A Small, Relatively In-Depth Presentation on Semiotics

I’m taking Foundations of Language this semester (strange I saved this for my last semester) on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. I had a group presentation this past Saturday, and our chosen topic was Semiotics. (We haven't discussed Semiotics at all in class, so I can't imagine what our professor expected. Luckily, I've already studied Saussure, Barthes and Eco both on my own and for a Literary Criticism and Theory course a while back.) The other three members of my group (all females) focused much of their portions of the presentation on gender roles in literature, television, movies, music and advertisements geared towards both children and adults.

They also discussed, or tried to discuss, gender roles in porn. During the presentation, our professor actually said it was inappropriate to an 'academic setting’. They quickly had to (re)adjust things around what they thought the professor would think inappropriate, which meant skipping past images on the PowerPoint. The issues they raised were valid, and I even helped argue some of their points. It was disappointing to have good ideas about the ridiculous world we live in shut down in favor of 'appropriateness' in regard to an 'academic setting'.

My portion of the presentation focused on signifiers in American culture and how they’re used for propaganda purposes to reinforce dominant epistemology, to promote pro-American ideology. For propaganda purposes, such as which cable news station to watch, who to vote for, what stores to shop at, and army recruitment commercials, we are constantly bombarded with abstract values and morals represented by streams of images of concrete familiarities in order to reinforce an ideology which will, in Althusserian terms, interpellate, or hail a subject into participating in the cultural beliefs they’ve been taught to hold. Semiotics is the study of these images and how they reference the ideology from which they originate, and are, therefore, culturally specific.

The signifiers a culture arbitrarily chooses to represent certain ideas must be universally understood throughout the culture, and so must seek to continually bolster the dominant epistemological discourse of the culture for a sense of solidarity. In our case, we have been taught to believe in American ideas and concepts, or at least the good side of them. The dominant epistemology exists on both sides of the political aisle, and so varies only slightly as the political spectrum circles around on itself.

We therefore run the risk of either not being presented with any negative cultural aspects which may need to be changed, or we choose to ignore them by focusing on other signs which reinforce the positive aspects of our ideology. In many ways, by referring to what is being signified, the signifiers we choose paradoxically conceal much of what they signify. We focus on what we know rather than what we don’t, and so ignore what we wish didn’t exist as it relates to what we are signifying.

My part of the PowerPoint showed a series of images we see every day, signs that point or refer us to an idea or concept that we’ve been trained to comprehend. For each of these images, we have an ingrained understanding of what they mean, and we are emotionally affected when we see them. For this reason they can be used to illicit a response—hence propaganda may be utilized to strengthen a particular dominant ideology. We often fall in line, allowing ourselves to be called, or hailed, to have this emotional response in favor of what the image signifies, then I ‘decoded’ them.

While discussing gender roles in porn, the professor said we were running out of time (I suspect to stop us from going any further). But then we I started on my portion, I got about halfway through and stopped to ask if I had time to finish, and she said yes. So, basically, spouting anti-American rhetoric in an 'academic setting' is perfectly okay, but discussing gender roles on porn is out of the question. Interesting. Here's some of what I 'decoded':

When we see this image, we think of abstract concepts like freedom, virtue, honor, justice, diversity, tolerance, happiness, etc. We don’t think of things like the oppression to this day of minorities and women, unjust wars, imperialism, neocolonialism, and capitalism being one of the most unjust and unequal economic systems ever devised.

When we see this image, we think of the same abstract concepts listed above.

When we see this image, we think of the same abstract concepts listed above. Here, two signifiers are redundantly conveying the same idea, that America is great. We don't think of the American bald eagle as a bird of carrion, scavenging on carcasses.

When we see this image, we think of love, sacrifice, obedience, willingness, etc. We don’t think of how many people died at the hands of Christians during the Spanish Inquisition, the slave trade, the colonization of America, etc.

When we see this image, we think humanitarian aid. We think empathy. We think compassion. We don’t think of how much aid money we give actually goes to funding warlords in many parts of the world.

These were produced during medieval times to catch the attention of people whose thoughts wandered during mass or prayer. They serve only to call (or, in Althusserian terms, interpellate or hail) one’s attention back to the mass or to their prayer. This is precisely what advertising does, constantly hailing us to participate in our culture. Watching television, the shows are broken up to remind us that we are a consumer culture and that we should buy things. We go down the street and see stores, billboards, endless advertisements, each signifier calling our attention back to what we’ve been trained to do as a culture: Consume useless products.

This represents a style of apparel, a way to present oneself. It represents socio-economic status. When we think of Nike, we think of sports, or professional sports players with million-dollar endorsement contracts. We don’t think Asian and Indonesian sweatshops or slavery or child abuse.

When we see this image we think cheap food, happy meals, smiling children playing with a clown. We don’t think cholesterol, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

When we see this image, we think of news, entertainment, etc. We don’t think NBC is owned by GE, and therefore a plays a large role in the military industrial complex. We don’t think their programming might be biased and doesn’t offer a fair account of world events. The same with ABC, owned by Disney, and the same especially with Fox News, a channel that bases nothing it broadcasts in fact.

When we see this image, we think defenders of freedom, sacrifice, honor, valor, courage, etc. We don’t think of a failed economy leaving the lower-class with no other option but to adhere to the pro-American propaganda they’ve been trained from birth to believe in. We think of soldiers as protectors of freedom. We don’t think of people who enlist as being sent out into the world for the sole purpose of protecting corporate interests.

And then I showed some ridiculous Army commercials, which all of them are. Then I showed and sang along to the intro to the 1987 animated G.I. Joe movie. I loved this movie (the television show, too) as a child, and I still like it for nostalgic reasons. I pointed out how this show and the movie, and other shows as well, are used to promote pro-American ideology to children (boys mostly, and so perpetuating contrived gender roles in society), indoctrinating them. It glorifies violence, but no one ever dies:

Yo, Joe...


Rose Hunter said...

Ah, semiotics, this takes me back.... It's interesting how many of those "we don't think" sides of it I do think, automatically. I may be somewhat interpellated in the other direction. I have to say when I saw that eagle with the flag though, all I immediately thought of was Stephen Colbert! I even heard the squawking (opening) in my head....

Re the porn discussion being out of the question, it reminds me of how sex and violence are lumped into the same category in movies, and how much more tolerance there is toward violence, in movie (& etc) ratings systems, it seems.

Congrats on all the nominations, above. Wowee!

Eric Beeny said...

Hi Rose,

Stephen Colbert, YES! I didn’t think about that, yet I watch him every day. I see what you mean about thinking those things automatically, though I think in terms of the general population, if they do think of it, they choose to ignore it, and that recognition and choice are both unconscious. Survival is unconscious, or maybe I should say instinctual, and the way Americans 'survive' is to not witness the decline of their lifestyle. NIMBY, and all. "Someone else's misfortune is okay, as long as they don't affect me..." seems to be the American mindset.

I agree with your view of violence. It seems violence in our culture is not only tolerated more than sex (ironically destructive over creative acts are favored), but violence is actually sexualized. In Freudian terms, violence is an expression of sexual desire, hence the whole of civilization, how we've evolved and built all the stuff we've built, has been based on sexual desire (like a peacock's feathers used to attract a mate). We don't even know what we're doing or why we're doing it. We just want sex. And in porn, sex is often violent, perhaps mirroring an expression of anger toward civilization for its failure to create peace. I'll have to think about that last thing I wrote. It seem to make sense to me right now.

Big thanks for your comment, Rose, and for the Congrats...

Jake Fournier said...

The GI Joe clip is awesome. I especially love the balloons at the beginning.

Eric Beeny said...

Hi Jake, yeah, the balloons! So festive! It is awesome. As a kid, I watched this and thought, however unconsciously, of all the images and the music being put together in such a way as being 'cool'. As a grown-up, I look at this and think the same thing, but think too about the purpose of it, why I was allowed to watch this as a child, why this was made for children. It's supposed to be aweseom, to lure children (boys in this case, reinforcing socially-constructed gender roles) into absorbing the ideology it promotes. As a child, I never thought, "No one dies in G.I. Joe," and never equated it with actual war, never saw it as glorifying violence, convincing/preparing a generation of boys to join the armed forces. G.I. Joe was an effective recruitment tool...

Jake Fournier said...

Yeah. I think it's also interesting how the style in this case is a TOTAL knockoff of Japanese cartoons of the same time period which are then re-processed (call it "Orientalism" or whatever) so that the "bad guys" are Asiatic... but I found the balloons to be an inexplicable and hilarious moment of l'art pour l'art.

Eric Beeny said...

Nice. yeah. Edward Said's 'Orientalism' doesn't necessarily refer to Asians, exclusively. It can refer to any group the West considers an 'other', a group the West wishes to ostracize, such as Arabs or Muslims (though it was, I think, based on/modelled after the Fu Manchu character which promoted sinophobia).

Good point about the fact that this is very Japanime sequence. That the West chooses to emulate aspects of the culture of an 'other' to enrich our own while still ideologically feeling superior to it, even promoting predjudice against it. White people seem to do the same with black culture: emulating it while fearing its proximity...