Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

|

How Brands Protect Us

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semiotic Codes of Protection in Branding

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Protecting Barrier

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

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

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

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

 Image 1.1.                                                                                                                                           

• Handy tool 

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

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

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

 Image 1.2.

 

• The Hero

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

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

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

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

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

Image 1.3.                                                                                                                

• Calming Nature

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

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

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

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

Image 2.1.

• Authority of Science

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

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

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

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

Image 2.2.

 

• Safety in Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Present time. Russian soul. Local products.

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

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

 Image 2.3.

• Supportive Community

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

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

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

Image 3.1.

• Tender Care

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

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

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

Image 3.2

 

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

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

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

Image 3.3

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

© Maria Papanthymou 2017

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

Keeping the difference

Monday, November 28th, 2016

 

Desigual, the Spanish fashion brand launched in 1984 by Thomas Mayer, has always had a close relationship with its customers. Although it’s not completely mainstream (in terms of design and proposals), their communication strategy has been based upon the same spirit, all over the world: let’s keep (really) close to our followers (and avoid the distance with customers high fashion brands usually impose). They have expressed this in many ways: Kiss Tour is a concept that includes their events and shop openings/parties, which have nothing to do with the front row of most Fashion Weeks; “La vida es chula” (“Life is cool”), their slogan; feeble activity on social networks, sharing their backstages and some other insider details; keeping the conversation with the audiences and publics; asking their clients to become fashion models for a day; the Seminaked events and the Undie Parties

Nevertheless, and with the amazing growth they had in the last 5 years (which is clear to local customers due to the quantity of shops that have been opening in Spanish cities lately), there has been an ongoing comment: Desigual (which can be translated as “different/irregular/not the same”) is becoming really similar… to itself. There was a certain belief in Spanish society that some of the designs were quite repetitive and the core consumers of the first moment started to be a little disappointed. Yes, the brand celebrates life but it also used to be a unique style, not easy to find at the beginning and which gave wearers a certain urban-style distinction. And all that was starting to evaporate.

To make things worse, there was a lawsuit from Custo Barcelona in 2008; this brand said Desigual was getting “too much” inspiration from their designs… The buzz was starting to get louder and it was defying the fresh relationship Desigual had with their customers; moreover, its originality and uniqueness —the core values of the brand— were being questioned.

The campaign

So in answer to this they resorted to good old advertising, on YouTube and television. They launched their first ever audiovisual campaign in 2012, which also included a hashtag, in order to encourage conversation in social media.

But why did it work? Just because it was on TV and it sent a clear message? Not at all. A brand that had distinguished itself for being so unusual had to go beyond that. They still needed to keep it different and also maintain the fresh relationship with their clients.

The spots

The late 2012 campaign included 3 spots under the same spirit, which was expressed in the hashtag #tengounplan (“I have a plan”) for the New Year. The three young women that appear in each of the ads are quite daring in their own way: one —probably the less interesting proposal— was going to drop everything and travel around the world, taking a break from the financial crisis in Spain, from her life and boyfriend, because she wanted to take pleasure in living; another one was going to tell her boss she liked him and she wanted to have sex with him, “whatever the girls from the accounting department say”, because “we are here to enjoy life”; and the third one was finally going to introduce her female partner —the love of her life— to her family.



Sex and tolerance, the culture codes

Why where these ads appealing and not rejected as they would have been in other societies? Because Desigual knows its customers and the culture they live in. The two last spots invoke an attitude that represents a strong culture code in Spain: although it is quite a traditional society in many aspects —and being “traditional” in Spain has mostly good connotations—, in terms of real acceptance of diversity (in this case, gender roles and identities), it is quite open and respectful in daily life, something that was formally expressed in the same-sex marriage law in 2005 and in the law about gender equality in 2007.

They also appeal to another culture code related to enjoying life —which is a feature of the Spanish way of being/living­—, that went on in the two following campaigns, under the #hazloporlamañana (“Do it in the morning”, 2013) and #yomeatrevo (“I dare”) hashtags: sex is lived as something joyful and enjoyable by most of Spanish society, something that is openly talked about and referred to. (Other campaigns that represent this clearly in Spain are the ones from Durex: they focus on sex as a pleasurable activity, and they don’t talk about contraception at all, as they do in other countries). A recent and successful book by Roser Amills also reinforces this idea: its title is I like sex, and its author is a female journalist who also writes about technology in one important newspaper. This could be something shocking for other cultures: in Spain, you are who you are, and this is not necessarily determined by what you do. And of course, you are allowed to do as many things as you want, without being too judged by society in daily life.

The challenge and the shift

Through a deep understanding of the society and the core codes/values of their brand, Desigual re-thought the meaning of being different, fresh and daring: they lifted it from design to the people they dress. This was a smart move: there are still many brands that get mad at their audiences because they “don´t understand” what they are conveying and get stuck with the same message and tactics. Thinking over the core brand meanings and developing strategies to express them in new and appealing ways is a great way of keeping your followers next to you and of showing you care and hear their complaints, something essential in the era of social media. This negative buzz was transformed into something else: being fresh and different it’s not only about the design, it’s about you and your attitude in life. And Desigual is (still) by your side, celebrating distinctness.

And now?

Although there was a different turn in the ad they launched for Christmas 2015 (which was so general it could have fitted any other brand, such as H&M, Zara or Mango), they’ve kept the essential spirit about attitude in the early 2015 campaign with #queves (#whatdoyousee) proposal, which features Chantelle Winnie, a model with vitiligo —challenging traditional and mainstream ideas about beauty—, and the recent 2016 “Hundred miles”, which also includes older women. So the “Desigual” spirit is still alive, breathing and working well.

© Gabriela Pedranti 2016

 

Posted in Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe | No Comments »

Creme Eggs

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Creme Eggs and the Subjectivity of Childishness

Winner of Semionaut New Writers Award 2016

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

Creme Egg 1

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

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

Subjectivity

Flake 1

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

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

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

Fluid identity and pre-digital childhood

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

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

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

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

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

© Colette Sensier 2016

 

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

New Writers Award Winner 2016

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

On behalf of Semionaut and award sponsors Space Doctors, the judges’ panel is delighted to announce that the winner of the 2016 New Writers Award is Colette Sensier.

Our runner up is Mattia Thibault.

Congratulations to both of you for your impressive submissions. And many thanks to all entrants for taking part in this year’s competition.

Watch this space for the winning piece!

 

Posted in Europe, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Mortal Archetypology

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

 

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

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

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

MortalArchetypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally on the subs bench…

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2016

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

Coming of Age

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

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

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

AgeRDE

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

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

specsv

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

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

Barclayswalk

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

CelebrationDay

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

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

blackstar7
David Bowie, Blackstar

So to the Emergent zone in ads.

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

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

The examples:
DoveGreyHair

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

WonderfulLife

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

FirstChoice2

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

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

FirstChoice

© Malcolm Evans 2016

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

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

Network: Marc

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hut Weber

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

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

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

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

© Marc Dimitrov 2016

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

Sound & Music Semiotics

Monday, July 6th, 2015

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

Maximalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on Maximalism and Purple music see:

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

© Chris Arning 2015

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

The New Guernica of Glasgee?

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

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

Shrigley

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2015

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

Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

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

Linguistic localization of cross cultural foods

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

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

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

Panini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Matthew Campanella 2014

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

Network: Ryan

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

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

Tell us about your DJ Electric Eel project

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

Eel1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eel2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about the DJ Electric Eel project:

http://djelectriceel.tumblr.com/

© Ryan Hu

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

Network: Emma

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DreamOn

What’s next in terms of writing and publication?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Emma Shevah 2014

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

Diversity 5: Emma

Friday, May 16th, 2014

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

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

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

motorbike-1

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

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

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

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

Junot Diaz

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

Authenticity twitter1[1]

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

http://emmashevah.com

http://emmashevah.livejournal.com

twitter:@emmashevah

Junot Diaz photograph by Carolyn Cole for the LA Times

Screenshot of Twitter page linked to #weneeddiversebooks

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

Diversity 5: Thierry

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Diversity 5 – Improv/Jam

Sunday, May 11th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

 

 

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

Ribbon of Victory

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

GeorgeRibbonPacks

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

GB_Manicure_Ad[1] copy

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

© Marina Simakova 2014

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

Brands & the Myth of the Family

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

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

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

The Flora Mum

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

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

Or perhaps not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colmans stills.009_0

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

© Alison Bancroft 2014

 

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

Diversity Act IV

Friday, April 4th, 2014

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

(Bob Dylan, Desolation Row)

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

ActIV.1

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

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

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

ActIV.2

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

 

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

Codes of Crimea

Monday, March 10th, 2014

 

GEO-SEMIOTICS – THE CODES OF CRIMEA

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

Crimea5

Pebble memoirs

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

Swallow’s Nest

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

Soviet artifacts

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

Crimea4

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

Life in the wild

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

Diversity in peace

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

Text © Marina Simakova 2014

Photographs © Olga Zeveleva 2014 – with thanks

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

And the Winner Is…

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

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

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

photo_HOEL

Here are some quotes from the judges:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Short List – Taras

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

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

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

 Language and Codes of Argumentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Branding Unique Experience

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

NTV-NOLA070

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

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

Red Arrow

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

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

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

© Taras Boyko

 

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

Short List – Matthew

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

PLACES, COGNITION AND ADVERTS

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

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

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

Fiume

Carnival at Rijeka, Croatia, spectators included

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

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

© Matthew Campanella

 

 

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

Short List – Arief

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

 

POP MUSIC GONE POSTMODERN

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

1CADC3C1

© 2013 Kevin Mazur/Wireimage

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

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

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

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

Gaga1

© Interscope Records

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

Gaga2

© Getty Images

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

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

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

© Arief Fauzy 2014

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

Diversity Act III

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

Act III.  Egalité, Fraternité, Diversité

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

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

Sanex

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

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

BarthesFamily

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

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

Davos

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE SEMIOTIC MONKEY

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

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

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

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

Diversity Act II

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Act II Reconciliation Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

MobileMadoc

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

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

Diversity Act I

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Act I: Diversity Meets the Semiotic Monkey

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

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

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

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

SemioticMonkey2

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

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

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

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

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

Act II will follow shortly

© Malcolm Evans 2014

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

Pretty in Scarlet

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

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

A kiss from the USSR

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

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

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

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

RedLipstick2

Reverse femininity

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

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

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

Passive aggressive

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

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

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

RedLipstick3

Opposing the dominant ‘natural’ trend

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

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2013

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

Decoding Democracy

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

PussyRiot2

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

PussyRiot6

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

PussyRiot4

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

PussyRiot9

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

PussyRiot5

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

PussyRiot7

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

Who’s next in this Pussy Riot marketing quest?

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

© Marina Simakova 2013

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

Beauty Serums

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Arning 2013

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

Waffle

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

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

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

Vodka’s Enfant Terrible

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

A new interpretation

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

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

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

Tradition versus Character

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

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

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

Purity versus Craftsmanship

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

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

Some thoughts on further innovation…

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

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

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

© Sophie Gomez 2013

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

Modern Orientalism

Monday, January 28th, 2013

 

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

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

Shafik Gabr Foundation advertisement in the Financial Times

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

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

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

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

© Kourosh Newman-Zand 2013

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

Russians in Films

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code #2: Drinking vodka

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

Code #3: White sky

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

Code #4: Woman’s hair in a plait

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


Code #5:Ice-skating

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

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

 

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

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

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

Code #7: Flowery shawl

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

 

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

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

This list could certainly be extended.

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2012

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

Hedging semiotic bets

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

 

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

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

Anna Truong

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

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

Za advertising

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

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

Lancome advertising

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

The truth is out there

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2012

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

Two Types of Garishness (3)

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

 

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

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

LONDON AMBASSADORS UNIFORM

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

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

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

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

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

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

RUSSIAN FEDERATION UNIFORM

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

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

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

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

CODE (METALINGUISTIC) – N/A

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

Reserved Meaning

Friday, September 28th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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

Two Types of Garishness (2)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

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

Two Types of Garishness (1)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

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

Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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

Semiotics as Art: Ryan

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

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

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

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

3D Relational Circuit © Paul Ryan

 The relational circuit & Threeing.

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

 

© Paul Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Thierry Mortier 2012

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

Fachgynan (2)

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

 

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

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

Ugly duckling grows up

Monday, August 20th, 2012

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

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

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

What changed of course is that we have just had 2 weeks of a soft power injection into the UK through the good natured competition in London – and a whole host of meanings and images have become associated with the Games which Jacques Rogge declared as ‘glorious’. Whatever you may say about the substance of the signs, this Olympics was exceedingly well branded. The emblem formed the back drop to swimming medal ceremonies, was on the scoring screens in the Excel Arena in the centre of Basketball arenas and boxing rings, on the floor of the gymnastics mat and even on the protective girdles of Taekwondo fighters. Everywhere athletes struggled, triumphed, choked, celebrated, commiserated it said, this is London 2012. Most impressively, it really came to life in material form. It was engraved on the side of the Olympic torch and the cauldron at Tower Bridge, embossed on medal podiums during victory ceremonies and in bevelled splendour on the back of the medals too.

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece in Admap to the effect that the 2012 logo was a brave departure from previous Olympic logos in terms of using metaphor rather than cultural chauvinism, but the vague motif of jaggedness and electricity had no context in which to live and grow in people’s minds. It was slated. London Design Museum founder and pundit Stephen Bayley described it as 'a puerile mess, an artistic flop, and commercial scandal'. Others compared it to Lisa Simpson performing fellatio. Then there was a scandal with Iran accusing the logo of spelling Zion, threatening a boycott. It was roundly ridiculed online and became the logo all people loved to hate.

I wrote: “To many the logo feels maladroit and sloppily put together. It is certainly true that the lurid colours made it an easy target for criticism”. The response of London and LOCOG was measured. Ken Livingstone indeed predicted it would ‘grow on us’.

Now that there is some substance to London’s stewardship of the Olympic flame (a very well organized Games, with no negative incidents, mostly packed stadia and some World Records), what looked cack-handed, cheap and tenuous back in 2006 now looks positively transgressive, highly differentiated, a token of British eccentricity.

The 4 Ms logos from the modern era: Mexico 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, and Moscow 1980 may look more polished, but London 2012 is joyfully idiosyncratic. Its design peculiarties (foregrounding the Olympiad year and making it the primary motif engulfing the Olympic rings within, using an urban design idiom rather than indigenous folk art) are now more forgivable. The emblem also seems to mesh quite nicely with the spirit of the Games: from the way LOCOG cheekily tweaked IOC protocols and deployed self-effacing humour both in the opening and closing ceremonies, Thomas Heatherwick’s inventive flame, through the festive bonhomie of the volunteers, the carnival atmosphere during events and the use of chivvying music in interludes. The Games of the XXXth Olympiad in London have had a fun, exuberant feel to them. The rambunctious defiance of the logo seems somehow fitting; and not unworthy as a mnemonic of this Games that defied skepticism with phlegmatic unfussiness. Even if it is a somewhat arbitrary sign it now captures those memories. The Team GB Lion has superseded it in populism but that's another story.

It is true that the logo did not make an appearance in the ceremonies as it has done in many previous ceremonies. One would have thought that the technical capability of diode effects available in the Olympic stadium would have been sufficient to bring the logo alive. Danny Boyle clearly found it surplus to the story he was telling and LOCOG did not insist. However, it has found its presence into the Olympic spirit in other ways. You could see it scrawled on restaurant boards and on walls as well as on merchandise of all types that people were sporting with pride. It has been adopted affectionately almost in spite of itself as an awkward emblem because it has come to represent verve and a successful cultural moment. Lampooned and satirized it may still be but it never represent failure of vision, sloppiness or seen as lacking originality.

If there is something I do admire about being British it is about being a good sport and not taking oneself too seriously. This plucky, unpromising logo now basks in the reflected glory of the last fortnight of British success and international plaudits and it has accreted connotations to match. A true example of how signs can outgrow even unpromising beginnings through cultural re-appraisal. I wonder if Peirce would like it?

© Chris Arning 2012

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

Fachgynan (1)

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

 

The old house had been a ruin in the early 20th Century. Then it had been restored after the First World War using, it is said, recycled timbers from ships dismantled after the War. That seemed the best explanation for the fact that the main purlin was too short and was bolted to another with a 3ft overlap above the top of the stairs. It also seemed to explain the curvature that created a hump in the middle of the roof.
 
 
The house was designed for occupation by the farmer and his family and the farm labourer. Because all the work was done manually or with horses in those days, even the smallest farm had to have a labourer. The house was exactly like many others, of a design that children always drew – walls, roof, four windows and a door in the middle. It had two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. In Fachgynan, the front door opened into what was originally the only communal living space to the right, with the steep wooden stairs directly ahead. The main room would have had a large inglenook fireplace where all the cooking was done, probably a settle by it for people to sit by the fire, and a table and chairs in the middle of the room. There would have been shelves and cupboards in the alcoves either side of the inglenook and in the space under the stairs.
 
By the time we moved there in 1952, the living space had been extended into the animal quarters next door. The alcove to the right of the inglenook had been knocked through and the small stable or whatever it had been was converted to a kitchen. There was a small high window at the back of the kitchen with a Belfast sink below and an enamel draining board to its right. At the centre of the left-hand wall was a small, cream-coloured Rayburn, with top and bottom oven to the right of the firebox, hotplate above and an old-fashioned integral boiler on the left. The boiler had to be filled with buckets from the tap. The black enamelled flue pipe rose straight up from the rayburn then turned into the chimney in the wall. That length of flue pipe was an important source of heat. Dad would warm his frozen hands on it when he had been out driving the tractor in the snow and Mum would pin socks and underwear around it to air them. It was even used to iron collars in the days before we had electricity.
 
 Opposite the rayburn, on the right-hand wall was the kitchen table, the centre of our universe for quite a few years. Dad’s wooden armchair was in the space between the table and the draining board, the best place, away from the doors and out of the draughts. A little oak settle on the opposite side was where we, David and Myfan, sat, the solid wood panelled back and seat giving shelter from the draughty doors – none of the doors fitted very well! The baby, Lynda, was safely imprisoned in an old-fashioned wooden high chair contraption and Mum used to perch on a stool with her back to the Rayburn, although I don’t remember her sitting down much at all.
 
The only water supply was provided by an old brass tap attached to the wall above the sink. It brought in cold water from the spring near the house. The waste pipe from the sink was a plain lead pipe – no u-bend – that went through the base of the wall and emptied into a small stream behind the house. This was on the north side of the house so there would be a constant icy draught coming out of the sink too.
 
The kitchen floor had been intended to be laid with red quarry tiles, but they obviously ran out of them about half way in, so the sink end of the kitchen was a patchwork of concrete of different colours and textures laid, obviously, on more than one occasion. I remember studying the floor quite a lot, looking at all the different patches but it was many years before I realised that this was not a normal floor. It was perfectly normal to me. Because the kitchen was located in the outbuildings, the ceiling was formed from the old hay loft; wooden rafters laid with wide sawn planks above. These planks were very old and gaps had opened up, so we might be treated to showers of dust and old cobwebs when the rodents were running around above, especially when the cats were chasing them. Mum fixed that by having hardboard panels nailed to the rafters.
 
Behind our settle was the one and only kitchen cupboard, which sat on a large old chest of drawers. The bottom two wide drawers had taken out and replaced with cupboard doors to create the Shoe Cupboard. Inside was always a huge jumble of shoes and Wellingtons, which got bigger over time – we never threw out old or worn-out shoes. And, in time the mud that came in on the footwear seemed to turn to dust and coat everything a uniform shade of grey so only the newest, cleanest ones could be quickly identified. The two short drawers above were Mum’s drawer and Dad’s drawer respectively. Dad’s drawer was a forbidden place where he kept his diaries and what little paperwork there was in those days. He also kept his sweets in there, but these were invariably extra strong mints so there was never any danger of us helping ourselves to them. Mum’s drawer was where everything that wasn’t to do with food was kept. It was one big tangle of lots of different knitting wools and cotton, caused by constant rummaging looking for safety pins, buttons, pencils, first aid, or any other small item that had no other logical place to go.
 
 © Myfanwy Jones  2012

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

Network: Jonathan

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

 

Where are you, what are you doing?

I am based in the city of Nottingham, where I completed my PhD in Art and Design in 2008. I currently have an eclectic mix of work, which includes Nottingham University Bookshop, public art projects, professional research and writing in art and design practice, publications, teaching and conference papers, including Unmapping the City (2008), and a paper for an Art and Politics conference at the University of Nottingham in May of this year. I also do commercial projects for Create Research (most of my recent publications are on the site), a collaborative platform for investigating the cultural dynamics between research, learning, knowledge and networks [Please add your comments to the current material on the site, which in a nutshell is designed to evolve into a creative ecology or assemblage via the connections and interactions between all four platforms] 

                                                                            Freeze (2006)

What attracted you to semiotics and why did you move on?

The attraction of semiotics was its capacity to analyse, diagnose and above all create meaning(s) through different cultural registers, something which I first encountered, albeit briefly, at Semiotic Solutions in 1998, when I was asked to identify emergent codes with the potential for overcoming strong resistance in 18 – 25 year olds to investing in pensions, the problem being that there was a high level of distrust in financial institutions due to media coverage of bad practice in selling pension products (sounds all too familiar). The experience of Semiotic Solutions was to expose me to the potential of creativity per se, which subsequently led to a move into more overtly material forms of practice in art and design, and by 2002 I was embarking on my MA in Contemporary Art. As my visual practice evolved I became interested in what is problematic in representation and resistant to definition. The dynamism of Deleuze's 'materialist semiotic' offers a 'new image of thought', which for me opened up the possibilities of the sign's materiality as event – things made a come back so to speak, and the non-discursive field of practices, actions, materials and techniques came to the fore. 

Why should semioticians read Deleuze and what should they start with?

I would be reluctant to say should, and with Deleuze it's more a case of do, hence his appeal to artists who aim to critique rational systems in and through their practice. I would say that Deleuze is worth reading if you are a semiotician who is open to the possibility that there might be a different kind of mind independent sign, that is, the material expressions of things themselves. In this respect, Deleuze connects expression to firstness in Peirce, and proposes that affects have a real and autonomous existence. What this requires us to do is encounter the sign as event, a lighting strike, a peacock's feathers, a sunrise, a movement from one state to another, hence Deleuze's recourse to experimental cinema as a technology for expressing the affectivity of the non-human perspective. Try A Shock to Thought; Expression After Deleuze and Guattari (2002), or Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (2006) by way of an introduction.

What are you currently working on?

An essay for the Wellcome Trust, which develops an art historical and cultural context for the artist John Newling's Moringa Trees project (commonly known as Miracle Trees). The essay will deploy an early translation of miracle as semeion 'sign' in the bible, as a basis for situating the materiality of the tree as a thing with a life of its own. Arboreal thinking lies at the root of representation of course.

Materiality, Objects, Stuff; describe your current involvement to someone who didn't know anything about philosophy?

It's about not thinking too much, get in touch with things, pick them up, feel them, experience texture, sensation, weight. Take up cooking, I used to work in a patisserie and still bake cakes every week, and sometimes to order for friends weddings and the like. Go for a walk but make yourself look in unusual directions, or simply write more often with a pen or pencil, make marks and forget about their meaning. Call me old fashioned but I am weary of information overload and find reassurance in the immediacy of things (maybe it's because I just turned 40). The more I encounter the world of stuff the more I edit out the virtual detritus of everyday life, and in turn I appreciate computer time as a higher quality of experience. If all else fails read The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, it's full of meaningful work, and semiotics doesn't get a mention.                                                                                                              

Final thoughts?

Technology is an overused word and often overrated and yet why do we hear so little about the application of technology to non-technical things? A problem we face as a culture is a severe lack soul technology. Or maybe we should not be making the distinction between the traditional or emotional and the technical. What gets lost in a means to end culture, especially one fixated on consumption, is the ethical constitution of aesthetics, that is, the time honoured philosophical question of 'How to live?' There is a certain craft involved in approaching this question, a technique perhaps, one which entails the re-combination of all that was fragmented by the shift toward a modern, industrial society but in radically different As Marx once said 'We erect our structure in imagination before we erect in reality'. Could a materialist semiotics have an important role to play in reverse engineering the established dialogue between reality and imagination? In other words, given the infinite possibilities for creation, why is there so much stability of form?

© Jonathan Willett  2012

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

Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

Semiotics as Art: Kosuth

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

 

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

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

Well, for one: it makes me smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Thierry Mortier 2012

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

Beauty Calls

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

 

“Vicky knows that she has only three seconds to make a good impression”. This is what one of the Head & Shoulders ads says and stunning brunette Vicky shakes her hair in front of the young handsome guy’s face. The voiceover continues to persuade us that her hair is beautiful and healthy.

The perception of beauty is like a religious sense – everybody has it inside but few could define it straight away. It embraces philosophical notions and varies from culture to culture. One thing that seems stable is that beauty is perceived to provide pleasure – but it is not taken for granted that it is something ‘good’. In this regard, the most significant thing is that advertisers and mass media constantly compete to display and represent beauty in better ways. They use art, top models, different inspirational metaphors, slow motion effects, show some elements of nature etc. in order to impose themselves on our perception of ‘beauty’ or (if we can signal and elevation of individual physical manifestations to a higher level of abstraction) of ‘beauty-ness’.

This topic becomes increasingly dramatic when the ‘beauty’ is turned into a focus for social and even political discussion. Last year a renowned Bulgarian plastic surgeon met wry face of the local authorities demonstrating social consequences of his work. He had started a billboard campaign in spring – it was not his first but it was in a different style to previous ones – including a number of different images displayed in the city center of Sofia and other big towns in the country. The images portrayed various good-looking girls drawn in American 1950s style, looking much like Coca-Cola imagery, for example, from that time. The connotative meaning seemed to be deliberately chosen because in the epoch in question American women were mostly housewives whereas Bulgarian women worked on equal terms with their husbands to build together a future Socialist Eden. But the more curious thing was the headlines accompanying the beauties on the billboard, such as “I’m in love with myself” and “I’m too beautiful to get a job”.  All of them had  the same tagline – “Thank you, doctor Enchev!”.

At the beginning of June 2011 the ethical board of National Council of Advertising Regulation denounced the whole campaign as ‘uneducative’, ‘offensive’ and an act of ‘discrimination’. Naturally, quite a few bloggers and concerned citizens directed some peppery remarks toward the doctor’s message, and even named the pictured women as the ‘jobless ones’. As a result the authorities pasted yellow patches on the second half of the poster headlines with a black ‘censored’ sign on it. This was the first example of overtly banned advertising in Bulgaria for many years – except for the usual issues around tobacco and alcohol ads placed near by schools, or TV spots screened at inappropriate times of  day.

The story did not end here. The free market had its say as the surgeon had paid in advance for several month of billboard exposure and the images stayed around until October. Thus the censorship sign served only to enhance the impact of the advertising and attract the attention of passers-by. There were some who even thought that the ban was an ad agency’s trick and pointed to the billboards as a clever promotional plan.

So, the social perception of ‘beauty’ turned out to be a tricky matter.  Obviously everyone rejected the idea that there was no link between work and looking, maybe because even models sell their appearance as ‘labour’ in a sense. The campaign, in fact, was justified by the doctor as “jest”.  But eventually the jest doubled up its effect. The sluggish efforts of the authorities at censorship only increased the buzz around the ads. There were several articles in the media dedicated to the case and widely publicizing the phrases hidden bybthe censorship stickers. As to the ban itself, it attached different kind of connotation to the main message and in extremely high degree brought the much-hated times of socialistic censorship back to consumers’ mind instead of, as intended, protecting his and especially her best interests. 

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012            

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

Always moving, going nowhere

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

“Familiarity doesn't breed contempt…it can breed love and comfort and adoration”, said minimalist composer Philip Glass recently on BBC radio in a discussion on how his music is used in the media. Listeners had commented on the frequent use of his piece 'Façades' in a wide variety of radio programmes.

Minimalist music is characterised by repetition, usually with evolving change over the course of the piece. Advertising has always known about the power of repetition to sell products.. Now ads frequently use music that can be described as minimalist in tone or form, but why?

Music in ads usually lasts less than a minute so there is little time for development. But it is possible to harness the minimalist mood by using musical extracts that characterise the style.

Glass further commented: “People don't know what they like, they like what they know…the more people hear it, the more people want to hear it… it's something about the way we are wired as human beings”.

Composer Elliot Carter offers insights in opposition: "one also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler and in advertising…We are surrounded by a world of minimalism. All that junk mail I get every single day repeats; when I look at television I see the same advertisement…I cannot understand the popularity of that kind of music, which is based on repetition. In a civilized society things don’t need to be said more than three times."

Clearly repetition is effective, whether you like it or not.

Japura River by Glass has directly been used in advertising by Nokia for their N95 mobile. Supporting the ad’s representation of globalized and shared urban modernity, the music suggests constant motion in its repeated arpeggios played on tuned percussion.

 

Instrumentation and rhythm similar to the Nokia ad is seen in Subaru's film for its Boxer Diesel car. But the mood here is calmer – there is still motion but Ryan Teague's music instead offers a sonic backdrop to an expectation fulfilled. It's a typical example of how minimalist-style music in ads can serve to cradle and reassure the consumer.

 

In an ad for Sky HD reassurance is offered by the presence of distinguished actor Anthony Hopkins reminiscing while Vladimir's Blues by Max Richter plays. Using simple, undemanding harmony and the common minimalist technique of repeated alternation between a pair of notes, the music hints at subtle emotions. In the presence of achieved greatness, there is no need for passion.

 

In fact, passion and drama are avoided in ads that work with the minimalist palette. Lloyds TSB offer customers unobtrusive support through life to the soundtrack of Eliza's Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin. The music uses a vocalized melody characterised by even, classically pure rhythm and timbre. With this music, the brand has the personality of a discreet butler. Polite assistance is provided, but always in the background to the consumer’s own life story.

 

The ideological and cultural implications are clear: narrow dynamic and emotional range, largely unbroken continuity and forward motion, neutral movement between simple major and minor harmony and a purity of tone. There is no final goal to this music or need for a narrative. Consonance not dissonance is emphasized and tempi are usually medium fast – we are moving, but never out of control.

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

The return of trivia

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

In the late 20th century, postmodernism made a big deal out of small things – turning trivia into an object of cultural fascination in its own right.

One reference point in the postmodern rise of trivia was the ‘Royale with cheese’ scene in Pulp Fiction (1994). Here, the characters played by Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta take a break from plot-orientated dialogue to discuss the right European name for a quarterpounder.

In many of Richard Linklater’s slacker films of the same era, characters also constantly drift into talk that has nothing to do with action. It’s talk for the sake of talk: chit-chat, trivia – untethered from any bigger meaning, action or narrative.

This fascination with trivia led to one of the defining ideas of postmodernism: the end of the ‘grand narrative’ – the big story which subsumes trivia rather than letting it wander free.

But moving into the 21st century, and trivia was supposed to have died a death. The momentousness of 9/11 and a new climate of seriousness put paid to this dalliance with the untethered nuance.

But could it be making a return? A number of cultural products now seem to be rejoicing in the trivia that surrounds us – especially, just like postmodernism, in the micro-ebbs and flows of language.

First, we’ve got the youtube meme ‘Shit girls say’, which has now spun off into ‘Shit guys say’, ‘Shit New Yorkers say’, ‘Shit Scots say’, and many many many more. These clips are collections of linguistic mini-tropes – closely observed inventories of the tiny turns of phrase people use.

Then we’ve got the cult site STFU, Parents – which simply inventories tracts of parental discourse on Facebook (organised into codes like gross-out, sanctimony and so on), each accompanied by an ironic commentary.

There’s also the popular UK blog The Middle Class Handbook (featured on Semionaut here), with its eagle eye for linguistic trivia and tiny turns of phrase. For instance, did you know the correct middle-class way to get someone off the phone is to say ‘I’ll let you get on?’ And that people are now ending emails with the single demand: ‘Thoughts?’

This return to trivia has a lot to do with the rise of social media. With vast tracts of trivial discourse coming our way each day, it makes adaptive sense for culture to turn it into fodder for analysis, copying, recontextualising, pastiching and interpreting.

And as high-concept advertising surrenders some of its supremacy to social media, it’s also likely that semiotics as a discipline will need to turn its attention to tiny details of discourse and language. Clients may increasingly want interpretive keys to the micro-tropes flooding Facebook and Twitter.

An outstanding lineage of famous detail lovers can show the way. Flaubert copied the micro-tropes of the 19th century bourgeoisie into his Dictionary of Received Ideas. Proust was another close observer of tiny nuance. Benjamin too was a lover of details – wrenched out of context and interpreted in startling new lights.

As social media counters the big concepts of traditional branding with its welter of discursive fragments, these writers may well have something fresh to say to us.

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

Middle-class life in detail

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

What does it mean to be middle class in Britain in 2012? Does it mean that you earn more than £30,000 but less than £200,000? Does it mean you read the Mail on Sunday and watch the Antiques Roadshow on Catch-Up? Does it mean you call dinner “supper” or lunch “dinner” or supper “tea”? Do you even drink tea anymore, or are you a flat-white type? Do you have your hair cut at a hairdresser’s, by a hairdresser, or in a salon by a senior stylist? Is M&S for sandwiches and basics, or is it your preferred outlet for formalwear? Is Heal’s posh and IKEA naff? Is it important to own “designer clothes”?

All these are vital ‘micro-signs’ of class status in UK life today. And putting them under the microscope is The Middle Class Handbook, –which started life in 2009 as a simple blog dedicated to exploring the stuff modern British middle classes say, do, think and buy.  Since then, it has grown into a vibrant hub and community for all things middle class in Britain today, spawning published books, a buzzing online network, one-off events, flagrantly middle class merchandise, as well as services like specialist middle-class brand consultancy.     
 
Our purpose is to uncover, interpret, debate and, ultimately, celebrate micro-aspects of the tastes and behaviours of the modern middle classes, across fashion, design, food & drink, travel, relationships, motoring and endless other subjects.  We bring tips and how-to guides to  soothe their worries, give a heads-up on brands to watch, inspire talking points, identify trends, provide the inside track on stuff they need to know and, when necessary, settle questions of etiquette.  

We think it’s the small things that people do and say that reveal the most, which is proved by long and passionate debates about important subjects to the middle classes such as muesli, the peculiar attraction of other people’s shower gel, and how much one should tip a pizza delivery person.

These subjects are not glamorous – not usually, anyway – but people have strong feelings and ideas about them, and they enjoy sharing those feelings and ideas with each other. The more we uncover as we look close-up at these minutiae, the more we see there’s wonder in everyday experiences. The small stuff is often the most meaningful of all.

The vital point is that the conduit between the small things and the big meaning is people. It is people alone who can transform the mundane into the momentous and, as the Middle Class Handbook seeks to show, this is something we are all trying to do, in our own way.

The Middle Class Handbook is maintained by independent creative practice Not Actual Size, who, as their name suggests, are all about finding big meanings in small signs.


Enter the wondrous world of the British middle classes here.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | No Comments »

Why all the Pinterest?

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jo Peters 2012

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

Blood on the tracks

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

 

Virgil ('Gus') Evans is a Senior Mole at a famous Mid-Eastern secret services provider. Yesterday Evans took time off from his other duties as personal bodyguard to a famous head of state N* to give us an exclusive glimpse into blueprints for his brand’s revolutionary contribution to the new generation of underwear bombs competing clandestine R&D facilities globally are racing to develop.

“Consumers are going to love the torque, elegant lines and intelligent safety features on this one”, Evans avers, “Though when you’re up against a joint venture as lavishly resourced as that CIA, Saudi and Al Qaeda double agents' innovation team nothing’s a foregone conclusion. It’s going to be a game of at least two halves. It may need to go to extra time and penalties. Only the strong will survive. The word on the street is that they also have the backing of a shape-shifting media organization code-named Viz, which has ambitions to create a global shadow state at least as evil and all-embracing as the now defunct Murdoch empire, both having emerged originally in the wake of the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident and the escape at that time of two lizard-like alien siblings known as Richard and Rupert”.

Meanwhile Semionaut has learned independently of another emerging competitor in the lingerie bombing marketplace. The legendary tensions between the Pentagon and the US State Department have erupted again with a NASA-led competitor to the CIA-sponsored device, the one which hit front pages around the world this week. The NASA version, visually directed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and based on the famous cone bra modeled by Madonna in the 1980s, has been secretly engineered by the now centenarian Nazi rocket team (led by Werner von Braun, whose death was faked in 1977) which first put the Americans into space. Our younger Semionaut readers may want to bone up on the history of this team in Tom Bower’s brilliant study The Paperclip Conspiracy (1988) and in The Right Stuff (1979), where Tom Wolfe describes them carousing with frothing steins of Bavarian beer and thumping out iconic Nazi ditty ‘The Horst Wessel Lied’ on a piano in the back room of a bar at Coco Beach Florida while the first Americans walked on the moon.

SS Major Werner von Braun models a revolutionary exploding plaster cast

Evans recounts to me the story of a night he spent in a tent at Coco Beach, in almost unbearable heat and humidity, in July 1979: “Skylab was due to crash to earth around the 10th or the 11th. In those days we weren’t as blasé about such technological detritus as we are now. Devo, who among other things accurately predicted the totality of mind-numbing neoliberal culture and ideology, had actually written a protest song about space junk. Thus forewarned I was in that tent because I thought the safest place on earth to be was probably near Skylab’s original point of departure, Cape Canaveral. Rationally this made no sense at all and there’s a mathematical tool to prove it, the Poisson Distribution. But try telling that to an intuitive creative person like me. In the end we go with the metaphors and narratives. The love marks, Flower Bombs, the loaves and fishes. Neuroscience and MRI scans have taught us that Descartes was wrong anyway and the multifarious hues revealed by brain imaging are now almost exclusively postmodern, except in the more primitive limbic area as yet properly understood only by marketing people. The trouble nowadays is that we’ve forgotten most of the important things and we’re going to need to relearn them. While what we remember and clutter our heads with is mainly diversionary rubbish”.

By now we’re nearing the last lap of our journey from my Ecole Normale Superieure HQ in Paris to the Benllech campus in Anglesey, North Wales. Our super-hi-tech Virgin Pendolino train corners steeply. I lean into Evans, who’s in the window seat, as the carriage tilts almost horizontal. “The trouble with these things”, says Evans. “is they’re like Superbikes. Soon you’ll have to wear thick leather pants with reinforced knees to ride in them. And those are going to muffle the impact even of a 4G underpants bomb. Leaving, even on successful detonation, only mild discomfort for the wearer in the trouser area and at best some minor staining to the upholstery. Given the current economic situation I think Branson should pay taxes in the UK anyway where he's from, fair play, not on Necker or whatever that luxury island's called, where he’s the emperor. Like Judge Dredd. What kind of challenger hero do you call that, notwithstanding all his look-at-me extreme sports palaver with balloons and what have you? Who does he think he is, Harry Potter?”

As we leave Stafford far behind and approach Crewe the mobile phone signal is down to a single bar. Time to file this. Better a cliffhanger than a meaningless catastrophe just around the next bend. 

© Opal Cerdan 2012

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

Tell no-one

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Secret cinemas, secret restaurants, secret supperclubs, secret guerrilla cake sales, underground knitting networks….the language of secrecy pervades British culture at the moment. Even chains like Starbucks have their own secret menus known only to the few.

The question is: why the emergence of this craze at a time when the predominant cultural ideology is openness and sharing?

The easy answer is that it’s a backlash. We’re sick of having privacy invaded and ‘specialness’ undermined by everything being visible all the time. So the cult of secrecy comes in as an antidote to all this over-exposure.

Even so, the paradox remains. If you look on the Secret Cinema website, you’ll see its strapline is ‘Tell no-one’ . But the navigation menu then invites us to sign up on Twitter and Facebook, and read the latest press coverage. So someone’s clearly telling someone.

The paradox intensifies when we note that it’s usually sharing on social networks that makes these secret clubs possible. Often you can only find out about them on Twitter or Facebook.

This suggests that social networks create symbolic value by hiding information in plain view, as well as by offering opportunities to share. The quantity of data they offer has become so vast that only those who are truly ‘in the know’ can reach what really counts.  The fashion for secrecy reflects the fact that there's now a new elite – those who can find their way to the information with the highest symbolic value. He or she who knows, wins.

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

The part-time psychopath

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

The  late 1980s and 90s were a golden era for psychopaths in culture. Psychopathy had become more widely understood and provided a fantastic popular vehicle for thrills in both fiction and film.

In fact, this portrayal of the psychopath as obsessive and homicidal – in movies like Jagged Edge, The Silence of the Lambs, or Cape Fear – was simplistic. In the last ten years attention has begun to turn to corporate psychopaths who may be behind disasters like Enron and even the latest global economic crash.

Now there is a new twist – psychopathy as a spectrum, and the notion of the ‘semi-psychopath’.  Take an example from Horizon, the BBC’s flagship science documentary series. A recent episode covered good and evil, and one of the case studies was Dr James Fallon, a neuroscientist and world expert on the psychopathic brain. He had identified structural features in the brains of psychopaths that were quite unlike ‘normal’ brains.

After realising that he was distantly related to a serial killer, Lizzie Borden, he decided to scan the brains of all his family members. There was one person whose brain had features consistent with psychopathy – his own. Neither he nor his family were entirely surprised as he had always been aloof, rather cool, and occasionally strangely intimidating. Dr Fallon hypothesised that the reason why he is not dangerous is that he had a wonderful upbringing.

John Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, concludes that you can have ‘semi-psychopaths’ – people who are a definitely a bit psychopathic but not totally unsympathetic. Ronson also suggests that psychopathic traits do overlap with leadership traits – for example not being overcome by your emotions – and that it is crude reductionism to call people with these traits psychopaths. Ronson agrees with Fallon that the difference between a criminal psychopath and a corporate one is simply upbringing.

Dr Fallon pops up again in a viral video clip after scanning the brain of Eli Roth, the director of horror films Cabin Fever and Hostel. Roth also has some ‘complicated’ results – if not unexpected given his profession – he has no emotional reaction to images of extreme violence. In the clip Fallon compares him to ‘Don Corleone’ – all the right instincts towards close friends and family, but a very different attitude to anyone ‘outside the tribe’. ‘Am I psychotic?’ asks Roth, probably rather disingenuously as he surely understands the difference between psychosis and psychopathy. This is when Dr Fallon utters a telling phrase. He tells Roth he is a ‘good psychopath’. His justification for this phrase? That psychopaths are essential to human civilization because they ‘make things happen’.

Roth, clearly having a great deal of fun with the idea, recently tweeted: “Someone called me an hour ago and I had no idea who it was. We talked for ten minutes. #parttimepsychoproblems”.

We are, perhaps, at a remarkable moment where psychopathy is being redefined in a much more nuanced way. It is now a spectrum, or even a matrix, of traits – and it is no longer synonymous with evil.

One of our most prominent pop culture figures, TV talent show supremo Simon Cowell, can thank his prominence to character traits not inconsistent with the more neutral elements of psychopathy. The fact that his company is called Syco suggests he may not only be aware of this but have a sense of humour about it.

This domestication of the psychopath may be part of a passage to a better society in which the nuances and ambiguities of human nature are much better understood. Or it may be playing with fire.

Talk to a forensic scientist and they will not be happy. For the experts dealing with people who have committed the most gut-churning crimes, a psychopath is not someone who merely has certain brain furniture. What actually makes a person a psychopath is the upbringing that has shaped them in addition to that brain furniture. Eli Roth and Dr Fallon might be disappointed to hear it, but according this definition they are not real psychopaths.


The author of this post asked to remain anonymous.

Posted in Culture, Emergence, Europe | No Comments »

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.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global/Local, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

We interrupt this prose…

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The trend for poetry in British advertising isn’t going away. It bubbled up a couple of years ago, with the McDonald’s ‘Just passing by’ ad, and the Pete Postlethwaite-voiced script for Cathedral City cheddar. Along with ads by Waitrose, the AA and Centre Parcs, this caused extensive soul-searching at the time about whether this was debasing a great art, or a welcome way to popularise the medium.

More recently, we’ve had an Ode to an Iceland Mum:


 

A poem on Premier Inns:

 

And a particularly challenging piece from Santander:

The adverts vary in quality, but it’s interesting to reflect on why poetry, at least in the judgement of these advertisers, fits with the commercial imperative.

One of the reasons must be its disruptive effect. A working definition of poetry could be ‘disrupted prose’. Which is to say, language where the conventional prosaic flow from one clause to the next is disrupted by formal elements: rhyme, rhythm, wordplay and a heightened awareness of the sound and shape that words make. Of course, there are some writers who deliberately challenge this definition, pushing the boundaries of prose to breaking point, or writing prose poems that exhibit none of the qualities normally associated with poetry. But such forms draw their power from the expectation they’re subverting.

The disruptive nature of poetry is a useful tool for advertisers, always keen to jolt a passive audience into paying attention. I’ve noticed it myself while tapping away on the laptop with the TV on in the background. You’re aware of the usual burble of commercial messages during the ad breaks, but when that burble turns into poetry, a different part of your brain responds. Despite yourself, you start anticipating the next rhyme or subconsciously bouncing along to the rhythm.

Which isn’t to say these ads are either enjoyable or effective. The Iceland and Premier Inn ads work well enough on their own terms, albeit in a fairly conventional way. The Santander ad disrupts in an unwelcome way, like someone prodding you repeatedly with their finger.

There is a craft to writing these advertising poems, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. A Wordsworth or Byron doesn’t have to worry about ticking off various parts of the target demographic, or covering off key selling points. But the commercial writer does, and too often it shows.

Get it right and a poem can have an unusually powerful effect. Moving a step away from advertising, UK satirist Charlie Brooker recently filmed an extended rant to camera about Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. (The paper was complaining of being targeted by a witch hunt, apparently not realising the irony.)

The rant would be funny enough in prose, but Charlie Brooker – uncharacteristically for him – chose to cast it in poetry.

The sheer craft is something to admire, often relying on an unexpected rhyme rather than the obvious choice – a lesson the Premier Inn and Iceland writers could usefully learn. But casting the rant in poetry also elevates it into something more than a funny piece to camera. It becomes a self-contained piece of performance art, which predictably ‘went viral’ on Twitter and YouTube.

Again, this points to the power of the poem – its origins in oral tradition suggest that it has always been a ‘viral’ form, explicitly designed to make language more memorable and shareable. Advertisers have long understood the mnemonic power of rhythm and rhyme when it comes to the shorter form: slogans and jingles. Such slogans have gone out of fashion, seen as being crass and unsophisticated. But extending the practice into a full-length script is the acceptable modern-day alternative.

RKCR/Y&R, the agency behind the Premier Inn ad, explain on their website that they chose the poetic approach because of its power to make a ‘deeper emotional connection’. It appears that this is where poetry now sits in the popular imagination – a form of language to which we turn in times of emotional need: weddings, funerals and… selling mid-market hotel rooms. Like it or not, I suspect the trend will be with us for a while.

© Nick Asbury 2012

 

Read more from Nick on the blog of his creative partnership Asbury & Asbury.
 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

The grandiose semiotics of TED

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Many semioticians turn to the ideas forum TED for examples of emergent thinking. So maybe it’s time we looked at the semiotics of the TED phenomenon itself.

TED prides itself on ‘radical openness’: it talks a lot about community, accessibility, networks and dissemination. But its linguistic and visual codes are instead steeped in anti-democratic ideas of the individual genius and virtuoso performer.

The shadowed stage, the dramatically-illuminated speakers a-flow with (the signs of) passion and inspiration, the rapt audience sitting in the dark….it all seems so Romantic and narcissistic for a forum that’s trying to claim the contemporary terrain of ‘community’ and ‘accessibility’.

The language of TED too brims with the grandiose: everything is ‘remarkable’, ‘inspirational’, ‘extraordinary’ , ‘world-changing’. And individuals as well as ideas qualify for these epithets. In an age of communities, networks and crowd-sourcing, why is TED still able to sell the idea of the impassioned, inspired genius?

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

Women on the case

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

 

Women on the case: A new winning formula for primetime TV drama

Is it really surprising that women writers and directors bring stories to life very differently than males?  

In her Observer article form Sunday, 26th February 2012, "Women on the case: a new winning formula for primetime TV drama," Maggie Brown highlights the success of UK TV programs "shaped by women".  It's not just the writing, but the direction of these programs that is striking a different chord and in effect, shifting the way dramas are evoked.  Pippa Harris, executive producer of Call the Midwife said, "…it is leading to a shift in dramas we're seeing." She explains how the director, Philippa Lowthorpe, "was instrumental in setting that mixture of grit and warmth from the first episode." Grit in terms of graphic detail is very different in these shows – they rely less on the gory details and more on the personal context of the characters.  

The way women write both male and female characters is also making a difference.  Another producer, Paula Milne points out, "Our default position as women writers is that we give women equal weight to men. I think we also write male characters differently, as husbands, lovers, sons."  In these female-directed programs, the focus is on depicting the characters' lives as a whole, detectives not as just crime heroes, but people with personal pressures and stresses that go beyond the role.

These stories go beyond the gore in a graphic way, recognising that the worst terror is not necessarily the "exploding organs," but the emotional pain of death.  

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

A bag is a bag is a bag

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Handbags are mysterious to men and profane to their mistresses. They are an accessory for almost every woman, whether young or matured, Christian or Buddhist, rich or poor, modern or conservative.  They are universal and at the same time very personal, even intimate. Peeping in one’s bag or borrowing might be acceptable but not encouraged and only trusted friends and close relatives are allowed to do so, mostly under the owner’s control. Handbags are powerful icons and heroines of modern times stand behind ‘IT bags’ as godmother.

Why are handbags so important?

Many women strongly identify with her handbag and some develop an almost symbiotic relationship with the bag and its content. Others have a more playful and flirtatious relationship with it. They change their leather or linen companion according to season, occasions or mood. The bag bond can be born when falling in love at first sight of blinking sequin or playful fringes or result from a more rational strategy of comparing sizes, materials and styles.

Certain items such as keys, purses and care products can be found in almost every bag, other personal items such as breast implants or a fruit knife might be a surprise to an indiscreet viewer. A bag is a bag but is also unique at the same time: “My bag reflects who I am and what is important to me.” A bag can match your dress – but first of all it matches yourself. Bag owners can be characterised regarding what their bag contains inside and what they express outside, what a bag tells about their personality and their social identity.

The ‘mistress of the bag’ is in a power position and in control of her bag and its content. She highlights the non-emotional character of her relationship with the bag and treats her bag as her property that often feels neglected or even maltreated. She doesn’t want to compromise and demands a lot: ““I like to be in control and must admit that I treat my bag like a slave: it’s always with me and has to do what I want it to”.

The ‘expressive hedonist’ enjoys her ownership of (often many) bags. The bag represents her style and fashion consciousness – whether in the form of prestigious luxury shoppers or the latest must-have bags. She feels reassured and entertained through her steady companion: “One may understand who I am from both my bag and by its contents. My bag is the mirror of myself”.

The ‘protective dependent’ has a strong and very emotional relationship with her bag.  She is in need of comfort and security. Her bag looks individualised, caring and exciting from the outside and often chaotic in the inside caused by various layers of more or less helpful tools, notes, souvenirs and good luck charmers required to be next to her at all times: “If my bag gets lost my world would tremble.”

The ‘capricious passionate’ wants her bag to make her happy and light-hearted. She has a rather flirtatious relationship with her handbag although she might be looking for ‘real love’ in her very heart. She can fancy the pink patent leather shopper during the day and the golden clutch in the evening: “I bought this bag because it makes me feel good”.

Every bag has its own character and reflects the character of its owner. A bag is nothing less than a practical container filled with helpful tools and personal treasures and a mobile miniature version of a woman’s world at the same time. The bag is the steady companion who never lets you down, supports you to deal with any eventuality and allows you to either hide or to make you noticed. No wonder women can’t do without it. 

 © Ute Rademacher 2012

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

Music For A New Society

Sunday, March 11th, 2012


Semionaut sleuths and photographers have been given exclusive access to a weapons research facility run by a major secret constituent of the now old New World Order in an undisclosed tier 2 emerging country.  Where organic Jesus drones manufactured from genetically modified driftwood are being miniaturized in order to mount an attack on R&D facilities in an unnamed third country believed to be close to developing an independent nuclear weapons capability. “It’s a race against time”, says secret service spokesman David Cameron (that’s a David Cameron, obviously not the one everybody’s heard of – common name, common guy, lots of common guys), “We have Jesuses in Petri boxes right now shrunk to one quarter life-size – but we need them in the full nano dimension, at least 3 months before the enemy is ready for a nuclear strike on the city of T* (full name withheld).

A Petri culture of  one eighth life-size organic drones

Behind this specific smart weapons programme is the intention that enemy recognition of the nano-attackers, easily identifiable as Jesuses in electron microscope blow-up, will lead to the PR disaster of a revenge strike on a diversionary target such as Santiago de Compostella, Lourdes, the Vatican City (where Pope Ratzinger arguably has it coming, given his alleged dalliance with the Hitler Jugend and his predilection for Gucci slippers), or Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, which has a rich Catholic heritage and hosts the sixth Summit of the Americas in April 2012.

Barack Obama, noncommittal so far on the rights and wrongs of this new weapons development, continues to play the HOPE card while still musing on the conspiratorial dimensions of that perennial Osama/Obama semantic Sudoku-like conundrum and so-called coincidence.  Don’t buy it. The unconscious only ever hears ‘hope’ as ‘mañana’, a perpetual IOU spiking the libidinal economy, like an inverted credit bubble of love. Living in hope is synonymous with living in fear. The unconscious recognizes none of these piddling distinctions.

As the Semionaut guys were leaving the building, with ZZ Top’s ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’ laying down a vibe of fuddled baby boomer menace in the background on a vintage analog music centre, Cameron told us: “Don’t pay attention to any of this. It’s just a cover, a Brechtian Verfremdugseffeckt.  The real stuff, off the record, is still going on at Bletchley Park with the same British boffins who developed radar, the Spitfire, the Bouncing Bomb, the Mini-Cooper and the Dyson Ball Barrow. They've kept going all these years, consuming industrial amounts of probiotic yoghurt and megadoses of Creme de la Mer. The Iranians reverse engineered that stuff at an underground facility back in '07 but our boys got in under cover of darkness in a rubber dinghy and managed to get out with minimum casualties and 8 or 9 kg of it complete with the little plastic spatulas that prevent its purity and efficacy being compromised by any animal fats or other residual bodily emissions on your fingers".  

Cameron cleared his throat: “So tally ho, we know where you live but we won’t kill you. At least not till we get some scale on the drone technology. As John Cale says in ‘Damn Life’ (on Music For A New Society, 1984, the best album ever by a long chalk) ‘You’re just not worth it, you’re just not worth it’.”  

With a final glance at his Patek Philippe, Cameron adds: "Time moves on. Some of us have school fees to pay. And bigger fish to fry.  An associate of ours who's an alcoholic and former spin doctor for Tony Blair was using the toilet at MI-6, our British counterparts, recently and heard two guys in the next cubicle whispering that Julian Assange and Slavoj Zizek have been talking to Kim Jong-Il on a 3G ouija device with automatic Facebook and Twitter feeds. They'll have their own nanobots sowing terror within 6 or 7 years if we don't get on that case now.  I for one couldn't sleep at night if I thought my children, a little further down the line, could be threatened by these things being in the hands of madmen, perverts and some random Yugoslavian post-Lacanian Stalinist philosophy freak with an attitude problem.  Not on my watch, baby."

© Opal Cerdan 2012

Our featured picture on the Semionaut home page is of a more advanced next-G Jesus nanodrone wearing the hi-tech leisure suit by which M* agents are now able recognise each other in public, obviating the need for confusing and time-consuming code words, secret handshakes etc.

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

Natural Capital

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Recently, after I wrote a piece of copy on Corporate Responsibility for a global company, I was asked to take out the word ‘fair’ on the grounds that it was ‘too philanthropic’. I was surprised: don’t ‘fair’ and ‘philanthropic’ mean something quite different? We generally think of ‘fair’ as referring to an abstract system of equality and justice, while philanthropy is more about the subjective, personal feelings of the donor.

Perhaps my client put the two concepts together because, however contrasting, they’re both now inimical to the way Corporate Responsibility is heading. While justice and philanthropy may carry different meanings in ethics, they’re equally ‘in excess’ of the corporate world's newly internalised and systematised take on ethics.

Broadly speaking, the language of Corporate Responsibility now describes ethics as a direct profit driver, integrating it into core business activities. It's an attempt to 'own' ethics, remedying the way it's previously stuck out like a sore thumb in business symbolism.

For example, residually speaking, Corporate Responsibility is about ‘philanthropy’. In practice, that means companies give money to their favourite charities. It’s an add-on: a nice thing to do that’s more or less arbitrary and subjective. It has only a tangential and inessential relationship to business.

Dominant symbolism sees a turn from philanthropy to justice. The idea of Fair Trade comes in – casting doubt on old-fashioned ‘charity-giving’ as top-down, patrician and unsustainable. Companies start offering consumers ethical options, based on giving suppliers and workers a fair deal and fair conditions.

It sounds good – but ideas of justice and fairness still don't fit. They continue to trouble business by referring to an ethics grounded and legitimised outside the corporation itself. After all,  ‘fair’ applies to everyone, everywhere: it’s an idea based on a transcendent, public and shared sense of what’s right and wrong.

Just as old-fashioned philanthropy represented something ‘in excess’ of profit (subjective feeling), so does the idea of fairness: it belongs to a public language that’s not reducible to the corporate realm.

The emergent term in Corporate Responsibility – ethics as a growth engine – seeks to cut off these uncomfortable ‘sore thumbs’ (philanthropy and fairness) and integrate ethics into the internal symbolic system of business. Now, companies are talking about ethics as the way they’re going to drive growth – not as a nice add-on (philanthropy), or as an incursion of public value systems into their thinking (fairness). From now on, ethics isn’t going to be anything ‘other’ to business: it’s going to be reclaimed as inherent.

For an example, we can turn to a concept now in vogue in Corporate Responsibility: ‘Natural Capital’.

‘Natural Capital’ means seeing the planet itself as an asset: we can either tend it carefully so we can live sustainably off its interest, or just erode its capital worth, as we have been doing. The symbolism here also means seeing the earth as a ‘service provider’ which gives companies the air and water they need to do business, just as Apple supplies them with laptops.

What’s interesting about the symbolism here is the way it erodes all distinction between ‘ethics’, ‘nature’ and ‘profit’. All terms find themselves reduced to the language of the corporation itself, which can now claim independence from external symbolic systems and values.

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

Print is dead, long live magazines!

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

 

We all know print is in decline and as a medium it is unsustainable.

However, these days the business of newspaper publishing comprises print, web and apps, and it is a tale of two trends. Whilst the US and Europe are experiencing a decline, the emerging markets are showing signs of growth with LatAm expecting the largest increase of 4.7% over the next 4 years. The burgeoning free newspaper market is also seeing growth in the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.

Talking of free, paywalls, or ‘value gateways’ as News International calls them to sweeten the pill, haven’t proved to be the most successful model for online news as people expect their information from the internet to be free

But interestingly people do expect to pay for their mobile sources of information and entertainment. Apps like Flipboard aggregate news from multiple publishers where you can build your own ‘news playlists’. Apple has launched Newsstand on the iOS 5 (although typically they retain all the data). The new Facebook apps allow publishers to be exposed to a wider audience via exposure in the Ticker and on your newsfeed; The Guardian app gets over 1 million page views a day from Facebook. With the increase of information sharing editors or curators are being superseded by friends or ‘people like you’.

Ever since Esquire launched its Augmented Reality enabled edition 2 years ago, magazines have been looking for different ways to engage their readers on multi platforms by innovating and diversifying their offer.

Vice started life 17 years ago as a niche free magazine in Canada and now has over 30 local editions, it runs an international creative agency, an IPTV channel and even a pub! The Reader’s Digest meanwhile makes only 20% out of actual publishing – the rest is from financial & other services. Meanwhile in China, Vogue and local women’s fashion glossy Raili regularly publish editions of 350 pages and have even created TV shows.

Contract and niche magazine publishing are thriving. British photographer Rankin has just launched a new bi-annual, Hunger, whilst ‘We Love Pop’ is a new title from Egmont. Even Conde Nast’s Style.com has launched in print and the BBC has just sold all their titles to a Venture Capitalist so business can’t be all bad.

Magazines are often regarded as an indulgence, a private time away from the glare of the screen. But there’s another reason why magazines may survive. Increased micro-targeting online from both editors and advertisers doesn’t allow for serendipity – as this respondent (IPSOS 2011) research recognises:

 “with magazines, you might stumble across an interesting article or an amazing image that you wouldn’t have seen online”

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at MIT, an internet advocate, agrees that the internet doesn’t match the ability of printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. This presents an interesting argument in defence of ‘stumbling across’ the printed page.

Ultimately, the media owners who survive will be those who offer a unique service to brands, enabling them reach their discrete communities of loyal readers. With insights into their readers, publishers and brands can partner to co-create impactful content with the resources of editorial and in-house creative teams.

© Jo Peters 2012

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

In the previous article on Hermes, starting with cultural origins in ancient times, I took note of the figure of the deity as a channel of communication and as a message. Here I want to focus on more recent times and ‘culture capital’ – specifically how marketing and advertising scoop up ready-to-use forms from history and universally recognised traditions as well as from local legends and myths in order to connect stories and symbols with their products (goods/services) and in such a way as to grab the attention of the potential consumers. This is clear demonstration of a principle, defined by Russian semiologist Yuri Lotman, who maintains that ‘old texts’, which circulate in culture, are there to be appropriated in terms of what exists on the surface and then refreshed by means of new codes.  

In the case of Hermes, on the basis of some limited research (which we invite Semionaut readers to supplement) on uses of the name and figure in modern trade and advertising,  it appears that in the mass consciousness in the most cases the deity remains the one who rapidly delivers messages and objects from one point to another. His most usual physical attribute – the wings (whether on his hat or sandals) is the most exploited symbol, preferred among the shipping and logistic companies. In Bulgaria we note a small difference, maybe because we here are close to the Hermes’s area of origin and operation, in that we see his attributes and name incorporated into tourist agencies and one well-known publishing house. Obviously for the locals the deity also has meaning of transfer.

But there are some curious exceptions, for example the use of the caduceus (Hermes’s sceptre) and serpents in logos as a reference to the medicinal skills of the Greek god. There is also one case from the not too distant past where a famous typewriter brand was named ‘Hermes’, clearly alluding to the god’s connection model with the invention of writing. Like the use of his name of publishing house this has a connection with transfer of knowledge and wisdom by means of some kind of medium – language and books. In a sense, time is a medium as well and as we saw in the earlier piece, time and space are mixed together when Hermes does what he does – moreover, he is among the immortals and his actions are set in the mythologically timeless.  

In contrast with all these relatively easily decodable meaning, among the richest and most eloquent examples for the use of this mythologeme in its full brilliance remains the name of the French luxury Hermès. This company was established in 1837 by Thierry Hermés and is today one of the major players in the fashion and luxury business alongside such brands as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The Hermès offer includes perfumes, jewelry and various accessories but the main products which bring the fame of the company are bags and sandals. As we might presume, the brand;’s communication deliberately emphasizes the connection between these products and the deeds of Hermes as messenger wearing winged sandals, one of whose main attributes is a bag. From this point we could decide that the company does not count only on the coincidence in the names of its founder and the one of the Greek deity. Moreover, in the creation of the visual identity (predominantly in its logo) Hermès has always been prepared to access tangentially other symbolic accoutrements of the deity. A historical execution of the logo (above), for example, puts the main element – a cab with one horse in front of it – above two images of the caduceus (placed on the left and on the right side, with wings and interlaced serpents added). In this way we have an opportunity to observe the mythology in action – in new context but with the message adapted to the perceptions of a contemporary consumer audience.   

We would love to hear comments below about any other variations on this broader theme of how Hermes symbolism has been and is deployed by brands.

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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

Creativity in Business

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

Our understanding of innovation and creativity is accelerating in this age of technology and openness. And from a corporate point of view, there is a thirst for answers … what is the “magic formula” of creativity in business? How do we innovate to maximize profit and competitive potential? How do we do so faster and faster? What is the right management model for innovation? How do we stay true to brand while being open to outside ideas and influences (which have been clearly demonstrated as critical triggers to new ways of thinking and doing)?
 
A New York Times recently published article “The Yin and Yang of Corporate Innovation” by Steve Lohr, reminds of the intrinsic link between identity and creative behavior. The Apple model – “more edited, intuitive, top-down” – versus the Google model – speaking to “the power of data-driven decision-making, online experimentation and networked communication.” 
 
Does great innovation come from play or science? And how significant are the “ways of being” of each of these two brands on talent recruitment?
 
Lohr suggests that invariably, these two different creative archetypes will begin to converge and adapt. The question is, where will it go?

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

Blue: the grown-up face of green concerns

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 

How best to banish those January blues? By tackling the problem head-on, perhaps, with a brief note on the semiotics of colour.

A recent article in The Economist makes a pertinent observation about the motor industry’s colour of choice when communicating its green credentials – isn’t it interesting that it’s not, well, green? Fiat, Mercedes-Benz and (most notably in the UK at least) Volkswagen all favour blue when it comes to matters environmental.

The colour blue has about as many direct and associative meanings as it has shades, but in the commercial world at least, one thing is clear – when it comes to corporate identity, blue is a safe bet. Among other things, it lends gravitas and austerity to Barclays and a slew of financial services brands; it connotes cool, clear thinking at IBM; and it has become the de facto colour of social networking thanks to its adoption by Facebook and Twitter. In combination, these codes help elevate the colour blue to a potent signifier of collaborative professionalism – what organisation would not want to project that about itself?

A recent brand renaming exercise at a previous agency saw a client spend tens of thousands of pounds over several rounds of research, only to pull the plug, resolving instead to “just stick the existing name in blue”. Blue, it seems, was the only thing that everyone could agree on – when making the right decision seems hard, choosing blue at least mitigates against making the wrong one. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM, and neither did the guy who chose to write the logo in blue.

Here in the UK, boardroom scenes in the TV series The Apprentice are colour graded to enhance blueness, presumably in the hope of encouraging audiences to take more seriously ‘Captain of Industry’ Lord Sugar and his pageant of hapless wannabes. Watching the show won’t teach you much about making your way in the workplace, but it will leave you in little doubt that Blue Is The Colour Of Business.

When powerful commercial codes of blueness are yoked to the elemental associations of pale blue with the life-giving forces of water and sky, it is clear why blue should become an irresistible choice for organisations keen to demonstrate that they are serious about getting green. Perhaps the shift to blue is also a belated sign of a cultural change that has been underway for many years. The green movement is growing up: no longer the reserve of a niche of dedicated ‘cabbage patch’ activists, it is now big business, with major organisations increasingly embracing it as a core element in sustainable strategy.

Source: http://thinkblue.volkswagen.com/blue_projects/blue_symphony

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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

6 Theses on Pinkification

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

 

Don't know if you’ve noticed but pink is everywhere in the semiosphere at the moment. There is a glut of lurid slap on every merchandising surface. It hides in typography with grey blue tints and appears as blocks of background colour.

Here are 6 theses on pink:

1.    Pink is the new orange. If the 1990s heralded Orange as the colour of the growth decade and a shorthand for progressive premium quality, is pink the more knowing and complicated hue for an era of sluggish consumption, a less optimistic more jaded shade of the future? Are we following Japan where pink has been the colour of kawaii in a country in hock to saccharine tweeness and where femininity combines the soft mothering and sexualized within broadly the same colour palette?

2.    Pink is the new solicitude. The colour has become a lazy shorthand for cordiality and attunement to customers. It says: ’We are clued in and brand-conscious’. Interesting for me in this context is the dramatic shift from red to bright pink in “For sale” signs in Central London for the post Christmas sales, almost as if the frequency with which struggling retailers place items on discount makes the less shrill and aggressive pink more apt. Pink, shorn of purely girly connotations, is in a very strong position as a default colour; it has arrogated to itself a whole range of communicative contexts. If we use the Roman Jacobson communicative functions framework, currently pink seems to have a footprint that covers the referential (to all the pink connotations of femininity), the conative (hedonistic prodding) and the emotive (the desire to be playful on the part of the communicating entity). It is also very phatic (gregarious contact with the viewer) holding the attention.

3.    Pink is infinitely adaptable. Pink bends the communication context to its corrosive will. It is the dominant colour for the 2012 Olympics where it is used as a neon substitute to signify the electrifying, youthful energy. It is used in other government communications where it would have been frowned upon in previous years, notably in Community Alcohol Partnership, Business Birmingham. It seems to have become the hue of young, consumerist exuberance hue alongside bright yellow for music media titles such as We Love Pop to Viva but is also the colour of choice for magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall uses the same yellow pink colour scheme for his new vegetarian cookbook. Brands such as HMV and T-Mobile use it as their signature colour but it is also becoming more acceptable for luxury brands to use with marques such as Swarovski and Storm using it prominently in recent print advertising Professional services have also fallen for the lure of pink with even upstanding legal firms such as Maitland Walker opting for the colour. Pink seems to be all the rage at the moment – the ultimate backlash against all types of chromophobia.

4.    Pink is becoming more variegated and nuanced in its sub codings for femininity. There is the lurid bright pink of Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Jordan. In this context, pink is the burlesque of knowing, self-parodying play with an alibi and self-empowerment to the earnest livid red of the Mae West striptease. It has become the colour of giddy hedonism. An event called Ultimate Girls’ Day Out, a jamboree of fashion, giggles and make overs – a sort of hen do in a marquee – uses the colour on its website. Then there is the rose coloured pink of vulnerable matronly femininity of such as sanitary towels, pregnancy tests and pessaries. In the UK, Superdrug seems to use pink to position itself as the more girly and accessible alternative to Boots through use of pink. This is pink as squeamish and vulnerable. Then there is the lavender of purple shades of more mature womanhood such as used in the film poster for the Iron Lady. This is pink as imperious, sagacious womanhood, Laura Ashley without the chintz. Again, this is not all startlingly new but as pink becomes more prominent coding of meaning becomes more explicit.

5.    Pink is both the sign of soft, emotionally intelligent masculinity as much as it is aggressive femininity. In terms of the latter, pink has become the testosterone wash of emasculation in a culture of ‘misandry’. In Katie Price’s TV show, one scene showed her forcing male contestants to strip down to lurid pink briefs. The loud, pink office shirt has long been a sartorial signifier of what could be called ‘brave intimacy’. An emergent male quality. Interesting in this connection is the recent emergence of pink as sports strips. Everton FC now have a pink away strip. The Juventus away kit and Stade Français’s rugby team’s shorts are also pink. Does this indicate that pink is on the one hand becoming the new grey and not worthy of notice, on the other a sign of strength?

6.    Pink is contentious and ambivalent in the context of feminism and femininity. It is both the cladding of the new Amazonian media monstrosities mentioned above and the wry, scurrilous spray paint of their detractors. A range of recent books decrying the state of womanhood all use pink – presumably ironically – in the cover art. Living Dolls by Natasha Waters, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, One-Dimensional Woman by Nina Power and Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy all use pink either as the typeface colour, background or as an accenting colour in their paperback editions. Is pink double coded, or even polysemous or are these authors thwarted by their desire to position their books as current and funky? I fear they’d be upset by the insinuation. There is certainly great ambivalence towards the colour. PinkStinks.org.uk has been set up to expose and excoriate the prissiness, princess culture. Recently on Facebook, there is a popular video showing a little girl astutely decrying the marketing of pink to girls. 

 © Chris Arning  2012

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

It’s ‘just’ market research

Monday, January 9th, 2012

 

'You know nothing of my work'. Woody Allen calls on Marshall McLuhan to put right an unfortunate pontificator in a famous scene from Annie Hall.


Commercial semiotics claims an intellectual status derived from academia. And undoubtedly the story of how the discipline developed in the UK substantiates this.

The worlds of marketing and structuralist literary theory came together in the mind of Virginia Valentine during a lecture from Malcolm Evans. Today these figures, and the others from the early days of Semiotic Solutions stand in our mythos as culture heroes. Through them, and our own varied academic backgrounds, we mediate our right to a kind of moral ascendancy in the marketing world. After all we’re not just researchers – we’re academics too.

The dissertation I submitted for my masters in Material and Visual Culture at University College London was an attempt to engage with this myth. In it I tried to get to grips with what is at stake when we reference the academy in the commercial world.

This post can only really serve as a prompt for discussion – not even an effective précis of what I wrote. So forgive its narrow scope, though the word limit does serve as a convenient get-out clause. I’ll focus briefly on two figures as a a way to look at the relationship between the commercial and academic: A. J. Greimas and Raymond Williams.

I know about Greimas solely because of the semiotic square. So when it came to reading some of his work and attempting to contextualise this tool it was striking to see the sheer complexity of the algebraic system he developed and the small element that this method represents. The square has been wrenched from its context by the inquisitive and magpie (I’m borrowing the magpie metaphor from Andy Dexter, CEO of research company Truth) eyes of one or several researchers and to use it is hardly to employ a Greimasian approach.

Personally, though when I have used the semiotic square it has been to connote the depth of our thinking to clients, I don’t think they denote very much at all. Like an astrological chart drawn up by Renaissance magician John Dee they are important in the way the reveal our power and expertise, rather than in the way they inform our clients.

Secondly I want to mention Raymond Williams, notable for his powerful presence in our discipline through the ‘Residual-Dominant-Emergent’ code trajectory (a model that has similar magical power to the ‘semiotic square’).

Moreover we have truly inverted his ideological intentions. He was trying to create an adequate Marxist approach to culture when he coined the residual-dominant-emergent spectrum. The work of Williams (not someone who self identified as a semiotician) is central to British commercial semiotics.

And I think it is slightly callous of us to claim this as a signifier of our intellectual rigour as we have inverted his aims so dramatically. Williams helpfully outlined why the emergent is so valuable in capitalist society with a phrase that spookily pre-empts the way we speak to clients today: “if the thing is not making a profit or if it is not being widely circulated, then it can for some time be overlooked, at least while it remains alternative”. However, when he pointed this out, I don’t think that he hoped his theoretical framework would function in the way it has in commercial semiotics.

This isn’t an attack on the industry. On the contrary, I would emphasize the fact that our discipline is a highly effective one, and that the techniques we employ provide valuable output for clients. But this is a pragmatic and not a theoretical discipline, at least not in the academic sense. It is this technological quality that separates us from the Academy (and, as an aside, which makes new ‘Impact’ measures such a threat to quality social science research).

So what of academia? Of course, academia has been hugely important to many of us personally and to our industry as a whole, But I think the term ‘commercial semiotics’ points to a much more academic mode of working than is justified. Maybe there’s some latent guilt in the industry about betraying the academic, critical roots of the models we use – so we try to cling on to our connection with these origins. It has also been valuable to employ a mythology in order to provide our clients with what McLuhan has called an ‘instant vision’ of a more complex system.

Some clients balk at this academic mythology. And I believe we have outgrown it, just as as qual has outgrown psychology and PR has outgrown Bernays. It is my contention that we are underselling ourselves, not overselling ourselves, by clinging to the reassurance that we are not ‘just’ market researchers; and imagining for ourselves the mystical powers of the academic.

 

See Woody Allen chastise the intellectual pontificator here. Imagine if Woody Allen overheard one of us talking about residual-dominant-emergent codes, and conjured up Raymond Williams instead?

 

© Sam Barton 2012

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

The engine electric

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

The rise of the electric car is reinvesting the modernist symbolism of electricity with new meaning.

For example, electric-car symbolism (e.g. Renault, BMW) often uses illuminated urban landscapes to reconnect with the optimism and exhilaration that surrounded electricity in the modernist city.

In the late 19th century, electricity replaced gas lighting in cities, symbolising the urban conquest of night, darkness, and the limitations of nature. It freed city-dwellers from the cycle of day and night which dominated the daily rhythm of their rural counterparts.

Until now, codes of sustainability have largely urged a return to natural finitude. They’ve been all about ‘knowing our limits’, understanding that nothing is endless, and returning to natural, seasonal cycles.

But with electricity promising potential renewability, and thwarting the whole principle of finitude, electric cars are going back to modernist meanings of electricity as infinite and limit-transcending. Ads for electric cars often show glittering cityscapes, or neon signs, rather than the natural environment that’s being ‘saved’.

The cultural interest of this story is such that ‘electricity’, as a theme, is now spilling into other sectors beyond cars. Blackberry’s night bikes campaign

the recreation of the Tron bike

 

and Beyonce’s perfume Pulse

all show that electricity is an idea that’s very much in vogue.

The symbolism of electricity today gives us a 21st-century twist on the 19th-century story of emancipation: a return to a world in which resources are limitless, the lights don't have to be turned off, and there need be no end to the story of modernity and progress.

In The Great Gatsby, the narrator describes Gatsby’s house, ‘lit from tower to cellar’ in the middle of the night, as being ablaze like the World’s Fair. This modernist dream of transcending the night – through spectacular and limitless expenditure – seems to be returning in the new cultural centrality of electricity.

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

American Masculinity

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

 

American Masculinity, Shown in All Its Angst – by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, published November 30, 2011

In her article, Melena Ryzik notes a theme in movie nominees (starting with nominees for the Gotham Independent Film Awards announced on 28th November 2011): whether struggling single fathers, real-life men searching for their place in history, fictional figures facing uncertain futures, “the existential crises of men” seems to lead the way once again.

Is this a reflection of the lengthy development cycle of films (and therefore, a delayed reflection of what’s really going on in culture)? Or is this simply a reflection of what the author refers to as a Hollywood “brofest”?

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

Everyone needs a hug, right?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

 

 

The sight of people hugging has become a commonplace, almost inescapable, feature across popular media in the UK. For reality TV programmes such as the X-Factor a show is not complete without outbursts of tears and copious hugging. Hugs have also become a visible feature of the Occupy movement. From Wall Street to Amsterdam; London to Brazil, groups of people can be found amongst the occupy protesters brandishing signs reading 'Free Hugs'.

The Free Hugs Campaign  was initiated several years ago with the purpose of going out into the streets of towns and cities offering hugs for free. As the Free Hugs Campaign has grown in popularity the 'hug' has emerged as both an action and symbol that serves to counteract the isolation and alienation of modern life.

The promotion of hugs has been further supported by the increasing political interest in happiness and well-being. Happiness is presented by organisations such as Action for Happiness as the antidote to the obsession with wealth and materialism that has caused a global economic crisis and increasing public unrest.

The ubiquity of the hug has set certain standards about how we should display our feelings and what our ability to show our emotions says about us as human beings. The hug is regarded as an action that is a necessary and natural part of being human. If an individual fails to engage in the hugging etiquette they are considered abnormal. Hugging has become a normative requirement. The hug is an attempt to transcend the binds of day-to-day life but as a social obligation, it has become another duty, rather than a liberation from repression.

The hug is perceived as a means to reconnect with our 'true' human selves and form solidarity with each other.  Hugs are designed to make us feel good and special by protecting us from negative thoughts and feelings. But they can also be about the reinforcement of a repressive sense of belonging and inwardness.

It’s also interesting to note that, as well as being a symbol of emotional liberation and authentic self-expression, the hug is also a physically restrictive position. The vision of open arms is a sign of comfort and reassurance.

But equally, arms can hold us in a tight grip, creating a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who belong, and those who don’t. Zizek has warned the Occupy protestors of the danger they might fall in love with themselves (read his article here) – and it’s arguable that gestures of mutual belonging and self-congratulatory reciprocity, like hugging, can be symptoms of a narcissistic political culture.

Of course, from time to time we all need a hug. But the idealism of the Free Hugs Campaign can lead to the idea that a quick feel-good fix can solve everything. For this reason it’s curious to see how the campaign has been incorporated so easily into the Occupy movement, despite its radical demands. An over-reliance on the symbolism of the hug, and other quick feel-good fixes, as a manifesto for making the world a better place, can blind us from seeing the complexity, and experiencing the discomfort, of facing political and societal problems.

© Caroline Pearce 2011

Posted in Culture, Europe | 5 Comments »

Extimacy

Monday, December 5th, 2011

 

 

The close-up shot is currently a popular visual trope in advertising and media, with examples abounding from all sectors. And as the camera gets closer and closer – in particular, closer and closer to the human face and body – it seems we’re dealing with a new way of saying ‘this is real’.

Brands have long sought proximity to consumers, exploring different ways to express the idea of authentic engagement. But it now seems their quest for authenticity is relying on ever-increasing levels of physical proximity and intimacy.

(Nike homepage)

So what does the physical proximity of the close-up signify? And how does it fit with today’s cultural landscape?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the cultural ascendancy of science is a relevant factor. For personal-care brands in particular, that means a shift away from images of psychological authenticity (confidence, self-expression) towards the representation of physiological detail such as cellular process and biological structure. So the camera needs to zoom in much closer than it has done before.  

This symbolic dimension of the close-up could be dubbed ‘ethical naturalism’: a representation of natural and biological processes that’s far from morally neutral. Instead it’s invested with a sense of awe, placing a burden of responsibility and care with the consumer. ‘See how fascinating and wonderful the skin is – doesn’t it deserve the very best moisturisation?’ Displayed as remarkable phenomena, bodies need to be carefully looked after: the close-up shot of skin or hair implies an attitude of wonder, care and respect.   

 Vaseline’s platform ‘Your skin is amazing’ provides a typical expression of ‘ethical naturalism’, and unsurprisingly, makes extensive use of close-up photography too.

Also driving the rise of the close-up are social media. The close-up is, in a sense, a metonym for social-media culture, symbolising the over-exposure and intimate revelation made possible by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With brands keen to participate in this world, it’s not surprising that they’re using close-ups to ally themselves with it.

Both these approaches to the close-up – ethical naturalism and the rise of social media – can be united under the Lacanian term ‘extimacy’. For Lacan, the most intimate aspects of experience are ultimately external or other to the subject, just as the intimacies of social media and of biological naturalism re-locate inner ‘truth’ externally. Extimacy seems to be one of the key tropes in advertising today, which is finding a new aesthetic focus in the externalisation of the intimate.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Private Dancer

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

 

As a teacher I dreamed of starting lectures from 2 or 3 different places simultaneously. Then converging in the middle and stopping.  A different approach from beginning, middle & end. Having never followed through then I will now – starting with the Beatles, Kant and cultural materialism.

Last weekend I watched Scorsese’s film Living in the Material World.  With no professional detachment. I grew up in North Wales (not far from Liverpool) to the sound track of the early Beatles so there was emotion & recollection at every turn in the story. Next morning, I woke thinking about: the huge cultural influence of India on the Beatles, especially George; Olivia Harrison’s words on what makes a marriage last (mainly not getting divorced but more, worth hearing), inspiring anyone with bodywork dented by life’s ups and downs; how George, recovering from cancer, survived an assassination attempt more savage than the one on John Lennon. The casual honesty and integrity of the Beatles in their early days.  Viewing media constructs of themselves detachedly as almost autonomous, with puppet lives of their own. Their ability to be themselves and say what they thought (Lennon’s spontaneous comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus).  And in UK today a certain timidity, conservatism, young people constrained again to fit a mainstream ideological mould.  It was also Remembrance Sunday here last weekend, when a minority wear artificial poppies to commemorate UK military deaths. I don’t remember ever wearing one, nor did my older sons (now 25 and 30). But school pressure this year on both my younger children (aged 9 and 11) to wear the symbolic poppies. Pressure also on FIFA from the English football authorities that England should do likewise in their international against Spain at the weekend, with UK government insistence that the poppy was not, as FIFA maintained, a political symbol. How about your own symbolic flower, FIFA, commemorating deaths of civilians globally at the hands of military forces, including British bombers and invaders? I guess, from the official UK viewpoint, that wouldn’t be political either? Enlightenment trajectories in reverse – kids pressed to wear poppies, musically abusive X-Factor culture, pop controlled again by formulaic, super rich middle-aged impresarios as before the Beatles. Slavoj Zizek would say: “It’s ideology, stupid!”

Second point of departure is Zizek’s 2011 discussion with Julian Assange about democracy today. No better antidote to the eroding ideological drip. Zizek’s abnegation of postmodernist jiggery pokery in his endorsement of Wikileaks whistle-blowers risking torture and death to publicise war crimes and human rights outrages.  Done by ‘us’ (from the viewpoint of the US-UK-Israel axis) not by the more familiar manifestations of ‘them’ – be that 24-hour rolling Nazis on the History Channel, historical communism, Islamic extremists or the human rights neglecting contemporary Chinese (let’s occlude Guantanamo and Wikileaks-disclosed outrages for another self-righteous moment).  Zizek and Assange’s clarity about the distortions and cover-ups by mainstream media. What happened to relativism and living with contradictions? Assange’s identification of potentially powerful agents of disruption and change in digital specialists mainstream institutions depend on to implement their strategies and who, informed by online sources and their own networks, don’t share the official media values and ideologies disseminated by and in the interest of those very institutions. Finally, Zizek quoting Kant on ‘public’ versus ‘private’ uses of reason. The ‘public’ being a quest for understanding in the human interest as opposed to ‘private reason’ in which expert knowledge is put to the service of private interests or existing power structures (e.g. expertise in crowd behaviour deployed for controlling demonstrations). Zizek makes the point that the biggest threat to the Judaeo-Christian heritage/Western civilisation today is not, as received wisdom avers, Islam, but. the silencing of public reason – via an assault on disinterested education and research, and increasing emphasis on knowledge/expertise dedicated solely to helping established power and interests work more effectively. Listen to Zizek (about 70 minutes into the film) – he makes this point much more eloquently than I can.

Third point of departure – cultural materialism, specifically the work of Raymond Williams. There’s a potted history of the current commercial application of semiotics originally developed in UK in the early 1990s, where the author introduces Williams's Residual-Dominant-Emergent mapping to the team at specialist agency Semiotic Solutions as a way of analysing trends in brand communications viewed in cultural context  – into what looks dated (Residual), what’s mainstream (Dominant), and what’s new & dynamic (Emergent, with its predictive power to help brands future-proof their advertising and other communication). This became perhaps the most familiar ‘tool’ of the current iteration of brand semiotics. Raymond Williams, a Marxist cultural critic, must have turned in his grave at this piece of conceptual hijacking.  Now something springs from the earth like the hand at the end of Carrie. Added Value’s Sam Barton has sent a preview of his fascinating Masters thesis in Material Culture, on the business of brand semiotics. One of Sam’s many inspiring insights comes from going back to what Raymond Williams actually wrote. In context. the dominant culture “selects and organises” information that comes from outside itself in such a way that it remains current, making it difficult for anyone to think outside its parameters.  The emergent represents new practices outside the dominant, which the dominant will assiduously attempt to transform and assimilate into itself for as long as possible – to arrest the breakthrough into more progressive forms of social and economic organisation. So the applied commercial ‘tool’, as Sam Barton argues, is actually a “brutal inversion” of Williams’s original Residual-Dominant-Emergent formulation – a case study in how the dominant works to arrest a movement towards the emergent. And, one might add in support of public reason, a beautiful and symmetrical example of an ideological appropriation springing around to bite itself in the backside.

Midnight approaches for Faust. “O lente, lente, currite noctis equi”. The show must go on.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

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

Holy Jolie

Monday, November 14th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Edina Husanovic  2011

Posted in Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Global/Local | No Comments »

Ballad of a Thin Man

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

Who is this guy? What’s he doing on the front page of the Financial Times (29 Oct 2011)? Do look at him in context but please don’t tell me the answer. My inquiry is a rhetorical question in the manner of Roland Barthes's “Who is speaking?” and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain" or "Ballad of a Thin Man".

Why so miserable, mate? Don’t worry, we say idiomatically in England, it may never happen. Sure Zegna’s an Italian brand and the main front page headline on this day (“Italy spoils mood after EU deal”) concerns the threat of the nation joining Greece on the slide to Eurozone default. But even that wouldn’t be as bad as the facial expression suggests. Is this the absolute end of the road for European serotonin depletion culture as a whole, the worst case payback scenario made flesh for all the serial Ecstasy poppers from the old Rave days? Or is Zegna working on a new migraine therapy? Is this what you hold in your bag, so gingerly distant from your new tweed slacks – as if the brown polish that made the shine is as yet imperfectly dried, might still come off and leave a nasty stain? In this same week it was announced that because of Italy’s debt crisis the launch of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s new collection of Neapolitan love songs would be delayed (Silvio famously claims to have learned everything he knows about working a crowd from his time as a singer on cruise ships). Are you an executive at Berlusconi’s record company by any chance? Is that bag full of unmarketable CDs?

Does the seriousness underwrite a Northern rather than a Latin Italianness – Protestant Ethic 24/7 Zegna as the most understated of the Italian luxury brands, safe for the undemonstrative middle-aged business male (NOT Gucci or Versace, almost Jil Sander-like, capable of just about of passing for German if Italy did collapse into chaos and one needed to get across the border quickly)?

Or is this just romantic melancholy/agony, eyes fixed half focused on a lost love, quest, formula – whatever the Absent One is which inaugurates the movement of desire. Out of this torpor is something about to stir and twitch to life? Meanwhile does your resemblance to posh English actor Jeremy Irons when he was younger trigger a protective response in women? Is this why you look like your mum just dressed you, brushed your hair, put the stuff in your hands that looks as if it didn’t belong to you and you’re pretending for some reason it’s not there? Under the coat with solicitously upturned collar (lapel then firmly patted down by maternal right palm) and under the cardigan is there another jumper, this last one tucked neatly into the top of your trousers?  Layers. Jacket belt tightened snug across your tummy. To make sure that nasty headache isn’t made worse by a snuffle or a chest cold? Did they send you away to boarding school too young? Is this mood all about the recoil? Will you show them?  The other front page story, to the left of this picture, is “Cameron argues more women in the boardroom would lead to a curb on pay”. So what’s the game? Does your appealing helplessness qualify you as some kind of feminist icon?

But hold on. There’s a retro vestimentary code working here – an incongruously pristine version of old-style adventurer, explorer, robust masculinity conquering the worst nature can throw at it. Banker as hunter – as here below in a preposterous (are the people this is talking to on mental life support?) FT ad from the same day. Is this what that Zegna far away look’s about? New frontiers, challenges, horizons. Perhaps not. Just a touch too sad, sulky, depressed for that. Did your friends and colleagues stop sponsoring your heroic exploits for charity?  Did they start clicking the button that says “Pay for your own extreme sports holidays and redirect me to where I can donate for social inclusion, fairness and redistribution”?

The branding and the end line: “Ermengildo Zegna – Passion for Life”. So where’s the passion? Are you a metrics consultant? Is this about calibrating intensities of apathy or misery?  Nothing that can't be measured is worth tolerating, remember?  Or is this the contradiction that will spark a new Zegna brand myth? Abject machismo? Eternity measured out in coffee spoons? The effable ineffable? Is this deconstructing how business jargon has battered the word ‘passion’ to an entropic emotional and semantic pulp? A plea to divert the energy out of stereotypical hyperbole and back where it belongs. Give unto the corporation what is the corporation's. Passion for life.

Finally return to look at this in its media context, the front page of the FT. What does it look like? Different there – like an energy oubliette in the bottom right corner, a discordant slate tombstone. A contemporary visual echo of the obituaries that used to appear on the front page of the London Times in the days when today's great private media monopolies were just a glint in Satan's eye. Obituary for what? A way of life? A brand? What is the meaning of this thin man?

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

The poetry of business

Monday, October 31st, 2011

If you're searching for the sacred springs of poetic inspiration, your first port of call wouldn’t usually be KPMG, Halliburton or Pot Noodle.

But copywriter Nick Asbury has shown that poetry – hovering between the intended and the unintended – abounds in corporate and brand discourse. He's created a technique, Corpoetics, which involves replicating extracts from websites and business publications, and re-arranging them on the page to draw out their poetic potential.

Here’s an example of Corpoetics in practice:

'KPMG'

I am strong.
I am vibrant.
I am committed to a vision.

I am tremendous.
I am quality.
I will lead people to excellence.

I am delighted.
I am respected.
I am very greatly valued.

What am I?
I am the best.

Read the original KPMG text here.

While gently poking fun at the pretensions of corporate language, Corpoetics isn’t meant to be primarily critical. In fact, it’s the very subtlety of the technique that offers semioticians an interesting perspective.

These poems take existing signs and get us reading them differently, thanks to a minimal act of reframing. It shows that critical thought needn’t always look beyond the surface of the sign to find a hidden truth beneath. Sometimes all it needs to do is stay with the signifier – playing with surface forms to draw out a wider range of meaning.

‘Halliburton’, for instance, reveals a desolation that might not have come through on a conventional reading:

We operate in broad array,

starting with production –

finally to infrastructure

and abandonment.

Corpoetics is a technique everyone can try at home. Readers are welcome to share examples in the comments thread below! Here are the rules as supplied by Nick:

·     Take the text from the ‘about us’ page of any corporate website
·     Rearrange the words into a poem
·     You don’t have to use all the words
·     You can use the same word twice
·     No fragments or anagrams of words
·     Punctuation can be added as necessary

 

Links

To read more about Corpoetics, and order a copy of Nick's book, visit his website here.

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

Sonic Semiotics

Friday, October 21st, 2011

I just decided I wanted to write something on sonic semiotics for Semionaut. This was triggered by attending the School Of Sound at the Barbican and a session dedicated to the use of sound design in animation. I have a stubborn interest in the semiotics of music and the extent to which music can be said to refer to outside itself.

As often when you hear creatives talk, the discourse is one of accidental sagacity, happy mishaps and serendipity. One of the sound designers, Mark Ashworth talked about using his baby girl's scream alongside guitar flares to create a sinister shriek.

Another experienced female designer talked about just using instinct in her work.

There was no mention of any codes or the other nomenclature that you might expect, to guide selection of element – this may have been the nature of the genre which is maybe more SFX based than scored. It did strike me however that the only times sonic motifs were mentioned (for example a crackling light bulb used as a transition motif or way of ending a scene) these were rather dismissed as just aural clichés

I was going to pipe up in the Q&A but I knew that any answers would cleave to the groove of haphazard felicity already ploughed in the discussion.

Of course I do not impugn their credentials. There was some great work on show. I guess they just rely on abductive instinct rather than any conscious selection from pre-existing sound typologies. As a broker between underlying meaning and creative expression couldn’t semiotics play a role in making tricks of the trade more explicit?

Theorizing what these people were doing might have seemed limiting, and somehow a repudiation of creative ingenuity. Is this a natural antipathy to anything to do with book learning or because it is seen as superfluous, i.e, as 'teaching fish to swim'?

It’s ironic though that one of the issues touched on was a lament there is no common lexicon to discuss the feeling film directors want and the sonic effect that could create this feeling. The trial and error rapport built up between director and sound designer no doubt works, but i wondered whether a sonic semiotic crib might have helped here.

I believe it was Elvis Costello who once said that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Stravinsky famously denied the possibility of music having any real meaning and Umberto Eco declared the music only carries denotations rather than connotations – one of the least sage things he ever wrote in my humble opinion.

So what has semiotics to say about music? Well, quite a lot as it happens. There is a rich canon of work looking at Romantic-Classical music tracing themes for instance of Faustian self-questioning in Liszt piano works or anti-Stalinist ironies Shostakovich symphonies. Finnish professor Eero Tarasti has written a book on the Semiotics of Music drawing on both Peirce and Greimas. His main theme is narrativity through harmonic tension, and he ascribes an existential will to the unfolding piece of music.

Authors such as Lidov, Nattiez and others have also written on this subject. Many of these works centre around the notion of a musical subject nestled in a ‘sonorous envelope’. Naomi Cumming’s book the Sonic Self posits a classification of musical signs via Peirce: timbre and the grain of sound linked to Peircean qualisigns, gesture  and melodic ornaments and figures of expression to sinsigns, with more syntactic tonal processes governed by harmonic rules as legisigns suggesting desire. These are all seen as iconic in the Peircean sense and are linked back to music as an expression of human gesture. Rebecca Leydon has written a fascinating paper on a series of tropes applied to minimalist music such as that of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, distinguished by uses of repetition technically known as ostinati, therefore containing less harmonic unfolding. These include ‘totalitarian’ and ‘aphasic’ tropes.

One of my personal heroes in this area is musicologist Philip Tagg who has extended serious semiotics to popular music; it is refreshing to read a forthright Yorkshireman mention semiotics, the Clash and Aeolian triads without having to apologize to his readers. Tagg takes musicology to task writing: “musicology has tended to steer clear of viewing music as a symbolic system whose structures are considered as either references to or as interpretations, reflections, reconstructions…of experiences which are not necessarily intrinsically musical”. Tagg does great work in surveying a broad range of music from jazz through rock and punk to techno and looking for musemes or minimum units of meaning of units. One of these would be the Aeolian triad which is traditionally a signifier of mourning, yearning or existential dread. Semiotics has really added to the canon since books like Cooke’s seminal The Language of Music.

I co-authored an ESOMAR conference paper on the semiotics of sound and music in advertising in 2006 and argued then that not enough attention was being paid to sound design as a strategic brand building tool and that it was still an afterthought in too many creative development schedules. In the paper, (written with Alex Gordon of Sign Salad) we bracketed off the idea of subjective experience and somatic markers. We then put forward a rough model of sonic semiotic affect on listeners based on musical encoding (universal kinetic properties from a social psychology view) and cultural encoding (broadly social semiotic, though not explicitly so) and argued that a more explicit attempt to score and compose according to this framework could help sensitize brand owners to the possibilities for managing meaning in sonic branding rather than surrendering to the lure of likeability or a despair of complete subjectivity.

Even though there has been no ‘final theory’ of music, what is commendable is the fact that semioticians continue to work to bring more sophisticated understanding to such an ineffable phenomenon. Semiotics brings the meaning that social psychology musicology and other fields lack. I am keen to promote greater interest in this area.

© Chris Arning  2011

Posted in Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Monday, October 17th, 2011

 

In Spring 2011, at a conference on cultures, languages and religions in the Mediterranean and the East, I presented a paper on Hermes, a Greek deity who stands as an ancient emanation and personification of semiotic activities. This is a short version of that paper. 

Decades ago the specialists deduced that the medium itself had converted itself into a message and there was no longer any reason for us to think of it as a simple bearer of information. The idea that Hermes is just a herald of Zeus plays down another significant role this god plays in the tangled web of relationships between the inhabitants of Olympus, on one hand, and between the gods and mortals on the other.  This second role raises the question of not who Hermes is but what he represents, and why that became so important for the culture of Europe as a whole. Hermes from this perspective appears as an obligatory element in the Pantheon, filling the vacuum which would exist if there were no channel of communication.  If the image of Hermes did not exist, a similar signifier or function would still need to be invented to cover the strategically important position between particular characters in mythology and to strengthen specific stages of mythological narratives. Hermes thus anticipates an idea perpetuated by Marshall McLuhan and other commentators over the last half century of innovation in communication and information technologies – of the medium having in some senses become the message.

The most important role of Hermes in relation to mythological space. from a semiotic point of view, is on the horizontal plane of the map. The winged god is the only figure who moves without difficulty from one end of the culture field with which the Ancient Greeks were familiar and the other – visiting towns, islands, crossing seas far and wide, etc. Movement of this kind was expressed in the material culture of the Greeks through what are called ‘herms’, dedicated to Hermes, which were placed at crossroads and marked distances along the roads.

Along the vertical line of the map Hermes moved from the top of the Olympian hierarchy down below to the kingdom of the dead (in which he became ‘a Guide of souls’.  Thus he was not only honoured by the mortals as the ruler of the land movement but was also, at the same time,  the ruler of the air movement-  a member of the divine family whose work was literally to ‘circulate’ between the highest point and the lowest through the religious space of the Greeks. Moreover, Hermes was the figure who fixed and protected frontiers between the various spaces in which people lived, dividing cultural spaces and creating tipping points between them – including the points between realms of myth and science.

So, summarizing these associations, Hermes came to symbolize exchange between heaven and earth, journeys, and transitions between the heavens, earth and the underworld. Logically extending trade, journeys and information transmission we may infer that Hermes, mythologically, served the purpose of representing most things before which we could place the prefix trans- (this mobile god’s areas of jurisdiction might include, for example, transfer, transgression, transcendence, even the hermaphrodite’s trans-genderedness). Simultaneously patron of tradesmen, thieves, shepherds and craftsmen Hermes has a unique and versatile application to cases where we are speaking about a transfer of matter, ideas or messages from one state to another or from one subject to another – i.e. things that constantly change their position in space, in the broadest sense.

In keeping with these qualities of transfer and transformation, Hynes and Doty in Mythical Trickster Figures (1993) put Hermes at the top of their trickster list – with analogues in the mythologies of many other cultures. Unlike many of his brothers-in-arms from Asia or the Americas, however, Hermes is a significant member of the Pantheon characterised by being neither socially disengaged nor marginalised as trickster figures can often be. Hermes’s play at and with the frontiers of the world, as mentioned above, continues in many other forms of marking and shaping of the material world.  He becomes god of weights and measures, of the science of measure, of “proportion, relation and scale” (Harari & Bell, Hermes: Literature, Science and Philosophy, 1982). All these potentialities also become extended beyond the material world into representation in language and written texts. From this position to the introduction of hermeneutics as a concept there is only one small step. After participation in language invention, Hermes/hermeneutics also govern the meaning which people derive, attribute and share in their verbal and symbolic communication. The link between Hermes and texts Hynes & Doty (1993) describe as “an open-ended finding of new meanings that may change the interpretative force from one context to another; the values of a way-god must necessarily be flexible and adaptive”.

(This analysis will continue with an account, to follow, of the Hermes symbol in commercial messaging).

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011

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

Life stories

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

It is every brand’s goal to become a defining point in your, yet at the same time everyone’s, life story, in hope of building up emotional value, lifelong loyalty and becoming a myth. In anticipation of Facebook’s new profile interface, the Timeline: Tell your life story with a new kind of profile it’s worth noting how various brands have used the same strategy to creep into our lives.

One example is UK department store John Lewis's latest TV advert  that showcases the role their electrical products have played in people’s lives over the years, played against a backdrop of iconic music tracks.

The advert consists of seven scenes, each representing a different era, ending with two teenagers enjoying a performance of ‘Shine On’ by the Kooks on the latest internet-enabled Sony Internet TV. The ‘seven scenes’ also resonate with Shakespeare’s legendary As You Like It speech (Act II Scene vii): “And one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages…

KFC came up with a reverse timeline of a love story for their “Love is Forever” ad. It opens with an elderly couple dancing to Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ and becoming gradually younger until they eventually waltz back to childhood.

The timeline formula has also been used in the “Time Flies” advert for South Africa’s largest investment company, Alan Gray long term investment fund, which tells the story of a girl who grows up in a hurry, realising years later that time is priceless and shouldn’t be rushed.

On celebrating their 20 years’ presence in Russia, Mars have made an advert that provides a twist on the usual timeline theme. Their campaign It’s good that some dreams never come true features a young girl wishing when she grows up to “wear pink leggings and dance in the disco with a man in a crimson jacket”. Meanwhile, in another execution, a young boy wishes to “become a businessman, drive a Lada 6 and be married to a top model”.

The adverts then show a glimpse of what that may have looked like and fast-forwards to show the less ridiculous reality, reminding us of our silly childhood dreams that thankfully never materialised.  

Another in the endless list of recycling the timeline formula attempts is last year’s Unilever campaign  for its male grooming line Dove Men+Care, based on milestones including marriage and kids, in an attempt to challenge the stereotypes around “Real Men” and move away from traditional male grooming ads. 

So, for brands, an effective way to become embedded in consumers’ lives is to act as ‘biographers’ – telling life stories and ‘being there’ at key symbolic stages. Facebook’s Timeline, giving consumers the chance to narrate and curate their own unfolding life stories, will bring further attention to these symbolic contact points between brands and biographies.

 “Advertising is so powerful that we can describe our lives with it" – that's how Romanian advertising agency Next explain their campaign Advertising is a part of our life which managed to demonstrate the powerful storytelling potential of brands in intimate everyday situations. Their award-winning ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Refuse’ ad-stories both feature a dialogue which consists of listing brands.

The ‘Refuse’ dialogue is as follows:

A woman is chopping vegetables in the kitchen, when a man approaches and embraces her sensually.

Man: “Murfatlar Wine… Relaxa… Durex?”

Woman: “Nurofen… Libresse. “

‘Jealousy'  offers a more intricate plot, as a woman accuses her husband of infidelity based on a list of growing brand-based suspicions: "Avon…Toyota…Novotel?"

What is most fascinating is that this dialogue doesn’t need translation in an age of global brands, where brandspeak is a common language. And if brands give us a way to tell our stories, from everyday interactions to overviews of life stages, perhaps one day we could even rewrite As You Like It just by listing brand names.

 

© 2011 Sandra Mardin

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

When products speak

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2011 Louise Jolly

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

Network: Kristian

Friday, September 30th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?

I am in Sofia, Bulgaria, I am teaching semiotics and hundreds of derivative matters at the New Bulgarian University.

Tell us about your course at the New Bulgarian University?

I am doing dozens of courses, the residual ones are on semiotics and philosophy of language, the dominant ones on semiotics of brands and marketing communication and the emergent ones… again on brand communication, but trying to introduce the ‘experience economy’ perspective.

How did you first get interested in semiotics?  And the relationship between semiotics and brand communication?

Around 1990 I was at Bologna University studying Film and Drama. After my Thursday lecture on Aesthetics there were always crowds of students coming to listen to the next lecture, given by a with a beard and glasses. After some time I asked a colleague of mine:

– Who is this guy?

– How ‘who’? This is Umberto Eco!

– Who the f…k is Umberto Eco?

Then, you know, the ‘immigrant’ had to show that he wasn't stupider than the natives…From that semiotics and brand communication was a natural development. I started to teach at the New Bulgarian University 2 weeks after I graduated from Bologna. The label ‘the pupil of Eco’ was applied to me and this brand extension made it easy for me to get opportunities on various study programmes. I have started many courses, but only one has survived into the next decade – Semiotics of Marketing and Advertising.  Actually before 1989 in Bulgaria there were no such things as marketing or advertising and New Bulgarian University was founded in 1991 (18th September, btw, Happy 20th Birth day NBU!) exactly to provide academic coverage to similar lacks in the social sphere, the arts and applied science. I was witnessing during these years how consumer culture emerged almost from nothing and brands were the major operators in the process. Brand communication was simply the most interesting subject of semiotic inquiry during this period and gradually I oriented almost all my interests there. My department started a masters program in Advertising and Lifestyles in 2007.

Your Sozopol summer school is one of the great events of the social calendar for academic semiotics.  Can you tell us something about that?

You got it right, the ‘social calendar! We have organised this event since 1995 and it took a lot of time to realise that academics are quite boring if they are at the centre. Creating the right social atmosphere, using as a driving force the students creativity and their drive for self-expression is the key to success for both the academic and the social part. The other key factor is international participation, which creates unique conditions and qualities, unachievable within a single university group. Last but not least, we invite semiotic professionals from the business, who are another source of energy for the discipline and add value to the ‘gross semiotic product’ of the event.

Kristian Bankov with Umberto Eco

Tell us about the image you have chosen to illustrate this interview?

My favorite semiotic brand! Of proved equity by demonstration!

What are your main ambitions professionally for the next two or three years?

To train my assistants to do all the jobs I am doing now! But this is impossible, so I shall focus on more realistic goals. Creating an international PhD program in semiotics would be great. Not the usual academic research PhD, but placing the doctorants in companies and organizations outside the university, making their research projects practical and useful for those organizations and even involving people from there in the evaluation committee for the defence. Thus we can start to export into society high level semiotic professionals, universal communication wizards…Also establishing a semiotic laboratory in our university (well, this is done), but developing unique brand research products and going in the Bulgarian market research market with them.

© Kristian Bankov  2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Just Radical Enough

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Asunción Álvarez 2011

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

The politics of friendship

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marmite plays with the idea of the 'select few'

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

For the love of lycra

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Gareth Lewis 2011

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

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

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

Network: Gareth

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I am in my bedroom which is on the eleventh floor of a block of flats on the Brighton seafront. My room looks out over the city and the sun is on its way down. I’ve just finished watching a programme about baleen whales and am about to sit down and write for a bit. My bedroom walls are covered with Post-Its because I’m researching and writing a novel. It’s a technique I nicked from Will Self whose own writing room looks a bit like the nest made by Eugene Victor Tooms in the X-Files. A photographer called Phil Grey has exhaustively documented that room, and I have an unhealthy fascination with those photographs. You could say I am building a shrine to them. 

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time? 

I was in a pub with an ex-girlfriend. She mentioned her brother was involved with something called commercial semiotics and I thought it sounded interesting. I looked it up on the internet later that evening and sent some emails. Rob Thomas at Practical Semiotics was the first person who took me on. I worked for Rob for about two years. We’re still good friends.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to the point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in English literature and philosophy. I have a masters in sociology and cultural theory. In other words I’m academically indecisive and habitually plump for the combo options. I started full time with Space Doctors in 2010, and work alongside people with backgrounds in illustration, bio-chemistry, design, literary theory, marketing and some Narnian mixtures of the lot. I'm rather glad I didn't over-specialise in the end.

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

I don’t believe commercial semiotics is about treating the architecture of a cough sweet in the same way that you’d think about narrative structure in The Good Soldier. Not yet, anyway. The commercial world is certainly evolving in the right direction from a communications point of view. That’s partly as a result of insights gleaned from semiotics (also expanding its horizons, I should add). But I think at this stage we’re still talking about multiple genres of meaning making. I also don’t think it hurts to have an opinion. Commercial semioticians are basically in the business of explaining why one thing is obsolete and uninteresting and another fresh and compelling. I’d say there’s a healthy degree of snobbery involved in that process.

Tell us about your novel.

It’s about a chess player and an automata engineer. They unwittingly get involved in a corrupt chess tournament that takes place in a spooky church in Prague. I’m hoping reading it will be like watching an episode of Scooby Doo backwards. I'm planning a predictable reveal right at the off. The whole thing is inspired by the Shipping Forecast.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

This sculpture is called The Mechanical Head: The Spirit of Our Age, and it was made by Raoul Hausmann in 1920. The image adorns the cover of a recent book by Lydia Liu called The Freudian Robot, which uses literary, information and psychoanalytic theory to argue how and why we’ve made machines in our own image. Liu heads up the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University, and TFR is the best work of non-fiction I've read this year. Comparative Literature seems to me to be doing away with conventional academic distinctions altogether. I find this kind of cross-disciplinary approach to research and comprehension genuinely exciting. I also think this method bears some resemblance to the way commercial semioticians typically approach, filter and cluster cultural information. Blue whales, according to the programme I just watched, do a similar sort of thing with krill. 

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?  What role will semiotics be playing in your life?

That depends a lot on what the world of semiotics looks like ten years from now. I see it heading in some really interesting directions. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be a part of that.

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network | No Comments »

Every word is an opening

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

China Mieville prefaces his recent science fiction novel Embassytown with a quote from the philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin: ‘The word must communicate something (other than itself)’. Later on in the book one character (a linguistic theorist) quotes Hegel. Forgetting the source, he suggests ‘[t]he human voice can apprehend itself as the sounding of the soul itself’. There’s language in Embassytown. But there’s also Language.

Language is spoken by Hosts (or Ariekei), a race of alien beings for whom ‘speech [is] thought’, and Language ‘speech and thought at once’. What we would call words are not, for the Ariekei, anything. Whereas words to us mean things, for Hosts ‘each word is an opening. A door through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen’. This has a number of consequences, but one is especially important. Hosts cannot lie – everything in Language is a truth-claim.

Humans and hosts co-habit in Embassytown (located on the planet Arieka), but communication is understandably difficult. Hosts cannot make head or tail of human speech (of a language that simply signifies and refers to things, rather than one which essentially is them). Communication between the two groups is only possible through an elite group of ‘Ambassadors’, twinned clones who can emulate the Language of the Ariekei when they speak in chorus – with ‘joined up minds’. It all gets a bit complicated here, but I think the crucial point has been made. Mieville is exploring two fairly familiar ‘kinds’ of language. The word. And The Word. 

There’s a clear religious dimension to this tightly plotted and hugely entertaining work. But there’s also lots for the semiotician to get her teeth into (the novel twists on a ‘semiotic revolution’, which I won’t ruin for anybody who hasn’t yet read it), and something for the philosophers too (including some fancy Kantian furniture, like a window pane which renders the sublime raw data of experience – the ‘immer’ – sensible to the frangible human mind) and even a little for the cultural aesthetes, including this reflection on childhood, which strikes me as being both wonderful and lamentable, altogether true: ‘It felt like being a child again, although it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It is only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth’.

I don’t want to give the impression Embassytown is an excellent introduction to semiotics. I don’t think it is, and I think it’s wrong to say there’s a philosophical or cultural ‘argument’ about Language being made here. This is an entertaining, thought-provoking exploration of the origins and implications of meaning, speech and truth. If language is intrinsically linked to falsity – indeed, to lying – then is to speak, to lie? Is there a distinction we can make between signs and Signs, and if so on what side of validity does semiotics rightly fall? There are implications for fiction here, and – it seems to me – a suggestion being made about the possible fictitiousness, so to speak, of Truth itself.

Recommended.

© Gareth Lewis 2011

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

Structured eternity

Monday, August 8th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Sandra Mardin 2011

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Technology | 2 Comments »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning  2011

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

Habitual Symbol Manipulator

Monday, July 11th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credit: Marek Petraszek

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Network: Sam

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?  If you look around you what can you see?

I’m at home procrastinating, my flat is messy and the walls are covered with drawings i’ve made. Its a Sunday and a tough time to concentrate with a week of work only just behind me and another one ahead ready for a dizzying ascent. My internet browser is filled with tabs with different bikes on; I have recently become a convert to the cycling faith and am falling fast and deep into an entire new world of knowledge and discernment that is available to confuse and amuse me – seemingly endlessly.

What's your first memory of an interest in semiotics being triggered in you – even if you didn't know the word at the time?

Many of my family are artists; whether full time or in the corners of their lives (as I am). My father was a painter and his vast abstract expressionist (ish) canvases were a real visual trap for a small boy. However I always remember being troubled by their abstractness, always desperate to garner some sort of meaning from them. I remember one particular painting that hung in our living room that was probably four feet wide by 3 feet tall I remember staring at it intently seeking patterns and figures in its intricate layers of brush marks and spatters.

Describe the courses of academic study that brought you to point where you could consider working professionally in applied semiotics?

My undergraduate degree was in religious studies at Edinburgh where I focussed on South Asian religions and anthropological method. My Undergraduate dissertation used popular culture as a source to explore the way that the nation is figured as feminine. In my interview for Added Value I wasn’t particularly excelling before i got all excited trying to relate of Indira Gandhi’s last speeches in which she said “Every drop of my blood… will contribute to the growth of this nation” and the goddess Cinnamasta (worth googling).

What practical advice would you give anyone who would like to earn a living doing what you do?

Don’t be a snob, don’t be partisan when it comes to the world around you; for me working in Cultural Insight at AV is as much about being a fan of Barthes or Judith Williamson as being curious about the way that Grazia is organised, or genuinely interested about the way that yoghurt is advertised. I once tried half seriously to let my boss tell a client that Muller Corner was a Brechtian Yoghurt – she wouldn’t let me. But all I mean to say is that the game of Semiotics is about absorbing and interrogating as much as you can from as many sources as you can.

Tell us about your current academic project.

I’m working on my M.A in material and visual culture course at UCL (definitely worth checking out the course if you don’t know it already). I’m working on a dissertation about commercial semiotics. I’m interested in the way that a discipline that had its origins in deconstruction has become a tool for the construction of meaning. The transition from a discipline that often dealt in ideology, to a commercial discipline that deals with practice. In doing this I’m looking from both a historical perspective, tracing the growth of the industry, and ethnography and interviews to explore the current ways that we relate to theory. I’m interested in the strategies that we use day to day to represent our ‘science’ of representation. What is academic theory for us and clients; is it magic, is it technology, is it pure pragmatism and common sense? If anyone would like to offer their opinions or find out more do get in touch with me, I’d be very grateful to hear what you have to say.

Tell us about the picture you chose for this interview.

It’s Ernest Hemingway. I’m new to Hemingway, shamefully. I’m reading A Moveable Feast at the moment as in a month and a half I move to Added Value Paris for a year. Here he is kicking back in Cuba, he’s probably tired from a day of game fishing. I just read him recall saying to a young upstart who was interrupting his concentration whilst writing in a cafe in Paris “At home they’d server you and then break the glass”. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve that level of misanthropy. One of my favourite things about him was that his wife lost an entire suitcase of his manuscripts and carbon copies. Hard work never to be seen again.

What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?  How will semiotics feature in your life by then?

Truthfully I’d like for excellence in commercial semiotics not to be the sum achievement of the next ten years of my life. I’d like to have gotten to Z in the alphabetical publication that I run (www.orsomethingorsomething.co.uk) and I’d like to have had some of my writing published, I’m 24, I have a moustache – of course I want to be a novelist. 

Image from: http://matthewasprey.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/ernest_hemingway1.jpg

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Semiotics 101

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

 

Having led a two day training programme last week for the UK Market Research Society in London  I’m currently (31 May 2011) at Vaal River near Johannesburg with a similar professional training workshop for the international market research/consumer insight organisation ESOMAR.  At these occasions people often ask for a wiiki-type proper (but not too exhaustive) explanation of semiotics. Likewise academic specialists like to know how applied commercial semiotics works (and is evolving). Below the two birds with one stone – kissed, that is, for “He who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise” as William Blake says. And you can’t do better than that.  Except help improve this starter definition by filling a feedback box with essential points overlooked below or things you can express in much better ways.


Delegates at the ESOMAR advanced semiotics training workshop, Vaal River, South Africa, 31st May 2011

Semiotics, from the Greek semeion (‘sign’) is the study of semiosis, or systems and activities involving signs that exist in human culture and in nature – from spoken or written language to visual representation, music, taste and smell cues, signaling between animals (‘zoosemiotics’), medical symptoms, hormonal messaging, and the coding of the genome and microbiome. Semiotics embraces all processes of expression, communication and significant interaction at all levels throughout the universe which in the words of C.S. Peirce, early twentieth-century American philosopher and one of the founders of the modern discipline of semiotics, “is perfused with signs”.

The history of semiotics extends back to ancient Greece, where semiotike, alongside ethics and natural philosophy, was one of the three great pillars of human knowledge. There are similar processes of interpretation and decoding signs in all other human civilisations. The other great founding figure of today’s version of the discipline, operating like Peirce around the turn of the twentieth century, was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics, who formalised the systematic description of languages and posited beyond linguistics a larger, inclusive “science of the life of signs in society” which he called semiology. This field of study identified by Saussure and inspired by the methods of structural linguistics was to become, in the second half of the twentieth century, a driving force in the development of anthropology and ethnography (Claude Lévi-Strauss), philosophy, psychoanalysis and historical inquiry into discourse and the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault) and analysis of any form of cultural expression – narrative, literature, art iconography, film and popular culture generally (e.g. Propp, Greimas, Metz, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Umberto Eco).

Semiotics (or semiology) applied to consumer insight and marketing has drawn on the traditions of both Peirce and Saussure. As befits a practical approach in which accessibility and client actionability override any niceties of academic definition or territoriality, commercial semiotics has looked more like an eclectic toolbox than a philosophically uniform or consistent discipline. Adjacent academic areas, like cultural studies for example, have been raided to enrich this applied methodology – through for example the application of Residual, Dominant and Emergent code mapping to understanding (and helping create) cultural trends and to developing a brand’s cultural equities and communication strategy. 
 
Commercial semiotics in this broad sense, focusing on cultural and communication codes to help enhance client brand communications in competitive and cultural context, has experienced a sharp rise in influence with the growth of brand strategy and management since the 1990s, and particularly with the rise of megabrands requiring cross-cultural and global communication platforms. Current trends see this cultural (strictly speaking semiological) emphasis increasingly complemented by perspectives developed from the work of Peirce and his disciple Thomas Sebeok who saw human culture as part of a larger natural ‘semiosphere’ and refused to elevate it, via a false nature-culture dichotomy, into the sole area of inquiry. With a new convergence of the cultural and nature + culture (biosemiotic) perspective commercial semiotics will engage not only with brand imagery in the context of national and global cultures but also more and more with innovation in product forms and features (taste, smell), ecology and sustainability, and the interplay of ‘rational’ and’ emotional’ behaviours – interfacing increasingly with other emerging disciplines like cognitive psychology & neuroscience, ethnography/webnography and behavioural economics.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Africa, Europe, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Not so innocent

Monday, May 30th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Alternatives

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2011

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

Chapter 100

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Louise Jolly 2011

Link

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

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

Semiotic Square – Brazil

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Saussurean linguistics, from which European semiology derived, takes as a start point “oppositions without positive terms”.  So languages and cultural meanings tend to divide along the lines of this and not that: black/ white, female/ male, nature/ culture, emotion/ reason, subjective/ objective, people who think the world neatly divides into oppositions like these – and perhaps people who don’t.

President Bush’s post 9/11 pronouncement “You’re either with us or against us” is a convenient handle for explaining the Semiotic Square. Here’s an opposition which became too limiting almost immediately, black and white leading inevitably to shades of grey. President Chirac stepped up – NOT ‘with us’ but not ‘against us’ either. Not that this was going to wash with the 2001 equivalent of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Meanwhile a different shade of grey (NOT against us, as might have been expected) was represented by President Musharraf of Pakistan for whom, as he later explained in his autobiography, the alternative offer from the US was to be bombed back to the Stone Age.

That in essence is the Semiotic Square. A straightforward opposition (technically characterised by a relationship of contrariety), then a more complex and comprehensive mapping of the larger conceptual terrain around this based on discovering in the quadrants juxtaposed diagonally to the original two terms the ‘NOT-‘ for, or contradiction of, each of these original terms. An exercise which sets up a relationship of complementarity between the two quadrants on the left and the two on the right of the model. And you end up with something much richer and more nuanced than a simple opposition. (Our featured image on the home page, representing these relationships diagrammatically, is taken from Daniel Chandler‘s invaluable online explanation of key concepts in semiotics including the Semiotic Square – a health warning here, however, in that Non-Assertion and Non-Negation are in the wrong positions on the diagram and need to be switched).

In commercial semiotics this is a powerful technique for mapping the conceptual space of any category, consumer benefit (e.g. ‘value’, ‘freshness’ etc) or other theme (e.g. ‘sustainability’, ‘fairness’) viewed in cultural context. The Semiotic Square can be used for brand stretch or portfolio mapping, for example – e.g. differentiating positionings and communication strategies for a number of laundry or shampoo brands owned by the same company. There are very few brand communication or product innovation projects, in fact, that would not benefit from the kind of terrain mapping and dimensionalising this technique offers.

And so to Saõ Paolo, where we fed the contributions from our international Semionaut Brazil mash-up (reported here earlier in 2011) into a workshop where they were merged with outputs of a year-long not-for-profit research programme with young Brazilians run by Box 1824. Some overall project findings will be shared next month with contributors to the mash-up. Meanwhile some headlines on our Semiotic Square (in progress) covering Brazilianness.

Quadrant 2 (as marked on the illustration below) contains the things that come most readily to mind for foreigners in relation to Brazil – physical ease, grace, beauty, spontaneity and sensuality. Samba, traditional Brazilian football, Copacabana and Carnival, recreation and pleasure. This can be condescending – sentimentalised and exoticised as a kind of child-like innocence. But behind it there is a positive ethic of pleasure, cultivating the body, physical grace and sensuality. An alternative set of life values to a Protestant 24/7 work ethic. Something in line with social and political discourses now also emerging in developed markets on happiness and social connectedness as higher values than individual acquisition or national GDP growth alone.

Quadrant 1, in contrast, represents the Brazil of Lula who must be the prime candidate in terms of succession to a global Mandela slot for statesmen who represent peace, reconciliation and harmony rather than international posturing or aggression.  This is the Brazil which, unique in the major economies in recent years, has actually closed rather than further widening, as has happened elsewhere, the gap between rich and poor.  This is also the Brazil of enlightened modernist architecture and planning – as represented, for example, by the work of the country’s centenarian national treasure Oscar Niemeyer.

Quadrant 3, in continuity with 2, is the space of Brazilian music, film, design, fashion, vibrant cultural creation.  Analogous to African-American and Caribbean cultures this is an area where a history of struggle and suffering – nowhere more graphically represented than in familiar images of favela life – are alchemised into the cultural gold of a Seu Jorge or a Cidade de Deus (City of God), the grounding for cultural creativity and authenticity.

Quadrant 4 finally, connecting with 1, focuses on wisdom, learning, discovery, spirituality.  Historically this was about, among other things, a celebration in Brazil of racial and cultural mixing which, from the years of the Nazis in Germany through to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the US, stood in sharp contrast to supremacist thinking, segregation and fear of miscegenation elsewhere.  What proved to be a prophetic cultural vision in Brazil anticipated something that only evolved much later elsewhere. Stewardship of the biodiversity of the Amazon and emerging codes of sustainability become an emergent part of this Quadrant 4 mix today.  Here too is Brazil’s rich syncretistic spiritual and cultural heritage – mixing the indigenous South American with the African and the European, the worlds of candomblé, for example, and capoeira.

A documentary account would, of course, focus more critically on the negatives. Favelas are still there, especially in Rio.  In spite of progress in other areas in the Lula years, political corruption and infrastructural problems remain.  A Semiotic Square applied to marketing will focus inevitably on good news and positive opportunities (for Brazil, for local brands projecting outwards, and for international brands seeking to understand codes of Brazilianness today). Through the period up to the next World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics we will continue to monitor emergent codes and opportunities on this map.

In July 2010 Carlos Jereissati, a leading figure in Brazilian retail, was quoted thus – “Everyone is looking at us and saying ‘Wow, these people are really growing – they have the economy, they have the oil, they have the Olympics and the World Cup, we need to pay attention!'”  From my few days talking to friends and colleagues at Box 1824 and academic semioticians in Saõ Paolo I believe we will also learn from Brazil in relation to two other challenges David Harvey, in a compelling analysis for today 1st May 2011, identifies as the most urgent tasks facing our economies and societies going forward – making the changes that are needed to redress global poverty and environmental degradation. Or at the risk of diluting that with compromised buzz-words: getting really serious about fairness and sustainability.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

Posted in Americas, Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 1 Comment »

UK Royal Wedding

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

British royal weddings, since the ill-starred Charles and Diana saga, have been understandably downbeat affairs. The return of the Diana factor this time around, at one step removed, has helped boost the ratings a little. Press, TV and the souvenirs business in particular are ramping up at least their own enthusiasm. Like anthropomorphic puppies anticipating a free lunch of Cesar, familiar TV news faces flushed with excitement display simpering smiles and faraway looks of infinite tenderness and solicitude.  One suspects that any half-reputable lie detector test or MRI scan would reveal an aurora borealis of activity going on simultaneously in the most cynical and atavistically fearful, even desperate, regions of their collective brain. The best semiology, wrote Roland Barthes 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 incontestable. If we believe that education can help people realise their potential and become smarter then it follows (any statement being logically meaningful only because it’s opposite means something different) that there are other activities that help make people more stupid. A random check on two UK primary school children nearby, thankfully, evokes the same one-word reaction to the royal wedding – “boring”. Then an elaboration from one of them: “but the teachers have to pretend to be interested”. For the millions of indifferent or slightly nauseous Brits (appreciative nevertheless of a day off work, even if it was Gaddafi coming to town to dance a jig with Tony Blair) award-winning journalist Johann Hari, in the linked article, semioclastically pinpoints who the real killjoys and betrayers of the national heritage are. 

(At the time of writing this introduction Google, with immaculate taste, is displaying ads for royal wedding memorabilia alongside the online version of the article). 

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

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

Monday, April 18th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Malcolm Evans  2011

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

Reference

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

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

Cognitive Semiotics

Friday, April 1st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ajitesh Ghose 2011

Image Source:

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

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

References:

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

 

Posted in Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | No Comments »

Value Positioning

Friday, April 1st, 2011

 

While North Africa was erupting, Germans were more preoccupied with the premature end to the career of he country’s most popular politician. He stepped down at the beginning of March after two weeks of a bitter media battle. Subsequently his supporters took to the streets to get him reinstated. An unprecedented affair here in Germany.

What happened?

The German Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had been Germany’s shining star of politics for the previous two years. He was hailed by many as Germany’s only minister whose hionesty and integrity were unquestionable.

Independent, young, good looking, politically very talented. he lives in a castle with his beautiful blond wife, both independently wealthy. A unique positioning in German politics. The question was not if he became Prime Minister, the question was when.

Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg had developed a personal brand with a unique and sustainable positioning in territory uncharted for politicians for decades. Fair, open, amiable and aspirational.

Even a string of very awkward looking political moves including 180 degree turnaraounds, firing of high ranking personnel in the presence of the press and lacking the usual inquiries, could not tarnish his reputation. When Karl Theodor made mistakes the electorate was kind. Better any day than the right decision by a standard boring and mistrusted politician.

Then he got caught – big time.

A large proportion of his doctoral thesis turned out to be plagiarised. Whole sections copied almost word for word with no attribution in footnotes. A Summa Cum Laude thesis awarded by one of Germany’s best universities.

The minister denied wrongdoing. With self-assurance and just a hint of arrogance. Unfortunately, however, the evidence piled up against him and many Germans were aghast at the extent of the plagiarism. This time he was dropped. Not by his most ardent fans, not by the Chancellor – but by some of his colleagues, a large part of society and by a very vocal academic community.

Finally, he tried to reposition himself.   From unique super-minister to ‚your average, power-clinging, truth-bending politician. Just like the others.  But others often got away with it in the past. Not Karl Theodor. Despite all his efforts to downplay misconduct, despite all efforts by the press and the German Cabinet to support him, he had to go. His self-established core brand values were too strong to allow for this repositioning.

© Oliver Litten 2011

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

Network: Paul

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?  

I’m at London Metropolitan University, the university with the highest number of working-class students in the UK. I teach Communications and Media.

What makes your students want to study semiotics and what do they go on to do with what they learn?  Are there any patterns you see recurring in that respect?

Very few want to study semiotics, but very many want to study ‘meaning’, culture and techniques of human communication. Students go on to jobs in the media conceived in the broadest sense: production, sales, marketing, market research and related jobs, as well as more general work for charities and in the public sector. I think that most of them grasp the idea that there is very little chance in the world of occupations that anyone can avoid the imperative to read and analyse media products of one sort or another rather than just consuming them.

Are there any short courses for people who have encountered semiotics in the marketing or media world and want to learn more about theory and application?

No, there aren’t, really. I’m in the very early stages of thinking up some initiatives in that area because I think the changes that have taken place in semiotics in the last 20 years have not really spread as I might have liked in academia, let alone in the world of commerce and industry.

Some of our readers will have first encountered you through your 'graphic novel' style introduction to semiotics with Litza Jansz.  How did that come about, what's its history since publication, and how do you feel about it now?

Ha. That’s a good question to get me to open up about this field because, rather than being commissioned to do the book I had to (typically) approach the publishers to consider a book on semiotics for their series. Luckily, my approach was welcomed by Richard Appignanesi who originated the ‘comic book encyclopedia’ concept some decades earlier. Richard’s a visionary and as well as dreaming up the idea he edited the books and managed the series so that I was teamed with a great illustrator.

I’m happy with the book in that it nods at the whole of semiotics. At the time that I published it, I think a lot of people in Britain thought that semiotics was somehow synonymous with ‘structuralism’ and that meant mugging up on what Roland Barthes thought about Saussure, getting a grip on Lacan, going on to Derrida and then being able to write off semiotics by talking about poststructuralism and postmodernism (both of which latter were themselves pretty much written off by the time I was writing the book). That stuff is in the book and there was still a market for it; but I’m most pleased that there’s stuff about Peirce, Sebeok, Uexküll and Morris who were quite far from structuralism and Lotman (who was a bit closer). I’m unhappy with small parts of the book because I’ve made a couple of mistakes of detail; it’s not the mistakes per se, it’s the fact that they they simply perpetuate a view of how semiology was generally understood.

One sad fact about the history of that publication is that the whole comic book Beginners/Introducing series was launched by Richard with Writers and Readers publishing in a scenario which, I understand, went sour. Richard rescued the concept for re-launch with Icon in the early 1990s. However, he no longer works with what now exists of Icon and I have not seen any royalties on the book for many years.

You have described some applied commercial semioticians as people who actually do semiology not semiotics.  What do you mean by this distinction and why is it important?

A great deal of applied commercial semiotics is really sophisticated analysis of language and anthropological reading of contemporary society. My feeling is, though, that we could go further. More focus on issues to do with nonverbality, emotion and cognition could yield amazing results. International academic semiotics nowadays is, in the main, orientated towards a vision of semiosis embedded within its evolutionary heritage – that’s the wider picture. But within that picture is facilitated an approach to human communication which is not just fixated on what can and cannot be communicated in linguistic terms – recurring tropes, figures of speech, ideological representations and the like – but also what is beyond speech: emotional dispositions, feelings, responses to qualities, nonverbal interaction with other humans, the environment and other species, by way of body distance/proximity, gestures, movement and vocal nonverbal communication.

How do you think semiotics can help us address the big socioeconomic and political challenges that are emerging?  

Some people think semiotics can’t do that, but I think such a view is short-sighted. Semiotics is very political. In short, it always has the potential of a great bullshit detector – if you can see how a message has been constructed, then you have some grip on power. This is the kind of thing that Barthes and Eco and their generation recognized and it’s still largely true. But there are other points in semiotics’ relation to politics. It studies all signification, so nothing that signifies escapes politicization. Also, in its acute scepticism it exposes how some semiosis is repressed because of either certain interests or certain biological or social developments. Possibly most important is that contemporary semiotics is concerned with the continuity between humans and other species, drawing out differences and similarities, particularly with respect to agency, and sometimes implying the responsibility humans have as constituents of a variegated environment.

Tell us about the image you selected to accompany this interview.

It’s a picture of Clever Hans, the ‘intelligent’ horse whose arithmetic feats amazed the public in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. In fact, the horse was revealed not to be calculating or operating in language but, instead, responding to a number of nonverbal cues emitted by his ‘interlocutor’. These were perceived by the horse but unseen by spectators who were taken in by his performances.

Is there a soundbite you can invent (or plagiarise) from Confucius or anywhere else that sums up semiotics (or the importance of semiotics) today?

No, there isn’t. I’m an academic, so I can’t do soundbites very well. I could probably do something verbose and alienating if you fancied it.

Posted in Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

Russia Today

Monday, March 14th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

What does it all mean?

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2011

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

Tying the ribbons tight

Monday, February 28th, 2011

 

For brands which champion female authenticity and naturalness, Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film Black Swan would be the stuff of nightmares.

The film follows popular ballet mythology in showing the fetishistic self-mutilation that lies behind the perfection of classical dance. Dancers force their feet into their shoes, criss-crossing the ribbons and tying the knot tight. They continuously stitch and re-stitch their costumes. And they starve and scar themselves in mysterious and barely conscious rituals of self-harm.

All these processes – suturing, binding, scarring – apply beyond ballet to symbolise the wider ways people cut themselves to fit the pattern of their social and economic ‘roles’. Despite the recent vogue for celebrating whole and authentic expression, Black Swan shows that the very possibility of social identity is founded upon painful artifice and elaborate construction.

The film also turns on the radical split that characterises classical ballet in popular mythology. On stage, all is perfect – ‘so pretty, so pink’ to quote a line from the script. But behind the scenes all is carnage: poisonous rivalries, vomiting in the toilet, drugs, sexual abuse, and bleeding feet.

It’s this very narcissistic divide between light and dark, ‘white swan’ and ‘black swan’, that authenticity-focused brands like Dove try to heal. By challenging the desired on-stage perfection of feminine identity, they seek to tidy up the back-stage mess too.

But the film attacks this split in a completely different way. It collapses the whole distinction between ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’, fiction and reality, into a generalised hallucination – the darkness of the ‘black swan’ breaking out of the dressing room and taking over the entirety of the film’s theatrical and psychic architecture.

So, in the end, all that binding and sewing, cutting and starving, comes to nothing. In fact, it achieves the opposite effect, triggering the complete breakdown of the stage set of subjectivity, and destroying the boundaries that separate illusion from reality.

In a way, it’s another take on the familiar idea of the ‘return of the repressed’. When the bondage of culture reaches an intolerable extremity, all hell breaks loose. But the film also plays with the boundaries between nature and culture in a more unusual way – staging a deliberate and conscious exacerbation of cultural artifice in order to unleash an explosion of natural energy.

Mainstream Western philosophy has usually claimed that nature lies somewhere outside culture – often before, as its pre-existing foundation. But Black Swan suggests that maybe nature lies at culture’s outer limit – and that we have to go to an extreme point of artifice, ritual and restraint in order to find it. So, in the film, the dancer turns classical mimesis into shamanic metamorphosis, using extreme classical perfection to invoke nature – and to call in the black swan in its physical reality.

With this idea, the film joins more marginal philosophical traditions spanning East and West, Indian tantric practice and European sado-masochism offering two key examples.

A ballet film, the tantric tradition and de Sade may sound like an unlikely nexus. But all involve using elaborate ritual and artifice – culture at its most extreme – to break through to the other side.

© Louise Jolly 2011

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Tim

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

 

Where are you and what are you doing?

At my command console; the Panopticon, remotely directing global operations. I transmit codes via satellite network, which get picked up by semiotic agents. Really though, I'm tidying my desk. Its covered in everyone else's rubbish, as usual.

How did you first become interested in semiotics?

Every design course comes with a semiotics primer. Then I worked for Paul Smith as a designer after college. I was at the bottom of a chain of command, so I began exploring the landscape to see where the constant need for creative production stemmed from. I worked in brand consultancies and advertising agencies and travelled up the ladder of job titles to creative director, before jumping off. 

I was always a combination of creative, strategic and theory. My best work could never be printed in a portfolio. My best work is presented verbally. Visual things date quickly, relevance and potency get bleached. I was always looking for ways to work with ideas instead of shapes. Just recently I found my way into a semiotics lead environment.

Describe a working day as a visual culture analyst in commercial semiotics

My favourite day is when project teams work verbally on the raw ingredients of a project, moulding thoughts and insights into meaningful, well-rooted opportunities.

Has semiotics triggered any changes in how you as a practitioner think about or implement design?

No, but it galvanised my theory that design delivers a rigid solution down a pipeline. It locks down more than it opens up.

Semiotics offers multiple lines of enquiry. It reveals how different strings of cultural significance influence everything. Things are constantly shifting when you look at those influences at work.

The creative imperative I set out to find springs from this unstable cultural landscape. Change needs to be observed, understood, and put to work. Semiotics is the way in which we harness the evolving landscape.

Tell us about the image you've chosen…

Franklin Chang-Diaz. Franklin: a mix of feudal middle-English, Anglo-Norman and French-Germanic root syllables. Chang: Chinese, one of the most ancient hereditary surnames in the world. Diaz: Hebraic origins, thoroughly Hispanic.  

He’s a Costa Rican-American physicist, the first Hispanic NASA astronaut, and record holder for the most spaceflights.

Diverse ancestral threads, intertwined to create a unique man. Some might argue his ancestry has nothing to do with his achievements. Others might suggest he represents the perfect cocktail of cultural imperatives that enable a person to become the most frequently travelled astronaut in history.

Where can you see applied semiotics evolving in future?

We are already seeing semiotic thinking influencing social and political situations. I think there are pressing global concerns that require a radical new angle of approach. Semiotics could have some answers. We’ll need a semiotics superhero. Lets not forget Superman ‘wikileaked’ the KKK in the 1940's via a weekly radio show.

http://www.worldhistoryblog.com/2005/12/stetson-kennedy-and-superman-beat-kkk.html

Is it true you used to be the drummer for Black Sabbath?

No, but I once played electro-sax on a T'Pau single.

Posted in Art & Design, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

Network: Ajitesh

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

 

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

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

Brazil Mash-Up: France

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Luca Marchetti 2011

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

Network: Arlene

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Artist, toy maker and University of Tartu Semiotics Masters student Arlene Tucker talks to Semionaut

Where are you and what are you doing?

I moved to Helsinki at the beginning of this year.  It’s my last semester of school at Tartu University in Estonia so I decided to take classes as an exchange student at Aalto University School of Art and Design (Helsinki) in the New Media and Game Design and Production Department.

How did you first become interested in semiotics?

Almost ten years ago, I saw Umberto Eco’s book sitting on a stool at my friend’s place in Savannah, Georgia. The strong blocky red, white, and black cover of A Theory of Semiotics immediately caught my attention. Adam’s description of semiotics being about signs, symbols, and how we communicate glued to my membranes and ever since semiotics seems to circle itself back to me. It can’t run away from me and I can’t run away from myself.

How does it feel to be one of the 2 native English speakers on the first year of the English language MA in Semiotics at Tartu?

Almost embarrassing because everybody is so talented with how well they can express themselves in English, especially because it is their second or third or fourth tongue! I wish I could say that for myself.  Mostly, I learn so much from them.

How did you hear about the course and how are you adapting to academic life in Estonia?

Internet searches and a bit of luck led me to the call of applications for studies in Estonia. I knew I wanted to study semiotics and I knew that I wanted to again live in Europe so that combination Googled me to goodness. Actually, I think I reached out to Katre Väli, at the Semiotics Department in Tartu for information on the Masters one year prior to the program being ready. She asked me to wait and patience won me over. For my BFA I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design so being in a classical academic school such as Tartu University was a challenge in every way. Academic writing was totally new and making presentations without becoming a stuttering mess was a steep mountain climb, but you get used to it. Tartu is probably the polar opposite of New York City, but that extreme change was what I wanted. Now I like chopping wood for fun.

What do you personally find most interesting about the MA study and what area are you planning to specialise in?

I need to work with my hands so even though the MA program is very theoretical it gives a foundation for new thoughts to arise and space to create.   You learn about how the disciplines of semiotics spider leg to ecosemiotics, semiotics of art, zoosemiotics, etc. One of the first classes we started with was Biosemiotics. Even though I hadn’t taken biology class since I was probably thirteen years old the concept of Umwelt by Jakob von Uexküll made such an impression on me. It gave me a path for understanding perception in a natural way.   Every organism perceives things from their own respective cubbyhole with their own unique set of perceptor tools. Umwelt and Juri Lotman’s notion of semiosphere are the two main theories I think of when I start building an idea.

How can you see your studies in semiotics affecting your professional life from here on in
?
I feel like I’m a volcano about to bust from all the information I’ve just learned. As I see it- semiotics is applicable to anything because it’s about understanding perspective and being aware. I’ve been working for a children’s toy company for the past few years and enjoy most making things for people. I figured if I know how people communicate then I can better make things for them, which was the motivation for me to further studying semiotics. In short, semiotics suggests to us that we look at objects contextually and be mindful. As best I can, I’m trying to use semiotics to keep on with my art installation projects and toy innovations. One of them is called Translation is Dialogue, which runs along with the inevitable happenings of continuous transformations and interpretations. Really, the main point of the project was to create a space for people to do and not think so much. That was great to work on because there were so many contributors and in every medium possible. Below is a picture of one interpretation, which was a dance performance, titled Ajakaja created and performed by Kristino Rav, Alejandra Pineda Silva, and Raul Taremaa. (Kristino and Alejandra are my coursemates!) Now I’m working on an interactive sort-of-gamey installation, which will accompany the written and theoretical portion of my master thesis topic, Play Motivation from Zoosemiotics Perspective. I believe that understanding non-human play can be a source of inspiration for allowing us to develop playful situations in our human world. We are animals! I’m not sure what I’ll do or where I’ll be after I graduate, but I feel like I have a clearer approach to innovation, problem solving, and communicating through boundaries and borders. Whoa. Photo of Taremaa and Silva in Akaja taken by Anastasiia Sidielnik

To learn more about Translation is Dialogue…or, better yet, make a translation yourself please go to http://arlene.edicypages.com/translation-is-dialogue. The next showings will most likely be in Estonia and in New York City. To learn more about the English language Masters in Semiotics at the University of Tartu please go to  http://www.ut.ee/SOSE/studies/master.html Photo of Arlene taken by Alexander Dobrovodský.

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Europe, Semiotics | 1 Comment »

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 »

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 »

New Home New Language

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov  2010

 

Links
 

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

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

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

Sandy Claws

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Santa Claus? Sandy Claws. Ebullient tubster with heaving heart? Pie scoffing Bogeyman with sinister streak. Provider of pleasure? Pleasure seeker. Daft attire? Devil wear. Hilarious hat? Horny head.

Does Santa Claus exist? A quick web trawl proves indecisive. What's clear, though, is that there are more people fighting his corner than not. Particularly convincing is Henry Gee, who suggests Santa is (duh!) a Macroscopic Quantum Object: 'Following the logic of the two-slit experiment, it is perfectly possible for Santa to visit all the good children of the world simultaneously, provided that he does so unseen. If he is spotted, his wavefunction will collapse and he will be revealed as your Dad with a comedy beard after all.'

 

That solves that then. But what does it really mean to ask if Santa exists? In other words, who, or what, is Santa anyway?

There seem to be two answers. One the one hand, Santa is the same poorly camouflaged portly charmer he's always been. A figure uniquely appreciative of a child's capacity for wonder. An unfailing public servant who only indirectly costs the taxpayer any money. On the other hand, Santa is increasingly depicted as something of a liability.

The skateboarding brand Bench has an outpost at the bottom of my road. This Christmas, they're offering 25% off everything in store (unless you skateboard, and are endowed with what they call 'core muscles', I'd remain seated. This discount isn't for you). The odd, highly non-sequiturial thing is the marketing of this reduction as Santa's own 'transgressive secret'.

According to Bench, we can add Santa's name to the long list of celebrities whose careers have at one point or another veered off the sleigh-rails. Mugshots of a disgraced Mr Claus blanket the shop windows. Black eye, ripped stockings, missing hat — altogether battered. 'After too much sherry, don't rely on Santa to get your presents right', reads the website. As with clowns, and Mr Whippy van-drivers, one assumes that being Father Christmas demands regular and fairly copious bouts of liquid enhancement. Maintaining such eternal merriment must be hard work.

In fact, as an aside, the notion of a deliriously plastered Santa makes some empirical sense. Fly agaric — a highly toxic kind of mushroom with mind altering properties — is routinely imbibed by grazing Lapland reindeer. Because of their size, the fungus has no negative effect on the animals whatsoever. Although in its raw state fly agaric is potentially deadly to humans, as it passes through a reindeer's urinary system it is stripped of this fatal stripe, and emerges out the other end still retaining a great deal of its hallucinogenic punch. The piss can then be safely sampled, and fun-for-all kaleidoscopic mayhem is guaranteed to follow. The kind of kaleidoscopic mayhem, you could argue, likely to bring about visions of flying reindeer…

Aside over. An impromptu quantitative guess, based on nothing other than my own sense of statistical convenience for the purposes of this article, suggests there are at least as many bad Santas as there are good ones. A recent episode of Family Guy has Santa as an anaemic, exhausted wreck presiding over a factory crammed full of in-bred Elves. Outside, radioactive, sabre-toothed reindeer lie in wait for workers who can't hack the pace. 'Christmas', they all sing, 'is killing us'.

And it doesn't end with Santa himself. This year, why not get your hands on some Alien vs. Predator crochet danglers? Would a Death Star bauble look good hanging from a shaky limb of your tree? In 2009, consumers in the UK managed to propel Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' to the top of the Christmas singles chart. This year, a song called Liar Liar by Captain Ska, which holds a bejewelled middle finger up at the country's coalition political leadership, looks likely to find similar success. It used to be Teletubbies, X-Factor winners and, well, Love, Actually. What happened?

Sick of the sickly. Fed up with the familiar. We all got bored. Rapid commercialisation is also rabid — it spreads, neutralises, and renders redundant the energy that abounds at this time of year. That vivacity is being clawed back. It's the Christmas Spirit, but not as we know it. The human tendency towards disruption peaks when all around is soft and sparkling, shiny, precious and perfect. The antidote? Why not pour yourself a tall glass of reindeer piss? There'll be a sooty thump coming from the fireplace any day now. The source might not be quite what you had in mind. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

Utopia in Movement? Or Dystopia?

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

In 2010, dance achieved unprecedented status as a cultural signifier in the UK. TV ballroom dance show Strictly Come Dancing continued to transfix viewers, StreetDance 3D came out in cinemas, while US musical-based show Glee also won millions of fans.

This new status was fully consecrated when dance was chosen as the theme of retailer Marks and Spencer’s Christmas ad — the launch of which is a major cultural landmark in the British festive calendar.

This is no longer a self-conscious postmodern idea of subjectivity as performance. Instead, it’s a utopian fantasy of unity, dance providing images of togetherness that bypass the constantly misfiring agon of language.

London choreographer Yael Loewenstein says that “mass dance scenes in advertising often offer up the dream that we're on the brink of a massive paradigm shift — something positive, something powerful, something we do together, with this phase being our warm-up!”

Nonetheless, the M&S ad offers a vision of togetherness that’s as tightly choreographed as a drill, ending with the menacing line ‘Don’t put a foot wrong this Christmas’.

Suddenly the performance looks more like a military parade, showing that glitzy dance forms may be more than escapist fun for countries at war. Is it possible that the precision of the military drill is encoded into the very homogeneity of the chorus line?

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

Phone Box, RIP

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

One of British street artist Banksy's most notorious pieces shows a red phone box prone — dumped in a side street, bent as if it were the twisted corpse of a road accident victim hit at high speed. The phone box has a pick-axe through its dorsal area and its windows are smeared by its own blood and viscera. The awkward angle signifies the squalid nature of its death — as if it were running away from its assailant and halfway round a corner when it ran out of time.

In the context of the gradual privatizing of Britain this is poignant visual commentary indeed — one of several semiotic warning signs showing how far along this process is. The growth of non-spaces signify the warping of the public realm; phone boxes are a victim of this warping.

In his book Multimodality, author Gunther Kress writes about social semiotics: "It is the social which generates the 'cultural' and, in that the 'semiotic'." He goes on to write: "In advanced capitalist conditions, the market actively fosters social fragmentation as a means of maximizing the potential of niche markets… The subjectivity preferred by the market is that of 'consumer'." Like the post box and Post Office, red phone boxes used to be seen as signs of the public polity, as a public good. A call for 10p piece and the small queues you sometimes saw outside even sparked some public discourse. Alas, red phone boxes have taken a beating. First they lost their red coats and became ugly glass vitrines. Then, through the 1990s, as mobile phone penetration robbed them of their utility, they lost their clientele. It was good to talk (said Bob Hoskins in a famous British Telecom ad), but now it is good to text.

Phone boxes have become relics: crass and unsightly ciphers of the materialism of 2010-era Britain. They stand as pointless sentinels on the street ignored by all but the homeless and reckless. They are invariably empty, with the phone either disconnected or the receiver hanging  forlornly by its cord. Banner advertising (10th anniversary of Spearmint Rhino anybody?) wrapped on the outside often obscures what is inside. Invariably this will be the calling cards of the sex industry — a gallery of scopophilia. 'Busty brunettes', 'Oriental honeys' and other flotsam thrown up by the latest wave of sex trafficking direct their blandishments at the passerby. The smiles and burnished curves belie the emptiness of a transaction that costs much more than a 10p phone call. Inside they define the word insalubrious, usually smell of urine, and someone has scrawled a slanderous sexual accusations onto the phone console with a key.

Sordid, dilapidated, empty — but selling sex. The phone box is a signifier of the cheapening of life in Britain, hollowing out of public spaces, outsourcing of public services and the vacuum of a Tory cabinet bereft of ideas. It's a proxy for the triumph of consumerism over communication.

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

Office Christmas Party

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Thanks to ace cultural and semio-sleuth Stephen Seth (pardon the alliteration – a tongue-twisting test of Christmas sobriety) for the link to Adam Curtis's blog and this 1969 UK TV documentary about a London advertising agency's office Christmas party.  Try not to view this at work if anyone's watching. It's 30 minutes long.  

Go on then.

This is a fascinating piece of social history which from one angle shows our parents and grandparents involved in rituals and behaviours exactly and uncannily like what we do in UK today, but with slightly different signifiers – like an office functionary in charge of a big reel-to-reel tape recorder (which has to be switched off at 8 pm precisely) rather than a DJ.  But from another angle these scenes from a few decades ago are stranger and more defamiliarising than something we might watch in a documentary on some tribe in the New Guinea Highlands today. The past is another planet. The older Baby Boomers once lived on this one – many of them still do.

Cue The Office Party

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Europe, Experts & Agencies | No Comments »

Virginia Valentine

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Virginia Valentine, who died on 30th November 2010, was a much loved and respected member of the international community of commercial semioticians.

Ginny, as she was known to friends and colleagues, pioneered a distinctive application of commercial semiotics in UK in the late 1980s/early 90s. Inspired by a course on the analysis of folk tales at North London Polytechnic, where she completed an English degree – and by the ferment in critical theory at that time – Ginny put together a mix of techniques adapted from Barthes (cultural meanings and codes), Propp (structure of narrative) and Claude Levi-Strauss (reconciling cultural contradictions through myth) – the latter inspiring her ‘myth quadrants’, a hallmark of the Valentine approach to analysing brand communications in cultural context. Many of today’s best known commercial semioticians, inside UK and globally, learned or refined their skills under Ginny’s tutelage. The methodology she evolved at Semiotic Solutions became the basis of a commercial approach widely applied in the UK through the 1990s and now internationally.

More akin to European semiology than American (Peircean) semiotics, the approach owed its commercial success to Ginny Valentine’s great drive, analytical acumen and proactive response to three key historical and methodological opportunities:

• The rise of brand strategy and brand management in the 1990s, inspired initially by the development of a method for formally valuing brands – and, with this, a growing appreciation of the symbolic and cultural assets associated with brands and the importance to marketing of developing and nurturing these.

• The rise of the megabrand with the globalization of markets. By presenting semiotics as primarily cultural (as opposed to the psychological approach of qualitative research direct with consumers via depth interviews and focus groups) Ginny and Semiotic Solutions put in place a readily marketable set of tools in terms of application to cross-cultural projects. Thus against the drift of lowest-common-factor global advertising, semiotics offered a unique ability to formulate highest common factor international communication strategies while also contributing detailed recommendations on executional opportunities, tweaks and no-go areas in the specific local markets involved.

• Third was the introduction of something new not covered by academic semiological/semiotic thinking. This was the identification of ‘emergent codes’ in culture, advertising, packaging, retail design (any aspect of brand communication – later digital, word-of-mouth etc.) It was based on a notion adapted from British cultural critic Raymond Williams – that at any point a culture (or, in this new take on applied semiotics, any area of brand communications such as car advertising, for example) is characterised by a mix of Residual (dated, recalling the past), Dominant (today’s mainstream) and Emergent (dynamic, future-oriented) codes. By using this model to map out future trajectories of change the Semiotic Solutions approach allied itself with the trends analysis much loved by brand strategy and youth culture research (and later became a powerful tool for understanding rapid change in emerging markets), adding another ace to the hand of the new improved applied semiotics methodology.

Ask a research buyer or supplier to tell you something about semiotics and the chances, in 2010, are that one of the first things mentioned will be ‘emergent codes’. Some time someone may write a history of all this. In retrospect it's strange to have been present at the birth of a minor meme. At Semiotic Solutions we initially divided things into the ‘old paradigm’ versus the ‘new paradigm’ and used this opposition as a springboard for recommendations on where brands should be heading with their communications. But ‘paradigm’ is a risky word  – synonymous for some with jargon for its own sake, and undoubtedly tricky for a new methodology trying to persuade prospective buyers it was accessible and actionable. 

Here a short digression. Marketers are often scornful of jargon but not their own jargon – ‘actionability’, or capacity to be applied by an organization in practice, being a case in point. ‘Actionable’ is OK but the word ‘academic’, in contrast, connotes for marketing people as for football pundits ‘futile’ and ‘pointless’. Ginny whose initial career training was at UK's Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts (RADA) had no problem improvising beautifully between colloquial and technical registers, fashioning a discourse she played with verve and humour – one which colleagues and clients came to love as a kind of Ginny poetry.  At a meeting I attended last week John Cassidy (CEO of The Big Picture), unaware of her illness and the fact that it was entering its final stage, recalled spontaneously and affectionately a semiotic debrief for Ambrosia where Ginny started by talking the assembled client and agency group through what she called "the cosmic landscape of rice-puddingness".

Returning to paradigms, one day (in the process of migrating from being a Shakespeare academic to an actionable semiotician) I saw the Residual-Dominant-Emergent split in a book of essays called Political Shakespeare and suggested it at Semiotic Solutions as a tool we might use instead of old vs new paradigms. The rest is mini-meme history. Every origin myth requires a primal gang and none of this could have happened without first and supremely Ginny, her life- and business-partner Monty Alexander and our dear friend Greg Rowland, then the young master of the emergent code. Here the Supremes may indeed provide a good analogy – with Greg (Mary Wilson, moody intimations of depth) and myself (Cindy Birdsong, cute and vacuous – me, not Cindy) as the backing singers. Monty as a composite of Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones. And no dispute ever about who would be Diana Ross.

The Norfolk/Suffolk border in the East of England is covered in snow today (30th November 2010). In a garden near the village of Garboldisham there’s a memorial to Monty Alexander put up by Ginny after his death in 2008. It quotes some lines from Omar Khayam about the passing of time, appreciating the pleasures and the wonder of life. Ginny died at home at 4 a.m. this morning, peacefully, surrounded by the family she loved.  

It is fervently to be hoped – though Ginny as a deeply humanitarian materialist thinker, in the best philosophical sense, would have seriously doubted it (no gurufied luvvie New Age postmodern fantasist she) – that somewhere exists a cosmic landscape of ambrosial and sensorially transcendent aperitif-ness in which Ginny and Monty, rapt in each other's company, are enjoying again the first of the day.  With the sun just barely touching the yardarm.

© Malcolm Evans  2010

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Semiotics | 15 Comments »

Beauty Codes in India & the UK

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

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

 

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Final thoughts

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

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

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

His & Hers

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

A recent post over at Sociological Images, a social science blog that "encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry," has some excellent points to make about how male and female bodies are represented abstractly on public restroom doors in various countries…

Almost universally, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts; except in Iran, where men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs. Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength. And so forth. Click on the "full story" link for many eye-opening examples.

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

The Abductive Method

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I've enjoyed watching the first three episodes of BBC's Sherlock (aired this fall in the US; starring Benedict Cumberbatch and the brilliant Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson), particularly because doing so prompted me to revisit the notes I took, then put aside, when reading The Sign of Three (Indiana University, 1983), a collection of essays about Arthur Conan Doyle's character and the semiotician C.S. Peirce — or more precisely, Peirce's theory of a little-understood mode of reasoning he named "abduction."

Deduction, according to Peirce, proceeds from rule/guess (e.g., "All the beans from this bag are white") to case ("These beans are from this bag") to result/observation ("These beans are white"), whereas induction proceeds rather more tediously — from case to result to rule. I say "tediously" because a guess based upon both case and result/observation is a safe, habitual guess; detectives, who form hypotheses and then test them against the case (evidence), are more romantic figures. However, the authors included in the book mentioned above — including Thomas A. Sebeok, Marcello Truzzi, Carlo Ginzburg, Jaakko Hintikka, and Umberto Eco — pooh-pooh Holmes' vaunted powers of deduction. Though Doyle's stories do a terrific job explaining how deduction ought to work, Holmes' skill at solving crimes is due, they claim, to a brilliant abductive ability — i.e., the ability to proceed, swiftly and with unerring accuracy, from rule/guess to result/observation to case.

Like the deductive reasoner, the abductive reasoner begins with a rule/guess: e.g., "All the beans from this bag are white." By comparing a result/observation ("These beans are white") against the rule, though, the abductive reasoner doesn't seek to test the validity of her hypothesis, but instead to detect any deviations from it. Which shouldn't exist!

Abduction is something that all of us do, claims Peirce; in fact, it's a hard-wired survival mechanism. However, he and Sebeok, et al., agree that some of us are particularly adept at abductive reasoning. Some of us see and remember more, so we're superior at formulating rules/guesses; and then, when we compare a result/observation against one of our rules/guesses, we do so ultra-efficiently — in an almost holographic fashion. Those of us thus skilled at detecting deviations from law-like hypotheses are therefore able to see the reason why "like a flash," claims Peirce. What's more, the act of abduction is in such cases accompanied by a "peculiar musical emotion," a thrill.

Sounds like Sherlock Holmes — his monographs on cigarette butts or corpses' bruises, his lightning-fast insights, even his boredom and mood swings. The new BBC adaptation dramatizes Holmes' holographic ability to compare a result/observation against one of his rules/guesses by causing words, patterns, and symbols to hover in the air before his face [shown above]. He's viewing the evidence not empirically, we're given to understand, but from the perspective of his own constructed universe: if Holmes' hunches are always correct, it's only because this is fiction.

Though he insists that his method is a strictly deductive one, at various points in the Holmes canon, Conan Doyle's detective advocates the use of "imagination," "intuition," and "speculation." This explains why his so-called deductions so often lead Holmes to make revelations which appear almost magical; and this is why Holmes despairs of colorless, boring cases. He's an obsessive, quasi-apophenic pattern-maker. When he finds a flaw in the pattern, he's thrilled; when he doesn't, he's bored. He's an obsessive-compulsive overjoyed and outraged to find reality out of order.

Holmes sounds, in this analysis, like a semionaut — i.e., a prodigy able to draw expertly and productively upon phenomenological knowledge when "reading" various signs. Yes, Holmes is a semionaut. However, I'm not always impressed with the immutable laws of nature and society of which Holmes has convinced himself. Though he says "I make a point of never having any prejudices" ("The Reigate Puzzle"), not a few of Holmes' rules — about the habits of women, say, or foreigners — sound, to the contemporary reader, like prejudices. In the third episode of Sherlock, when Cumberbatch takes one look at a woman's boyfriend and says, simply, "Gay" — same thing, right?

I'm not saying that Holmes is merely a brilliant bigot, like (say) G.K. Chesterton's fun detective character, Father Brown, who solves crimes thanks to his hilarious Catholic prejudices against atheists, legalists, and Presbyterians. But he's uncannily similar to a brilliant bigot. It's mysterious!

The game is afoot.

Posted in Americas, Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics | 10 Comments »

The Number of the Beast

Monday, November 29th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sociability of Colour

Friday, November 26th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

East and West in Wonderland

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

It’s 2010, and Queen Victoria’s empire is still going strong. At least in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. Here we have Alice falling down the rabbit hole in order to resolve a few psychological issues and find herself, before returning to the real world to set sail for China and open up some new trade routes.

So, while it only gets the briefest mention in the plot, the East is the film’s end-point and possibly its hidden meaning too. Here, the story becomes a personal-development narrative, all about strengthening its heroine for her colonial mission. Transposing this version back into the late 19th century would make Alice a Girl Guide, undertaking character-building missions aimed at forging resolute servants of Empire.

The film shows the extent to which the themes of identity and empire-building go together. Alice’s identity quest is all about working out whether she’s the ‘right Alice’ — the girl whose mission it is to fight the enemy and establish the rule of good.

Good, evil; true, false; even red and white — the film is propelled forward by pure binary logic, pitting self against other, heroes against villains, and of course West against East too.

It’s strange that this most violent and oppositional of logics should be instated at the heart of one of 19th-century England’s most deconstructive stories.  After all, when Alice meets the Caterpillar, and confronts his scornful question ‘Who are you?’, it’s to undergo the unravelling of identity — to keep getting it ‘wrong’ without any hope of getting it ‘right’ — not to start out on a quest for her true self.

In 1966, Jonathan Miller adapted Alice in Wonderland for the BBC in a version fully open to this deconstructiveness. No binary opposites or identity quests here; no colonial missions or Manichean showdowns. Instead, we have Ravi Shankar’s sitar accompanying Alice as she wanders from one mystifying experience to the next — East and West together bending sound and logic as they venture outside the conceptual structures of opposition, violence and empire.

Of course, it’s possible to read the use of the sitar in this film as a signifier of exotica, or 1960s psychedelia — keeping in place a colonial idea of the East as the West’s fantasy playground. But, interestingly, Jonathan Miller wanted to use the instrument because it was the best way to get the sound he was looking for: the buzzing of insects on an English summer’s day. What better deconstruction of the East-West opposition than that: the sitar as the very sound of the English pastoral?

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

Whiskey & Wabi-Sabi

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

One of the by-products of the so called 'wa boom' in Japan is a climate that is amenable to a Nipponification of products that would previously have been considered prototypically Western. Even coffee, once ham-fistedly advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger — is being given a Japanese twist. Coffee drinking has been considered a Western affectation since the 1920s Taisho era in Japan when it was the preserve of flapper girls sipping from Art Deco crockery. A more subtle Japanese appreciation is taking over from the tired European epicurean codes and bringing coffee closer to tea in tonality.

Now whisky is the beverage to undergo a ‘wa’ makeover. An FT article last month on Japanese whiskies trumpeted the recent triumph of Japanese brands in global tasting competitions. What most piqued my interest as a semiotician — beyond perfunctory references to the Bill Murray scene in Lost in Translation — is the bottle design of Japanese whiskies. Whiskey in Japan is shedding its regalia and going native. I was most taken by the Suntory Hibiki bottle (the name means resonance which is quite clever for a whiskey as it references not only the echoing through the distillation process, the empathy of conversations during the consumption moment, but also the many flavours that resonate like notes on the palate). The semiotics of the label on pack are masterfully simple and seem more at home on a sake bottle than on whiskey.

The centerpiece of the bottle is a worn patch of Japanese parchment typically used for calligraphy or that you might find hanging up in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese home. Even though flecked with gold leaf (typically used in decorative poetic letters or on lacquerware boxes) the patch is humble — apparently roughly excised from a roll with the fluff and miniscule filaments of the paper visible on the border.

The deeply weathered and threadbare-looking ochre hue of the paper give an impression of craft but also of muted temperance to the packaging. The effect of the parchment and of slightly scratchy calligraphy (done in informal sosho or ‘grass’ script which is also making a comeback in Japan) communicates a meekness that countervails the elegant squatness of the beveled decanter.

The patch on the bottle could be said to tap into codes of wabi-sabi. The book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) sets out the principles of this design style as including the following: soft vague edges, ostensible crudity, a tolerance of ambiguity, and acceptance of the inevitable. Hibiki may be just a little too immaculate for this. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that in a Japan where the so-called Golden Recession has engendered a real crisis in masculinity and where geopolitical power shifts have triggered a period of introspection, Japanese whiskey should reflect this change with Suntory, one of the most design-literate companies (along with Shiseido, an FMCG company all graphic designers in Japan want to work for), at the vanguard.

Tags: ,
Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Semiotics | No Comments »

Collective Expressions

Monday, November 15th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globish and English

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

 

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

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

Check Mate

Friday, November 5th, 2010

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

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

And yet, that seems to be the point. It all fits rather nicely. For the Diesel philosophy to hold any ground at all, the campaign ethos needs to be as consistently idiotic as the message it’s promoting. Promote stupidity and in the midst of climatic and economic crisis? It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s perfect.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just the recklessness of the Diesel mentality that grinds on people. We’re being asked to admire the imprudent, to throw caution and our knickers (oo-eer) to the wind. Ads focus on reminding us of the appeal of daftness. But they steer clear of detailing the monotony of intelligence on which this endorsement relies. The elephant in the room arrives in the shape of a colossal cranium. And here’s where G-Star RAW come in.

On first appearances, G-Star’s recent output doesn’t seem anything special. Their greyscale image of a moody teenager can be routinely encountered on almost any London Underground platform. Upright he stands, hands behind back, delivering a seething screwface at anyone who catches his eye. To some, however (especially Norwegians, towards whom I’ve lately been feeling an inexplicable fondness), this figure will be instantly recognizable. It’s Magnus Carlsen, currently the world chess number two, officially declared a Grandmaster aged just thirteen.

He looks like he might have landed his first knockout blow around that time too. Carlsen’s face is wound into a tight ball of indignation. He looks about to crack. Smart — this coding is suggesting — can also be savage. This is an intelligence that spills into ire. What’s more it’s apolitical, undirected. G-Star have transposed the mindless irreverence of Diesel’s idiots and planted it on the face of one of the world’s most fascinating young prodigies.

Carlsen doesn’t clearly sit on the nerd table. Broaches, horn-rims and dynamite quiffs run up against a bruiser who looks like he eats polka-dot socks for breakfast. If Diesel want us to give the thumbs down to a certain version of nerdiness, they had better check the nerds haven’t got there first. Currently, they are relying on a quickly dating understanding of braininess to promote their own personal brand of horseplay. It’s this that makes the campaign feel so tired — not the counterintuitive radicalism that supposedly lies at its core.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Emergence, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation | 1 Comment »

Skin Beyond the Sign

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

RoC’s new ‘Sublime Energy’ face cream introduces an electrical current into the skin, heightening inter-cellular communication, which is said to have a rejuvenating effect. With ‘communication’ the core symbolic value here, the line clearly draws juice from social networking codes. It makes communication a value in and of itself, with what’s being communicated (the message), secondary to the fact that communication is happening at all.

In its pack design, Sublime Energy represents itself as a communications ‘device’: like the devices that enable social networking, its creams sit on a base that looks very much like a charger. And its language constantly draws on social networking themes. For instance, the product is said to harness the power of the cellular ‘network’, enabling cells to ‘signal’ to each other.

In a sense, this is a new take on an already-powerful symbolic code: skin as a medium of communication. Whether through blushing, paling, breaking out in spots, or wrinkling, skin is a ‘text’ that can be read by any dermatologically-inclined semiotician. ‘Pro-age’ discourse, for instance, often talks about how wrinkles ‘tell stories’ and how you can ‘read’ someone’s life experience in their face.

But the book of skin is, strictly speaking, about expression rather than communication. In other words, it expresses what’s inside the person: emotions, thoughts, experiences and so on. For Sublime Energy, there’s no ‘inside’ or ‘content’ — just a single plane of communicational flow.

In this post-humanist model of skin as communication, Sublime Energy also moves beyond the previous difficulties and disjunctions involved in the idea of ‘skin as sign’. Along with gesture, skin is the prime example of a hysterical mechanism: displacing and betraying what can’t be said in language. Blushing and paling are perhaps the best-known examples — but skin break-outs of all kinds can be seen as hysterical forms of expression.

As one of the body’s most treacherous and hysterical mediators, skin’s relationship with the communication has previously been about the broken links in the chain, the unsaid, the blocks and repressions — rather than the seamless flow promised by Sublime Energy. It’s arguable that the more repressive a cultural system, the more it values the seeping out of the unsayable, as in the subtle eroticising of female blushing in 19th-century England.

Sublime Energy promises to lift skin out of its hysterical history, freeing up its channels of communication so that there are no more repressions, blockages and ‘unsaids’. In this post-human, post-hysterical manifestation, skin becomes a clear and purified channel of free-flowing communication, valued for its operational perfection rather than for its ability to act as one of the body’s more unpredictable and uncontrollable forms of language.

Tags: ,
Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Angles and Bangles

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Sometimes, two wholly oppositional codes appear on the end of a semiotician’s fork at the same time, leaving the practice of coding culture neither figuratively nor literally straightforward. Indeed, one of the challenges facing commercial semiotics in a post-structuralist cultural landscape is to account for memetic intermingling, unholy copulations. I want to look at one such instance here.

The clothing, furniture and stationary shop MUJI is a fine exponent (though hardly an original architect) of a coding species that has become an alpha staple of the UK retail market over the past three years or so. Specialising in the streamlined production of minimally packaged, logoless consumer goods, the MUJI shop floor is a place of almost yogic quietude. Admittedly, there’s usually someone going berserk at the doodle-pad, but overall the place is calm and curative. Its unforced tidiness appeals to the Obsessive Compulsive in us all.

I’ll paint you a picture. In the MUJI Universe, nobody has a name exceeding one syllable in length. In fact, people answer to a single, lower case letter. Discussion is kept to an absolute minimum (banter is baggage, after all). It’s a place of flawless complexions and soothing smiles. Everybody’s outfit looks like it began life as an envelope, and will one day return to that blissful, postal state. There isn’t an Apple laptop in sight (No Logo's Allowed), but the whole experience is a bit like being sucked into an iPad down a black hole app. In the store itself, ask for help and it arrives in three neat steps: the employee calmly acknowledges the customer’s predicament, gently whispers the word “follow," then glides across the shop floor to The Point Of Desired Object. I exaggerate. But only a little.

Now, contrast this with the ramshackle appeal of a hipster café. Combination, miscellany and baroque-mockery is the order of the day. No room for a right angle. In my own local, every surface has an object nailed to it (many are oil paintings — think Robert Duncanson with a Dalek twist). There’s a wall-mounted ginger cat, a manikin sans abdomen that props up the bar, and a garrulous clientele with haircuts that would give M.C. Escher a migraine. (Incidentally, you can detect palpable and quite toxic opposition to this kind of lifestyle coding emerging in the UK. There’s nothing particularly idiosyncratic about wearing lime green Wayfarers — so the thinking goes — and nothing clever about orthodontic neglect). The point here, though, is that these two codes emerged in unison. Traditionally, commercial semiotics has tended to order and portion. It likes to sit on the stationer’s side of the divide. Do we need to adapt our methodologies to map an evolving cultural cloth?

The binary detailed here feels particularly extreme. In fact, it seems more than ever to support the argument for a neat and tidy breakdown. But then there’s always that guy at the doodle pad, losing his head while all about him are keeping theirs. And the girl in the hipster café draws Lego antlers in a plain rectangular notebook that looks awfully familiar.

Semiotic analysts need to remain open to the possibility of cultural cross-pollination, even in instances where it seems least likely.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Package Peacockery

Monday, October 18th, 2010

As luxury scrambles to give itself an alibi, either through 'graceful deprivation’ codes, or through patronizing art foundations, the cognac category is fighting a rearguard action. The implacable stoutness of the cognac bottle's base and the haughty imperiousness of its stem seem somewhat anachronistic. Yet whilst malt whiskey in the past few years in the UK has sedulously communicated on connoisseurship and cogitation, cognac has clung stubbornly to the notion of opulence. Marketing to peacock-like young men eager to advertise their successfulness, it has also produced some of the most cringeful advertising of the last few years, including a turkey (below) from brand leader Courvoisier.

A tag line reads “Look but don't touch. Actually don’t even look” which has to be one of the most obnoxious lines in the history of advertising. They use a peacock feather in the background but suffice it to say that the effusive bottle design does not require embellishment. Do not let Judith Williamson loose on this one.

What version of male prowess can we read into cognac bottles?

Originally created in the 1700s, cognac bottles were always slightly more squat than wine but this inverted goblet-like silhouette is of more recent coinage. As the tipple of French nobility, cognac bottle design continues to encoded the sloth, rotundity and opulence of baroque court life even as the industry attempts to lighten the category image to make it more unisex. Promotional drives and cocktail mixology have been thwarted by unmanoeuvrable bottles

Like the heavy doors or the muscular ripples on the fuselage of a Bentley or Maybach, this sculptural display signifies imperiousness  and a prowess that sweeps all before it. More ruggedness in design is everywhere (baby buggies etc), but arguably, cognac bottles are better characterized as corpulent – they splurge distended bellies.

The mythology of each brand is inscribed into the bottle shape. This is a case of mythology through glass sculpture. Remy Martin favour the notion of drapery and folds to signify opulence, Courvoisier the splayed fluting of the neo-classical architectural structure that was the style favoured by Napoleon, a most infamous patron. Hennessy prefer to plump for the jowled heaviness of the absolute monarchy. (There was something very apt about Kanye West wearing black, decked out in sun shades and swigging from a bottle of Hennessy in the wings before storming on stage to tell Taylor Swift that he was about “to let her finish” at the MTV music awards last year.) Martell use the triumphal arch as the signifier of glorious wealth. It can be said that there is an edifice complex in miniature at work.

But this seems to change as you go up beyond the XO tier into the super premium category where decanters become delicate artefacts the price tags reach £2,000 and brands segue into the winsomeness of perfume codes. Remy Martin Louis XIII looks to belong in Marie Antoinette’s boudoir not in a man’s drinks cabinet. What’s going on?

There is something incongruous in the slightly effete intricacy in these bottles. On the one hand it is hard to see them working in the context of a mahogany walled room amidst macho cigar smoke. On the other hand, luxury is increasingly hybridizing with art and many of the expensive bottles look more like ice sculptures than glass.

Certainly brands that seems to celebrate gout ridden sovereigns do appear incongruous in the context of luxury which is becoming less cloying, self satisfied ad given to facilitating experiences (Hermés).

The pudgy, soft profile conveyed in these bottles is certainly out of step with the austere times. Marc Jacobs’ designers favoured a flat stomach with rippling abdominals. His new perfume bottle for Bang is the antithesis of the cognac paunch. Does this signify the need for men to be lean mean and roll with recession packed punches?

What does it say about the ferment of cultural codes when perfume packaging is getting a six pack and out muscling heavy liquor? I’d say it is time to uncork your best cognac and toast the semiotician.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | No 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 »

If the red shoes fit…

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Empowerment is an essential sign of women’s emotional well-being in British culture today. TV makeover shows regularly portray women transforming their wardrobes, and themselves, from dowdy and self-doubting (invisible) to confident and empowered (bright and visible). Red shoes occupy a special place at the intersection of empowerment and visibility. Not only are they a bold and daring fashion statement — they take us into the symbolic domain of the fairy tale, a genre steeped in the empowerment theme.

Click here to view Clairol "Red Shoes" TV spot

In Clairol’s ‘Red Shoes’ ad, a timid heroine dreams of empowerment — or in fairy-tale language, becoming the princess that she truly is. Thanks to her magical helper, the brand itself, she becomes brave enough to ‘steal’ her new power (symbolised by the red shoes) from under the nose of the wicked witch (the snooty sales attendant).

Bravery, disguise, theft and flight, all the fairy-tale themes are there. So is the most important fairy-tale motif of all: the triumph of mobility and daring over determinism and fate (the cruel gaze of the sales attendant), the powerless outwitting and outpacing the powerful.

But going back to one of the milestones in the development of the red shoes symbol, we find a different story. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘The Red Shoes’ uses the symbol not to empower the heroine Karen, but to push her back into the fate she’s desperate to escape (that of the poor, invisible village girl). Karen’s red shoes end up grafting themselves on to her feet and carrying her away in a dance she can’t stop or control.

It’s her own desire that turns around on her, overwhelming her will and forcing her into a parody of the mobility she wants so much. The red shoes here go into symbolic reverse: from a source of power, they become an instrument of alienation and compulsion. Magical bringers of empowerment, wilful destroyers of autonomy — red shoes fulfil both these roles in Andersen’s story.

Returning to the symbolism of shoes today, we see the same undecidability at work.

Shoes in general are described both in the language of empowerment and aspiration, and in that of alienation, fetishism and pathology. Women are often seen as being ‘out of control’ when it comes to shoes: prey to addiction, compulsion and obsession. But at the same time, their shoes seem to offer magical lines of flight out of all kinds of traps and dead ends.

And because they come with an extra symbolic helping of magic both helpful and dangerous, red shoes in particular walk the line between aspiration and alienation, mobility and repetition, liberation and compulsion.

RELATED LINKS

Red Shoes Coaching

Red Shoes Presenting

Red Shoes PR (whose employees are obligated to wear red shoes)

Click here for a PDF essay in which Kate Bush tries and fails to expel the alienation from her red shoes.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Semiotic Thinking Group

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Many Semionaut authors and readers are also members of the Semiotic Thinking Group on the professional network LinkedIn. For people interested in commercial applications of semiotics this group is a useful window into the world of existing commercial practitioners. Here agencies and individual analysts may look for potential collaborators in other markets, request feedback on specific client questions, look for advice on how to frame a semiotic research project etc.  Though essentially business oriented, the focus of the group is not exclusively commercial. There are also discussions here on broader issues around semiotic analysis and theory. 

LinkedIn

For anyone not already on LinkedIn here are the steps to take to sign up (it's free!) and access the discussions of the Semiotic Thinking Group.  If you are aIready a member just follow step 2.

1. Register for LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/reg/join?trk=hb_join 
There is no need to complete a full profile to go to step 2 below. Just complete the essential sections. You will then be sent your login details. 
 
2. When logged in click on the Groups tab top of the banner and enter in Semiotic Thinking Group into the search box on the right entitled Groups.Then click on the yellow Join Group tab at top left and Join Group" and founder/manager Chris Arning will receive your request to join and email you.

For a video on LinkedIn: 
http://press.linkedin.com/about

Thanks to Chris Arning for this guidance. 

Malcolm Evans                                                 October 2010

Posted in Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global Vectors, Network, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Grafitti and the Grapheme

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Amble through Shoreditch or down Old Street in east London and you’d be hard-pressed not to run into one of Ben ‘EINE’ Flynn’s colourfully decorated shop-shutters. Since 2006 Flynn has been spray-painting solitary, emboldened, harlequin capitals across the rippling steel frontage of any jewellers or hardware store that will grant him permission. Middlesex Street now exhibits the entire (English) alphabet in one long back-to-back shop-front circuit. As the day’s trade winds to a close, the place starts to take on the surreally genial atmosphere of a primary school classroom. Somewhere along the line, the monadic alphabetic character has re-emerged as a significant cultural signifier.

alphabet

The 2007 paperback edition of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections features a striking piece of cover art. The silhouetted hull of a cruise ship prowls towards us. A powderblue sunset sinks low in the background. You can perceive a lone figure standing at the deck’s edge. He could be admiring the view. He could well be about to jump. Title, author and statutory critical praise are printed in vivid whites and reds inside an oily black bubble of smoke gushing from the ship’s chimney. Even by industry standards (which are generally high), it’s a tight piece of production. 

Why, then, have the publishers of the 2010 edition (released in anticipation of Franzen’s new novel Freedom) done away with it altogether? What we get instead bears a conspicuous resemblance to one of EINE’s east London shutter works. A huge purple ‘C’ all but blots out the smoky white backdrop. A thumbnail image on the back cover suggests Freedom is set to reproduce this. We see a block black ‘F’, the title stomping in white capitals down the character’s backbone. The aesthete might think this retrogressive. And yet it feels right.

The study of the relationship between the ‘part’ and the ‘whole’ (or meronymic relations) has well-trodden roots in Euclidian geometry, Aristotle’s urban organicism and Nietzsche’s political thought. Aristotle, for example, understood the relationship between the individual and the city as a part-whole interaction. For him, the city was a natural organism. The relationship between the component parts (the Grecian subject) and the urban entirety was essentially the same as that which holds between the parts of a natural organism and the organism itself. 

Returning to the present, EINE’s experiment in meronymy makes a clear and certain sense in the context of London’s own endless splicing and congealment. Likewise, Franzen’s novels deal with that other restless organism: the all-American family. An emergent interest in the grapheme – the boldly isolated character – feasibly fits into an emergent cultural exploration around this question of parts and wholes. J.S. Mill – another philosopher who has written on this tangled relationship – outlined the idea of ‘emergence’: complex part-whole systems always retain the potential to generate fresh structures. In a typographic context such as this, that might mean new alphabets, new characters, and new ways of communicating through writing.  

© Gareth Lewis 2010 

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Making Sense, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

It Chooses You

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Why Baudrillard would have liked the new campaign for the Peugeot RCZ: ‘It chooses you’. 

The new ads for the Peugeot RCZ reverse the usual relationship between consumer and product, showing the car choosing the driver rather than the other way around.

For Baudrillard, this is how things are. Our power to choose is an illusion: we’re just the playthings of the objective world. Irony belongs not to us but to the objects around us, which pretend to be mute and passive, but secretly know they have all the power.

And because objects have all the power, we’re wasting our time thinking we can stand outside them and uncover their meaning through critical analysis. The only radical way to find their truth is to submit to them, losing ourselves in their logic and obeying their every whim.

By ‘advertising themselves’ to the Peugeot RCZ and begging it to choose them, drivers are adopting what Baudrillard called a ‘fatal strategy’: an attitude of submission to the objective world.

He saw fatal strategies at work in many cultural phenomena: obesity and long-distance running, to name but two. Both represent the end of the subject’s critical, negating power – its ability to choose, stop, and say no.

These forms of hyper-passivity are far from futile or meaningless. For Baudrillard, only by obeying the world will we find out what it is – not by critiquing from a distance.  In a way he’s saying we should take the world literally: obey every ad, follow every instruction, say yes to everything, and then we may start to understand.

© Louise Jolly 2010

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | 3 Comments »

Jungle Adventure

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

 

When I was a child I wanted to marry God. As a young woman, to be a nun and a missionary, fighting misery. I went to the jungle. There in the tropical rainforest together with progressive priests, interpreted God’s word. With a mixture of catholic fervor and political naivety we learned more than we could teach. 

Some years after, I was enlightened once more. This happened on the Aztecs’ land, at university in Mexico. I was searching for a methodology that could explain why some advertisements caught my attention immediately and why some others passed by completely unnoticed. I found the answers in semiotics.

The zigzag of my life brought me to Sweden. I changed sunny México for the Swedish darkness. My world was turned around in all senses, but a girl’s dream to do something meaningful still followed me.

The message here was of course different. It was about semiotics. Being inspired by the British pioneers, I decided to follow my vocation. To introduce semiotics to market research, I spread the word through seminars.

I clearly remember my first lecture. I wanted to appear credible, so I tried to adapt myself to Swedish cultural codes. There I was, a Colombian semiotician trying hard not to gesticulate, talking in a measured way and looking calm. Not very successful – boring in fact. I decided instead to be myself and keep on going.  

I managed to introduce semiotics despite my Latin-ness (or maybe thanks to that) and the high suspicion that the methodology aroused. It was perceived to be subjective, not being based on talking to consumers. I tested different ways to break through for a period of time until, finally, the opportunity came and I took it.

An ordinary day.  A colleague who was searching for ways to interpret collages from focus groups asked me if I could see further and deeper than her own interpretations. The answer was affirmative, and the META-COLLAGE WAS BORN. Today it is one of the most popular terms connected with semiotics in Swedish market research, for better or worse.

The consumer’s pictures were transformed into visual stories. I saw an endless source of information within the images. A visual chaos lying there, waiting to take form through strong story-telling. The credibility problem was solved. The clients believed in what they saw.  The pictures were of course, chosen by consumers. They represented the emotional values of the brand, not only with words but with concepts, symbols and images. Adjustments were made on the journey. An additional collage was needed: the one that represented the optimal brand, to capture the relevant emergent tendencies.  

In some ways I’m back on the jungle, trying to convert the heathens of research.  I have already managed to saved some, but the mission is not complete yet. I carry on saying that even without the consumer’s answers a semiotician can really see beyond – into the territory of culture. I already see the signs, that the day is coming …

© Martha Arango 2010

Posted in Americas, Clients & Brands, Europe, Experts & Agencies, Global Vectors, Semiotics, Sequencing, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Whose line is it?

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

One would have thought that plagiarism is a serious business.   Certainly in literature.   This spring (2010) we learn from the German press, the leading publisher Ullstein and the young female author of the book Axolotl Roadkill, that plagiarism may actually be an important emerging code.  Especially in literature.

Whose line is it anyway

In this novel a 16-year old aspiring author, Helene Hegemann, writes about drugs & sex like a 38-year old nightlife junky and is instantly proclaimed the new literary star of Germany.  Bestseller listing follows.   Unfortunately, it turns out that most of her book is copied, often word for word, from many people, but most of it from the blogger Airens.  No credits, no footnote references, unequivocally plagiarised.

This sort of thing (apparent literary fraud) used to mean the end of the road. But not for everybody. Not for Tony Blair in the notorious ’Dodgy Dossier’ on Weapons of Mass Destruction, for example, used in UK to persuade Parliament to support the invasion of Iraq. And now not for Helene Hegemann.

Helene Hegemann, reportedly, is not only unrepentant but apparently proud.   She tells us we live in a word-of-mouth society where any content is everybody’s content. Therefore, content is about proliferation of information and re-shuffling of ideas, not about authorship or ownership.

Without diving into any unnecessary discussion around the ’art of intellectual referencing’ – either old (Shakespeare from numerous sources, Goethe copying Shakespeare, the phenomenon termed in German Weltmitschriften’, in English ’minutes of the world’) or more recent (music & song sampling, postmodern quotation as stock-in-trade of film, theatre and ad direction) –  the fact appears to remain: Helene Hegemann copied large chunks of prose from an internet author and sold that content at a premium.

How does she get away with this?

• The book industry wants to sell books – free content on the internet does not help that endeavour (unless it can be repackaged and sold at a price).

• The Über-author is a learned concept in mainstream popular culture since ist inception with scratching in the 1980s.

• It’s one of the dilemmas of the web itself, where thoughtlessness is more than tolerated, sometimes celebrated – and perceived worthlessness can be the result.

Bottom line: Axolotl Roadkill looks like a case of daylight robbery. But then Helene Hegemann is not legal age, yet. So a moral license for pupils and students to download their school assignments from online sources? Or symptomatic of much larger economic issues around counterfeiting, piracy and intellectual property guaranteed to keep the lawyers busy, perplexing the world of information commerce and the new creative classes for at least a few years yet?

© Oliver Litten 2010

Posted in Culture, Europe, Making Sense, Technology | No Comments »

The Screen Experience

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Screens are changing many aspects of human existence. They have created and redefined new forms of interaction, modifying everyday cultural practices and transforming spaces. I am interested in exploring in the light of a phenomenological thinking the screen experience. The screen usable as a mode of embodiment, considering aspects such as space-time and presence–absence.

Our body is considered to be under continuous adaptation by objects. Objects and body are equal participants in the making of meaning and under the actual circumstances; the mobile screens are not the exception. Nowadays, it is through our screens (especially with iPhones and iPads) where we are living “the invisible life, the invisible community, the invisible other, and the invisible culture” where we elaborate a phenomenology of the other world. It is on the screen where “I acknowledge an ‘I can’ or ‘I do’ which allows my relationship with the world and which is expressed in routine practices, actions, and bodily habits. The body is my means of entering into relation with the screen, is my embodied perception that reaches a reality beyond the reversibility of the screen. It is my body’s capacity to be both living and sensible.

Being on the Screen

The screen has become an intimate and perceptual space. The screen is a more intimate than private space, as some of our secrets and notes about our social world are keeping in there. We do not like strangers invading our screen. Screen is a perceptual space not only by the attachment to personal and emotional significances; the screen implies remembrances and affections that are very much relevant to the individual. While using our screens, we are constantly renegotiating our intimate – public space. When seeing the screen, one is in one's own intimate space, but manipulating the screen in the presence of others creates a certain social absence with little room for social encounters. The user may be physically present, but the mental orientation towards someone absent is unseen. Users often are renegotiating their presence in their private and public space. Presence in the ‘virtual’ space reduces the presence in the ‘real’ social space.

A phenomenological experience of the screen does not mean ‘pure presence’. Presence whether the body is ‘in here’ (screen) or ‘out there’. Being on the screen is a way of being in the world, it is a mode of being in relation with the other, but is the embodied perception of the screen that opens up a world we spontaneously and without doubt consider real. Merleau-Ponty refers to this as an experience that is “engaged to the other in such a way that we are never simply a disembodied onlooker or transcendental consciousness”.

Presence is a response to our perception that maximises agency through time interactivity between users and artefacts. Merleau-Ponty conceives presence in terms of perceptual experience that incorporates the dehiscence named as écart. The object can be seen only if there is a seer, but the seer can see only because it can be seen, is itself visible. It is on the screen where the invisible is not the opposite of the visible; it is