Semiotics of Popular Culture

Rossolatos, George

kassel university press, ISBN: 978-3-86219-556-5, 2015, 193 Pages

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Content: Cultural studies constitutes one of the most multi-perspectival research fields. Amidst a polyvocal theoretical landscape that spans different disciplines semiotics is of foundational value. In an attempt to effectively address the conceptual richness of the semiotic discipline, a wide roster of perspectives is evoked in this book against the background of a diverse set of cultural phenomena, including structuralist and post-structuralist semiotics, semiotically informed psychoanalysis, cultural semiotics, film semiotics, sociosemiotics, but also, to a lesser extent, music semiotics and more niche, but certainly promising perspectives, such as postmodern semiotics, ethnosemiotics, phenomenological semiotics and rhetorical semiotics. The recruitment of semiotic frameworks and concepts is enacted against the background of advances in cultural studies (thus reinstating the dialogue with a discipline that took form by drawing on semiotics in the first place) and the various research streams that have become consolidated within the wider cultural studies territory, such as memory studies, celebrity studies, death studies, cultural geography, visual studies. At the same time, the offered readings engage dialogically with Consumer Culture Theory.

George Rossolatos is an academic researcher and marketing practitioner, with experience in advertising (JWT), marketing research (Research International/Millward Brown) and brand management (Colgate-Palmolive, Nestle, Weetabix, Cosmote). He holds a BA (Hons) in Philosophy from the University of Essex, an MSc in Marketing from Manchester Business School and an MBA from Strathclyde Business School and a PhD in Marketing Semiotics from the University of Kassel. He is also the editor of the International Journal of Marketing Semiotics (http://ijmarketingsemiotics.com/). Major publications include Semiotics of Popular Culture (2015), Interactive Advertising: Dynamic Communication in the Information Era (2002), Brand Equity Planning with Structuralist Rhetorical Semiotics (2012, 2014), Applying Structuralist Semiotics to Brand Image Research (2012), //rhetor.dixit//: Understanding ad texts’ rhetorical structure for differential figurative advantage (2013), plus numerous articles in trade and academic journals. His research interests rest with cultural studies and with effecting inter-disciplinary cross-fertilizations between marketing, rhetoric and semiotics, also informed by disciplines such as phenomenology, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, anthropology, communication theory.


Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1: Lady Gaga as (dis)simulacrum of monstrosity

Chapter 2: Fetish, taboo, simulacrum: An applied psychoanalytic/semiotic approach to the experiential consumption of music products

Chapter 3: A Dio: A sociosemiotic/phenomenological account of the 55 formation of collective narrative identity in the context of a rock legend’s memorial

Chapter 4: Rapunzel, Benjamin Button and Little Red Riding Hood in this and any other possible world: Philosophical, rhetorical and textual semiotic excursions in inter-textual formations amongst advertising, literary and filmic texts

Chapter 5: Is the semiosphere post-modernist?

Chapter 6: For a semiotic model of cultural branding and the dynamic management of a brandosphere in the face of user-generated advertising

Chapter 7: The ice-bucket challenge: The legitimacy of the memetic mode of cultural reproduction is the message



Introduction


Cultural studies constitutes one of the most multi-perspectival research fields. Amidst a polyvocal theoretical landscape that spans different disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, literary studies, film studies, media studies, ethnography, philosophy, marketing, to name a few, and different perspectives within each discipline, semiotics (or what is occasionally referred to in cultural research as semiology, under the influence of early Barthesian analyses) is of foundational value. Barthes’s semiological approach to the analysis of multiple meaning layers in popular cultural artefacts constitutes a milestone in popular cultural research. However, the discipline of semiotics has accomplished significant theoretical and empirical strides since Barthes’s time which, to my knowledge, have not been adequately reflected in theorizations of cultural phenomena that have been surfacing at an exponential rate over the past thirty years in the wider cultural studies discipline. This is further compounded by the ways whereby seminal authors who are regularly evoked in the post-modern/post-structuralist strand of cultural studies, such as Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze have appropriated, criticized, recontextualized and resemanticized fundamental semiotic terms and concepts which they drew largely from early foundational texts and authors, such as de Saussure and Levi-Strauss. Thus, whereas from within the semiotic discipline new theoretical frames and ways of theorizing culture have been springing up ever since Barthes’s time, these advances were not incorporated in the output of seminal postmodernist/post-structuralist authors whose work was and continues to be of paramount importance in shaping the conceptual frameworks that are regularly utilized in cultural studies.

The semiotically informed readings of popular cultural phenomena on offer in this book follow the reverse path. Instead of assuming Barthes as the alpha and the omega of what semiotics may offer to cultural analysis and criticism, it starts by considering how perspectives that have been offered ever since Barthes’s time may be fruitfully applied. In an attempt to effectively address the sheer polyvocity and conceptual richness of the semiotic discipline, a wide roster of perspectives is evoked against the background of a diverse set of cultural phenomena. This roster includes and is informed by structuralist semiotics, post-structuralist semiotics, semiotically informed psychoanalysis, cultural semiotics, film semiotics, sociosemiotics, eclectically refined frameworks that have been offered by prominent semioticians, such as Umberto Eco, but also, to a lesser extent, by music semiotics and by more niche, but certainly promising perspectives, such as postmodern semiotics, ethnosemiotics, phenomenological semiotics and rhetorical semiotics. The recruitment of semiotic frameworks and concepts is enacted against the background of advances in cultural studies (thus reinstating the dialogue with a discipline that took form by drawing on semiotics in the first place) and the various research streams that have become consolidated within the wider cultural studies territory, such as memory studies, celebrity studies, death studies, cultural geography, visual studies, to name a few. At the same time, the offered readings engage dialogically with culturally informed research in the marketing discipline or what has become entrenched in the academic vernacular under the umbrella of CCT (Consumer Culture Theory). Again, it is deemed that the conceptual richness of semiotics has been considerably underutilized in CCT, while it is hoped that the featured readings will contribute to the enhancement of cross-fertilisations between culturally informed marketing research and semiotics. Moreover, the deployed discussions aim at instigating dialogue between semiotics and disciplines that have become increasingly popular over the past thirty years, such as discourse analysis and critical discourse analysis. In this instance, semiotics has been foundational in delineating the research scope and panoply of research tools in discourse analysis.

As regards the diversity of cultural phenomena that constitute the empirical substratum of the offered analyses, music, cinema, new media, live-shows, branding, advertising and literature constitute the focal areas of concern. Under the aegis of a permeating textuality paradigm, the ubiquitously applicable tools of multimodal analysis, and time-hallowed qualitative research methods facilitated by advances in videography and archival research, the featured semiotic readings aim at scrutinizing the wider social implications and communicative functions of popular cultural artefacts, spectacles, processes and places, such as Lady Gaga’s monstrosity, Dio’s memorial, experiential consumption events, the ice-bucket challenge video meme.

In the light of the above precursory considerations concerning the theoretical orientation of this book, chapter 1 scrutinizes to what extent Lady Gaga’s proclaimed monstrosity is really monstrous by drawing on biographical and archival visual data, with a focus on the relatively underexplored live-show. The analysis that is offered in this chapter is largely informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of monstrosity, as well as by their approach to the study of sign-systems that was deployed in Thousand Plateaus (1987). The main argument that is put forward is that monstrosity as sign seeks to appropriate the horizon of unlimited semiosis as radical alterity and openness to signifying possibilities. In this context it is held that Gaga effectively delimits her unique semioscape, however any claims to monstrosity are undercut by the inherent limits of a representationalist approach in sufficiently engulfing this concept. Gaga is monstrous for her community insofar as she demands of her fans to project their semiosic horizon onto her as simulacrum of infinite semiosis. However, this simulacrum may only be evinced in a feigned manner as (dis)simulacrum. The analysis of imagery from seminal live shows during 2011-
2012 demonstrates that Gaga’s presumed monstrosity is more akin to hyperdifferentiation as simultaneous employment of heterogeneous and potentially dissonant cultural representations.

Chapter 2 puts forward a psychoanalytically informed interpretive model for elucidating how music products function in the context of experiential consumption. Perhaps stressing that a psychoanalytic approach is complemented by semiotics is a pleonasm, especially in the case of Lacanian theory, where the structure of language came to replace Freudian biologism and naturalism. Whereas Freud sought to ground his theory in biological processes (albeit speculatively and with an occasional stress on the impossibility of such a task), Lacan drew on Saussure’s structural linguistics and was inspired by the structuralist movement in developing his complex diagrammatic reasoning. Lacan is known not only for having inverted the Saussurean equation of the sign as the ratio of signifier to signified, but also for having employed both Saussurean and Jakobsonian semiotic terminology in different phases of his thinking.

The discussion kicks off with an exposition of t h e key concepts of fetish, taboo, simulacrum that constitute the groundwork for the ensuing interpretation of the experiential consumption of music products. The main line of argumentation suggests that the music product is a taboo that caters for consumers’ need for ecstatic experiences, that is for experiences that deliver them from their phantasmatic identity and relocate them to the realm of unconscious processes. As fetish or petit objet a, the music product allows for access to the Other, inasmuch as it distances consumers from the Other. The findings from primary qualitative research that were generated by applying discourse analysis to the interpretation of the data that were gathered from focus-groups with members of different fan- clubs, coupled with participant observation during live-shows, suggest that contamination is the mode whereby t h e aesthetic features of music products are transferred to the communicative (communal) sphere of experiential consumption. Consumers were found to be experiencing jouissance from the specular contact with artists in live shows, that is the mixed feeling of pleasure from temporarily identifying with a decentralised signifier, and pain caused by the permanent absence of the centre of the m usic pr oduct as simulacrum.

Chapter 3 offers an account of the formation of a fandom’s collective memory and identity in the context of a rock legend’s (Dio) memorial event by attending to how it is shaped alongside artefacts, processes, places. The analysis assumes as blueprint the three sociosemiotic metafunctions (ideational, interpersonal, textual) as put forward by Halliday and later adopted and revised by Kress and Van Leeuwen, among others. Given that Halliday envisioned the metafunctions as being open to insights gathered from the social sciences, the analysis incorporates and is conceptually informed by accounts pertaining to salient facets of the scrutinized phenomenon from cultural studies, anthropology, rhetoric and most eminently from narrative phenomenology, with a focus on Ricoeur’s unique take on issues of memory, narrativity and collective identity. The analysis culminates in highlighting the value of complementing a sociosemiotic interpretation of memorial events that includes narrativity as integral aspect of its theorizing mode, with a phenomenological angle that affords to elucidate invisible structures that are operative beneath the concerned semiotic resources’ manifest multimodal structure.

Chapter 4, on possible world semiotics, is particularly pertinent for advertising planners and creative executives whose role consists largely in inventing and constantly re-inventing brand discourses. By drawing on semantics, textual semiotics, philosophy of language and rhetoric, I am addressing how fictive elements, embedded in fabular worlds that are part and parcel of literary and cinematic texts and once conceived of as counterfactual, attain to be actualized in advertising discourse as part of our cultural world. By adopting Eco’s fundamental premise that our world is first and foremost culturally constituted, and by recruiting rhetoric as an essential complement of a hybrid semantic/textual semiotic approach, an attempt is made at demonstrating that this and other possible worlds are not that far apart. The implications for brand genealogists, but also in terms of developing advertising texts by drawing on a combinatorial logic of properties and individuals from fictive worlds are highlighted as an addendum to the practical implications of philosophy and semiotic theory.

Lotman’s concept of the semiosphere constitutes a hallmark for cultural semiotics. Chapter 5 provides arguments for and against interpretations of the semiosphere as being of post-modernist orientation. A comparative reading of the definitional components of the semiosphere, their hierarchical relationship and their interactions is undertaken against the two principal axes of space and subjectivity in the light of Kantian transcendental idealism, as inaugural and authoritative figure of modernity, the Foucauldian discursive turn and the Deleuzian (post) radical empiricism, as representative authors of the highly versatile post-modern vernacular. This comparative reading aims at highlighting not only similarities and differences between the Lotmanian conceptualization of the semiosphere and the concerned modernist and post-modernist authors, but the construct’s operational relevance in a post-metanarratives cultural predicament that has been coupled with the so-called spatial turn in cultural studies.

Chapter 6 continues within a Lotmanian mindset, while venturing into the field of new media studies and user-generated advertising. More particularly, this chapter provides a sketchmap for a semiotically informed model of cultural branding, while pointing out how it can be fruitfully applied for managing a brand’s share of cultural representations, over and above its market share, as well as the textual sources of a brand language as (inter)textual formation. The advocated cultural branding model of the brandosphere is of inter-disciplinary orientation, spanning the relevant marketing and semiotic literatures, with an emphasis on Lotman’s cultural/textual semiotics and social media, with an added focus on user-generated advertising.

Finally, Chapter 7 unpeels the multiple layers of message structuration of the ice-bucket challenge video meme. The analysis is performed in the context of a cultural predicament where networking and connectivity constitute overarching cultural values. The argumentative thrust deploys against the background of the assumption that the ice-bucket challenge constitutes a meme as minimal unit of cultural reproduction that functions on both ontic and ontological levels (in Heidegger’s fundamental ontological terms). The offered analysis aims at demonstrating that the enunciator of this unit is the meme itself that summons hosts or enunciatees to legitimate the pre-reflective memetic mode of cultural reproduction and propagation as overarching mode of communication.



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