Having suggested semiotics for the course work, I did not nearly anticipate the depth of these readings! This is the topic most relevant to my studies, but its has thus far been the most difficult to grasp mentally. I think a 15 page paper might do justice as an overview of all these readings let alone the 1000 or so words, but I’ll do my best to paraphrase each briefly without bastardizing the intense content for this week’s blog.
In Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction, Elliott intends to provide an informative overview of the contemporary relevance of psychoanalysis to theory and social practice. As may academics declare Freud’s theories dead or disproven, Elliot thinks we need to think about Freud’s continuing importance politically, culturally and theoretically. Freud’s specific theories (Oedipal complex, etc.) may have been disproven, but his identification of ideas such as the submerged, repression, projection, fantasy, repetition, etc. still have a lasting cultural impact today. Even the most post-modern anti psychoanalytic theories owe a Freudian debt to his concepts of ‘remembering’, ‘repeating’, and ‘working through’ to help define the ‘end of modernity.’(pg. 5)
We see this shift in how Freud’s work can be understood in a more post-modern context in the way we have classically understood our ‘self’ as having a stable core identity. This modern concept of the self, the Cartesian idea of selfhood as fixed, permanent, rational and unified can be dismantled through psychoanalysis as it reveals the self to have multiple dimensions that are subjectively fashioned through interpersonal relationships.
This is particularly interesting because on one hand Freud has been heavily criticized in an for being old fashioned, and disproven for patriarchal unsubstantiated theories, but on another the other hand his work has been taken to another level where his ideas in psychoanalysis have evolved into much deeper postmodern themes, positioning the self as an imaginary construct with many interpersonal subjective levels.
Next, in the The Nature of the Linguistic Sign Saussure deconstructs speech and language to their physical, psychological and social sides. Saussure defines languages as “the social side of speech…where an auditory image becomes associated with a concept.” It is a homogeneous system of signs, a set of meanings and sound-images. Language is a system of signs in which the only essential thing is the union of meanings and sound-images, and in which both parts of the sign are psychological.
These things together create linguistic signs, associations which bear the stamp of collective approval. The “linguistic sign as not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image”; not only the material sound, but the psychological imprint of the sound on our senses learned from society. The association of a ‘concept’ with a psychological ‘sound-image’ he calls a sign, which is the whole that results from associating the signifier with the signified.
In the readings by Barthes, he discusses various phenomena in French culture which he was inspired to analyze after reading Saussure. Intrigued by the language of mass culture Barthes takes a first stab at semiotic analysis. In the preface to his work he realized that by “treating ‘collective representations’ as sign-systems” he can “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petite-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.”
In our three selections Barthes looks at ‘Wrestling’, ‘Wine and Milk’, and ‘Steak and Chips’ semiotically in mini essays written as social commentaries on interests of his at the time. He shows us how these cultural images, or signs as Saussure would call them, become universalized in society.
In wine Barthes enumerates the semiotic associations with the drink in France. The French as a nation feel that they possess wine as a very own part of their culture. Wine is signified on a different level in France where it is not a drink to get drunk—as it may be in other countries—but implicit in wine is the act of drink, not with the intention to get drunk, with quintessential French gesture of decorative value. Barthes contrasts wine with whiskey. Contrary to wine, whiskey is drank for its type of drunkness—“with the least painful after effects…reduced to a causal act.” These mythologies have moral significance. Since whiskey is viewed as a drink only to get drunk it is going to be amoral vis-à-vis wine which carries connotations of sociability, knowledge, gesture and restraint which are central to the universalized culture of the French state. Here Barthes has given us more practical examples to see first hand the kind of signs that Saussure was theorizing earlier.
Lastly, we are going to need to discuss The system of Objects at length in class in the same manner as Marx’s Captial. I feel that I understood the basic concept of Baudrillard’s argument, but know that there is so much more to it that I need to better understand. As I understood it, he presents consumption from another angle. It is a Marxist viewpoint, but it does not put production at the fore of our capitalist culture. Consumption, he states, “is an active mode of relations…a systematic mode of activity and a global response on which our whole cultural system is founded.” He stresses that this consumption does not refer to material goods in the classical sense, but rather images and messages signifying our need and satisfaction, the ideas and relations signified.
Advertising is the fuel for this fire. It is no longer the physical object and its use-value that is advertized, but rather its related symbolism which is purchased and consumed: “Today every desire, plan, need, every passion and relation is abstracted as a sign and as object to be purchased and consumed…it is never consumed in its materiality, but in its difference.” (22-23) He is suggesting that there is no limits to consumption anymore because everything signified and consumed semiotically, not physically, or else we would achieve absorption or satisfaction. This new consumption is “organized as a discourse to oneself.”(54) Whereas traditionally morality required an individual to conform to a group and consume accordingly, the new idea of consumption is related to the multifaceted self and the consumption of images, ideas and relations to conform and satisfy those selves.
What does this do to Marx’s theories about the proletariat’s control by the means of production if consumption, not production, is now the global cultural framework? These works all concern signs and representations on multiple levels but is there a way to tie them all into one idea? Blog away, my brain is fried.