“Structuralists search for ‘deep structures’ underlying the ‘surface features’ of sign systems: Levi-Strauss in myth, kinship rules and tokenism; Lacan in the unconscious; Barthes and Greimas in the ‘grammar’ of narrative.”
Chandler , Semiotics, 2001
Read Barthe’s Myth Today, respond to following questions;
Notes below and please also see previous notes on Myth Today here.
- Look up Minou Drouet – controversial French child prodigy poet and author who wrote “Tree that I love”; a tree is often used by people in semantic arguments about notions of reality, what is real, language or objects, a tree is always a tree, except when it isn’t; i.e. at most basic a sign to indicate the collection of atoms that form the shape we come to recognise as tree, however, also a sign that offers up scope for various metaphors, i.e. growth, stability, rootedness, green credentials. Astroff’s conversation regarding the desolation of the forest in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is cited as an example of ecological foresight about the destruction of the planet, and it is true the words fit well with the current green concerns. However, directors often link the subtext in the well-known forestry monologue to Astroff’s sexual desire for Yelena
- Roses and black pebbles – think about examples of elements within images that signify passions, emotions, or even events? Windows – opaque, see through, closed or open – signify openness or opposite, eyes, seeing, net curtains can signify class, economic status, or hiding, privacy, curtain twitching; rain can signify weeping, or cleansing, storms can be indicative of passion, rage, fearful situation, danger, seaside – travel, holiday, distance between two parties; all signs signify something, and often they are common and unoriginal, but in advertising for instance that commonality makes them useful as universally understood containers of meaning. For instance an umbrella is seen as a means of protection and so used by insurance company, Legal & General in their logo.
- Anti physis/pseudo-physis; ideology expressed through images which look benign but actually contain a constructed reality that adheres to the dominant ideology. Breast milk versus bottled milk is a contentious subject that evokes feelings of guilt, depression, rage, and antipathy in mothers towards anyone with the opposite view-point. It is hard to argue that capitalism has not appropriated female breasts – supplanting their primary function, that of feeding babies, and turning them into a sign used in marketing campaigns to sell newspapers, plastic surgery, baby milk powder, cars, TV programmes, a way of life; an undermining of women of as people with minds, rather as objects to be owned etc…. Breasts in our society are sexualised and it is seen as entirely ‘natural’ but in other societies this seems laughable (Detwyller, 1995), and is just as idiosyncratic, if looked at through a detached, alienated lens, as feet being sexualised in Japan over the centuries.
From course folder …..And in your blog think carefully about the passage on Meaning & Form. “The meaning is always there to present the form, the form is always there to out distance the meaning”.
The question of meaning:
All expression is a function of externalising internal and unconscious events. It does not happen in a vacuum or in isolation. Expression is action in relationship.
“Does meaning cause language (visual as well as literary) or is meaning the result of language? Is language a means of conveying the underlying and overarching truth, or do we understand to be true, that which language tells us is true?”
- The words ‘reality’, ‘truth’, ‘human beings’ like all words are all symbols; signs for concepts, rather than the things themselves.
- If reality is based on ‘perception’ guided by sign systems, some more reliable than others, rather than absolute ‘truths’, then meaning is constructed and understood by whatever systems are in place to express, communicate and understand ‘perception’
- And …”we live in world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organised”.(Loc 419)
- However, as stated by Chandler, “...we need not accept the postmodernist stance that there is no external reality beyond sign systems, (but) studying semiotics can assist us to become more aware of the mediating roles of signs and the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing social realities.” (Loc 419) Materialist viewpoint (we are nothing but atoms and a sign system part of the illusion we are any more than that) may make scientific sense but doesn’t address notions that whatever illusion we exist within, it is very real to us, and to deny its reality risks reducing life to being entirely meaningless, perhaps rendering emotions such as empathy or grief for instance potentially defunct, however, empathy and grief, along with love, rage etc are key evolutionary adaptive behaviours relating to our development, behaviours that facilitate our continued development – the illusion matters and is what we are
- Whether or not one accepts the post modern stance in its entirety or a less extreme view, Susanne Langer is quoted in Chandler’s book: “Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects… In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean” (Langar 1951, 61) (Loc 481) Therefore, language is conceptual and not physical, even though it helps to construct the perception of a physical reality.
Although I see language pertains to concepts rather than things, I am not sure I agree that language is not physical. I know she’s saying the word is not the thing, but the word is a physical response to the thing occurring in relationship to the thing, which makes language a physical manifestation of a relationship (I think). I am a bit confused by this. Isn’t language borne out of the physical self although rendered conceptual, but I question separating ‘mind’ from the physical? Memory and concepts are held physically. Mind is physical. The structuralist argument is that concept becomes reality, thoughts and ideology become material structures, but are initially informed by the physical world, which might suggest that one without the other isn’t anything. So the question, “Does meaning cause language or language cause meaning?” perhaps has no answer either. I find it difficult to get away from the the idea that the production of language is a multilayered and organic process that is forever changing, evolving, feeding into and reflecting. In the same way that death and life are not really separate things, rather different aspects of a process whereby genetic coding continues replicating. We can see ourselves as containers for that code’s immortality. Like a fractal pattern, language can be seen as containment for expressive events either seemingly insignificant or the opposite of that, just as we are containers for the expression of genetic code’s immortality.
Expression is a reflexive response that occurs NOT in a vacuum, but rather organically, within the context of the paradigm in which expression is made and received. Rhetoric of all sorts comes about because someone is good at exploiting the responsive action of expression, be that speech, dance, photography or whatever else we humans do to ‘say something’, including staying silent, as in Cordelia’s response to Lear, when she refuses to make empty promises of love in return for land and power. Cordelia’s response, when she replies, “Nothing, my Lord”, when she’s asked to say how much she loves her father, is a powerfully manipulative (perhaps unconscious) behaviour that has a huge impact on Lear. It’s a mistake to read that response as benign.
Furthermore, rhetoric may be many things; it might be subversive, empty, hollow, or meaningful. And in some cases it’s what isn’t being said that conveys meaning. This is one of Lear’s central themes and is embodied in Regan & Goneril’s declaration of love for their father, King Lear, in exchange for land and power, and Cordelia’s refusal to speak beyond giving simple yes or no answers. Nevertheless, rhetoric can also stem from a place of genuine concern and desire to reveal problems, but with seemingly positive intentions, as indicated in a recent article in The Guardian, placing the blame for events, which were in part a result of rhetorical power, at technology’s door. “In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories.” The author goes on to say that, “At the same time, the levelling of the information landscape has unleashed new torrents of racism and sexism and new means of shaming and harassment, suggesting a world in which the loudest and crudest arguments will prevail. It is an atmosphere that has proved particularly hostile to women and people of colour, revealing that the inequalities of the physical world are reproduced all too easily in online spaces.” (Viner, 2016) The phrase “new torrents of racism and sexism” alarms me as such things have always been around. All news does not look the same on your phone, not if you follow different news sources, although, yes, technology will do its best to show you what it thinks you want to see and not much more. And in any case, all news looks the same on the Daily Mail page if that’s all you read. Yes, there is a new medium for transmitting the bile but the bile itself is not new. Nor are the lies being told to the public by those in power. The medium is new. Lying, propaganda, bigotry are as old as humanity. And I would be interested to know how theories about social contagion and collective consciousness fit in with the premise that technology is responsible for the spread of ideas. Ideas do travel quickly, but I wonder if there is a case to be made that suggests ideas always did spread quickly and technology is a digital manifestation of something that went on anyway. The difference now is that we can see it happening. It has been made visible by technology. The article by Viner is really intelligently written – I admire how well researched and ordered it is (I long to have that ability!) But ultimately, questioning the reliability of language is not a new phenomena. And the strength of Viner’s argument triggers in me a suspicion that there is rhetoric there which should be analysed and deconstructed before accepting it as a set of absolute truths. Shakespeare in Lear explores similar concerns over langauge and how words can be manipulated and exploited, and technology was a long way off when he addressed them.
Meaning is subject to relationship
As I discussed earlier, meaning is not only subject to intention, but formed in relationship. It is possible to say a thing and mean it explicitly, only to have one’s mind changed a moment later by a response from someone else. We see it all the time in arguments and debates and especially in teaching.
Student 1: “I think this art work is rubbish”.
Student 2: “Really, do you not see this and that about it?”
Student 1: “Oh yeah, I do! OK. I’ve changed my mind. I like that art work.”
Student 2: “Hang on, I think you may have been right. I agree with some of your first position.”
Student 1: “Now I don’t know what to think. I like this about it but I don’t like that.”
Opinions change, become more complex and evolve, and that doesn’t make some statements any less true or false at the time of being said.
Expression is an action. “Meaning is not transmitted to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware” (loc 417). We respond and adjust our thoughts. The action occurs in relation to other actions, past and present, genuine or imagined, and are always reflexive even when thought of as controlled, despite huge effort being made through the semiotic academic project to understand and control that reflexive action. The propagation of myths is ‘action’, responsive and organic, and the result of a shift elsewhere, another reflexive action.
What happens when structures change?
Structures have changed a great deal since the enlightenment. For many centuries we existed within a reality that adhered to The Great Chain of Being, a didactic ideology – underscored by a powerful sign system i.e., religious texts, religious art, religious figures which supported and perpetuated the position of those in power. As science and enlightenment emerged those ideologies were and continue to be challenged. A new reality has taken over, secular and science based, supported by the texts of Darwin, Dawkins and E O Wilson for instance, rather than by biblical myth.
What prevents the newer science based realities from being seen as myth, or indeed being myth? And what else drives modern secular myths? According to Marxism, industry and capitalism do. Whatever is responsible for driving new myths or truths, structures have changed and realities that exist within them have changed too, (although history has a habit of hanging around long after the fact, and there have been some arguments along those lines in relation to attitudes left over from years of English Empire still affecting how people think today, following the referendum result which are discussed in the following articles.
Out of scientific and less magical thinking, come the Structuralists and Post Structuralists and within that, the semioticians, including Saussare and Barthes, all of whom aim(ed) to deconstruct our ‘reality’, expressed through signs for there is no other way; “we learn through semiotics that …()…we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organised” (loc 425). Whether or not the sign is the only reality, or not, is debated. To suggest there is no reality without the sign might be argued as reductionist and is questioned. “Theorists who veer towards the extreme position of philosophical idealism (for whom reality is purely subjective and is constructed in our use of signs) may see no problem which has itself been described as idealist (e.g. Culler 1985, 117). Those drawn towards epistemological realism (for whom a single objective reality exists indisputably and independently outside us) would challenge it. According to this stance, reality may be distorted by the process of mediation involved in apprehending it, but such processes play no part in constructing the world.” (Loc 1234) (Whatever else is true, the constructed thought processes that have grown out of our own Western history don’t always apply so easily in cultures that have not been part of the history which formed it. Which is why it is not always appropriate, for instance, to analyse cultures outside of the West in Freudian terms as the lens through which that takes place can lead to projection and an imposition of one cultural view onto another. I have written far too much but feel the way in which we interpret life through a heavily influenced Freudian lens is critical – I think we cover this later.)
Returning to the question asked in the folder, “Is language a means of conveying the underlying and overarching truth, or do we understand to be true, that which language tells us is true?”
“Theorists differ over whether the system precedes and determines usage (structural determinism) or whether usage precedes and determines the system (social determinism)” (loc 393)
This questions seems impossible to answer definitively not least because of the choice of the word “truth” which can in certain contexts be contentious. (Although, despite arguments for the opposite view, not in all cases.) There is a drive for authenticity in acting which is described as truth, but that is not the same as the idea of truth which exists between two opposing sides. Both might see their own reality as the truth. As for the debate between structural or social determinism, as with all deterministic arguments, they appear to only look from the bottom up which ignores other influences. Are there not many more factors involved? And as I suggested earlier, the process is organic, so perhaps it is limiting to suggest any form of absolute determinism. The best we can do is to examine how language functions, perhaps relying on semiotics, and train ourselves to respond to the signs we have learned to trust in a considered fashion, as well as retaining some degree of scepticism since there is always the possibility that the sign system we choose to rely on might in time prove to be just as misleading as ones we have previously rejected. In any case, Barthes suggests we “might purport to discriminate … (but that)… would be illusory”. (1975; 51)
Changeability of meaning vs fixedness of the symbol
Meaning within a sign is subject to change, “form and concept are inseparable” (Loc 2166) In the past a Swastika did not mean ‘Nazi’. Now it does. It is impossible for someone to separate that history even when one is told about its former use. Context and history feed into the emotional response a sign (word or other) triggers. A more mundane, less emotive example might be the word “Smartie” or the visual image of one. Is a Smartie always and only only ever a Smartie? A child may be trained, using behaviorism techniques, to use the potty with a reward of a Smartie. The Smartie and all related cousins in the form of confectionary/chocolatey treats then potentially embody concepts surrounding far more than a sweet. Even the fact I suggest the Smartie is a treat is indicative of the social construct we place around sweets. In the case of the potty learning treat, the reward becomes unconsciously tied to the relationship with the parent, development of a sense of self, unconscious feelings about separation, learning, relationship with food, sugar, treats etc. Before potty training, the Smarties might just have been seen as a thing to eat (although if a parent chooses to use this technique then Smarties are likely already to have been established as a ‘treat’, something potentially bad, something potentially used as proxy for attention, love, and punishment by its absence etc.) Potentially, a whole world of mythical thought becomes tied up in a single small round coloured bit of candy covered chocolate. And so meaning is rendered subjective. A Smartie may mean many things to various people and even to the same person. Feelings associated with a heavily reward-based behaviourally-engineered upbringing to one person, or a joyful reminder of childhood parties to another. Or both.
Expression is an action
I am constantly reminded while studying this section of the course about a time when I was in a play at drama school. It was Women of Troy by Euripides. We had a strenuous and highly physical rehearsal process. I was in the chorus. One night I opened my mouth and understood not only every word but every syllable that came out of it. The ‘meaning’ felt as if it were flowing through me, as if Euripides’ spirit (for want of a better word) in the form of his words had allowed some historical event and a woman’s personal response to it to travel through history and emerge through my being in that moment. It was the weirdest experience I ever had in a play. It was an illusion but one that was made possible using a set of sign systems and conventions of a theatre. But the most important thing here for me is the fact I understood each and every part of each word I spoke. Not just intellectually, but throughout my entire body, emotionally, physically. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, not least because I knew ostensibly I was in a play so safe, even though in that instant I knew, as much as it is possible from that distance in time and place, what it would feel like for me to be one of those women being dragged away from their homes. My mouth opened and out came the expression that Euripides had sent us through the centuries, via a translation, shaped and modelled as English words in this instance, which were made up of a collection of sounds that came together as something real and true, but were the ultimate outcome of a collective, highly physical experience in the form of a rehearsal period where we (the actors, director and movement director, plus Eurpides and the translator) embedded the words into these very particular movements. Together we all contributed in a relationship towards creating a physical form, out of which came this incredibly fluent meaning. The language we used consisted of words (translated), physical experience, muscle memory, thought, empathy, imagination, history, being human, actual knowledge, learned knowledge and presumably other elements too which I may not have access to. The sounds (phenomes) each had meaning which went beyond the meaning of words. The words contained the expressive responses which had been internalised and then transformed as they erupted externally in the form of speech and movement, augmented with costume, lights, positioning, all signs. We became the form, enabling some meaning to be shared. And the meaning resonates still, in me and anyone I tell about it at the very least.
Annotated art work to follow
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/06/a-lost-child (accessed 15 July 2016)
Stuart-Macadam, P. and Dettwyler, K. (1995). Breastfeeding. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Chandler, D, 2004. Semiotics,
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.
Dawkins, R, 2014. Selfish Gene Explained, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9p2F2oa0_k (Accessed 14th July 2016)