Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Sign… (AMS179)

… consists of the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the sound/image/word, the form. The signified is the concept. Take “dog”: the word itself is the signifier, the idea that the word represents is the signified. Together these parts make up the sign. An actual dog– a real dog– is the sign’s referent, its material correlative in time and space. (For a good introduction to the sign– and, more generally, semiotics– go to David Chandler’s webpage, Semiotics for Beginners.)

One of the things Baudrillard argues in “Simulacra and Simulations” is that the sign has been de-linked from its referent. That we live in a hyper-mediated environment in which we are 24-7 inundated with signs (images, sounds, language) lacking context. A whirlpool of signification which is so ubiquitous and overwhelming that we are effectively deprived of referents, the material realities which signs are supposed to stand in for. This results in a vast confusion, a hyperreal world of appearances produced by the “precession of the simulacra.”

Very roughly speaking, this situation mirrors Plato’s famous Cave Allegory from The Republic:

We have to adapt Plato’s words to our own purposes because in formulating the allegory of the cave he was above all concerned with proving the ultimate reality of the forms (εἶδοἰ)– an effort which we can categorize as idealist. In fact, for Plato the physical world has the character of a copy, so it’s easy to see how his ideas are, in a sense, directly opposed to the scenario described in The Matrix and Neuromancer.

Deepening (HUM470)

The differences between Mai’s America and Gangster are manifest in terms of genre, medium, immediate historical context, etc. BUT the continuities between these two (inter)texts might deepen our understanding of the category “American Autobiography.”

In an interview, film maker Marlo Poras observed that anyone in front of a camera is prone to performing, especially when the character they represent is themselves. In one sense that’s The Social in a nutshell: we enact our personae, attempt to accrue status, wear masks. Does this mean social life is a kind of masquerade? Consider that over the course of the Modern Era (in the long view from ca. late 14th Century onward, in a narrower sense since the Second Industrial Revolution) people have increasingly identified themselves with their activity– what they do. What’s one of the first questions we ask a new acquaintance?  “What do you do?” (“What’s your major?”)

Usually in this scenario, however, the question is taken to be a prelude to some more intimate knowledge. We assume, ideologically, that the face we present to the world is only one aspect of a truer, deeper self. Yes I may sell dialysis machines for a living but when I’m at home I lead an incomparably more gratifying life as a collector of exotic insects. Or, I know I may look conservative– always wearing a tie and with a clean business cut– but underneath this crisp blue oxford cloth shirt I’m sporting an elaborate chest tattoo and a pair of doorknocker-sized nipple rings. The real me is hidden beneath the veil I put on when I walk out of my apartment into the world.

But we should ask: is this really the case? Consider this passage from Slavoj Zizek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

“Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the ‘richness of my inner life’: this is what I ‘really am,’ in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc.). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this ‘richness of inner life’ is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practise the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the ‘inner life’ and its ‘sincere’ emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie– the truth lies rather outside, in what we do” (40).

Two Maps (HUM415)

Two cartographic representations of the digital/cyberspace divide. The first identifies the number of computers per hundred people:

The second represents internet use:

See that withered pink and red appendage in the center of the map?

Are you interested in human geography? Then go to worldmapper.

Mai’s America (HUM470)

Did you like the documentary we screened in class today? If you were to recommend it to a friend how would you describe it?

On Thursday we’ll begin our discussion of le thi diem thuy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For. You might keep Mai’s America in mind as you read this text. Are there continuities between the Marlo Poras’s film-biography and thuy’s autobiographical work (novel? short story collection?).