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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.

 

Posted in Clients & Brands, Culture, Network, Semiotics, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Diversity Act II

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Act II Reconciliation Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

MobileMadoc

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

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

© Malcolm Evans 2014

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

Pretty in Scarlet

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

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

A kiss from the USSR

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

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

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

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

RedLipstick2

Reverse femininity

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

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

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

Passive aggressive

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

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

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

RedLipstick3

Opposing the dominant ‘natural’ trend

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

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

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

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

© Marina Simakova 2013

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

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

Posted in Asia, Culture, Making Sense, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Changing realities

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Louise Jolly 2011

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

Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

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

 

July 2011

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

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

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

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

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

Posted in Asia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Global/Local, Semiotics, Uncategorized | 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: 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

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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 »

The Spirit of Youth

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

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

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

We All Want to Be Young from box1824 on Vimeo.

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

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

 

The spirit of youth’s firstness: 

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

 

The spirit of youth’s secondness: 

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


The spirit of youth’s thirdness:

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

 

The manifesto of now:

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

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

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

 

© João Cavalcanti 2010

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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 »

The Global Hole

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

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

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

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

keanu

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

SHEILA:

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

KATHRYN:

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

SHEILA:

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

KATHRYN:

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

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

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

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

He looked at me dumbly.

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

“Keanu REEVES, you are from Toronto.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks Manny.”

“I know who took these, Katreen.”

“You do?” I said.

“Yes, Chinese people.”

I thought I’d misheard.

“What?” I said.

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

“Uh. You think?”

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

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

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

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

 
© Kathryn Borel 2010 

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

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 »