Archive for the ‘Global/Local’ Category

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Creolised Fashion

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

 

Creolised fashion: Chanel, ChiChiA, Guinness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black creolisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

 

 

 

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Tamasha: the other you inside

Monday, January 25th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Subodh Deshpande 2016

See here for Tamasha production details and plot summary.

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Diversity Act IV

Friday, April 4th, 2014

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

(Bob Dylan, Desolation Row)

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

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

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?

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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

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Waffle

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

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

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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

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Chocolate Vietnam

Friday, November 9th, 2012

 

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

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

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

Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

References

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

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

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

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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

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Semiofest 2012

Monday, April 16th, 2012

The inaugural Semiofest will be taking place on 25th and 26th May in Westbourne Studios London; it is being organized on a shoestring budget and has been variously billed as an experimental learning event, symposium, swap meet for semioticians.

I believe that Semiofest, “a celebration of semiotic thinking”, is not a radical idea, it is simply an idea whose time has come…The key to this from my perspective is to have an informal space to share and celebrate semiotic thinking. My observation would be that not only does commercial semiotics have no formal representation but that there is a gap between applied marketing semiotics which is usually hidden and proprietary and academic semiotics which in print and at a conference is usually geared towards rehearsing the validity of a theory and name checking hallowed academic authorities.

Semiofest is first of all created to fill this gap, to give a formal space to commercial applied semiotics across the gamut of its applications from design to social media.

The ethos behind Semiofest is essentially the same as that behind the Semiotic Thinking Group on Linked In. the STG was launched with no fanfare and a rather dodgy logo in March 2010. From inauspicious beginnings it has since grown to a group of over 1200 members hosting lively debates on the meaning of Britishness, the latest Cadbury’s ad, the difference between premium and luxury codes, online social networks and hidden signs on Facebook. It is a group comprised of an eclectic cohort of market researchers, academics, brand consultants, students and hobbyists. 

The Semiotic Thinking Group was set up to share idea about semiotics, to network and start to build a bit of esprit de corps amongst semiotics practitioners. The most common posts seem to be aimed at debating ideas, sourcing strategic partners in obscure markets and posting content, either texts or blog posts for comment. Several practitioners have messaged me privately to praise the quality of conversations on the STG and to say that it is the most zestful and exciting group they belong to.

The germ of Semiofest was planted when a Canadian collaborator Charles Leech mailed me to say that he felt that his semiotic arsenal needed updating, that he did not know where to go to feed his mind and why didn’t we do some kind of meet up. I agreed it was a natural progression to create a physical manifestation of a successful online community. I was volunteered help by an informal organizing committee of collaborators from LinkedIn: primarily Hamsini Shivakumar, Lucia Neva, Kishore Budha and Sandra Mardin. We posted a short announcement of intention with invitation to express interest back in June 2011 and we got an immediate and enthusiastic response. We quickly received up to 70 ticket purchases on Event Brite and then set up the website and have been receiving bookings since over Paypal.

\At the time of writing we have over 20 presentations planned – one being done remotely from Singapore, as well as over 50 tickets sold for the event. We have participants coming in from Brazil, Japan, Estonia, Australia, North America and all over Europe. Presentations are varied and represent the cutting edge of the field. They are on topics from text mining to design rhetoric to advertising to the semantic web. We have two keynote speakers, a co-creation slot and even some semiotic art.

The other important facet is the educational halo that the event will hopefully create.

We plan to post up presentations and disseminate learning post event through the semiofest.com site. Inaugural Semiofest in London 2012 is an experimental event. We do not know how it will end up going but we are confident that it will give those attending a chance to enrich their perspectives, network and to enjoy a fun event.

We have planned for it to be a convivial event with a Cultural Programme in the evening and hopefully the London weather will deliver balmy summer evenings.

We still have a few tickets left so if the above sounds of interest you should quickly go to semiofest.com, go to Payment page and claim your ticket to this special event.

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Biking displaced

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

 

‘Roadies’ is a reality show running into its ninth season in India.  Any show that runs into its ninth season has enormous mass appeal and this one has got youth cult status. It started with a bunch of boys doing tough ‘tasks’ involving much physical endurance, hitting the road on their bikes and essentially surviving physical odds as well as political challenges of group dynamics.  It is built on the classic ingredients of masculine appeal which cuts across every adolescent or middle aged man’s fantasy of biking, road trip, tough ruggedness and brawn.

What provides the twist in an otherwise timeless tale is the personality of the host and creator of the show – Raghu. His process of screening and audition to select contestants for this reality show seems to be close to what in India is called ‘ragging’ and in some other cultures is called ‘hazing’. The aspirants go through, besides a group discussion and elaborate form filling, a personal interview.  Raghu – short tempered, volatile, politically irreverent and liberated from any kind of political correctness that being on television demands – puts the aspirants through hell. He zeros in on their weaknesses, false selves, paltry defensiveness and posturing and proceeds to dismantle them ruthlessly in a bid to reveal their ‘true’ selves. Physical challenges such as doing knuckle push ups or head stands are employed to take the aspirants out of their comfort zone in order to break down facades.

The intriguing bit is why are there thousands of young people in every city lining up to go through this experience which for most ends up being public humiliation on national television? They want to go through this and for most it is a test by fire that they want to go through; expecting a stronger and perhaps a ‘real man’ emerging at the end of this experience. They want to be judged and want Raghu’s verdict on who they are and what they are worth.

Raghu does not come across as a bully but more as a tough father delivering home truths intended to chisel and bring out the real man. Clearly this brand of parenting which is directive, ruthlessly disciplining and offering a certain amount of authoritative resistance that an adolescent can go up against and resolve his final bits of identity formation which have gone missing. Obviously traditional patriarchs are being missed by the kids. They have nothing to go up against and test themselves and the limits. Is there an overdose of non-directive, organic ‘discover for yourself’ feminine nurturance which does not make enough use of parental authority?

When ‘ragging’ or ‘hazing’ are experienced as rites of passage; what does it say about this generation’s life experiences? They have to search far and wide for a piece of resistance against which they can sharpen their identity and sadly this is the defining and toughest experience of their lives. This reality show has some very real responsibilities. The host is the guiding light and fills in for fearless authority figures while a staged road trip is a simulated coming of age experience for a whole generation.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Holy Jolie

Monday, November 14th, 2011

She’s celebrity culture’s Mother Goddess – prolifically giving birth and adopting, making space in her family for all the world’s children. And now Angelina Jolie has taken her healing aspirations further with her directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey – in which the main character, a Muslim woman, falls in love with her Serbian rapist.

But in a very public row, the survivors of mass rape in the Bosnian war called for Jolie to be stripped of her title of UN Ambassador of Goodwill, saying that ‘a love story couldn’t have existed in a rape camp’.

I responded to the symbolism made visible in this drama with a performance art piece entitled Holy Jolie. The piece was also inspired by another news story which came out at the same time: a temple in Cambodia, where Lara Croft was shot, was renamed the ‘Angelina Jolie temple’ by its leading monks, in an attempt to save it from ruin.

The combined stories struck a chord for me as an artist born in Bosnia and sensitive to the often absurd power dynamics shaping the realities we live in. In Holy Jolie I combined images of Lara Croft and codes surrounding victimhood to create an impossible temple raised to the modern UN goddess.

On the altar of this archetypal mother-figure, I offered many Bosnian children, ‘more than she ever wanted’. (After the war there were many unwanted children as a result of forced pregnancies in rape camps, recognised by international courts as a crucial part of a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing.)

I wanted to make the point that the shame of rape cannot be transformed into language – least of all into the soothing resolutions of the Hollywood Imaginary. For Bosnian rape survivors, the symbolic blockage is double. First, they can’t talk about their experiences as their trauma lies at the limit of representable human experience. And second, even when they do try to tell their story, no-one, in Bosnia’s patriarchal society, will listen.

As a post-colonial, post-war and deeply traumatised country, Bosnia offers space for international cultural interventions which in other settings simply wouldn’t pass. When Jolie, as a personification of Hollywood power, decided to delve into this subject, she did two things. Firstly, she shed an important spotlight on one of the most traumatic events in European history since the Second World War. But secondly, she disregarded the experiences of thousands of raped women.

Like an elephant in a china shop, this film bursts into a sphere of national trauma, enacting a fantasy of healing and romantic redemption that’s wildly off the mark as a piece of narrative. Predictably enough, Jolie brand power won over the Bosnian cultural elites who were completely smitten by her unexpected appearance at the Sarajevo Film Festival in August this year. Another award was bestowed, while the controversies around the film didn’t even get a mention.

The film that will be offered to mass audiences in December will super-impose Hollywood ideals onto a reality that’s beyond conventional narrative. In my performance, I naively pray to the Goddess to take our shattered pasts and futures and make a good film out of those. I don’t believe the prayer will be fulfilled anytime soon.

 

© Edina Husanovic  2011

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Mild Smiles and Monocultures

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 

The Oslo bombing and massacre of 69 young politicians in the making at the Utoya island youth camp brought far-right extremism in Norway to global attention on 22nd July 2011.  The killer Anders Behring Breivik, smiling mildly, is pictured in the link to this piece.

The shock surrounding these events unfolded partly against the initial media assumption that the explosions would turn out to be the work of Islamist terrorists – also against received wisdom globally with regard to Scandinavian nations and populations generally being peace-loving and tolerant. This received wisdom has not, of course, always corresponded with the Scandinavian reality nor does it necessarily do so today. The purpose of this short analysis is to point to a more everyday and institutionalized nationalism as evidenced in one image, a photograph of Swedish politician Björn Söder which appeared on the cover of Dagens Nyheter , one of the country’s leading newspapers, in January 2011.

 Sverigesdemokraterna (the Swedish Democrat party) aims to a win between 12 and 15 percent of the votes  in the next election, claims party secretary Björn Söder. The article talks about successes so far and how much money the party is going to receive to support their next election campaign. Some codes and connotations embedded in the accompanying image give a good example of how photography, often working subconsciously, can impact on collective consciousness.

In the picture we see a strong, apparently healthy and wholseome, youthful looking man from the Swedish white middle class. He looks into the camera with a mild smile that signifies openness, empathy, an implicit benevolence. There is nothing here of the alien, the dangerous, the Other in any sense. This is coded as a Swedish cultural norm, in the guise of complete harmlessness. 

In the photograph Björn Söder’s clothing is formal and elegant – these are the vestimentary codes of Swedish bank clerks, lawyers and politicians.    He wears dark suit with a modern silk tie, the colour of which matches the blue of his eyes. His hair cut overlays on this a note of trendiness for young men. He is half bald not in a depleted (cup half empty) way but in a way that speaks of robust and confident contemporary masculinity. The contrast between the mild expression and strong body is again a contemporary code for aspirational Swedish manhood.

The picture shot from below places the reader in an implicitly subordinate position and so creates an idealizing effect for its subject. Björn Söder´s photo is also taken indoors in a large dark room – and some of the lights are on. The most striking of these is the lamp on the ceiling which suggests a halo over the politician’s head. Suddenly the party secretary secretary is elevated to a kind of semiotic sainthood, an aura of sanctity accruing to someone who could be a kind of everyday version of an angel from heaven.

This photograph could form the basis of an interesting semiotic case study. It is an equivalent from today to the kind of thing Roland Barthes picked up on in Mythologies in the 1950s – photographic realism appearing to open an innocent ‘window on to reality’ while constructing a clearly ideological message, albeit one that sits comfortably with what all ‘normal’ people think, what is ideologically incontestable because culturally it goes without saying. To an outsider this might all appear to be accidental or innocent enough. However Björn Söder’s party won seats in the Swedish parliament for the first time in latest election, pursuing a programme that criticizes immigration policy and that fights to keep Sweden pure from the ‘dirtiness’ of a multicultural society.   Young men like Anders Behring Breivik, the Utoya killer, emerge from a backdrop of a more routine and insidious cultural conservatism. The mild smile and halo of the Northern angel may easily, for readers who identify with an emerging ethnic and cultural diversity. mask what feels, ironically, closer to a diabolic intent.  

© Martha Arango  2011

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Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jake Pearce  2011

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The six pack triumphs in India

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Karan Singh Grover

How is the male body represented in Indian popular culture and advertising today? Are there any clear patterns or codes?

The male grooming industry is booming in India, and bringing with it a definite change in the way advertising represents the male body. In general, there has been a move away from the more soft and rounded form of traditional Indian aesthetics, towards the structured, symmetrical body favoured by the ancient Greeks (and by contemporary Western codes of male attractiveness).

In traditional Indian art, the representation of male bodies left out internal structure: it was not about hard muscle and bone. A softer form meant prana – the life force which fills the body in Hindu metaphysics – could move and flow. These art representations highlighted the values of traditional Hindu culture in which the spiritual was prized over the material, and the symbolic representation over realistic depictions. There was an implicit relationship between the divine and the human, and as aligned to the Hindu philosophical tradition and world-view, the spirit of man was seen as a manifestation of the presence of the divine. 

The history of Western art represented the male body very differently, as we can see in Greek aesthetics. Instead of valuing flow and roundedness, the Greeks idealised the perfectly proportioned, sculpted male nude. Ancient Greek sculptors celebrated the spirit of man by glorifying the beauty of internal physical structure. It’s an ideal which has persisted through time in the West and entered the material and consumer culture of today.

Now it’s arrived in India too – the development beginning around the mid-1990s. Before this time, Indian films and advertising generally showed the stars as they were: neither particularly fit, nor well muscled. Their star appeal was not based upon overt display of their body beautiful or aesthetic, but on their personality and charisma more than anything else.

However, in the past decade, as the Greek ideal of the male body has entered popular culture, the stars have started working out, building their bodies up with diets and physical trainers to the Western, muscled aesthetic. There’s also been promotion of the 'six-pack abs' as a body aesthetic to aspire for and work-out towards. We find these depictions in the advertisements for body deodorant sprays such as Axe and Axe clones. Western material culture has finally conquered the whole world – all men every where, now are urged to aspire to the same template, with minor modifications allowed, to accommodate requirements of race and place.

 

What about when the male body gets really muscled, exceeding the Greek ideal, as does Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan? Does Indian culture read 'big muscles' as a bad-boy signifier, versus the more streamlined physique of 'good guy' Bollywood stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan?

Shah Rukh has a wiry and small physique, but he too worked out and has acquired this new aesthetic. In fact, the publicity around one of his big hit films of two years ago was all about his six-pack abs. 

Salman is seen as a man with a golden heart but an uncontrolled temper and a 'bad boy' in that sense…so he gets angry very easily and when he gets angry, he can get violent. But this isn’t really held against him by the public at large or even his women fans. Overall, my take is that this new body aesthetic is far more about dialling up the sex appeal and attractiveness of the man and far less about signalling a renewed focus on male physical strength and power – machismo. Instead, it signals an intent to promote the male grooming industry.

But could there be a political dimension to India’s newly muscular male body? For instance, could it be symptomatic of what’s been called India’s 'muscular Hinduism', and the recent focus on warrior heroes such as Rama?

Sociologists have written about the development of a more fierce and virile version of Hinduism in Hindutva along with Hindutva's attempt to refocus the Hindu pantheon around the virile hero-gods, Krishna and Rama. However, Hindutva's appeal waxes and wanes. It grew in the early nineties and then the Hindu right wing party lost successive elections – now they are a weak force in the opposition. Also, each state and region in India as well as each community continues to worship their favourite Hindu God and new temples that are being built also reflect this diversity. For instance, the worship of Lord Ram is particularly strong in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but far weaker in other States. So, I do not really see the depiction of this muscled male body and the new sexy aesthetic as connected to the strength, or otherwise, of Hindutva. It is far more part of a commercial attempt to sexualize the appeal of men and women via marketing.

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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Local Alternatives

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011

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All that glitters

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Unlike BBC and CNN, who that take pride in having an eclectic global audience, NDTV aims to make its impression on the Indian citizen (and, at most, the nostalgic expat). It is keen to be numero uno only among the current glut of Indian news channels.  

NDTV came into being in 1990 just ahead of India's  economic liberalization in 1991.  The aspiration was to be the generic challenger to state-owned Door Darshan  (DD) TV.  The old NDTV logo was far simpler than the gilt edged shine of the current offering which caters to an elite English-speaking fraction of the nation, numbering a few  privileged millions in a population that crossed a billion a decade ago.

The main headlines are on horizontal bars of gold, with light quietly flashing  off the metal. Changing  graphics are stacked gold coins. There is, after all, more gold in the bank vaults of Indians than in the rest of the world put together. Gold prices have made a permanent abode in the stratosphere, pushed upwards by a set of people for whom gold will never go out of fashion.  

And while the rest of the world and Steve Jobs may have been waxing eloquent on the beauty and elegance of a profusion of fonts available in a new tech-enabled world, NDTV continues to use squat capital letters long out of date.  Leaving no space for any other word, these letters completely envelop the space available in the logo’s permanent corner.

The bindi is present here as a marker of the nation’s identity squashed between N and D,  and so is the sound of the tabla in the audio ident.  Historically, this rhythmic Indian instrument  is considered a relatively modern marker (here for  the past few hundred years since the Mughals)  as opposed to the old fashioned Indian drum, the dhol (which has millennia behind it).

Is the channel really only catering to the local citizen?  No international news channel can do that, can it?  I see its global pretensions in the choice of the geographical maps used as illustration for every single news item.  What the channel does is throw overboard the idea of political maps. Instead – physical maps are considered appropriate.

Politically speaking, India  either includes an 'undivided' Kashmir crowning the country (as all Indians are taught in school) or  has part of Kashmir tossed over the territory into Pakistan (as most maps in the rest of the world represent it).  Physical maps create no such controversy. The show the way  the world has been, long before humans settled into a life of geopolitical complexity. In fact the graphics don’t just stop at this – as background NDTV uses a galaxy.  This suggests a time frame appropriate to the 24/7 channel's 'breaking news' moment to moment raison d’etre.

And if you take a look at NDTV's Hindi news channel, that’s pretty revealing in itself. Around 200 million consider the language to be their mother tongue, and another 400 million use it to converse with each other. The idea is to communicate a happening new nation and what better way to do it than to call the brand  ‘NDTV India' , with India written in the Hindi script.  

What’s the surprise there, you ask?

But we all call India Bharat in Hindi. Like the Germans calling their land Deutschland  and Japan being Nippon at home. In all of our zillion local languages Bharat is our name.  Can we imagine Germans having a home-based channel where the language is Deutsch all the way, but the channel itself is called 'something Germany'?

NDTV would like its viewers to draw authority and pride from the name the rest of the world uses to address the nation, India.  From the outside looking in. It is this gaze that weaves the nation together today.  At least in ‘news-speak’. 

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

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Brazil Mash-Up: China

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

 

Brazilianness associated with shaking cultural norms – happy spontaneity as an alternative to all-pervasive balance and self-control?

Chinese popular culture connected with Brazil in recent years through football and food. Via the soccer star of mythic standing,Pele. And the speciality Brazil Roast Meat restaurant chain which popped up in the main Chinese cities. This once exotic food experience is now falling out of fashion – with new Brazilian codes in China sharing unstructured, lively and experimental associations. Overall Brazil is now being represented as a place where norms are shaken.

RESIDUAL CODES & SIGNIFIERS

Pele

Brazilian Roast Meat restaurant

DOMINANT CODES

Brazilian Soccer

Samba and dance – informal and relatively unstructured but happy and full of life, with everyone able to join in.

It echoes in the public mind with the tai chi practiced daily by older people in China – which is also happy and open to everyone but, as both are executed in China, feels highly codified and structured compared with samba.

Samba also connects with the idea of Brazilian partying, music, street festivals – echoing with analogous Chinese celebrations (e.g. New Year, with fireworks etc. echoed in Brazilian carnival).

Brazil is also coming to be associated with nature. As code that has not been extensively elaborated as yet but is clearly established. Green nature at the moment – potential to be linked with the drier, essential nature of traditional Chinese medicine (note coverage in other countries of Amazon’s rich diversity as a source of potentially powerful new ingredients/cures.

EMERGENT CODES

Evolving traditional Chinese medicine through connection with other cultures & geographies? Would obviously be a major contender.

Otherwise no clearly established emergent codes of Brazilianness in China – just occasional new examples of Brazil’s challenge to received wisdom and convention (e.g. publicity around transsexual Brazilian Givenchy model; new female President, Dilma Rousseff. 

REFLECTION – TRAJECTORIES OF CHANGE 

A place full of life, spontaneity, diversity: 

– Chinese ‘balance’ (Taichi, Qigong ) can become a little too self-directed and dry in the long term to offer a solution to growing frustrations in Chinese society
– Brazil as a new iconic place for exploration, emergence of new social norms 
– we could imagine Brazil successfully for aspirational Chinese people as a place to rediscover the spontaneous self and a refreshing change from excessive self-control.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2011

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Brazil Mash-Up: Colombia

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

 

Although, perceptions of a place change with the speed of news, events and economy, there are some elements of Brazilian culture that remain embedded in the Colombian social imaginaries of Brazil.

Colombia and Brazil are very close, very similar and very different. Colombians have a great affinity with the positive aspects of Brazilian-ness – freedom, enjoyment, desire, gambling and, of course, football.

Residual codes

Hyper-hyper tropical, hyper urban and hyper green. Brazil as a synonym of excess – excess of freedom, happiness, sex, forests, and cities.

Screen fantasies, stories and dreams that connected to the Colombian reality.  Brazilian soap operas (Telenovelas) are still embedded in the minds of older Colombians.

Brazil seen as a geography of desire, where sexual licentiousness and the erotic have been consciously embraced. An extreme cult to the body.

Modernism connected to urban development – Neimeyer & Brasilia, Capanema & modernist curves, extremes of wealth and poverty.

Brazil perceived as feminine. Warm, desirable and beautiful women.

Dominant codes

The land of green indexes, vast green forests, pure green colours, and oxygen (green).  All this contrasted with media about deforestation, and questionable commitment where green issues are concerned.

Brazil is moving away from the female stereotypes. Masculine expressions are becoming popular in the collective Colombian imaginaries. Cult and deep connection to the body through exercise – especially capoeira. Brazil is more masculine, younger, and more connected to future generations.

City of God” brought a perception of Brazil as a geography of violence and fear. Favelas and mafias as icons for internal violence, extreme social deprivation, exclusion, and violent death.  Very different to Colombian violence.

Land of paradoxes, high industrial and technological development contrasted with poverty and social inequality.

Big contrast between local /global, urban /rural. A cosmopolitan country full of festive cities, big metropolises with an outstanding human quality. Modernity in relation to migration from Europe and Japan.  Urban settings, graffiti culture, hip-hop, and fusion to the extreme.

Localness in relation to the native and aboriginal – connected to indigenous communities in the Amazon, mulattos and Afro descendent populations.

Colombians tend to relate to the animosity, freedom and enjoyment of Brazilian football, although not so much to technical aspects of it.

Land of sound and carnival culture.  Samba, brega, forró, axe and paoge, garotos & garotas, batucadas – all pursuing happiness.

Saudade and its intrinsic connections with sound and relationships. The voices of Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Rita Ribeiro are still played in Colombian “Brazilian” bars.

A culture of enjoyment, good people and uncomplicated manners. Pleasure also connotes beach, caipirinhas and sugar cane.

A religious geography, ranging across Santeria, priests and Corcovado.

Culture and education as part of government agendas, Gilberto Gil, the bossa-nova precursor, was during Lula’s government Minister of Culture, supporting workshops for children and teenagers, creating a new space for social & cultural involvement and economic development. (Similar discourse was used during last Colombian elections).  It seems that in Brazil politics and culture work in synergy. Brazil is seen as a paradise in which to cultivate political and cultural dreams.

Brazil seen as the South American paradise for production and consumption of fakes. It is sometimes called the South American “China” butbetter quality.

Research and Innovation niche. Major government commitment to education. Colombians’ main source of scholarships and economic support, especially in the technical field. Florianopolis as a land of innovation and education.

Aesthetic freedom related to arts, carnival, music, and folklore. Cannibalising western cultures helped Brazil to produce more and more in music, cinema, and arts.

Emergent codes

Brazil image will evolve to an urban+ concept. Urban+ as it will retain the richness of its locality. Emergence of local/urban typographies used in global contexts.

Recent political and economic changes helped Brazilian creative Industries to be recognised, especially in the areas of film and design.  Big influence in other South American countries.

Artistic fusion – Portuguese, Spanish & English. Collaboration among local & foreign artists and musicians.

Spiritual connection to the land, the Amazon, and earthy Brazilian elements. Development of new products (non-esoteric).

A haven for higher education, for both native and foreign populations.

Rapid progress of technological advance, especially in the areas of bioengineering and thermoplastic production.

Colombians seem to regard Brazil as the main player in the region. A big player in democracy, economic and social change in the world.

2014 World Cup – connecting Brazil and South America with the rest of the world.

Some key points in conclusion:

Brazil was and still is regarded as the land of big contrasts.

Brazil is moving away from the female stereotypes and bringing elements that are more masculine and younger.  Design and street art will play a bigger role in culture and will influence other South American countries. 

Brazil is the mirror in which all Latin America’s desires are projected with maximum intensity and to their limit. 

© Lucia Neva  2011

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Culture, Global/Local, Making Sense, Socioeconomics, Technology | No Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: India

Friday, February 4th, 2011

 

 

Brazil – Not yet ‘happening’ in India!

In a country where precious time is spent outside the American, British, Canadian and Australian embassies, and migration is the ultimate climax, the average Indian is always nose-diving into the Lonely Planet for those ‘ten day trips’. So Turkey, Istanbul, Egypt, Switzerland, Venice, Rome, Berlin and now even Cuba have become signifiers of ‘awesome’ summers and the new Singapores and Dubais. Talk of inflation and rising airfares anyone? Tourist operators are raking in the moolah like never before and package tours that literally ‘pack’ civilizations and cultures in ten days are mushrooming in every corner of Indian cities. Indians want to be in the ‘happening’ corners of the world.

Happening is part of the Indian ‘oral tradition’. It works like the old English rhyme where everyone goes in a ‘pack’. One set of Gujarati’s tells another, and another tells a set of Punjabi’s, and these then tell another set of Bengali’s and so travels the lore. Happening is a place that does not oppose one’s essential indianness, where you can stand in the street in attires that match your own, and say cheese with a pride in having been there. Happening is a place from where you can ‘report’ about history, civilizations, new worlds, new fashions, and a sense of future, again, that ‘I’ve been there’ assertion. Man, Switzerland is ‘happening’!

So, going to ibiza? Despite my own personal angst about not getting to Brazil, I think it is not yet on the ‘twin radar’ of the migratory pattern of the Indians, or on the touristic map. Neither is it remote. Most Indians dance to Vengaboys and the famous ‘Braziiiiiiil’ or ‘ibiza’ at every party, and every football crazy Indian knows the numbers on Kaka, Pele and Ronaldinho’s shirts or the latter’s new hairstyle (see the picture above of Brazil fans in Kerala, South India, during last summer's football World Cup). But Brazil, is just not ‘historical enough’, nor is it the ‘new world’ like Dubai, nor is it ‘chic’ enough for the average Indian to aspire to be seen there.  So it is not ‘happening enough’. The image that is conjured about Brazil is ‘that place with those lovely beaches, and er..those well endowed men and women’.’ Goa comes closest to the idea of a seaside culture for Indians.  India is capable even of being ironic bout it's own lack of true connection with an authentic Brazilianness.  The picture below is from an iDiva website feature where singer Manasi Scott is shown trying to bring the Rio Carnival to Lakme Fashion Week only to evoke he response that "she looks more like a drag queen".

Brazil is an image of freedom without those monumental structures that an average Indian can hide behind and watch. Unlike an Egypt or a Rome, or Venice, where you can feel the romance, but you can still put up that staid, cheesy smile with a monument in the backdrop, in Brazil you just have to stand in front of the beaches or the rainforests and of course, the chances of the mermaids and those semi-clad Tarzans appearing from nowhere is very high!

Finally, the last semiotic import – when you say I went to ‘Venice’, ‘Rome’, Paris’ it is distinctly different from, ‘I went to Brazil’. From the ooooh’s and aaaaah’s, the graph dips to ‘oh’. And then a naughty grin, that says, ‘why’? Why would anyone want to brave the leeches and the thick dense rainforests or the blazing sun of the Brazilian beaches? Now, don’t look away, Brazil offers great economic opportunities, investment futures, blah blah blah………anyone listening?

© Seema Khanwalkar  2011

For some more examples of emerging Indian football fandom see http://wn.com/Brazil_and_Argentina_football_fans_in_Kerala,_India.

Posted in Americas, Asia, Culture, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: France

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Luca Marchetti 2011

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

Brazil Mash-Up: Germany

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

 

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

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

RESIDUAL

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

Left and right wing governing attempts culminating in military rule.

All highly repressive, against not for the people.

Inhumane poverty on a grand scale and immense crime. 

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINANT (codes consolidating since 1980s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMERGENT

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

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

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

• maintaining and strengthening the idea of democracy

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

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

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

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

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

© Oliver Litten 2011

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

Brazil Mash-Up: UK Notes

Friday, January 28th, 2011

 

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

INTRODUCTION

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

RESIDUAL CODES

Underlying cultural archetypes:

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINANT CODES

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMERGENT CODES

Crossing the borderline into the emergent codes

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

With many thanks to Gareth Lewis and Chris Arning.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

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

Once in a blue moon

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

New Year 2010 when we celebrated the arrival of Semionaut, in Cairo and Boston, was the night of a blue moon. A blue moon, the second full moon in a calendar month, is propitious in Egypt where everybody knows about it, and throughout the world even if you’re unaware it’s blue moon or are a conscious unbeliever. Like astrology, you’re not sure you believe in it but people say it works anyway. Hitler believed in astrology. He was also an amphetamine freak, a non-smoker and a vegetarian. So watch out. And good luck.  There was luck in abundance when the blue moon hung over the Nile.

Between us (founders Josh Glenn and Malcolm Evans) we brought Semionaut to here. Malex Salamanques joined us briefly suggesting a name change to Semionaut then left to enjoy full-time motherhood. ‘Semionaut’ Malex saw in some lorum ipsum filler text for another website in preparation. It chimed with the name of one of Josh’s earlier projects, Hermenaut. I saw it in print, used by Nicolas Bourriaud in The Radicant  – semionauts as people who invent trajectories between signs, setting “forms in motion, using them to generate journeys by which they elaborate themselves as subjects”, “translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviours, exchanging rather than imposing.” More specifically the semionaut mindset, in Bourriaud’s terms, is manifest in activities such as conceptual art, cultural recycling and upcycling, sampling, co-creation, hacking, dj-ing, any form of cultural work that closes the gap between consumption and production.

Let us say that semionauts engage with the world of signs, codes, media, culture, theory, the creative industries and disciplines – in ways at once involved and detached. The detachment of the anthropologist from another planet or participant-observer aware at all times of the semiotic monkey sitting on her shoulder (invisible to others) streaming commentary literal and metaphorical, pertinent and impertinent.  Detached yes but also wholehearted, synaesthesic, libidinal, obsessive (don’t say ‘passionate’ now an empty corporate cliché denoting absence of thought or feeling), in terms of immersion in cultures, communications, how we decode them, recode them, and try to optimize how they work for the benefit and interest of a select few, many, or people everywhere.

Our core group of writers so far work mainly in the practical application of semiotics and cultural theory to further understanding of cultures, communications, trends from mega to micro and the ever evolving world of brands. Our aim was to be global. In the first year we featured contributions from 20 countries, 5 continents. Heartfelt thanks to you all.  A year ago this existed only virtually in the imaginations of two people. The actual Semionaut has been created by its network of amazing contributors.

And now…

• Making that network more of a community

• Strengthening the global with regional editors/content commissioners and special issues – e.g. India, China, Latin America, Australasia, North Africa & the Middle East…

• Moving towards more collaborative and eventually cross-cultural group work – see the recent comparison of beauty codes in India and UK by Hamsini Shivakumar and Louise Jolly. 

• Evolving more of a news and features feel around areas our readers and contributors are involved in – specifically supplying commercially applied semiotic and cultural analysis (for brands, political parties, NGOs and activist groups, architectural practices, regulators etc.); commissioning this type of work as a client; teaching, academically researching or studying these subjects; using the kind of perspectives we engage with (“Signifying Everything”) to create or innovate in whatever way.

• Finding out more about friends of friends, word of mouth, people who happen upon Semionaut. Who are you? What are you doing? Tell us, write something for us. Welcoming the type of article we published last year (old and new friends, please keep them coming!) we’re also looking early 2011 for reflection streams, starting with regular Semionaut writers, on the business of applied semiotics and cultural analysis. Bringing to the surface a core of interests more implicit up to now. And for this making it more spontaneous, personal, raw. We’ll send specific questions out to some old and new friends and ask for answers not too considered. Experience in innovation tells us the best, most original ideas emerge from a group when people are asked first to frame issues personally and not think about it too much. “How can I know what I think till I see what I say”. E.M. Forster wrote that (I thought it was Alice till I searched it).

To keep things personal there will be some specific probes: context (what’s happening round you right now, catching your attention?); big picture (what’s your day to day headline to yourself on where things are headed for the world of signifying everything?); acknowledgement (who’s helping make things work for you); sound track (what’s playing in your head as you think these thoughts?)

Here goes:

Context: first night in a new apartment with a beautiful view of the sea and a sense of arrival; a laptop lost while moving in, along with the draft of this piece, returned today by a friendly taxi driver.

Big picture headline: students in Tunisia just got rid of at least one expression of a corrupt political establishment; this summer England.

Love marks: Josh Glenn. Awesome. Really famous by the end of 2011 – put money on it. And RIP Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart, who was the Josh Glenn of the hippy days: “Beam in on me baby and we’ll beam together/You know we’ve always been together/ But there’s more…”.

Sound track: If you don't know the tune you must hear it. And Google the lyric in honour of the students. “We Can Be Together” by Jefferson Airplane. 

Let us know what you think.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | 2 Comments »

Cross-Cultural Design FAIL

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Cross-cultural collaboration is a trend that continues to spread and open new pathways. A wonderful example is the latest trend in world music: Afro-Cuban music. "AfroCubism" (Nonesuch, November 2010) is an album that grew out of a project aiming to find a cultural synergy between Africa and Latin America. The transnational collaboration between Malian and Cuban musicians was intended to demonstrate that music has no linguistic barriers. Alas, political barriers got in the way: a problem with Malian passports and Cuban visas meant that the collaboration was delayed for fourteen years. In the meantime, "Buena Vista Social Club" — a collaboration between Cuban and American musicians — became a global success.

Historically, Cuban music was built on the foundations of African immigration, and West African music was hugely influenced by Cuban music. It is not strange to hear stories of people in Mali dancing and singing to the rhythms of Cuban songs in the Sixties. Cuban music was heard more in the African continent than the other way round, but the connection between the two cultures was always there.

Musically, "AfroCubism" demonstrates the project's collaborative spirit and reveals the cultural synergy between Mali and Cuba.  Unfortunately, the cover design entirely fails to connect with the project's original idea. Unless you are versed in the history of Modern and African art, the primary associations derived from the design are disengaged from the emotional narrative built behind AfroCubism — i.e., the historical synergy between Mali and Cuba. The concept behind the graphic design seems intended to attract the European public, which contradicts the spirit of the project.

The semiotic genesis of this particular design — geometric shapes, modern colour schemes, clear drawings of bodies deconstructed with instruments moving around — shouts "Cubism." Although the association with Cubism can provide a multiple and constantly shifting viewpoint that could be applied to a collaborative, cross-cultural project, such association seems to be just a linguistic excuse to portray the Cuban part of AfroCubism. The immediate associations of Cubism are far removed from Cuba-ness, creating a cultural distance effect with regards to the basic associations of AfroCubism. The relationship between West African masks and their influence on Picasso’s work is clear and it helps the connection with the Afro part of the title, but where is the primary association of Picasso and Cuba?

I'm not judging the aesthetic value of the cover, nor the dexterity of its well-known designer (whose work I admire). However, the "AfroCubism" cover is a good example of the importance of design and semiotics in the portrayal of cultural identities and experiences. Graphic designers and semioticians are central in the execution of many ideas that are consumed around the globe; therefore, they are actors in the quest of the authentic. Though their background work is invisible to the public, the results of their work help to construct new cultural experiences and connect to individuals at a deeper level. The responsibility for the creation of designs that connect with people and cultural realities is high and will be higher in years to come, especially if we take seriously the spirit of collaboration.

Posted in Africa, Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local | 1 Comment »

I am Saudi Woman, hear me roar

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Multiplying Stories

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talk on stories, power and authenticity is an insipration not to be missed around themes of perception and communication within and between cultures today.  

She talks about the damaging effects of 'the single story' and the limiting stereotypes of people and places such a story perpetuates.  About the Nigerian concept of 'Nkali' – the power to tell the story of another person and make that the definitive story (we will all be familiar with examples of this in our own countries and cultures, a negation in practice of equality and enlightenment).  She outlines contemporary cultural assumptions about a single Africanness, talks about the representation of Mexicans as 'the abject immigrant' in US media and illustrates the rich inner diversity of Nigerian popular cinema and musical culture.  She concludes with a positive vision which realises that there is never just a single story – in order to "regain a kind of paradise".

Don't let this summary replace the 20 minutes it will take to engage with the unique voice and personality of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Apart from anything else this talk is an object lesson in communicating challenging ideas about culture and communication with extraordinary clarity, grace and humour.  

Posted in Africa, Americas, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | No 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 »

Poe, Rampo, Emo

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

This is about academic work in progress on the style- and genre-defining cultural significance of Edgar Allan Poe, inventor of horror and detective fiction, great-great-godfather of the global Goth and Emo subcultures, doyen of teenage hypersensitivity, psychological vulnerability and self-harming.

Poe, as perceived from his own time through to today, is not only the author of acclaimed uncanny stories and poems but a highly charged cultural signifier in his own right (think, by analogy, Andy Warhol in an earlier cultural context but with massive authentic talent & creativity and without the tedious postmodernity) – focal point for myth, symbols and affiliations that stretch from influence on other writers, artists and musicians to intense, often cult-like, identification on the part of Poe enthusiasts. 

The first layer of cultural lore concerns biographical and ancdotal associations of a life no less macabre than the literary output: the infant Poe and his sister found keeping company with the body of their deceased mother; estrangement from step-parents; marriage to his 13 year old cousin Virginia Clemm; the premature deaths of Virginia and other loved ones; gambling, heavy drinking, laudanum addiction, increasingly unstable behaviour, bouts of delirium; death at 40 attributed variously to TB, syphilis, brain disease, suicide or political assassination. This is a case where identification with the author himself has resonated powerfully with the continuing impact of potently liminal and dreamlike stories such as ‘Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ or poems like ‘The Raven’.

My research into Poe originated with personal interest starting in late childhood when I came across an edition of Tales of Mystery and Imagination in Russian. It went on to become become an obsession during my teenage years.  The idea of Poe’s pain and sadness can still move me deeply. In my fascination with his personality and work I came across numerous blogs and online interest groups. My feeling at the time was one of not being alone – of sharing a connection with something bigger and more important.  But also of a sense that this personal connection was violated by the cultism and commercialisation behind products such as, for example, the ‘living dead dolls’ of Poe and Annabel Lee.  Poe is a strong symbolic point of reference for people in adolescence who are experiencing ennui and personal turmoil. The niche business opportunities growing globally around this phenomenon can help articulate these feelings but also, in these more obviously exploitative expressions, heighten young people’s transitional sense of alienation from mainstream culture and society.

rampo

My PhD research involves tracking some of the main movements historically that channel Poe’s influence into global popular culture and specific national cultural expressions today:

• Baudelaire’s infatuation with Poe, playing into the work of later nineteenth-century French poets and fin de siècle Decadence.

• Horror fiction and movies inspired by Poe narratives, the legacy of Poe recyclers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Vincent Price

• Poe’s influence on lyrics and music from Bob Dylan (where American Poe reconnects with the French poets), Lou Reed’s 2003 album The Raven and a host of other examples – from Iron Maiden to Antony and the Johnsons. Follow the YouTube links at the end of this post for some current examples, with comments from viewers that illustrate the semiotics and psychopathology of the online Poe discourse.

• The influence of Edogawa Rampo (see main illustration) – the Japanese mystery and detective story writer (active from the 1920s to the 1960s) who took Poe’s name and exerts a huge influence on popular manga and gaming culture in Japan today.   Rampo is, if anything, more disturbing and macabre than Poe. If you are European, American or Antipodean tell any Japanese person that you are a big fan of Edogawa Rampo then step back to note the spontaneous expression of shock, cultural empathy and mild concern for your emotional wellbeing.

• The proliferating cross-cultural engagement online (creative groups, blogs, discussions) around Poe today. The challenge here is to draw the line around what may be defined as directly influenced by Poe versus continuations of broader cultural trends he was, perhaps, the first to sense and articulate.

A methodological challenge is to create a conceptual structure that can facilitate the kind of participation, feedback and co-creation from which a piece of subcultural research like this could benefit enormously. Other Poe scholars, enthusiasts (or obsessives) please get in touch!

© Albena Todorova 2010 

 

Links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7FsyJgtRF4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg994BPCOIo

If your neocortex and amygdala are still interconnected don’t miss this second one.

Posted in Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Global/Local | 1 Comment »

Smart is the New Sexy

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

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

big bang

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

–    Highly educated while lacking social communication skills especially with girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Vivian Shi 2010 

 

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The Global Hole

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

On the eve of the new year in 2008, I was in a New York bookstore with my novelist friend Sheila. We’d had an ecstatic tourist’s day in the city – eating fried plantains in the morning and buying skirts to wear to our dinner on the lower east side, where I planned on doing whatever I could to corner Sheila’s handsome editor and force him to give me a midnight kiss. Our feeling was sort of a buoyancy-in-negative: We weren’t high off New York City’s compellingly scummy fumes; that day in New York had made us realize that our home, Toronto, was our soul city, the most correct of all the cities for a couple of writers like us.

We talked about Toronto’s cultural mosaic, one that did not have the kind of overarching macro-narrative which forces its inhabitants to fall into step with “the vibe”. There were too many neighbourhoods for that, we said. What unified Toronto was its patchwork of micro-communities. Of the Azerbaijani family that sold Sheila her cherry flavoured cigarellos. Of the Chinese man who spoke fluent Spanish and would always give me great deals on Brazil nuts at the dried foods store. We talked about the Dundas streetcar, and how you could step onto it after a lunch of pierogies in Little Poland, then watch as Koreatown, Little Portugal, and Little Italy rolled past until you rang the bell in Little India, where you could get off, eat the greatest authentic dosa of your life, then walk north to Greektown for a dessert of perfect, crispy baklava. We loved our city for these things – we were both children of poor, miserable immigrants who’d come to Toronto and forged new lives, new identities. Toronto did the same for our writing: Our voices were wholly our own. We had control over how much geography we wanted to incorporate into our stories. In New York we surely couldn’t do that. We’d be left standing outside the New Yorker building in high heels and sophisticated belted coats, shouting into our bullhorns, begging for the city to give us its very specific kind of recognition.

Sheila suddenly took one of my frozen hands into hers and pulled me off the snowy sidewalk and into the bookstore. She ran up to the cashier and asked for Pico Iyer’s memoir The Global Soul, which has beautiful passages that reflected what we loved about Toronto. Sheila said, “We’ll read it to one another over dinner.”

keanu

At the restaurant, we took turns reading aloud between courses. It was snobby as hell, but we didn’t give a rat’s ass. We just sat there in the warmth and took turns reading Iyer’s words by candlelight over sweetbreads and fish, drunk on good wine and high concepts and the confidence that our sense of place had given to us.  

SHEILA:

During my early days in Toronto, I found myself spinning through cultures as if I were sampling World Music rhythms on a hip-hop record.  Every day, I'd wake up early and hand my laundry to the woman from the Caribbean who guarded the front desk of the Hotel Victoria with an upright demeanor worthy of a Beefeater.  Then I'd slip around the corner to where two chirpily efficient Chinese girls would have my croissant and tea ready almost before I'd ordered them.

KATHRYN:

I'd stop off in the Movenpick Marché down the block-run almost entirely by Filipinas (the sisters, perhaps, of the chambermaids in the Victoria)- and buy a copy of the Globe and Mail, which nearly always had news on its front page of Beijing.  Then, not untypically, an Afghan would fill me in on the politics of Peshawar as I took a cab uptown, consulting an old-fashioned newspaper that (with its Grub street column and its "Climatology" section) seemed to belong to Edwardian Delhi.

SHEILA:

For a Global Soul like me – for anyone born to several cultures – the challenge in the modern world is to find a city that speaks to as many of our homes as possible.  The process of interacting with a place is a little like the rite of a cocktail party, at which, upon being introduced to a stranger, we cast about to find a name, a place, a person we might have in common: a friend is someone who can bring as many of our selves to the table as possible.

KATHRYN:

In that respect, Toronto felt entirely on my wavelength.  It assembled many of the pasts that I knew, from Asia and America and Europe; yet unlike other outposts of Empire-Adelaide, for example, or Durban-it offered the prospect of uniting all the fragments in a stained-glass whole. 

By the time we got to the cheese course, our eyes were misty with emotion. Then we smelled smoke and realized that our eyes were in fact misty because there was a grease fire in the restaurant’s kitchen. The sommelier ushered us all out into the street as a group of lantern-jawed firemen put out the little blaze. 30 minutes later, when everyone was allowed to return to their tables, we saw they were dotted with small cakes – an act of apology from the pastry chef. Sheila and I looked at one another with wonder and joy. Of course scummy old New York would have a grease fire in fancy restaurant on New Year’s Eve! We then looked around the room with wonder and joy and noticed that at the table next to us was Keanu Reeves, a native Torontonian. Of course Keanu Reeves would be sitting next to us! By now I was very drunk and thought it would be a grand idea to offer Iyer’s book to Keanu as a gesture of goodwill, a sort of enactment of Iyer’s global soul. Sheila was a Hungarian Jew who’d travelled all over the world, I’d moved 17 times throughout Europe and North America, Keanu had surely spent some time in Los Angeles and in The Matrix. We were family, pretty much. And The Global Soul was our bible, clearly.

Sheila, who was not quite so drunk, shrunk into her seat in embarrassment, whispering violently that I should not go over and disturb his dinner. Shrugging, I teetered over to him, the book lying on top of my two hands like a platter of grapes.

I said, “Keanu, I thought you should have this. I earmarked the pages about Toronto.”

He looked at me dumbly.

I continued, “Keanu Reeves, you have to read these pages about Toronto.” Words were failing me. I paused and took a breath.

“Keanu REEVES, you are from Toronto.”

Keanu Reeves held up his hand and said, “Yeah, I am. But what am I supposed to DO with this?”

“It’s a book, Keanu Reeves. You read it.” I turned on my heel and walked back to the table, where Sheila was convulsing with shame. The unity and joy I’d been feeling all day dissipated until a large dark cavern was created inside my body. It stayed with me for the rest of the trip, even after I’d successfully shoved Sheila’s editor up against a wall and kissed him to ring in the new year.

A few days later, when I got back to my apartment in Toronto, I noticed that the lids for my three outdoor garbage cans were missing. I was surveying the scene with what I assume was a dumb look similar to the look that Keanu Reeves had given to me. My old Portuguese neighbour Manuel came outside and stood next to me. Manuel was a janitor at the hospital down the street for decades, until he retired in the late 90s. He didn’t speak much English, but we’d communicated for years through his summer gifts of cucumbers from his garden, and me baking him pies that he always complained were too sugary. I’d never had to pull my garbage cans to the curb on garbage day, because for the near decade I’d been living there, Manuel would have done it for me in the earliest morning, before I’d woken up.

He shuffled out of his home in his little glasses and woolen hat and came to stand next to me.

“Katreen!” He pointed to the lid-less garbage bins.

“I know, Manny. It’s so weird. I can’t figure out who took them.” I shook my head, puzzled. He patted my shoulder and I felt warm. Suddenly, I had an ally in this totally inconsequential mystery.

“You look so young today! Very beautiful.” Manuel put a long, liquid emphasis on the “e” and pronounced the “ful” like “fow”. I blushed at his non-sequitur.

“Thanks Manny.”

“I know who took these, Katreen.”

“You do?” I said.

“Yes, Chinese people.”

I thought I’d misheard.

“What?” I said.

“CHINESE people.” He shouted as though I were deaf and pointed east, to Spadina Avenue, where our street connected with Chinatown.

“Uh. You think?”

“Yes. They… they take. They take everything.” He waved his arms around madly.

I dropped my head and stared at my shoes feeling the flush in my face turn to one of hot embarrassment. I wanted to run back into the house immediately. I opened my mouth to begin to protest, but we didn’t have enough of a shared vocabulary for me to make him understand how wrong and racist he was being. Not knowing what to say, I mumbled:

“Okay, well, thanks Manny. I guess I’ll just go buy some new lids.”

That weekend, as I was washing the windows of the 2nd floor of my apartment, I noticed three plastic circles lying on the bit of roof outside the glass. They were my garbage lids. Some joker had obviously used them to play Frisbee. I wanted to run downstairs and triumphantly knock on Manuel’s door with the lids in my hand, but then decided that it didn’t matter. 

 
© Kathryn Borel 2010 

Posted in Americas, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

China’s ‘Fresh’ Beer Code

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

 

Why has freshness become the most familiar code in the Chinese beer market? This is an account of how bonding, brotherhood, business and cultural codes around giving face play into the predominance of these cues in current beer communication.
 
chinabeer
Beer has gained considerable popularity in China in recent decades as aspects of Western culture and taste are absorbed into different areas of life.  Freshness, purity and coolness dominate beer communication in the local market. Consequently pale beers dominate the category.  Attempts to push other types such as dark beer or ale have achieved very little success so far.
 
A common scene from beer ads is male buddies boozing up in restaurants, as can also often be observed happening in real life. A table of six Chinese guys working their way their way through forty or so bottles of beer is a familiar sight.
 
It is common in China, as in other markets, for male friends to gather together enjoying beer as alcohol is regarded as something that can facilitate bonding and strengthen brotherhood with each other. And according to Chinese drinking etiquette, how much you drink depends on how close the relationship is – and this can also be seen as a way of face-giving among friends, building relationships and group harmony.
 
Beer is used in China as a common tool to enhance relations not only among friends, but also during business occasions, where the combination of positive connotations around how much is consumed and negatives around drunkenness help make light beer the drink of choice. The lighter the beer the more you can consume before getting drunk and the more face you can give your friends – the volume consumed still being more significant as a measure of friendship than, say, the quality of the beer.  
 
However, ‘light’ can sometimes carry a negative association in the sense of “diluted or low quality”. So freshness, in terms of expression, tends to win out currently by suggesting not only lightness and purity but also a pleasant drinking experience.
 
 © Vivian Shi 2010 
 
Notes
 
For a detailed explication of face giving & key differences between high-context and low-context societies see www.beyondintractability.org/essay/face/

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

iLOHAS

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

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

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

Social Networking & Activism in Saudi Arabia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Habiba Allarakia 2010

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