Saturday, August 14, 2010

FINAL PAPER: Gran Torino, Semiotics & Societal Effects

La Tiere Galvan
E436 Theory & Criticism
August 2010

Gran Torino, Semiotics and Linguistics through Saussure’s Perspective

What comes first the chicken or the egg? While that may be a more entertaining idea to analyze, lets consider semiotic relationships that more involve ourselves. What comes first, you or me? Everyone has subconsciously processed these ideas and it is through a system of linguistics and semiotic relationships that we are able to distinguish who we or I is. We can determine the value of ourselves and our condition based on our relationship to the things that encompass our surroundings. This concept of semiotics was derived from Ferdinand de Sassure. Saussure evaluates the system of language and its social influence. It is through his exploration of the “signs” and “symbols” in linguistics that he identifies the foundation for interpersonal relationships.

Like Saussure, I concur that semiotics and linguistics play a significant role in social interaction and contribute to some of the controversial “isms” that decay interpersonal relationships in contemporary culture.

Saussure’s ideas of semiotics and linguistics language can be closely viewed in the film Gran Torino. Gran Torino is a film centered on a widowed ornery, prejudiced Korean-war veteran named Walt Kowalski who resides in a predominantly Hmong neighborhood. The story develops following the attempted theft of Kowalski’s 1972 Gran Torino by his neighbor Thao. The young man, through the threatening pressure of his cousin, was ordered to perform the theft in order to become initiated into their gang; it is through his unsuccessful attempt that Kowalski develops a relationship with the boy and his family. In the film, Kowalski’s speech demonstrates a lot of the ideas that Saussure argues about linguistics and semiotic relationships. Kowalski, in his disgruntled nature, is consistently identifying people through words (specific insulting words) that classify them into a system of being.

When the movie begins Kowalski calls his new Hmong neighbors “chinks,” which is a derogatory remark used to represent Asians. Saussure presents this performative behavior by stating that, “It is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself, it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community” (Saussure; 850). This highlights this notion that speech has a social element that which is constructed or derived from a consensus or majority of consenting individuals in a particular location. If Kowalski lived in an area that condoned or did not discourage these prejudiced identifiers, than the term (derogatory or not) becomes part of a normal cultural representation. However, once Kowalski identifies this group of people by this racist remark, may not be able to “modify” it but it does in-turn have the potential to create controversy or violence. We are all too familiar with racial violence in contemporary society today and this is just one of the examples of how we can contribute to it. Saussure furthers his argument by suggesting that linguistic signs are primarily psychological. But he continues on to saying that the associations with these signs “bear the stamp of collective approval” and ultimately become “realities that have their ‘seat in the brain,” (Saussure; 850).

The catalyst for Saussures semiotic arguments are signs, signified and signifiers. Signifiers are the linguistic sign or symbol. They are an indication that they are in opposition to each other and are separated form “the whole of which they are parts,” (Saussure; 853). This is to say that two subjects are exist in a system of things as a whole but are oppositional to one another. It is through their binaries that realities are constructed and ideals are accepted. In the film, there is a scene in which a group of African American males surround the young Hmong woman. The men try to intimidate the woman and insinuate that they plan to harass her. During this scene they make sexist remarks and even go to the extent of calling her a “bitch.” The remarks made by both the woman and the group of men demonstrate a struggle for identifying their gender and superiority. The Asian woman insults the men’s intelligence and the men try to over-power the woman. While Saussure would evaluate the words to establish the semiotic relationship between a male and woman or Asian and Blacks, Georg Hegel would take this idea a step further.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel describes how the each subjects’ existence is distinguished through the existence of another subjects. He states, “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that it exists only in being acknowledged,” (Hegel; 541). The struggle between characters to express their existence would employ Saussure’s argument on the value of things. In Course on General Linguistics, Saussure says, “a dissimilar thing can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined,” (Saussure; 858). This idea is also evident in contemporary society. It is through the association we give things in existence that we install a value. This hierarchical consciousness causes us to differentiate what objects/subjects have great value or higher advantage or –simply put—are better than the things that are not it. In the film one of the male Hmong characters criticizes Thao for performing “woman’s work” when he is gardening. Both the body language and way in which he expressed his disproval demonstrated a sense of superiority of a male over a female in the types of work they perform. While the character is being belittled, there is also a woman in the scene. One might consider how this insult is internalized by the female character. Does this make her question her value in relation to a man? Is this type of behavior or linguistic interaction not reaffirming a cultural belief of female inferiority next to a man? Saussure states, “Relations and differences between linguistic terms fall into two distinct groups, each of which generates a certain class of values,” (Saussure; 863). Now in the 21st century we can see that the difference between two subjects is often divided and therefore inherits a certain level of value depending on the category it has been placed in. For example, we know that GOD vs. MAN is divided with one clearly associated with a greater value than the other. We can thus assume that one of these terms or subjects is inferior to the other. As human beings we do this with most things in life, including individuals. So we can infer that amongst groups of races, genders, or even religions we categorize things into classes which ultimately tags them with a greater or lesser value making one of the things more privileged than the other. For example, Black vs. White, Rich vs. Poor, etc.

With any contrasting elements there is a reference or association of something. But does this not pose a problem once we get into interpersonal relationships? If within culture there is a general or accepted assumption that men are inferior to women, does that not enable or pave the way for sexism? Women are more likely to be subjected to harassment or discrimination if they are seen as the “lesser” or “under-privileged” part in a whole system. If there is this subconscious notion that whites are more superior to blacks or any minority, does that not serve as a gateway for racism and prejudice in our society? Racism continues to be perpetuated through innuendoes, preconceived notions, speech patterns, etc. because these ideas have been mutually consented to by the superior group. Bell Hooks said it best when he stated that without the discontinuation of the notion of “authority” or “mastery over” there will be a continuance of expressing traditional-hegemonic societal views; there will also be a promotion of supremacist ideals and a construction of aesthetic ideas that don’t necessarily reflect an objects genuine experience. Hegel would characterize this as an “essentialist” idea. He states, “But the ‘other’ for it is an unessential, negatively characterized object,” (Hegel; 542). This shows that the inferior object (“other”) takes on the role of the less essential object or adopts a negative connotation or association. Langston Hughes touched on the idea when he described how a word comes to be the symbol for specific virtues if generally accepted. He stated, “ And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues,” (Hughes; 1193). If we believe that whites are superior to any other race then we are subject to correlate “white-ness” to the quality of other objects that are not white. But we must also consider that an object fails to maintain a value in its independent state, “both factors are necessary for the existence of a value,” (Saussure; 858).

Gran Torino exemplified many of the cultural “isms” in contemporary society that affect the function of interpersonal relationships. It is through linguistics in daily life and semiotics that we establish our existence. Through these notions of self we instill particular values through mutual consensus and enforce ideals. Upon enforcing these ideals we thus separate objects/groups into categories and allow them to become a part of a hierarchical system. It is through this system and reinforced associations with objects that allow for controversy to influence our social thoughts and interpersonal relationships. While establishing essential, inferior, superior or better distinctions between objects, it is inevitable that we are assisting in creating animosity between individuals as they struggle to validate their existence. This struggle for validation or to attain greater significance over the opposing object creates preconceived notions that lead to prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, misogyny and can even lead to larger scale conflicts such as war. This system of linguistics and semiotics that Saussure makes his claims on play a significant role in determining social relations. The clash between dialectics or oppositional elements constructs specific realities that will maintain social inequality. Social inequality will continue to decay interpersonal relationships as long as we continue to make these associations between words/terms. If we abandon these associations and arbitrary connection between words and ideas then we can reduce the level of controversy that is interwoven into personal interaction.
Works Cited
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.

Hooks, Bell. “Postmodern Blackness” Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.

Hegel, Georg. “Phenomenology of Spirit” Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.

Hegel, Georg. “[The Master Slave Dialectic]” Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand. “Course in General Linguistics” Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Analysis #7-Selena & Ethnicity Studies

The Mexicans don't like us because they think we are too American, and the Americans don't like us because they think we are too Mexican. "

"We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans andmore American than the Americans."

In order to better understand the ideas of Gloria Anzaldua and her evaluation of culture, I provided quotes from the movie “Selena.” Both quotes are similar to one another in that they describe the judgment by people based on their cultural condition. Anzaldua discusses in her essay “from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” about the struggle between borders. This struggle encompasses the idea of the mstiza which “is a product of the transfer of the cultural and spiritual values of one group to another” (anzaldua; 2099). This transference of culture across cultures can caused conflict within an individual or within groups that lead to them being lodged between or straddled in multiple cultures. Anzaldua argues that this will leave individuals to have “inner war” (Anzaldua; 2099). For example if we look at the first quote from Selena it states, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans.” Anzaldua describes how “commonly held beliefs of white culture attack commonly held beliefs of Mexican culture” and vice versa (Anzaldua; 2099). It is this attack that causes us to turn on ourselves “subconsciously” (Anzaldua; 2099). This “counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed…” (Anzaldua; 2099). This is apparent throughout the movie as we witness several instances of prejudice or preconceived stereotypes performed in the Anglo Saxon behaviors (i.e. sales clerk telling the Latino characters they wont want to try on a dress because its $800).

Another connection we can make between Anzaldua and the quotes from the movie Selena is through evaluating the dualisms/binaries or relationships between groups (cultures). The quotes above reads, “The Mexicans don’t like us because they think we are too American, and the Americans don’t like us because they think we are too Mexican.” With this quote in mind we can turn to Anzalduas argument regarding dualities. Anzaldua states that the work of a “mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work duality is transcended” (Anzaldua; 2101). We can recognize that from the quote that the identity of one culture is recognized through its confrontation with another culture.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I participated in a group presentation on Feminism and Gender Studies with fellow group members Ashley, Kelina and Djinji. We agreed to each take a theorist in with a feminism emphasis and do a thorough analysis and create an activity that employed the views of the specific theorist. This seemed to be the most efficient way to provide the class with the necessary information to have a greater understanding on this particular movement. For my personal presentation I selected Judith Butler and examined “Gender Trouble.” I made this selection because I felt as though Butler utilized Simone De Beauvoir, Focault and Gilbert and Gubar in her evaluations to sustain ideas on gender. I decided to discuss some of Butler’s arguments that are relative to contemporary culture and in essence have larger implications on our lives in today’s society. My aim was to have an open discussion regarding these arguments as they play a large role in our 21 century lifestyles. My other attempt was to present a clip from “Meet the Parents” that demonstrated gender responses from Butler’s point of view. This was to provide a visual on how we consciously and unconsciously perform in these gendered manners. Unfortunately, the first two discussions done by my fellow group members were over-extended and went off on tangents we hadn’t anticipated for. Ultimately, this mismanagement of time worked to my disadvantage forcing me to significantly condense my presentation and limit my interaction with my classmates. Class was already over and I feel as this may have played a role in keeping them from fully engaging and being attentive. However, It appeared that the class participated extensively in the activities and discussion and my hope is that they left with a greater understanding on feminism and its contribution and relativity to contemporary culture.

Analysis #6: Feminism

Reflection by Christina Aguilera from Disney's Mulan

Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you’ll never know me
Every day, is as if I play apart
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I can not fool
My heart
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
I am now
In a world where I have to
Hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that i’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
There’s a heart that must
Be free to fly
That burns with a need
To know the reason why
Why must we all conceal
What we think
How we feel
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that i’m
Someone else
For all time
When will my reflections show
Who I am inside?
When will my reflections show
Who I am inside?
Feminism, being a part of post modernism is a call to socially constructed realities. Upon listening to and reading the above lyrics from Disney’s Mulan, I was able to make some connections with Judith Butler who addresses sex issues in “Gender Trouble.”

In “Reflection,” Christina Aguilera tells the listener “look at me” and that they will believe they see who she is but they will never know her. This idea of the “body” or “outer” (surface) form of being is misleading as it is not certainly indicative of a person’s position. Aguilera goes on to say, “Everyday is as if I play a part […] now I see, if I wear a mask I can fool the world, but I cannot fool my heart.” This correlates with the idea that bodies are “regulated” by norms. Butler states that “the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler; 2548). Much like the character Mulan and Aguilera’s lyrics, there is a struggle with identity; a challenge between the “inner” and “outer” self. The conflict arises between gender truth and identity. Butler describes this by saying, “If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity” Butler; 2549).

The lyrics exemplify the struggle that occurs with the character to be accepted for who she is. She says that she is now in a world where she has to hide her heart and what she believes in. She goes on to question, in another line, whether she will have to be pretend to be someone else. With these ideas in mind we can begin to see the implications of cultural practice, modern societal values and how they hinder and individual from who they are internally or establishing an identity. Butler says that genders are perpetually imitated and parodically styled. She says that these “parodic styles are clearly part of hegemonic, mysogonist culture” and are “nevertheless denaturalized and mobilized” (Butler; 2550).

Much like Beauvoir, Butler calls to attention that the body has a “variable boundary” with a “permeable” surface (Butler; 2551). With this being identified, we can consider Butler’s idea of a “genderdized body.” She says that the body goes on further to say that “these styles are never fully self-styled, for styles have a history and those histories condition and limit the possibilities” (Butler; 2550). We can make a connection that since gendered bodies are styled by historically constructed styles that they are not “original” but rather copies. The character struggles with this dual idea of “self.” What is “reflected” on the surface does not align with what she feels internally. “Gender is also a norm that can never be fully internalized” the ‘internal’ is a surface signification and gender norms are finally phantasmatic, impossible to embody” (Butler; 2552). Since Butler believes that gender is “performative” and is acted through a series of imitations, then we can see the implications of the lyrics in reflection. This idea implies that the character in subject to the limitation of performing orthodox to her societal role. Butler illustrates that the “performance” of gender in society falls under these contemporary ideas of “discrete genders” (Butler; 2551) and that they “humanize individuals within contemporary culture” (Butler; 2551).

Moreover, Butler argues that “we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right” (Butler; 2551). We can see that Mulan fears that she will remain confined to this “discrete gender” or role that contemporary norms have constructed for her. This fear that is shown through the character is indicative that there must be consequences (as Butler refers to as “punishment”) if she does not live up to those expectations.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#4- Marxist Analysis of Glengary and GlenRoss

In the video clip from Glengary and GlenRoss, the clip shows a speaker from a big company to a smaller satellite office. Throughout the scene the speaker verbally harasses, intimidates and belittles the men. Being familiar with the principles of Marx, we can analyze the elements in the video clip to validate some of his ideas.

One specific issue that both the clip and Marx deal with is class distinction. Certain statements or behavior expressed in the clip correlate with the ideas of Marx. There is a clear distinction made between the reporters to their superior (speaker). In The Formation of the Intellectuals by Antonio Gramsci it is discussed when he says, "The function of organising social hegemony and state domination certainly gives rise to a particular division of labour and therefor to a whole hierarchy of qualifications..."(Gramsci;1007). We can recognize these class separations by specific comments in the clip.

Another idea evident in the clip is relative to production and Marxist beliefs. In the clip, Blake makes a comparison between his ability to produce in abundance and theirs; he asks them if they can produce $15,000 as he can. Thus exemplifying how an individuals ability to produce determines their value. Williams explained this in Base and Superstructure on Marxist Cultural Theory when he said, "The most important thing a worker ever produces in himself" (1426).

The scene also ties in with the Marxist discussion regarding intellectuals. Blake determines that he is something and the employees are nothing based off their inability to produce. Gramsci says in the Formation of Intellectuals that, " All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals" (1004).

Another idea the clip brought forth was regarding values and the family. Marx described how capitalism "has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation" (Marx; 659). This is apparent in the clip when Blake criticizes one man for being a family man or going home to play with his children and cry to his wife. The above mentioned comment expresses how the family life becomes feminized and less respected next to monetary status.

The last thing that emphasized Marxist cultural ideas was in relation to commodities. Blake makes a comparison between the employees and himself through the material items he possesses. Ross talks about this idea in The Mental Labor when he says, "being trained in the habit of embracing nonmonetary rewards-as compensation. As a result of this training, low compensation for a high workload can become a rationalized feature of the job" (2590).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


What’s in a dream, by any other name, still be as deep?

This is as well as many other questions arose in my mind preceding my visit to see the movie Inception. My experience with this movie was inconceivably beyond words. I know that the level of impact the movie had upon me was greater due to prior discussions dealing with catharsis and consciousness. However, after reading The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, I was able to place some of the ideas from the film into context.

In the movie, Leonardo Di Caprio organizes a group. The group of people collaborate to perform a task that entailed implanting a concept or thought into one man’s psyche or unconscious mind via dream. This task was formulated with the notion that, if successfully performed, that it would elicit a specific action once the man awakens from the dream. This dialectic idea is similar to Freud’s theories about the interpretation and composition of dreams.

There are several correlating elements between Inception and Freud’s ideas. One correlation would be the relativity of dream-content, dream-thoughts and language. Freud claims that “dream-thoughts and dream-content are presented to us like two versions of the same subject-matter in two different languages” (Freud; 819). This idea of separate methods of presentations of ideas regarding the same issue is similar to those concepts in the movie Inception.

Another issue that arises in the film that correlates with ideas of Freud is the interference of Di Caprio’s deceased wife into the constructed dream maze in a man’s unconscious mind. Freud states, “The consequence of displacement is that the dream content no longer resembles the core of the dream-thoughts and that the dream gives no more than a distortion of the dream-wish which exists in the unconscious” (Freud; 840). In other words, the repressed or underlying dream-wishes or desires are displaced into the dream where they do not belong (or are not relative) to the original dream-thoughts. These dream-wishes create a distortion in the dream as we can recognize from the movie when a train interferes in Ariadne’s construction of an environment in a dream. The train was a memory from Di Caprio’s subconscious mind that projected or displaced itself into her dream. Thus this event created a distortion in the dream and had no relation to her original dream-thoughts and content.

Going further with the idea of displacement and the film, we can make a connection between lines of defense (defense mechanisms) in the unconscious. Freud argues that these are “endopsychic defense(s)” (Freud; 820). This idea is also demonstrated in the film when the team goes into the dream/subconscious mind of their target and begin getting attacked by trained men. It is expressed in the movie that when things are not natural (displaced) that the mind will start to defend itself because the dream-content and dream-thoughts are not directly relative to each other. Freud says, “…the portions of this complicated structure strand […] in the most manifold logical relations to one another” (Freud; 821).

Another idea of Freud’s that we can use to analyze Inception is condensation. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud says, “Dreams are brief […] If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space” (Freud; 819). We can apply this to what is demonstrated in the movie. When mapping out he dream, the team confirms that they will use the targets 10 hour flight to perform “Inception.” They then established that it would take them 10 years in dream time to accomplish this task. This idea confirms Freud’s claim that people maintain a certain “underestimation of compression” associated with dreams (Freud; 819).

One last idea that is present in both the movie and Freud’s text is memory and dream-thoughts. Freud states, “essential dream thoughts…usually emerge as a complex of thoughts and memories of the most intricate possible structure with all the attributes of the trains of thought familiar to us in waking life” (Freud; 821). In Inception Ariadne is asked to construct the maze or dream environment which they will be entering. She does so by compiling memories and characteristics of familiar places she had been in real life. This placed into context what Freud discusses in his text on the use of memories and their essential nature to dream construction.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Interpretation of Dreams." Ed. Vincent Leitch. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010. Print.