The Fine Art of Manipulation

Without endorsing, let me simply point you to the following websites that may be of interest to students of retail design:

High-end retail design with extraordinary chutzpah. Check out their “Mission Statement.”

Retail Traffic online magazine reports on retail design trends. Timely.

Also, dig this “classic” in the field of retail studies: Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy.

BTW, as a reminder, the instructions for the Retail Analysis assignment are up and available at this page. Check ’em out.

And perhaps the Starbucks Missi0n Statement will be relevant to our in-class discussions?


Barthes’s “Mythologies


Barthes’ Mythologies is a slender book, but demanding. It takes time to read. Therefore we’ll concentrate on just a few selections.

Here are our selections:

Prepare for Tuesday, Sept. 7:

  • Preface to the 1970 edition, page 9
  • Preface to the 1957 edition, pages 11-12
  • “The World of Wrestling,” 15-25
  • “Soap-powders and Detergents,” 36-38

Prepare for Thursday, Sept 9:

  • “Wine and Milk,” 58-61
  • “Striptease,” 84-87

(In addition, you’ll need to read our Moodle selections from Danesi on this day.)

Prepare for Tuesday, Sept. 14:

  • “Myth Today,” 109-59

Oh, and here’s an image referenced by Barthes late in the book, which we’ll be talking about on Sept. 14:


Semiotics: Barthes does it, but what is it?

Semiotics means, literally, the science or study of signs.

The word semiotics comes from the Greek semeion (sign or mark) and semeiotikos (interpreter of signs, or sign reader). It is sometimes called, particularly in Europe, semiology (–ology meaning science or discourse), as in Barthes’ Mythologies.

“The basic goal of semiotics,” as Marcel Danesi writes, “is to identify what constitutes a sign and to infer, document, or ascertain what its meanings are” (Of Cigarettes 9).

What is a “sign”? According to semiotics, a sign is any object of interpretation, that is, anything that we take as signifying (standing for) something else. That could include, for example:

words, pictures, diagrams, gestures, facial expressions, musical notation, clothes, monuments, flags, television commercials, traffic signs, emoticons, fingerprints, arithmetical and algebraic notation, Morse code, semaphor, color-coding, architectural details that remind us of other times and places (e.g., Greek columns), ad infinitum…

As Danesi remarks, a sign must have distinctive physical structure, must refer to or denote something, and evokes particular thoughts, ideas, and feelings in people (9-10).

Where semiotics comes from:

Semiotics includes various approaches drawn from various traditions. Barthes’ approach is Saussurean, which means it draws mainly from Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist and author of the Cours de linguistique générale, or Course in General Linguistics (assembled by his students from his lectures and notes and published posthumously in 1916). The Cours is considered a landmark in linguistics, that is, in the study of language.

In the Cours, Saussure proposes that language, instead of being “peripheral to [our] understanding of reality,” is in fact central; that “our understanding of reality revolves around language” (Cobley 255). In other words, language shapes our very perceptions. In addition, Saussure argues, words do not refer outward to some reality “outside” of language, but instead refer to one another; that is, language is a system that is based on differences among words, not on referentiality. (This argument is one of the cornerstones of structuralism, and has been expanded upon by Derrida and other poststructuralist theorists.)

There’s more: the Cours also posits a general “science of signs,” or sémiologie, of which linguistics would be only a part. This semiology (as the term is usually translated into English) would study “the life of signs within society” (Clarke 124) or “the life of signs as part of social life” (Cobley 259). Saussure concentrated on the linguistic sign, that is, spoken and written words; later scholars, though, extended his ideas to a more general theory of communication.


In Saussurean semiology, a sign results from the correlation between the signified and the signifier (Cobley 264-265; Barthes, Elements 35-48; Danesi 10). What does this mean?

  • The signified (from the French signifié) is the concept represented by the sign. In Barthes’ example of the roses (Mythologies, p. 113) the signified is “passion.” In Danesi’s example of smoking cigarettes, the signified might be “sexuality” or “jazz clubs” (10).
  • The signifier (signifiant) is the thing that does the representing, more specifically a concept, mental image, or word (sound-image) that does the representing. In Barthes’ example, the signifier is the idea of “roses.” In Danesi, the shape of a cigarette (as opposed to a cigar or pipe) may be said to be a signifier.
  • The sign is, as Barthes says, the “concrete entity” that brings together the signified and the signifier. In his example the sign is an actual bunch of roses. In other cases the sign could be another object–for example a specific instance of cigarettes–or a word, a sound, or an image, etc.
  • In Elements of Semiology, Barthes defines signification as “the act which binds the signifier and the signified, an act whose product is the sign” (Barthes, Elements 48).

Second-order semiology:

Barthes points out (here is where things get complicated!) that a sign in one system may become a signifier in another; in other words, it is possible for one sign to serve as an element in another sign (see Mythologies 115).

1. Signifier 2. Signified


So, in Barthes’ example from Mythologies (116), a magazine cover showing a black man in uniform giving a salute not only signifies that a black man in uniform is giving a salute but also signifies, as Barthes says, “French imperiality,” that is, the idea that “France is a great Empire, that all her sons…faithfully serve under her flag.” If the magazine cover tells us that a black soldier is giving the French salute (the first order of signification), it also implies that France is something worth saluting (a second order of signification). In other words, when we see a close-up of a soldier saluting, with his eyes uplifted, we may assume, based on past experience, that he is saluting the flag of his country (first order of meaning), and this sign may then signify to us other concepts, that is, other signifieds, such as empire, loyalty, or equality (second order of meaning).

Barthes says that our cultural “myths” function exactly this way, taking signs from a system and transforming them into signifiers in another system, what he calls a metalanguage, meaning language about language or language on top of another language (115). Though the sign in its original system may be rich with specific meaning, when “appropriated” for use in a cultural myth it becomes merely the form of another message. Myth, says Barthes, distorts or “deforms” or empties out the specific meaning of a sign and uses that sign to give form to some other concept, something that “outdistances” the meaning (123). In a similar vein, we might say that, in Scholes’s Budweiser example, signs of sport (baseball) and leisure (beer) become signifiers of a larger, more amorphous concept: America. The specific meanings of a baseball game supply the form for a larger ideological narrative, one of the American Dream.

Danesi argues (20) that the three tasks of the semiotician are:

  1. To unravel the history of signs.
  2. To expose the sign-based processes behind perceptions of normalcy.
  3. To study how “the particular system of signs in which one has been reared influences worldview.”

Denotation vs. connotation:

Here’s a useful distinction that Barthes sometimes uses:

  • Denotation (adj. form denotative): the literal or ostensibly “objective” meaning of a text/image/message (“This is a picture of a house”).
  • Connotation (adj. form connotative): an implicit or not-so-obvious meaning of a text/image/message, often emotive or ideological in nature (“The house in this picture is dark and scary”).


Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. NY: Hill and Wang, 1968.
— . Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. NY: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Clarke, D. S., Jr., ed. Sources of Semiotic. Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.
Cobley, Paul, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.
Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Soap-powders and Detergents

Regarding Barthes, specifically his essay “Soap-powders and Detergents” (Mythologies 36-38), these links are potentially relevant:

Omo brand detergent:

Persil brand detergent:

Note that both brands are manufactured by the Dutch/English company Unilever, and that this was true way back in the mid-1950s when Barthes wrote his essay.

Wrestling as Theater

To get us all in the spirit for our next reading assignment, specifically Roland Barthes’ “The World of Wrestling” (Mythologies 15-25), here’s a brief clip about the 1992 WWF Royal Rumble, which promises a truckload of WWF “superstars” in contention:

Of somewhat more recent vintage are these clips from the WWE’s Monday night RAW telecast that pits Randy Orton against the Undertaker. The first is the show opening, full of hype and anticipation:

The second contains less buildup, more grappling:

Or, for the height of theatricality, this WWE clip pits Orton against the McMahon family, who are the very owners of the WWE (heirs of WWE founder Vince McMahon)! In other words, it’s a staged labor/management dispute!

For a contrasting, old-school example, dig this IWA bout from 1975 between Chilean Joe Turco and Mexican lucha libre star Mil Máscaras (A Thousand Masks). Turco is essentially the heel here, or salaud, or “bastard” — that is, the villain. In lucha libre he would be called a rudo. Mil Máscara, on the other hand, appears as the heroic technico, the good guy.

Finally, Barthes compares wrestling to the Commedia dell’ Arte, an improvisational theatrical genre developed in Renaissance Italy that features stock characters and situations. You may find it useful to consult Judith Chaffee’s Commedia page or even (dare I say it?) the Wikipedia entry on Commedia. I also recommend the website of Italian actor, author, director, and Commedia master Antonio Fava, who runs the International School of Comic Acting in Reggio Emilia, Italy (there is an English version of the site, which is helpful, but click on the more complete Italian version for pictures).

Our Marines (analyze this!)

Embedded below, for the purpose of analysis, is a TV commercial for the United States Marine Corps. The commercial was produced in 2007 as part of a larger media campaign titled America’s Marines. That campaign involved sending a “Silent Drill Platoon” to various American cities in order to film Marines drilling in front of representative American sites. The finished commercial debuted on American Idol on 16 January 2008 and was also aired during NFL playoff games on 20 January 2008, and has been available online since. I saw this commercial, or a version of it, on television as recently as late 2009.

I refer you to Robert Scholes’ “On Reading a Video Text” for the sake of analysis.

The inclusion of this advertisement constitutes neither an endorsement nor a critique of the commercial or the USMC; this is simply something I plan to discuss in class on Aug. 31.

This Bud’s for You

Apropos of our first reading in 313, that is, the excerpt from Robert Scholes’ book Protocols of Reading, here is the Budweiser commercial Scholes analyzes, which reportedly was first shown way back in 1982:

(In case of tech troubles with YouTube, you can also click here to see the same commercial via a different site.)

Update! 313 starts next week…

…and at last I’ve posted a page previewing the requirements of the course. Students, check it out — a preview of what we’re going to be doing this semester!

BTW, our required readings will include Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn et al.’s  The Audience Studies Reader, and various articles available as reserve PDFs through our Moodle site.

I’ll see you next week. 🙂

Welcome to 313!

Greetings, students of popular culture!

This blog is meant to inform and enrich the work of students enrolled in the course English 313: Studies in Popular Culture, as taught in Fall 2010 by me, Prof. Charles Hatfield, in the Department of English at California State University, Northridge. Of course I hope it will also prove interesting and useful to those who are not enrolled in English 313 but are engaged in the critical study of popular culture.

Here’s what the CSU Northridge catalog copy says about English 313 in general:

Cultural studies course focusing on the interpretation of American popular culture. Course methodology may include Marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic, or culturally eclectic scholarly points of view. Designed for students who may want to enter the fields of entertainment or advertising, or future teachers who may want to use popular culture in their classrooms, this course will survey the products of popular culture as signifiers of larger cultural forces and realities.

And here are the specific objectives for this, my version of 313:

1. Ability to analyze critically the production, consumption, and interpretation of popular culture, including texts in various media, consumer products, advertising and publicity, performance, events, and rituals.

2. Ability to analyze the social and ideological influences on and impact of popular culture.

3. Understanding of audience studies, including fandom studies.

4. Understanding of and ability to engage critically with various theories and methodologies in popular culture studies.

That should give a pretty good idea of what the class is about. Over the course of the semester, I’ll use this blog as both a link hub for online resources and a forum for postings on topics relevant to popular culture studies.

I recommend visiting the “Outside Blogs of Interest” listed in our sidebar! Ah, food for thought (munch munch)…