Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Lecture 5: Structuralism

10 Principles of Structuralism

  1. Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system. For instance, the meaning of the words "woman" and "lady" are established by their relations to one another in a meaning-field. They both refer to a human female, but what constitutes "human" and what constitutes "female" are themselves established through difference, not identity with any essence, or ideal truth, or the like.
  2. Relations among signs are of two sorts, contiguity and substitutability, the axes of combination and selection: hence the existence of all 'grammars', hence all substitutions, hence the ability to know something by something else, or by a part of it in some way -- hence metonymy and metaphor. The conception of combination and selection provides the basis for an analysis of 'literariness' or 'poeticality' in the use, repetition and variation of sound patterns and combinations. It also provides keys to the most fundamental elements of culture.
  3. Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature); these oppositions structure meaning, and one can describe fields of cultural thought, or topoi, by describing the binary sets which compose them. As an illustration, here is a binary set for the monstrous
  4. Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics, the study of signs: a sign is a union of signifier and signified, and is anything that stands for anything else (or, as Umberto Eco put it, a sign is anything that can be used to lie).
  5. Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc. The study of semiotics and of codes opens up literary study to cultural study, and expands the resources of the critic in discussing the meaning of texts. Structuralism, says, Genette, "is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture."
  6. Some signs carry with them larger cultural meanings, usually very general; these are called, by Roland Barthes, "myths", or second-order signifiers. Anything can be a myth. For example, two-story pillars supporting the portico of a house are a mythic signifier of wealth and elegance.
  7. Structuralism introduces the idea of the 'subject', as opposed to the idea of the individual as a stable indivisible ego. Toquote from Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics,
    The term 'subject' foregrounds the relationship between ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. It helps us to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private, and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is culturally instigated, and hence collective; and it de-centers consciousness, relegating it....to a purely receptive capacity. Finally, by drawing attention to the divisions which separate one area of psychic activity from another, the term 'subject' challenges the value of stability attributed to the individual.The value of the conception is that it allows us to 'open up', conceptually, the inner world of humans, to see the relation of human experience to cultural experience, to talk cogently of meaning as something that is structured into our 'selves'.
    There is no attempt here to challenge the meaningfulness of persons; there is an attempt to dethrone the ideology of the ego, the idea that the self is an eternal, indivisible essence, and an attempt to redefine what it is to be a person. The self is, like other things, signified and culturally constructed. Post-structuralism, in particular, will insist that the subject is de-centered.
  8. The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious itself is not some strange, impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the sign-systems and through the repressions of the culture. Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs.
  9. In the view of structuralism our knowledge of 'reality' is not only coded but also conventional, that is, structured by and through conventions, made up of signs and signifying practices. This is known as "the social construction of reality."
  10. There is, then, in structuralism, a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality, the social, the individual, the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs, codes and conventions, all working according to similar laws.

Source: Professor John Lye

Barthes Narrative Codes
proairetic -- things (events) in their sequence; recognizable actions and their effects.

semic -- the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. In a general sense, that which enables meaning to happen.

hermeneutic -- the code of narrative suspense, including the ways in which the story suspends closure, structures parallels, repetitions and so forth toward closure.

symbolic -- marks out meaning as difference; the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings; binaries which, of course,but disunite and join.

reference -- refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society; creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality -- medicine, law, morality, psychology, philosophy, religion, plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture.

Source: Professor John Lye

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lecture 4: Postmodern and Postmodernity

What is digital culture? - Recap? (nb live blogged!)

We are looking beyond the IOCT to address the idea of forming a critical framework, judgements and to theorise one's own artistic work. That way we can demonstrate an understanding of what we're doing. When you come to do your final projects this kind of critical thinking will stand you in good stead.

Languages of New Media

Paul explains that there is always an element of interactivity with digital media. It's not necessarily true that there is a huge change when one moves on to a computer but there are degrees of interactivity.

Andy: well, everything is interactive.

Paul: sometimes it isn't important is someone interacts with something, what was important was the process...doesn't need an interactive purpose.

Jess: but as artist/creator you were interacting in the process of creation.

Andrew: so when artists create interactive installations is that a meaningless phrase or is there a point being made?

Paul: thinks this is about the intention rather than the meaning behind it. With all works of art and all systems of representation the user is required to fill in gaps in system (Manovich).

Andy: thinks interactive is being used to define degrees of control that the audience has

Andrew: so an interactive installation seems to imply that the audience has more control than a *usual* installation.

Jess: so does interactivity mean (for Paul) that the user can *change* the content

Paul: yes, to change the way it is deployed and navigated.

Andrew: If I build a pool, fill it and swim in it, how is that *experience* different from swimming in another pool?

Andy: to really originate something you must be the first person to make it (i.e. the wheel). But, innovation as a pure form and then innovation with constraints.

Paul: reminds us of Pierre Mendard and the context of the work

Andrew: If you have a sock and it gets a whole and you darn it and you keep darning it then over time you replace the thread...is it still the same sock? *infinite regress*

Solipsism: if a tree falls in the forest does it make a noise? This is the problem with postmodernism, the only way anything can be said to have a meaningful is if we all share that social reality but with postmodernism there is no social reality.

Read Murphy by Samuel Beckett

"... the sane, having at their disposal all the most deadly weapons of the postwar recovery; on the other, a seedy solipsist and fourpence. ..."

Murphy 82.

Paul: with musicians, though the music might not have been written by the performer it takes on a new meaning/context

Jess: thus gains some originality

Paul on Manovich: not only creating the things you want to create but that everyone who sees your work understands what you're trying to create.

Andrew: "intuition": discuss!

Andy: something you know without being told, people talking about interface design and what's intuitive for some people is not intuitive for others

Andrew: are there levels of intuition that exist apriori? (how birds know to migrate) With regard to elephant coming out of the wall, neuroscience is the most fertile ground right now for examining these things. There may be some kind of way of understanding what people know or want in a given situation.

Andy: But, if you put enough people in a room with a button and ask them what will happen one is BOUND to think an elephant will appear.

Andrew: how do we know intuition is intuition?

Andy: so there are cultural assumptions on what is intuitive.

Back to: Le Corbusier:

"If I hold up a primary cubic form, I release in each individual the same primary sensation of the cube; but if Iplace some black geometric spots on the cube, I immediately release in a civilised man an idea of dice to play with, and a whole series of associations which would follow. A Papuan would see only an ornament."

What Le Corbusier was interested in were universal truths. There was a strong element of idealism here. And of course the consequences of this we see in Leicester with the *design* of the buildings.

But there is some interesting 60s design in Leicester:
""The Engineering Building comprises large ground-level workshops (heavy machinery), covering most of the available site, and a vertical ensemble consisting of office and laboratory towers, lecture theaters and lift and staircase shafts."

James Stirling Michael Wilford and Associates. James Stirling, Buildings and Projects. p82.

Photo, exterior overview · Engineering Building · Leicester University, Leicester, England

Andrew: So, is it possible to have pastiche that isn't hideous?

(this question stumped us for a while)

Andrew: Culturally we've been through a shift. Pastiche had been used as a valued way of people learning how to create art (music and painting). The idea was to be as close to the model as possible = good training. But, with Modernist aesthetic pastiche become loathesome and unoriginal. Replicating the trodden path. But now the keywords are innovation, creation, and originality. Emphasis on developing one's own voice.

Jess: Pastiche now is about challenging and questioning previous contexts.

Think of "The Band" and their song that incorporates a brass band segment.

Implies the user/reader has a more elevated status as they can understand this questioning/challenge.

Andrew: postmodern thought is largely affiliated with technology. The main point here seems to be "what is original, what is pastiche, what is contextualising." clearly very important for postmodern theory (think Lyotard).

Paul: Interesting point that knowledge loses its "use-value" so knowledge is tied to commercialisation. So, in web 2.0 are things that are supposed to be of use-value are actually about commerce?

"The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The 'producers' and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn.”

Jess: but it seems that lyotard is combining two knowledges, that of creation and that of dissemination (form and content)

Paul: Going back to the idea of exchange having value but now it's the content that has value.

Andy: In open source the idea is that information has a value but not necessarily a monetary value. It has a value when shared not on it's own.

Andrew: Howard Rheingold sees the commons of information being privatised.

Jess: so commodified knowledge can live alongside knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Paul: maybe the future is downloadable music where people get the info as well as the experience

Andrew: voluntary contributions (Radiohead) is not the future. People are prepared to pay what they think is fair.

Andy: having music freely available is more like a promotional tack rather than a way of making money.

Andrew: So the live gig is the privileged commodity.

Andrew: What is postmodernism?
"plagiarism by anticipation"

Student Presentations on "Everything is Mediated"


Paul: "Everything is Mediated"

Reading for Next Week:

Barthes, S/Z,
A Barthes reader / edited, and with an introduction, by Susan Sontag
A Derrida reader : between the blinds / edited, with an introduction and notes, by Peggy Kamuf.

Myths and Memories by Gilbert Adair

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Week 3 - Postmodernism

Notes on our discussion:

(nb our discussion on Barthes and Wittgenstein was in the context of digital culture)

"... ce qui m'a toujours préoccupé [...] c'est le problème de la signification des objets culturels."

~Barthes, Mythologies 64

"Dans la vie quotidienne, j'éprouve pour tout ce que je vois et entends une sorte de curiosité, presque d'affectivité intellectuelle qui est de l'ordre du romanesque."

~Barthes, Mythologies 192

Like Barthes, we're interested in exploring and questioning the perceived *naturalness* or *objectivity* of culture (its objects and codes). We talked about Barthes view (in "Operation Margarine") of French bourgeois culture. Interpriting an ad for margarine Barthes finds negatives or problems associated with a product (like margarine) are raised in order for its benefits to be revered which then outweigh any cons. Barthes explains that this technique is mirrored in discourses of religion, capitalism, and war. To put it simply, drawbacks are noted only as a way of further demonstrating the crucial significance the object or discourse has for culture.

"The episode always begins with a cry of indignation against margarine: 'A mousse? Made with margarine? Unthinkable!' 'Margarine? Your uncle will be furious!' And then one's eyes are opened, one's conscience becomes more pliable, and margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful in all circumstances. The moral at the end is well known: 'Here you are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!"


Lugwig Wittgenstein - Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

"2.12 - The picture is a model of reality."

Here we debated what the word "world" means and whether there exists a *universal* understanding of "world" and does the term world include what lies outside of our perceptions?

For Wittgenstein a picture (any picture?) is a model of reality because the objects in the image relate to each other in the same way that objects in the world relate to each other. If the relations do not correspond, then the picture is not of something in the world. (But this can still be considered reality because the world includes the "non-existence" of things).

“Given that every object must occur in some state of affairs or other (2.0121), we know that given all states of affairs, all objects are given as well. But we have already seen that given the totality of objects, all possible states of affairs are given (2.0124). In other words, given all existing states of affairs, we can construct, by way of the objects they contain, all possible states of affairs — both those that exist and those that do not exist. It is in this way that the structure of reality is implicated in the structure of the world. For quite trivial
reasons, the structure of the world is implicated in the structure of reality. Of course, it still remains a mistake to identify the world with reality, but, in the end, this is something that can be set right without undermining the basic principles of the Tractarian ontology.”

~~~R. J. Fogelin, Wittgenstein (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976) 12.


Talking about absolutism led us back to Barthes and his "Death of the Author." We talked about images and representations and the imbued coded meanings. We talked about context (that of the *original* author and that of the reader/author).

"We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original."

We kept coming back to the question of authenticity of voice and of text.

While structuralist critics would see the text as deeply related to a real-life author. As Barthes notes:
"The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire's work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh's his madness, Tchaikovsky's his vice. The explanation of a work is awlays sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author 'confiding' in us."

For Barthes, texts are tissues of quotations, patchworks of others texts. Thus, there is no organised whole constructed by an authorial presence.


Task: After collecting evidence during our walk along the canal, create a multimodal response to the notion of "authorship" in a digital culture.

(where is the apostrophe?!)

Reading for next week: Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Postmodern Inclinations: The Photograph

During this week's interesting discussion which seemed to keep coming back to literacy (what is it exactly), power, representation, and subjectivity I paused for a moment and captured a moment of "what really happened" as Barthes would have it: "the photographer had to be there ("The Photographic Image," Image/Music/Text 31)

This is me watching Professor Andrew Hugill watching his Second Life avatar watching a video...mise en abyme anyone?

"What is the content of the photographic message? What does the photograph transmit? By definition, the scene itself, the literal reality."
(Barthes, "The Photographic Message" 17)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Week 2 - Modernism

Today's discussion grew out of the assigned readings which included Borges' "Pierre Menard," Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and John Lechte's Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity.

I jotted (on a laptop of course) as the discussion evolved:

  • Why is "aura" important to Benjamin?
  • Situate Benjamin within the climate in which he was working; modernist artists and composers were beginning to talk about defining aspects of the time including a look to the future, the importance of originality, universal concepts (grand narratives). One such believer in universality was Le Corbusier:

"If I hold up a primary cubic form, I release in each individual the same primary sensation of the cube; but if Iplace some black geometric spots on the cube, I immediately release in a civilised man an idea of dice to play with, and a whole series of associations which would follow. A Papuan would see only an ornament." (1920)

  • In other words, it seems Le Corbusier believes one can strip away cultural context in order to reveal only the surface meaning. This is, according to Le Corbusier because everyone "reads" primary forms in the same way.


  • Does abstraction imply a stripping away of cultural significance?


  • Without art in the world what would happen? Does art have a "utility" value? (Think of Malevich's Suprematist Composition: Red Square and Black Square)

Reading for next week:

Roland Barthes, Image/Music/Text, "Death of the Author" essay, and Mythologies

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media

Task: research the concept "literacy."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Leading To Modernism...

Put your thinking caps on:

"Does a number have a context?"

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Week 1 - Introduction

This week marked the beginning of the Digital Cultures module. Off to a great start we're reading Borges' "Pierre Menard" and Benjamin's "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

A few questions:

In "La postulación de la realidad" Borges maintains that in order to create verisimilitude in stories (and this was the aim) the author must create and imagine
"una realidad más compleja que la declarada al lector y referir sus derivaciones y efectos" (219)
[nb. my rough translation more or less: a reality more complex than the one declared/shown to the reader and then to refer/tell of the consequences and effects.] How does this idea of creating such a complex reality fit with Pierre Mendard?

"He did not want to compose another Quixote --which is easy-- but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide--word for word and line for line--with those of Miguel de Cervantes."

"In spite of these three obstacles, Menard's fragmentary Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes'. The latter, in a clumsy fashion, opposes to the fictions of chivalry the tawdry provincial reality of his country; Menard selects as his "reality" the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope de Vega. What a series of espagnolades that selection would have suggested to Maurice Barrès or Dr. Rodriguez Larreta! Menard eludes them with complete naturalness. In his work there are no gypsy flourishes or conquistadors or mystics or Philip the Seconds or autos da fé. He neglects or eliminates local color. This disdain points to a new conception of the historical novel."

How can the same words be so much richer? How can Cervantes' original worlds invoke only truisms but Menard's rendition point to a whole new conception of the historical novel? What might this mean for the role of culture in interpreting writing (or art etc...)? What might this imply for us today, possibly reading online those original words crafted in the 1600s through the Menardian production? (*think of how this might reconstruct the past through the contemporary and how that shapes the reader and culture*)


Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original."

"The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity"

"Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original"

In terms of the digital do the terms "original" and "reproduction" hold true in the same way?

If for Benjamin the (easy) reproduction of art implies greater access which leads to a political slant, then with today's more accessible environment where Web 2.0 ethos tells us we're all experts, what role might politics play in reproduction? Is there a move from reproduction as art to digitization as content/information?