Mike Frank writes
" . . the problem is particularly acute--or perhaps just seems so to me
because of my own concerns--in defining gender issues and attitudes in
. . . so that, to take a striking example, the [in]famous coke ad that shows
a "hunk" taking off his t-shirt while women ogle has been seen
a. an explotation of men, in which the roles are finally reversed
and the turning of persons into commodities or objects gets imposed
on males as well . . . and also as
b. a subtle but pernicious explotiation of women in its pretending
that the power relationship really pertaining to men and women in
world are so fluid and readily reversible
to me, the only immediately available way of resolving this problem is to
assume that meaning is ENTIRELY contextual, and a function of the
[or reader's] preconceptions . . . but that gets us in to lots of trouble and
makes it impossible to disagree with, object to, or reject the claims of a
. . . for in saying that meaning is entirely contextual we paint ourselves
into a corner where we have to posit that texts really don't SAY anything
all . . . and how can you disagree with silence?"
End of quotation from Mike Frank.
I wish to appologize in advance for any typos in this post, or any syntax
that might not be as elegant as Professor Frank's.
In the example a and b are not mutually exclusive. The Diet Coke spot
can be at the same time "an exploitation of men" and " a subtle but
pernicious explotiation of women." The arguemnt that if "the power
relationship really pertaining to men and women in the world" are not
"fluid and readily reversible" and women are in general oppressed then
men can never be objectified and exploited is obviosly wrong from a
strictly logical stand point. There is no formal reason to choose between
these two propositions. Clearly a "meaning" of the ad is the problematic
that runs between propositions a and b.
But that formulation is just as clearly unsatifactory. It does not examine
the question of "meaning". Does exist in a place such as a "text" or
"context"? Or is it produced in Interpretations? ("Interpretations" here
would be encounters between "texts" that are idealized as absolute and
"contexts" that are idealized as contingent).
Is "meaning" single or multiple? What is the status of meaning in texts
and images cut off from their producer (such as the ad or this post)? How
do we distinguish between "text" and "context"? Is "context" non-textual?
If the ad's "meaning" is contextually determined does it change when the
ad is shown in the context of different shows? How could it be effective
at selling soda? (And here I must suggest that if we were to rely on the
most traditional, intentionalist model of "meaning" the ad's "message"
would be "buy this product" An analysis of the gender relations in the
ad that does not take into account its ecconomic function could it self be
analysed as the expression of accademic ideology--an expression of the
imaginary relations between accademics and there real conditions of
existence). For a working out of the position that the meaning of images
is contextual see Burnett's new *Visual Cultures* (U. Indiana Press) The
limits of the book are the limits of this possition.
If the ad's meaning is simply present in the "text" how can its signifiers
signify by relation to the system of signifiers to which they belong
which are not in the add? (This last question applies to the spoken and
written words in the ad as a minimum.)
But before we even ask, let alone answer the question, of whether
"meaning" lies in a "text" or a "context" we must firt know something
about these two terms. Where does the "text" of an ad properly end? Is it
so clear that it only takes palce within a 30 or 60 spot on the air? Is our
gender system really outside this "text" or is it inscribe within it? Is a
"context" fully knowable? Can it ever be saturated (as semioticians have
said)? Is a "context" ever stable enough to be used in a synchronic model
In order to analyse the meaning of "cinematic pietas" we do not need to
answer any of these questions, but to analyse how "meaning" arises we
do. We cannot assume that "text" "context" and "meaning" as obvious or
as existing as such and in themselves.
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