A Short Trip Into Critical Theoryland

I'm not a great fan of critical theory discussions because, like most committee meetings in academia, they are eventually distilled into seemingly endless hours of very intelligent people playing with themselves. But since you asked...

This short trip begins with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's observations that when considering image or language, one will usually find a signifier, or the form that a sign takes, and the signified, the concept it represents. A common example of what this means is apple vs. Apple... a simple fruit popular in biblical dialogues, or the company that made the computer I'm working on... or in an entirely different context, a tattoo of either of these apples inked into someone's flesh for life... quite a commitment to the signified. You can see where I'm heading.

Saussure referred to this as a dyadic, or a 2-part model that defined a sign. In this case, each element in the conversation, whether it was the fruit apple or the business Apple, required an explanation. As the explanation was being offered, the discussion and meanings became increasingly complicated because each component required still more interpretations due to its contextual association.

Saussure believed that all languages have their own concepts (the signifieds) and sound images, (the signifiers). He believed that languages have a relationship within the comparison of their elements, and that their words and accepted meanings only become clarified by comparing and distinguishing the difference in their meaning to one another.

Again, this exercise becomes even more obtuse as the person explaining the words works harder to make meaning of the signs and signifiers... ignoring the truth that what something means always changes with each individual listener's life experience or in what social or cultural context it was seen in. Think of the apple / Apple tattoo etched into someone's flesh forever and then complicate this meaning by adding the context of where that person chose to place the tattoo on their body. This would mean that the original meaning would always be altered by context, whether personal, cultural, or political.

A simple example would be Margaret Bourke White's photograph of people standing in a relief line after the great Louisville Flood in 1937... beneath a sign explaining that we lived in a country with the "World's Highest Standard of Living."


Margaret Bourke White, The Louisville Flood, 1937

The American subscribers of Life magazine saw this image as an example of Christian charity and benevolence personified; where the hungry and displaced people of Louisville could be cared for by those who were unaffected by the floods... the perfect 2-dimensional family that hovered above them like gods on Olympus.

America's political and social critics at the time used this identical image in a different way; to signify the oppression of the poor, non-white people in America by those above them made up of white dad, white mom, two white kids, perched like angel wings on the mother's shoulders, and a white dog... all smiling, chubby, and out for a drive. This cartoon of America, floating above the people in the relief line, depicted the signifiers and the signified simultaneously... simply because the medium of photography allowed that confluence to happen.

French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, proverbial "Papa Bear" of the Post-Structuralists, argued that meaning was simply an endless chain of deferments of meaning and that the difference between what is signified, and the signifier, was the forever-unexplained space in between the two words. And what this means, again, is that context is everything.

A photograph, because of its specific relationship to reality and time, constantly shifts from one meaning to another based upon our personal, cultural, or political perspective and knowledge. A photograph of the World Trade Center in New York meant one thing before September 11th... and quite another on September 12th.

Thus endeth the short trip to Theoryland.