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Variations between semiospheres - how variations in decoding occur

What is semiosphere? The concept of semiosphere was first proposed by the Russian cultural theorist Juri Lotman in his article “Semiosphere,” in which he defines semiosphere as “the space in which signs exist and operate. The space in which various cultural symbols and cultural texts of a nation exist and operate constitutes the semiosphere of a nation’s culture . . . it is a space for the production, operation and development of a number of symbolic systems within the culture of that nation . . . the environment in which all the systems of symbols operate; it is a nation’s cultural background, cultural environment and cultural space, an aggregate of the history, outlooks, customs and habits of that nation.”41 The idea of “semiosphere” is essentially equivalent to the notion of “boundary” put forward by Stuart Hall. It means that both the encoder and the decoder must follow certain rules and act within a certain sphere; any violation of the boundary or the domain would result in the failure of the communication of the meaning. Based on this knowledge, our understanding about “codes” will become clearer. Codes can be understood as “a set of rules or an explanatory mechanism known to both the communicator and the recipient, which can ascribe meaning or content to a certain sign.”42 They are the cultural norms that signs have to abide by as they come into existence, and are the conspiracy of social experiences and ideological authority. Likewise, the above-mentioned construction of the “connotative signification” and the genesis of the “metalanguage” mechanism both happen as a result of the manipulation of particular codes. They are the mechanisms whereby meaning is produced and communicated in particular cultural semiospheres. In this sense, culture is the culture in a particular semiosphere; without particular spatial and temporal dimensions, “codes” would be changed accordingly and the decoding process of cultural signs would become even more complicated.

The reason why the aforesaid “Nippon Paint” incurred communication failures is that the encoder overlooked the cultural sanctions that “semiosphere” imposes upon the decoder, thus leading to decoding deviations. The myth in the advertising communication is deconstructed for a second time and a new myth is reconstructed. Whereas in the Western Christian civilization, “dragon” is a symbol for “evil, bellicosity and violence,” in the traditional Chinese civilization, it is a highly worshipped cultural totem. The originator of the Nippon Paint advertisement hoped to use a humorous and hyperbolic approach in order to highlight the paint’s “smooth and slippery” property - that the pillars and the dragon, once covered with the paint, would become extremely smooth and slippery, to such an extent that even the most belligerent and powerful “dragon” fails to hold tight onto that slippery surface. As a result, the dragon is rendered powerless and the Nippon Paint has prevailed over the dragon. The purpose of the encoding is to try to construct a signifying relationship between the Nippon Paint as the signi- fier and the “good quality and wonderful effect” as the signified. However, to the Chinese people, “dragon” is a crucial totem in Chinese traditional culture, divine and inviolable, an image that brooks no subversion. In addition, Nippon Paint is a Japanese brand and the fact that Japan invaded China during the Second World War only served to exasperate the Chinese people emotionally. The juxtaposition of the Nippon Paint and the Chinese dragon conspired to create a new meaning, a meaning which was interpreted as the following: “the ancient Chinese dragon has been painted oily and shiny by the Japanese Nippon Paint, depriving it of its ability to soar in the heaven. As a result, it has become a serpent-like dragon coiling up on the ground. This seems to imply that traditional Chinese culture is to bow down to the commercial civilization of Japan, China’s one-time enemy.”43 Hence, with the change of the semiosphere, the codes have also undergone changes. Deviations have occurred to the decoding process, leading to the generation of new significations. A signifying relationship was constructed between the Nippon Paint and the commercial civilization of Japan, and between the Chinese dragon and traditional Chinese culture. Naturally, the image of “the dragon falling down from a slippery pillar covered with the Nippon Paint” would be interpreted as signifying that “Japan’s modern civilization has triumphed over traditional Chinese culture.” Here, a myth has been reconstructed.

From Fig. 1.21, we can discern that the encoderjuxtaposes the falling down of the dragon E1 with E2, Nippon Paint, and in doing so has tried to create a new meaning through conspiracy, C3, that Nippon Paint is super-powerful and super-magical. In Fig. 1.22, however, what we discover is that a new meaning, C3, can be interpreted out of the encoder’s juxtaposition of the paint and the dragon, that Japan’s modern civilization has prevailed over the traditional Chinese culture. The original intent of the encoder was to help the manufacturer of the Nippon Paint create a positive image of being humorous, strong and reliable, but this corporate image was seriously undermined during the decoding process. There are particular cultural and historical factors to account for such an interpretative deviation, but an essential

The Communication Mechanism of Nippon Paint’s Connotative Signification According to the Intent of the Encoder

Figure 1.21 The Communication Mechanism of Nippon Paint’s Connotative Signification According to the Intent of the Encoder

The Communication Mechanism of Nippon Paint’s Connotative Signification According to the Interpretation of Some Decoders

Figure 1.22 The Communication Mechanism of Nippon Paint’s Connotative Signification According to the Interpretation of Some Decoders

fact is that, in a changed semiosphere, the structural relationship within a symbolic system is changed, and the codes follow totally different rules of signification. No wonder that variations should happen in some people’s association of meaning.

 
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