The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime/detective novel by Robert Galbraith. The beginning of the novel provides the reader with the question that they will attempt to discover through the course of the novel: How did Lula Landry, a famed model, die? The novel then moves into a description of the main character, Cormoran Strike. Galbraith portrays him as being on the verge of career failure after it is revealed that his personal life has gone down the tubes. This characterization tells the reader that the main character could be classified as “the underdog,” or someone fighting against his circumstances for his survival and hopes of success. Everything rests upon his ability to solve the mystery.
A female character is introduced as Strike’s assistant in solving the crime. One can easily make a liken the duo to Batman and Robin; coincidentally enough, the character’s name is Robin.
Though the novel is centered on solving the “whodunit” mystery, it simultaneously presents readers with the opportunity to deconstruct an alternative mystery: the myth of how the obscenely rich live their lives. The novel touches on the hopes, dreams, fears, troubles, and corrupt attitudes and behaviors of the rich and aspiring.
The author continues to explore the myths surrounding social class in the framing of the main character, Strike. Strike’s case is particularly intriguing because he was the son of a celebrity yet chose to disown that aspect of his history, embracing the culture of the working-class professional instead. His resentment towards being associated with his father is clearly depicted in multiple scenes throughout the novel. The only way Strike can solve the case is to examine the culture of the life he turned away from.
I really liked that Chandler described myth as “extended metaphors.” The characterization of the members of the upper echelon could only occur because we live in a culture where things such as a “’clinging poison-green’ Cavalli dress, vintage Ossie Clark confections and ‘fabby handbags’ with custom-printed ‘detachable silk linings'” exist. This is the point that Barthes makes in his analysis of myth particularly in regards to social class. The myth is given meaning because of the signs that exist.
“A Murder Is Solved, a Sleuth Is Born.” 17 July 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/books/in-j-k-rowlings-cuckoos-calling-model-dies-but-why.html?pagewanted=all
The legend of Pocahontas was constructed by Disney in 1995, creating the famous story of a young Powhatan woman who saves the life and falls in love with a European immigrant soldier. This myth seemingly enraged the native Powhatan people who find myth to be insulting to their history. The following text is taken from http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html, a webpage created by the Powhatan people to preserve their history and debunk the Pocahontas myth:
“In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.” We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred. “Pocahontas” was a nickname, meaning “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”. Her real name was Matoaka. The legend is that she saved a heroic John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 – she would have been about 10 or 11 at the time. The truth is that Smith’s fellow colonists described him as an abrasive, ambitious, self-promoting mercenary soldier. Of all of Powhatan’s children, only “Pocahontas” is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the “good Indian”, one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the “good Indian/bad Indian theme” inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified in the name of “entertainment. “
However, Pocahontus has already become a part of popular cultural and her story became an inspiration for other productions. In 2009, world renowned director James Cameron produced a major blockbuster that became the highest grossing film of all time. (Wikipedia, Avatar 2009 Film). Cameron’s film, is extremely similar in storyline with Disney’s Pocahontas. The Huffington Post published a picture in its comedy section titled “ Avatar = Pocahontas in Space” critisizing the film’s storyboard and accusing it of being an exact copy of Pocahontas
In this picture, the story of Pocahontas is written as text, and then names of characters, places, and other details specific to the Pocahontas film are crossed out and replaced with their counterparts from Avatar. This illustrates the high similarity between the two.
This clip points out similarities in scenes between Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).
The presence of striking similarities between those two films is apparent. Despite the large differences in production technologies, settings, and visuals, one cannot help but associate the two films with each other. Barthes mentions that texts, and particularly mythological ones, are continuously recycled to make use of already recognizable signs and significations, but within new context. Both films follow almost exactly the same story – an army arrives at a foreign land for the sake of obtaining its natural resources. One soldier forms a connection with the place and the natives, and eventually sides with them against his own people. John Smith/Jake Sully represent the same character, as do Pocahontas/Neyteri.
The ultimate purpose of this myth can be assumed to be creating a story with a moral; equality, love, valuing one’s land, and respecting nature. Barthes talks about mythology being a combination of signifier and the signified. This purpose is communicated through signifiers – differences Each of those films uses different signifiers in a manner that is appropriate and in-line with current times and technologies. For example, Pandora, the foreign planet where Avatar takes place, signifies new beginnings and a new world, just like the new found land of America does in Pocahontas. The inhabitants of Pandora, The Navi, signify foreign and highly misunderstood people, just like the Red Indians once were.
The movie Marie Antoinette (2006) places a unique twist on one of the most famous royal families in history. What makes this movie stand out is its amalgamation of light-hearted pop-culture and historical representation. Originally from Austria, fourteen year old Marie Antoinette marries into the royalty of France as a form of diplomacy between the two countries. In her view of the film, director Sofia Coppola refuses to call it a historical documentation, asserting:
“It is not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.”
This got me thinking about Barthes argument about mythology. Barthes (1984) claims that “myth is a type of speech” and “speech of this kind is a message,” which involves photography, sport, shows and so on (p.108). If that is the case, then Marie Antoinette is a form of myth that challenges the problem of meaning. The director purposefully tries to break down and reproduce the meaning of what Marie Antoinette life was – exploring new boundaries in a new (modern) era.
Perhaps one of the most remembered scenes from this film is when Marie Antoinette and her coterie simply live the life of royalty in the 18th century. The clip below is called “I Want Candy,” synonymous for the title of the song by the New Wave band, Bow Wow Wow.
This all occurs while France is going through a massive food shortage. Riots ensue in and around the palace of Versailles where the royalties live. What I love about this piece is that the images of shoes, clothing, food and drinks are more than five second screen shots. As with Barthes inference of “a bunch of roses” signifying passion, the colorful shoes signify luxury and comfort, the decadent deserts signify an indifference to political upheavals, and the grand ensembles signify an intention by the royal family to maintain their lavish lifestyles. This persistent mixture occurs throughout the film, and one cannot help but notice all of the cultural sign systems present.
Movies are culture. As Lotman (1978) argues, “there are many ways of defining culture” (p. 211). I consider this movie as an impressive bridge of cultural and linguistic history – and I would have to disagree partially with the movie director that it is not a historical lesson. Marie Antoinette is a of course a historical lesson (we see her life portrayed in a new form) but it is also a semiotic lesson. Even though the movie is not in common format of a “historical” documentary, all of the signs and representations throughout the movie (such as in the clip above) are a new way of telling her story.
To use Lotman again, we should consider culture “as the long-term memory of the community…” (p.215). This movie is now a part of history, yet virtually anyone can access it across different mediums and apply their own take on the film, perhaps relating to the incompleteness of cultural objects – there is always room for re-visitation and re-purposing.
No one can go back in time to change the trajectory of Marie Antoinette’s life. However, movies may be the closest we can get to employ mythology and speech to repurpose the life of historical figures. Certain types of media have a great deal of power in which individuals can use to structure the pervasive symbols and artefacts we encounter every day.
In trying to unpack Barthes’ model, I found myself getting confused on what the difference was between some of the terms. He describes mythology as a combination of three things: the signifier, the signified, and signification. The form and concept, and also the history, all come into play. And how the viewer receives something is also important, but how one understands something or the level in which he or she dissects it, can also change the meaning. I saw Argo this weekend, and there are plenty of layers to work through within that story. First, it’s a true story. It’s about the extraction of six American diplomatic workers hiding in Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979-1980. In order to extract them, a CIA agent makes up a cover story of a fake movie that is going to be filmed in Iran and hides them as part of a location scout crew. So. if you’re looking at Argo and trying to figure out its mythology or meaning making system, then the signifier would be the general story taken at face value. There’s the plot and that’s it. The signified would be the story as a multidimensional political and historical story. It questions top-level authorities at the time. It’s patriotic. It shows American-Canadian relations, and probably more significantly, American-Iranian relations. It has symbols of the middle east and how things were in Iran at the time, which is depicted as extremely violent and scary. The final layer is something that trips me up a little bit. I suppose this could be the mixing of the two. By taking the story at face value, or just thinking about the images and the colors and the costumes, and then mixing that with the historical and political undertones of the story, it becomes clear that what you’re watching is set in the early 1980s and the rules were different then. It’s also a symbolic system for how differently things are now, but also how much some things have stayed the same.
Barthes mentioned that “a whole book may be the signifier of a single concept; and conversely, a minute form (a word, a gesture, even incidental, so long as it is noticed) can serve as signifier to a concept filled with a very rich history.” I thought this was an interesting point, and something I want to think more about. I’ve been interested in more historical works in books, film, and tv lately, and I think this is something that is very important. When producing stories within a specific historical context, there are symbols strewn all over the work. Some are big, but most are the smaller details that really can fill a story in – but only if the audience is educated on that history. What happens if they are not? Then the symbols become meaningless or become modern symbols which make a different meaning. I think this is what Barthes is trying to explain towards the end of that reading, that every mythology can be unpacked differently, depending on how one takes it. By focusing on an empty signifier, the reader takes things more literally and at face value. By focusing on a full signifier, the reader “clearly understands the meaning and the form” and can see how that dichotomy and how those are playing off of one another. And focusing on the signifier as an inextricable whole, then the meaning becomes more cloudy and become more symbolic than literal.
As far as the comprehension of semantic meaning in current American culture, very few shows hit the level of meta analysis and awareness as the TV show Community. The show relies on the knowledge and understanding of different genres in TV and movies and utilizes those meanings and theories to create a\parody that is self-aware of Barthes notion of “recycling previous texts and especially mythological ones,” in order to create a semiology that recognizes the signs and signification within its own content. Moreover, Yuri Lotman’s definition of culture as made up of special features and sign systems gives us an understanding of how the show plays off of niche subcultures in it’s sign system and also plays off our understanding of text in different genres much like the play on words (a feature the show sometimes uses) is used in language to create jokes and point out hypocrisy or stereotypes. Community is a mash-up of pop culture references and parody that can be best understood by viewers who have familiarity with the majority of cliches found in movies, TV shows, video games, music, celebrities. For that reason, the show draws from the idea of language, showcasing that our comprehension of parody is built upon existing knowledge of structures that help us to interpret the semantics of the jokes or genres. However, unlike language as Lotman points out, culture is nonhereditary and a social phenomenon which is indicative of Community’s presence on TV. It has a small audience but maintains a huge fanbase.
The video above displays an instance of Community utilizing meaning-making to make commentary on movie genres knowing that many viewers are aware of the classic semiotics of these texts. However, it is also important to realize that like many TV shows Community’s relevance is defined by the cultural longevity of the people. If people no longer remember the pop culture or genre references defined in the video, it is no longer relevant.
This clip is an obvious parody of morning talk shows, such as Good Morning American, and uses little details such as the individuals behind the glass door holding up signs, as a sign system to help the viewer interpret the sign. Additionally, the set up of the chairs, the “happy talk” of Troy and Abed, and the mugs are all ways using the semiosphere of TV shows to make fun of it on another TV show. Community is very much a blatant depiction of intermedial and uses the viewers cultural encyclopedia of pop culture to create a symbolic dialogue. The show is harder for people to grasp when they have little knowledge of the semitoics of pop culture which limits its popularity as cross-globalized text unless the viewer is very familiar with American culture. The myths and textual pastiche that for the show Community are specific in determining the viewers mapping system of the program. Without previous structure or recognition of signs relevant to the show, it is difficult to get the show as long-running pop culture joke.
Peirce’s idea of the unlimited semiosis between the meaning-making between sign, signifier, and signified has been vitl for semiotics because it emphasizes the interconnectedness of signs and the importance of interpretation. This idea underpins all theory, that aims to characterize the dynamism of the most diverse signifying systems within a system, i.e. a sphere. Lotman further conceptualizes this idea by asserting that the interpretation of a sign “becomes in turn a sign, and so ad infinitum…”. He argues that if the two sides of a semiotic structure, e.g. between a listener and a song, were perfectly mutually translatable, e.g. the listener decodes the intended message of the musician’s encoding, then no newinformation would be created. In other words, there exists what he deems a “Bipolar Asymmetry” in meaning-making in which the lack of fit, between texts, languages, and cultures, is conducive to semantic enrichment i.e. the creation of new meaning.
And so meaning-making not only itself becomes a sign, but in our attempts at interpretation, which is a constant endeavor, we create new meaning and thus add to the semiosphere. Therefore creation of signs is as ubiquitous as it is constant. I can use any mundane example but I chose to use a cultural artifact that I have recently been re-reading: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Not only has the title in and of itself become part of the English lexicon, but there are numerous interpretations of it in many different forms:
A TV program:
And of course, even by the author himself:
These are just a few of the example artifacts that, in interpreting Brave New World have become cultural artifacts, i.e. signs to be interpreted in and of themselves, themselves. So in the name of this meaning making, I make my own sign: Because I have been reading another political utopian fiction at the same time as I have been reading Brave New World, I use this other artifact almost as a framework that I use to bridge Huxley’s work with wider utopian/dystopian literature, and of course with my own experiences and personality. The book in question is called One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. In my reading of BNW, I therefore create my own signs, that here I will divide thematically:
Marcuse argues that we no longer desire freedom because our welfare governments have given us happiness in the form of relative affluence. On ODM, he argues that people’s reasons for political dissent are removed when their needs are satisfied. These needs however are “false needs,” or needs that society superimposes on the individual i.e. barrage of advertisements and facts tells us what we need. In BNW conditioning tells individuals what they need- not only are disease, old age, illness, or even the fear of death completely obliterated from BNW, but every conditioned desire is fulfilled. Hypnopaedia’s ingrained false needs with mantras such as “everyone belongs to everyone else,” “orgy-porgy gives release,” and “one cubic centimeter cures ten gloomy sentiments” are fulfilled via promiscuity, organized orgies, and soma. They therefore have all needs provided for them and therefore no need for dissent and remain passive to a system that not only provided for the needs but defined them
Marcuse argues that in order for the successful production of commodities to be precise, calculable, and efficient, regimentation, specialization, and standardization must be held. Removed are individual initiatives and personal discretion from the process of production. This removal enhances production’s predictability but limits human capacity to objective measurements; individual thought transforms into reflex and habit. This one-dimensional labor apparatus creates one-dimensional thought as the mind is dominated by functions of production. In BNW individuality is eradicated because of the Fordian assembly line, the laborer does the task repeatedly. For example, this occurs via hypnopaedia- pillow microphones condition Betas to believe their own caste better than those above and below them and those who repair the undersides of space vehicles are conditioned to be happy only when standing on their heads.
Freedom vs. Happiness:
Happiness is a technique of power. The society of AF 632 makes its inhabitants happy rather than allowing them to choose to be so which orientates them towards the status quo and prevents instability. The World Controllers obliterate everything that can provoke passion or thought, in order to preserve happiness. Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons, the different castes, are all prevented from experiencing unhappiness by being prevented from experiencing any kind of real emotion.Mustapha Mond, the Controller of Europe, says that Epsilons, the lowest caste who do menial work remain happy in their conditions because they are conditioned to. For example, the Director of Hatcheries says, “the secret of happiness is…liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny” and therefore, happiness is at the necessary expense of freedom. To me, this harks back to what the Frankfurt School was so preoccupied with. They had a Domination Theory which posits that external exploitation plus internal self-disciplining are tools of subordination and we find this in BNW as external conditioning and biological manipulation of Brave New Worldians. Marcuse even asks: ‘how can slaves who do not even know they are slaves free themselves?’ This is very evident in BNW through John the Savage’s debate in Chapter Seventeen, where Huxley presents an open case of alternatives: ignorant freedom or insufferable knowledge?
As Huxley witnessed the rapid advance of science and technology, the concept of Utopia became a less impossible abstraction for him: Utopia may not be realized with man as he is but science can change that. The Frankfurt School, which Marcuse was a part of, developed critical theory by reconstructing Marxist method and logic in order to make it relevant to modern capitalism. According to them, Modern capitalism has developed coping mechanisms that effectively allowed it to forestall the socialist revolution. Critical theory asserts that technology is one of these mechanisms because it is used as a tool for social control. In Huxley’s world, the future is scientific in every sense and works as a description of a society run by scientists, blind to any values that cannot be proved by laboratory experiment, would produce; satirizes the positivists who rejected religion, ethics, and aesthetics. For example is Bokanovsky’s Process, by which just one ovary can yield sixteen thousand people, constitutes a new society of man; Neo-Pavlovian infant-conditioning methods help condition khaki clad Delta babies to abhor flowers and books associating them with unpleasant shocks; a process of sleep-teaching ingrains infants with things like elementary class-consciousness or the encouragement of erotic play; each individual is conditioned to do and like the same task repeatedly thus, they are one-sided from birth; Religion is scientized: Solidarity Services, Christian Cross becomes T after the Model T Ford, the office of Archbishop of Canterbury dwindles to Arch-Community-Songster, and a conventional expression is “Our Ford,” an automobile manufacturer. Frankfurt School thinkers are afraid of this. Their critical theory argues that domination is the psychological subordination of the masses by science’s usurpation of everything. They are afraid of that positivism is capitalism’s new form of domination because it argues that only scientific, empirical knowledge reflects reality. This makes the individual uncritically experience the world as necessary and rational.
In my point of view, and here is where I make the major sign, positivism’s obsession with facts is a symptom of a one-dimensional society as per my reading of Brave New World through my own schema and One Dimensional Man. To me, hegemony of the economy is reaffirmed by a mode of positivist common sense which teaches us that in order to be a good citizen and human being, we must first accept the facts. We are just like the fact-ridden citizens of BNW when we do not question these facts and in order to overcome this domination, one must first critique positivism.
Mythology is an erstwhile endeavor. It’s quite a lofty title, and rightfully so. Barthes discusses myth heavily in his piece ‘Mythologies.’ As per his usual Barthes defines myth semiotically. He breaks it down into the sign, the signifier, and the signified, and discusses the process of mediation. Additionally though, Barthes analyzes myth historically. The author discusses the social and historical implications implicit within mythologizing texts and artifacts. This is the rub.
In Anglo European cultures, the name Shakespeare carries with it some heft—and rightfully so. The playwright achieved much in his short life. Additionally though Shakespeare’s individual works continue to have quite the impact. Specifically, in terms of this blog entry, it is the play Hamlet that is of the most critical importance both semiotically and historically. The narrative structure is simple. Prince Hamlet’s Father/King dies under suspicious circumstances, Hamlet comes of age and works to exact revenge on his Father’s murderer Uncle Claudius, thus usurping and reclaiming the throne while coming of age.
This narrative myth has bled into countless texts. Kurosawa’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well,’ the comedy ‘Strange Brew’ and of course ‘Tommy Boy’ all borrow from Hamlet’s structure. Most relevant to our class’s generation is ‘The Lion King.’ The characters align well between both texts. Simba is Prince Hamlet, Mufasa is King Hamlet, Scar is Claudius, etc….
So there is a clear alignment between the two texts. The transmission process is an interesting one. I’ve been trying to think of a model to replicate the process, but I feel like it would need to be 2 dimensional rather than 3 dimensional. Barthes does well to unpack mythology historically, but I would like to place more emphasis on the nebulous compression and selective trimming of certain aspects of a myth. A funnel model serves well only superficially. While output texts are clearly an amalgamation of many previous artifacts and circumstances, the process occurring within the funnel is obscured from view and seems too clandestine—too secretive.
The removal and addition of aspects is an important and strategic part of the mythological process. Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ spoke to what were, at the time, pertinent and pressing socio-political issues. ‘The Lion King’ was not written like this, and intentionally strips some of these away. I need to think harder for a model that illustrates this.
In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called The Ice Palace. Like many of his other stories and novels, this one is about disillusion as well. The story started in a fictional southern town called Tarleton, where a young woman named Sally Carrol Happer caused some dismay among her friends as she decided to marry a certain Harry Bellamy, a man from the north. However, when she travels to the north to meet Harry’s family, she starts to realize that the north is different than she’d expected, and reaches a point of mental breakdown when she finds herself lost in the winter carnival “ice palace”. In the end, she returns to her life in the south.
The main plot of the story is a young woman’s choice between two regions. This reminds me of the story of Persephone. Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the Greek goddess was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld. Every spring she returns to our world, and by the end of harvest she withdraws into the other side again. In a sense, the two stories run parallel: a young lady is allured/abducted to the opposite part of a world, finds there cold and dark, then returns to “our world”. Of course, Fitzgerald himself is of northern background (he’d spent most of his life in the north up to the point of this story’s publication, with two years maximum in the south; in fact, the northern town in the story is no other than his birth city St Paul), but the story took on a southern narrative, as the story took an earthly one. A very bipolar view on cultures is exhibited in these two stories, as well as in many others. Come to think of it, we always make sense of cultures by their anticultures (or anticultures by cultures), the mirror image of the given or “correct” culture (Lotman 220). What is not “ours” is “theirs”, that is majorly how we make sense of the complicated world. People are cognitive misers: we rely on mental shortcuts such as exemplars without paying much attention to their authenticity (Zillmann & Brosius). We assume an image of the other side by imagining the opposite of our own culture, and when many do this, a certain stereotype is created. Such stereotype feeds into the culture reservoir and transforms history into nature (Barthes 128).
Now let’s get back to The Ice Palace. One natural element is present throughout the three parts (south-north-south) of the story: water. Although whether Fitzgerald had used this consciously as a signification device is debatable, there is at least a certain degree of subconscious deliberation of using it. In the southern parts of the story, two words are constantly brought up: “humid” and “swimming”, while in the northern parts, another two are prominent: “snow” and “ice”. Of course, the words themselves embody the natural characters of south and north, but in the story those only play a small part; what they stand for seem more important: the concepts. In their most primitive meanings, the two states of water relate to certain temperatures, a natural phenomenon of shifting between liquid and solid state. However, upon the very moment when they are named different things (no longer liquid/solid H2O but water/ice), their meanings are emptied and distanced, while the concepts are filled with situations (Barthes 118). Here in the story, the concepts can be warm/cold, fluid/hard, and ultimately, lazy/rigid. Then we have the myth, the signification: south/north. It is a distorted version, for “south” and “north” themselves do not hold meanings like fluid/hard or laziness/rigidity. Yet the former pair has long before naturalized itself, because they are not entirely arbitrary: water does assume these two states in the two regions. Then these notions crept into our cultural encyclopedia, onto our understanding of personalities/lifestyles of the two regions. As for the latter, it apparently hasn’t been quite naturalized upon the moment of this short story, since Fitzgerald had spent some effort trying to establish the links. It had been built upon the cultural stereotype of the aristocratic south and the industrial north, which runs its root all the way to the moment when the first groups of Europeans colonized America (and to their status way before that). Such stereotype as a signification has been reinforced then by popular cultural works like The Winter Palace and Gone with the Wind, and served to form our understanding of the south and north before the Information Age.
Barthes, R. (1984). Trans. Lavers, A. Mythologies.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920, May 22). The Ice Palace. The Saturday Evening Post.
Lotman, Y. M. (1978). On the Semiotic Machanism of Culture. New Literary History, 9(2): 211-232.
Zillmann, D. & Brosius, H. B. (2000). Exemplification in Communication: The Influence of Case Reports on the Perception of Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
My landlady subscribes to Smithsonian magazine, and the cover story of this month’s issue jumped out at me: LOST TRIBES OF THE AMAZON. I did a double take: is this really how we are talking, even in the year 2013, about the issues of people living in the Amazon rainforest, involved in a very different daily culture than ours? Flipping through the article, and catching phrases such as “For decades, adventurers and hunters had provided tantalizing reports that an ‘uncontacted tribe’ was hidden in the rainforest,” I felt like I might as well be reading a 1850s advertisement for a show at the P.T. Barnum Museum, famous for its exotic, its never-before-seen, its freaks-of-nature. I decided to analyze this story after the model of Rolland Barthes’ mythologies.
LOST TRIBES OF THE AMAZON is a phrase that on the first order combines the signifiers (the words) with a number of possible signifieds (the meanings the words evoke). Lost could mean confused, missing or vanished. Tribes, on the first order of meaning, is perhaps more clear: it signifies groups of people, not too large, bonded in traditions, culture, and/or heritage. And The Amazon is of course a geographic location, a rainforest covering much of South America. But just as Barthes found in the myths he analyzed, one does not find the real depth of meaning by analyzing the first order signification. The title, the article, the accompanying photos and the dramatic story they invoke are all signifiers in a long-standing, oft repeated myth: the myth of the past, pure and untainted yet exotic and also, importantly, endangered. This myth puts us westerners in the position of power in both the destructive way (our past actions have made these tribes endangered) and, perhaps even more importantly, in the beneficent, positive way (if we give great effort, we may still be able to save them… or at least study them before it is too late and in that way, even if the tribes themselves are ‘lost’ forever, human knowledge will still have record of them.) In fact, a call for “rescue” is the ideological purpose of the article.
In a synthesis of Barthes’ thinking Allen Graham wrote that “culture generally… constantly presents artificial, manufactured, and above all, ideological objects and values as if they were indisputable, unquestionable and natural.” The Smithsonian article does just that. Readers are taken in by the authority of the Smithsonian institution and the magazine’s scientific genre. This keeps them from questioning how ideological the writing is.
While this article and the myth it signifies could be examined in far more detail than I am able to do here, I want to give one more example. Here is one of the central photographs of the article. It shows two smiling boys, one shirtless, and climbing a vine, a look-alike for the character of Mogli of Disney’s The Jungle Book. Even though we know these boys were not raised by wolves, (the caption even mentions their father “Garcia”) the image acts as a metaphor to The Jungle Book and puts this idea of humans-not-quite-human-but-part-wild-animal in our unconscious. The caption to this image (not seen here) says “Garcia’s son José and nephew Mauricio are schooled in forest lore: They can already identify dozens of medicinal plants.” A couple of meanings jump out at me from this. First, the Spanish names of the family members is a clear sign that these supposedly ‘uncontacted’ tribes must in fact already have a long history of connections with Colombia and the world outside their Amazon home. Second, the metaphor in the word “schooled” allows readers to make a direct comparison between “civilized” schools western children attend and the “wilder” daily lives of these boys. Finally, the word “lore” is very ideologically chosen. Lore does not mean contemporary knowledge but ancient, generally false myths, based not on scientific understanding but on fantasy, superstition, legend. Yet the “lore” these boys are learning is not some kind of equivalent to Santa Clause, but important medical information. Using the word lore, the writers for Smithsonian magazine can downplay the validity of this knowledge, and keep consistent the message that these people are uncivilized and need saving.
Movies can rarely be completely historically accurate. There is always one flaw to the tale that has the ability to set the whole story off course. But why is this important? It’s just a movie right? Yes, movies are movies and fantasy is fantasy, but the historical accuracy of movies is an important topic because movies are intrinsically linked to the media, read as history books, and the image from the screen becomes etched in our cultural memory.
“THE ROUTLEDGE COMPANION TO SEMIOTICS” edited by Paul Cobley, is an interesting reading that at times can be a summary to the world of semiotics. While reading, the notion of the medias influence on culture, really sparked my interest. The reading mentions that “… as the media change, so too do the sign systems of culture” (135). This can be exemplified by historical movies and reflections of history.
The movie “Pocahontus”, is a fantasy cartoon. However within that fantasy, there’s an ounce of confusion. For instance, in the cartoon movie, it appears as though Pocohauntus married John Smith. However, in reality she married John Rolfe. Even though the “Pocahontus” movie is great and has a lot of truth, different people could take this as a history textbook. This is just one of the countless examples of “period” movies that change the way people think and the information that they are given?
This is important because these movies are meshed together with reality and people can interpret the meaning however they want.
If media influences society then what does that say about stereotypes in the “Reality TV” market?
Why are “period” movies flawed? Why does it matter? How is the meaning mixed up and is the mixture of the meaning truly important?
If a person doesn’t educate themselves before watching a movie, what are the dangers of watching a “period” movie? Is “ignorance bliss”?
Barthe’s take on fashion and semiotics is truly fascinating when applied to the concept of fashion bloggers. Essentially, his take on fashion and fashion writing is rooted in the fashion industry’s ability to present combinations of fashion objects repeatedly, and while the combinations vary slightly year by year, they are essentially the same pieces but are accepted by the public automatically without any or much resistance as trends.
Although fashion bloggers may seem to have taken some of this authority away from fashion institutions, like Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily, by posting their own combinations of outfits, with the application of Barthe’s observations it is possible to see that this is not the case. Even these “independent” trendsetters inherently use pieces to which a previous entity has assigned meaning.
One of the top “serious” fashion bloggers in recent times, Leandra Medine, goes by the alias The Man Repeller on her fashion blog. The name is meant to signify how “serious” artistic fashion is not attractive to men, but create a fashion statement by those who dress in such a way. Medine even provides a definition of what a man repeller is:
outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.”
This establishment of self translates into a kind of self-advertising of independent fashion expertise because Medine coins a phrase and proceeds to call herself as such. However, her writing follows Barthe’s breakdown of how fashion is verbally presented to readers: “(indicated thus‘*’) and equivalences (indicated thus‘≡’).”
In this case, the fashion blogger is stating that she is a man repeller and the equivalence of a man repeller is someone who wears clothes they think are captivating but members of the opposite sex do not. Therefore, this is the equivalence of being exuding an independent take on fashion without influences of trends. However as noted in her various blog entries, Medine steers toward high end, established brand names of clothing to make these statements and depends on them to create this man-repelling image, demonstrating how the sign and the significance of a brand are still completely relevant in demonstrating a certain style or characteristic in clothing, regardless of whether they are man-repelling or not. Despite creating a seemingly unique fashion persona, she is still feeding into the Barthes idea of fashion being presented in an authoritative manner by a small industry, since there is no other reason for why names like Prada and Louis Vuitton carry as much “weight” as they do with fashion lovers.
Additionally, by presenting her fashion authority in such a way, Medine is demonstrates the notion of “elements of culture being able to serve both as text and as rules” since she is committing a fashion taboo by using fashion to dress conventionally unattractively. As described by Yuri Lotman, “taboos which are a component of the general system of a given culture can, on one hand, be examined as elements (signs) of the text reflecting moral experience of the community and on the other hand, be regarded as an aggregate of magical rules prescribing specific behavior.”
By wearing something like the photo above, The Man Repeller is actually commenting on how a cultural system exists for “normal” ways for women to dress that prescribe a set of rules against the outfit she is wearing, but being the rule breaker that she is, styling these clothes in such a way actually makes her behavior a comment on those rules.
This week’s readings are apparently an extension of those of last week. When Barthes mentioned that “Myth is a pure ideographic system” (Barthes,126), I can’t help but think of my name in Chinese ideographic characters. He uses ideographic system as an equation to myth, and I want to reversely describe the “mystery” of Chinese ideograph. When you see the name “Wanyu”, you see nothing but a hard-to-pronounce word, while in fact it runs like “莞雨” in pictography. Modern Chinese characters have transformed into a distortion of the original implications of early pictographic languages, take my name for example, “莞”(wan) and“雨”(yu) are not linked but two different characters: in my name,“莞”(wan) means a slight smile, “雨”(yu) means rain. From the shape of these two characters, “雨”(yu) still possess the original symbol of rain with four spots/drops under a roof; while“莞”(wan) carries the meaning of smile yet originally means a particular grass, which is a signifier that has multiple signified. This well fits in Barthes’ claim: “The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is essentially a relation of deformation.” (Barthes,121)
How do we identify cultural semiotics then? Since Western and Eastern people’s language systems are quite different from each other, do they actually have different cultural semiotics? I hardly think so, since language is not culture. “We understand culture as the nonhereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions.” (Lotman, 213) Let me illustrate a poem that resonances people across borders:
I climbed the door and opened the stairs Said my pajamas and pull on my prayers Then turned off the bed and crawled into the light All because you kissed me goodnight
This anonymous poem upsets the intrinsic rule of linguistic, or to say syntax, but still touches upon your emotion. No matter in English or in Chinese, the poem possesses awry syntax but impressive meaning, the character’s ecstasy is hidden in the jumbled sentences that structure such a beautiful piece. The memory of natural human emotion, love is inside us regardless of cultural backgrounds, relative constraints and prescriptions. Although culture may “appear as a system of signs” at first, the continuous memory of some cultures may turn out the same. This nonhereditary memory is always beyond nation, race and language; it works as a whole.
In college I took a course called Modern Poetry Studies. During the first class, the teacher (Leng Shuang) asked us to read modern poetry of Europe and America before reading any modern Chinese poems. He did not at first introduce us the famous “New Moon” school poet Xu Zhimo, but recommended T.S. Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke. He later explained that the reason was that modern Chinese poetry in a great degree mixed the poetic image of both Western poetry and classic Chinese poetry: We might already understood the meaning of “plum blossom” as a classic image in Chinese culture, but was not enough familiar with the implication of the lonely “wind flag” in Rilke’s poem. “Although people always assumed there was a great divide, there has never been a crack between the classic Chinese literature and modern Chinese literature.” My teacher said. He illustrated this idea with a famous modern poem, In the Mirror, composed by Zhang Zao, who wrote this best-known poem in age 22.
In the mirror by Zhang Zao
As Long as there are thoughts that bring regret plum blossoms fall: watching her swim to the other shore, perhaps or climbing a pine ladder, there’s beauty in dangerous things. Nothing beats watching her return on horseback, cheeks warm with her shame, head lowered, answering the Emperor. A mirror always waits for her. Let her sit at her usual place in the mirror look out the window. As long as there are thoughts that bring regret plum blossoms fall and cover the southern mountain
When it goes to its basic typological features, the poem has a deep meaning of time going by, reminding me of Escher’s paintings which always filled up with the symbols of running time and the circle of life. A mirror can either stand for the change in space and time, or the change of the person’s emotion. To take a closer look, the words “plum blossom”, “southern mountain”, “horseback”, “mirror”, “emperor” are all classical poetic image/element in China, while the other words “swim”, “pine ladder”, “shore”, “dangerous’, are exogenous to ancient Chinese literature but more often occurred in modern western culture. There are just a few sentences building these scattered scenes, but a whole movie is built in the poem. I find the poem fascinating since its author Zhang Zao tried to use modern language to present the ancient artistic conception. This is such a great trial to recall the forgetting memory in one’s community by using current cultural semiotics.
Meaning-making processes take place both within and across media forms and genres. It may prove useful to deconstruct these intersecting symbolic systems and look at them individually before being able to draw definitive connections. For example, the “Zombies, Run!” iPhone/Android application draws on multiple meaning-making processes in order to immerse the user into the experience of the game.
What is “Zombies, Run!”?
“Zombies, Run!” is an interactive game for iPhone and Android phones developed by Six to Start and Naomi Alderman. The premise of the game is that the user is a survivor of the zombie apocalypse along with the other characters in the game. The user is taken through a series of “missions” that follow a storyline about a makeshift base called Abel Township. Characters instruct the user and talk to each other through the user’s headphones. The user must complete each mission by running for about a half hour or more. The user is referred to as “Runner 5”, and is part of a team of “runners” that collect supplies and other important artifacts for the survival of Abel Township. If the user turns on “zombie chases,” then she or he must increase her or his pace during certain moments in each mission in order to outrun zombies. The game uses audio signals to tell the user when zombies are close by. When characters are not speaking to the user, the game plays the user’s music. “Zombies, Run!” works well with Barthes’ cultural semiotics model in that it makes use of the second mythological layer of signification that Barthes explored in his writing.
The Zombie Genre
Barthes introduces a third concept for semiotics that embodies the cultural component of any given sign. He describes the signification of myth as signs that are re-used by cultures across different texts and media forms. This “second-order meaning,” as Allen calls it, functions as another layer in the signifier’s meaning making. In the case of “Zombies, Run!”, the zombies are representative of the enemies to be defeated in the game. However, zombies are particularly symbolic to Western cultures. The zombie genre has existed for many years, and was most notably demonstrated through George A. Romero’s films as commentary on Western society. Zombie genre texts have since then followed a certain code that utilizes all of the same characteristics: flesh eating undead creatures that were transformed from a contagious epidemic. “Zombies, Run!” follows this code in order to facilitate both the storyline of the game and its function as a fitness app. The user is a survivor in what is generally termed “the zombie apocalypse” and must run from creatures that are well-known to many Westerners and fans of the zombie genre.
The Radio Play
Marcel Danesi made mention of the infamous radio play War of the Worlds in his writing. He used it as an example of “the simulacrum effect”, in which media and reality blur in such a way as to affect an audience’s perception. Some listeners, for example, became panicked while listening to Orson Welles’ retelling of the story and notified the police about an alien invasion. The format of the radio play has now been codified in such a way that “Zombies, Run!” is able to use it for narrative purposes. As the user runs, characters tell Runner 5 to run faster or that she or he is doing a great job, and sometimes they describe where Runner 5 is supposedly running in terms of the environment within the game. The user is not completely may not be entirely taken in by the story because she or he is familiar with the code of a radio play and the blurred lines between the text and her or his reality. Another effect that “Zombies, Run!” employs are the sounds of zombies. The heavy breathing and growling of the zombies grows closer and closer if the user does not speed up as instructed. This audio effect, much like the simulation of the news broadcast in War of the Worlds, is supposed to employ the simulacrum effect in such a way as to motivate the user to increase her or his speed.
I/You Significance and Personalization
Another semiotic aspect of “Zombies, Run!” is its employment of “I” and “You”. The characters in the game address the user as “you” and “Runner 5,” which the user then interprets as a direct form of address. It transforms the user into an objectified character within the narrative story. This signifies the personalization effect of the game, in which users are led to believe that the game is tailored specifically for her or him. In actuality, the game is mass produced and the characters call every user “you” and “Runner 5”. Another method of personalization is that when characters are not speaking, the app plays the user’s music. There is a “radio mode” as well, in which two DJs break up songs with commentary about the apocalypse and also introduce the user’s songs with general statements that can be applied to any type of song. This is a simulation of personalization, but users are encouraged to interact with this simulated experience in order to enjoy the game.
Video Game Codes Within “Zombies, Run!”
There is another cultural code that is used in “Zombies, Run!”. This code developed over years of video game history, and is employed within the world of “Zombies, Run!” through the use of mapping and item collecting. These are RPG (role-playing game) video game features. Games like Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy are some of the more popular and well-known games that have established this code through the RPG video game genre. “Zombies, Run!” users collect items as they run and are notified of these items by a voice in their earphones. After they have completed a mission, users drag and drop these items from their inventory into different sections within a virtual map of Abel Township. The designers of the game also recently introduced ZombieLink, which tracks a user’s personal running performance and displays a map of the user’s route. If users are familiar with the intertextual signification of these video game features then the game becomes easier to navigate.
Barthes writes about the interpellation process of meaning-making. He uses the example of looking at a Basque house in Spain, and explains that “the concept…comes and seeks me out in order to oblige me to acknowledge the body of intentions which have motivated it and arranged it there as the signal of an individual history (Barthes 123)…” The different historical and cultural processes behind “Zombies, Run!” seems to call out to its users in a similar fashion. It hails its audience through cultural codes such as the zombie genre and the radio play format. It also directly addresses users through the use of language indicators like “I” and “you”. These signified messages that are embedded within cultural myths seem imperceptible to users.
Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.
Danesi, Marcel. “Semiotics of Media and Culture.” The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. By Paul Cobley. London: Routledge, 2010. N. pag. Print.