February 17th, 2014

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

ENVIRONMENTAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS, HUMAN HUBRIS AND GLOBAL ETHICS

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

Humankind as beyond nature

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

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

Humankind as part of nature

Panther

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

Gorilla

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

© Troy Potter 2014

 

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Diversity Act III

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

Act III.  Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité

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

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

Sanex

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

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

BarthesFamily

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

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

Davos

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY

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

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

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

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Diversity Act I

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey

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

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

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

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

SemioticMonkey2

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

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

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

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

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

Act II will follow shortly

© Malcolm Evans 2014

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Day-Glo Love RIP

Friday, January 17th, 2014

DayGlo1

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

DayGlo2

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

DayGlo3

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

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

DayGlo6

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

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

© Rob Engels 2013

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

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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Prologue to Semiofest

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

 

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

 

Purpose

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

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

Background

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

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

A Definition of Semiotics

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

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

Schools of Semiotic Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing an integrated practice

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

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

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

What is a Commercial Semiotician?

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

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

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

The Barriers of Semiotic Pedigree to Marketing Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design and Semiotics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Quality of Semiotic Insights

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

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

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

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

ROI of Semiotics

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

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

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

Semiotics versus Traditional Consumer Insights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing the conversation

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

© Michael Colton 2013

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

Modern Orientalism

Monday, January 28th, 2013

 

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

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

Shafik Gabr Foundation advertisement in the Financial Times

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

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

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

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

© Kourosh Newman-Zand 2013

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

Russians in Films

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code #2: Drinking vodka

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

Code #3: White sky

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

Code #4: Woman’s hair in a plait

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


Code #5:Ice-skating

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

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

 

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

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

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

Code #7: Flowery shawl

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

 

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

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

This list could certainly be extended.

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2012

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

Two Types of Garishness (3)

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

 

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

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

LONDON AMBASSADORS UNIFORM

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

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

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

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

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

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

RUSSIAN FEDERATION UNIFORM

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

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

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

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

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

No dress code for food

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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

Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Vicky Bullen,CEO of Coley Porter Bell wrote an interesting piece on the Union Jack where she looked at its use in branding and a poll on how consumers feel about it.

Refreshingly, she focused not on the cultural meanings (xenophobia, patriotism) in the flag but on the visual signs that make it up. She writes:

“In pure design terms much of its power derives from an optical illusion… this has created a dynamic, multi-layered design which draws the eye in to the intersection of the three crosses and rewards it with all sorts of interesting shapes and angles”

If you look at international flags there are some rudimentary schema through which they are arranged. For instance, many flags follow France with a tricolore schema with three equal vertical strips, others with three horizontal bands. Some flags have a central unifying area to which the eye is drawn – Japan, Korea and Brazil would be prime examples. Other flags create schema that compartmentalize information like the Stars and Stripes. Some flags have a central line and an isosceles triangle off left, South Africa, for example – there is an off-kilter messiness to these which is not really compensated for by visual complexity and involvement. I hope I do not come across as a chauvinist but the Union Jack does complexity and dynamism in spades.

What the Union Jack does brilliantly is to simultaneously combine symmetry, or at least balance, with an interesting tension. Involving a series of intersecting lines, it has both a centrifugal and a centripetal force to it. It forms a rough schematic and is segmented into four sections but at the same time these are cohesive. This connotes both segmentation and a central axis of unity.

In a sense this is visual metaphor for the reality of the Act of Union, an uneasy co-existence of identity shards. A comedian recently said that it is a country no-one really wants to be part of. The English are phlegmatic, the Welsh simmering with resentment and the Scots positively contemptuous. Only half of Northern Ireland cares about the Union and that is only really to piss off the Irish Republicans in their midst.

The Union Jack is one of the few flags that seems to disrupt its own bounds. It aspires to break through its borders and even out of the 2D flat plane, creating a sense of outward protrusion and impact. It is brilliantly centrifugal and this combines with depth of field because the diagonals are layered underneath the cross to make it a much more engrossing semiotic phenomenon than most other flags – those, for example, which direct your eye to a single symbol, divide the plane up into three equal orthogonal segments or are partitioned into stripes and carve out a special corner zone.

All of this means that the Union Jack (or Union Flag, to give it its proper title before I vex vexillologists out there and you start to correct me) has high semantic density.

“The semantic density of something is the measure of how much information it conveys in relation to its size or duration. The higher the semantic density, or the more semantically dense something is, the more information it packs into the given space or time.” (Andy Bradbury, Neurolinguistic Programming). I always like to give the examples of an average Indian street sensorially – semantically dense – also I like to think that Japanese culture is probably the most semantically dense on Earth. If you were to download the whole of Japanese culture into a digital file (with Tokyo’s dizzying annual output of magazines, films, music and books) it would be very heavy!

Without wanting to get too technical, there are different types of semantic density, pertaining to the way meaning pools on, say, a 2D frame. The litmus test is what will distort the meaning. Sometimes meaning is condensed in a cultural symbol, (symbolic density) sometimes distributed in the schema, as with the tessellations of Islamic architecture – schematic density. Sometimes meaning is distributed through the entire visual field. Where some flags have one density type, the Union Jack seems to be finely poised between density types, keeping the eye busy flipping between them.

The flag hints at schematic density via indexes of the diagonals pointing like arrows whilst also imbuing the flag with transgression through breaking framing of the flag (a mereological density), through spilling over the cordon which most flags respect.

It is also a flag brilliant suited to inflection, which brands have only just started to see the potential of. Both Innocent and Sainsbury’s have seen the explosive potential of the Union Jack to render their messages more dynamic and seemingly youthful in their thrust. To be fair, this sense of explosive potential has always lurked latent in the Union Jack and is definitely one of the reasons it has become both a counter-cultural and a xenophobic symbol. At the same time brands like Ryvita can, in this fetching limited edition pack, exploit the wrapping, ribbon-like qualities of the flag.

The closest parallel to this uptake of the national flag is that of the humble Canadian maple leaf – which becomes much less humble in the hockey team logo context! The Union Jack has almost gone the reverse route – becoming more homely as required. Bullen notes the flexibility of the Union Jack (whichever fraction of the flag used it is instantly recognizable) and its iconic density – it is a flag easily inflected and sampled from, which is also true of the Maple Leaf. As a nation we’re not as comfortable with the flag yet as Canadians are with their flag. There is antipathy towards some of the Union Jacks’ anachronistic connotations while the Maple Leaf was crowd sourced in a national competition so is more indigenous. Even so, it is worth exulting in the Union Jack’s inventive design if nothing else.

© Chris Arning 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Semiotics as Art: Kosuth

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

 

Joseph Kosuth, “one and three chairs” (1965)

The relationship between semiotics and art has always fascinated me. Talk to a museum director about the semiotics of art and there’s a chance you might get a sneer. Too eager to reach for the gun of “meaning”: “Art isn’t always about what it means”. Talk to a semiotician about the art of semiotics and there’s a chance you’ll get a sneer again. “it’s more science than it’s art, there’s a methodological approach”. Don’t get me wrong. The museum director has an interest in semiotics and has read up on it. The semiotician has an even more pronounced interest in art, having found that nearly all semiotic thinkers (s)he studied, at some point, tackled the ‘semiotics of art’. So there’s already that: the preposition used already conjures up a judgement of perspective. Semiotics in art, of art. What fascinates me even more though is semiotics as art. Numerous artists have done it. The best known in both spheres, as far as I can tell, is Joseph Kosuth. American conceptual artist, thinker & writer who brought us ‘One and three chairs’ in 1965. He was just 20 at the time. I’m quite certain you know it, have seen pictures of it or perhaps seen it live. The work presents itself in a threefold, with a life-size photograph of a chair, the actual chair in the same spot as it was photographed in and a blown-up photograph of a dictionary definition of the word ‘chair’. Admittedly I’m guilty of having used it in the past to explain what semiotics is all about. There are worse examples to explain signifié/signifiant/ référent with, but is there more to it?

Well, for one: it makes me smile.

It makes me smile every time I see it. Which is quite something in itself. It also makes me think about both art & semiotics, every time I see it. Apart from the numerous reproductions, I finally saw it for the first time live @ the London Frieze Art Fair in 2010. It didn’t have the chair from the photograph used here, but it was the same work. The actual work exists as a piece of paper with instructions how to install it and a copy of the dictionary definition ‘chair’ signed by J. Kosuth. It’s up to the curator or gallery owner to set up the work. In Kosuth’s own words:"It meant you could have an art work which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren't important." (1) Together with Marcel Duchamp, Kosuth is one of the godfathers of conceptual art, nay, of art as we know it today. The reason being their profound questioning of the relation between presentation, concept, idea, meaning. ‘One and three chairs’ became a seminal piece after Kosuth published “Art after philosophy” (you can read it on ubuweb here)

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context – as art – they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.”(2)

Kosuth investigates what it means to make art, to experience art, to think about art, to see it as a global model for language and culture. If you substitute the word ‘art’ in most of his writings by ‘sign’ you’ll find yourself reading a text on semiotics. Which for semioticians might not be such a revelation, but remember stating the obvious is always a retrospective action.

If one wanted to make a work of art devoid of meaning, it would be impossible because we’ve already given meaning to the work by indicating that it’s a work of art” (3)

At the time, Kosuth’s work raised a lot of questions and he got his fair share of criticism too, but that was what he was after. Raising questions. Using text as art was already questionable, using photography just as much, let alone using both in the set up discussed here. There’s a great focus in Kosuth’s work & writing on the ‘agency of the artist’ where the work of art is dependent upon the art context and the denomination as art by the artist. For me that’s semiosis, pure. A sign dependent on the context and its identification by the user, with the user as its relational agent. Where Kosuth quotes Wittgenstein in ‘Art after philosphy’: “The meaning is the use” I just read Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio in ‘Semiotics unbound’: the meaning of a sign is a response. (4)      

For me, Kosuth is the perfect answer to any museum director that wants to deny the meaning or function of art, even if the latter does it in jest. And, although, I’ve not come across a quote or text where Kosuth refers to his practice as a semiotic one I cannot see any difference in his investigations. Can you?

If you want to read more about Kosuth this is a nice start: Moma – Kosuth

(Another article, Semiotics As Art: Paul Ryan’s relational circuit & Threeing will follow in the near future).

(1) Siegel, Jeanne: Artwords. Discourse on the 60s and 20s. (Ann Arbour/Michigan 1985)

(2) Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(3) Joseph Kosuth, “Introduction” in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1960–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)

(4) Introduction of Semiotics Unbounded, interpretive routes through the open network of signs (UTP, 2005)

© Thierry Mortier 2012

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

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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Of Marriages & Products

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 

I love our Big Fat Indian weddings. The colourful mandaps and the phera-chori, the mehendi and the mithai, the glittering bridal nathni and the bridegroom’s shehra, the kanyadaan and the bidaai – all of these are exciting yet intimate moments shared between family and friends.

Does the rest of India also love it? Perhaps it does, both in real and reel life. The two-decade long obsession and popularity with the elaborate Indian wedding is easily apparent in Bollywood movies and satellite television, attracting audiences by the millions. The import of this is not lost on the image-makers branding the Wedding as a luxury product to be consumed in vast proportions.

One often sees advertisements using the backdrop of the Indian Wedding against which to position their products. From sarees, jewellery, suit materials to bank insurances, from lifestyle accessories to food items – Indian weddings have them all.

Let’s do a flashback scenario in a stereotypical context where a young couple is shown nodding to the formalities of the insurance policy. It is almost impossible to get anyone on a rational platform today, leave alone explain benefits! It is, after all an image driven society! Today, many related products with or without any matrimonial implication ride on the Indian wedding as a backdrop. The question is not whether these ads are successful or not, but how marriage as a sign helps connects people to products and brands.

Other products like the fairness cream; – e.g Vicco turmeric or the Raymond suitings too have explored the wedding themes. For example the jingles of “banno teri ankhiyan” that were played in the oldest Vicco ads were an anthem in those days and all one could remember were around twenty women applying haldi to the bride. Also, the Titan ad showing a young girl playing piano for her sister was designed along similar lines. More than the brands, the jingles; the context; the gaze; the expressions have not been forgotten.

A recent survey shows that there is an increase in the new age ‘live in’ relationships. Well, our advertising certainly seems to be replaying the good old stable institution of marriage. One wonders if marriage has become as much of a ‘product’ as are the brands themselves. Either ways, the brands are laughing all the way to the bank! Marriage anyone?

© Heta Trivedi 2012

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz3o1PS7IFo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BRYGTqouuE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvx8pB9Ivoo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZq10WlFQlk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3jEffr4mWQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_As8OycpY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOeUssxuz5U

 

And brush up your wedding vocabulary:

Phera – Rounds taken by husband and wife around the sacrificial fire

Chori – Structure made of wood or steel under which the rituals of a Hindi wedding take place

 Sehra – Garlands of flowers covering the face of the bridegroom

 Mehendi – Henna applied on hands and legs of the bride during wedding

 Kanyadaan – the ritual wherein the parents of the bride give their daughter to her husband

 Bidaai – the ritual where in the girl says good bye to all her family members while leaving from her home after the wedding

Banno teri ankhiyan – a famous song in Hindi language that is sung during weddings

Haldi – Turmeric

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Why all the Pinterest?

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

 

The latest online media phenomenon is called Pinterest. It’s a kind of online scrapbook where users can upload or ‘pin’ their pictures of interest, categorizing them onto boards and, importantly, share for re-pinning. Pinterest’s mission is to ‘connect everyone in the world through the things they find interesting’. Of course, the site connects to Facebook where pins are further shared, and it works as a mobile app for photographing and commentary, as well as online.

Although it launched 2 years ago, Pinterest only really grabbed the mainstream attention of its predominantly US and UK users towards the end of 2011. According to Comscore, it is the fastest site to reach 10m unique users in the US (Jan 2012). The site is also extremely influential – it is now referring more traffic to other websites than Twitter.

What makes the site interesting is who uses it and why. Interestingly, 80% of Pinterest’s users are female and the categories range from holidays to décor to apparel. Some of the most liked or most re-pinned images include step by step guides to hairstyles, sun-kissed beaches and cute baby pandas.

Brands have started using Pinterest, taking advantage of the ‘Earned’ value it offers and the buzz around it. For example, BMI Airlines ran a sweepstake style competition – they created different boards including numbered pictures showing different destinations. If users re-pinned 6 of these pictures onto their own boards, they were entered into a sweepstake to win free flights. The sanpro brand, Kotex, identified 50 influential women on Pinterest and sent them personal gifts, based on their interests expressed on their boards. The result for this low-interest category was 2,000 interactions and 700,000 impressions. A case study can be seen here.

Fashion house Oscar de la Renta pinned images from their bridal fashion show live on to the site – it has attracted almost 17,000 followers in less than a week.

The site’s appeal is its simplicity, unlike the more geeky Delicious or Pinboard. And it’s interesting that whilst every other new site or app seems to be designed for mobile, browsing Pinterest can really only be done on a desktop or tablet. The site embodies yet another way for people to express ‘Brand Me’ in the online world.

© Jo Peters 2012

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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 »

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 »

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 »

Chinese Car Names

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

 

“How can I best imprint my brand image into the consumer’s mind?” This is currently the simplest, and yet the hardest one to answer in the auto industry in China. The competing brands are relentlessly seeking ways to create better, more appealing images than competitors in this lucrative market: going green, new value propositions such as cost-efficiency, lower-energy consumption, safety, cutting-edge design etc.
 
One of the most recent industry trends is the emergence of a new breed of bands created by Western-Chinese joint ventures that are not limited anymore in manufacturing and distributing the original western models. Many of the big JV auto companies in China have announced the creation of such brands. Our naming analysis looks prospectively into what the names chosen say about their intended positioning and the reflect of future industry trends.
 
 
宝骏 The literal meaning of this name (model to the right in picture) is fine/excellent horse, implying achievement, success in life, emphasizing the high quality of the auto and the status of the driver. Being auspicious, this name is a good fit for a car maker. Yet, it is quite similar to 宝马BMW, and lacks originality. Because of its strong resemblance to BMW’s Chinese name and its focus on status and prestige, we can expect the brand might be challenged by BMW in the near future.
 
启辰 The Chinese name chosen for this new model (left in the picture) literally means “the first light beam of a new day”, implying the new direction of the future, and also an auspicious name. Much work has been done to design this name which is a variation of the term 启明星, and it evocates the meanings such as grandeur, wisdom and in-depth reflection. This is truly a groundbreaking name.
 
理念 This Chinese name (centre model in picture) literally means “principle”, focusing on philosophy, reflection and life attitude. This name links to lifestyle aspirations and insights shared both by the customers and the auto makers. However it is not consistent with the English name and might just be a temporary project name.
 
 
From this analysis, we conclude that only Venucia (left) is showing innovation in its Chinese naming strategy. Baojun (right) is stuck in mainstream practice and Everus (centre) looks like it has yet to choose a final name. 

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The Number of the Beast

Monday, November 29th, 2010

There are wolves in our midst. Earlier this year, Benicio del Toro fulfilled his childhood wish, playing a werewolf in Joe Johnston’s remake of the 1941 classic horror The Wolfman. Eristoff Black Vodka is spilling much ink trying to persuade us its origins lie in 'The Land of the Wolf’. French Connection’s current campaign [example below] presents us with a beardy Frenchman and a series of laconic (or was that endearingly mis-translated) sound-bites. One of the best simply reads ‘Feel Like Wolf’. The Grinderman 2 album cover reveals a striking, solitary, seething wolf. Somehow, it’s managed to find its way onto a beige rug in a tidy living room in Hove. I can think of more examples (and down here in Brighton, there suddenly seem to be more huskies than there are people to walk them). What’s it all about?

Wolves have meant a vast range of things to the human cultures with whom they have at one time or another been sympatric. I’m not qualified to comment on the diachronic shape shifting that has occurred here, but I am interested in the sheer range of takes on this (still very much endangered) signifier.

In the 1930s, Disney helped to curate an image of the wolf as a harbinger of dread and impoverishment. ‘Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (the theme song to the 1934 cartoon Three Little Pigs) became a national ditty of defiance during the Depression era. The parallels with our current fiscal and climatic predicament are fairly obvious. In this instance, as Geoffrey Cocks writes in his 2004 book The Wolf at the Door, ‘the wolf retains its old European and American symbolic meaning of, originally agrarian, fear of hunger and starvation’. 

But there’s also a distinct sexual meaning attached to the image of the wolf. Cocks reminds us of the origins of Little Red Riding Hood, which began its narrative life in 17th-century France as a cautionary tale against female bed-hopping. There’s more than a hint of the randy flaneur in French Connection’s recent output. Likewise, Derrida’s bringing together of the wolf and the sovereign in his later lectures (both are outlaws: neither pays heed to the rules if a situation calls for juridical override) echoes the masculine, predatory court life that gave Little Red the heebie-jeebies (and any number of other venereal complaints).

My suspicion is that as a signifer, the wolf is too overloaded to point to anything utterly specific today. But I’m drawn to Grinderman’s lupine fugitive. There is a sense here of forced entrance, and the hitherto unseen juxtapositions it entails. We’re in the same territory as Alan Weisman’s World Without Us. Schopenhauerean creepers engulf the London Eye. Baboons gargle mohitos in the Gherkin. Earlier this year, tragedy arrived in the form of a fox that crept through an open window in east London and mauled a young child asleep in its bed. This palpable sense of savage encroachment has roots in real-world unpredictability.  

If anything, then, sentiments of vulnerability underpin the ubiquity wolves in contemporary cultural expression. From denial (with French Connection suggesting there’s no real reason to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf) to lionization (the appeal of Eristoff being precisely its alliance with lunar mystique and, no doubt, its ability to bring about grotesque transformations in character) to a more troubling, if hyperbolic confrontation (courtesy of the Grindermen), one thing seems certain: the beast is now amongst the brethren.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | 2 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 »

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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Snake in hand

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

X-ray and infra-red technology revealed, beneath roses held by Queen Elizabeth I in anonymous sixteenth-century painting displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2010 for the first time in 90 years, an earlier depiction of her right hand clutching what appears to be a black snake with blue-green highlights. ;What’s going on here we wonder. Artistic subversion of royal iconography? A Tudor Dan Brown moment of some kind? Clearly an enigma to set the popular semiotics machine in motion.

Snake in hand

Some possible explanations:

• Historian David Starkey identified the serpent as being a symbol of wisdom at that time, and an apparent favourite of Elizabeth’s from the evidence of a discrete green serpents on an orange taffeta dress in another portrait.

• Why then the revision and painting out? The posy replacing the snake may have expressed second thoughts, at the time or later, around the serpent being an ambiguous image also strongly associated in Christian iconography with evil and original sin. 

• Roses, in contrast, would have been an unproblematic icon of the Tudor dynasty, as well as the posy being a conventional female prop in portraiture.  

With Freud and by now a decade or two of graphic online porn between us and the occluded serpent it’s hard to overlook the phallic connotation noted by art history blogs and press coverage of a snake “coiled suggestively around her right hand” (Arifa Akbar in The Independent). But donning our semiotic hats and trying to look at all human beings (including us in our own times and places) as aliens it can be salutary to look at the hand and snake trying to think ‘wisdom’ or ‘evil’ rather than the sense that might strike us first as obvious, natural and universal. 

Imagine a future time when the cultural orthodoxy shares with Jorge Luis Borges this view of our psychoanalytic received wisdom today: “I have read Jung with great interest but with no conviction. At best he was an imaginative, exploratory writer. More than one can say for Freud: such rubbish!” Then we would look at the symbol interpreted as a phallic suggestively uncoiling snake and, with Foucault responding to the classification of animals in Borges’s Chinese Encyclopaedia, wonder at “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and “the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

© Malcolm Evans 2010

NOTES
Arifa Akbar, “The Virgin Queen, the serpent and the doctored portrait”, The Independent, 5 March 2010, p.3

Posted in Art & Design, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Chinese Encyclopaedia

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

If you gave someone a paragraph to complete, starting with the words “Animals are divided into…” various types of creature might immediately leap to mind – cats, dogs, elephants, male, female, tame, wild, edible, inedible, cold blooded, warm blooded, etc. A further refinement to this exercise might be to specify the number of divisions your contestant has to play with: just 2 (likely answers might include male/female perhaps or wild/domesticated, or vertebrate/invertebrate), 6 (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians, insects). And so on. This is an interesting one to try out with young children. Human beings and cultures are always dividing things – animals, objects, people – into groups and sub-groups. The need to segment your market (“Consumers are divided into…”, or product/service offers, occasions, distribution channels) and target your offer to the appropriate segment(s) is a fundamental rule of marketing – just as understanding the time, place and kind of people you were talking to was the basis of classical rhetoric.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote of a Chinese encyclopaedia, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into:

a.    belonging to the Emperor,
b.   
embalmed,
c.   
tame,
d.   
suckling pigs,
e.   
sirens,
f.    
fabulous,
g.   
stray dogs,
h.   
included in the present classification,
i.     
frenzied,
j.    
innumerable,
k.   
drawn with a fine camelhair brush,
l.     
etc.,
m.  
having just broken the water pitcher,
n.   
that from a long way off look like flies.

This is an excellent text for flipping us out of the familiar daze in which the cut on reality our cultures and ideologies present us with seem simply given, natural, true. A great moment of defamiliarisation which gives us a glimpse into culture’s constructedness and relativity. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes the effect this passage can have – of shattering “all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography”, “breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions”, while evoking “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and “the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

The passage on animal types comes from Borges’s “Essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins”. Wilkins was the author of Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (1688), an attempt to impose a mathematical certainty and objective scientific transparency on language and writing systems – in effect abolishing the distance and (often) cultural arbitariness in the divides between ‘things’, ‘thoughts’, ‘words’, and ‘characters’ or writing systems. Something akin to the Wilkins view of representation as strictly secondary to a world of concepts, reason and empirical reality became a Western cultural norm lasting well into the Twentieth Century. Borges’s response graphically summarises the turn from this to acknowledging the role of language and culture in producing meaning – and signals the re-emergence of semiotics in academic and cultural life from the 1950s and 60s on.   With the application of semiotics to understanding and guiding the development of brands, the master methodology emerging from this “turn to language” engages with some of its most characteristic cultural expressions – in the new emotional, metaphorical and totemic meanings of contemporary consumer culture.

© Malcolm Evans 2010

NOTES
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Tavistock, 1970, p.xv
J.L. Borges, Selected Nonfictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 1999

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