Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Head is Stuck in...

As well as the oh-so-informative, yet curriculed, Dani Cavallaro's 'Critical and Cultural Theory' book, I've currently also got my head stuck in the following books:

  1. 'Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts', Edited by Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris
  2. 'Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now', Tate Liverpool Albert Dock
  3. 'Power without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting, and New Media in Britain', James Curran and Jean Seaton
  4. 'Contemporary Arab Women's Art: Dialogues of the Present', Fran Lloyd
  5. 'The Network Society', Jan van Dijk

Monday, October 30, 2006

Let's Talk About Sex!

What is Sex?

Traditionally, the term 'sex' referred to the difference between males and females with regard to their reproductive organs, and the activity leading to reproduction.

Gender and Gender Role

Judith Butler argues that 'gender is performative' (Cavallaro, p108). Which means that the individual's 'gendered identity' is produced through performance and role-playing. Repetition also plays a major part in this process too; by performing certain acts repeatedly the individual acquires an apparently 'coherent identity'. Adding to this, repetition dictates dominant ideologies and ways of organizing sexual behaviour of what a particular culture expects of its members.

A gender role concurrently is built by 'various cultural discourses, and particularly by language'. Even statements, such as 'it's a boy' or 'it's a girl', contribute to the social construction of gendered identities 'and to the enforcement of performative acts associated with them' (Cavallaro, p109).

Sexual Morality

A field of ethical philosophy concerned with establishing the principles of moral behaviour in sexual matters: it seeks to define what sexual activities are permissible, and who is ethically or legally entitled to take part in them (Cavallaro, p110). Adding to this, cultures take different measures to control sexuality by addressing whom one may have morally sound relationships. And this erupts mainly from the view of sex an 'an unruly appetite hell-bent on loosening the social fabric' (Cavallaro, p111).


There are two apparent waves in the history of feminism. One that took place between 1830 and 1920, with its political campaign revolving around 'enfranchisement and the extension of civil rights'; and the second wave which emerged in the 1960's with connection to 'women's increasing access to the worlds of work and education, the availability of birth control, and the establishment of legislation on the right to abortion and on equal pay policies' (Cavallaro, p112).

Of the demises of both the First and Second wave is the fact that their agendas sought to embody prominently white, Western and middle-class values. Women tended to seek the opportunities available to men from their own ethnic and class background.

But since late 1980 though, there has been a new emergence: 'post-feminism'. Literally meant as the after of feminism, post-feminism sees that 'universal emancipation has not been achieved, and contends that many women across the globe are still fighting for their most basic rights' (Cavallaro, p113). Needless to say though, post-feminism doesn't point to the downfall of feminism but rather redirects feminist concerns.

Nevertheless, according to Germaine Greer in 'The Whole Woman', she argues that although women have come a long way in the past thirty years, the battle is not yet over and that there is a danger of women becoming complacent about what has been achieved and settling for false forms of equality.

There are two categories of feminist theories:

· Essentialist
· Anti-essentialist

Essentialist feminism contends that there is 'a natural essence at the core of femininity', and contains three approaches: Humanist, experiential and radical feminism. Humanist feminism sees that there is a 'deep self' common to all women universally. Experiential feminism expands on humanist feminism to include material experiences too, such as motherhood. Radical feminism argues that dominant ideologies hinge on inclusion and exclusion factors which lead to certain groups of people being labelled as outsiders, and that this is the fate of women in patriarchy.

On the other hand though, anti-essentialist feminism is 'the product of culture and politics' (Cavallaro, p115), whereby sexual difference is culturally constructed and with that 'people's biological and anatomical characteristics are invested with mythical meanings', for example attributing men with reason and science, and women with nature and emotions. These are, simply said 'contingent decisions laden with ideological connotations', for masculinity and femininity are not realities carved in natural laws, but on the contrary they are cultural concepts that change completely through time and space.

Pairing femininity and nature gave rise to yet another approach: Eco-feminism. Eco-feminism sees that the Earth is a living, nurturing and all embracing force decorated by female and maternal elements. For eco-feminists argue that nature is a feminist issue, even so, at times femininity is 'animalized' and nature is devalued through metaphorical description as 'a female body available for male consumption' (Cavallaro, p116), inscriptions such as 'virgin' land for example, or the association of women with 'chicks, bitches' further emphasise this.

Homosocial, Heterosexism and Homosexuality

Homosocial refers to feelings generated by single sex institutions such as armies, or schools which lead to the bonding of people from the same sex. Heterosexism is the term used to describe language and behaviour that translates explicit hostility towards lesbians and gay individuals; this can even extend to generate an obsessive loathing known as homophobia.

Largely defined as 'erotic intercourse involving people of the same sex' (Cavallaro, p117), homosexuality is still surrounded by ambiguities as to whether homosexual preferences should be attributed to innate dispositions or environmental causes. Although the noun 'homosexual' intended to refer to both men and women, it has come of age to refer to primarily men. Homosexual women have been designated at 'lesbians' (from Lesbos, origin place of sixth century BC poet Sappho, who wrote about erotic relations amongst women).

Micheal Foucalt who argues that 'homosexuality is a social construction used by dominant ideologies to differentiate between normality and abnormality' (Cavallaro, p117), brings us to the issue of Lesbian women and Gay men's politics. Un-identical in their aims and concerns, certain divisions of Lesbian feminism argue that both heterosexuality and male homosexuality value men above women, and that lesbian relationships are the only way of asserting women's rights.

Sexual Diversity

Central to the approach of sexual diversity is an assertion to protrude the pleasures of multiple sexualities, thus bringing us to 'trans-genderists'. A trans-genderist is neither transsexual nor transvestite: s/he is not defined by cross-dressing or by a literal change of sex affected by medical technology. Rather s/he is someone who moves across conventional gender boundaries, regardless of sexual preferences (Cavallaro, p118).

So, in conclusion we can say that desires and pleasures associated with any of the different forms of sexuality are pretty much 'inseparable from the cultural circumstances in which they are experienced' (Cavallaro, p119). On one hand, radical feminism presents heterosexuality as a unified phenomenon, and actually accuses it of exposing women to 'defenceless exploitation'. And on the other hand, in contrast, homosexuality has been presented as a 'liberating' option.

Nonetheless though, according to Belsey and Moore (1997), culture itself is a limit of acquired knowledge, for there is no truth available outside culture where injustice can be challenged. Culture in itself is contradictory, making it thus, unstable too. So in an attempt to respect and acknowledge these differences, and to prevent them from being carved into mere labels, we must learn to read cultural products as stories that more often than not, perpetuate the disabling of gender stereotypes. But at the same time, we must also question where stereotypes come from, whose interests they serve and under what circumstances.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Love Thy (Disem)Body

According to Chapter 3, 'The Body', of Dani Cavallaro's 'Critical and Cultural Thoery', within recent years the human body has become an ever-growing nucleus of media attention. We all have one, so why this increased fascination with the human body?

Well according to some critics, this growing interest has been attributed to what Western thought traditionally marginalized as 'merely fashionable'; whilst other critics contend that the body has become so notorious 'as a result of intimations of its disappearance' (Cavallaro, p97).

Disappearance..?! Fret not, we human have a good couple of millions of years until we disappear from the face of the Earth and become an extinct species; but what is actually meant by 'disappearance' is more of a virtual meaning, as opposed to a literal meaning. In this context 'disappearance' here relates to the emergent culture of disembodiment brought on by the computer technology revolution and the subsequent replacement of physical contact for tele-presence. Thus, the prespective here stems from recognising the evolving significance of the body, in this quickly mutating scene of socio-economics and the technology boom.

W.A Ewing who said that the body which is being put squarely in the centre of debate out of urgency, is so because it is being 'restructred and reconstituted by scientists and engineers' (Cavallaro, p97). And indeed so, in recent years the body has been dramatically reassessed by both science and philosophy. On the one hand, science has shown the body can be 'disassembled and restructured', and philosophy still challenges 'the traditional superiority of the mind over the body'.

The Body: A Cultural Concept

Nonetheless, the body has been redefined from merely a physical form into a cultural concept: a means of encoding a society's values through its shape, size and ornamental attributes. According to Adler and Pointin, '[t]he body is..both an object represented..and an organism that is organised to represent concepts and desires'.

As can be contained, the body is a very difficult entity to define, due to its composite and multi- layered nature. Nevertheless, there have been many attempts to do this on both biological and figurative planes. From a scientific perspective, there's the Human Genome Project, for example, which attempts to map out all the body's genes; and from a figurative perspective, 'idiomatic expressions' such as 'filled with anger' or 'brimming with tears' further emphasise the instability of the body's boundaries and the obvious frustrated attempts at clearly defining the body.

But regardless of this instability, the body plays a vital role in the way we interpret the world around us, our assumptions of social identities, and our knowledge acquisition, for as Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out '..the world derives its meanings not from fixed and intrinsic attributes but from how it is perceived and acted upon by an embodied consciousness' (Cavallaro, p99). Roger Poole also adds to that '..the body actually lives a world, and thus projects 'its' values over a world' (Cavallaro, p99).

Acquisition of Knowledge: Body Schema and Body Image

In the role played by the body in the acquisition of knowledge, two distinctions must be made: body schema, and body image.

Body Schema refers to an instinctive and unconscious attunement to an individual's environment; for example, shifting one's posture to keep one's balance on a moving bus.

Body Image refers to bodily actions performed consciously and intentionally; for example, raising one's hand to request permission to speak in class.

The major part played by the body and the acquisition of knowledge confirms the proposition that knowledge is 'embodied' (the process through which an abstract concept takes on a bodily form), bringing us to its synonym 'incorporate' (the integration or absorption of human beings, objects and ideas into cultural, political and economic structures) which ultimately highlights a physical dimension where 'knowledge depends on abstract concepts being embodied and thus participating in a material reality' (Cavallaro, p101).

Symbolic Transfigurations: The Dematerialization of the Body

In Western art, the body has many a times been considered as a means of celebrating human strength, energy and beauty. Yet, through stylization, especially through the realm of portraiture, the body has in turn been dematerialized by the prioritization of its symbolic significance over its physical existence. As we can see in many portraits, real bodies are not depicted but rather 'idealized versions of their sitters'.

Science and Medicine have also had a go at trying to contain the body's materiality. Examples such as Mary Shelley's Frankestein, the invasion of the individual body by spirits, demons or vampires to name but a few, are all but mythical metaphors at the end of the day. But one of the most popular areas denoting the relationship between the body and science is that of food-related cultural attitudes.

Stephen Mennell tells of how 'changing attitudes to the body are inseperable from crucial shifts in a culture's approach to food' (Cavallaro, p103). And with this came a parallel display in clothes too. For example, in the Renaissance, the ability to literally stuff oneself and emphasise physical bulk with layers upon layers of grandly decorated clothing, came as a show of power and wealth. But by the eighteenth century with the advent of increased economic security and the shift of belief to the value of quality, rather than quantity, the body was, in turn, disciplined through the introduction of table manners and the belief that 'delicacy and taste required self-restraint'.

Efficient Indulgence!

According to Bordo 'the individual body is a microcosm reproducing the anxieties and vulnerabilities of the macrocosm' (Cavallaro, p104). Taking contemporary politics as a first example corporeality glorifies autonomous selfhood, whereas capitalism commodifies human beings, thus deducing a split mentality: the producer to promote a work ethic of efficiency, yet the consumer pushed to indulgence.

As by products of this schizophrenic attitude, many eating disorders have been very much emergent during this day and age. Ranging from Bulimia which consists of heavy consumption followed by drastic emptying-out; to Anorexia calling for extreme self-discipline and finally Obesity which thrives on self-indulgence.

Eating disorders, in turn, show that 'personal and social maladies are inextricably interconnected' (Cavallaro, p105). For example, Anorexia can be viewed as a social problem to the extent that 'it is largely occasioned by the pursuit of body ideals set by advertising and the fashion industry'. At the same time though, dissatisfaction with personal and familial relationships often trigger Anorexia maybe even as a means to prove oneself.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Semiotics 101

Just a short note before we get into the core of the matter. This blog is set up to chronicle all my Theory Module research for my MA Art and Media Practice course. Exactly what it says on the tin (metaphorically speaking), this blog aims at posting my reactions and musings, to assigned theory readings. So if you're looking for the latest information about Brittany Spears or the latest chart show, then look no further, for I sincerely advise you to read on in an attempt to get that head of yours thinking outside the social, and commercial box!

For my first posting I am requested to comment on Dani Cavallaro's ''Critical and Cultural Theory'' book. In particular part 1, chapter 2 ''The Sign''; online excerpts of roland barthes writing in particular extracts from Roland Barthes essays ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ [Analysis of the Panzani Ad] http://homepage.newschool.edu/~quigleyt/vcs/barthes-ri.html ‘Myth Today’ (in Mythologies), 'Denotation, Connotation and Myth' http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem06.html and the online edition of Daniel Chandler’s 'Semiotics for Beginners', in particular ''Signs'' http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem02.html.

So feel free to click on any of the hyperlinks underlined for more details.

Chronicalling what I deem the most important text to understanding semiotics 'ABC'-style; seeing as I'm going to take the Semiotic subject from its elimentary stages (yep this topic is very much 'semiotic for beginners' for me as it gets), I will be commenting first on Cavallaro's ''The Sign'', as it gives the basic definitions of terms I was later exposed to regularly throughout the assigned readings.

Firstly, Semiotics is...?

Just to make sure we are all on the right track, let's firstly define what Semiotics is. Basically Semiotics is '..the study [and analysis] of language as a system of signs' (Cavallaro, p16). Semiotics views that all aspects of a culture can be taken as a system of signs.

What are Signs?

Signs are regarded as verbal and visual languages, movements, postures and gestures, buildings and furniture, clothes, accessories, and even menus. Therefore, understanding a culture would entail 'detecting and interpreting' its system of signs.

This is not to say that signs embody certain, or specific meanings or concepts, instead '..they give us clues which only lead to meaning through interpretation'.

Ferdinand de Saussure's Sign Elements
According to Swiss linguist Saussure who revolutionised the study of language, a sign consisted of two elements:
  • The Signifier: the sound-image or form
  • The Signified: the conveyed or represented concept
This can be further illuminated by the following dyadic diagram of the sign.

The sign is the whole that results from the association, or combination of the signifier with the signified.
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is known as 'signification', and this is represented in the diagram to the left by the arrows. Whereas the horizontal line is referred to as 'the bar'.
Therefore, from the diagram above we can conclude that the representation of the signifier and signified through a sign, cannot be seperated from eachother: each exists to compliment the other, and cannot exist without the other.

Let's take a linguistic example. The word 'Tree'.
The Signifier: the sound uttered when the word 'tree' is said, and the letters t-r-e-e put down on paper when writing.The Signified: the concept of a natural growth with green leaves and a brown stalk, with many branches
Thus, a sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified.

Semiosis: Charles Sanders Peirce and the Tryiadic Sign Model

A pragmatist philosopher and logician Peirce identified three types of signs.

The Icon: a sign based on a resemblance between signifier and signified (e.g: a portrait)
The Index: a sign in which signifier and signified are causally related (e.g: natural signs, smoke means fire)

The Sign Proper/Symbol: the sign in which the relationship between signifier and signified are intirely arbitrary (they must be learnt).

Peirce also created his own model of the sign in the form of a triadic, three pronged, model. For according to Peirce, a sign is only capable of conveying meaning by the availability of an interpreter who is ultimately in the position of recognising it '..as a sign, and to connect it to some relevant aspect of the world' (Cavallaro, p.18). Also that the interpreter themself is a sign for 's/he is able to interpret signs insofar as s/he has been equipped by a culture with the means of doing so' (Cavallaro, p.18).

Therefore, according to Peirce's triadic model, a sign consists of:
  • The Representamen: the form which the sign takes
  • An Interpretant: the sense made of the sign
  • An Object: to which the sign refers

In simple Layman terms, and using a traffic light sign for 'stop' example this can be explained as: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles coming to a halt (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).
Therfore a sign, representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some aspect or another. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent, or maybe an even more developed sign. That sign which it creates is what is called the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. And the interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to as 'semiosis'.

What are Denotation and Connotation?

According to Daniel Chandler, Denotation can be described as the definitional, literal, obvious or commonsense meaning of a sign. In the case of words (linguistic signs), the denotative meaning is what we'd find in a dictionary. But according to art historian Erwin Panofsky, 'the denotation of a representational visual image is what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the image as depicting'.

Connotation though is used to refer to the 'socio-cultural and 'personal' associations (ideological, emotional etc.) of the sign'. These are, in turn, related to the interpreter's class, age, gender, ethnicity, society, etc. Nevertheless, connotations are not just personal meanings, but they are determined by the codes and conventions to which the interpreter has access, namely the environment, or social surrounding.

Using an example of, and with reference to, a photograph, according to Fiske 'denotation is what is photographed; connotation is how it is photographed'. Consequently, connotation cannot be easily seperated from denotation, for no sign is purely denotative, lacking connotation. This is because comprehension and interpretation are similarly inseperable too.

The Power of Connotation: The Panzani Advert
Demonstrating the power of connotation in the context of advertising, Roland Barthes uses the following Panzani advert to show this. According to Barthes, this advert contains many signs.

Signifier: open bag with products spilling out from it
Signified: a scene representing a return from the market connoting the freshness of the products and the domestic preparation which they will be used for.
Connotation: a knowledge about habits of a very widespread culture where shopping around for oneself is opposed to the hasty stocking up of a more 'mechanical' civilization.

Signifier: bringing together of tomato, pepper and red, green and yellow hues
Signified: Italy, or more, Italianicity.
Connotation: certain French and Italian tourist stereotypes

Signifier: the serried collection of different objects
Signified: the idea of a total culinary service as though Panzani furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish

And Finally:
Signifier: the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings
Signified: the 'nature morte' or, the 'still life'
Connotation: a heavily cultural knowledge

So we can say that changing the form of the signifier while keeping the same signified can generate different connotations, as we can see from the above Panzani advert, for changes of style or tone can involve different connotations. Even the choice of words can involve connotations, for example 'union demands' vs. 'management offers'.

...and Myth?

Humans usually associate myths with classical fables about gods and heroes, for example 'Hercules'. But according to Barthes myths are the dominant ideologies of the time. Served to maintain them, signs and codes are generated by myths. Even constant usage of the term 'myth' suggests that it refers to beliefs which are actually false, but the semiotic use does not necessarily mean this.

Myths can actually be inferred as extended metaphors, for like metaphors 'myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture'. They are there to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture.

For Barthes, 'myths serve the ideological function of naturalization'. Their function is to naturalize the cultural, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely natural, normal, obvious, timeless, even common-sense; thus inferring true reflections of the way things are. On the other hand though, myths can also work to hide the ideological function of signs and codes. The power of such myths is that they 'go without saying' and so appear not to need to be interpreted or deciphered.

Semiotic Analysis: Three Orders / Levels of Signification
  • First Denotative order: primarily representational and relatively self-contained
  • Second Connotative order: reflects 'expressive' values which are attached to a sign
  • Third Mythological or Ideological order: the sign reflects major culturally-variable concepts underlining a particular worldview (for example: masculinity, femininity, freedom, etc).

Therefore, in conclusion, the semiotic analysis of cultural myths involves an attempt to deconstruct the ways in which codes operate, and revealing how certain values, attitudes and beliefs are supported whilst others are suppressed.