Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Picture Freud's drawing of the iceberg, the one he used to connote the topography of consciousness. Most of the berg is underwater, but, say, a third sticks out. This is where I am with semiotics, treading water, but mostly submerged. Luckily, I am a strong swimmer. I like this semiotics, even though it is intimidating. I guess I find the terminology the most difficult, the most weighty. I was drowning among the signs and symbols and images and icons...it's so confusing.

I find myself afloat, though, when I consider that signs and images and symbols are all around us. We use and interpret them all the time, less than consciously most often. For the peer day in semiotics, one of the books I am reading is Arthur Asa Berger's Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. It's told in incredibly accessible language with fun examples and funny line-drawings, and it's written by someone who is respected in the field. I gather that this isn't dumbed-down. It's just told smartly and simply.

But let's get back to the water. It's sleeting today in Arlington, Virginia. A wedge of warm air in the atmosphere above us is causing rain to fall onto cold, cold earth. It forms white sheaths over the finer branches of trees, like they are wearing these impossible white glassy sweaters. This ice is falling atop yesterday's snow...it's been a merciful four-day weekend of semiotics immersion, a gift to this graduate student. I'm using Berger's book to try to understand the movie Monster's Ball, which is part of the topic of our peer day. Another source is Barthes's book on Semiotics, which is less easy to understand. Barthes isn't as bad to read as the French feminists, but I have to admit that after a few pages I find my chin hitting my chest, which is like a personal drowse alarm going off...

Anyway, this winter-y, wet exterior is perfect for navigating this iceberg of semiotics. My big problem in decoding Monster's Ball was not finding semiotic elements but just labeling the ones I did find. Herbert, the peer day convener, chose a good film in that it is so rife with signs, symbols, whatever, that one would have to be asleep to miss them. The issue for me, though, was deciding what they were. I'm starting to realize that in doing literary analysis, I have already been doing semiotic analysis, by another name. Paradigmatic analysis, for example, comes very naturally to me. According to my understanding at least, paradigmatic analysis is looking at oppositions within the story to try to derive meaning. The oppositions stood out to me first.

I saw that two sons were beaten. Two sons died. Two people were incarcerated, albeit differently (Lawrence was jailed, and Buck was put in a nursing home against his will). These were significant. The element that each of these oppositions had in common was some idea of racism. While both Hank and Leticia beat their sons, Hank beat his son because he interfered with an execution. But Leticia beat her son because she wanted to protect him from racism. Hank's son shot himself because Hank said he didn't love him. Leticia's son died because he was hit by a car and no investigation would be done because he was Black. Lawrence was executed, and we don't know why; Buck is put in a nursing home because he makes a racist comment to Leticia. So the paradigmatic analysis of these oppositions yields a result: race is a critical issue here. I won't belabor this or reprint my paper here, other than to say I was excited about how that worked.

The rest of the analysis wasn't so easy. By the time the movie ended, I had the idea that maybe the filmmaker wanted us to see Buck as the emblematic racist, the epitome of racism, but I wasn't sure which term to apply. It seemed to me that metonymy might be right, but when I reread the definition, I wasn't sure. I decided to call him the iconic racist. Then Leticia would be the iconic African American and Hank as the iconic racist who must decide to atone). The cool thing about this peer day has been the online discussion, where we could post these ideas and try out the terminology. Last night, I got to test the waters a little bit. I learned that metonymy was the right term. So this morning I finished my paper and sent it in.

There was more online discussion than that, where people were throwing around the ideas of syntagmatic analysis (not to mention some pretty important ideas which prove me wrong on the whole idea I have about Hank as the rescuer of Leticia)--which I understand as the analysis of the narrative structure--and the analysis of the index (signs with a causal relationship). Another whole question exists for tonight and tomorrow about the ethics of the semiotics of film. I am not sure I can stay afloat for that one. Sink or swim, as they say.