FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Sunday, 29 May 2016
tags: culture, europe, fuzzy sets, making sense, semiotics
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 4, 2016. (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.
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).
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