Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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Dueling Mythologies

posted: 11.10.09 by Jack Solomon

One of the key concepts to master for conducting semiotic analyses of popular culture is that of the cultural “mythology.”  Derived from Roland Barthes’s now classic work Mythologies,  the term refers to a culture’s fundamental world views or ideologies.  Cultural mythologies are so basic to our understanding and experience of the world that we do not realize that they are mythologies—that is, filters through which we experience the world.  Instead we experience them as universal and inevitable realities.

Some prominent American mythologies include our individualism, our belief in social mobility (the American dream), and our tendency to measure success in financial terms.  There are many others, often conflicting with each other and producing fundamental cultural contradictions that roil just beneath the surface of social life, but it is this last one—our tendency to measure all things in dollar signs—that I want to make particular use of here as a way of understanding how mythologies work and how they can be revealed during a semiotic analysis of popular cultural signs.

The cultural sign that I have in mind involves the recent calamity that occurred during a spiritual retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Centre outside Sedona, Arizona.  There two people died during a sweat lodge ceremony led by James Arthur Ray, a prominent figure in the New Age self-help movement.  Our semiotic concern here is not with the personal tragedies of those involved, nor with the investigations that are now being conducted into the matter.  Our interest lies in the way that the ceremony transformed a ritual that was born in a very different sort of culture with a very different cultural mythology into a strikingly American ritual.

The ceremony here is that of the sweat lodge ritual, orginally a Native American practice which was a part of male initiation rites and male bonding rituals.  Grounded in cultures that were not based in monetary exchange systems, the sweat lodge ceremony, along with the vision quest that was also a part of Ray’s Angel Valley retreat program, was a test of the physical and spiritual strength of hunters and warriors.  Its whole significance was tied to the kind of culture in which it appeared.

The fact that Ray’s program offered financial as well as spiritual rewards to its participants offers a striking example of what happens when one mythology is adapted to another very different from it.  With capitalism, and its tendency to measure all things in monetary terms, as a dominant mythology in American culture, it is hardly surprising that a ceremony born in a non-capitalist society should be transmogrified into a financial self-help ritual.   Just as in an earlier era the Protestant Work Ethic was transformed from a way of signalling to one’s fellow Puritan Congregationalists that God had chosen one for a predetermined salvation into a simple expression of the wholly materialistic rewards of hard work, Ray’s retreat mixed spiritual accomplishment with financial prosperity in a particularly American compound.

This happens all the time in America, wherein the spiritual and the material components of our culture join together into a conflation whose most potent symbol is the American Christmas, which, while often denounced as having become too commercial in spirit, is annually relied upon to produce a major percentage of the American retail economy.

This is the power of cultural mythology, making what is contingent to our culture appear inevitable and universal.  But as the originators of the sweat lodge ceremony could tell us, there are other measures of the human spirit.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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5 ways I approach visual argument in the classroom

posted: 4.17.08 by Barclay Barrios

Visual argument (or, more generally, visual rhetoric) seems to be an increasingly important part of the composition classroom. I’ve never taught a class devoted to visual argument, but I have given visual argument assignments and I often ask students to consider the role that the visual plays in culture. There are of course whole textbooks on visual argument, but since the visual plays only a supporting role in my course, I tend to use a variety of websites instead. For example:

1. PostSecret
PostSecret is my favorite way to have students think about visual argument. This public art project started when its founder, Frank Warren, invited people to design and submit postcards that revealed secrets their authors had never shared before. Each Sunday, Warren posts a new set of secret-revealing postcards; in the process, he offers a wide-ranging display of visual argument, as each postcard design reflects the secret it contains. I’ve found that students can analyze these visual texts readily, providing them good practice at reading, decoding, and then designing their own visual arguments.

2. Ikea
You may be familiar with this home furnishings company from Sweden if you’re lucky enough to have an Ikea store near you (we’re getting ours here in South Florida this summer—yay!). But even if you’re never heard of Ikea, the company’s website offers a great way to explore cultural assumptions about design. That’s because it has separate sites for countries around the world. Ask students to explore some of these different sites (such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia), taking note of how language and culture influence visual argument and design. Ask them then to view the site for the United States and look for the same sorts of cultural assumptions. This assignment, of course, could be done with the main site of many global corporations. I choose Ikea to help students see that globalization is not purely an American phenomenon.

3. The Ebay Conceptual Art Gallery
Justin Jorgensen turns photographs of items auctioned on Ebay into a kind of found art. Have students explore the site and consider questions of both visual design/arrangement and art. Then have them explore Ebay itself. What’s the relationship between design and sales? What’s the economic impact of a good visual argument?

4. MySpace
Chances are your students are already familiar with MySpace. Many students have pages on this popular social networking site, using it to keep in touch with friends old and new. Yet most the pages on MySpace are designed extremely poorly. But in doing so, they also make important visual arguments about the person making the page. Ask students to locate or bring in examples of overly designed or badly designed pages. How does the design reflect and represent the author of the page? How does effective visual argument diverge from effective visual design?

5. Comeeko
Comeeko allows you to upload photos and add captions to create a web-based comic strip. Students can use this tool to create compositions in the style of graphic novels.

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Categories: Argument, Document Design, Learning Styles, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
Read All Barclay Barrios