today's postmodern consumerism culture, there is a peculiar pathology
of extremes that renders us, as members of this culture, incapable
of cognating moderate, balanced ideas.
let's examine all of this from a semiological perspective. Saussurian's
binary oppositions laid the foundation for post-structuralist thought.
The nature of oppositions like "rich vs. poor," "good
vs. evil," and "young vs. old" is really a sort of
mutual definition. How do you define a rich person? Well, he has
a lot of money. How much money constitutes a lot? That's
all relative to how much everyone else has, of course! In the same
way, morality is negatively defined. Without a notion of hell, there
can be no heaven, and without sin, there cannot be virtue. Binary
opposition also figures prominently into Lacanian signification,
which is a framework for understanding the psychology of thought
and interpretation. According to Lacan, words in language constitute
a system of signs, and when a sign is used, it is used as a surface
signifier to represent or invoke a deeper signified. A church may
signify piety, whereas a brothel might signify sin. An interesting
artifact of signification is that certain signifiers are more unambiguous
and lucid than others, and therefore, they emerge and dominate in
the praxis of human social communication. Here's a thought experiment.
Think about the act of giving a bouquet of red roses to a romantic
partner, versus the act of giving a bouquet of sunflowers to that
same partner. Which gift is a sign of greater love? Instinctively,
almost all of us would think the red roses. But why? Perhaps the
romantic partner also likes sunflowers, and the gift of sunflowers
is just as expensive as the gift of red roses. The explanation that
comes to mind is that red roses, in our culture, is a far clearer
signifier of love than, say, sunflowers. On valentine's day, it
is red roses that sells out, not sunflowers, or white roses, or
blue roses, or any other flowers. Barthes argues that every culture
has a system of signifier-to-signified mappings, and it so happens
that red roses, in many cultures, signifies romantic passion, and
love. But let me pose this question to you: What kind of flowers
signify an almost-love, or an 80% passion? (Note: There aren't even
words/signs for these concepts, so they require some linguistic
finessing to even express.) I would argue that are all no such clearly
articulated signifiers for these concepts. By the question is: why
aren't there any? After all, not everyone loves her romantic partner
completely or has 100% passion for her partner. In fact, most people
fall somewhere in between love and hate (incidentally there are
many signifiers for hate, but while they are known in social discourse,
they are not always socially accepted, and even our linguistics
has some notion of this bias: for example, if is grammatical to
say "give her my love," but ungrammatical to say "give
her my hate," or "my spite," or "my disgust,"
et cetera). Without further digression, the point to be had here
is that there is a unequivocal bias toward the extremes.
Claude Shannon were alive, he would surely say that this is obvious.
Shannon thought about the informational aspects of communication.
In Shannon's informational framework, oppositional extremes are
more informative than any intermediate values. In the praxis of
social communication, passing extreme signifiers is arguably a more
economical situation then passing moderate signifiers. Also in linguistic
praxis, it is not an uncommon convention to pass an extreme signifier
as the root of an utterance, and to compose intermediate meanings
by the addition of intensifier utterances.
far I have described that words constitute culturally dictated systems
of signs, whose signification results in underlying meaning. I have
also argued that binary opposition extremes make for more attractive
and powerful signifiers than their corresponding oppositional moderate
positions, and I've argued how this makes sense both socio-phenomenologically
and from the standpoint of information theory. But I also want to
point out that all of this is true and has been true of language
and culture even before modernity. So the 64,000$ question is of
course, how did this condition become pathological in light of today's
culture of postmodern consumerism?
initial results of post-Enlightenment thinking were positive. We
learned to question assumptions and be skeptical of axioms and absolutes
and essentials. In modernity, rather than accepting our social roles
and selfs as givens (passives, according to Nietzsche), we destabilised
the essentialist assumptions made about Self, society, morality,
and law, and began to regard things in an increasingly subjective
manner, and we began to Will a self for ourselves. There is something
intoxicating about the freedom to self-realise and self-actuate,
but this wasn't without great perils.
hyperglobalisation and mass media entered the picture, the virtues
of modernity turned quickly to ills. We live in a culture where
increasingly, our thoughts and identities are shaped by the media.
The complexity of our lives increased in proportion to the complexity
of the world that we live in - new discourses, new burdens and responsibilities,
new words and signs. One of the artifacts of mass media is that
we are constantly being flooded with signs and suggestions for signification
chains. "Buy Axe deodorant and women will swarm all over you.
Axe signifies sex," a particularly shameless commercial's subtext
reads. The production of new signs and influencing the signification
process has been completely institutionised: Born in designers and
marketers, dessiminated through mass media. The tendency for successful
and lasting signifiers to be extreme rather than moderate has been
exacerbated by market pressures, and now, product differentiation
is further driving signifiers to new extremes.
media's pressure to deliver dramatic and entertaining programming
has birthed new genres of extremes, like daytime soaps, sitcoms,
and wacky cartoons. On daytime soaps, a mother-daughter relationship
is never protrayed as one of balance or moderation. The mother is
always either completely self-sacrificing to a fault, or overbearing
and vindictive to a fault (increasingly, the latter). On sitcoms,
the most shocking and outrageous storylines are selected, at the
expense of more real or nuanceful moderations. Increasingly, cartoons
are more and more outrageously wacky, the humanish characters with
exaggerated features, mannerisms, and behaviours. Sadly, even the
news is a form of infotainment, and even what was previously local
news, or premature news, is now sold as national news alerts. The
media is more unlikely to paint using a more extreme and polarised
lens because increasingly, that is the market pressure.
the real danger is not the media's increasingly extreme portrayals,
it is that the postmodern human condition is such that our thoughts
and our selves are deeply influenced and often a direct product
of our consumption of mass media. We are addicted to signs! Social
construction theories of identity posit that increasingly, we are
constructing our selves by the interests we endorse or possess.
We have become a bag of signifiers floating in the vast seas of
consumerism. There isn't a single thing that we can't buy a signifier
for. Want a new identity? Buy a self-help book which will lead you
there. What to learn about love and betrayal? Watch Days of Our
Lives. What's ironic is that while post-Enlightment began largely
as a subjective re-evaluation of assumptions, in today's postmodern
consumerism culture, we rarely have the time to subjectively examine
and vet the barrage of signifiers thrown our way. The only thing
subjective here, is our "free Will choice" in what signifiers
we want to identify with, and it is not clear even how "free"
that choice really is.
think it's an overstatement in the least bit to argue that today,
we are obsessed with extremes. The potentialities of a nuanceful
mother-daughter relationship have all but been sabatoged by exposing
our teens (and moms) to the overextremified signification instructions
taught to us by pop culture and television, which tell them to think
dichotomously about a mother as being either overinvolved
or neglectful. The nuances of every aspect of the art of
living have all been crispened away. This was all too eerily fortold
by George Orwell in 1984. In the absence of a renaissance of subjective
culture, we are big trouble as a global culture. Seeminlgy having
acquired more "choice" and "free will," we have
unwittingly sabotaged both.
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