Archive for November, 2010


The Number of the Beast

Monday, November 29th, 2010

There are wolves in our midst. Earlier this year, Benicio del Toro fulfilled his childhood wish, playing a werewolf in Joe Johnston’s remake of the 1941 classic horror The Wolfman. Eristoff Black Vodka is spilling much ink trying to persuade us its origins lie in 'The Land of the Wolf’. French Connection’s current campaign [example below] presents us with a beardy Frenchman and a series of laconic (or was that endearingly mis-translated) sound-bites. One of the best simply reads ‘Feel Like Wolf’. The Grinderman 2 album cover reveals a striking, solitary, seething wolf. Somehow, it’s managed to find its way onto a beige rug in a tidy living room in Hove. I can think of more examples (and down here in Brighton, there suddenly seem to be more huskies than there are people to walk them). What’s it all about?

Wolves have meant a vast range of things to the human cultures with whom they have at one time or another been sympatric. I’m not qualified to comment on the diachronic shape shifting that has occurred here, but I am interested in the sheer range of takes on this (still very much endangered) signifier.

In the 1930s, Disney helped to curate an image of the wolf as a harbinger of dread and impoverishment. ‘Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (the theme song to the 1934 cartoon Three Little Pigs) became a national ditty of defiance during the Depression era. The parallels with our current fiscal and climatic predicament are fairly obvious. In this instance, as Geoffrey Cocks writes in his 2004 book The Wolf at the Door, ‘the wolf retains its old European and American symbolic meaning of, originally agrarian, fear of hunger and starvation’. 

But there’s also a distinct sexual meaning attached to the image of the wolf. Cocks reminds us of the origins of Little Red Riding Hood, which began its narrative life in 17th-century France as a cautionary tale against female bed-hopping. There’s more than a hint of the randy flaneur in French Connection’s recent output. Likewise, Derrida’s bringing together of the wolf and the sovereign in his later lectures (both are outlaws: neither pays heed to the rules if a situation calls for juridical override) echoes the masculine, predatory court life that gave Little Red the heebie-jeebies (and any number of other venereal complaints).

My suspicion is that as a signifer, the wolf is too overloaded to point to anything utterly specific today. But I’m drawn to Grinderman’s lupine fugitive. There is a sense here of forced entrance, and the hitherto unseen juxtapositions it entails. We’re in the same territory as Alan Weisman’s World Without Us. Schopenhauerean creepers engulf the London Eye. Baboons gargle mohitos in the Gherkin. Earlier this year, tragedy arrived in the form of a fox that crept through an open window in east London and mauled a young child asleep in its bed. This palpable sense of savage encroachment has roots in real-world unpredictability.  

If anything, then, sentiments of vulnerability underpin the ubiquity wolves in contemporary cultural expression. From denial (with French Connection suggesting there’s no real reason to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf) to lionization (the appeal of Eristoff being precisely its alliance with lunar mystique and, no doubt, its ability to bring about grotesque transformations in character) to a more troubling, if hyperbolic confrontation (courtesy of the Grindermen), one thing seems certain: the beast is now amongst the brethren.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

The Sociability of Colour

Friday, November 26th, 2010

The way colour theory is taught is rapidly evolving. I remember the long and lonely nights I spent, years ago while studying graphic design, painting hundreds of colour wheels. My professors believed that the only way to learn the basic principles of colour theory was by doing such paintings until you got all the colours right. These practices are long gone, thanks to the emergence of online applications that not only discuss and analyse basic notions and expressions in colour theory, but also fledgling designers learn, create and apply colour principles to real projects.

One of the applications that is changing the way we engage with colour is Kuler, a free web-hosted programme designed by Adobe, which is all about integration of colour theory and its application to individual projects. Kuler is designed for experimenting, creating and sharing colour palettes based on predefined colour parameters by using an interactive colour wheel. Some might argue that similar applications have been around for quite a while, but Kuler is unique in its aim to popularize the mechanics of colour, by clearly visualising how it works and adding social features that allow users browse and rate other people’s palettes. It is like iTunes or Flickr but with colour. The user-friendly interface makes colour accessible to non-design experts, which helps to build a more sociable use of colour. Without a doubt, learning and applying colour theories via Kuler is a far more inviting and sociable experience than drawing innumerable colour palettes by hand.

The idea of a community based around colour is nothing new. ColourLovers was one of the first communities to be built around the idea of colour and pattern sharing. What differentiates Kuler from such communities is the way in which it puts the individual at the centre of a social experience. Kuler's interface and language — “my Kuler”, “my value” — invites active involvement, by creating a sense of belonging via personal contribution to the colour community. Kuler is also getting into the trends space, not only by the multiple associations suggested by its name but by adding simple interactive features that help users visualise what is going on globally with colour. When you get non-experts experimenting and socialising with colour, the potential for following and spreading colour trends across the world becomes a real transformation in how we engage with colour. Kuler’s interface makes invisible cultural dynamics of meaning and representation of colour visible, by opening up the ability to track colour trends, building a more precise point of view about design now, and bringing insights for future designs.

What attracts me to Kuler is not only what it does as a tool, but the thinking behind what people are doing with it, what people are getting from it, how people interact with it, and most importantly, what matters to people who use it. Kuler is opening new discussions around the theorisation and application of colour, exploring the visualisation of how people are expressing themselves through colour, and making colour schemes social. This application is opening a new path in the creation of contemporary politics of mapping and visualisation of colour experiences in a globalized world.

If Kuler wants to take the concept of community a step further, it might need to face the visual challenges of dealing with ambiguity, otherness and multi-dimensionality of the colour experience. Until then, Kuler is pioneering new paradigms in visual culture representation, and bringing the world of design and appreciation of colour closer to the non-experts.

Posted in Art & Design, Emergence, Europe, Experts & Agencies | 2 Comments »

Ben Franklin, Semiotician

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Thanksgiving Day is a harvest festival celebrated — in the United States — on the fourth Thursday of November, i.e., tomorrow. Whether the holiday was first celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation (Massachusetts, my home state) in 1621, or earlier and elsewhere by Spanish explorers, is a disputed question among historians, Also, there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim's first thanksgiving feast. Nevertheless, along with pilgrims and Native Americans, turkey is an indispensable signifier of Thanksgiving — familiarly referred to as "turkey day." This might not have been the case, though, had one of the country's Founding Fathers succeeded in convincing his peers that the domestic turkey would serve as an appropriate official emblem for America itself.

In 1784, a little over a year after the US Congress adopted Charles Thomson's pompous neoclassical design for the Great Seal of the United States, the centerpiece of which is a bald eagle, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, in which he lamented: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy."

Franklin's letter continues: "I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

Of course, some of my country's critics might argue that — for these very reasons — the eagle has, in the end, turned out to be a perfect emblem of the United States. To them, and to those who disagree with them alike, I say: Happy Thanksgiving.

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

East and West in Wonderland

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

It’s 2010, and Queen Victoria’s empire is still going strong. At least in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. Here we have Alice falling down the rabbit hole in order to resolve a few psychological issues and find herself, before returning to the real world to set sail for China and open up some new trade routes.

So, while it only gets the briefest mention in the plot, the East is the film’s end-point and possibly its hidden meaning too. Here, the story becomes a personal-development narrative, all about strengthening its heroine for her colonial mission. Transposing this version back into the late 19th century would make Alice a Girl Guide, undertaking character-building missions aimed at forging resolute servants of Empire.

The film shows the extent to which the themes of identity and empire-building go together. Alice’s identity quest is all about working out whether she’s the ‘right Alice’ — the girl whose mission it is to fight the enemy and establish the rule of good.

Good, evil; true, false; even red and white — the film is propelled forward by pure binary logic, pitting self against other, heroes against villains, and of course West against East too.

It’s strange that this most violent and oppositional of logics should be instated at the heart of one of 19th-century England’s most deconstructive stories.  After all, when Alice meets the Caterpillar, and confronts his scornful question ‘Who are you?’, it’s to undergo the unravelling of identity — to keep getting it ‘wrong’ without any hope of getting it ‘right’ — not to start out on a quest for her true self.

In 1966, Jonathan Miller adapted Alice in Wonderland for the BBC in a version fully open to this deconstructiveness. No binary opposites or identity quests here; no colonial missions or Manichean showdowns. Instead, we have Ravi Shankar’s sitar accompanying Alice as she wanders from one mystifying experience to the next — East and West together bending sound and logic as they venture outside the conceptual structures of opposition, violence and empire.

Of course, it’s possible to read the use of the sitar in this film as a signifier of exotica, or 1960s psychedelia — keeping in place a colonial idea of the East as the West’s fantasy playground. But, interestingly, Jonathan Miller wanted to use the instrument because it was the best way to get the sound he was looking for: the buzzing of insects on an English summer’s day. What better deconstruction of the East-West opposition than that: the sitar as the very sound of the English pastoral?

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

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 »

Drinking Collagen

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

In China, Japan and Malaysia women are drinking collagen to fight the signs of ageing.  Slogans in Beijing and Shanghai departments stores promise: "Take a collagen drink for 30 days and have skin as soft as a baby's".  The Gilgamesh pan-Asian restaurant in North London is also promising to introduce collagen-infused dishes before the end of 2010. 

The inside-outside beauty dynamic becomes increasingly supple as the skin gets semiotically reconstituted as a kind of sentient membrane that allows traffic between inside subject and outside object worlds increasingly to pass both ways. If this traffic has, in one sense, an almost science fictional feel it is simultaneously underwritten by codes of natural authenticity.  So authentic and natural is the DHC China cosmetic firm's pale yellow juice, for example, that it comes with an explanation that the collagen is taken from fish – and a promise that the drink won't taste fishy. 

Posted in Asia, Categories, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Technology | No Comments »

Multiplying Stories

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talk on stories, power and authenticity is an insipration not to be missed around themes of perception and communication within and between cultures today.  

She talks about the damaging effects of 'the single story' and the limiting stereotypes of people and places such a story perpetuates.  About the Nigerian concept of 'Nkali' – the power to tell the story of another person and make that the definitive story (we will all be familiar with examples of this in our own countries and cultures, a negation in practice of equality and enlightenment).  She outlines contemporary cultural assumptions about a single Africanness, talks about the representation of Mexicans as 'the abject immigrant' in US media and illustrates the rich inner diversity of Nigerian popular cinema and musical culture.  She concludes with a positive vision which realises that there is never just a single story – in order to "regain a kind of paradise".

Don't let this summary replace the 20 minutes it will take to engage with the unique voice and personality of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Apart from anything else this talk is an object lesson in communicating challenging ideas about culture and communication with extraordinary clarity, grace and humour.  

Posted in Africa, Americas, Culture, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Sequencing, Socioeconomics | No Comments »

Whiskey & Wabi-Sabi

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

One of the by-products of the so called 'wa boom' in Japan is a climate that is amenable to a Nipponification of products that would previously have been considered prototypically Western. Even coffee, once ham-fistedly advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger — is being given a Japanese twist. Coffee drinking has been considered a Western affectation since the 1920s Taisho era in Japan when it was the preserve of flapper girls sipping from Art Deco crockery. A more subtle Japanese appreciation is taking over from the tired European epicurean codes and bringing coffee closer to tea in tonality.

Now whisky is the beverage to undergo a ‘wa’ makeover. An FT article last month on Japanese whiskies trumpeted the recent triumph of Japanese brands in global tasting competitions. What most piqued my interest as a semiotician — beyond perfunctory references to the Bill Murray scene in Lost in Translation — is the bottle design of Japanese whiskies. Whiskey in Japan is shedding its regalia and going native. I was most taken by the Suntory Hibiki bottle (the name means resonance which is quite clever for a whiskey as it references not only the echoing through the distillation process, the empathy of conversations during the consumption moment, but also the many flavours that resonate like notes on the palate). The semiotics of the label on pack are masterfully simple and seem more at home on a sake bottle than on whiskey.

The centerpiece of the bottle is a worn patch of Japanese parchment typically used for calligraphy or that you might find hanging up in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese home. Even though flecked with gold leaf (typically used in decorative poetic letters or on lacquerware boxes) the patch is humble — apparently roughly excised from a roll with the fluff and miniscule filaments of the paper visible on the border.

The deeply weathered and threadbare-looking ochre hue of the paper give an impression of craft but also of muted temperance to the packaging. The effect of the parchment and of slightly scratchy calligraphy (done in informal sosho or ‘grass’ script which is also making a comeback in Japan) communicates a meekness that countervails the elegant squatness of the beveled decanter.

The patch on the bottle could be said to tap into codes of wabi-sabi. The book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) sets out the principles of this design style as including the following: soft vague edges, ostensible crudity, a tolerance of ambiguity, and acceptance of the inevitable. Hibiki may be just a little too immaculate for this. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that in a Japan where the so-called Golden Recession has engendered a real crisis in masculinity and where geopolitical power shifts have triggered a period of introspection, Japanese whiskey should reflect this change with Suntory, one of the most design-literate companies (along with Shiseido, an FMCG company all graphic designers in Japan want to work for), at the vanguard.

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

Collective Expressions

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Crowds are everywhere at the moment. Spontaneous gatherings are spreading like wildfire across advertising, cultural events, and publishing.

With social networking on the rise, there’s an obvious reason for communications companies to take an interest in the crowd. The rapid spread of viral sharing has found expression in the ‘flash mob’ genre famously adopted by T-Mobile in the UK, with the brand’s Liverpool Street station mass dance. Sony Ericsson was quick to follow with its mass procession of people on space hoppers.

It’s not just happening in the communications sector. More widely, crowds are now seen as sources of spontaneous expression, intelligence, and creativity.

For instance, The Wisdom of Crowds, a pop-sociology book by James Surowiecki, talks about how large groups of people, by providing a mass aggregate of opinion, ‘know’ more than individuals ever can.

And ‘meaning in numbers’ is even extending to the domain of personal care — previously the territory of the isolated beauty-seeker gazing in her mirror. An example is Vaseline’s global platform ‘Your skin is amazing’, with its ads [detail below] featuring hundreds of bodies intertwined into a ‘sea of skin’. 

Bringing collective expression into the domain of skincare represents a decisive shift in the way we imagine the body. For Vaseline, skin is now to be valued and loved as part of our ‘common wealth’ — a shared human treasure, rather than an individually-owned object of display and pride.

On the British cultural scene, the rising popularity of summer music festivals also demonstrates the new value placed on collective congregation and shared expression. This summer’s Big Chill music and arts festival was attended by Spencer Tunick, the photographer of vast gatherings of naked bodies — who took a panoramic shot of massed naked festival-goers. The crowd created and constructed within the bigger crowd of the festival — it would be hard to find a clearer expression of the theme at work.

Spencer Tunick’s panoramas of mass nakedness and Vaseline’s ‘sea of skin’ seem to be saying something very similar: forget the age of the ‘private’, and of individual discrimination — we’re now in an era when collective expression carries more weight. The theme of nakedness only adds to the implicit message: it’s time to strip away the illusions of individuality and separateness, and join in a shared humanity.

It takes us a long way from the 20th-century critical-modernist idea that the ‘mass’ was necessarily inert, passive, and stupid. Within this framework, intelligence or creativity lay with the ‘one’, or the small cabal: outsiders who used the margins to probe what was really going on.

But is the celebration of the crowd really such a radical departure — or does it simply reflect a new humanism? In a sense, rather than dispersing the ‘unified subject’ so heavily criticised in academia, the crowd revives it in a many-headed form. 

It’s true that the idea of humanity produced in the Vaseline campaign and the flash mob genre asks us to ascribe creativity, art, and expression to the many rather than to the lone genius. The underlying narcissism, though, remains the same, constructing humanity as a collective superstar, with powers and qualities worthy of constant marvelling.

Posted in Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Culture, Emergence, Europe | 4 Comments »

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 »

High-Tech Traditionalism

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

The Siddhi Vinayak temple in Bombay has a website (pictured below) wherein devotees can have an online, live darshan of the pujas being conducted daily. Lord Ganesha is the Hindu god who removes all obstacles in one’s path and is hence the god who is always prayed to at the commencement of any new venture. The temple is famous amongst the thousands of Ganesha temples across the country as one where the miraculous powers of the god is strongest and the wishes of devotees have the best chance of being fulfilled.

Electric diyas (lamps), shaped like the traditional lamps but fitted with small bulbs so that they switch on at the press of a button, and which can be kept safely lit throughout the day and night, are a modern invention. These are designed to replace the traditional lamps that are filled with oil and have cotton wicks that need to be lit — a process that is messy and can also be a fire hazard. 

Families who are spread between India and the USA use Skype and webcams to keep grandparents and grandchildren fully connected and integrated. Making use of the time difference, when it is bed time for the grandchildren, the grandmothers start their morning telling their grandchildren the traditional stories of Indian culture, e.g., from the Ramayana.

Matrimonial websites in India are designed to address the Indian preference for arranged marriages and to enable parents to hunt for brides and grooms for their children. This is in contrast to dating-and-mating websites in the West which are designed for individuals to find their own partners. Bhajans (devotional songs) are amongst the most popular caller tune downloads amongst a large segment of consumers, including youth. Many use these bhajans to signal their personality and identity amongst their social network.

These cultural artefacts reveal that Indian culture embraces change but with continuity. The traditions that live on through the ages, do so in an updated form that fit with the context and environment of the time. The content and spirit remain unchanged but the form and format are contemporized. Hindu culture has morphed in this manner from the time of the first Muslim conquests of India in the early 1100s to the advent of the Moghuls, the British, and now modern consumerism.

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Posted in Asia, Contributions from, Culture, Disciplines, Global Vectors, Header Navigation | 2 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?
Muslims, Chavs and Luvvies
Sexism, racism, ageism, antisemitism and homophobia are all punishable in England by ostracism from polite (‘luvvie’) society. It’s expected, however, that people will be casually and openly offensive about Muslims and the working class. According to official ideology the latter ceased to exist in 1986 yet they are universally recognised and publicly derided as ‘Chavs’, whose cultural positioning is below that of the Ainu in Japan, the Australian aborigines or the indigenous and largely demoralised Celtic native Britons – the Irish, Scots and Welsh. In bourgeois ideology Chavs are characterised by obesity, extensive tattooing and piercing, shaved heads and football shirts in the male, and ironic uncouthness, enthusiastic adoption of hardcore pornography signifiers plus feisty abnegation of traditional femininity in the female. A London-based Russian female semiotician (unscientifically and off the record) comments: “If you want to understand why so many English men are gay, look at the women”.  Chavs used to wear Burberry but Abercrombie & Fitch and Superdry are current brands of choice. Luvvies are everybody else – verbally articulate people with no sense of fashion or rhythm.
English identity, despite attempts at disguise, tends towards the Luvvie, Chav or Muslim.  After the military adventurism, crimes of bankers and current attempts to make the population at large deal with the tab for years to come, the systematic dismantling  (under the guise of necessity rather than political choice) of what remained from the post-World War 2 vision of a fairer social order – after all this it is wise to approach carefully not expecting too much in terms of optimism, ebullience, creativity, good will. 
The green shots will emerge in the cracks and the synergies. Traditional working-class solidarity, scepticism, resistance (helped by new media) to propaganda and escapist pap media, rediscovery of industrial and other forms of activism. The openness, tolerance, responsibility, shared humanity and progressive attitude traditionally associated with middle-class professionals – commitment to equality and fraternity beyond a fetishising of liberty alone (particularly the neoliberal distortion of this into economic liberalisation). From the positive Muslim perspective harmony, respect, active caring for those less privileged, a powerful alternative vision to the reductiveness of market individualism, materialism, image and lifestyle aspiration. For now just look out for a kind of Islam-respecting luvvie-chav synergising process. Slavoj Zizek’s First as Tragedy Then as Farce is a helpful start point. Remember when you see England’s Muslim-scapegoating front-page tabloid headlines that some of the forerunners of these journalists and press lords were Hitler sympathisers in the 1930s. And remember Roland Barthes who was probably at his most Englsh when he wrote in Mythologies in the 1950s that the best semiology is also SEMIOCLASM. This means vigilance and resistance at every turn, breaking open mystifying language and imagery, refusing to let it function as it would wish – to slide past our critical faculties by appearing perfectly ‘natural’ and uncontestable.
© Malcolm Evans  2010

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

Check Mate

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Clever has the brains. Stupid has the balls. Smart has the plans. But stupid has the stories. Smart goes with the head. Stupid, the heart. This, at least, is how the world looks according to Diesel. Their recent campaign — prominent almost to the point of obtrusiveness — repositions foolhardiness as a virtue. By encouraging flippancy, and denouncing tact, Diesel places reason in the dock. Thing is, it’s a show trial. The jury are all wearing American Indian headdresses.

I’ve noticed a good deal of push-back against this campaign. Many of the people I speak with about it evince a kind of mild fury. At a time like this, how could a brand be so irresponsible? How could a brand be so downright…stupid?

And yet, that seems to be the point. It all fits rather nicely. For the Diesel philosophy to hold any ground at all, the campaign ethos needs to be as consistently idiotic as the message it’s promoting. Promote stupidity and in the midst of climatic and economic crisis? It’s a ridiculous idea. It’s perfect.

Perhaps, though, it’s not just the recklessness of the Diesel mentality that grinds on people. We’re being asked to admire the imprudent, to throw caution and our knickers (oo-eer) to the wind. Ads focus on reminding us of the appeal of daftness. But they steer clear of detailing the monotony of intelligence on which this endorsement relies. The elephant in the room arrives in the shape of a colossal cranium. And here’s where G-Star RAW come in.

On first appearances, G-Star’s recent output doesn’t seem anything special. Their greyscale image of a moody teenager can be routinely encountered on almost any London Underground platform. Upright he stands, hands behind back, delivering a seething screwface at anyone who catches his eye. To some, however (especially Norwegians, towards whom I’ve lately been feeling an inexplicable fondness), this figure will be instantly recognizable. It’s Magnus Carlsen, currently the world chess number two, officially declared a Grandmaster aged just thirteen.

He looks like he might have landed his first knockout blow around that time too. Carlsen’s face is wound into a tight ball of indignation. He looks about to crack. Smart — this coding is suggesting — can also be savage. This is an intelligence that spills into ire. What’s more it’s apolitical, undirected. G-Star have transposed the mindless irreverence of Diesel’s idiots and planted it on the face of one of the world’s most fascinating young prodigies.

Carlsen doesn’t clearly sit on the nerd table. Broaches, horn-rims and dynamite quiffs run up against a bruiser who looks like he eats polka-dot socks for breakfast. If Diesel want us to give the thumbs down to a certain version of nerdiness, they had better check the nerds haven’t got there first. Currently, they are relying on a quickly dating understanding of braininess to promote their own personal brand of horseplay. It’s this that makes the campaign feel so tired — not the counterintuitive radicalism that supposedly lies at its core.

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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 »

Anti-Aging Flap

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Americans celebrated the spooky-kooky Halloween holiday, yesterday. Thoughts of ghosts and goblins prompted Mark Frauenfelder, founder of the popular group blog Boing Boing to ask the blogosphere), "What the heck is this weird skin flap on Boo Berry?"

See the odd flap of skin (that's what it looks like, anyway) on the side of Boo Berry's mouth, in the illustration from a box of Boo Berry cereal (General Mills), below.

I've got the answer!

Boo Berry, who began haunting us way back in 1973, is getting a bit long (and yellow) in the tooth, these days. Also, as reported on April 1st, 2008, Boo Berry is soon going to be the subject of a biopic starring Christopher Walken. Which means he'll be making a lot of talk-show appearances. Like every other aging celebrity, he wants to recapture his youthful good looks.

So Boo Berry has, it seems obvious to me, begun using Maybelline's new product, the [Age] Eraser ("It's a new age in anti-aging!"). Which, as the advertisement below indicates, apparently works by pulling loose facial skin off to the side, where it's gathered in a drooping, pendulous flap.


I guess the flap then dangles from your face? I'm surprised it isn't surgically removed, but some folks would rather walk around with a pensile flap on their cheek than go under the scalpel. Or perhaps the image of Boo Berry above was taken in between his Eraser treatment and surgery? Either way, it's spooky stuff. Shades [get it?] of Katherine Helmond's endless plastic surgery in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Brrrr. Happy Halloween!

NOTE: Cross-posted from

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Posted in Americas, Brand Worlds, Clients & Brands, Contributions from, Disciplines, Header Navigation, Making Sense | 2 Comments »