Tag Archives: meaning

Scattered Fragments and Other Musings

I’m in the process of working up quite a long piece on the complexities of the human-pet relationship as illuminated in a sometimes-trite picture book. It will appear soon. Dammit. But until then, I thought I’d get a few thoughts off my figurative chest and literal scraps of paper that have been waiting quite a while to be made legible, if not logical. None of them have inspired any real burst of verbose or coherent analysis, but they aren’t entirely worthless, either. So here they are for your consideration, fresh from the nearly-discarded notecards and stickie-notes of my car, in all their fragmented glory.

“Best Friends” Necklaces At least a decade ago, there was a(nother? probably) wave of “best friend” merchandise marketed at young girls–ages 9 to 13, say. Things like a set of necklaces that had half a broken heart each, one with the word “best” inscribed on the cheap metal, the other with the word “friends.” To state the obvious, these types of trinkets represent in a very material way the commodification of friendship, not to mention the performance of it. They had the potential to exacerbate the pre-teen drama seemingly inherent in female friendships (and inevitable falling-outs). Choosing to don or eschew a broken heart necklace could be as hurtful or meaningful as “breaking” a real heart or finally making a “real” friend. This commodification and fetishization of necklace and the ideas it represented put volatile meaning to things. But how do you explain all that to a twelve year-old?

Evolution of Art A now-forgotten segment on NPR about some art happening sparked a hastily scribbled note about conceptual art as prioritizing the making rather than the saving of a work of art. Art as process itself. An engaging-with art-making; participatory art. Making something lasting that can be saved or sold is beyond the point. Art as the performance of itself.

Performance vs. Static Identity Another NPR story dealt with the idea of “genius”–that at one point, the word was used in a very different way and that this difference has significant implications. To be general about it, “historically,” one was spoken of as having genius, rather than being a genius. It was a quality external to the self. Now it is a quality part and parcel of the self. This change in meaning seems to jive with quite a few things I’ve been reading lately about the shift from the external performance of personhood to the internal coherence of a static self. The shift to the concept of identity as an internal and fixed aspect of being. The self was not always such a concern–emphasis was placed, rather, on how one upheld the values of one’s community: it was more about service to one’s society than a concern with one’s inner being, which was not necessarily thought to be separate from the outside world or fixed. This shift is dealt with in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles as well as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America. Perhaps it is because both books deal with gender and trace its movement from being located in social performance to its current location in an internal and fixed identity that explains both author’s attention to this overarching ideological change. But to bring it back to the beginning, I think this shift that they both identify illuminates the changing meaning of “genius” with respect to its use. As the ideology of the self evolved into its present state, it became more acceptable/made more sense to use the word “genius” as a quality that one could posses as part of one’s identity. It was no longer some third-party muse that chanced upon the lucky individual, sparking a happy accident of knowledge production or art. (Yet another example of meaning deriving from use. Ling-anth!)

Beating the Dead Horse of the American Dream This is why I get angry and am not so hot for America much of the time: One of our most enduring (yet constantly refuted) national myths is that of the American DreamLand of opportunity for all, life liberty, etc. That it persists is the backdrop of my anger at our constant boundary-making, social policing, and general intolerance of difference. Sure, if we want to play the comparison game, other cultures and nations are “more” oppressive, but because of this myth I’ve been indoctrinated with, I feel we should do better. We should try harder to live up to this (impossible) myth of opportunity–which requires tolerance of difference. Especially in a capitalist society; some concession must be made to temper the inhumane hand of the market so that difference is taken into account. Is valued. Is given the space to create opportunity that looks a little different. We can’t just provide opportunities for those who follow our arbitrary rules. This makes “success” too unattainable. We must do better. Even if the myth is just that. If we keep telling it to ourselves and slamming it down and telling it to ourselves, shouldn’t we try to make it true, if only to stick it to all the cynical authors of the past 100+ years? (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald and Miller.)

Whew. Now to the recycle bin!

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The 2011 Protester and Occupy Movement Uptake

A few weeks ago, Time magazine revealed its Person of the Year (a trope that has gained a lot of self-aggrandizing authority over the years as a touchstone of the state of the world and America and all that) to much mass-mediated fanfare. It was The Protester. A masked one. The image was a little sinister. To scare the white “normal” American public that reads Time and takes it seriously.

Who is the “protester” for Time, anyway? The cover is confusing and exploitative, simultaneously raising up and trivializing and making a public menace actual protesters…and differently for different audiences. How to even think about this?

Now, to be fair, the story that goes along with the cover is a little more nuanced and gives good space to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, but the protester on the cover image seems to be more of a young American anarchist.*** And readers should fear this anonymous being with its dark eyebrows and hand-knit cap and bandana-hidden face standing in front of a red back-drop, ready to charge at your magazine-reading self. That protester is going to set fire to your lawn and ask about social justice. RUN!!!

The cover of “Time” magazine for the week of December 26th 2011/January 2nd 2012

Time‘s “Person of the Year” (the protester) was being reported by local and national news websites, TV stations and radio stations as if this yearly revelation were news, but Time magazine itself purports to be news. How incestuously layered, congratulatory, and self-promoting. Its own advertisement. Making itself an event by framing itself as such and getting other news outlets to do the same. Saying it makes it true: yay, performativity! We (some of the “normal” public and the mass media it listens to) wait with bated breath to find out who Time thinks is the person of the year, thus giving it the authority to say with definity who it is.

Not news at all, but another way to sell more magazines. Capitalizing on the major mass-mediated news stories of 2011 (the revolutions big and small, international and local) by turning it into another mass-mediated message. And the “normal” public eats it up. Or at least is exposed to it over and over.

The “revolution” has been televised. And thus, the real revolution has been largely silenced in terms of how many “normal” ears its message falls upon. Its message, its narrative, was co-opted almost immediately by those in power, those of the establishment, those of the mass-media. The mass media, after all, is where most “normal” Americans go for their answers, for their news. What “normal” person has time for much else than those neat little soundpicturebites? They trust the familiarity of the mass media–not the chaotic voices of those in the trenches.

It is difficult to say with any certainty how these mass-mediated messages are received by the “normals.” But since many of them seem to fill their conversations with regurgitated sentences and viewpoints heard and read from mass-mediated news sources, I feel it safe to say that they take up much of the repeated narratives without a lot of questioning. They believe the mass-mediated narratives of what’s going on around the world. Their opinions are not their own. (And in a society that is ostensibly all about the unique and sovereign individual, that would seem to be a problem, wouldn’t it?)

And in this mess that is the ownership of narrative, who speaks for the actual protesters? The varied ones that the image on the cover of Time is supposed to represent. The “normal” public certainly does not let them speak for themselves. Not for long. (It could be argued that at first, the Occupy movement really did change the conversation, or at least brought more attention to the massive dissatisfaction Americans were feeling about the state of the nation and their own lives. The mass media even seemed sympathetic with the movement at first. But then it went on too long. It got bored and started reporting it from the perspective of the 1 percent that owns the news outlets. The conversation went back to the status quo, and the movement lost its ability to speak for itself to the “normal” public, at least through the mass mediated outlets that many of the “normals” turn to for guidance. Turn to to make sense out of what’s going on. Turn to to find out what’s going on, even if it isn’t. Even if they leave a lot out.)

No, the “normals” prefer the mass media to wrap up the complicated messages in easily digestible sound-bites of recognizable size and flavor: Crazy hippies. Bored rich kids. Rioting poor people. Naive college students. Uppity and inarticulate African-Americans. Dangerous and dirty transients. Entitled Native Americans. Basically, everyone who’s not falling into line. Not playing by the white, upper-middle-class rules.

The Occupy movement is doomed (assuming they want to affect change on a scale larger than themselves) if the “normals” keep listening to the mass-mediated take on what’s going on and investing these sources with the authority to speak for the movement. If the “normals” keep tuning out what the people on the ground, the actual protesters/members of the movement, are saying. If they keep letting the media speak for the many complicated and different individuals on the ground trying to call attention to the many issues our large society has. It’s easier to think that these issues don’t exist, or that they can be solved by placing even more stock in the status quo. It’s easier to listen to the mass media.

We really do have an impressively strong hegemony here. We think we’re free, that our society is  free, but the minute someone questions the status quo, the citizen police are out in force, squelching the questions with blindly accepted structure. This is the way things are; get a job. Stop ruining city hall’s lawn. We’ve decided it’s time for you to stop questioning the status quo: stop protesting and go home.

Because it’s not 99 vs. 1. The 1 may have all the money, but most of the 99 are helping to keep the structures that allow for the rich 1 to exist strong. Many of the 99 believe so deeply in those structures that they cannot see them–these structures have become naturalized: it’s just the way things are. And we must all operate within this system if we are to keep on keeping on, never mind get ahead. And this deep-seated belief in the invisible structures is one of the reasons the Occupy movement is in so much trouble. They aren’t speaking for the 99; most of the 99 are unwittingly in cahoots with the 1.

The Occupy movement can’t gain traction without the “normals” who are (now half-heartedly if at all) gazing in on them either listening seriously or joining. And the “normals” won’t do either when the messages of the movement have been co-opted by the mass media. As a closeted radical on the outside of the movements that are happening around the country, I feel (ashamedly) more in touch with the perspective of the “normals” than I do with the movement that I politically and socially identify with. So allow me to speak a little for them (they have no problem at all speaking for you, after all, and you won’t like what they say).

The normals hear what the media says about the movement and lets the media speak for it. The movement is too “radical”, too “disorganized” for them. “What do they want? If they just had an agenda…/Why are they wasting time holding up signs when they could be out looking for jobs? Why do they hate America?” etc. For the movement itself, I think it’s great that it’s somewhat lacking in clear leadership, instead thriving on some disorganization, anarchism. It seems invested in listening to everyone’s concerns. But for things to change–or for the national conversation to permanently change in any meaningful way–the movement needs the “normals” on board, and the “normals” like the very structure that the movement is trying to question.

Which leaves us at a stalemate. What kind of strategy can overcome this divide? Can we look to the relative successes of the revolutions of the Arab Spring for any tactics and strategies that can be adopted for our own cultural context? How can the movement get the “normal” public to join them in a conversation that isn’t mediated by the mass media? Is that even possible?

Where do we go from here?

***A Tardy Update: a link and a digression into self-critique***

Over at Al Jazeera, Larbi Sadiki has a different interpretation of the Time image as he deconstructs its many meanings. The various issues and details he points out are interesting and I think the piece is worth a read. He also pays attention to the fact that the image on the cover “veiled” the protester, and what implications that visual choice has, given the climate we live in and the many conflicting associations veiling has in the Western world (not to mention the cultures that actually wear variations of a veil).

Perhaps I’m implicitly guilty of demonizing the veil in my own interpretation when I talk about the image as a “scary” one of the hipster-anarchist…for which I apologize. That was not my intent, but it nonetheless points to the negative associations our culture has when it comes to images of people with their faces partially or fully obscured. Veils, burqas, bandanas and the like shouldn’t be signs that incite fear, because then this fear is displaced onto the person wearing these pieces of fabric and can often, as Yoda taught us, lead to hate. But for many Americans they are signs that incite fear. And when I interpreted the visual cues of the Time cover in this way, I was tapping into that negative stereotype that has been harmful to particular populations, especially post-9/11. Even though the dark red cover is also a menacing sign, I do believe I was wrong to not see that the image, as Sadiki points out, is also one that indexes Americans’ fear of cultures and populations who wear variations of a veil. I apologize for my insensitivity.

All of which goes to prove that meaning is located in the one who does the interpretation, not necessarily the one who produces. Intention has little weight. Uptake! Use! How can we determine what the producers of this image intended it to mean when there can be such radically different interpretations of it? Obviously, the producers of the image operate within the same systems of symbols that allowed for both Sadiki and my interpretations of it…but it is difficult to critique them without knowing which (or both?) the producers meant to “speak” to their readership. Either way, both of our interpretations find it problematic that the image contains overwhelmingly negative signs that cause the (white?) American viewer to call up culturally negative associations.

And I’m going to stop before this discussion spirals out of control in a vortex of fractally circular argumentation.

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Merrily Spring-boarding from a Book Review to Thoughts on Nostalgia: A Review of a Review of “Ready Player One”

In the September 5th issue of Time magazine, there was a one-page book review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. This post isn’t going to discuss the book itself, as I haven’t read it, but rather some issues that the reviewer, Douglas Wolk, touched upon in his article.

Briefly, the book seems to be about 1980s video games being played  in a dystopian future, and one game in particular that, if beaten, can give the winner unimaginable riches. In his review, Mr. Wolk points out that this book has been talked about for a while now, and that this talk is “acutely nostalgic.” Then he goes on to a section entitled “Pop Culture Eats Itself.” Yum!

Wolk ties the excitement surrounding this novel to a particular idea presented in Simon Reynold’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. The idea being that the current turn in artistic expression is toward rehashing. Toward the celebration of the bygone. Toward nostalgia. Sequels and mass-culture entertainment drawn from existing stories and cultural landmarks abound. The presumption is that art used to, once upon a “better” time, strive for originality. (This is itself a nostalgic lament.) I would point out that all this re-making and referencing capitalizes on an imagined audience’s predilection for nostalgia. After all, movies and books and even some visual art gets produced because those with the money to back these projects believe that they will see a return on their investment. This artistic turn toward nostalgia that Wolk and Reynolds note we’re being bombarded with in popular culture is in no small part in the service of marketing. In the service of commodifying (self)reflexive nostalgia to feed the masses, in the hopes that they might fill the pocket-books of the creators and their patrons (if we want to stick with the idea that this is all art in some form or another).*

Onto a second, slightly related point that comes up in the article about the value of nostalgia in and of itself–at least in the world of (pop)art/culture. Again, my thoughts have strict limitations as I have not read any of the books being referenced in his review (shame on me!), but when Wolk writes that we should rue the day that science fiction starts looking toward the past (and, oh crap, thanks to Cline’s book, that day is today!), I wonder what kind of “trouble” he thinks we’re in, either creatively or socially. He concedes that “all that crap clearly meant something to people,” but bemoans the fact that Cline’s book doesn’t explore this. It just presents the 1980s games as a saving grace in and of themselves for the inhabitants of the dystopian future. (Oh yeah, there was also that winning money thing.) Wolk thinks there should be more commentary on that meaning.

Wolk essentially criticizes Cline’s novel for glorifying something that isn’t real enough; that does little to push the boundaries and say something new as it presents the nostalgic for mass consumption. Or maybe he’s angry that the glorification offers little analysis or critique. In any case, Wolk claims that this building-upon and making-new is an artist’s job, “not just to offer up comforting familiarity as a talisman against the void.” But I wonder if perhaps this could be one of the points of Cline’s book: that nostalgia is emptier than we’d like it to be.

*One final tidbit: Wolk refers to what he sees as Cline’s overuse of pop-culture references to the 1980s as “maddeningly fetishistic.” Exactly.

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Mouthing Off: Using the Absence of Sex to Sell

Linguistic anthropologists do it with words. And so do advertisers.

“Practice Safe Breath.” That’s the tagline of an ad campaign for Dentyne Ice gum. It’s a clever conceit: in these commercials, couples are usually getting hot and heavy, or it’s implied that they want to. Then there’s the inevitable pause: did you, um…remember the, uh…? Shit, I’ll be right back. A race to the roommate’s room. Please, buddy, just this once, I’ll get you back. She’s super hot and what’s even better is that she’s actually on the couch. Disinterested roommate motions to the top drawer of his night-stand, where the hero gratefully extracts a…pack of gum. Whew! First base shenanigans can continue without fear.

This is all designed to evoke the culturally sanctioned practice of having “safe” sex with condoms. And this association is designed to be viewed as a clever twist on the familiar, thereby making consumers want to buy this particular gum because its ads are clever-funny. By triggering these now-ingrained cultural associations with the phrase “practice safe breath,” this commercial effectively implies the existence of sex by withholding it; by providing a twist ending to its little romantic vignettes: haha, dirty-minded viewers! You thought we were talking about condoms but we were really talking about gum! Aren’t we clever and hip?

The very existence of this ad campaign, and the reason its commercials work and make sense, is due to the fact that practicing safe sex has become mainstream–it’s solidified in our cultural vocabulary and social practice. So much so that it is now assumed that everyone knows they should (ah, prescriptive society…) use some sort of protection and shouldn’t have to be told via PSAs or Trojan commercials with pigs standing in for men who don’t carry condoms. (I will avoid digressing into a tirade on the use of nonhuman animals as representative of negative human character attributes, so count yourselves as lucky. This time.)

On another level, these commercials work (in that they may contribute to a rise in the company’s sales) by catering to the social fear of ruining one’s romantic chances with a perceived bodily imperfection. Our bodies, our anxieties. Advertising has a long history of creating problems for which there just happens to be a commodified solution–and ads are so ubiquitous that they end up influencing social opinion and practice by hammering at these invented problems.

Take our cultural obsession with fresh breath, to which this Dentyne Ice campaign owes its existence. The social problem of “bad breath” was effectively produced by advertisers in the 1920s, and maybe earlier, I’m just too lazy to check my sources on this. A slew of print ads ran in highly circulated magazines and newspapers showing beautiful but sad-looking young women in front of mirrors, wondering why they weren’t being courted like their friends. What’s wrong with me? Alas, it was because of an invisible problem: halitosis! Thankfully, there were products to cure her of this (invented) ailment. And she got knocked up happily ever after. Thanks, advertising!

In this sense, the language in advertisements is perlocutionary–the phrases work performatively to create the problem for which the product being advertised is the solution in situ. Saying it makes it so.* I’m not claiming any of this is my idea (see Marchand 1985 and Strasser 1989 for the ad stuff, and Austin 1962 for the problematic performativity thing)–I’m merely pointing to the Dentyne Ice campaign as a recent example of it.

To go back to the first point, where the idea of safe sex has been taken up and re-worked within the context of the campaign to evoke both its origin (safe sex) and to mean something different that still lies within the parameters of canoodling. It’s a wink to everyone in the cultural know: see what we did there? We changed one word and made you think of gum as a conduit to sex. The implication is that “safe breath” leads to “safe sex” even as it remembers it as its phraseological parent. Or at least a second date and maybe second base, for which there are other commercially advertised products that can answer to even more invented bodily “problems” you will encounter there.

Dentyne Ice’s website even has a large banner now that expands on the whole play-on-PSAs/Trojan commercials trope: Society for a Safe Breath America! This is your mouth on ice. All the familiar phrases are there “responsibly,” “taking a stand,” “show your support.” It’s like a MADD-AntiDrug-PlannedParenthood mashup of slogans over there. All being taken up, placed in a new context, given newish meaning, (and effectively made fun of) to sell gum. Language and our very cultural concepts are here but tools of the capitalist machine, placed in the hands of advertisers to help us see the error of our ways and offer us help to correct them…for just $1.49

So keep worrying about your bodies, everyone, because we your friendly advertisers all know what you really want (sexy fun times) and we aren’t afraid to feed all these anxieties we’ve so generously given to you so we can offer relief in the form of commodities. You’re welcome.

*I’m ignoring the other, very important side of this, which is uptake, because this analysis is a reading only, not an exploration of how people interact with these advertisements. This aside has been brought to you by the wish to nip a certain intelligent PhD candidate’s inevitable critique of my half-hearted analysis in the bud.

References

Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marchand, Rolland. 1985. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. 1989. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

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