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Glimpses at Signs

In the era of the Internet and social media, an awareness of semiotics, also known as the “study of signs,” is useful to have. This article considers some elementary but illuminating ideas in the field. What are signs and how do they convey meaning? What is the message and how should we read it? We focus on some images from Japanese magazine advertising.

Concept of Semiotics

Semiotics, the study of signs and signification, is a systematic method for interpreting meaning in texts and images. Widely used in analyzing advertisements, the method may be applied to film and literature, fashion and the social world. Semiotics has its origins with linguistic theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).

The cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) is also of great importance to the field. Lévi-Strauss undertook to explain social systems in terms of the structural relationships between their elements and supra-cultural, or “universal,” patterns of human thought. The fields of semiotics and structuralism are often considered in tandem.

The late Umberto Eco (1932-2016) is an intellectual who must be mentioned in the development and popularization of semiotics. Originally a prominent semiologist, his later literary writings, in particular his debut novel The Name of the Rose (1980; English translation 1983), instance a genre of “semiotic fiction,” in which the action of tracing the meanings of signs and symbols determines the narrative action.

Writers such as Calvino, Joyce, and let’s even go back so far as Dante, employ a profound awareness of the action of signs and signification in their texts. The questions themselves hark back to the Middle Ages.

More recently, Roland Barthes (1915-80) is a great interpreter of the semiotic sport, with his much thumbed work Mythologies (1957; English trans. 1972). In this readable and convincing little tome, Barthes outlines some fundamentals of semiotics, while elaborating brilliantly on cultural and media themes from professional wrestling to margarine.

Further books like The Semiotic Challenge, The Fashion System, The Pleasure of the Text, and S/Z establish him as a master beyond any doubt. I shouldn’t overlook Daniel Chandler (1952- ), a significant interpreter of these and other giants of semiotics.

I would like to glance at a couple of essential basics, drawing mostly from the Barthesian view.

This diagram illustrates the essential structure of the “sign,” and the relationship between language and myth.

Relations among Signifier, Signified and Sign, at levels of language and myth

I based this on a figure from Barthes’ book Mythologies, but turned it upside-down, with the idea of emphasizing that “myth” is a “higher order” type of discourse than straight-out language. The diagram illustrates the fundamental nature of a “sign.”

A sign is an entity that results from the combination of a “signifier” and a “signified.” The signifier is formed from a sensual input: something one senses: sees, touches, tastes, smells or feels, etc. (I don’t want to omit the proprioceptive sense.)

The signified is a kind of payload, a concept to which the signifier is linked. Notice in the diagram that a signifier and signified are associated at the level of language. The relation is a straightforward denotative sign, such as the word DOG, which links to one’s concept of a dog.

As the diagram shows, however, the lower level sign in blue font itself becomes a signifier at the level of myth. There is a space of connotation created for a new signified. In the DOG example, the signified might be, for example, the connotation of fidelity — loyalty, faithfulness, truth — for which the dog is renowned. Hence the archetypal dog’s name of Fido, from the Latin fidelitas, fidelity.

Red Dog Statue, Dampier, WA, by Anthony Loveridge (Red Dog website ) via Wiki Commons

Woman and Myth

The interpretive method of semiotics is implicit in this movement from lower to higher levels of signs, and from denotation, through connotation, to mythical (or ideological) phases of signification.

Here is a memorable example from Susan Hayward’s (1996): Key Concepts in Cinema Studies via Chandler.

Marilyn Monroe -- Ballerina Series

Milton H. Greene, The Ballerina Series, 1954

At the denotative level, we read an iconic signification of the actress Monroe. The iconic classification means that the signifier resembles the signified. The two other general classifications are: indexical, where the signified in one way or another points to the signified (e.g., as smoke may function as a signifier of fire); and symbolic, in which the connection is purely arbitrary (as in the case of the word DOG, whether spoken or written).

The Monroe image carries connotations of fame, glamour and sexuality. At the mythical level, we detect a certain pathos. Through its set of connotations, the image evokes the Hollywood mythology: the uncaring, capitalistic dream factory that ultimately destroyed Monroe’s happiness and her life. The photographer Milton Greene, a friend of Monroe’s, took this in New York in 1954.

Since the tutu bodice was too tight for her, she had to hold it on with her hand, a gesture that lends a sense of vulnerability, reinforcing the delicate, rather innocent facial expression.

Three Women in Japanese Advertising

Let us apply these basic tools to some subjects that are not so familiar: Japanese advertising images from the early 2000’s. I used these magazine ads in a Japanese university course on semiotics at around the same time. The subject is the representation of woman. First, the Casio woman:

Casio advertisment

Japanese magazine add for Casio watches (c. 2001)

We can jump immediately to the mythological level of representation. The figure of the woman is fragmented in time: past, present, future. She is indeed chained by time; there is no escape. Her collar and chain looks like a fashion accessory. Indeed, the image connotes all the mythology and style of “high fashion.”

Probably, not many women would want to wear the collar and chain in everyday life, but that is often the case with high fashion, which can appear outlandish in its semiotic register when taken outside its definitive context. However, apart from that consideration, the style of the woman seems quite attractive and desirable. She is an “affirmative woman.” Naturally, a modern woman will want to “consume” this image, take on its style, in order to project these characteristics about herself.

However, we must note that she is in chains.  As affirmative as she may look, she is captive not only to time, but to the male gaze, which is an essential ideological premise for advertising in the capitalistic world. The image appears to be directed toward women, since it is advertising women’s watches. Cool, modern, affirmative, utilitarian and practical. No sexist bullshit.

But it is a kind of pretence. we need to differentiate between this “mythological/ideological” message purported by the advertiser, and a critical ideological context. Otherwise, if we simply describe the advertiser’s “mythological” message, we are simply perpetuating it uncritically.

Second, let’s consider the Lotte woman.

Japanese magazine ad for Lotte Air-Le chocolate, c. 2001

That’s not her own rump she is patting, but that of the merry-go-round (carousel) horse on which she is sitting side-saddle. The commodity being sold is a particular type of chocolate, Air-Le, which combines sweet, whipped white chocolate with brown, “bitter” chocolate chip.

We can see this contrast denoted in her costume: the fluffy mohair jacket versus the brown skirt and boots. The blurred, out of focus background, leads the eye to an identification with the mohair jacket, and the “feminine softness” of the woman herself. One might say she looks “scrumptious,” or seems so at a subliminal level. Mature-ish embodiment of kawaiisa (cuteness).

Her silken hair, her soft facial expression. Her hand on the horse’s rump is adorned with a ring. But it is a dress ring with a single gem. Not a wedding ring: married Japanese women wear theirs on the left hand.

Thus she is depicted as “available.” Visually, she is denoted is similar terms as the chocolate. She connotes, is attached to, the sensual qualities of the chocolate itself. Desirable, yes. And one consumes her. She dissolves in the mouth, like chocolate. Of course, boys, we shall purchase for our desired one this luscious treat. Or else, just eat it ourselves.

You can see more of the Lotte woman’s dynamism in this youtube video: notice the sexual connotations and the voyeuristic male. The boyfriend to whom she makes the heart sign with her fingers?

Third, the global Chanel woman:

She is not Japanese. That’s okay, the image depicts a sense of “exoticism” from a Japanese perspective, a traditional hankering after western commodities and styles. Note how the whole image resembles a dollar sign, aiming perhaps for a subliminal effect? The richness of the gold and lucre. At the mythological/level the image of the woman is directed on the one hand towards the female consumer, who wishes to consume/adopt the image of the western woman.

She is posed in a way that attract connotations of a mermaid. Ostensibly, the ad undertakes to represent visually the concept of “perfume.” Not an easy task, but it does that by mixing the images of gold, money and the perfume itself. The bottle doesn’t drop and crash, but seems to hang suspended in the air, or in liquid. It’s a different, higher universe, a mythical one.

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