Archive for the ‘Semiotics’ Category

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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.

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David Bowie, Blackstar

So to the Emergent zone in ads.

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

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

The examples:
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.

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

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

FirstChoice

© Malcolm Evans 2016

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

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

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 »

Semionaut Award 2016

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

 

The editorial team is delighted to be launching the second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of semiotics, communication, culture and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by Space Doctors, of $1000 USD – plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field. The prize will be awarded to the winner of a short essay contest (600 to maximum 1500 words), in the Semionaut genre embodied by the pieces on the site and the entries shortlisted for the last award , with deadline for entrants of 17th April 2016.

TarkSol

All candidates shortlisted will, like the winner, have their work published by Semionaut and receive detailed feedback from experienced analysts plus guidance on next steps in terms of Semionaut network contacts and possible career development.

The contest is open to students and recent graduates world wide.  It will be judged by a panel comprising representatives from Semionaut editorial and Space Doctors along with one of the best know names in academic semiotics internationally. The award will be based on the quality of insight, analysis and creative flair displayed in the 600-1500 word essay submitted by the successful candidate.  This may, if appropriate, be supported by a larger body of work showing evidence of the skills we are looking to showcase. All material submitted should be written in English.

Key criteria in reaching the final decision will be the accessibility of the analysis and writing, with potential appeal to a non-specialist non-academic readership, and what people in the marketing and consumer insight world call actionability – work which embodies the usefulness of this type of analysis and the things that can be done with it, in terms of brand strategy, public policy, or advancing a cause.

For full competition rules and to submit your entry please email awards@semionaut.net

Links to the papers shortlisted for the first Semionaut Award:

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-arief/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-celeny/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-hannah/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-matthew/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-taras/

http://www.semionaut.net/short-list-troy/

 

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Award Time Again

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

 

The editorial team is delighted to flag up the imminent launch of a second Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. This will happen early in the New Year 2016. The prize, sponsored again by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy Space Doctors, will be $1000 USD plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field.

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Have a look at our interview with the winner of the inaugural Semionaut Award, Hannah Hoel, who found out about the opportunity by googling ‘semiotic writing award’ and ‘cultural theory writing award’ – and who now works full-time in the world of brand semiotics.

The brief for entries and the competition rules will be much as for the inaugural Semionaut Award – just to give you time to think about possible topics over the festive season and/or alert any prospective new writers you know. The judging team will also be suggesting in the launch announcement, early in January 2016, some broad themes and topics that may be of particular current interest to Semionaut readers.

Nice day to start again. Watch the skies.

 

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Network: Hannah

Friday, December 18th, 2015

 

Tell us about your piece that won the Semionaut New Writers award.  How did the thought come to you and how did it develop?

I started writing my essay for Semionaut, “Is this heaven? Reflections on Barthes and Facebook,” while trying to craft my BFA thesis statement. My thesis was called “Friendship in the Age of Facebook” and functioned as a social practice exercise that probed into shifting notions of sincerity. I was thus revisiting lots of texts from my Goldsmith’s Visual Culture degree like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of course Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and picking my mother’s knowledge banks of Shakespeare plays about mistaken identities like Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream. What followed was an unruly 2000 word document that tried to capture absolutely everything all at once. Although it helped inform my BFA statement, it took on a life of its own. Semionaut prompted a massive edit where I focused on a single text. I think it’s about 800 words now.

How did you hear about the award and what was your reaction when you won it?

I was working on said epic document and was writing art criticism but I wanted to branch out and was actively looking for writing opportunities. My grandmother taught me about semiotics when I was quite young and I studied it at Goldsmiths so I just did a Google search for “semiotic writing award” and/or “cultural theory writing award” and literally the only thing that came up was the Semionaut award. I submitted the essay just under deadline a few days after Thanksgiving.

1280px-Echo_and_Narcissus

So often you submit to these things and don’t really expect to hear anything back. But I did—first the short list and then the final verdict! I really had no idea what to expect but of course I was thrilled. Barely anyone knew I had applied so I got to explain everything all at once, including the peculiar world of semiotics. The accreditation felt great and connecting with Space Doctors was very exciting.

What has been happening to you since then? Give us some highlights?

Soon after, I started freelancing for Space Doctors doing US cultural insight. My first project was on the symbolism of light in American culture and I got really into it. I continued writing a monthly art review for THE magazine in Santa Fe, wrote for several other national publications, exhibited my own artwork, and traveled a bunch. Now I am at Space Doctors full time.

Would you recommend applied brand semiotics & cultural insight as a career option?

Absolutely! It’s an expanding field with tons of room for growth, creativity, and thoughtful innovation.

What do you foresee for yourself 5 years from now?

Only time will tell. 😉 Hopefully still involved with Space Doctors and living fabulously.

How do you think the world that cultural semioticians are looking at will have changed by then?

Cultural semioticians will be the norm: the leaders of marketing in a continually visual world. “A Sign in Space” from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is both a harbinger and just the beginning—a very juicy creation story.

 

© Hannah Hoel 2015

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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

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Retrospective Love

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

Fig_SocialsiticNewspaperWeavedIntoBag_DTrendafilov2015

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2015

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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

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Apple’s Swift Icon

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Swift Semiotic Observations on Apple’s Swift Icon

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

swift-larger-image

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

But not this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicely played, Apple . . .

© Charles Leech 2014

 

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Network: Ryan

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

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

Tell us about your DJ Electric Eel project

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

Eel1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eel2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information about the DJ Electric Eel project:

http://djelectriceel.tumblr.com/

© Ryan Hu

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Semiotics | 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

 

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Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

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

Trinary

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

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Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

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

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

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

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

HS1

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

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And the Winner Is…

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

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

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

photo_HOEL

Here are some quotes from the judges:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Short List – Troy

Monday, February 17th, 2014

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

ENVIRONMENTAL ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS, HUMAN HUBRIS AND GLOBAL ETHICS

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

Humankind as beyond nature

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

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

Humankind as part of nature

Panther

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

Gorilla

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

© Troy Potter 2014

 

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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

 

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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

 

 

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Semionaut Award Winner 2014 – Hannah

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

 

IS THIS HEAVEN? REFLECTIONS ON BARTHES AND FACEBOOK

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

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

HoelGraphic

Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Instagram

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

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

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

© Hannah Hoel

 

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

 [5]Ibid.

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

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 »

Semionaut Award Shortlist

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

We start publishing in this coming week the shortlisted essays contesting the Semionaut Award in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding. Fascinating work has been submitted by applicants variously located around the world and of many different nationalities.  The judges’ panel considers those you will see before the winner is announced as standing out in the context of competition as a whole. We will publish other commended pieces later.

Watch out for a range of topics from how photographs signify in the context of social media, to the contradictory cultural nuances of Lady Gaga, to selling Croatia as a tourist destination. We also have pieces on trains, cityscapes and advertising campaigns for eco awareness which, coincidentally, hit on two paradigms of special interest to biosemioticians at the moment – to represent nature as something people can observe as if from outside versus nature as something in which we are inextricably implicated.

Big thanks indeed to everybody involved, shortlisted or not, for your impressive contributions and for your enthusiastic interest.

The 2014 Semionaut Award is sponsored by Space Doctors.

Posted in Consumer Culture, Culture, Network, Semiotics | 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 »

Thumbprinting a Brand

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

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

kurkurechaitimeachievers

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

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

SB2

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

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

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

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

Semionaut Award

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

The editorial team is pleased to announce the Semionaut Award for new writing in the area of culture, communication, semiotics and branding.

The winner will receive a prize, sponsored by UK based marketing semiotics consultancy Space Doctors,  of $1000 USD – plus the opportunity to work on one or more applied semiotics projects for commercial clients and benefit from collaboration with experienced professionals in this field. The prize will be awarded to the winner of a short essay contest (600 to maximum 1500 words), in the Semionaut genre embodied by the pieces on the site, with deadline for entrants of 30th November 2013.

All candidates shortlisted will, like the winner, have their work published by Semionaut and receive detailed feedback from experienced analysts plus guidance on next steps in terms of Semionaut network contacts and possible career development.

The contest is open to students and fresh graduates world wide.  It will be judged by a panel comprising representatives from Semionaut editorial and Space Doctors along with one of the best know names in academic semiotics internationally. The award will be based on the quality of insight, analysis and creative flair displayed in the 600-1500 word essay submitted by the successful candidate.  This may, if appropriate, be supported by a larger body of work showing evidence of the skills we are looking to showcase. All material submitted should be written in English.

Key criteria in reaching the final decision will be the accessibility of the analysis and writing, with potential appeal to a non-specialist non-academic readership, and what people in the marketing and market research world call actionability – work which embodies the usefulness of this type of analysis and the things that can be done with it, in terms of brand strategy, public policy, or advancing a cause.

If you are a potential candidate for the Semionaut Award  please email awards@semionaut.net for the rules and registration.

Posted in Art & Design, Consumer Culture, Culture, Experts & Agencies, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Scopophilia Supercut

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

 

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

http://vimeo.com/63718300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Charles Leech 2013

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

Theorising Cricketainment

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2013

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

Prologue to Semiofest

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

 

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

 

Purpose

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

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

Background

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

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

A Definition of Semiotics

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

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

Schools of Semiotic Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing an integrated practice

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

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

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

What is a Commercial Semiotician?

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

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

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

The Barriers of Semiotic Pedigree to Marketing Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design and Semiotics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Quality of Semiotic Insights

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

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

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

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

ROI of Semiotics

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

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

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

Semiotics versus Traditional Consumer Insights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing the conversation

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

© Michael Colton 2013

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

Vodka’s Enfant Terrible

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

A new interpretation

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

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

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

Tradition versus Character

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

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

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

Purity versus Craftsmanship

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

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

Some thoughts on further innovation…

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

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

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

© Sophie Gomez 2013

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

Fifty Shades of Spem

Monday, January 28th, 2013

 

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

First of all, the texts themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Charles Leech 2013

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

Russians in Films

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Code #2: Drinking vodka

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

Code #3: White sky

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

Code #4: Woman’s hair in a plait

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


Code #5:Ice-skating

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

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

 

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

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

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

Code #7: Flowery shawl

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

 

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

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

This list could certainly be extended.

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2012

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The truth is out there

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2012

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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

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Reserved Meaning

Friday, September 28th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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.

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Two Types of Garishness (1)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

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No dress code for food

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Silencing the shout

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

 

A Hindu parable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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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

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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

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Network: Jonathan

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

 

Where are you, what are you doing?

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

                                                                            Freeze (2006)

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

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

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

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

What are you currently working on?

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

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

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

Final thoughts?

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

© Jonathan Willett  2012

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Celebrating a Paradoxical Semantic Union

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2012

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

Semiotics as Art: Kosuth

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

 

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

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

Well, for one: it makes me smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Thierry Mortier 2012

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

Child’s Play

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Lately, it seems as if there’s been an increased blending of ‘child’ and ‘adult’ worlds, particularly in health and personal care, entertainment, and play and gaming.

 

But this blending is not complete- across categories there’s a membrane between what’s considered ‘adult’ and ‘child’ territory, and this membrane has become more permeable- at least in one direction.

Consider the trend of juxtaposing the simple joys and iconography of childhood with products purchased by adults. Target, JC Penny and other brands have recently tapped into the sweet simple pleasures of play and discovery, presenting candy-colored worlds full of lightness and surprise.

 

There are also Tide Pods, which are brightly colored single dose pods of Tide laundry detergent housed in a ‘gumball’ tub. Unfortunately, young children (who are cultural decoders in training) are reading these codes and mistaking the detergent for candy. But, there is no mistake in terms of how this is branded for adults. The advertising, form factor and color of the product lead us to the realm of the child. Infusing childlike fun and wonder into an adult realm defined by efficacy can be revolutionary- Tide Pods are a runaway product.

This approach dimensionalizes brands and offers up resonance in a consumer world where adults now have more permission to engage with ‘the child inside’ (albeit within the loose retro construct of an uncomplicated idyllic past and aesthetic). But, expressing the child in the adult feels more comfortable than accessing the adult in the child; it’s important to remember that the membrane still exists and the permeability feels more appropriate when it’s unidirectional.

For example, for a long time social anxiety about this has bubbled up in the realm of cosmetics. Children must remain a bit innocent of the trappings of culture. This links to key cultural beliefs about the sacrosanct nature of childhood prevalent today. Children must be children, and even in our evolving world of kidpreneurs, child activists, artists, family decision-makers and child transgenders, childhood is still a very defined state of being with key emotional resonance for adults.   Even without the danger of product misinterpretation, the idea of children tapping into ‘adult’ territory is more squirm-worthy and often relegated to the space of play or humor to remain palatable.

 
© Ramona Lyons 2012
 
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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            

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Japanese language comes out to play

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

If the kanji script can be said to be the heart and soul of the Japanese language, and the socially contextual honorific language its social conscience, then gitaigo would be the funny bone or at least the limbic system!  Gitaigo (literally meaning onomatopoeic expressions) are doubled syllables such as puru puru, giri giri, tsuru tsuru or kira kira. These words, which can sound like names of Chinese pandas or Thai gogo girls, are used liberally in daily conversation by all Japanese people and appear in manga and in Twitter feeds.

Gitaigo act either like adverbs letting us know how things are done, how someone feels or the general atmosphere feels. As Seizo Terasaki puts it: “After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are in a sense raw. Moya moya, doro doro, gocha gocha, bara bara, fuwa fuwa – no other words can describe these expressions. They represent a world of their own…” (Nihongo Gitaigo Jiten: An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, Tokyo: Plus Alpha, 2004).

They introduce a disruptive emotional component into Japanese. Depending on the context, this can be a sense of whimsy or a brutally direct and visceral rawness. For instance uki uki means a sense of excitement and the hard k between the two vowels seems to convey this. Beta beta means sticky and the hardness of the t seems to convey that sense of icky glueyness. Mecha mecha means messy and seems to convey this sense of disarray, particularly when contrasted with a mellifluous gitaigo like tsuru tsuru meaning smooth. Chiku chiku describes something prickly, and lo and behold is spiky to pronounce too. Niya niya means to smirk and there is something distinctly smarmy about the sound too.

This is because these are all examples of what Roman Jakobson called the iconic in language. He claimed that Saussure’s vision of arbitrariness missed out on the aspect of language that words such as smash, svelte or staccato evoke. They somehow innately resemble the concepts that they refer to through their sonic attributes, so are not totally arbitrary.

Gitaigo also confound expectations about Japanese being po-faced and serious in the sense that they are emotive (in the Jakobsonian sense) words, conveying in a very direct image the addresser’s feeling about something. Superficially, this seems at odds with the highly context dependent and often subtle, euphemistic way the Japanese usually attenuate emotions in language.

In this sense, gitaigo can be likened somewhat to the imagist epiphany meant to be elicited by the best haiku – evoking an emotion with a jolt in a matter of syllables…

As with much in ambiguous Japan, there are many potential interpretations and the use of gitaigo can seem also to be a phenomenon related to the love of children and the basics of childish nonsense language. After all, we start our journey towards mastery of language through baby talk such as baba, mama and the like and then move on to more complex syntactic constructions. Perhaps Japanese reveling in the gitaigo is also (just like the mania for kawaii, regressive fantasy, widespread desire for childhood regression and doting on kids) a facet of this desire to leave adulthood.

In advertising, gitaigo are widely used to convince the Japanese that they will feel a certain way or think a certain way if they purchase a certain good or consume a certain experience. Strawberry juice will be tsubu tsubu meaning pulpy and natural.  The beauty and skin care brands promise a brand that will leave your skin feeling puru puru (plump) and tsuru tsuru (smooth). Pillows, bedspreads or female breasts (depending on the magazine) will be fuwa fuwa (soft). Mobile phones designed for older people, with large displays and buttons, are called raku raku (meaning leisure).

the raku raku phone

To summarise, gitaigo are a vindication of Jakobson’s insistence on the importance of the iconic in language, an example of the whimsy, play and ingenuity at the heart of Japanese culture, and proof of how visceral words can give brands a rhetorical flourish.

© Chris Arning 2012


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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 »

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.

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Semiotics and the interface

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The fields of semiotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), and user experience have flourished in the past years, mostly exclusively of one another. Each has evolved into fields of study for both business professionals and academics–semiotics from academic roots, user experience from business, and HCI from a mix of both. Many thinkers have tackled the subject of semiotics and the digital experience with impressive rigor, but few have applied their insights to a strategic business setting. As user experience and interface designers focus on delivering comprehensive documentation to their clients, there is a disconnect between business objectives and how the proposed design speaks through its interface.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can define “interface” as anything that filters information and re-presents it in a meaningful way. The implications of such a broad definition are that the interface is something that both provides access and mediates information. As such, this interface is an active force and influential factor in the relationship between objects and their representations.

In the results-focused world of user experience and interface design, it is easy to forget the nuances of meaning amidst interface and experience. The end goals of user experience and interface design are to create a means by which users of software can access information in a way that is meaningful, intuitive, and serves the objectives of the software creators (or a brand). In certain cases, these two objectives can conflict with one anther.

Take for example a financial services company whose audience includes a segment with particular interest in travel. They are older, retired people with the leisure time and money to take vacations around the world. The brand’s website is focused mostly on product offerings, which are of fleeting importance if they are not linked to core audience interests. There is a conflict between the business, which wants to sell products, and this audience segment, who want to know how best to allocate funds to leisure activities. The company needs a way to communicate with its audience in a way that is meaningful for them, within the context of their interests. This is a semiotic challenge, but brands seldom think about business problems in terms of meaning production.

The company might go about solving the problem by adding some travel information on their website, writing a couple blog posts on popular travel destinations, and starting to talk about travel on Facebook. This approach is short-sighted, specifically because it does not consider is the entirety of the digital experience. It changes the interface at a few touch points but fails to positively affect the more wide-ranging brand interaction in a way that an approach informed by semiotics might. Perhaps a better approach would be to reframe certain products within the context of travel and leisure, without specific attention to a particular channel. The difference is that the second approach is integrated into all the brand’s interfaces; it’s a systemic change rather than a manipulation of limited touch points.

I see the main benefits semiotics can provide in a business setting residing in this idea of contextual manipulation. Business and design problems are rarely so singular and isolated to warrant limited solutions; however, at the same time, companies are hesitant to entertain systemic changes because of budgetary reasons or the anxiety caused by thinking about their brand as a constantly evolving entity. Professionals who are influenced by semiotics should work to better establish a theoretical framework that makes sense to clients and can be executed in a business setting. They should elucidate how their colleagues are actually semioticians, even if they don’t articulate it or even know it. The first step toward incorporating semiotics into a business setting is to strip away its esoteric qualities.

This topic will be explored further in a forthcoming essay

 © Thomas Wendt 2012

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Shinkansen & the Myth of Progress

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

What travels with the stealth of a Lexus and at Formula 1 speed and has a hospitality trolley? The Shinkansen, literally meaning “new trunk line” but very quickly dubbed bullet train by Western pundits, is an important semiotic property in Japan. The Super Express is a talisman that keeps Japan moving literally and mythically.

According to Wikipedia: “The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world's busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers a year (March 2008),[4] it has transported more passengers (over 4 billion, network over 6 billion)[5] than any other high speed line in the world” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen.

These sleek trains were inaugurated in 1964 – a blue riband year for the Japanese in that it, very much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seemed to set the seal on the Japanese post war resurgence. Travelling at over 210km per hour, it was by far the fastest rail transport then available and must have impressed travelling visitors as to how far Japan had come. Whilst no longer on its own as the fastest train in the world (the French TGV is faster and China have a Maglev which travels at 420kmph, though the Japanese still hold the record for the fastest ever maglev), the Shinkansen is still a paragon of silent speed and service, with spotless safety record.

Japan has a fleet of over 1500 Shinkansen trains that criss cross Japan every day taking Japanese businessmen from Tokyo to Osaka or reuniting families over the Golden Week or Obon holidays. The speed and perfect punctuality of the Shinkansen certainly seem to the outside observer as a reminder of the robust infrastructure underpinning Japan despite the long term recession and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak. It is the most palpable sign of technological prowess in a country that has lost some of its reputation for being vanguardist and visionary. It almost seems as if the Shinkansen train functions as an eternal rebuke to these doubts. It says something that the names of these trains depending on how often they stop on the trunk line, NOZOMI (meaning hope), HIKARI (meaning light) and SAKURA (cherry blossom) represent positive and galvanizing messages to the Japanese passenger and the public at large. The Shinkensen is a project that subject to continual renewal – the trunk line has just been extended into Kyushu and there are plans to build and extension to the most Northern island of Hokkaido as well as to upgrade the Tohoku line to faster speeds.

As goes the Shinkansen line so goes progress in Japan.

What is most noticeable about the representation of the Shinkansen is the idea of forward progress through sleekness and contemporaneity of its plastic design profile.

From the needle like fierceness of the grey and blue 500 series to through the latest pantograph platypus billed 500 series to the outrageous, exaggerated nose cone of the E5, the design of Shinkansens, despite owing partly to aerodynamic logic is becoming increasingly aggressive; each design seeming to outdo its predecessor. The E5 being advertised as “Made from Dream” is actually positioned as more like a transatlantic or private airliner than a train – the seats will be lavishly upholstered and service to match – it is true that Shink travel has the best of flight without the hassles.

Advertising by JR lingers languidly on the flaring and scalloped flanks of the train nose cones. The new 700 series and the coming E5 have become the centerpiece of promotional work that focuses not on where you’d want to travel but simply on riding this train. A pamphlet for a season ticket shows in aerial shot the immensity of the front section – like a sperm whale’s head with the sly concision of the canopy hood set off against the albumen like fuselage looking like something out of Star Wars.

Another JR poster shows two E5s gracefully passing each other against a black background almost like two automated swans gliding on the tracks. Grace and functionality: two underlying values that are most prized in Japanese aesthetics.

The thorax of the beast is very rarely shown. A semiotic perspective would suggest this is because the sinewy, muscular design of the Shinkansen seems totemic of the notion of forward propulsion. Shinkansen is an index for the future or at least a very strong metaphor for forward progress and a belief that the future is bright. On the pamphlet showing the E5 the arrows, pure indexes (as Peirce said, the sign that signifies not be convention but by blind compulsion), relate to the idea of speed but also to the idea of a smart card being a progressive idea for the new generation.

My recent trip shows that the Japanese government and local tourist centres are assiduously promoting domestic tourism. Shinkansen ads in 2012 carry a new slogan that say (Nihon ni Tsunagou – “let’s join up Japan”) and on the flank of a Joetsu line Shinkansen was a message of hope to stricken prefectures of the Tohoku region. though Japan already perhaps the most comprehensive train coverage in the world.

There is clearly a lot of goodwill towards the Shinkansen in popular culture. You can buy Shinkansen chocolates in long tubes at station shops, there is also a book and DVD made for children that goes through the chronology of the Shinkansen, the successive series and how they are assembled with a cockpit view. There is even a Shinkansen museum, I believe in Nagoya, where you can see the original 0 series snub nosed 1964 trains and learn about the background and the original blueprints.

Whilst there has been some disruption to services and may be some trouble on the line ahead, nation Japan does not seem to be hitting the buffers quite yet and the Shinkansen – a bullet (train) that tapers at both ends – is a powerful semiotic force that acts as both persistent proof of this and as a motivating impetus into the future.

 © Chris Arning  2012

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Semiofest 2012

Monday, April 16th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 »

Luxury: a journey of discovery?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

I recently watched a lengthy spot for Cartier, 'L'Odysee de Cartier, that made me consider what luxury brands are trying to tell us today. 

In the Cartier piece, a leopard/panther avatar breaks its carapace of diamonds, journeys through time and space, and explores a magical, bejeweled world. This world is marked by a seemingly omniscient and global view of Cartier’s past: horse drawn carriages, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal (balanced on an elephant’s back), vintage airplanes, and iconic French architecture. Interestingly, these spaces are populated with jeweled exotic animals- magical living entities hidden from common sight. The leopard’s tour of these spectacles is drawn together in a loose narrative ending in communion with a woman gowned in red. She strokes the leopard, and diamonds gleam where her hand has left its fur. They’re old friends, it seems, even lovers.

But ultimately, what does all this tell us about the world of Cartier? This world is defined by selective provenance; it claims cultural authority (to say what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) from a mythologized history of exotic lands and treasures drawn from both mysterious natural phenomena and the heart of culture. Importantly, it’s a place where the unknown, secret life of these things is revealed to those in the know.

In this world, luxury is the experience of discovery driven by a specific kind of knowledge. This knowledge is presented as secret knowledge, and the journey to discover these things a heroic and even sacred one (the musical theme has a hand in this, as the tremulous violins in the beginning tell me to anticipate something revealed, the mournful cello later underlines the arduousness of this journey, followed by a children’s choir soaring above).

And, what’s the role of the consumer in relationship to Cartier? Through Cartier, the luxury consumer is cast as a cultured explorer, a person who enjoys confirmation and articulation of their particular strain of cultural capital, but also strives to transcend a conventional understanding of these things. However it is really more ‘armchair explorer’ – the consumer is not necessarily an intimate, the leopard roams alone (despite its affection for the lady in red).

The sheer grandeur of the Cartier spot (one cannot ignore the grand format brand statement) reminded me of another spot by Louis Vuitton launched a while back, ‘The Spirit of Travel.’ In deep contrast to Cartier, the LV piece locates LV’s authority (to establish what’s beautiful, desirable, luxurious) in the brand’s ability to articulate the subjective nature of discovery. Also shifting through global time and space, LV represents its world through fine details: the glow of light through the pages of a book, the shimmer on a water’s edge, fog flowing over an ‘Asian’ waterway- all through impressionistic photography implying individual sensory experience. Here, sensory and personal experience clearly trumps externally constructed experience and spectacle (though of course it can be argued that subjectivity at this level is still just another trope, box and definition to be checked off).

So what’s luxury in the world of LV? Being able to discover your moment ‘in the moment.’ Importantly, LV tells us quite directly that it’s an experience of discovery driven by self-knowledge. Here, the LV consumer is a devotee to this pilgrimage and escape into self. 

Both Cartier and LV instruct luxury consumers on the importance and nature of discovery and how to, well, discover it. Despite its ‘wild’ leopard avatar, Cartier is more the starry eyed curator at the Louvre, lifting the curtain just a bit for a special glimpse of wonder. In comparison, LV is a spiritual guide, a more intimate relationship to consumers overall.

But this is not to say there aren’t real commonalities here- each brand highlights a particularly western (post-colonial) politic of desire- since part of this ’journey’ is an exotic experience that speaks to the ‘foreign,’ the strange and other. 

And, ultimately, both tap into fairly residual themes (the ‘cultured’ connoisseur and imaginative adventurer, the spiritual-Buddha traveler) and leverage the journey metaphor to frame a foundational perspective on luxury present within contemporary cultural consciousness. Both brands tell us that luxury is part of a noble and meaningful adventure, and that discovery- wonderful, fleeting, and rare- is an emotional space attainable through each brand’s distinct exploratory path.

© Ramona Lyons 2012

 

 

 

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

A bag is a bag is a bag

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

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

Why are handbags so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Ute Rademacher 2012

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

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

 

There are many different coding schemes to collect and discern semiotics, and included in that is my METTA method created as part of my research on nonverbal communication. You can decide the value of METTA after reading [here]. As important as a coding scheme is, I have yet to find one that is complete and encompasses the entire semiosphere (the ‘signs’ that are all around us) that at the same time is not overbearing and time consuming. 

Sure, for example, METTA helps identify all the nonverbal signs but even this is incomplete for a thorough analysis when used solely for denoting specific (digital) or variations (analog) of nonverbal cues and elements. Simply denoting the sign, a gesture for example, is a start but by no means an end. The connotation of the sign, the gesture in this case, is necessary for a full understanding. Luckily for me, Jakobson is in my corner with this as he states, “It is not enough to know the code in order to grasp the message… you need to know the context” (Chandler 2002, 182).

The 3 C’s compliments the METTA method the study of semiotics and nonverbal communication. The 3 C’s represents Clusters, Congruence, and Context. Combining this analysis along with other coding such as Morris’s Model (as discussed here) or METTA will help a semiotician understand all nonverbal signs that are present during an interact.

Clusters: Although identifying, or denoting, individual nonverbal signs is important, realizing they do occur in a vacuum and contrastly exist in conjuction with other nonverbal signs contributes to a proper analysis. An example includes determining someone is uncomfortable not solely on lack of eye contact but in addition the shoulders are slumped, the person is fidgeting with their wedding ring, and uttering repeated “umms” while answering a question.

Congruence: Something important for people interested in the semiotics of nonverbal communication is the words spoken. Yes, nonverbal communication research explores the role of all the various nonverbal elements and cues but it does not do so at the expense of the verbal content. Congruence reminds the semiotician to consider the nonverbal actions and elements along with the words being spoken. 

An example of congruence is stating you are willing to help someone with an assignment and you move your seat closer to them to look over the work they had already done. Here, your words of offering assistance are congruent with your movement.

An example of incongruence is when asking someone if they are upset and they respond “I’m fine,” however their statment is in a sharp, quick tone; their brows are tense as are they lips; while their arms are crossed across their chest. 

Do you think they are “fine”? 

Most of us have heard the statement that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, right (read more on this here)? It is true, however in certain situations. It it is referring to situations like the example I just provided- where the spoken words are not congruent with the person’s nonverbal actions. In situations like these, the nonverbal actions consistently tend to be more truthful. 

Context: The context involves the environment the interaction is taking place as well as the history between the people, and the power structure. Context can give the same gesture, say finger pointing two completely different meanings. In one context, it can be part of anger or scolding, while in another it can represent acknowledging someone. See the photo below and I would bet, regardless of culture, you can differentiate between the two.

The 3 C’s of nonverbal communication helps provide a research and anyone who is interested understanding nonverbal communication the meaning and importance of nonverbal cues and elements. It helps prevents premature and incorrect conclusions being made as it allows you to look at all the ‘parts’ and see a more accurate ‘whole.’ 

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Posted in Americas, Australasia, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Deity with a Semiotic Face

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

© Dimitar Trendafilov 2012

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

Creativity in Business

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

 

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

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

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Monday, January 30th, 2012

 

Open Your Eyes- Nonverbal Communication Is Everywhere!: Using Semiotics to be aware of nonverbal communication using the METTA method

Nonverbal communication is everywhere.  Looking at nonverbal communication from a semiotic perspective, and how each nonverbal cue and element is a sign, such signs are everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.  Juri Lotman calls all the semiotic signs around us the “semiosphere” and if they are everywhere and all around us, it is easy to lose sight of some and also over-emphasize some to the detriment to others.  Additionally, if these signs are everywhere, it is important not just for semioticians to study semiotics, but everyone.

Imagine you are watching a movie and then watching the same movie with the 3D glasses you see above.  Everything is still the “same”, but you see each sign differently.  You become more aware of each cue and element and each becomes more vivid.

My METTA acronym, as used for my research, does that for nonverbal communication- it takes the gestalt nature of nonverbal communication and allows the “whole” to be viewed through the parts that make it up uniquely in that specific situation.

 METTA represents Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance.  This article will briefly explain each through the perspective that in any given interaction, there are numerous nonverbal cues and elements present that affect both you and the other person(s).  Being aware of these cues and elements can help you engage others in a more accurate way you intended to communicate, as well as understand the thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions of others.

Movement- Movement, or body language, is what comes to mind when most people think of nonverbal communication.  Yes, it is very important; however it is just one element.  By the way, if you think body language is 90% of the way we interact with others, I insist you [read this].  Movement includes: hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture, eye gaze and contact, head tilt, head nodding, and body orientation.

Keep in mind when studying and observing body movement, it can be both strategic and non-strategic.  This means, for example, some gestures are done purposely such as crossing your arms to display defiance, while other gestures are done unknowingly such as touching your neck or hair when nervous.

Environment- Easily forgotten and overlooked, this element plays a critical role during interactions.  The environment includes: the location, the room layout and design, distance, and time. Consider the difference of having a meeting at a coffee shop compared to the corporate boardroom and the different ‘message’ it has associated with it. Also, based on where you sit effects the situation too.  Research has shown that people tend to sit across from the other person during a competitive interaction and will sit side by side during a collaborative interaction.  Also the type of table is important- a study I conducted with experienced mediators, professionals who try to help find understanding and work out their differences, prefer to use circular tables compared rectangle tables.

Distance and the space between you and the other person have various meanings based on your relationship with the other person. When determining proper space and distance between people, think about how the last time you encountered a ‘space invader’ and how uncomfortable it felt. 

Chronemics, the study of time, reminds us how important time is based on length, such as how long or short th time is for which you are speaking.  Speaking and listening time length plays a pivotal role in developing rapport.  Consider the difference between making preliminary “small talk” first and going directly into a negotiation before even asking the person their name.  An important metaphor for time is TIME IS MONEY. However do not forget that it is not the only way time is perceived.

Touch- for the majority of my research in haptics, or the study of touch, I limit touch to shaking hands.  Consider the first impression, specifically during professional interactions, you have with another person.  Your handshake is part of your greeting.  Is your handshake bone-crushing or the other end of the extreme, flimsy like a dead fish?  Also, notice how some people will shake the hands of only certain people in room- think about the impression that has on others.

Tone- Yes, the saying “It’s not what you say but how you say it” is incredibly important but it does not mean the actual words are not important.  Research on voice tone has indicated a correlation between decibel level and perception of the speaker lacking confidence, being assertive, and being aggressive.  Tone variance and valence can be subtle yet a great opportunity to understand a person’s attitude and emotion.

Appearance- Often I say the first step to looking good is looking good.  This means putting a genuine effort into your appearance is important as research has shown our first impression is often made prior to speaking.  Dressing inappropriately for the situation does not just mean under-dressing but also over-dressing as well.  Wearing a business suit to an informal meeting could send negative signals just as wearing ripped jeans and thongs (that’s flip flops for my North American audience!) can. 

METTA has helped and still helps me not only with my PhD research but also in the everyday context including my law enforcement work, mediation sessions, consulting jobs, and other daily interactions. Just like when you put on the 3D glasses and the movie’s content doesn’t change but rather gives a clearer, more vibrant picture, the same is true with METTA. The interaction remains the same, however now you will be able to see things in a clearer way that allows you to encode your message more accurately while also being able to decode the nonverbal elements and cues that are present.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Learn more about semiotics and nonverbal communication by following me on twitter: @NonverbalPhD

This article is part of a series for Semionaut.net explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Cathy

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

 

Heads Up Down Under

Where are you?

Since mid-August 2011, along with my husband and our two young chuldren, I've been back from UK in Australia and living in Sydney. Currently we are in Palm Beach, at the tip of the Pittwater Peninsula, approximately 40kms from the CBD (central business district). Renowned for being the rich and famous’ holiday home paradise, at the northern end of the surfing mecca strip that runs all the way down to Manly (40 mins south on the L90 express bus) and the filming location of TV soap ‘Home and Away’ – us Maisanos arrived all white-skinned, smelling of SPF 500 and sought out a reasonably-priced beachside cottage to rent that we remain captive in between the harsh sunlight hours of ten til four daily, enjoying Tin Tin on PS3. So we are not exactly rubbing shoulders with the celebs yet.

With the commencement of the property decline twelve months ago, many Aussies are frantically trying to free up second homes. Neighbouring properties are plastered with large ‘for sale’ boards and according to estate agent reports, are undergoing massive price reductions. For us though, the price tags still beggar belief and we soon feel as fish out of water and a long way from Hastings, East Sussex (our UK home).

Our first four months were spent just south, near Avalon. It’s different again. ‘Posh hippie’ best describes it. Educated, international, married to the surf and sand over 55 set with teenagers looking like the offspring of Hawaii’s watermen.   Intermingled with it, is the ‘Tradie Elite’ – the tradespeople who have cashed in on a decade of renovating homes all over Sydney. Once these two types wouldn’t have lived within a five minute 4×4 drive of each other, but they mingle well and with many people barefoot and/or wearing white floaty kaftans or sleeve tattoos on golden bronzed skin they look alike too.

So why the return to Australia?

There’s nothing like an ageing mum’s illness to call you home for one. The want for our children to experience being ‘little Aussies’ and for us to reconnect with our homeland after ten and a half years living in the south of England.

What have you been doing so far?

I would like to see as much of eastern Australia as possible in twelve months. Whilst yet to step back into paid work in semiotics and ethnography, the home schooling of life in Australia has begun. Travels thus far include Brisbane, Queensland’s Gold Coast, Canberra (the Nation’s Capital) and the New South Wales Central Coast. Yet to return to Melbourne, our home city, but feel that we will save the best for last! Tasmania is an absolute must too.

From your semiotic & ethnographic perspectives what are the immediate changes and continuities that strike you after a number of years away?

·      Lessened tolerance of others (‘she’ll be right mate’, ‘give everyone a fair go’ not as much as one might think – blatant racial and gender discrimination may reside within conversation; Australia has lowest employment rate among western world for employing people with disabilities; no solution for Asylum Seekers)

·      Strengthening of Aussie Dollar has evoked some newfound arrogance: some think the bubble won’t burst, others are less confident. (Beginning to tuck in on the spending. Retail downturn now evident. Brands feeling the hit now – eg. Surfwear giant Billabong stock plunged 44%)

·      The mining sector regarded as the ‘liferaft’ for nation’s economy (but poses serious risk for pristine environments where soil is described as so pure, ‘you could eat it.’)

·      Traffic congestion increase (families now with average 2 to 3 cars; cargo shifting off the railways and onto the roads) 4×4 is king. Driving is aggressive

·      Obesity figures now higher than the US

·      Kids Master Chef massive here

·      Indigenous culture taught in school beyond mere lip service, to understanding regional tribes and native language

·      Skin care clinics and pathology centres line retail high streets

·      Doctors’ consultations cost more! Rebates seem less

·      Surfboards made in China and sold for half the price of Ripcurl and outrage ‘true blue Aussies’

·      Fifteen year drought broke and rains are heavy, often lasting days. Storms are wild. Ligtning blinds. Thunder deafens.

·      Glamour set no longer reside in magazines’ ‘social pages’ but party pages, rarely promoting good causes and fundraising

·      More obsessed with home renovations and housing prices (irony in that Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby has just finished filming here – a story with themes of greed)

·      Twitter, Facebook obsessed (feels even more prevalent than in the UK)

·      ‘Frugal’ and ‘second-hand’ are not words we hear or see written much in articles

·      Seeking out ‘white heritage’ within Australia has developed (eg. Ancestry.com is big; TV series ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My House?’)

And your lingering impressions?

Warm skin; Passersby smiling; Fresh fruit shops; Divine mangoes sold roadside in boxes of 20 for £10!; Rarely feeling apologetic: ‘No worries’ rules in language; Daily ice-cream; A-grade cafés; Free parking still exists in places; New buildings and sculptures within new cityscapes; Minimal to no black worn by cityworkers; Bush blossom; Frangipani petals and Jacarandah blue petals as ground covering; No colds and flus in January and Selleys BBQ wipes products for cleaning the barbie!

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Blue: the grown-up face of green concerns

Monday, January 16th, 2012

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Tom Lilley 2012

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

6 Theses on Pinkification

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

 

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

Here are 6 theses on pink:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 © Chris Arning  2012

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

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 »

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 »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

 

I often explain, for me, the most effective way to fully understand all the nonverbal communication elements present during a situation is through semiotics, specifically social semiotic analysis.  I describe the social semiotic approach to nonverbal communication as pulling back the veil of ambiguity of nonverbal communication cues and elements by making what is implicit explicit- connecting the micro cues (specific gestures and movements)  with macro cues (rapport, empathy, professionalism, etc.)
 
This type of analysis, as well as embracing Morris’s model (3 branches of semiotics: semantics, syntactics, & pragmatics) allows all the elements to be identified individually, collectively along with the spoken words, and what they mean can help each of us become more effective communicators regardless of what we do for a living.  Also, in my case, it allows me to be a more effective researcher.
 
Social semiotics explores resources (“signs” in most versions of semiotics), or action and artifacts we use to communicate (van Leeuwen, 2005),  to identify them as well as explore how they are used.  It is the concern of  “how” that is unique to social semiotics and what I argue is most effective for exploring the role of nonverbal communication.
 
Yuri Lotman describes all the resources, and for the purpose of this article the resources are all the potential nonverbal elements, as being in a semiosphere- all the space surrounding us.
 
One of the most poignant statements, and arguments for studying and understanding semiotics, and is given even more importance discerning it through a nonverbal communication lens, is from Chandler inSemiotics: The Basics (2010, p.225):
 
"There is no escape from signs. Those who cannot understand them and the systems of which they are a part are in the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can.  In short, semiotics cannot be left to semioticians."
 
Nonverbal elements are present regardless if you know it or not.  In order to understand these elements, they need to be identified and a system needs to be created to understand there meaning.
 
Social semiotics emphasizes the importance of context and when viewing this from a nonverbal communication perspective, identifying the various cues and elements requires the context to have a focal point.
 
Returning to Morris’s model, proper identification of all the elements exists through using his three branches: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.
 
The image below lists the stages I use during nonverbal communication research (specifically gestures are shown below) to assist me.
 
 
Semantics. The first step is to identify all the nonverbal elements.  As previously mentioned [here], there can be many elements and it can easily overwhelm someone trying to identify them.  This can be the case for a research and even more so for the casual interested person.
 
To assist in this process, I created the METTA acronym to assist me (and you!) to ensure each element is accounted for.  METTA represents each of the nonverbal elements: Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance (read more on METTA here).
 
Syntactics.  From the nonverbal communication and social semiotic perspective, after identifying each element, the next step is exploring the cluster of elements being used together and their arrangement.  For example, while listening to a certain comment, the person let’s out a “huff” noise, leans away from the table, reclines into his chair and starts to fidget in with his mobile phone.  After asking him if everything is okay, he replies timidly, “fine.”
 
Pragmatics:  This stage cannot be completed without the other two.  This stage allows meaning to be established with each of the elements based on clusters and context.  Continuing with the example above, each of the elements, while being viewed collectively tells me that the person is not “fine” and that it is worth further exploring and asking the person how they are doing.
 
Something of importance to note is although it is listed above as steps, it is not a strict chronological order of stages but rather an interconnected diachronic process where each stage is being conducted with the other stages in mind and happening simultaneously.
 
This process of using a social semiotic analysis can be used to assist researchers (I am doing as part of my PhD) as well as professionals and anyone interested in being aware of nonverbal communication as well as being more effective at using nonverbal communication and understanding other’s use of nonverbal communication.
 
Examples of how you can apply this to your life is considering and asking yourself:
1.  What is the best place to hold a meeting or a place to meet someone;
2.  Are your actions, or theirs, open to discussion or closed-off and defiant;
3.  Does your appearance emit professionalism (make sure your socks match!); &
4.  What kind of hand shake do you use- do you shake everyone’s hand;
 
As Chandler mentions, an admission of any semiotician is acknowledging a semiotic analysis is just one approach of many.  For me, exploring nonverbal communication from a social semiotic approach has helped me with my research as well as during many trainings and workshops I have conducted in various countries.
 
I invite you to try (and let me know how it goes) as the best way to learning anything is to try it out, reflect on it, and share it with others.
 
 © Jeff Thompson 2011
—-
This articles is part of a series for Semionaut.net explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.
Part I: Introduction to “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication
Part II: Semiotic Analysis of Nonverbal Communication
Part III: METTA- How To Be Aware Of The Nonverbal Elements (December, 2011)
Part IV: The 3 C’s Of Nonverbal Communication (January, 2012)
Part V: Applying Semiotic Analysis & Nonverbal Communication (February, 2012)

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | 4 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 »

Semiotic visions

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

"My religion was semiotics," National Public radio host Ira Glass ("This American Life") told an interviewer in 2004. "Before semiotics I was, like, a middle-class kid who didn't know what he believed …. Semiotics, basically, was exactly the way I defined myself."

Glass was referring to his experience earning a degree from Brown University's one-of-a-kind semiotics degree program. When I was an editor at The Boston Globe's IDEAS section in the early 2000s, we published a story about the lasting influence of Brown's program. It read, in part: "From its founding as a fledgling program in 1974 to its morphing into a full Department of Modern Culture and Media in 1996, Brown semiotics produced a crop of creators that, if they don't exactly dominate the cultural mainstream, certainly have grown famous sparring with it. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, Academy Award-nominated director Todd Haynes and legendary indie producer Christine Vachon, "Ice Storm" author Rick Moody, pop-science writer Steven Johnson — all walked the slanting corridors of Adams House, a sad cottage at the fringe of Brown's Providence campus."

Here's how writer Paul Greenberg explained semiotics in that essay: "[S]emiotics is about how we derive meaning from context. … Ferdinand de Saussure… posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a 'signifier,' i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the 'signified,' or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued 'sign.' Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts. But a working semiotician doesn't go home after splitting a few signs. Signs operate within 'codes' (a.k.a. languages) which are themselves building blocks of larger structures, like narratives." I have cut the snarky bits; click on the link above to read them.

"Semiotics … was like a conspiracy theory to beat all conspiracy theories," Ira Glass told Greenberg. "It wasn't just that authority figures of various sorts did things that were questionable…. It's that language itself was actually a system designed to keep you in your place, which when, you know, you're 19 or 20 is pretty much exactly what you're ready to hear…. Oh my God, what are we going to do with this powerful information?" "It was as if you had these, like, magic lenses that you could put on," agreed Steven Johnson. "It really had the feeling of `We've cracked the code, other people don't know.'"

Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel, The Marriage Plot, takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s — and in it, the semiotics program is depicted as encouraging pretentious, obscurantist thinking and writing. “When Madeleine asked what the book [Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology] was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things."Also: “Going to college in the moneymaking ’80s lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism — with sex and power.”

This past Sunday, in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Book Review, the lead review of which is dedicated to Eugenides' The Merriage Plot, Steven Johnson recounts his own Brown story. He is less harsh than Eugenides. Though Johnson acknowledges that Brown's semiotics program did encourage pretentious, obscurantist thinking and writing, he mostly recalls that "it left many of us with an intoxicating sense that the everyday world — particularly the world of media — contained a secret layer of meaning that could be deciphered with the right key."

Here's how Johnson explains semiotics: "Greek for the 'science of signs,' semiotics as a field dates back to fin de siècle philosophers and linguists like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in modern times it is most commonly associated with Umberto Eco. The general thrust of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if language shapes our thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to make sense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of language itself: signs, symbols, metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools as readily as you could a Nike ad."

Though he eventually started writing books whose "sentences were shorter and the arguments less prone to putting themselves under erasure," Johnson concludes, "what animated my work was the sense that computer interfaces or video games had a subtle social meaning to them that was not always visible at first glance. That perspective was also the legacy of my semiotics years, and it turned out to be much more durable than the prose style. … Semiotics, for all its needless complications, still taught us to look for new possibilities in the ordinary, turning signs into new wonders."

Posted in Americas, Contributions from, Disciplines, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 3 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

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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

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Semionauts at work

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

In the 1951 British drama Cloudburst (d. Francis Searle), Robert Preston — standing, at left, in the scene shown above — is a wartime cryptographer for the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine organization known as "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." He and his (mixed-gender) team labor night and day, using various scientific-looking methods, until they've successfully cracked the enemy's code.

Because commercial semiotics — following in the footsteps of Virginia Valentine — has borrowed from Barthes and structural anthropology the notion of "cultural codes" (symbols and systems of meaning that are relevant to members of a particular culture), practitioners in the field have implicitly or explicitly claimed that they are in the business of cracking codes, and providing clients with a key which will unlock these codes. So it would be an interesting exercise to explore the discipline of cryptanalysis, in search of resonances and dissonances with our own discipline.

Here's one of many possible approaches to making such a comparison of disciplines…

Following the structuralists, many commercial semioticians implicitly express the belief that cultural is a system of signs, and that as such, it has a structure — which is the "real thing" undergirding a surface reality, whose meanings are merely apparent meanings. The position of each element within that structure is determined by the whole. Commercial semioticians are plutonian spelunkers, uniquely able to get beneath a culture's surface reality and map its underlying structure. Returning to the surface with this map, they can then unlock the culture's codes. Poststructuralists might take into account the notion that human agency can alter these structures — but we still buy into the structures' reality, thus failing to insulate ourselves from criticisms like anthropologist Adam Kuper's: "Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of a millennial movement and some of its adherents felt that they formed a secret society of the seeing in a world of the blind."

So are cryptanalysts a secret society of the seeing in a world of the blind? During World War II — if Cloudburst, which was based on real-life cryptographer Leo Marks' experiences, is a reliable indication — that's exactly how they viewed themselves. Marks seems to have believed that this was a form of hubris, and that anyone who viewed himself that way was riding for a fall. In Cloudburst, when Robert Preston's character's wife is killed in a hit-and-run automobile accident, he turns his considerable analytical abilities to the problem of identifying and murdering the culprits. "He had murdered once!" declaims the movie's poster. "Now he was ready to strike again… and no one could catch him but himself!" It's interesting to note that Marks also wrote the story on which the cult classic 1968 drama Sebastian — about a cryptographer for British Intelligence (Dirk Bogarde) whose self-regard for his own analytic ability leads him to fall into the hands of foreign agents — is based. Perhaps there is a moral here for hubristic commercial semioticians; traditionally, the antidote to hubris is a humble recognition of one's limits.

Two other avenues to explore, off the top of my head:

* Cryptanalysis, like commercial semiotics, targets weaknesses in the cryptography — it looks for ways beneath the surface reality (a jumble of apparently meaningless signs) and seeks the underlying structure which allows us to make sense of those signs. But black-ops types will tell you that there are more efficient methods of finding out what a coded message says: bribery, physical coercion, burglary, spying, and trickery, to name a few. Can commercial semioticians find inspiration from these methods to crack cultural codes? I'm being provocative—but maybe this sort of thing is already going on. For example, when anthropologists hired by ad agencies are embedded in a typical target consumer's home, where they observe the consumer's interactions with cereal boxes and so forth… isn't this an effort to beat commercial semioticians to the punch? By spying, that is to say, instead of desk-based code cracking?

* In the mid-1970s, the field of cryptanalysis adopted asymmetric key cryptography, which underpins such Internet standards as TLS, PGP, and GPG encryption. Asymmetric key cryptography encodes and decodes messages via mathematical relationships (I don't pretend to understand them) which have no efficient solution. The key used to encrypt a message is not the same as the key used to decrypt it. A common analogy is a locked mailbox with a mail slot: anyone can drop a message through the slot, but only the person who possesses the key can open the mailbox and read the messages. Commercial semioticians who attempt to think-with asymmetric key cryptography won't be any less tempted to regard themselves as members of a secret society of the seeing… but perhaps they'll be less likely to regard non-semioticians as "blind." If the encryption key is open-source, then anyone — everyone — is potentially a coder.

This post is not intended to make a case of any kind; it's a conversation starter. So what do you think?

Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Contributions from, Disciplines, Experts & Agencies, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 3 Comments »

From musical score to critical noise

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2011 Terry O’Gara

Read more about critical noise on Terry's blog.

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

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Semiotics, is the study and understanding of signs.  Signs are not limited to what comes to mind for most people- billboards, advertisements and storefront displays.  Rather, semiotics, and more specifically social semiotics is the study of how we interact and communicate with others by analysing the different channels of communication being used.  Often, many of these channels are based on nonverbal elements and cues. 

During any interaction with another person, we are communicating with each other constantly, primarily through nonverbal channels.  This is occurring through multiple channels and is both strategic and non-strategic (or intentional and unintentional).  This includes body language, voice tone, clothing and adornments, the environment, timing, and touch.

To envision all the different nonverbal elements present in any given situation, picture a black, blank screen in front of you.  Now imagine dozens of circles, of different colors and sizes, appearing and disappearing with the timing of each varying while consuming the majority of the screen replacing the black portions.  

If you cannot picture this, do not worry; just click the link [here] to see a video of what I am describing.  A picture is provided below as an example.

Now picture each dot as a different element of nonverbal communication.  On its own, it is not very significant and without it, it is easy to say it has little relevance on the entire picture.  For nonverbal communication, a single element such as choosing where to sit during a negotiation or meeting, or perhaps a hand gesture can be viewed as having a minimal importance on the overall impact of the situation.  

However, now start to take away more and more of the dots and the bright screen becomes darker and darker.  Similarly, ignoring more and more of the nonverbal elements, you understand less and less of what is going on. 

Just because you are unaware of all nonverbal communication elements does not mean they do not exist or their importance is insignificant.  Ignoring all the nonverbal elements can have a detrimental effect on the situation.  Equally, the same is true by embracing the other end of the spectrum- concentrating on a single element can have a dramatically negative effect by putting all your effort into analyzing one element at the expense of all the others.

In the coming 5 part series on “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication,” I will offer tools that I have been using to research and analyse various nonverbal elements from a semiotic perspective from a variety of situations including political discourse, news media, conflict resolution (mediation, negotiation, facilitation, etc.), and interpersonal, informal conversations.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

I view this series not solely as way to share what has worked for me, but also as an opportunity to engage readers to hear about your experiences as well.  I look forward to comments and feedback. Below details each of the articles in the series:

Part I: Introduction to “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Part II: Semiotic Analysis of Nonverbal Communication

Part III: METTA- How To Be Aware Of The Nonverbal Elements

Part IV: The 3 C’s Of Nonverbal Communication

Part V: Applying Semiotic Analysis & Nonverbal Communication

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | 5 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 »

Mild Smiles and Monocultures

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Martha Arango  2011

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Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jake Pearce  2011

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Signs of discontent

Friday, July 29th, 2011

In early April this year, the educated upper and middle classes and youth in India’s urban centres rallied behind an unlikely hero, 72-year-old anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, from a small village in Maharashtra. Anna Hazare adopted a favoured protest tactic of Mahatma Gandhi, the fast until death to shame the Government into considering an anti-corruption bill and enacting it into law.

Hazare’s use of the fast showed how the symbolism of this act has changed since Gandhi’s time. Gandhi’s own understanding of the fast was that it was first and foremost a self-directed act, designed to purify the self of its own selfish excesses. When it came to protesting against the State, he used non-violent resistance as his main political method. But since then, and as we saw here, fasting has become politicised – turned into the ‘hunger strike’ and used as a protest weapon against the State.

The semiotics of the protest also revealed an interesting amalgam of symbolism brought in to strengthen the protestors’ halo and just cause.

For example, an image of Mother India, portrayed as a typical Hindu Goddess, was superimposed upon a map of India, symbolising the protest as a patriotic movement to restore the glory of the nation which has fallen, due to the actions of corrupt politicians. The image showed her holding the Indian flag in her left hand and waving it, while holding up her right hand in the gesture of a blessing – all to encourage her devotees, the patriotic middle class in their just fight. 

India has always been portrayed as the ‘mother’ in all of its languages, in contrast to some other cultures, such as Germany, which represent their country as a ‘father’. So a popular chant is ‘bharat mata ki jai’, which would be translated as ‘Victory to Mother India’ or ‘Hail Mother India’. 

It’s the custom in India when setting forth on a venture of any kind to seek the blessings of parents, especially your mother. So, the protestors’ portrayal of Mother India blessing her children showed that they were embarking on a new mission to save the nation.

They also put up a huge banner featuring a warlike call to have strength. All the Indian heroes of the Independence struggle and prior were depicted on the banner – as if to indicate that their soul and spirit were now invoked in the battle, making their spiritual blessing available to the modern warriors fighting to save the country.

Anna Hazare, the rural activist and contemporary hero wearing the Gandhian mantle, dressed as befits this symbolic lineage – in white khaki with the trademark white cap of the people’s hero. There was nothing flashy, trendy or designer in his attire to take away from the Gandhian image.

Modern protests would however be incomplete without two new elements – the televised debate and the candle-lit vigil. So, not only did TV cameras cover the man undergoing his fast for 36 hours, they set up temporary interview spots on the site and staged televised debates with various political celebrities who added their mite and sound bite to the battle. Finally, citizens around the country showed their solidarity with the cause by setting up candle-lit vigils in their towns on the evenings of the three-day fast. Of course, Facebook, Twitter and all manner of social media were liberally used to swell the numbers of protestors.

Contemporary middle-class protest in India is thus positioned as being clean and positive – the ‘good’ fight against the cancer of corruption. It is a fight that is blessed by the legendary heroes of the motherland, drawing inspiration from the master protestor, Mahatma Gandhi, televised and debated by intellectually minded citizens and finally, touching the hearts of millions of ordinary people throughout the country. What could be a more noble play – for power to influence the government?

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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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

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Some Futures for the Logo

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning  2011

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

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

 

July 2011

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

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

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

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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

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The six pack triumphs in India

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Karan Singh Grover

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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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

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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

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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). 

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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 »

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 »

All that glitters

Monday, March 14th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the surprise there, you ask?

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

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

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

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

Russia Today

Monday, March 14th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

What does it all mean?

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

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

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

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

© Chris Arning 2011

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

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 »

Reading the Stars

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Network: Ajitesh

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

 

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

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

Brazil Mash-Up: India

Friday, February 4th, 2011

 

 

Brazil – Not yet ‘happening’ in India!

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

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

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

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

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

© Seema Khanwalkar  2011

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

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

Brazil Mash-Up: France

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Luca Marchetti 2011

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

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: Australasia

Monday, January 31st, 2011

 

Outside Brazil, we must remember, Brazilianness always exists in relation to the identity or identities people live out in the host culture. Comparisons and contrasts, mirroring or symbolizing something we lack – and aspire to or not, as the case may be.  For a third party national, the words Bondi and Copacabana may both conjure up images of sun, play, lifestyle and youthful vitality that suggest a good deal of common ground between Brazil and Australasia. Jake Pearce, a UK national with many years’ experience living and working down under, suggests we might want to think differently…    

From an Antipodean perspective there is a sense that emotion and passion are dangerous. Their place is on the sports field and leakage into mainstream life is implicitly dangerous. Now in a global context, this viewpoint is anachronistic but it is no accident that Russell Crowe has been parodied by Homer Simpson et al as being such a bruiser. He was brilliant at the part, something which a metrosexual Brad Pitt in Troy might learn from.

Why is this relevant? The reason is largely because the idea of Brazilianness is so far inside a bubble marked ‘Latin’ that it is hard to tear the two apart – this needs some qualification.

The most aspiring place to go on holiday from here (Australia/New Zealand) is either France or Italy. Having lived here so long, I can see why. From a European perspective, the stereotypical Antipodean runs off to get some European ‘culture’. Of course there is an element of that, however Antipodean design, taste and ‘sophistication’ has moved from halting adolescence to early young adulthood. Antipodeans now go to France and Italy to marvel at the differences rather than wishing to be a derivative form of something they cannot be. At one time there was a certain elite, liberal intellectual class that bastioned itself in a castle marked ‘we are not like our fellow Australians and New Zealanders’ and worked hard at being more European than European. That was the 1960s and '70s.

For Antipodeans it is the behaviour that ultimately is intoxicating more than the manifest culture. How do men freely be men wearing handbags and kissing? To a European – going to Africa or having a long spell in the bush over here in Australasia is a safari. To Antipodeans – ‘we’ (and I include myself in that as I can use their lens) go on safari to marvel at the European zoo of human behaviours marked – hugging, talking rather than doing, using long language to describe the importance of friendship(s) rather than simply helping them repaint their garage.

At a fundamental level passion here is earmarked with suspicion. The pioneering male of New Zealand or tough man of the past is still very much in the latent culture – why else does sport play such a big role. And to be frank – being emotional in a new pioneering culture can be damaging. Psychologists here talk about the generation who went to both the first and second wars – it is and was ‘well accepted that they were tough soldiers and they were sent to the worse spots by Churchill’. This typifies the relationship between Antipodean countries and the UK – yes they are proud that they were tough but ultimately suspect they were used.

The suppression of emotions is known to be an adaptive state now – the ‘wooden male’ stereotype is in fact an adaptation to deal with hardship.  This ‘syndrome” (it has a name but I have forgotten it) is often cited by psychologists that in the post war period men here could not be fathers because they did not know how to. The ‘wooden’ male was carried and passed on to the Boomers as a role model and it is only now, in fact, that we see metrosexuality blossoming here. However all things are relative.

What has all this to do with Brazil?

The perception of Brazil here is very superficial. There are very few obvious signifiers and signs. It is rarely in the news or our magazines. Nor is Brazil a big tourist destination for this part of the world.

At a superficial latent level there are many similarities much more in Australia than New Zealand primarily based around the beach, being laid back, looking beautiful – and implicit beach sexuality. (Toplessness in Australian beaches as you know is common.) There are Brazilians here working – in ski resorts and on Opportunity Enterprises – but beyond that the imagery and semiotic depth is minimal. In Australia and New Zealand Brazil is known for its love of football – and there is a superficial parallel with New Zealand being the ‘Brazil of Rugby’. At a rational level the ‘love of sport’ might be seen as a parallel if people thought about it but football vs the dominance of rugby, in many respects, typifies the difference(s) between this side of the world and Europe.

Brazil is part of a ‘common and alien’  language of passion – perceived to connect with ‘Latin’ European countries. Here this is best typified by the carnivals which Brazil is famous for. In Victorian England – frivolity and play were confined and tamed in the many parks where the ‘common classes could pursue leisurely activity in an orderly way.’ The same is true here – the kind of spontaneous, combustible passion which Brazil is famous for is confined to a few moments in the Sydney Mardi Gras and Melbourne’s ‘Big Day OUT’ annual music festival.

In New Zealand, with its Presbetyrian/Scottish heritage, and certainly in ‘middle New Zealand’ Brazil is regarded as being so different it is not threatening.

In summary I would say Antipodeans find Brazil fundamentally puzzling. I should add with alacrity that this is largely unspoken. It is demonstrated in behaviours towards Latin culture in general. From a European perspective I would describe it as follows. It is like going to a live theme park, where you are trying to understand how it came to be like this and how you are connected to it. Consider finding a fragment of an alien spaceship with the words “Graham Norton”* on the side, Brazil is something like that. How did that get there and how come I can recognise something about it?

© Jake Pearce 2011

* An Irish comedian enormously popular in UK whose style of comedy (ironically exaggerated gay naughtiness) would probably not travel well outside emotionally repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures. For the aficionado of pedantic homoerotic aesthetic segmentations Graham Norton would be like the Russell Crowe of low camp.

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | No Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Germany

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

 

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

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

RESIDUAL

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

Left and right wing governing attempts culminating in military rule.

All highly repressive, against not for the people.

Inhumane poverty on a grand scale and immense crime. 

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINANT (codes consolidating since 1980s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMERGENT

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

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

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

• maintaining and strengthening the idea of democracy

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

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

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

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

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

© Oliver Litten 2011

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

Brazil Mash-Up: UK Notes

Friday, January 28th, 2011

 

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

INTRODUCTION

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

RESIDUAL CODES

Underlying cultural archetypes:

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINANT CODES

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

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

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

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

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

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

EMERGENT CODES

Crossing the borderline into the emergent codes

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

With many thanks to Gareth Lewis and Chris Arning.

© Malcolm Evans  2011

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

Brazil Mash-Up: Briefing

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

 

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

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

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

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

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

FORMAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it means to be human

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Ours is a culture in crisis where we’re struggling to figure out what it means to be human. We are deeply fixated in the virtual world and enviously in chase of the latest technology. At the same time we are experiencing an anxiety over the liquidation of self in a fluid, constantly innovating world.

Once we have logged and given away our noteworthy moments on Facebook and Twitter, we cease to retain them as a testament to our own heritage. As we prove our progress we appear just as much in need of a way to define ourselves in reverse— away from the oppressive filtration of ourselves into digitized experiences that can be uploaded and streamed instantly across time and space.

The proof of this conflict has been confirmed by the popularization of two opposing types of codes. On the one hand, there are those symbols that demonstrate our ideals about advancement into the promising future.  Tech logos, for example, are as slippery and fluid in line quality and shape as our transient, efficient lives — void of details or adornments which might refer specifically to time period or place. As reassuring as they are of our relevance, we are equally comforted by signifiers of uninhibited, amateurish self-expression. They are awkwardly analog, irregular and imperfect in line quality and shape.  The two stills from Microsoft's TV spots "People Ready" illustrate this well.  This humble, bumbling style has emerged in an effort to monumentalize our real selves …free to live outside, mainstream expectations and the compulsion to move ahead feverishly. 

 

Interestingly, these signifers frequently appear in advertisement for these same tech companies. Perhaps that have become the latest and most important trust marks of authenticity and heritage—the company’s silent promise that our humanity will not be lost in the adoption of the innovative product they’re offering.

© Michael Colton  2011

Posted in Americas, Art & Design, Categories, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | 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 »

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.

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

NASA Scientists announce…

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

A new reason for germophobes to feel anxious!

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

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

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

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 »

Inscribed Upon the Body

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Chevron's "I Will" campaign, still going strong in the pages of doctor's-office magazines, here in the US, was designed — the company announced, in 2008 — to raise awareness of the importance of energy efficiency and conservation. In the ads, small-step declarations of eco-intent such as "I will leave the car at home more" and "I will finally get a programmable thermostat" are scrawled, in a folksy handwritten font, across the faces of regular men and women like you and me.

Cynics have sneered that the campaign's secret subtext is climate change, and that by encouraging the public to use less energy, Chevron "hopes to forestall any regulation or taxation of its carboniferous products." That may well be the case — but it's not a particularly original insight. What fascinates me about "I Will" is the campaign's neo-Foucauldian, or perhaps neo-Kafkaesque, executional cue: the inscriptions-upon-bodies that we can't keep ourselves from reading.

In Discipline and Punish, among other works, Michel Foucault suggested that the modern State's apparatuses of social control (e.g., asylums, hospitals, factories, and schools, whose "orthopedic" function is the correction, training, and taming of the individual subject) work in more or less the same way that pre-modern apparatuses of social control (e.g., chastity belts, torture devices, and branding irons) did. In each instance, the progressive effect of the apparatus is to make itself redundant — "ultimately one should be able to remove the apparatus and its effect will be definitively inscribed in the body."

Foucauldians love to use that phrase — "inscribed in/upon the body" — don't they? I wonder how many of them realize that Foucault was referencing Jeremiah 31:33: "After those days… I will put my law in [the Israelites'] bowels, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people." A law inscribed in the bowels, in the heart, or otherwise upon the body is one that has become internalized, naturalized, normalized. It cannot be questioned.

Foucault was influenced, one has to imagine, by Kafka's 1914 story "In the Penal Colony," which describes a torture/execution apparatus that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin before killing him, a practice considered humane and enlightened by the colony's Officer, a priestly figure. The sentence to be inscribed upon the body of a character called the Condemned, a disobedient soldier, is "Honor Thy Superiors" — which certainly sounds proto-Foucauldian. Foucault was a genius; but Kafka, whose story actualizes God's promise, transposes it from metaphor to fact, was a greater genius.

Unlike Foucault, whose theorizing merely condemns the orthopedic apparatuses that require us to internalize authoritarian laws and norms, Kafka also condemns the Explorer, an (apparently) truly enlightened European whose refusal to approve of the inscription apparatus causes the Officer to set the Condemned free and take his place. The Explorer programs the apparatus to inscribe an apparently anti-authoritarian sentence into the Officer's flesh: "Be Just." Exactly how, the reader wants to know, is this any better? Whether authoritarian or philosophical, religious or enlightened, words carved into the flesh (literally or figuratively) maim and destroy us (literally or figuratively).

Chevron's phrases — "I will leave the car at home more" and "I will finally get a programmable thermostat" — are updated versions of Kafka's "Be Just." It's not that I disagree with the sentiment; we should, indeed, use less energy. But when carved into our faces, by an enlightened energy company, words can hurt more than sticks and stones.

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

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.

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Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Europe, Global Vectors, Semiotics | No Comments »

Science Fantasy

Friday, November 12th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

The third of British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's Laws of Prediction is the most widely quoted one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. [1] In US communications, Clarke's third law is scrupulously observed in advertisements for beauty products of all sorts, which use science-fantasy imagery — e.g., high-tech products whose packs glow from within, black-box technologies emerging from a void — to bolster brands' "proof points."

Scientists and engineers surely find such romanticist, counter-Enlightenment, non- or even anti-positivistic signifiers for advanced technology laughable — or perhaps outrageous. And yet high-tech products and services from computer, energy, IT, and mobile telephony companies, among others, are also marketed, in the US, with the aid of exactly similar science-fantasy signifiers. Ads for the no-cords Powermat feature glowing black-box technologies perched atop a glowing black-box technology; ads for Sprint's HTC Touch Pro show an energy beam snaking around a smartphone. And now IBM, a brand known for its no-nonsense rationalism, has gone science-fantasy.

In "Data Baby," one of seven endlessly watchable TV spots recently directed for IBM by Mathew Cullen, data (the baby's heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, ECG, temperature) envelops and surrounds a newborn in a neonatal ward, forming a protective shell/blanket/mobile — we might even think of it as bathwater. It's magical — no, wait, it's science! It's the human touch — no, wait, it's hyper-advanced technology! What a compelling fantasy, indeed.

Motion Theory's Angela Zhu, who art-directed the spot, articulated the oxymoron at the heart of science-fantasy when she told FXGuide, "The data had to be very fragile and humane. The difficulty was to find the balance between technology and humanity… The data blanket had to feel like a mother's finger running over a baby's face — the fragile love and protection is hard to recreate with technology. Technology is informational, humanity is emotional." Meanwhile, the ad's visual effects supervisor, John Fragomeni, expressed the same oxymoron from his own discipline's perspective: "It was important to show how the data was interacting with the baby. It couldn't be threatening in any way, it had to be comforting. … The data that came off the baby was meant to be very organic, rather than like a digitized baby. In the early days we had the data much closer to the skin, but when you're working that close, we found we needed to lift it further and further off the skin because it started to feel like a digital tattoo."

Now that Big Blue's marketing has gone the science-fantasy route, humanized science coding no longer feels particularly emergent, in US culture and communications. (So what science coding is emergent? Ironically, perhaps it's what IBM used to be known for: cold, inhuman, unemotional, inorganic, even threatening science/technology coding.) However, it should be noted that there are two codes at work in "Data Baby": the baby (humanized science) and the data (patterns emerging from ultra-complex info-sets). Let's not throw the bathwater out with the baby.

 

[1] This truism may have been borrowed from "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon," a 1942 Leigh Brackett story in which a character says: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, …. Simple science to the learned" — which might, in turn, have taken inspiration from Mark Twain's 1889 time-travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 6 Comments »

Show Me the Molecule

Monday, November 8th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Globish and English

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

 

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

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

Meet the Semionauts

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

When Raymond Williams suggested, during a 1981 lecture, that semiotics is a science of signs and systems "not confined to language," he was referring to post-structuralist efforts by Barthes and others to "read" certain phenomena, e.g. fashion or pro wrestling, as though they were language-like systems of signs — albeit ones where (unlike language) the system itself is never and can never be disclosed. Williams described this sort of semiotic enterprise as "radical" and "explosive." In The Whole Creature, her excellent 2006 book about complexity science and biosemiotics, Wendy Wheeler goes further. She proposes that Williams was also

surely thinking of the usefulness of systems of 'reading' which do not reduce knowing to knowing in conceptual linguistic terms, but in which we can talk, for example, of 'reading' the combination of gesture, rhythm, tone and space in a dance, or of colour, brushstroke and content in a painting. He was concerned, as others have been before and after him, with those kinds of knowledges which are embodied in lived and skilful engagement with the world and with other embodied creatures.

Williams' lecture, as far as I can tell, does not say any of this! However, Wheeler's exegesis of the "Creative Mind" chapter of his The Long Revolution (1961) persuades me that Williams may indeed have been thinking along those lines. Really, I don't care whether or not Wheeler's supposition is correct. I'm fascinated by her articulation of a radical/explosive form of knowledge that cannot be "read" and conveyed (not wholly, anyway) in conceptual/propositional language, but which instead must be "read" and conveyed semiotically.

"Tacit knowing," to use Michael Polanyi's terminology, or "tacit, semiotic knowledge," to use Wheeler's, means learning to "read" an unwritten language, or decode a system of signs that was never encoded to begin with. When you put it that way, semiotic knowing sounds eerily similar to "patternicity" or apophenia — i.e., seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random (meaningless) data. Which is something that paranoiacs do. Yet as Polanyi and others have sought to demonstrate, semiotic knowing is an activity in which every single human engages, e.g., when we learn how to ride a bicycle, or when we become pro wrestlers or fashion designers. It's an activity that a select few people do brilliantly — and we call such people not paranoiacs, but geniuses! That said, we don't necessarily treat these geniuses with much compassion.

When Wheeler notes that "others have been [concerned with semiotic knowing] before" Williams was, to whom does she refer? She points to Husserl, and elsewhere mentions the German and English Romantics. She's not incorrect — however, in order to locate pre-Williams examples of men and women who demonstrate abnormal expertise in semiotic knowing (let's call such men and women semionauts), there's no need to ascend into such lofty realms of culture.

From the titular protagonist of J.D. Beresford's novel The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) to the titular protagonist of Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), to the titular protagonist of Robert Heinlein's Friday (1982, but presumably written before Williams' 1981 speech), science fiction is replete with fictional semionauts. NB: Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias), the multiple-TV-watching genius in Alan Moore's Watchmen is a post-Williams fictional semionaut; Moore's graphic novel was serialized in 1986-87. I've written a bit more about sci-fi semionauts elsewhere.

The pathos of the semionaut, as depicted in science fiction (and in other genres of pulp fiction; Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, for example), is that although she (Heinlein's Friday, among others, is female) can draw expertly and productively upon experiential, phenomenological knowledge — "the not wholly self-present or self-conscious knowledge of a body in the company of a self-reflexive mind capable of nurturing it," as Wheeler puts it — she finds herself (alas) surrounded by normal humans who demand that she translate her insights into conceptual and propositional language. As a result, she can seem inarticulate, stupid, because her less talented contemporaries cannot communicate semiotically — i.e., verbally and nonverbally.

Worse, because semiotic knowing "hovers somewhere between the experiential [and "disattentive"] cunning of the animal and the more self-disciplined and attentive cunning of the man" (Wheeler, again), the sci-fi semionaut may seem only half-human, to those around her. While still a child, Stapledon's Odd John is described as "a creature which appeared as urchin but also as sage … half monkey, half gargogyle, yet wholly urchin." David Bowie was surely thinking [to use a Wheelerism] of Odd John when he wrote 1971's "Oh! You Pretty Things."

Pity the poor semionaut! Or don't: after all, Bowie's song claims that we "gotta make way for the homo superior."

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Posted in Americas, Contributions from, Disciplines, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | 6 Comments »

Icon Game

Friday, October 29th, 2010

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

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.

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Posted in Consumer Culture, Contributions from, Disciplines, Europe, Header Navigation, Lateral Navigation, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

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.

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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 »

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 »

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 the invisibility of the visibility. It must be neither past nor future, but rather right here, right now, right on the visible, right on the screen. The screen is écart. To think temporality is thinking of écart. Écart is invisible but the invisible and the visible belong to being the screen. Écart means proximity and distance, presence and absence, both sameness and difference.

© Lucia Neva 2010

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

Nuclear Kitty

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

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

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

Visual Shopping

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Material culture and design are the main storytellers of our society. Design has become the common language to describe our relationship with objects and the subconscious messages they convey. Objects define us; they are signs of who we are and who we are not.  Visual shopping is a semiotics methodology that helps to shape these stories, bringing disperse concepts together and trying to make sense of a culture by analysing its cultural language. Visual shopping is about curious collecting, giving access to culture through combining theoretical approaches from material culture and design in equal measures.

Visual shoppers immerse into specific social spaces, analyse culture by collecting with a semiotic, anthropological and design eye stimulus such as images, packaging, and other popular culture materials. Visual shopping is not about – as some people might think– going out and taking photographs at random. It is about collecting, interpreting and validating relevant cultural codes, which can influence future trends in consumption spaces. Visual shopping is a process that enquires the relationships between material cultures and social environments.

Accessing and inquiring cultural spaces via visual shopping

The meaning of space as a semiotic sign is understood in relation to objects and people. The background of this thinking has been shared by Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Peirce, Debray, just to mention a few. Even Einstein contemplated the relationship between space and objects in his theory of relativity. Meaning is created when distinctions are recognised as qualities of the space, which are dependent on material and visual cultures. This is where we began to recognise space as a semiotic sign. Space creates paradigms and defines sign distinctions.

The spatial quality of material culture has a profound impact on the way we, as society, interpret things in our daily lives. Space contributes to nonverbal aspects of communication based on cultural rules, objects and images. Images and objects speak more about people than people can talk about themselves. Studying material and visual culture in specific cultural contexts opens a better understanding of their role in meaning. Visual shopping as a semiotic approach helps to understand meaning in different scenarios from design to social environments. This methodology is aware of multiple realities, and multiple interpretations, it is cautious of presumptions about a community.

When accessing cultural spaces, it is essential to identify the nature of the visual and historical context before a visit, just to determine possible cultural scenarios. A visual shopper should be aware that pre in-situ interpretations are always provisional, and they need to be validated during and post-fieldwork. It is necessary, before starting any fieldwork, to have a clear understanding of the research questions in order to identify scenarios, geographical locations, situations that are potential sources of cultural information. The process of collecting key visual information helps us to construct a semiotic view of specific cultural contexts. However, the process of understanding meanings during fieldwork requires the visual shopper to find and organise information, establish relationships, and make connections between visual signs, objects, and cultural ideas.

The most difficult part of studying cultural spaces, especially for a researcher without an orientation towards semiotics, is acquiring the habit of searching for the right signs in spatial elements, translating the visual vocabularies and sensorial experiences into categories that can be used effectively by brands in their communication strategies.

© Lucia Neva 2010

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