“It is now the function of the media to provide us with apparently ‘objective’ correlatives and ‘meanings’ (since art has become increasingly preoccupied with its inability to mean)” (Williamson, 1978; 30)

I am alert to anything that helps me to get to grips the notion of ‘things’ (signs, signifiers)  and ‘meaning’  – signs, we are told, can be empty, or at least in certain circumstances, especially advertising can be are watered down, transformed, flakey and insubstantial. Artists we have looked at play with the notion of empty or zero signs. And I have found Judith Williamson’s book which I am only part way through extremely helpful. The sentence quoted above has clarified something I have been wondering about for a few months and in just a few words. I must admit I am beginning to think Return of the Real was recommended to me too early in the course, since the title is only beginning to make sense in light of what I’ve been reading elsewhere, never mind the content, which I will approach again once I’ve digested some of these other elements.

Art, it would seem, doesn’t know what to do with itself in the new order. By new order I think I am referring to the period that began with the enlightenment (Rousseau being an integral figure) and continues today, when increasingly sophisticated science debunks so much we lived with previously, i.e. religion. And as such, I now look at some acts of appropriating someone else’s picture in its entirety as Levine did with the work I looked at in A2, and I can’t help seeing something naive. I don’t mean pejoratively. It just seems in retrospect an early response to a new order as artists struggle to find a new identity and motivation – reason for being. (Unadorned naivety, in some circumstances, was something I might have aimed for as an actor; it’s a brave thing for an artist within any medium to allow themselves to be. Art can be naive and exceedingly clever at the same time.)

Williamson explains the role of the signified and signifier well. She also describes how primary objects in adverts initially have no meaning but meaning is conveyed by virtue of a symbol which accompanies merchandise. So for instance, a packet of cigarettes (the book was written before cigarette advertising was banned) is connected by colour and placing in relation to a luxury car, and all the symbolism of the car is projected onto the cigarettes. The cigarette is seen to appropriate luxury associated with the car – there is “an interchange of values and significance”. (Williamson, 1978; 32) I think the problem I am  having is, if the cigarette is meant to have no meaning, but can borrow meaning from the luxury car, where did the car get its meaning from?  What distinguishes these two objects? In fact the cigarette has no ability to ‘do’ anything – it is the advertising company’s staff that does the appropriating and transforming rather than the object but advertisers are all about endowing objects with super-natural powers. Perhaps that is another story. As far as I can see the car is endowed with meaning, and the cigarette is endowed with meaning, whereas Williams seems to be saying the product has no meaning on its own. This can’t be true  – it seems the cigarette by itself might not hold the connotations the advertisers wish it to have. Whatever the case, any meaning only exists because of culture. Without culture it is just a collection of atoms. It’s a materialist view but I think it is possible to have that view and understand that the illusions and myths created by culture are as real as anything since they’re all we have in our grasp. The rest being intangible and out of reach. Being able to question and then live by myths that are helpful rather than not might be the thing to aim for. The trick for the advertisers is that they are able to transform rather than give meaning to the cigarette. And outside of the advertising world the meaning of the cigarette has been utterly transformed over the years anyway. I can’t think of a time when a cigarette won’t have had meaning. Even when it first arrived on these shores, its meaning must have been connected to whatever fantasy people may have had about where it came from, along with fantasies they might have had about the kind of people who brought them here.

Meaning is such a tricky word and what an object might signify is ‘slippery’ – Derrida confirms this.  I do know people who refuse to use the word meaning when discussing the significance of art. And I can see why. Perhaps it’s a word that ought to be avoided when talking about how art might be read. Or indeed when objects are investigated. 


I have only read the Derrida essay once so far but watched a couple of films on YouTube about him and his ideas earlier on in the course, so have been thinking about his ideas for a few months. He states meaning is entirely fluid, and dependent on the cultural milieu in which one lives. For example, in this essay he states, “The effects of aesthetic signs are only determined within a cultural system.” And to explain further, “Medicine itself must take account of the semiological culture within which it must heal.” (Derrida, 1967; 952)  – for it to work effectively. I hesitate to accept that argument as entirely without flaws, however, I suspect that modern GPs over-whelming reliance on and belief in anti-depressant as the best option for depression is borne out of the fact they have very little else they can offer in the ten minute slots they have available to deal with such things. Cultural belief is extremely powerful and I have long understood everything we perceive is through a cultural interface; although thinking of such an interface as being made up of texts, of language, is new for me (seems obvious now!) However, when I first read about women in cultures other than our own not registering morning sickness as a sign one might be pregnant, I was hooked on the idea culture had such a powerful impact on how we think, behave, and perceive reality (Kitzinger, 1990; 24). Perhaps growing up across the road from a little boy who truly believed his white skin made him superior to other people, confirmed by his bible as far as he was concerned, made me think about such things long before I started reading about pregnancy.

We are asked in the course folder to consider varying interpretations regarding Derrida’s often conflicting and difficult-to-penetrate-writing, in particular, “outside the text there is nothing”. On one hand people believe he suggests there is no reality outside of language and others believe he is saying there is nothing of any relevance to us humans outside of language. The difference is subtle and semantic, it seems. And I can’t help but sense ‘nothing of any point’ to us outside of our language is the more accurate statement.

Derrida’s point view is a long way on from Rousseau’s whom he quotes in the passage we are asked to read. Rousseau perpetuated a belief humans were inherently good but life’s challenges changed that innate state. He is an instigator of Naturalism and his ideas are still influential today. In fact, I would suggest The Continuum Concept which harks back to some idealised garden of Eden state where people behave perfectly because they haven’t been corrupted by modern anti-adaptive forces is as mythical as any other myth we live with, and is perhaps written in the same tradition as Rousseau’s ideas. Such a view fails to take into account social cost-benefit ratios and evolutionary drives which lead to less positive behaviour we see in human beings. Nor does it address the costs of living in a small, excluded from the world, pre-agricultural society. The book only celebrates the benefits.

I was particularly interested in Derrida’s comments on Rousseau’s ‘strange’ assertion the greatest vice of man is ‘greed’ (947) “Rouseau condemns gluttony without mercy.” (947) I think this may have been addressed effectively by Lacan when he explored ‘lack’. It may be relevant to use in A3.

Derrida states, “It is not the body of the sign that acts, for all that is sensation, but rather the signified that it expresses, imitates or transports.” I think this sentence is pretty key and connects what I was exploring earlier with the Williamson book – the cigarette is a sign that can be associated with any number of significations, and the advertisers make use of that by connecting to to another sign which can also be associated with any number of significations.  It is the combination of significations which matters most. The empty form, the sign, is not worth anything without the cultural referrant and the relationships it has with other referrants.

What I know I am missing for now is how this all relates to art more fully and I will need to re-read and think some more before addressing that aspect, which is so complex – perhaps revisiting The Return of the Real now some of it might make more sense.

Image (c)SJField 2015


Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding advertisements. London: Boyars.

Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003). Art in theory, 1900-2000. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Kitzinger, S. (1996). The complete book of pregnancy and childbirth. New York: A.A. Knopf.

Foster, H. (1996). The return of the real. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau (accessed 5th July 2016)

Liedloff, J. (1985). The continuum concept. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.



3 thoughts on “Notes: Art, meaning, culture, ethno-semiology – cont. Project Deconstruction

    1. I once (when I smoked) thought very hard about the actual act of smoking, and when you find a way to consider it separate from, and outside, everyday reality, it suddenly seems like a damn weird thing to do. Sucking on a thing that’s on fire, which is made of dried twigs and leaves, as you go about your business ….actually putting the thing to your lips and breathing in hot smoky deliberately contaminated air … it’s just so damn odd! Then after that moment of reality, every time I looked at someone smoking I just thought….wow, that’s such an odd thing to be doing. Super cuckoo!


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