Friday, October 23, 2009

Paul's Questions for 10/26

Paul’s Questions for 10/26

If signs, according to Saussure, “have meaning because of relations, and the basic relationship is oppositional,” aren’t there exceptions to this? For example, if an airplane is the “topic,” then one set of oppositional “concepts,” I suppose, is fly and crash. But couldn’t you associate an airplane with travel and a hobby, for instance? This may be a stretch, but does the topic always have to have opposing concepts to be semiotic in nature? Another example: a Volvo represents wealth, but also reliability. Or is it simply a matter of looking for oppositional concepts to really make semiotics insightful, as far as Saussure is concerned?

The Berger chapter on semiotics states that associations change, and we have to be on our toes to catch those changes. For instance, I look at how air travel has changed. Early on it was associated with glamour, and today it is more of a chore that’s potentially dangerous in the wake of 9-11. But I’m curious to know if these associations changed based on not only time, but also age, or a generational gap. My Palm Pre means a “great calendar” to me, but to my 8-year-old son Josh, it represents more games to play.

When it comes to the idea of material culture and semiotics (Berger, pg. 11), it seems to me that the researcher must be a historian of sorts when it comes to considering body ornaments and meaning. A tattoo, for instance, seems to have been something the fringe of society would get, but today has become more commonplace. And this is from my perspective as a middle-aged white male who is an American. But a young person doing the same research may look at a tattoo the way I look at wearing a wristwatch – something everyone may do if they choose. Another tattoo example involves a female co-worker of mine in her 30s who has lots of tattoos. She got them when she was a Marine, which seems to be part of their culture. Yet those who did not know that she used to be a Marine may mistake her for, perhaps, a biker. Don’t you have to be very careful using material culture in this type of research?

The area of music and sound effects in semiotic analysis hit close to home as a television journalist. It seems that all of my past news directors, and my present one, all discourage the use of music and sound effects, and this area of our reading provides a tangible area of research to, I think, back up their reasoning. Well-written news stories should convey the true meaning of a story, without these artificial aids. Let the facts speak for themselves, right? However, my former news directors, and current one, also allowed for exceptions in long-form stories such as documentaries and series – but only when used sparingly and appropriately. For example, providing historical background, one might use music from that era. However, I’m also very much aware that using inappropriate sound bites, or poor writing, can also mislead much like the use of music and sound effects. They all can be used to communicate lies, as Eco points out.

If, as Levi-Strauss describes, syntagmatic analysis reveals manifest meaning and paradigmatic analysis reveals latent meaning, isn’t this an ideal way to examine a television news story? If, in this type of analysis, the researcher is more concerned about what a character “means” rather than what he “does,” it seems to me that it’s worth exploring. Often times, an individual viewer might find latent meaning from a story that was not intended by the reporter. For instance, doing a feature story on one school’s mascot is intended as a cute profile of a hard-working teenager, but may be misinterpreted as endorsing that school over its rival, because the rival’s mascot was not also featured. This is a simplistic example, but to me points out the usefulness of such research to prepare working journalists for this possibility. A harder news example is when the photograph of Barack Obama wearing Middle Eastern clothing was spread during the campaign. Conceivably a reporter could have used this image to show his diversity, but a viewer took it to mean he was a Muslim, and therefore a terrorist. This is an unfair connection (Muslim-terrorist), but one that was made by many Americans. Of course, in this example, the photograph was actually spread by political enemies and used in this light by news reporters.

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