Archive for December, 2011


American Masculinity

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011


American Masculinity, Shown in All Its Angst – by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, published November 30, 2011

In her article, Melena Ryzik notes a theme in movie nominees (starting with nominees for the Gotham Independent Film Awards announced on 28th November 2011): whether struggling single fathers, real-life men searching for their place in history, fictional figures facing uncertain futures, “the existential crises of men” seems to lead the way once again.

Is this a reflection of the lengthy development cycle of films (and therefore, a delayed reflection of what’s really going on in culture)? Or is this simply a reflection of what the author refers to as a Hollywood “brofest”?

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

Everyone needs a hug, right?

Monday, December 12th, 2011



The sight of people hugging has become a commonplace, almost inescapable, feature across popular media in the UK. For reality TV programmes such as the X-Factor a show is not complete without outbursts of tears and copious hugging. Hugs have also become a visible feature of the Occupy movement. From Wall Street to Amsterdam; London to Brazil, groups of people can be found amongst the occupy protesters brandishing signs reading 'Free Hugs'.

The Free Hugs Campaign  was initiated several years ago with the purpose of going out into the streets of towns and cities offering hugs for free. As the Free Hugs Campaign has grown in popularity the 'hug' has emerged as both an action and symbol that serves to counteract the isolation and alienation of modern life.

The promotion of hugs has been further supported by the increasing political interest in happiness and well-being. Happiness is presented by organisations such as Action for Happiness as the antidote to the obsession with wealth and materialism that has caused a global economic crisis and increasing public unrest.

The ubiquity of the hug has set certain standards about how we should display our feelings and what our ability to show our emotions says about us as human beings. The hug is regarded as an action that is a necessary and natural part of being human. If an individual fails to engage in the hugging etiquette they are considered abnormal. Hugging has become a normative requirement. The hug is an attempt to transcend the binds of day-to-day life but as a social obligation, it has become another duty, rather than a liberation from repression.

The hug is perceived as a means to reconnect with our 'true' human selves and form solidarity with each other.  Hugs are designed to make us feel good and special by protecting us from negative thoughts and feelings. But they can also be about the reinforcement of a repressive sense of belonging and inwardness.

It’s also interesting to note that, as well as being a symbol of emotional liberation and authentic self-expression, the hug is also a physically restrictive position. The vision of open arms is a sign of comfort and reassurance.

But equally, arms can hold us in a tight grip, creating a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who belong, and those who don’t. Zizek has warned the Occupy protestors of the danger they might fall in love with themselves (read his article here) – and it’s arguable that gestures of mutual belonging and self-congratulatory reciprocity, like hugging, can be symptoms of a narcissistic political culture.

Of course, from time to time we all need a hug. But the idealism of the Free Hugs Campaign can lead to the idea that a quick feel-good fix can solve everything. For this reason it’s curious to see how the campaign has been incorporated so easily into the Occupy movement, despite its radical demands. An over-reliance on the symbolism of the hug, and other quick feel-good fixes, as a manifesto for making the world a better place, can blind us from seeing the complexity, and experiencing the discomfort, of facing political and societal problems.

© Caroline Pearce 2011

Posted in Culture, Europe | 5 Comments »


Monday, December 5th, 2011



The close-up shot is currently a popular visual trope in advertising and media, with examples abounding from all sectors. And as the camera gets closer and closer – in particular, closer and closer to the human face and body – it seems we’re dealing with a new way of saying ‘this is real’.

Brands have long sought proximity to consumers, exploring different ways to express the idea of authentic engagement. But it now seems their quest for authenticity is relying on ever-increasing levels of physical proximity and intimacy.

(Nike homepage)

So what does the physical proximity of the close-up signify? And how does it fit with today’s cultural landscape?

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the cultural ascendancy of science is a relevant factor. For personal-care brands in particular, that means a shift away from images of psychological authenticity (confidence, self-expression) towards the representation of physiological detail such as cellular process and biological structure. So the camera needs to zoom in much closer than it has done before.  

This symbolic dimension of the close-up could be dubbed ‘ethical naturalism’: a representation of natural and biological processes that’s far from morally neutral. Instead it’s invested with a sense of awe, placing a burden of responsibility and care with the consumer. ‘See how fascinating and wonderful the skin is – doesn’t it deserve the very best moisturisation?’ Displayed as remarkable phenomena, bodies need to be carefully looked after: the close-up shot of skin or hair implies an attitude of wonder, care and respect.   

 Vaseline’s platform ‘Your skin is amazing’ provides a typical expression of ‘ethical naturalism’, and unsurprisingly, makes extensive use of close-up photography too.

Also driving the rise of the close-up are social media. The close-up is, in a sense, a metonym for social-media culture, symbolising the over-exposure and intimate revelation made possible by platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With brands keen to participate in this world, it’s not surprising that they’re using close-ups to ally themselves with it.

Both these approaches to the close-up – ethical naturalism and the rise of social media – can be united under the Lacanian term ‘extimacy’. For Lacan, the most intimate aspects of experience are ultimately external or other to the subject, just as the intimacies of social media and of biological naturalism re-locate inner ‘truth’ externally. Extimacy seems to be one of the key tropes in advertising today, which is finding a new aesthetic focus in the externalisation of the intimate.

Posted in Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Semiotics | 3 Comments »