Next week your Critical Analysis of Culture Essay is due via Canvas. You must cite at least three of our readings.
Ch. 3: Culture, Meaning, and Knowledge
Let’s consider the main points about the figures below. Many of them were highlighted in Chapters 1 and 2. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need the reminder that the descriptions of the works of these major figures are good summaries of arguments, but they don’t cover EVERYTHING. Of course, there are contested definitions…isn’t it ironic. Maybe a little too ironic. Yeah, I really do think.
Ferdinand de Saussure
- p. 86: “Structuralism is concerned with how cultural meaning is produced, holding it to be structured ‘like a language’.”
- p. 86: “…language does not reflect a pre-existent and external reality of independent objects. Instead, a sign system like language constructs meaning from within itself.”
- sign: formed by the relationship of the signifier and the signified.
- signifier: “…a sound, an image, the marks that form a word on the page.”
- signified: the concept the signifier points to.
- p. 87: “The syntagmatic axis is constituted by the linear combinations of signs that form sentences.”
- p. 87: “Paradigmatic refers to the field of signs (i.e. synonyms) from which any given sign is selected.”
- What do we know about the accuracy of synonyms?
- p. 88: Signs are cultural codes
- p. 90: “connotations have become naturalized…accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’.”
- “[Myths] may appear to be pre-given universal truths embedded in common sense.”
- p. 92: Signs are polysemic, “carry many potential meanings.”
- p. 94: “Meaning has no single originatory source….all meaning contains traces of other meanings from other places.”
In a couple weeks (3/23), we’ll talk extensively about Barthes’s theory on mythology.
- p. 95: logocentrism: “the reliance on fixed a priori transcendental meanings”
- phonocentrism: “the priority given to sounds and speech over writing in explaining the generation of meaning”
- “…privileging speech relies on the untenable idea that there is direct access to truth and stable meaning.”
- p. 96: différance–difference and deferral
- p. 97: archewriting: “Writing is always already part of the outside of texts. Texts form the outside of texts. Texts are constitutive of their outsides.”
- p. 98: “Deconstruction seeks to expose the….unacknowledged assumptions” of texts, which “include those places where a text’s rhetorical strategies work against the logic of its own assumptions”
- Technology example: The field of Composition, which has a long history of attempting to create a liberatory pedagogy (or pedagogy of liberation), has uncritically embraced communication technologies that force students, teachers, schools, and parents to get on the conveyor belt of planned obsolescence–we need to buy (and upgrade) these items in order to participate in education.
- Therefore, student loan debt combines with personal debt in order to keep us “plugged in.” Apple’s Macintosh 1984 commercial (Irony here because many people go into debt chained to Apple products and other consumer goods).
- p. 101: “…since words do not refer to essences, identity is not a fixed universal ‘thing’ but a description in language”
- p. 101: “Foucault attempts to identify the historical conditions and determining rules of the formation of discourses or regulated ways of speaking about objects”
- p. 102: “…discourse gives meaning to material objects and social practices”
- p. 103: “Disciplinary technologies….produced what Foucault called ‘docile bodies’ that could be ‘subjected, used, transformed and improved”
- “Discipline….produces subjects by categorizing and naming them in a hierarchical order through a rationality of efficiency, productivity and ‘normalizing'”
- p. 104: “Knowledge is formed within the practice of power constitutive of the development, refinement and proliferation of new techniques of power.”
- power/knowledge–disciplines are regulated by rules and they impose a filter on the world and subject people, concepts, nature, etc. into classifications.
- A critique of Foucault is that “[his] notions of subject positions and docile bodies deprive the self of any form of agency’ (p. 105)
First, a little Freud…
- Id: the unconscious, unorganized part of one’s personality; often accessible through dreams.*
- Ego: (overly simplified definition) the conscious part of one’s personality. From Freud: “The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions” (p. 25).
- Super-ego: the mainly conscious conscience of one’s personality that embodies ideals, goals, and confidence; it also prohibits drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions; is an internalization of culture and cultural norms.
- p. 111: “For Lacan…meaning is generated along a system of differences.”
- Manque à être: (via Lacanian psychoanalytic theory) literally, “the want to be”; we’re born into the experience of lack, and our history consists of a series of attempts to figure and overcome this lack, a project doomed to failure” (Lapsley and Westlake 67).
- Scopophilia: “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 1975, II. A. para. 1). Similar to voyeurism.
- Compensation: taking up one behavior [may be embodied in an object] because one cannot accomplish another behavior [often a behavior considered normal].
- Confabulation: in psychology it means to replace fact with fantasy unconsciously in memory.
- Displacement: An unconscious defense mechanism, whereby the mind redirects emotion from a ‘dangerous’ object to a ‘safe’ object. In psychoanalytic theory, displacement is a defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion (or, perhaps, action) to a safer outlet.
- Identification: the act of seeing oneself as similar to or (rarely) identical to another person or object. Often the process of identification completes a subject as when one sees himself or herself represented in another figure (a parent, friend, celebrity, avatar, etc.).
- p. 113: “To see language as a tool is to suggest that we do things with language. Language is action and a guide to action”
- p. 113: “…meanings are given a degree of stability by a social convention and practice”
- p. 123: “‘The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of the objects'” (Wittgenstein, 1953: 6)
- p.115: “…truth and meaning are constituted by their place in specific local language-games and cannot be universal in character. Knowledge is specific to language-games”
- “this implies the ‘incommensurability or untranslatability of languages and cultures.”
- Let’s consider the translation of the English word “privacy” into Italian:
privacy: 1) il suo desiderio di stare da solo; 2) vita privata
For an extended discussion on Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, you can view this page from another class.
- p. 116: “…the relationship between language and the rest of the material universe is one of causality rather than one of adequacy of representation or expression”
- p. 116: “There is no God-like vantage point from which to survey the world and language separately in order to establish the relationship between them”
- p. 117: “Truth cannot be out there–cannot exist independently of the human mind–because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.” (Rorty, 1989: 69)
- p. 117: “…’true’ is not an epistemological term referring to the relationship between language and reality but a consensual term referring to degrees of agreement and the co-ordination of habits of action.”
- p. 118: “Truth is the literalization (or temporary fixing through social convention) of metaphors within a language-game, into what Rorty calla a ‘final vocabulary'”
- “truth acquired through acculturation becomes a narrow loyalty to a particular culture or way of being”
- What would Asimov say…
- p. 118: “…individuals grow through the acquisition of new vocabularies”
Before getting into the irony surround Morrissette’s song “Ironic,” does anyone notice what the above figures share? What’s common to all the major figures (not including Alanis Morissette)?
Obviously, meaning isn’t concrete, but there are socially accepted, agreed-upon meanings. It’s important to remember your audience and use the meaning of a term most familiar (and/or appropriate) for that audience. I particularly like the way the authors explain the types of irony (pp. 119-120):
- verbal or rhetorical irony “involves a stark difference between what is said and what is meant”
- dramatic irony occurs when “[the audience] of a text knows more about what is going on than the text’s characters”
- situational irony “involves an outcome which differs vastly from what was expected, and which often involves contradictions or stark contrasts”
- The above is what Alanis Morrisette was describing in her song. Perhaps this type of irony could be defined as unfortunate coincidence.
- Socratic irony “refers to the feigning of ignorance in order to prompt an interlocutor to explain a claim or idea, often in an attempt to expose the flawed or incomplete reasoning behind the received wisdom of ‘common sense’.”
- Rortian irony: “the term ‘ironist’…describe[s] those people who acknowledge that their most central beliefs and desires are contingent, in that they do not ‘refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance’ (1989: xv)”
I first learned irony through literature in reference to characters who want something and/or have some goal, but the actively work against it or are doomed (or just harmed) because of it.
Wait a minute! You mean to tell me that even something as obvious as irony doesn’t have a single, clear definition?
Ch. 4: Biology, the Body and Culture
This past weekend, I attended a (virtual) conference, and I was asked about “the problem of transgender women in sports.” Yes, even in 2021, there are people–academics, in fact–who regurgitate the fears of HB 2 (aka ‘Hate Bill’ 2) and the ERA. I also watched Mrs. America (on Hulu) about Phyllis Schlafly and her fight against the ERA, and Ms. Magazine, Shirley Chisholm, and other major figures of 2nd Wave Feminism and their fight to pass it. Fascinating.
Chapter 4 actually only briefly mentions the medical possibility of transgenderism and mentions feminism twice (by my count). This may appear an oversight, but I don’t think so. The authors appear to explain the science and culture of the body in non-essentialist terms. The goal is to get us thinking about what it means to perform this body; how do we embody our identities; what are the truths of biology?
And we only have two and a half hours to figure this all out.
- p. 126: “good reductionism, which seeks to explain phenomena through causal chains without resorting to mysteries or miracles.”
- p. 127: “Culture forms an environment for the human body and feeds into evolutionary change.”
- Remember, evolution is both fact and theory.
- p. 128: “Methodological holism argues that the best way to study a complex system is to treat it as a whole.”
- Here’s the rub: can you ever study anything as a whole, an entirety? How do we best draw boundaries?
- pp. 128-129: “science represent the achievements of agreed procedures….to produce levels of predictability…leading [scientists] to call particular statements true.”
- What ever happened to predictability?
- p. 133: “…surgery and drug therapy have allowed the radical transformation of sex to occur.”
- p. 137: “Health promotion extends the processes of medicalization into cultural organization and lifestyle management.”
- p. 137: “…discipline generates agency and agency produces discipline.”
- I paused on this because I didn’t feel I got a good enough explanation. I think I’ve settled on the following example to illuminate this point:
- School socializes us into “proper” behaviors and even gives us tools and strategies (“gives” is a loaded term here…) to understand the world. By conforming to the agents of social control, we’re able to perform our desires and identities…to a point.
- p. 139: “It’s life’s problems and unexpected turns, [Michael Sandel] says, that make us compassionate and caring of each other.”
- p. 140-142: Cognitive enhancement
- Adderall, the study drug?
- When is something a therapy, and when does it become a performance enhancer (PE)?
- p. 143: “The development of language, the foundation stone of culture.”
- p. 146: “Evolutionary biology also suggests the likelihood of cultural universals….we use different languages…the specific forms of the universal are different.”
- p. 146: “feminism rightly challenged the claim that social inequality of the sexes was wholly grounded in biology and thus unalterable.”
- p. 149: “Emotional states have evolutionary roots that are shaped and triggered by cultural conditions.”
- p. 149: “…feelings will be different in a brain that can classify the world linguistically and a brain that cannot do so.”
- We name and move on…end of story, right?
- p. 150: “emotions are constituted by the rhetorical organization of linguistic and cultural repertoires by which we construct specific accounts of ourselves that invoke ’emotion.'”
- p. 154: “discourse constructs our experience as meaningful to us.”
- p. 155: “identity involves an emotional attachment to the narratives of our lives.”
- p. 156: “Cultural studies writers and sceptical that happiness can be independent from culture.”
- It’s the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal…
- p. 157: Compulsory happiness
- Why are there unhappy people who seem to have everything?
- What cultural conditions might affect our pursuit of happiness?
- p. 158: “Human consciousness itself is a product of memes.”
Human beings are thinking bodies. If you think aloud and no one hears you, did you think?
Keep up with the reading. Normally, we’d have “spring Break” next week, but we had that in early February instead, so be ready to discuss Ch. 5 and 6 in Barker and Jane–you have 90 pages to read for next week (and 80 for the week after). Don’t forget that your first assignment–Critical Analysis of Culture Essay–is due next week, 3/09 on Canvas.
Finally, do your Canvas prompt before Friday at 11:00 pm. Do yourself a favor and type these in Word or Google Docs and then copy + paste the text into the Discussion window.
Freud, Sigmund. Freud, The Ego and the Id. 1923.
Lapsley, Robert and Westlake, Michael. Film Theory: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2006 (1st edition published in 1998).
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16.3 (1975): 6-18.