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In class on Thursday I was getting caught up on the word “Identity” and I’d like to use this post to discuss different meanings of identity.

Jeff wrote “Difference vs Identity” on the board refering to structuralism and phenomenology* where difference stood for the idea that nothing has meaning in itself but rather only has meaning when it is in a network and creates oppositions where was Identity was the idea that someone or something had inherent properties, it has an essence, and this was not dependent on context.

So how does this idea of Identity as essentialism relate back to the idea of ones personal identity? For me, the two are very interrelated. Identity in the essentialism way states that I have some sort of Katie-ness which is intact even when my context changes. However, I think that my Katie-ness is constructed based on my past experiences. It is what we experience in life that shapes our lifeworld. If my lifeworld changes do I still have the same essences as Katie? How do these two relate to each other?

In class, Jeff seemed to have a fairly strong stand on this, although we didn’t really get into his thoughts on it. I’m curious what others in the class thought about this. Can we separate who we are from our lifeworld and experiences? How do they related to each other? Do they relate to each other? What exactly is the difference between Identity and Identity?

* Can Phenomenology and Hermeneutics be used interchangeably? I’ve been using them interchangeably but I’m not sure if there is some subtle difference between the two that I missed…

Clive Bell says

To “appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions” (Barnard,p. 171)

I find it strange that the above is considered to be a weakness. To see something with no attachments or associations, to look at an object as if one had never seen it before seems instead to be a strength. If one looks upon an object and sees (not the object) but the associations that the object brings to one’s consciousness, then are all objects perceived nothing more than the summation of the individual’s associations and attachments?

And what about the object itself? If you put too much attention towards associations and attachments, then some type of reality or quality inherent to the object might be ignored or forgotten.

It seems better to look and detach from one’s mind every association, good, bad, and neutral. So that one can see the object as if they have never seen it before.

I just thought of another example of Saussure’s language-object-meaning-detachment thing today, which makes much more sense to myself. And I share with you to receive your feedback on it.

Think about people and the name they have. Take myself for example, “Yuebo” is my name, a word my mother chose for me as a signifier that builds a relationship between me as a person, the signified, and the word “Yuebo” that represents me, the signifer. [signifer and signified] There are many people share the same first name as me, so when you talk about “Yuebo”, you know it’s me only when we share the same context. [detachment between language and the object] Interestingly (I don’t know if it is unfortunately), my mother had changed my name many times, to name a few, “Mo” and “Xuanlin” and I have nicknames both at home and in school, like “Yu Da”(means a heavy rain), “doggy”, “little monk”, “little A”, etc. Therefore around the concept of ME, there are a network of words that associate with me that some people associate with a part of the the network while some people may associate with another part of the network. [word network, connection] So when does myself as a signified become another signifer? An follow-up example would be that some people may know ME as a positive person, and when they mention ME with other people who share the same understanding of ME, they will think of something with positive characteristic. And that, which is the positiveness, is the signified that myself is signifier-ing for. [signifier-signified chain relationship]

I am not sure if I am making this more complicated to you or not, but I do have a much clearer understanding of the concepts by these examples.

I have often been amazed by the speed by which current events and news content are added to Wikipedia. I thus tried doing a semiotic analysis about what encourages users to actively create content on Wikipedia, even though the content that they create is not related to their profile directly. This is unlike most other Web 2.0 technologies like social networks and virtual reality games, where the content created is directly related to user’s online profile. I thus studied a Wikipedia page to do a structuralist analysis of what motivates users to create content.

A Wikipedia page (snapshot)

Firstly, there is a “Login/Create account” link right on top of the page. On most of the websites which require authentication, we only see the words “Login”. Here, both “Login” and “Create Account” are spelled side by side. This encourages the addressee to create an account if he/she does not have one and also makes him/her feel at par with those who already have an account. This is the addresser’s way of saying that “we do not distinguish between registered old members and new members. Everyone has the same freedom and power to edit or create account”.

Secondly, the “Edit this page” tab on top is highlighted in bold as compared to the other tabs, emphasizing the creation of content. Most of the pages do not require the user to be even logged in, to create content.

Thirdly, there is a long listing of languages in the left hand column. The same page can thus be viewed in different languages. It accentuates the fact that wikipedia is not English-language centric but is global in nature, and thus motivates multi-ligual people to post content in their language as well.

Any other signifiers that you notice?

Here is the video that I am talking about:

The video is titled “Cloud Computing in Plain English”….

A Youtube search for the words “Plain English” brings up a number of videos – Wikis in Plain English, Twitter in Plain English, Zombies in Plain English, Blogs in Plain English, Podcasting in Plain English and so on. I am doing a semiotic analysis about why these videos have been titled as “——in Plain English””. What are the signifiers present in the videos that support the argument that the concepts in these videos are in Plain English or in other words are easy to follow, can be understood even by a layman and do not require any previous technical knowledge. To pick up a particular artifact, I would be using the “Cloud Computing in Plain English” video; though the semiotic analysis can be extended to ‘genre’ of such videos.

Firstly, the video makes use of rough, hand-sketched drawings on paper. The use of paper, hand-made drawings and limited amount of colors (mainly black and white) are important signifiers that the video is simple to follow. Paper prototypes are low-fidelity and have limited functionality, which makes them an effective communication medium to explain a concept because the viewers attention in focused onto the main concept and does not get distracted by other details. Also the actions of the presenter as he flicks away a paper or overlays a new sheet of paper on top of the others, are everyday actions of how we interact with paper.

In the beginning, the script uses humor to draw the viewer in. “What is cloud computing? Do you have to be sitting on a mountain with a computer among the clouds?….” Even, a person with no technical background, will not think that this is what cloud computing means. It invokes thoughts in the viewers – “No, I didnt think so. This is dumb.” The humor is related to the words of the concept : Cloud Computing; but uses it in a unique way such that it sounds ridiculous and funny to our common-sense.  It thus creates a feeling of confidence in the viewer that the video would be simple to understand.

The use of simple, easy-to-undestand, common English, without the use of jargons is another signifier that supports the claim (Plain English) in the title of the video.

The use of everyday examples such as the electricity meter, or the taxi ride are also signifiers that signify that this video can be understood easily.

All these signifiers together help us reconstruct the addresse of this video. That, the intented reciepients of this video are not only people with technical background, but , anybody who understands English, uses the Internet and might want to know what Cloud Computing is.

After I read Eugene’s post, “I’m, by nature, a Structuralist,” I have been thinking about the meaning of the term, “decomposing.”

For my final paper, I will identify different kinds of flows and breakdowns readers experience while they are reading by analyzing annotations. Am I “decomposing” one big reading experience into small experiences? Am I approaching the problem from a structuralistic perspective?

Yesterday, I attended James O’Donnell’s talk at Lilly Library, the first talk in the History of the Book Seminars.  Right after I got out of the seminar room, I talked to myself, “Oh my God, I feel like I have been to the new world.” Professor O’Donnell introduced us a very short history of the book from the book in old days (14c ?) to The book in old days is just a piece of art. The meaning of the book in old days seems quite different from the meaning of the book in nowadays. I felt shameful that I thought that eBook is a simple physical “device” to read. Also, I felt like I miss something.

SO, I decided to try to identify diverse questions from diverse perspectives not to miss something that might be so important and to get diverse insights for the design of eBooks:

What kinds of experience do readers go through cognitively and emotionally while they are reading? What kinds of joy or sufferings do they experience?

What kinds of tasks do readers conduct while they are reading? What is each task mean (signify)? For example, readers are flipping a page back and forth. What does this flipping activity mean (signify)?

Are there any common features that need to be considered to support readers as human beings? For example, are font sizes large enough for normal human beings to read?

What does a book mean to each individual? Is it a simple device to read (just one of commodities)? Is it one of private belongings, such as iPod?

Any comments ? Any corrections ?

…hopefully this unsticks me…

Trying to do this assignment in pre-writing a phenomenological paper has driven me up a tree.  I’ve been banging my head against a wall trying to come up with an idea that isn’t deeply baked in structuralism and have been having no end of trouble.  But I think I know why I’m having a problem.  I am, by very intrinsic nature, a Structuralist.  When I look at a new encounter, particularly a technical one, I start decomposing it immediately.  The values I first gain come not from the experience necessarily, but by an analysis of the feature list.  The features, in essence, are the experience.

To get to a place where the experience is more dominant, I must understand features so deeply that they finally go away.  And in this, I have had trouble writing this paper.  I chose a device that I didn’t know the features well enough to get to the experience.  Thus, as I have had experiences (a year’s worth, in fact) with the device, I still had trouble looking past the features to find the experiences to guide me.

Hopefully I can find relief as I pick an artifact more carefully understood to me in order to discuss the experiences that will bringme to conclusions.

These three words have different meanings. But they are all describing the beautiful and smart things that appear in our daily life. Some of them are delicate, some of them are useful. However, in the language of phenomenology and structuralism, how do we define and separate these three words?

Art is an expression, is the reflection of people’s lives, is created from human senses and received by audience’s senses. Art creation doesn’t need a clear purpose. It’s like the screaming when a person is under pressure, and it is like the tears when a person feels sad. No matter how people review the arts created by the artists, the reason of creating arts is not for accepting other people’s opinion, but is the self expression. Therefore, art is phenomenology. 

However, design itself couldn’t be just an expression. Design always has purpose. And design contains much more than just “art”. I used to talk to Alex about the difference between the rational design from user research and the design without research. That’s a different topic but actually both of them couldn’t escape the connotation of design itself – purposes. No matter which of them it still needs user testing. And they are designing for people to use. And they contain the business value. Therefore, design is more like structuralism. 

How about invention? Why I separate the invention and design is because invention in most time comes from sparkle ideas. And it is creating something that doesn’t exist in the world before, when design is more like combining ideas. So invention comes from ideas, in this stage, it is phenomenology. Then the invention needs to be implemented. In this stage the invention requires analysis, knowledge, research and mechanism. And that is structuralism. Therefore, we can say the invention is the combination of phenomenology and structuralism. 

Of cause we cannot say firmly that design doesn’t have phenomenology or art doesn’t have structuralism. But in general, that’s my idea of how we can tell differences between these ambiguous words.

Ok so I thought I’d try to apply the exercise we did yesterday in class (structuralist examination of punk and Native American fashion) and apply it to an “interactive artifact.”  I decided to do it on the first webpage that I had up on my browser. Surprise surprise, it was the Facebook news feed. Well that makes it easy, as I don’t have to spend time describing what it is, as I assume everyone in a college class knows about Facebook :).

Step 1: denotation

portrait photos
photos of people/things/places

Textual signifiers
hours/minutes update

textual emphasis

clickable names of people
clickable comments

Step 2 – pull out the connotation

Feeds, status, when updated -> wire services, up to the minute news.
Portraits / headshots -> personals / self advertising.
Minimal design, textual emphasis -> news and information is all that matters.

Step 3 – further distilling

Site plugs you into the 24/7 news pulse. “All the news, all the time.”
Important events aren’t just created by others locally, nationally or internationally, it’s your actions too.
Your input matters, you matter.


The goal of this exercise was for me to see if I ran across any problems doing this analysis on something interactive. Questions did arise, which I’ll outline below:

1. By doing this exercise with an interactive website, I wasn’t sure if I should just focus on one page or the site as a whole. I suppose it can be done eitherway depending on what the unit of analysis is.

2. Going with #1, should I interact with the page, if so, what parts, and how far should I drill down.

3. Similar to our examination of punk fashion, I feel like this exercise is simplified by the fact that I already have a good understanding of social networking sites. How would my analysis of an unknown website work out, would the results be relevant and on target?

4. Is something that is clickable or “interactable” a signifier?

5. Is design a signifier? At first I wasn’t sure, but then I remembered or discussion of how the cut on a piece of fashion can be a signifier of haute couture, so I’ll say yes.

That’s about it. Comments or feedback? At a later date I’ll go back and do this exercise again but with a site that I’m not as informed with.