Thursday, February 17, 2011

Words, Myths, and Images

On April 22, 2004 Corporal Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. He was the all American story, a NFL football player who turned down a contract for over $3 million to enlist in the Army in order to fight for his country after the September 11th attacks. He was posthumously awarded the silver star and promoted to Corporal. Details of his heroism were published and recounted. At the time, I was going to school at Arizona State University (ASU) and Tillman's death was a huge story. In 1994, he was a linebacker for ASU, and the University decided to honor his legacy (make his story theirs) and they created Tillman scholars and Pat's Run with the help of the Pat Tillman Foundation.

However, there was a problem. The story of Pat Tillman death was a lie. He had been killed by "friendly fire" and the Army had covered it up.

ASU and many others were determined to maintain the hero narrative, but a professor of mine, John Jota Leanos, created a public art exhibit that challenged the established narrative and attempted to change the meaning behind the much used picture of Pat Tillman.

He put these posters up on campus and around town.

Here are some of the reactions to the poster:

"I don't understand morally how people can USE someone else's image and death for political purposes without any regard for their family? It's sickening.
This guy should be sued for defaming Tillman's memory!
Free speech doesn't mean that you have a blank check to LIE.

I'm attempting to get as many people as I can to instigate some sort of recourse against this immoral professor. Don't give up. Ranger Tillman deserves our efforts!"

"However, if this does not work he should be hunted down (any volunteers?) and some one should KILL THE FUCK out of him. His boss should be ass-raped like he was in a Federal Ass pounding prison. :twisted: This should help others decide to think before they open their cum dumpster/ cock holsters and spew filth.
I hope this Cock-Jockey gets sued so hard that his grandchildren will still be footing the bill. I am going to sit down tonight and come up with a diatribe for this cornhole that will drop jaws.
can you say a la raza fuckstick, this guy is a tonk or a wanna be tonk preaching the la raza bullshit of atzlan, you can bet he is supporting groups like brown berets de atzlan who are a bunch of wana be tonks and tonks who think this is there mythical homeland of atzlan and that the evil US stole it and they want to reclaim it by any means necessary"

Prof Leanos received hundreds of emails including threats and the University decided to launch an investigation on him.

According to the school paper, The State Press, "ASU is conducting an "administrative review" to "explore whether anyone else at ASU was involved in what appears to be a blatant attempt to trade on the celebrity and patriotism of one of ASU's most honored and respected graduates," according to the letter."

In response to the controversy, ASU put on some forums about Academic Freedom. Prof Leanos spoke at one of the meetings.
"My latest artwork concerns many issues, but I want to highlight three themes that the work brings into question:
i. the social construction of war heroes
ii. the branding and marketing of soldier images in order to glorify and promote war
iii. the canonization of war heroes at the cost of truth
... This is serious business. At the same time, the death of Pat Tillman and the framing of his image as an untouchable American hero raises critical questions about militarism, truth and America's declare infinite War on Terror, questions that in a democracy we should not be afraid to ask." (

As we discover this week in the readings, it is not so much the image, but the text that goes with the image that creates meaning.
I think an overall question we could think about is, who controls meaning?

What are the unquestioned stories and images we live within?

What happens when someone tries to tell an "unsanctioned" version of a societal story or myth and how does this connect to hegemony and ideology?

Why did people react the way they did?

How might Leanos' narrative be seen as a castration?

Look at the first image, which is being used "correctly."
Who all had a stake in the story of Pat Tillman as a war hero?

Was his image turned into a commodity, if so in what way?

How are the images attempting to interpolate the viewer?

Next is a brief summary of this week's readings.

Ferdinand de Saussure
According to John Storey (2009), "Structuralists argue that language organizes and constructs our sense of reality" (p. 112). Meaning is produced in the establishment of difference, but it is not complete until it is spoken. "The way we conceptualize the world is ultimately dependent on the language we speak" (p. 113). Therefore grammar or the structures that underlay text make meanings possible. "The task of structuralism, therefore, is to make explicit the rules and conventions (the structure) which govern the production of meaning" (p. 114).
Saussure broke down language into elements. (a) "The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image (Social Theory p. 152). (b) "The word symbol, has been used to designate the linguistic sign, or more specifically, what is here call the signifier." However, he explains that the connection between "the signifier and the signified is arbitrary" (p. 154). There is nothing about the word tree or arbor that automatically associates it with the actual object. These words or sound-images are artifacts of the English language not of the object for which they signify.
Sassure states, "if words stood for pre-existing concepts, they would all have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to the next; but this is not true" (p. 159). The Spanish word for tree is el arbol, L'arbre in French,or Дерево in Russian. One universal aspect he says we have to take into account is time. "If we consider the community of speakers without considering time, we would not see the effect of the social forces that influence language…Language is no longer free, for time will allow the social forces at work on it to carry out their effects" (p. 156). As an actor, time became an important factor when I was working on Shakespearean roles. How a word was used in his time was different than our modern usage. Take the word Bedazzle which the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to Shakespeare "a1616 Shakespeare Taming of Shrew (1623) iv. vi. 47 That haue bin so bedazled with the sunne." These days it means "The art of taking ordinary things and making them EXTRAORDINARY by adding sparkles, rhinestones, glitter, stars, beads, etc. For some it is a way of life" (Urban Dictionary). Sassure argues that the only usage of a word that should be considered is its current understanding. "No society, in fact, knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generation, and on to be accepted as such. That is why the question of the origin of speech is not so important as it is generally assumed to be. The question is not even worth asking, the only real object of linguistics is the normal, regular life of an existing idiom" (p. 155). No matter how much research a Shakespearean actor does, when they say the word bedazzle the audience will connect the sound-image to its most current concept, because it is all they know.
Now for a musical break.

Claude Levi-Struss
"Mythologiques," his four-volume work about the structure of native mythology in the Americas, attempts nothing less than an interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by analysis of several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. - New York Times
Levi-Stuss argues that myths have patterns that can be deciphered. "The anthropologist’s task is to discover the underlying ‘grammar’: the rules and regulations that make it possible for myths to be meaningful"(Storey, p. 115). He saw them as creating binary structures which divide the world into categories. "Myths are stories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world understandable and therefore habitable; they attempt to put us at peace with ourselves and our existence" (p. 115). Unlike words which are bound by time myths are timeless, they explain "the present and the past as well as the future" (Social Theory, p. 315). Myths also cross cultures. "Myth is still felt as a myth by any reader in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells" (p. 315). Levi-Struss broke myths down in order to reveal the common elements of their stories.
Roland Barthes
"His guiding principle is always to interrogate ‘the falsely obvious’ (11), to make explicit what too often remains implicit in the texts and practices of popular culture….what-goes-without-saying" (Storey, p. 118). Barthes connects myth to ideology that is "understood as a body of ideas and practices, which by actively promoting the values and interests of dominant groups in society, defend the prevailing structures of power" (p. 119). He identifies a second level of signification beyond the signified and the signifier, connotation. The signifier tree creates a sign the image of a tree, which become a signifier on the second level, "That boy is as tall as a tree." It is on this level where myth is produced. "Barthes suggests, ‘myths has…a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us’ (p. 121). We are interpolated by myths as we are hailed by them.
Barthes explains that the meaning of an image is determined by the text or stories surrounding it. "Image does not illustrate text, it is the text which amplifies the connotative potential of the image…the text produces (invents) an entirely new signified which is retroactively projected into the image, so much so as to appear denoted there...Without the addition of a linguistic text the meaning of the image is very difficult to pin down" (p. 123). If you grew up in America, can you think of a Cherry Tree without recalling the story of Honest Abe? Myths are ahistorical and simplistic. "It organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity; things appear to mean something by themselves" (p. 122).
The video below expands on his ideas and uses same example as Storey, Barthes' analysis of the cover of a French magazine Paris Match (p. 119).

Finally Barthes breaks down language as "a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate" (Social Theory, p. 318). However, language can not exist without speech and speech without language. You have the written word, normative usage, and how the individual speaks. When I was a playwright, the trick was composing dialogue that mimicked everyday speech. People don't speak grammatically. But people do follow conventions and dialects. You can tell what group or where someone comes from based on how they talk.

For an additional reading Barthes also demonstrates his theory in The Rhetoric of the Image.


  1. Brandon, this was an interesting post, and I think your points about the image and texts associated with Pat Tillman nicely illustrate the “relay” process in which the “text […] amplifies the connotative potential of the image” (Story 123). In my comments here, I would like to add to your discussion a point about the concepts of langue/parole, namely because I think that these Saussurian terms, and the way that Barthes extends their scope, are worth noting.

    In his discussion of langue and parole, Barthes points toward an interesting distinction: what he calls the “dialectics of language and speech” (ST 319). He writes, “Language and speech: each of these two terms of course achieves its full definition only in the dialectical process which unites one to the other: there is no language without speech, and no speech outside of language” (319). In other words, language depends on the individual speech acts (parole) to shape its nature as a system, which means that on the one hand, speech seems to exist prior to the system of language (langue). On the other hand, there can be “no speech outside of language,” meaning that individual speech acts are only possible and intelligible for us within the structures of language; this point suggests that langue would need to exist prior to parole. The point of Barthes’ distinctions here is not to determine which came first (either the langue or the parole) but rather to point out that both langue and parole exist in a dialectic. As he concludes the paragraph, “To sum, a language is at the same time the product and the instrument of speech: their relationship is therefore a genuinely dialectical one” (319).

    Making this point, Barthes goes on to expand this concept of the dialectic between langue and parole to all kinds of communication, going beyond words and their languages: “We shall therefore postulate that there exists a general category language/speech, which embraces all the systems of signs” (319). This move leads him to his interesting discussion of fashion or what he calls the “garment system” (319).

    When I first read this “garment system” section, in which he subdivides fashion into three different levels of analysis, his main point eluded me. But after going through this section again, I think that the main point (part of it at least) is this: the analysis of the “garment system” allows him to illustrate how the concept of langue and parole (analogous to “structure and performance” in Saussurian thought, as Storey points out [113]), can be applied to non-linguistic significations like fashion.

    Yet in this case with fashion, there is an important difference in the dialectic between langue and parole. As Barthes points out, the langue (or system/structure) of the fashion industry does indeed precede the individual acts of parole (the performance of wearing a particular outfit). In the realm of fashion, the langue comes before the parole because the fashion designers make the clothing, and hence our performance of wearing the clothing, possible. As Barthes points out, “As for the dialectic which unites here costume (the language) and clothing (speech), it does not resemble that of verbal language; […] costume, at least today, precedes clothing, since it comes from the ready-made industry, that is, from a minority group” (320). Thus, while the categories of langue and parole can be applied to something like fashion, the dialectic between the two does not operate in the same way as it does with linguistic langue/parole.

  2. As Brandon highlighted in his summary on Claude Levi-Strauss, "Myths are stories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world understandable and therefore habitable; they attempt to put us at peace with ourselves and our existence" (Storey 115). But as Levi-Strauss himself elaborates, there is a seeming complication: “On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen…but on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astoundingly similarity between myths collected in widely different regions” (ST 314).

    The question, then, is this: are these two views in necessary contradiction with one another, or is it something more? Levi-Strauss argues the latter, that there is really no contradiction. But what does this look like? I want to try to expand further on the Levi-Strauss’s work on myths.

    To do so, I briefly turn to Joseph Campbell, who provides important insights into the inner-workings of myths. He has identified the “monomyth,” or “The Hero’s Journey,” ( as a way of seeing these ideas in action. The Monomyth is a recurring pattern within narratives, or myths. “The Hero’s Journey” is one such recurring pattern. Campbell outlines the ways that heroes travel through various rites of passage and make the transformation from “average guy/chosen one” to “savior of the known world.” We see this well in popular culture, Hollywood films, and literature. Without leaving my seat, I think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Peter Pevensie, Batman, Superman, Wolverine, even Shrek – and basically any other male comic book hero I didn’t’ mention. There is some kind of parental abandonment and the boy assumes orphan status, some crisis is ongoing around the hero-in-training (but, at least at the beginning, he is somehow separate from this crisis), the intercession of a wise mentor/guide who compels the young man to join in the fight, the appearance of supporting characters/friends/band of misfits/potential love interest to help along the way, the abandonment of/by these friends at an integral point so that the hero can face the villain on his own, and finally, the conquering of evil. Various points in the narrative can be changed (e.g. the hero could, conceivably, be a woman, but her power is most often tied to/derived from maternalism or a love interest rather than some higher, supernatural power), but they tend to remain fairly consistent in their formula.

    The examples given above are strikingly similar, but with notable deviances from the formula and the narrative devices that comprise the myth. But it is these nuances – these points of deviance within each of the above examples – that, I think, Levi-Strauss is getting at. As he says it was for linguists, “The contradiction was surmounted only by the discovery that it is the combination of sounds, not the sounds themselves, which provides the significant data…” (ST 314). So really, the larger point at hand, as I am understanding it, is to look beyond similarities within these narratives to instead see and appreciate the value in those minor deviations which, after all, lend themselves to our society’s consumption of the same so-called formulaic, mythical story over and over again.

  3. At an ideological level, this week has been a lived arc between the readings on psychoanalysis and the readings on structuralism. For example, in my seminar on the author Charles Chesnutt, the presenter offered Lacan as a lens through which to better understand socio-political history in the novel “Marrow of Tradition,” which focuses on the 1898 racial violence ( in Wilmington, N.C. Then, this weekend, I was attended a theological conference, which was a local adaptation of an international conference held in January at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street ( The theme was “Reading Scripture Through Other Eyes.” Theologians and academics such as Walter Brueggemann, Gerald West, and Mary Gordon worked from a critical perspective informed by liberation theology as well as Paul Ricoeur’s notions of pre-critical, critical, and post-critical interpretation to challenge participants to resist structures and practices of reading the Christian sacred text that effectively marginalize and silence by privileging certain interpretations and interpreters of the text.

    Citing Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis”, Mary Gordon noted that “a culture tells the stories it needs and is in turn shaped by them” ( This quote reflects John Storey’s summation of the structuralist position (as Brandon notes also) when Storey writes, "structuralists argue that language organizes and constructs our sense of reality" (112) and also reflects Barthes understanding of myths when he notes that "Myths are stories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world understandable and therefore habitable" (115). I have long observed this habit in people especially in my upbringing in the church. Humans must make sense of the world and their stories are the architecture. From a finite and imperfect set of symbols, a narrative is born and expressed. As Levi-Strauss notes, there can indeed be an interesting degree of similarity in these narratives even when cultures or individuals have never interacted or been otherwise mediated. In the end, all of this is symbolic and arbitrary. Saussure posits as much in his discourses on signs and signifiers (154).

    So, I continue to be excited because while the various theories exist in their own right and can be explored and understood as discrete units they also exist in conjunction with each other and have an interdisciplinary dimension. Brandon has drawn some provocative connections and this seems exactly right in the scheme of critical theory.

  4. As I was reading the beginning section of Brandon's post, I began to think back on the Pat Tillman scandal and I had the image of a commercial I see on late-night, cable TV from time to time:

    This commercial to me is a perfect representation of of Roland Barthes' concept of primary and secondary signification: "...The sign of primary signification becomes the signifier in a process of signification...Barthes...substitutes the more familiar terms 'denotation' (primary signification) and 'connotation' (secondary signification): 'the first system [denotation] becomes a plane of expression or signifier of the second system [connotation]....The signifiers of connotation...are made up of signs (signifiers and signifieds united) of the denoted system' (Storey 118 fr. "Elements of Semiology" p. 89-91). He goes on to later note: "He claims that it is at the secondary level of signification that myth is produced for consumption. By myth he means ideology understood as a body of ideas and practices, which by actively promoting the dominant groups in society, defend the prevailing structures of power" (Storey 119). If we examine this commercial from Barthes' POV, we can ascertain that the the gold coin itself denotes (primary signification) the 9/11 tragedy. The commercial connotes (secondary signification) many things: generally, it connotes a personal connection with the audience -- "Do you remember where you where and how you felt when this happened? Do ya'?"), the War on Terror, and an overt and powerful display that we will get Osama and other bad guys (See: the "Justice Will Prevail" insignia on the coin). More specifically, the commercial connotes US's subsequent phoenix-like rise from the ashes which utilizes the steel from the fallen towers to build a battle ship that will go and carry out justice.

    As I was reading Barthes' "Semiological Prospects", a passage discussing Speech (Parole) caught my attention: "In contrast to the language, which is both institution and system, SPEECH is essentially an individual act of selection and actualization; it is made in the first place of the 'combination thanks to which the speaking subject can use the code of language with a view to expressing his personal thought' (this extended speech could be called DISCOURSE), and secondly by the 'psycho-physical mechanisms which allow him to exteriorize these combinations" (Social Theory p. 318). One of my favorite art forms -- when it is correctly performed -- is stand-up comedy. The following post is by the late, great George Carlin. Carlin perfectly used speech by selectively articulating aspects of food culture and advertising to express personal thoughts. To refer to Saussure, Carlin is masterful at listing signs rampant within our culture -- advertising slogans, sacred cows, images that denote warm and fuzzy feelings] and destroys and dismantles the signififiers and the signification that these signs are supposed to produce. [WARNING: There is a lot of very graphic language used by Carlin and imagery that is culled from his language in this piece, but that's sort of the point].

  5. Thanks Robert for posting the link to Carlin, one of the comedic greats. After watching that video, I watched another bit he did on “everyday expressions” which really ties in with this whole conversation on language, structures, signs and the like. Specifically the part at the end where he says:
    “ your own words. People say this to you all the time, “well, tell us in your own words.” …Do you have your own words? I’m using the ones everybody else is using!”


    As it notes in the Storey text, meaning is produced by establishing difference, it is a cultural agreement produced by a process of combination and selection. Structuralists argue, “in order to really understand a text or practice it is necessary to focus on its structural properties.” (113) We must also understand the conventions of the culture in which it is produced because this context helps to explain who the people are that are using a particular language structure and the sociopolitical factors that shape that structure. I like the example in the text about the Inuits.

    Inuits have over fifty words to describe snow. “..the way we conceptualize is dependent on the language we speak” (113). This is all well and good, although I would argue that it is more of a reciprocal process. The language we speak is also dependent on the way we conceptualize. I know this may sound like a chicken/egg argument, but think about the Inuit example. Why do they have so many ways do describe snow? Obviously, they have so many ways to describe snow because they spend the majority of their lives in the snow. This standpoint based on their environment, directly influences how they conceptualize linguistically.

    Dovetailing from Melody’s visitation of Campbell’s monomyth and the Hero’s journey, on page 116 Storey discusses the conventions of the Western genre. The themes consistent in Westerns tell a great deal about the conventions and ideals of this culture. There is the lone hero who fights to tame the wilderness and its inhabitants. Civilization rests on the broad shoulders of the cowboy type with his gun. Have gun will travel. These themes correlate with the All-American ideas like Manifest Destiny. This culture values the frontiersman with brass balls who civilizes the savage and serves justice with his Colt 45.
    This cultural ideal helps explain the story of Pat Tillman as well as relate to Robert’s example of the 9/11 coins. Tillman selflessly sacrificed his life to fight those who threatened the American way of life. Tillman’s effort was noble; unfortunately, we see how the image of the fallen hero can be exploited. The 9/11 coins with the towers also signify certain values and conventions of this culture. What do we make of these structures and what do the implicit and explicit messages say about this culture? What are the explicit rules that govern the acts of parole in our everyday lives?

  6. What is reality? The term “reality” in and of itself suggests that something is real or is based on fact. However, as Saussure’s theory posits, what is deemed reality has little to do with actual facts and more to do with agreement (Storey 111). I believe the Pat Tillman example that Brandon uses in his posts reflects the negotiable nature of “reality,” how it is based more on agreement than fact.

    The initial narrative and beliefs surrounding Pat Tillman’s death—that he was killed by enemy fire and, because of his sacrifices before and during the war, he should eternally be heralded as a model for American heroism—illustrates one of the grand narratives in America which essentially claims that heroes who sacrifice for the common good always win in the end. As a star football player in high school and college and after giving up his million dollar contract to play football so he could fight for his country, Tillman situated himself within America’s hero narrative. His story therefore functioned as a myth. As Storey notes, “Myths are stories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world understandable and therefore habitable; they attempt to put us at peace with ourselves and our experience” (115). As a result, before Tillman even went to war we all could guess his outcome because we all know the ending of a great hero story—he will either be very successful against the enemy and return a celebrated hero or he will be killed by the enemy, which makes him an even greater hero because he sacrificed his life fighting a worthy cause. However, Tillman’s death by friendly fire contradicted the expected hero outcome that many American’s accept and live their lives by. The military/government recognized this therefore lied about how Tillman was killed because they recognized they needed to preserve the structures that govern how American’s view the world.

    Though the truth was later revealed that Tillman actually became the victim of the very system he fought for, the harsh responses to the professor and artwork prove people would rather maintain and believe a lie than to accept the “truth.” Such is the case because the people, like the military and government, recognize the threat an alternative ending to Tillman’s traditional hero narrative poses to the grand narrative that people live their lives by. Hearing that Tillman was killed by friendly fire cause conflict within individuals, who are usually at peace because they know the myth, and makes them less likely to sacrifice for they country. The mere fact that people are willing to be hostile towards the professor and his art work though it is based on actual fact proves Saussure’s theory that reality is more about agreement than facts.

  7. Thanks to Brandon for resurrecting the Pat Tillman story. As I am a big NFL fan, I remember how this narrative was framed to be the “the promising young life struck down before its time” type of story. Yet, people die in war every day, whether by friendly fire, enemy fire, natural causes (does anyone ever have a heart attack during war?), self inflicted wounds, etc., but for some reason, Pat Tillman was more deserved of the nation’s mourning than any of these people. It seems a tad selfish to me, but that is an issue for another time. Last week, in my Oral Communication class, the class and I discussed presentation aids and how they can often represent “reality.” On Monday, I will present Brandon’s blog to them as another example of how reality can be misrepresented, or at least distorted, in the media, to accomplish a specific goal. And, is that an okay thing to do if the goal is deemed “worthy” by enough people? Who cares HOW Pat Tillman died? What is important is that he DID die, right?
    When looking at the Pat Tillman case, we can see the distinctions between the signified and the signifier and how our choices in these realms affect our perceptions of the object. When Tillman is simply a “soldier,” his death is commonplace and no big deal. When Tillman is renamed as the “former ASU linebacker,” he becomes a hero to the university and a big deal to them. When he is further identified as the “former ASU linebacker turned National Football League player” (despite his decision to turn down the contract), he becomes a hero to the nation and a big deal to all of us. Of course, NFL players represent all that is good and right in the United States, do they not? Domestic abusers, drug addicts, murders, cheaters, etc. are the American ideal. (My apologies to Caroline for that comment). We should all strive to be just like those players or at least all American men should. I guess we women can aspire to be the girls who cheer them to victory, just as we wait for our men to come home from war.
    This week’s readings and Brandon’s subsequent summary and application of them give us a lot to think about as we continue our communication studies, as language use plays a vital role in all of our work. It is easy to see how language use is overtly demonstrated in rhetorical studies, but it would be naïve to think that the connections and connotations between words, objects, and perceptions in not intricately involved in everything we do, say, and think.

  8. Linguistics then works in the borderland where the elements of sound and thought combine; their combination produces a form, not a substance.
    ~Ferdinand de Saussure (Social Theory p.157)

    This quote perfectly encapsulates the essence of studying the structure and use of language. We have learned that 2 elements of language, the signifier (the word) and the signified (the object) combine and allow us to understand what we are talking about.

    The dialectic of langue vs parole is very interesting to me. Words are gibberish without a system of rules and conventions to organize them, but the structure is empty without the acts of speech to operate within it. Roland Barthes' contribution of connotation is extremely illuminating to linguistic studies. He notes that language does not adhere to strict dictionary definitions. The context of the speech reveals its meaning.

    A perfect example of this concept is found in a scene from the film Donnie Brasco.

    In this scene, the titular character (played by Johnny Depp) explains the multiple meanings of the phrase "Forget about it." The mobsters he is infiltrating say it constantly and in various scenarios. Donnie explains that it can mean agreement, disagreement, an insult, praise, and even (on rare occasions) don't remember it.

    The connotation of a text operates through 3 layers of subjectivity. It is imposed by the creator of the text, it is interpreted by the audience, and it has a historical frame.

    Consider Jimi Hendrix's incendiary performance of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. (Seriously, watch it. You'll be a better person.)

    The 3 layers of context are the original composition by Francis Scott Key and Hendrix's reinterpretation; the festival audience and you, the YouTube viewer; and the socio-political settings of Woodstock, the hippie counter-culture, and the Vietnam War.

    Hendrix defended that and subsequent performances of the song by saying that it wasn't a political statement, he just thought the song was beautiful and fun to play. Politics aside, it is an incredible illustration of the concepts of langue, parole, and connotation.

  9. Just as I finished posting to this blog, I went to download Kid Rock's newest album, "Born Free" onto my ipod. Inside the jacket of the cd (yes, I actually bought a REAL cd) appears these words:
    If it looks good, you'll see it.
    If it sounds good, you'll hear it.
    If it's marketed right, you'll buy it.
    But...if it's real, you'll feel it.

    I thought this was appropriate given this week's readings. In the long run, all we care about is how words makes us feel. And, if those words do indeed make us feel something (good, bad, or otherwise), then the images created by those words must be "real."

  10. Brandon, you bring up lots of interesting points in our readings. I personally am drawn to your use of the Hero myth in the Pat Tillman example. I recently read an article by Debra A. Capon and Michelle T. Helstein, titled "Knowing" the hero: The female athlete and myth at work in Nike advertising, that argued that in order for a myth to be understood and used in advertising that "knowledge about 'the' hero already exists in the world and that this knowledge is simply reflected, explained, and transmitted through myth" (pg.40). This can be applied to the Pat Tillman situation. Without the prior knowledge of what it means to be a hero, his image could not have been used to reflect, explain, and transmit this previously known knowledge. This article goes on to critique a series of print advertisements by Nike in which the company uses images of strong female athletes such as Cynthia Cooper. In these ads Nike poses a series of questions that question what it means to be a hero and how do we know if we are a hero. In addition, the ads challenge women to tell someone, specifically a woman, that they are a hero, because unless someone tells us how do we know. Capon and Helstein argue that without the previous knowledge of what it means to be a masculine hero in our society, Nike would not be able to question that myth.

    I am also drawn to Barthes' tie of myth to ideology in that it is "understood as a body of ideas and practices, which by actively promoting values and interests of dominant groups of societies, defend the prevailing structures of power" (pg. 119). As we have learn, ideologies are based on imagined relationships. Since these relationships are imagined, it becomes important for the "prevailing structures of power" to reinforce these imagined relationships and myths assist in this task. Going back to the advertisements in the Capon & Helstein article, each of these advertisements start with a young girl in a dress and ends with a woman holding a baby. While the first visual reading of this advertisement might show Nike as challenging the masculine hero myth, the ad is actually reinforcing some of the main premises of the " prevailing structures of power." The athlete is standing in a very masculine stance demonstrating that the hero must be masculine, even if she is a woman. In addition, the hero begins as a soft female and ends in having a baby, so she begins and returns to being the "female." Only can a female be a hero for a short amount of time and only when she exhibits masculine qualities, something that reinforces a distinct ideology.

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  12. Words, Myths, Images

    Overall, this week’s material introduces a new method of social theory that stresses the analytical. Linguistics ultimately results in inclusion and exclusion. While this applies to naming inanimate objects, more importantly it labels individuals and categorizes them. If I am Kate, who am I not? Crystal. Implicitly a division is created between my identity and that of another’s identity. Without linguistics I could not have expressed the point that I am getting at. “Crystal” really connotes no connection with the individual and the signifier, here, the name “Crystal.” More broadly, the very act of naming a baby is ripe with hidden meanings, associations and social constructions. For example, in Freakonomics, authors dedicate and entire chapter to address the socioeconomic patterns in naming children. For example, “Kate” denotes the average mother’s educational level as 15.3 years. Further, the chapter classifies names into high-income and low-income names and along racial lines. “Kate” then reappears in the “high-end” names for white girls. Crystal, ranks in the top twenty for low-income white girls. The book questions whether the very act of naming determines the named individual’s capacity. For example, the book questions if apparent African-American names hurt those individual’s chances for success. This makes me wonder, whether I had a fighting chance after my birth certificate was stamped and there I was, “Katherine Rebecca Slattery,” already loaded with established myths and images now attributed to “me.”

    Established narratives act to reinforce myths and images through linguistics. These narratives, however, are not static. That is, humans are capable to altering or attempting to change a narrative established within a society. Unquestioned stories exist creating a hegemonic regime consisting of conventional narratives. This phenomenon is quite like propaganda, used to control the mind through prevailing social constructions. Myths become impressed in society through linguistics and narratives, which identify a culture.

    Claude Levi Strauss studied the “myth” and how it operates in a social context. He notes the abrupt turn away anthropological studies regarding religion undermining religion, essentially. On one hand, new inter-field study undermines religion by regarding myth as possessing no logic or continuity, that is, essentially anything is possible in the myth. Second, religion is undermined through the contingency inherent in the myth’s context. Contingent contexts of customary narratives illustrate human interpretation of established norms. The myth dominates individual choice by making the world explicable, eliminating any contradiction.

    Ferdinand de Saussure furthers Strauss’ notion of contingent concepts of the relational nature between the sign, the signifier and the signified, represents an arbitrary connectedness between the three created by a concept and a sound image. Together, the signifier and the signified make up the sign. Particularly interesting is Saussure’s concept of signs within a given community. Specifically, the immobility language creates within a given society giving individual’s no real choice in the matter. Essentially, widespread change becomes impossible due to the reinforcement of established narratives through use of the sign.

    In essence, as human beings we are all subjects to language. Language introduces meaning to the unconscious that manifests into our identity. The continuity inherent in the sign, signifier and signified illustrates the way in which linguistics conceals freedom. This is illustrated in the case of Pat Tillman. That is, his untimely death became a symbol for American freedom guised as a sign or symbol. The heavily promoted and distributed image of Tillman acts to naturally bring patriotism to the forefront of individual psyche. Barthes would likely categorize this as national knowledge invested with language. Images then become myths that are imposed upon individuals.

  13. Brandon, thanks for the musical break, it was appreciated. I think your first question really gets to the heart of how this week’s readings relate to cultural theory. We don’t get as much out of de Saussure if we ignore how words/symbols/signifiers gain their meaning through how they relate to one another. To reference a cliché –those who control the language, hold the power. As de Saussure emphasizes we determine the “value” of something through it’s relationship through other values (p. 160). This is why individuals, such as Kramarae (1) have gone about the task of recreating how words are understood.

    Time, of course, masks how those in power use signs/signifiers/signified as a means to “normalize” this control. As du Saussure explains, “language is no longer free, for time will allow the social forces at work on it to carry out their efforts” (p. 156). In other words, to answer your question, “What are the unquestioned stories and images we live within?”—EVERYTHING. When Schiappa argues that all language is political (2), it is under the premise that the value we assign to a signifier or that which is signified can only be understood based on the value we place on other signs/signifiers. That relationship is determined by none other than the hegemonic system.

    "Everything" as an answer to your second question should not be taken as a flippant response, but something that requires serious consideration. Indeed, Levi-Strauss explains, that rather than viewing myth as (or like) a language-- “myth IS language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech” (p. 314). Like Melody and Marcus, we can use the remarkable Joseph Campbell as a way in which to understand this principle. In his “Celebration of Life” lecture given on March 1, 1967 in New York (3), Campbell explained that certain rituals were derived by how each culture experienced the environment or world around them. As each culture group developed, they created a myth that explained what they witnessed in nature. This relates directly what Barthes means when he describes language as, “a social institution and a system of values”(p. 318). Thus, to add onto Melody’s comment, while we do have the monomyth, as Campbell explains –the myths are created to explain what is happening in the world. Connecting this to our previous paragraph—if we accept that myths are a language like Levi-Strauss suggests, then following de Saussure we also have to accept that all myths have been created as a way to support hegemony.

    While at face value, “all myths are political” seems like a simple statement which everyone confirms, we begin to understand how complex it is when we answer your third question, “What happens when someone tries to tell an "unsanctioned" version of a societal story or myth and how does this connect to hegemony and ideology?” In some ways, all societal stories and myths are “sanctioned,” because they are created by those in power. However, there are times in which some myths are more desirable than others. Thus, the problem isn’t that the myth is “not approved”, but that the timing for the myth isn’t appropriate.

  14. This week’s readings on structuralism provide readers with fascinating theories with the meaning of language and images; specifically, how these are constructed, interpreted, and explained. While reading Brandon’s post, a similar example of war heroism in American culture came to mind that can also be analyzed from the structuralist perspective- American military films. Any film that involves a plotline or images of any aspect of American militarism must seek approval from Pentagon officials before it can be released to the public. In other words, the United States government is acting as a censor in the process of what messages are being sent out about militarism and wars depictions, including tales of heroism and defeat (See this article for an “explanation” of the relationship between military films and government approval:
    Interpreting Saussure’s view, Pentagon officials control and further help “cultivate” the language and meaning of the films; in other words, from his perspective, the Pentagon might be seen as the structure of which film producers and screenwriters must adhere to by altering their dialogue in order to align it with United States’ military’s use of language in order to get approval to release these films. Stemming from Saussure’s theories, Levi-Strauss theory on mythemes states that “mythemes only take on meaning when combined in particular patterns” (Storey, p. 115). Therefore, using the example of military films, since the U.S. government is controlling and censoring the production of depictions of American militarism these films most likely perpetuate exclusivity of meaning of U.S. military depicted as usually always good/heroic/strong and whomever the U.S. is in conflict with as bad/evil/weak. And extending this further, military depictions may also tend to exclusively depict U.S. military personnel not just as good and heroes, but also as white and male; while, in opposition, the opposing forces may often be portrayed as non-caucasian and weak. Lastly, using Barthe’s theory on mythologies, this example of censorship on military films provides stabilized representations of patriotism and both the prevalence of and the valued morality of the military and what it stands for. By the government controlling what is able to be released about these films, Americans, who view these films, are being told in perpetuation that Americans are heroic and will defend their “freedoms” at any cost. Americans viewers are often interpolated into believing that violence is an acceptable platform for films as long as in the end it provides a heroic conclusion, which reinforces “American values”- in this case patriotism. I believe this example of censorship of U.S. military films provides an example of Marxist, Ideology, and Psychoanalysis theories, as well. Americans are told by their government (a State Apparatus (SA)) that it is okay to view often violent military films as long as the message is promoting the U.S. military in a positive light (ideology constructions). And the use of violence in films is something consumers are interpolated into. In which dominant forces in society proclaim that violence is okay to watch as long as it is not enacted (This could be seen from a psychoanalysis perspective as a way to repress your angry and violent thoughts by watching it enacting on screen).
    Lastly, I would like to add that violence in films, in particular, is culturally-construed. All American films that wish to be released for the public via movie theatres have to “achieve” approval by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). The MPAA rates these films and if the film is considered “inappropriate” it is given an N-17, which means theatres will not be able to show it. Often portrayals of violence are approved by the MPAA with a lower rating, while often films that portray homosexuality or too many detailed sex scenes will be denied approval of a non-N17 rating.

  15. P.S.- I found the link for a documentary done on the MPAA rating system- called "This Film is Not Yet Rated." If any of you are interested in media censorship this is a great film to check out. It also discusses the major corporations who, in other words, control how films achieve rating approval, and how other countries depict violence and sexuality. The link is below:
    Also, if you are interested in television censorship, I am including a link which I also used to show my freedom of speech students concerning family guy and censorship: