Tag Archives: meaning

The Problem with Identity

This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.

Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.

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Filed under Gender Trouble, Power

Poetic Interlude the Third

Voided

Community
Sustainability
Accountable

Words I am tired of hearing
Of using

Use made meaning
Made meaningless

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Filed under Wordplay

As Seen on a Greeting Card

A lithographed drawing of a cow, with the text:

“You’re useful and delicious.”

And now for some analysis…

The Humor Angle

So one reason humor “happens” is when two usually unrelated things are presented right next to one another. In this case, the cow is being simultaneously given subjectivity by an unseen speaker (the card/speaker addresses the cow in the second person–you) and is immediately objectified (made an object by the card/speaker telling the cow how useful it is as food and whatnot). So the humor is in the unexpected collision of these two states of being that are bestowed upon the cow: it is given subjectivity only to have it taken away in the service of a human smile.

It is also funny because it combines admiration and brutal honesty. The narrator of the card is writing this ode of appreciation to the cow because it can be killed and used for food and clothing and other human needs. The narrator is defining what the cow is in human terms. It is appreciating it for its lack of agency–its lack of subjectivity–even as it ironically addresses it as if it is a subject, not an object.

Expanding the Analysis

Of course, the entire card objectifies the cow–an icon both standing for itself as an individual who can be addressed (although not easily interpellated*) as a singular subject, as well as a representative of an entire category of non-human animal. The cow is an object that conveys humor to the reader, the consumer of the card. Who is a human. Who identifies with the sentiments expressed on the card in the act of chuckling at their meaning. Haha, cows are delicious and useful! That cow doesn’t know what it’s in for…ha! The narrator could be interpreted as tricking the cow, first lulling it into a false sense of camaraderie (you implies that the speaker and the addressee are equal in the sense that they can communicate with one another as individuals), and then destroying those expectations built just moments before by putting the cow in the place of being a mere representative of a type. A class of animal that humans have categorically created to be the very things that the narrator is seemingly praising the individual cow for being: useful and delicious. See cow? You aren’t a person. You’re just an object. A thing with desired characteristics.

It’s quite an instance of animal cruelty, when you think about it. Albeit a funny one that only the humans are in on. Which is in turn exclusionary and therefore rather mean.
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*I use interpellation here in the Althusserian sense, although I’m also twisting it. For Althusser, the subject is always already existent, created by social processes. While I think the subject still has to interact with the social situation in order to become a subject of the interaction (uptake/use makes meaning!). Althusser contends that the social interaction itself creates subjects; that the structure makes subjects of what the structure hails. Maybe…I’m a bit fuzzy on this, actually. Grad school was a while ago.

ANYWAY, since I am of the nihilistic relativist opinion that there is no way to absolutely know whether or not you are communicating with another species–or even another human being who is ostensibly of “the same” culture–it would be very difficult indeed for the narrator of the card to claim that the cow it is addressing was interpellated with the narrator’s use of “you,” even if the cow chose at that moment to serendipitously look over at the narrator.

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Filed under Animals, Bovinity Infinity, Contemporary

Thoughts Related to Awards Show Season

I was having coffee with someone who mentioned how cool it felt the year she knew a person who had won an Oscar. She described watching the show and pointing at the TV, remarking “hey, it’s Joe!” because she had worked with him in the past. She seemed surprised that she had reacted this way; that she had found that short experience so cool.

The coolness effect that comes with the realization that someone you know is now momentarily famous intrigued me. It is partially a sharing of the prize–in knowing the person you feel a small sense of ownership over their accolades, as if you, by knowing them, had contributed to their recognition/distinction. As if you feel rewarded for knowing someone who was actually rewarded. A closeness to the prize and the public recognition of hard work and talent via your social closeness to the person actually receiving said accolades. It’s not really about the cultural capital, the bragging rights that come from telling the story that you know someone who won a nationally recognized award. And in the instance I began with, it certainly wasn’t name-dropping. (Who the hell is Joe? It didn’t matter that I didn’t know–it only mattered that it was a person she knew.) It was about the coolness of intimately knowing someone who was briefly a public figure.

But it was more the connection itself, and the way the connection works, that interested me in this story. The unexpected delight of not quite a coincidence, but a connecting to thousands (millions?) of nameless others who are simultaneously watching this same person that you know accepting an award. Someone in your life is now connected to everyone else who is witnessing the same event. It is a cool feeling because it means that you are now connected to these strangers–you are all in each others’ lives.

This effect has been discussed before in various ways…how we track our own lives using the lives of celebrities and public figures. This is why media outlets announce the deaths of famous people. Because viewers care. We they to know, in a way. Because it reminds viewers of their own life trajectories. This particular awards show connection phenomenon is a variation on the same theme.

It’s about connecting to strangers through particular people, making these shared people icons/symbols in the process. It solidifies our imagined community; our commonality as mortal beings. And it’s also pretty cool.

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Filed under Contemporary, Media

NKLA and Participatory Advertising

In the age of the internet, advertisers can rely on consumers to do a lot of work. Because people in this hyper-connected, digital culture are in the habit of constantly looking things up, only to forget them because they can call back that knowledge at will (think wikipedia) less and less information can be provided in advertisements. It is up to the consumer to figure out what’s being sold. What the message is.

To over-simplify a bit, this trend started nearly 100 years ago, when advertisements became less about long-form essays detailing the benefits of a product, and more about images that conveyed the feelings one would get by consuming said products. Now, there’s a type of ad that uses a combined strategy of images and limited accompanying text, relying on consumers to either guess at or go looking for the message and even the very product it’s attached to. These advertisements don’t even have to be about selling something. They can be about conveying an idea; making it “go viral.” It’s propaganda that masquerades as subtle, all the while hoping the masses will whip out their smartphones, find the hidden message on the internet, and hit themselves over the head with it.  Oh, and tell their friends, preferably via tweet. The marketers have passed off their work to us.

Take, for example, the NKLA billboards that popped up in the greater Los Angeles area. These consist of black-and-white photographs of cats and dogs, the letters “NKLA,” and a tiny emoticon-like logo in the bottom corner that suggests a doggie face. That’s it. What the hell are these for? Is it a new clothing line? A rap-group? Soap? Unless the viewer of these ads already knows what they’re supposed to take away from this collection of signifier-less signs, it’s a mystery. And I’d argue it’s designed to be obscure in order to pique the viewer’s interest, igniting a burning curiosity that eventually forces them to take to the interwebs and find out what these billboards and bus-stop ads are supposed to mean. It’s designed to force participation on the part of the view–or in the case of an ad for a product, the potential consumer.

Far be it from me to do the same thing and keep you, my imagined reader, in suspense. It turns out that these “NKLA” ads are for a campaign promoting the idea that no “viable” pet animals be killed in the city of Los Angeles. Here, you don’t even have to go looking. The campaign is backed by a coalition of like-minded organizations, some corporate and some non-profit. What they’re really selling/proposing is an old idea: eugenics. Like Bob Barker used to remind us after every “The Price is Right,” they want us to remember to spay or neuter our pets, and these organizations are mounting an effort to make that easier for people to do. I won’t get into the politics of this or why I find this problematic. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to note that this is not a revolutionary idea that this campaign is trying to promote. Rather, it is the method of promotion and dissemination of this old message that’s somewhat revolutionary. It’s not word of mouth; it’s words from technology.

It is curious that the coalition’s strategy was to rely on viewers to figure out what campaign they were seeing. To do the work to figure out what the message was. Now that is some clever propaganda, and a risky move. Predicting the crowd is not an easy thing to do. And baiting them to do what you want them to do is arguably harder. If not for our digital, internet-connected, give-me-the-info-now culture, this would have no chance of working, of getting the message across. The images would just sit there, not being “read;” not being understood as their makers intended. The message would remain un-conveyed, or at least misinterpreted by the many consumers who were now going to be sorely disappointed the next time they tried to find NKLA’s newest album release.

This type of advertising strategy implicates the viewer–it requires that they participate. It demands their effort and their involvement in the campaign itself. They are part of the advertising team. It is self-directed marketing. Only those with the curiosity bug will exert the effort to get the message. It is self-selected, in a way, as it is more likely that someone with a soft spot for vaguely sad-looking pet animals will be inclined to take the time to find out what those puppies and kitties are trying to tell them. The black-and-white images help set the down-and-out tone, but that only really clicks and becomes part of the message when the viewer looks on the internet and finds out what the ad campaign is “selling”–the idea of a society in which no animals qualifying for the “pet” category have to be killed. (I won’t hold my breath for an “unhappy cows” spin-off.)

It’s all quite clever. And would seem to usher in a new era of marketing methodology.*  The consumer is the partial-producer of the advertisement that encourages them to buy (or in the case of NKLA, buy in to an idea and possibly become involved in either materially realizing it or further disseminating it). The consumer becomes a partial producer of the ad’s message because only after going through the effort of finding the message does the entire campaign gain its layers of meaning. And now, the idea has another follower. Perhaps another member of the movement who is willing to participate even further. Because that viewer searched and found the site and read it and understands. Understands that they now have to decide whether to cruelly say “no” to a campaign that is only trying not to have stray pet animals needlessly die to make room for more stray pet animals. The manipulation is palpable, but is over-ridden by the ostensibly “good” message that is so benign and “right” that no one who took the trouble to find it could possibly, in good conscience, disagree with it. Propaganda’s sneaky that way.

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*Or maybe this strategy has been employed before. It would be worth looking into from a history-of-advertising perspective.

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Filed under Animals, Contemporary, Technology