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Semiotic Square – Brazil
by Malcolm Evans| Brighton, UK
Sunday, 1 May 2011
tags: americas, culture, europe, global vectors, making sense, semiotics, socioeconomics
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