Hidden systems of cultural belief

No text is an isolated island. (Professor Byron Hawk, GMU, Virginia)

Roland Barthes’s writings do not fit well within the category of ‘literary criticism’ in any conventional sense; nor, indeed, does he limit himself to the critique of that which is conventionally called ‘literature’; in Barthes’s view, “work of every form and worth qualifies for citizenship in the great democracy of ‘texts’”  (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xi). For Barthes, there is nothing that cannot be treated as ‘text’: everything is literature — a ‘text’ open to that challenge whose function and intention is to call into question the very nature of things. But this assertion represents but one side of a binary: the other side of the argument embodies the notion that “all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by … language” (Lavers, 1982: p13).

Dr Jack Solomon — in the Introduction to The Signs of Our Time — states that his book is “about codes and the way that ordinary words, objects, and activities can be signs that point to hidden systems of cultural belief”  (Solomon, 1988: p2). He explains that “The ideological nature of signs is particularly marked in the political arena, where a battle over words may have much more than mere semantic significance” (Solomon, 1988: p3).

Solomon sets out two principles which may guide us as we attempt to decipher the meaning of any ‘text’: Solomon’s “first principle [of semiotics] tells us to distrust what is called ‘common sense’ …| According to the second principle … a cultural interest lurks behind our most fundamental beliefs” (Solomon, 1988: pp9-10).

Annette Lavers (1982: p13), regarding the recognition of the observer’s involvement in what he or she observes as “probably the main lesson of twentieth century thought,” argues that “when extended from perception to language, [this idea] leads to the conclusion that all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by this same language.” In other words: “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality” (McLuhan & Powers, 1992: p10). (Sir Francis Bacon somewhere states that “Men prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.”)

Glancing quickly today through some of the pro-Christian/anti-postmodern materials I found on the web, it was soon clear to me that the reading and interpreting of biblical texts is much more than “a battle of words”; the issues are ideological and political, moral and ethical … and might ultimately be about power.

In his online Introduction to Semiotics 101, Byron Hawk aptly explains: “Interpreting culture is not simply a description of culture, nor is it mere opinion. The cultural meaning in a particular sign comes from its historical context. By itself, an ad is just selling a product, and a movie is just entertainment (denotation). But examined in the context of the other cultural signs that provide a backdrop for the ads’ or movies’ presentation, it becomes clearer that they carry additional meaning (connotation).”

Niall Lucy encapsulates an invaluable insight: “Imposing an order on the world, myths give shape to it — and this shape is what comes to be accepted as ‘natural’, ‘given’ and ‘true’” (Lucy, 2001: p17).

Professor Byron Hawk taught English 101-006 (Composition) in the Spring of 2006 at George Mason University (often referred to as GMU or Mason) — a public university based in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States, south of and adjacent to the city of Fairfax. Read more about GMU here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mason_University

Here is a link to the Semiotics 101 online notes: http://classweb.gmu.edu/bhawk/101/semiotics/

Niall Lucy is an Australian writer and scholar best known for his work in deconstruction. Wikipedia has an incomplete piece on him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niall_Lucy

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Lavers, A. 1982. Roland Barthes : Structuralism and After. London: Methuen & Co.

Lucy, N. 2001. Beyond semiotics : text, culture and technology.  London: Continuum International Publishing Group

McLuhan, M & Bruce R Powers. 1992 (“first published in 1989 by Oxford University Press”). The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solomon, J. 1988. The Signs of Our Time : Semiotics: The Hidden Messages of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images. Los Angeles: Jeremy P Tarcher, Inc.


One thought on “Hidden systems of cultural belief

  1. Taking a second look at this piece (wearing my editorial hat), I’ve made a few minor alterations to punctuation and grammar — in the interest of readability. And the bibliography is now complete.

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