The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)






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