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Topics In Cultural Studies
1. Introduction to Semiotics
2. Myths and Signs
3. Contemporary Examples
1. Introduction to Semiotics
Semiotics (or semiology) is the “study of signs”
Several different strands of semiotics usually acknowledge their debt to a 1915 work on linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure called Course in General Linguistics, which was published posthumously.
Before that C. S Peirce, an American philosopher, had identified three different ways in which a sign can signify something:
The symbolic function is best exemplified by the word. How do the letters C-A T (and the sounds that correspond to them) come to have the meaning they have (the idea of “cat”)? What is, and where is, the “idea”? No where in the world.
The word is a two sided entity: it comprises both a sound image (or with writing a visible image) and a meaning.
These aspects can only be separated in theory but it is worth noting that the same sound/image might at different times signify different meanings or things.
The verbal sign (or word) therefore has two components, a signifier (the sound or visual image) and a signified (what it means at any given moment). These aspects are mental phenomena: you can see, hear and understand a word silently and with your eyes closed.
For a private exercise, listen silently to the sound of the word “cat.” What meaning do you get from it?
Once a child has learned a language he or she is capable of making all kinds of references. But reference is not a crucial part of language use. All you need is a sound and a meaning.
How do signifiers get their signifieds? Through a system that connects all the sounds and meanings to each other.
Denotation and Connotation
The language system comprises of words (and bits of words) that add up to particular meanings. This system is made up of what Barthes calls “denotations.”
But in any community, even the current global one to which we all belong, another order helps to regulate the denotative order: an order of connotation. Connotation produces a limited number of signifieds, which help to regulate the mass of signs that at any given time surround us. If we regard this room in terms of signs then they all connote “pedagogic functionality,” and help produce the ideological myth that students are being educated. (Just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean that it’s not true, of course, but it might not be true either). Connotations are usually abstractions. That is why we need abstractions to analyze them and, ultimately, to get our own back on them. Myths too are abstractions (or at least the mythic part of myth is always an abstraction).
Connotations are also responsible for stereotypes. They function through habit and can only be exposed through thinking.
There are, therefore, always three ways of looking, listening, or understanding things:
1. According to the signified. This might appear rather uncritical. We just take for granted the meaning that a sign evokes. This feels very natural and we are never troubled on this level. However, very many things appear obscure to us: words we don’t understand; texts that contain abstract arguments; poems or songs or artworks that do not give way to signified conventional meaning easily. To read according to the signified is to be the passive recipient of meanings imposed from without while believing that we are masters of our own discourse.
2. According to the signifier. To read according to the signifier is to become active and analytic in response to signs. We are on the lookout for myths, abstractions, and systems. We no longer believe in the naturalness of the sign and its meanings. We become critical of the relative truth or falsity of representations. But it’s not all suspicion. On this level we also become producers, capable of manipulating signs, altering signifying systems and creating alternatives out of existing material. We also realize that the arbitrary connection between signifier and signified can be exploited (for pleasure or for profit). Puns, jokes, advertisements, comedies and art: each in their way exploits the arbitrary and often paradoxical connections between signifiers and signifieds.
3. According to the difference between signified and signifier. With the third way of looking at things we realize that the signified meaning (which we used to think of as being “inside our heads”) and the signifier that provokes it (which comes to us as if from outside) cannot ever be separated. The inside (meaning) already is the outside (signs). So there will never be any position outside the signifying system. We’re always in the midst of things. On this level all we have is the gap between meanings we receive and those we create out of them.
Each of the three ways is quite weak on its own. What Roland Barthes has given to Cultural Studies is a method in which the combination of different approaches to the sign allows a flexible and sophisticated response that can acknowledge every dimension in which signs operate. The key is to be able to treat each way of looking at a sign as if it was primarily a signifier: a seeable or hearable element with at least a potential significance. Then the significance it does have can be regarded as an abstraction—potentially a very powerful one.
2. Myths and Signs
Myth and Semiotics
The notion of myth connects to the notions of ideology and hegemony: each is doing similar service and trying to get at the same thing: how culture makes its political and historical constructedness apparent.
Ideology and culture, as kinds of propaganda, work best when they are not recognized as such because they contribute the construction of what people think of as “common sense”
Barthes writes (bear in mind the Singapore lists):
Example quoted by Hebdige: Paris Match photo of black soldier saluting the flag:
There is an Extract from Barthes’s “Myth Today”
“The Rhetoric of the Image”
With this essay Roland Barthes helped to establish the critical analysis of images that since then has become widespread. His essay is justly influential. That doesn’t mean that everyone automatically agrees with his terms and his statements. Moreover the influence of images in society and especially in the media has undergone several transformations since Barthes was writing. Nevertheless, his essay remains good to think with and to help us develop our own critical attitudes to image analysis.
Commentary: the signified (on the level of connotation) Italianicity
The Advert from Panzani (Panzani Website)
Roland Barthes "Rhetoric of the Image"
Rhetoric: Substitution of one signifier for another
from Gk. a and sundeton “bound together with”
Also sp. asindeton
The omission of conjunctions between clauses, often resulting in a hurried rhythm or vehement effect.
Pure Iconic Message:
2. Symbolic: a series of discontinuous signs "imbued with euphoric values" (associated with feelings of well being):
A. A return from the market - i freshness - ii domestic preparation
B. (Yellow) - White - Green - Red (Tricolour) – Italianicity
C. Culinary Service (the tin is equivalent to the fresh vegetables etc. that are with it in the bag)
D. The Still-Life (nature-morte)
Joris van Son Still Life of Fruit (1663)
3. Literal or "non-coded" (the relationship between the signifier and signified is "quasi-tautological")
Structural Description (page 37)
Linguistic Message: anchorage and relay
The utopian character of denotation (absence of meaning) the illusory ideal achieved by the photograph (where the relationship between signifier and signified is one of "recording" or "documentary")
"A decisive mutation of informational economies"
"The denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message" (a kind of "being there" of objects). A pseudo-truth. So image technology "helps mask the constructed meaning under the appearance of the given meaning" (46).
Rhetoric of the Image
Lexicon (corresponds to a body of practices and techniques): each individual accesses the image differently (47). The individual's psyche = a mass of signs (their idiolect)
“The common domain of the signifieds of connotation is ideology”
Rhetoric is a set of “signifiers of connotation” or “connotators of ideology” (like Asyndeton and Metonymy).
Barthes was writing at a revolutionary moment in French history, but the challenge is for us to think myth through today.
3. An Example from Contemporary Singapore
The myth of dominant forms of representation and its anonymity involves disguising or erasing historical conditions.
Example: Beyond the Camouflage image (camouflage does the marking rather than the hiding, so what is being hidden?)
“watch the thrill and excitement as Kym drives the Light Strike Vehicle”
Kym Ng and Ix Shen: their clothing is meant to attract attention but actually serves as a kind of civilian camouflage:
The military as entertainment
The military as fashion
Camouflage draws attention to itself through the act of supposedly diverting attention from itself.
Intimately covert operations separating yet implicating the military in community and the community in the military:
The total defense slogan, “There’s a part for everybody” (economic, military, psychological, civil and social)
Ix Shen is an interesting choice for this role, reminding us that as always beyond the camouflage is a body, as what he is best known for locally is his “tight bod.” The show has been justly celebrated on one of Singapore’s covert gay chat lines:
On Myth (some notes that recap the structural model of language and dig deeper into the question of Myth with further references to Beyond the Camouflage)
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