Roland Barthes explores contemporary mythology in this week's readings, both as a semiological and linguistic phenomena and as a manifestation of mass culture. The "World of Wrestling" essay was particularly enlightening. I'm not a fan of wrestling but I have a brother who is, and until reading this essay I could never completely grasp why. Though Barthes wrote his essay in the 1950's, I found his work prescient to the "spectacle of excess" as it exists today (Barthes, 1957). I also felt that both this essay and Barthe's essay "Myth Today" contained echoes of other "spectacles" that make up op culture, modern myths which attempt to simplify and distort the ambiguity of everyday life.

To Barthes "wrestling is a sum of spectacles...each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extednind to the crowning moment of a result" (Barthes, 1957). While the spectacle of wrestling is divided into many "events," each moment whether pay-per-view or not continues an overall plot, a sort of strange example of 1001 Arabian Nights where the same characters compete over and over again with no true resolution. Some may be crowned champion briefly, but this "crowning moment" never reals real or complete because there's always another wrestler ready to challenge the winner for the championship. It's less about the display of athletic prowess but the ongoing relationships, the dizzying transformation of alliances and rivalries, that draws fans. Wrestlers are drawn into two rough categories, faces (the good guys) and heels (the bad guys). The matches are scripted competitions between the two factions, with ritualized combats between the heroes and the "perfect bastards" that are so enjoyable to hate (Barthes, 1957)The heroes don't always win (a "perfect" bastard" wouldn't be very perfect or interesting if he was incompetent) but in their "intolerable suffering" a connection is formed. His suffering is my suffering. And when the hero eventually triumphs I triumph. That is the "great spectacle of of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice" that still draws fans after so many years (Barthes, 1957). The cartoon South Park made its own comparisons between professional wrestling and Greek tragedy in the following clip. I do not know if the Barthes essay influenced the episode, but I suspect that it did.

Wrestling doesn't have the same cultural clout that it once held, but that doesn't mean other media haven't followed the same patterns. Video games, for example, are considered a Sisyphean labor precisely because with each "crowning moment" another challenge rises, meaning you can never feel a true "crowning moment" unless you pursue the game with obsessive dedication. Losses are always spectacular and suffering is a constant, whether you play as Mario or Master Chief. These "spectacles" define themselves by their distortion of reality, a sort of "right-wing myth," dividing the population into us (the good guys) and them (the bad). The player, like Barthes's petit bourgeoise "is a man unable to imagine the Other" because your every skill and weapon is dedicated to removing the Other from life, just as every wrestling match ostensibly is about keeping the villainous heels from obtaining the glory derived from winning the championship (Barthes, 1984, 20). In this simplified world it doesn't particularly matter why your enemies fight you, because if they were in the right you would be fighting with them.

If you don't think that this repetitive myth has some effect on our point of view, then you might want to pay attention to the Tennessee Tea Party, who want to codify this simplistic, mythological viewpoint into the teaching of history. Among other changes they want to end the teaching of any problematic elements of our history in an effort to remove "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another,” in the words of the group's spokesperson. The exact wording of the proposal commands that “no portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers.” Because we are meant to identify with the Founding Fathers, they must be perfectly good - otherwise, how can we respect them. As Barthes would say, what the Founding Fathers signify to the Tennessee Tea Party is of far more value than the history they wish to distort - myth, after all, "prefers to work with poor, incomplete images" (Barthes, 1984, 9).

-Tracy Carlin

In Tony McNeill's overview, he notes how Roland Barthes sought to “make explicit the meanings of apparently neutral objects”, such as the choosing to study and write about a Catholic priest's haircut, rather than on a more political aspect of his constitution. In “Pattern Recognition”, otherwise 'neutral' meanings stimulate visceral (allergic) reactions in Cayce Pollard. The Michelin Man, an advertising symbol that we might take for granted in our everyday life, produces a painful reaction to Cayce, who must immediately avoid contact with the symbol. Throughout the novel, William Gibson, through Pollard, provides the reader, too, with visceral understanding of the signs and messages that surround us. Whether or not all of these signifiers add up to a grander meaning is unimportant.

The notion of endless strings of referents and signs is a driving force of “Pattern Recognition”. The search for the author, and through this – the meaning, of the footage, keeps the plot moving forward. However, what's most vital to the story's action Cayce's journey. In the end, we learn that the mysterious footage that has inspired her search is nothing more than an empty signifier. The content itself has no proper meaning, but the circumstances created by the Russian organization provided her journey with meaning,

The futile search, combined with genuine action, reminded me of the “MacGuffin”, a plot element that drives a story forward through engaging the audience, but is often undefined, ambiguous, or unimportant to the plot's end.

Here is Alfred Hitchcock (who famously popularized the cinematic effect) to explain it better:


In my favorite film, “North by Northwest” (1959, dir: Hitchcock), Cary Grant and his pursuers spend most of the movie in search of microfilm containing government secrets. The secrets, however, are never revealed, nor is their author (or content) imperative to the movie's action. Instead, the mere existence of the microfilm, just like the footage in “Pattern Recognition”, is what drives the story and the characters within it. The MacGuffin is what Barthes would call an 'empty signifier' - an aid in the construction of relationships of other signifiers, but means nothing in itself.

- Jen Feldman

The Way We Were ...

-structural homology àuniversal field of communication phenomena


-the universal field

-unlimited semiosis


While examining my own apophenia and this desire to establish a universal pattern, I continue to find myself attracted to the inherent nature of recursion. This aligned me once again with the works of Eco and Lotman. If semiotics is a language, even one of myths as Barthes suggests, its sole nature is that of interpretive recursion and creates a “universum” as a structural byproduct. Communication is indeed the impetus that propels this recursive movement forward, but it is always from the predecessor or past that we draw our fuel. The process of interpretation, translation, of signifying takes what was and makes it something else. This perpetuates a nexus of semiotic recursion; unlimited semiosis.

The future is there ... looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. Pattern Recognition, pg 59

Once we label something, we have removed it from ourselves and separated it from its original state. Assoon as a culture has been named it has been consumed and therefore will only exist as simulacrum whenever it is uttered. This is why it is so hard for us to qualify ourselves and current times in specific terms because we are still here, living it. It will be up to the ones who come after to tell use who they thought we were, just as we have done for those who came before us. The infinite propagation of myths.

-Metasebia Yoseph

Pattern Recognition and Myths

In William Gibson's novel, Pattern Recognition, we see the dangers and power of apophenia, or the human desire to see patterns in meaningless information. The incredible search by Cayce for the creator of a mysterious set of online videos, videos imbued with much meaning and inciting fervent discussion, is found to simply be the editing of surveillance video tapes by a handicapped artist. Likewise, we see Cayce's mother attempt to connect disparate dots of meaningless information via EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon, when trying to find her missing husband. We may think that people who believe in EVP, or people who vehemently support conspiracy theories, or even people like Cayce, who become engrossed in things which may in fact hold no meaning, as outliers and possibly a little crazy. But apophenia is a powerful human force which we have all felt at one time or another. Take for example, this image:
external image 220px-Fakeface.svg.png

Although it is simply a two circles and a horizontal line within a larger circle, I'm sure we all immediately saw a human face. This is an example of the way our minds seek and yearn for patterns in our life. As Parkaboy says, "it's a blessing and a curse", in that human's have a great ability to see patterns when they're there, and a sometimes debilitating propensity to see them even when they're not. I would argue that it stems from the strong dislike in human's for any sort of uncertainty in life, uncertainty which can cause much discomfort. It's why people search for voices of their loved ones in static or see ghosts in blurry images, because they cannot bare the thought the world is random and cruel, and that those people are simply dead. It brings to mind the ideas of Rorty, who said "truth cannot exist independently of the human mind". The chain of signifiers and signified, especially when dealing with higher levels of meaning (like life and death) can only exist in one's mind and mysterious online videos, for example, do not hold any meaning intrinsically, other than what the brain sees in them.

While the tendency towards apophenia is worrisome, it also, in many examples, seems a bit harmless. Crazy kooks listening to static waves do little to harm themselves or others in any sort of direct sense, outside of concerns for their mental well-being. However, when such desire for pattern recognition is used to slight consumers and to make money, problems of more weight can arise. The Gambler's Fallacy, described above, is a way in which casino's keep people in their buildings, spending amazing amounts of money. Gamblers believe in luck and that they are "due" after a string of misfortunes occurs, keeping them gambling, spending, and most often losing.

external image casino-shes-got-the-luck-small-26744.jpg

Casinos themselves keep making money, and they do nothing to stop this myth. In fact, they perpetuate it. They manufacture an idea of luck and distort ideas of probability and the true nature of chance. And people, looking for patterns, eat it up, seeing the casino as a glamorous place where fortunes are made.Slot machines have about a one in 5,000 to a one in about 34 million chance of winning the top prize (Source), yet people are glued to them, day and night, waiting for their "time"."Myth does not deny things, on the contrary its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification," says Barthes. The casino purifies this myth of luck and of incorrect ideas of probability, and uses it to further the financial gain of the bourgeoisie, in this case the casino owners. In 2009,commercial casinos brought in a gross revenue of about $31 billion and Indian casinos cashed in for about $26 billion
(Source). The signified meaning of casinos to many uniformed is a place where fortunes are made, where risk pay off, and where chances are fair and good. This meaning and myth is a product of those in power to control the masses and to prey on their desire for pattern recognition.

-Christian Storm

external image american-gothic.jpg?w=400

When I go to a museum, gallery or historical interest, I will always rent an audio guide or have a guide to go with me because I’d love to listen the story behind it. I guess this can be an example of Barthes’s argument: we are all myth consumers. As Barthes said in Myth Today, “Myth is a type of speech” and “Everything can be a myth” (p.1), he makes semiology connected with consumer culture and points out that the value of an object is not from itself but from the myth. For example, for the painting, American Gothic, it is just a general portrait for the painting itself. However, in the Art Institute of Chicago, the audio guide will tell you the story behind the painting including where the painter got the idea, who are the lady and the man in the painting, why does it named American Gothic and how people think about this painting. In 1930s, this painting may only worth 300 dollars, but it worth a lot today because it’s history and stories, which called a myth.

external image 165730_10150121712127518_530382517_7823771_8246124_n.jpg

The relationship of myth and the consumer culture drives me to think about the luxury market. Taking a look at that luxury brand, they all have a myth to tell. How much does a handbag should be? How much a Hermes’s handbag should be? The price of a Hermes’ handbag is not only for the bag itself but also for its myth, its signified. Royals love it and famous stars love it. When you get a Hermes’ bag, you are not own a general bag, but a bag same with Grace Kelly. Same logics can be used to explain the fine art auction market.

A famous Chinese collector named Cai Kangyong told his collecting story on a TV show. His father and grandfather were famous merchants in Shanghai. They brought paintings from their artists and politics’ friends because it was the major social activity for upper class in China at that time. His father owned a lot of paintings and for many of them, he even never know what they are. After his father died, he inherit those paintings from his father and found many of them are really worthy because they were came from famous painters. Those paintings worth less because painters are less famous at that time, but they worth more today because of its history and culture behind it, including the painter getting famous.
external image cr_mega_863_auction_hi.jpg

So, what is the culture? Both Clifford and Lotman talk about the connection of semiotics and culture. On Clifford’s point of view, art is original and singular but culture is traditional and collective. It makes me to think about the responsibility for an advertiser or a PR practitioner is to create a culture. To make up stories are the every-day works for a PR and advertising worker. Nike never introduces the function of their shoes but the story of Lance Armstrong and a “just do it” culture. David Ogilvy let the model to put on an aristocratic eye patch to make up a story for Hathaway shirt.
The man In the Hathaway Shirt, David Ogilvy
The man In the Hathaway Shirt, David Ogilvy

Xindi Guo

Gibson’s novel “Pattern Recognition” is rife with the type of cultural representation that has evolved in the last 15-20 years in media. Seemingly disjointed sets of thoughts and ideas that jump from one distinct space to another are evident in much of film making and in popular television shows (reality shows etc). Readers and watchers are constantly challenged to join the dots and make inferences from various “patterns” of signs or thoughts and remain hooked till the very end of the scenario to fully decode messages. But the inferences are multiple and the symbols much more varied than, say, the average soap opera series where a flat story plays out that one need only wait the next day to discover the rest of. This week’s readings made me wonder the extent to which, as consumers of signs and symbols, we have evolved in our intake of media over the years. Stuart Hall mentions three forms of reading (which can be applied to internet and television symbols as well) - we have moved from what Hall would call a more “hegemonic reading” culture to a “negotiated” or “oppositional/counter-hegemonic” culture in which multiple avenues of obtaining signs and symbols and a more critical approach to cultural indoctrination is brought on by multiple encoders and a fast moving media environment.

I liked reading how Barthes in his mythology builds upon the Saussure model of the signifier and signified and his article on wrestling. I thought of all the cartoons we have now that cater to adult populations just as much as they do to younger kids. This is as both a reflection of our marketing and consumer culture and a reflection of a change in cultural dynamics in society as well. I found the Eagleton quote about “mystification” very telling of how media is used within conflict to depict “the other”.

For some reason, this week was a difficult read to find one particular idea represented in a video or a picture.