Archive: August 17th, 2008

Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:23 pm)


Foucault covers the subjects of torture, punishment, discipline, and surveillance in this important book. It tends to work as a history, originating in the 1750s, and covering the matter of punishment until the 1850s or so. Foucault is writing in the 1970s, when the matter of public surveillance was becoming an issue in England, and possibly among other places, so this may have been an influence in his approach. The historical change from 1750 to 1850 is the disappearance of torture and the transition of the object of punishment and discipline from the corporeal body to the soul. Along side this, is the emergence of a technology of discipline and power, which is constructed a self-observing, self-disciplining society.

The most relevant bit in this is the progressive disembodiment of punishment, and the idea of the carcreral society, which to some may be a utopian society, which is totally contained within its frame of ideology. This is very reminiscent of the enclosing capacities of simulation. A simulation limits everything it represents to that which is definable by its model, and a carceral society willfully enforces its ideology through discipline and surveillance. Resistance to a discourse is still a part of that discourse.


The Body of the Condemned

Pain and spectacle: Over time, these disappear in punishment. The reform moves the body to become out of bounds as the receptor of punishment. Instead, the body becomes something to be constrained, obliged, and prohibited. As evidence of the change of the reform, Malby writes that punishment should strike the soul, not the body. (p. 11)

The aim of the book is to understand soul, judgment, and power. Power occurs in a political economy over the body. The image of the economy is very prevalent through Foucault, its emergence is reflective of the period of mercantilism that has emerged prior to the reform movement. Economy implies a regular system of exchanges, and an uneven distribution of capital. (p. 23)

Common thought of the time: The body is the prison of the soul, which is very reflective of the prevalent dualism of this period of time. Despite the arguable humanity of the new prison system, revolts occur within the modern system, protesting the situation of the prisoners. The new system is reflective of a new technology of power. (p. 31)

The Spectacle of the Scaffold

Torture is a means of inscribing, by pain, the truth of a crime on a criminal. It is by nature spectacular. The issue of truth of a crime becomes significant later. Torture also serves as a ritual, a symbolic means of formalizing the law in the minds of people as a cultural practice. (p. 35)

The power relationship between the condemned and the sovereign: In a society with a sovereign, the state is equated to the body of the king. The criminal is one who attempts to assert an unauthorized power, which is thus a bodily assault on the authority of the king. The punishment deprives the criminal of power, and visibly enforces the power of the sovereign. In the spectacle of torture, the spectators are witnesses and consumers of the event. (p. 54)

Generalized Punishment

Punishment is an expression of the universal will of the state. The reform movement attempts to challenge the use of punishment as vengeance, pushing for punishment without torture. (p. 74)

There is an economy of punishment that reflects an economy of power. At the center of the reform is an attempt to undermine the centrality of the power of the monarch, around whom was spread a “bad economy of power”. The reformers are attempting to establish a right to punish without the authority of the sovereign. (p. 79)

Illegality also forms an economy, and was widely employed as a social practice. This derives from a general non-observance or abeyance of the law. The illegality is a necessary component within the society, but forms an odd paradox when compared to the criminal. Those who practiced illegality with violence or hurt the general population were scandalized, but general illegality (particularly theft) was widely accepted. Around this practice formed a network of glorification and blame. Thus there was a level of obligation and social custom that operated in spite of the law. (p. 83)

Illegality of property was generally exercised by the lower classes in rampant theft. There was also an illegality of rights practiced by the merchant classes. This represents the change in the economy of illegality associated with the rise of capitalism. The rampant illegality essentially resembles social tactics without a strategy to hold it at bay. Punishment reform is a strategy for a new social system. (p. 87)

The new economy of punishment is based on the concept of the social contract. Criminality in that sense is inherently paradoxical: the criminal is both an enemy of and a member of society. This change is an enormous shift from the authority of the sovereign in torture. Thus the criminal is a traitor to the state. (p. 90)

The change in punishment was reflected by an intense level of calculation and determination of the principles of just and correct punishment. (p. 94) The result of this is a new calculated economy of power disguised as mercy. But, the object of power is no longer the body, but the mind or character. (p. 101) Foucault cites Servan on the next page: “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas; it is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain; this link is all the stronger in that we do not know what it is made of and we believe it to be our own work; …” (p. 102-103) ref (Servan, 35)

The Gentle Way in Punishment

Forces, attractions, and values: Follows ideas of compulsion, attraction and repulsion stem from a Newtonain metaphor. Also heavy into this theme of punishment is the idea that the state is a natural phenomenon, and crime is distinctly unnatural. This flies directly in the face of illegality as a common cultural practice. Essentially, it is an ideological strategy to combat an emergent tactic. (p. 104)

In regards to the vision of a “just society”: Law attempts to counter the historical tradition of the affairs of criminals of old being celebrated in culture and tales. A glorification of outlaws and lawbreakers is very prevalent in many cultures. The vision of the just society aims to replace that with a reverence for the austerity of the law, and have a distinct openness in the city. Everywhere within the just city is the influence and inscription of the law. And education is meant to describe and glorify the law as well. This vision paves the way for the carceral society to come. (p. 113)

Docile Bodies

In regards to discipline, Foucault looks at the soldier, which is constructed as a product of molding via discipline. This, again, treats the body as an object of operation, it deconstructs the body into various independent components. The aim is to shape each force of the body: maximize those forces that yield utility, and minimize other forces that the body might be obedient. (p. 137)

Discipline is the methodical mastery over little things. Its aim is to spread central control to every minutia of the body of a subject, while needing to expend a minimal effort to control these bodies. This echoes again the idea of a technology of power: to distribute and maximize optimally. Discipline is in a sense, the antithesis of emergence. Also, discipline resembles the way that people interact with machines and computers, through working with them, they make humans further like machines. These can be connected through Marx and Weizenbaum.

The Means of Correct Training

A precursor to panopticism: Surveilance is a requirement for discipline. The purpose of discipline is to train, but for what? (p. 173)

Discipline is a normalizing process: It punishes and rewards for established social formations, attempts to make even that which is uneven. This is reminiscent of role gratification, performance of a role is met with rewards and gratification, but failure is met with lack of support. Role learning is a disciplinary process. Examination is described here as a ritualized interaction, and involves a presentation of self. A component of discipline is being subject to examination and gaze. (p. 184)


The chaos of the plague is met with a focused ordering of life: sectioning, visibility, and isolation. The physical corporeality of bodies is mixed with the ideas of sickness and evil. (p. 197)

In the Panopticon: There is a dissociating of the visibility dyad. An automatization and disindividualization of power. Power exists, but and it exists in the minds of subjects, without necessarily a physical presence to enforce that power. Cells are transformed into stages, where actors compelled to constantly be performers. Allows for an individuality of the prisoners, though. (p. 203) Enables a laboratory of power, whereby the authority may conduct experiments and tests, (developing technology and improving efficiency of power) on the distributed system of the panopticon.

Society has changed from that of a spectacle to that of the Panopticon. Life is longer like an amphitheatre, but we are still performers, watching each other. (consistent w Goffman?) Panopticism is a power technology to improve the efficiency of power. (p. 217)

The object of justice transforms from the physical body, and away from the contractual one, but towards a new thing, a “disciplinary body”. This body can be deconstructed into its component parts and each may be operated on and molded, “corrected” independently. (p. 227)

Panoptic society has surveillance, and does not enable individuals access to the information being stored about them. When these are exposed (eg, wiretapping) popular reaction opposes the system and there is outrage. The problem is that, with the dissociation of the gaze, the individual has no ability to understand how he is being seen. More than knowledge is necessary to topple the system, though. Individual is reduced to pieces and surveilled, but has no independent power in understanding how he is dissected, and no understanding of what is found in there. Thus, to successfully resist the pantoptic society, one must have full self knowledge, because that cannot be taken away.

Complete and Austere Institutions

With isolation, the matter of the self and conscience come into play. Prison coerces order and social rules by replacing society at some levels. Those who designed prisons aimed to have the prison serve as a reduced society (a sub-simulation) where the minimal elements of society were still present, but prisoners would be isolated or prohibited from interacting with each other regularly. (p. 239) Prison life is hardly reflective of the outside, though. What happens to self and performance when the subjects are in total isolation? Society hinges on performance and interaction, what happens when one or both are deprived?

The prison offers a substitution of the offender to the delinquent. This allows an individuality, total knowing, and potential reformability to the criminal. A lot of the philosophy justifying prisons is rooted in the correctability of criminals and justification of the law. Also this changes to demand a total knowledge of the subject. (p. 251)

Illegalities and Delinquency

The prison produces and encourages delinquency. It encourages a loyalty amongst prisoners, and promotes the idea of warders as unauthorized to correct, train, or provide guidance. The focus here is the failure of the prison to perform a corrective function. The reason for this failure involves the cultural foundation of illegality. (p. 267)

The Carceral

Foucault opens the final chapter by discussing a colony, which becomes the example of a contained carceral society. The role of instructors, (not educators) in direct development is to impose morals and encourage subjects to be docile and capable. There is a direct reference to Plato’s Repbulic: children in the colony were taught music and gymnastics. The colony also has a circularity: Instructors are subjects as well. This leads to a closedness of the social model. (p. 294)

More on the enclosed and contained nature of the carceral: Like a closed simulation, the carceral society must contain every projection of things within its model. (It must be mathematically complete). What of the simulation outlaw? The utopia encodes the law into society, so in its simulation, the outlaw is an impossibility, fundamentally and intrinsically unexplainable. (p. 301)

The carceral relates very closely to simulation, even in the Baudriallardian sense: Simulacra encloses and defines the carceral society via its isolation of law and ideas. But it id not really law, but ideology. An open question is who is behind it? It may be that no one is, the order of the society falls towards infinite regress. But, in reality, laws are made, and simulations are defined. (p. 308) Foucault’s history is sort of anti-narrative. So, while power exists, Foucault is reluctant to name individuals or events behind the application of power. It makes a disconcerting approach, leaving the reader wondering why or how the state of affairs is the way that it is. An extreme approach is to claim that power is totally self-generating, and indeed, in the carceral society, it is, but there still must be agents behind any change.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFoucault, Michel
TitleDiscipline and Punish
Tagsmedia theory, dms, embodiment
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:20 pm)

Understanding Deleuze

Claire Colebrook writes an overview of Deleuze’s philosophy. Deleuze is in tradition of practical “lively” philosophy. What does it mean for a philosophy to be practical? Colebrook compares Foucault, Freud, and Marx as all practical. Marx’s philosophy is intended to be connected to the world and directly change our understanding with it.

Other, more linguistic philosophers, (eg Wittgenstein) aim to understand language, and use common language. That we will realize that things we say are nonsense. Namely, they pose that theory is in a sense fundamentally disconnected from reality. The comparison here raises the ambiguous question of what does it mean for a philosophy to be practical.

Colebrook poses that Deleuze is a positive thinker: that he saw desire as a positive, constructive force that enables meaning. She seems to lay out a quadrant of some philosophers:

Negative Positive
Power MarxIdeas produce power relations. FoucaultTheories and actions are modes of power. Concepts are instances of power. The master and slave are conceptually codependent and produce power through each others’ existence.
Desire FreudDesire is something that occurs outside of a norm. Desire is something that detracts from a person and must be fought against to restore normality. DeleuzeExistence and identity are created through desire. Desire enables identities and relationships.


It is important to note that A Thousand Plateaus is the second part to Deleuze and Guttari’s “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” pair, the first part being Anti Oedipus. That said, many of the concepts used here are in fact first defined in the first volume.

On Models

Deleuze on models: models are prescriptive. Claims that Western thought is built on radical (single root) model systems, that ascribing to models limit our world view and limits, to subscriber, what is possible.

I would say that the solution in Western *science* or any other constructive movement is to define NEW models, in abundance. This is something that is heavily studied in linguistics, development, etc. New concept/system development does not account for the limitations of ingrained models. In development and education, there is a bit of investigation of concept reformation and development.

What about meta-models? Deleuze attempts to get underneath models (instead of above). Meta models, as might be imagined mathematically, look to define new structures that can turn and encompass others. When models are used in math, science, and programming (models meaning generally varied approaches to representation within a system or framework), they are used in varying applications. Many times scientists, mathematicians, and programmers all try to force more things than can be accounted for into one system, but this is generally recognized as a poor idea.

Frequently, models are defined to address specific problems, and are intended to be used within a specific domain, or from a specific perspective. Change of these may ask for a change in the model being used. Examples are in looking at human behavior, where sociology, anthropology, linguistics, or statistical methods might be used to explain various about human behavior.

On computer code and rhizomes: computer systems are “tree”-like in that they all can be translated (in Chomskian sense) to equivalent computer instructions. They are all founded on some basic underlying models. So, while they may enable interpretation, representation, and thought, in very different ways, they are still executed through the same turing machine. They do enable different means of cognition, but they must be grounded in some fundamental principles.

When applied to programming and simulation, the situation gets trickier. Computer languages, simulations, and representations are all very capable and abstracted. However: programs all must be reduced to machine code and rendered on some form of hardware, eventually. What this reveals is that all things that are simulatable by a computer (or by a formal simulation that satisfies some programmability requirement) are all possible to reduce to one single, ultimate language. This implies that this simulation root underlies all models expressible within a computer.

However, it might be stated that while all simulations share a root of simulatability, they may share roots with other conceptual models and domains, and thus be rhizomes. So, while the execution level of a simulation might be universally translatable, the other levels may not be translated so easily, especially when the representative level is strongly metaphorically coupled to the simulation. A simulation whose execution is tightly bound with its representation is a rhizomic structure, whereas a simulation whose execution and representation are disjoint may be pulled up easily.

On Territorialization

The concept of deterritorialization is coupled with a reterritorialization. To Deleuze and Guattari, individual things have a territory, but when their systems touch upon one another, their respective territories are upset and then reformed. The example given is a wasp touching an orchid: The orchid is upset and disrupted by the wasp by the contact, and correspondingly, the wasp is turned into a part of the orchid’s reproductive system.

The challenge with this model is that it treats the wasp and the orchid as both totally independent systems until they contact one another. Systems are rarely ever totally independent, and do rely on each other. Frequently this may occur via well defined channels, such as the wasp’s fertilization of the orchid, but the notion that systems are structured in connection with each other seems radically opposed to Deleuzian sense. Further, one may scratch the idea of systems as being independent altogether, and understand that any perceived territory of a system is merely a construct or illusion. If we look back far enough, every system can be seen to be composed of multitudes of subsystems. The plant itself is composed of billions of cells which each impinge on each other as part of the plant’s growth. Blossoming in an orchid is a disruption of the plant’s ordinary sympodial pattern. It bears noting that sympodial growth is a from of rhizome. Go figure.

Principles of the Rhizome:

  1. connection
  2. heterogeneity
  3. multiplicity
  4. asignifying rupture : independence of models
  5. cartography
  6. decalcomania

classical linguistics: Language is built on binary differences, furthermore, differences do not *mean* anything. That is, they are arbitrary. Language becomes interesting in its inability to communicate. D&G trying do deny function of representation in knowledge?

Classical representation romanticises the idea of pure meanings, and that before language things were better. Representation aims to point things back to these pure ideas, and thus emphasizes, and is dependent on the notion of lack. Thus, classical representation constantly is a reminder of the lack of pure meanings. But… doesn’t representation project from one system of meanings to another? Why does there have to exist a system of pure meanings? What if I reject the notion of such a thing?

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDeleuze, Giles and Guattari, Felix
TitleA Thousand Plateaus
Tagsdms, media theory, philosophy
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Geoffery Bowker and Susan Star: Sorting Things Out

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:18 pm)


Sorting Things Out discusses the methods and applications of sorting in a multitude of circumstances. The thesis of the book is that classification is an inherent cognitive process, but serves to create moral and ethical dilemmas when it is built into social systems. Classification is understood as a form of cognition. Classification is especially important to larger systems which could be thought to have cognition of some form. Large scale systems form infrastructure, which is big and ubiquitous and invisible.


Classification is recognized as a sort of space. With it comes notions such as inherency and intimacy. Significant questions to be pursued are: Where do classes come from? Who makes them? (p. 1)

DSM, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 3” is discussed. This is a handbook of psychiatry classification, which is ubiquitous and used everywhere, but professionals maintain some incredulity regarding it: “Allan Young (1995) makes the complicating observation that psychiatrists increasingly use the language of DSM to communicate with each other and their accounting departments, although hey frequently do not believe in the categories they are using.” This is simulation resignation. Classification is not a direct means of affecting the world, but defines some supersystem on the world with its own rules and logics. These are related to reality, but ultimately describes a simulation of it. (p. 4)

Classification informs the social and moral order via technological infrastructures. “We have a moral and ethical agenda in our querying of these systems. Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing–indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous–not bad, but dangerous.” Especially if classification is framed as a cognitive process, making classification choices directly affects the way we model, interpret, and perceive the world. (p. 5)

Baudrillard reference: We can get lost in simulation, but who constructs or writes it? Simulation is a functional form of classification. (p. 10)

Classification is necessary: implies algorithms for codification and obsures moral questions. When attribution of class is codified, the reasoning and implications of this simplification gets lost and internalized. (p. 24)

Classification acts retroactively: Past is indeterminate. “We are constantly revising our knowledge of the past in light of new developments in the present.” The past redefined and re-interpreted using present logic. Concurrent infrastructures are enforced on old. (p. 40)

Practical politics: Categories formed on what is practical at the time, practical turns to legitimization, and statistical. Focus is on indeterminacy, and indeterminacy within a category. What differences are observed outside a category? what are inside, but ignored? (p. 44)

“Reality is ‘that which resists’ according to Latour’s (1987) Pragmatist-inspired definition. The resistances that designers and users encounter will change the ubiquitous networks of classifications and standards. Although convergence may appear at times to create an inescapable cycle of feedback and verification, the very multiplicity of people things and processes involved mean that they are never locked in for all time.” Compare this with Baudrillard’s definition of reality. (p. 49)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBowker, G and S.L. Star
TitleSorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
ContextClassification relates to cognitive science, mental models, and reasoning. Bowker and Star encourage the idea that reality is constructed through classification.
Tagsmedia theory, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Jean Baudrillard: Simulations

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:15 pm)


Baudrillard addresses the semiotic nature of simulation as a system that blurs and dissolves the real. The danger of simulation to Baudrillard is capacity to make the difference between the real and simulation indistinguishable and irrelevant. This sort of simulation is naturally different from software simulation, but still important in the way that we think about ideas and their representations.


First example: Borges’ map. Accurate and 1:1, so that the map covers the Empire, and frays at the territory’s borders, then becomes tattered in the Empire’s decline, fragments still visible to represent that which was. This is the charm of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units, metricized. Reality is made operational- can compare operational with empirical. In simulation, signs replace the real.

“Even military psychology retreats from Cartesian clarities and hesitates to draw the distinction between true and false, between the ‘produced’ symptom and the authentic symptom. ‘If he acts crazy so well, then he must be mad.'” (p. 7) Indefinity of simulation erodes the difference between real and unreal. Baudrillard describes the predicament of iconoclasts who fear the existence of icons which suggest that God is and always has been a simulacrum.

Representation is tied to the idea of exchange. Simulation is exchange between its own space of ideas, an “uninterrupted circuit” (p. 11). Progression of simulation: Reflection, Perversion, Negation, Pure simulacrum.

Attempts to catalogue and preserve reduces subjects to simulacra, inherently destroys them as real. (p. 16) Compare with preservation as narrative, telling the story of what happened so it will be remembered and not forgotten. Narrative does not simulate?

Baudrillard discusses Watergate, no difference between facts and denoument. Claim of Watergate is that it was a scandal, events involved become of little importance. Compare with notion of cultural drama.

“We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact–the models come first, and their obital (like the bomb) circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of events. Facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the single intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once.” (pp. 31-32)

In society, the real is determined from the image. Simulation makes it impossible to isolate or prove the real. Acts are indistinguishable from simulations, example of a holdup, these are dramas, performances, rituals, archetypes. Archetypical holdup, what a holdup is. *this is not a new phenomenon. Rather, difference between image relates to experience, phenomenon, subjectivity vs objectivity. (p. 41)

Challenge to chorus of simulation is visceral- Freudian, the discourse of desire. Desire is a defense against confusion, is reality/power. (p. 42) Power is indicated only by resemblance, signs and figures of power: “Power, too, for some time now produces nothing but signs of its resemblance. And at the same time, another figure of power comes into play: that of a collective demand for signs of power–a holy union which forms around the disappearance of power.” (p. 45)

Real is transformed into hyperreal, there is vaguery between truth and falsehood even within an image, consider the falsehood and perversion of reality TV. (p. 50)

Foucault connection: Disciplinary society, surveillance -> deterrence. Real punishment confused with model, forms pressure to conform to model. (p. 53)

Simulation arises in non-distinction of active and passive. This is the effective difference between code and its execution (p. 58). Pinnacle of hyperreality, atomic simulation. Our lives are unknown values within this system, our existences are dependent on the non-outcome of this event. Cannot plan, accept its inherent reality.

The second of Baudrillard’s essays is on the orders of simulacra. These are divided into: The counterfeit (renaissance), the productive (industrial), the simulation (modern). This relates to Levy’s orders of society and history. The dominant theme here is value. (p. 83)

Seduction of sim is to remake the world as a simulation. Redefine the world in terms of simulation. (Connect here w feminist theory, who defines the simulation? What does the simulation value?) Simulation, like concrete, is deathless, synthetic. May only be determined from the real by subtlety and nuance. “There once lived in the Ardennes an old cook, to whom the molding of buildings out of cakes and the science of plastic patisserie had given the ambition to take up the creation of the world where God had left it, in its natural phase, so as to eliminate its organic spontaneity and substitute for it a single, unique and polymorphous matter: Reinforced Concrete: concrete furniture, chairs, drawers, concrete sewing machines, and outside in the courtyard, an entire orchestra, including violins, of concrete–all concrete! Concrete trees with real leaves printed into them, a hog made out of reinforced concrete, but with a real hog’s skull inside, concrete sheep covered with real wool. Camille Renault had finally found the original substance from which different things can only be distinguished by ‘realistic’ nuance: the hog’s skull, leaves of the tree–but this was doubtless only a concession of the demiurge to his visitors … for it was with an adorable smile that this 80-year-old god received visitors to his creation. He sought no argument with divine creation; he was remaking it only to render it more intelligible.” (pp. 90-91)

The equivalence of produced objects, in function and value is an underpinning of simulation (p. 97). DNA is the underpinning of the mathematical future of simulation, blurring the line between operation and definition, doing and being, subject and model (p. 109)

Orders of sim in summary: 1) Deconstruction of real into details. 2) Endlessly reflected vision; duplication in detail. 3) Properly serialized form, syntagmatic dimension abolished, bodies erased via resemblance. 4) Digitization, hyperreal, compulsive repitition. “The very definition of the real becomes that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction” In key with rationalistic justification that everything is formally reproducible, already reproduced. (pp. 144-146)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBaudrillard, Jean
ContextBaudrillard defines a perspective on simulation as a cultural and philosophical concept. Baudrillard\'s simulation is important in understanding computational simulation.
Tagsspecials, media theory, simulation, semiotics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Jean Baudrillard: The System of Objects

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:11 pm)


Baudrillard analyzes the role of the object in modern consumer culture. He weaves Freudian and Saussurian (semiotic and psychological) analysis into a Marxist explanation of the commodity in society. Baudrillard looks at advertising, functionality, collection: the various social constructs that have evolved around objects which have come to represent much more than mere utility. Some of the original ideas were relating object dependence to works like The Sims.


The system of objects is a system of meanings. Modern objects are rooted in their technology, the technological qualities of objects are essential, whereas in the psychological and sociological sphere, the things that happen to the object are inessential. The technology is bound and inextricable from the object, making it a concrete unit. Production yields equivalence of objects. Software takes this to a natural extreme. Consider the psychological or sociological relation to objects, namely referencing George Mead, wherein objects are things that have been enacted. (p. 5-6)

On form and function in objects: In some cases, form is totally functionless, but rather, it operates as a sign. But… the sign is the function: it evokes an imaginary ideal function, beyond the limited real one. This is allegorical form, which does no more than to signify the idea of the function. Specifically, Baudrillard is talking about tail fins in cars, which serve no practical purpose whatsoever, but their form evokes idealized fastness. (p. 59) An interesting tangent: Considering functionalism and software or games. Software aspires to functionalism like physical objects do (Consider Norman, DoET and Emotional Design). What about games? Play has [ostensibly] no function, save pure indulgence. They probably are equated with entertainment like TV and film? Consider games as Objects of Products? (p. 64)

On collecting: The purpose of objects is to be put to use or to be possessed. A practical object like a utensil or a refrigerator is put to use in some fashion. The object’s materiality is less important than its function, as such it is equivalent to all other objects of its kind. A collected object is abstracted from its use, and becomes a thing that is possessed. Possession is thus a source of anxiety over the ambiguity of the uniqueness of an object. Compare with Geertz on the metaphysical ambiguity of life and the role of religion therein! The collection is a means to overcome the ambiguity of uniqueness. (p. 86) Collection transforms “having” into “being”: The object becomes an extension of the self. To have sequestered a prized object is to be castrated. (p. 98)

Automation and personalization: An automated objec is anthropomorphized by its supposed self-direction. But with object identification, this leads to self-functionalization, seeing oneself as an automated object, reducing the self to mere function. Compare here w Weizenbaum. Again, this is independent of AI or science as an ideology, but a property and effect of production. It also requires several steps to come around. (p. 112)

Choice causes us to participate in the culture value system. This is not freedom, but an imposed structure. Choice relates to AI and class dynamics. The idea of “personalization” is an ideological concept in order to integrate people effectively. (p. 141) The model of an object is just the idea of the model. It is the “generic image manufactured through the imaginary assumption of all relevant differences” Differences and choice: Self individuation is based on serial distinctions. “Personalization and integration go strictly hand in hand. That is the miracle of the system.” (p. 144)

Advertising and the pleasure principle: Gratification and frustration. Compare with sociological roles/acts and their models as objects. (In role-performance theory, roles are chosen according to gratifications). What are the advertisements of roles? Surely roles are advertised somehow, are portrayed as good or idealized to us in different ways (portrayals and depictions). “We must not forget that the image serves in this way to avoid reality and create frustration, for not only thus can we grasp how it is that the reality principle omitted from the image nevertheless effectively re-emerges therein as the continual repression of desire (as the spectacularization, blocking and dashing of that desire, and, ultimately, its regressive and visible transference onto an object).” (p. 177)

Consumption is an active process; objects are not the objects of consumption, rather, consumption is of meaning and signs by means of the objects. Traditional, functional objects were not arbitrary, but modern objects [as signs] are. Signs are necessarily arbitrary, and by objects operating as signs, they must be arbitrary as well. The nature of signs depends on difference. Compare with analogy, allegory? (p. 200)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBaudrillard, Jean
TitleThe System of Objects
ContextRelates objects to the psychology of desire.
Tagsmedia theory, semiotics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Daniel Chandler: Semiotics: The Basics

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:06 pm)


Chandler summarizes the theory of semiotics from a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives. The book reviews the history of semiotics and the various models of sign systems, how they have been applied to analysis of speech and language, and how these have changed over time. The text serves to emphasize some of the moral and cognitive qualities that semiotics has in that interpretation of the world can shape the world.


Chandler first defines a sign as something that stands for something else. “Semiotics involves the study of not only what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else.” Semiotics works to analyze signs in context of a sign system, such as a medium or genre. (p. 2)

Semiotics appears as a rival to “content analysis”, which often resorted to qualitative means. (This mirrors development in sociology from statisical sociology to symbolic). It addresses latent and connotative meanings (as opposed to ostensible textual meanings, then again, textual meaning often derives from metaphorical/semiotic attribution…) “While content analysis involves a quantitative approach to the analysis of the manifest ‘content’ of media texts, semiotics seeks to analyse texts as structured wholes and investigates latent, connotative meanings.” (p. 8)

Semiotics uncovers ideology: moral implications of signs. “Contemporary social semiotics has moved beyond the sctructuralist focus on signifying systems as languages, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations. Modern semiotic theory is often allied to a Marxist approach which stresses the role of ideology.” Saussure separates Langue-Language from Parole-Speech. Differences between system/usage structure/event, code/message, all emphasized in classic structuralist dichotomy. (p. 12)

Study of semiotics denaturalizes signs and makes them visible where normally transparent. Especially relevant in simulation… “Through the study of semiotics, we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in ‘reading’ them.” (p. 15)

Critique of traditional model (Saussure): both signifier and signified are abstract, form rather than substance (speech and idea). Material need arises in sign system… (p. 18) Separation of sign systems. Saussure’s system was structural and relational, not referential. Value of sign is determined by other signs within the system. This descends into Baudrillard’s simulation. (p. 22)

Signs are arbitrary. “The arbitrariness of the sign is a radical concept because it establishes the autonomy of language in relation to reality. The Saussurean model, with its emphasis on internal structures within a sign system, can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not ‘reflect’ reality but rather constructs it.” Heayv Baudrillard connection here, also tradition in AI, gives way to closed disembodied systems. (p.28)

Another model of semiotics, the Piercian model (Charles Sanders Pierce): Has emphasis on process, rather than structure. Divides three part model of signs: Representamen (form sign takes), Interpretant (sense of sign, cognitive value), Object (to which the sign refers). Notion is that interpretant is a sign in eye of interpreter, so the semiotic reflection experiences endless regressesion. Any interpretation may be reinterpreted. Method later adopted by poststructuralists. (p. 33)

Types of relations of signs. Signs relate to each other and reality in a variety of ways. These seem to be from Saussure, but Chandler explains them more here. Symbolic: sign is arbitrary or conventional, relationship must be learned. Iconic: sign resembles object, but generally superficially or exaggeratedly (part stands for whole). Indexical: sign is directly connected in some way, but may be interpreted (readings on thermometer). Can extend: Symbol-AI, Icon/Symbol-Sim/Games, Index-?? (p. 36-37)

Reality is created by the representable. But who represents? What media? Resembles Levy: we affect the world via thought. “A radical response to realists is that things do not exist independently of the sign-systems that we use; reality is created by the media which seem simply to represent it.” (p. 57)

Platonic philosophical idealism: sign of object is Ideal, an Essential object. Saussure can be interpreted towards this perspective. Variations of perspectives: idealist, realist, constructionist. (p. 59)

Film theorist Andre Bazin describes the ‘reproductive fallacy’ of representation. Namely, exact reproduction cannot be made of an object (a text, specifically). Namely this bears on adaptation or translation in representation. Symbology comes into play for psychological or emotional realism in observation of a text (like a tv show), where it may seem true to life. Note that 1) text reproduction is interesting with mechanical reproduction, and 2) reproduction complex on personal level. This is a very extendible thread here… (p. 63)

Analysis of Magritte painting. “The Treachery of Images”: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Process becomes one of defamiliarization. Compare with the analysis of simulation. (p. 65)

Chandler specifically uses the term ‘transparency’ in application to language. Modern language makes invisible the abstraction and arbitration of signs and denotative nature of language (speech acts) in reference to real world. Consider relation of transparency to realism. Realism necessarily implies representation, (much like immersion), and realism cannot really work if it is meant to be transparent. A work may not be real but also transparently refer to something, right? Presence of image implies absence of referent. (p. 73)

Explicit Baudrillard ref here. Signs point beyond themselves and form simulacra in their own system. (p.76)

Chandler defins two axes of understanding: Syntagm and Paradigm. Relates to meaning and media, and the neutrality of the medium. These axes define characteristics of relations of signs. “Paradigmnatic relations can thus be seen as ‘contrastive'”, ie, differences between shapes, colors, between like concepts of a kind. A syntagm is a chain of meaning. “A sentence is a syntagm of words”. There are large units of syntagms composed of smaller units. Maybe not linear chain, but order? (p. 81)

Syntagmatic relationships tend to be…. conceptual, spatial, or sequential. Narrative is especially dependent on this characteristic of sequence. Syntagms can be montage and conceptual flows, but do not need to be narrative explicitly. But is this the case, given concepts and understanding of narratives, is something sequential not a narrative in some degree? Goodman 1990, and Easthope 1990 split structural conventions into “masculine” and “feminine”, masculine structures are “‘tight’, orderly and logical… defensive structures”. It is unclear what feminine structures are, although it is interesting to see the emphasis on gender in reasoning, especially with its attribution to modes of thought. (p. 84-85)

Overview of narrative form from semiotic perspective: “Narratives help to make the strange familiar. They provide structure, predictibility, and coherence. In this respect they are similar to schemas for familiar events in everyday life. Turning experience into narratives seems to be a fundamental feature of the human drive to make meaning.” (p. 90) Narrative is natural the way that language is natural, in that it is familiar and transparent. It is, however, like language and semiotics, deep with room for extra meanings, moral, epistemic, and ontological choices. Consider and compare with Foucault’s “ruptures”: discontinuities, disjunctions in structures and sequence.

Analysis of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. Flows into structuralist semiotician “Algirdas Greimas” who proposed a grammar for any known narrative structure. (in 1938, 1987) Split up narratives into three syntagmatic categories: Performanciels, contractuels, disjuntionnels. These are defined by binary oppositions called “actants”: subject-object, sender-receiver, helper-opponent. Jonathan Culler criticizes Greimas’ methodology (1975). (p. 95-96)

One feature of sign structures is the naturalization of binary opposition, a “us and them” mentality. Paradigmatic distinctions lead to matters of difference and dyadism. These are naturalized in their usage so it is hard to imagine conception without that distinction. Self is defined in terms of negation of other. Relates to Lacanian mirror stage, etc. (p. 104)

Discussion of figurative language. Literal and figurative blend. Eventually tropes appear in semiotic model (figurative becomes literal definition). According to some (Lakoff, Jakobson) metaphor integral to our understanding of meaning in everyday life. Compare w Foucault’s lingistic determinism, that tropes determine what can be known in an age. (p. 124-126)

Types of ‘master’ tropes: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synechdoche, Irony. Consider difference between literal, ironic, lie. Meanings are doubled in semiotic frame… (p. 135-136)

Analysis of codes in society: Codes are domains and partitions and frameworks of interaction and discourse. These define procuedural, functional boundaries. Define cultures and domains. Jameson: Perception is interpretation. There are social codes, textual codes, and interpretive codes. Codes may be applied towards the world, medium or genre, or modality (which is which). (p. 148-150)

In social codes, social determination occurs via codes: consider determinism in simulation, based on codes and grammar. Social differentiation is over-determined by codes. Codes may be verbal, physical, presentational (dress, conduct), etc. Compare w Goffman, treat sociological behaviors as codified? (p. 154)

“Realism involves an instrumental view of the medium as a neutral means for representing reality. The signified is foregrounded at the expense of the signifier.” (p. 161)

Discussion of speech and meaning transmission, models of discourse. Consider instead variation of process, what happens in communication? Empirically what changes other than the transmission of ideas? What does the transmission of ideas DO? (p. 177)

“As an approach to communication which focuses on meaning and interpretation, semiotics challenges the reductive transmission model. Signs do not just ‘convey’ meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed. Semiotics helps us to realize that meaning is not just passively absorbed, but arises only in the active process of interpretation. Even within the structuralist paradigm, someone has to relate signs to each other and to the codes within which they make sense.” (p. 217)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorChandler, Daniel
TitleSemiotics: The Basics
ContextA review of semiotics, and specifically addresses ideas of communication and shared meaning. Covers several theories on how meaning is made and communicated.
Tagsmedia theory, semiotics, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon