Semiotics: Finding meaning in storytelling

Pic showing sign saying warning this is a sign

We like patterns and signs to reduce complexity into something more manageable, and then we like to construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work because we like to feel that we know what we are doing, like we have some control over how the world works, so that we can say that everything is ok.

But in order to find meaning, we create meaning and when it feels right to us, then we say that it is so and we interpret signs, logic and symbols in that way. However, semiotics is not the study of what meaning is, but the study of how meaning is created.

In her book Semiotics and Storytelling, Bronwen Martin says that it is not just signs which help us make meaning, but also the approach of the Paris School of Semiotics led by A J Greimas which is a complete way of understanding a text, and everything it has to offer us.

The four principles

Meaning comes from the universe. So, there is no meaning without difference. There is no light without darkness, and the world only takes on shape with contrast. There are four principles which facilitate our understanding in any given text:

  1. Meaning is constructed by the reader. In the same way as the no function in structure principle. When someone comes across an artefact without instructions, then they will find a completely new purpose for it, depending on what they need it to do.
  2. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains.
  3. Story structure underlies all human communication. It seems that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to these patterns are the most likely to be believed as truth – they resonate. In order to be human, we must have a goal or quest, and from there, we have our experiences which we try and understand and make sense of (as the study of phenomenology: the study of the structure of experience, does).
  4. There are three levels of meaning in a text: the narrative level which contains the story-structure; the figurative level, which looks at time place and character; and the deep level or thematic level which links to our inner mental world with its concepts of good and evil.

The narrative level

Any narrative is a change of state or movement from one opposite to another: From life to death, or from conflict to harmony. It can be sudden or progressive where the hesitation has us on tenderhooks and we feel that it may still be possible not to complete the transformation, and that there could be an alternative ending. If a story is long, then it may have multiple transformations which are known as episodes.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp defined 31 story functions and seven character functions which A J Greimas reduced to six actantial roles: sender- object-receiver, helper-subject-opponent which he then put onto three axes of human action: desire, power and communication:

  1. The axis of desire: Any quest is motivated by a lack – of love, knowledge, truth – which leads to doing, transformation.
  2. The axis of power: A story may contain two subjects who quests are in opposition, they could be pursuing the same goal, or one subject takes the other as its object like a stalker.
  3. The axis of communication: The sender is the motivator for the quest and when the receiver receives the information, they are ready for the quest to begin and the action begins too.

Then, there is the canonical narrative schema (or global narrative programme of the quest) which has the sender and receiver negotiate (a) the initial contract to set up the quest which is then followed by (b) the competence stage when the subject (receiver) has the ability to carry out the quest, and (c) the performance stage when the actual event happens. Finally (d) sanction is where the outcome of the event is revealed and interpreted.

The story of any individual in a narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator. Often the confrontation of subjects results in the transfer of an object of value from one subject to another by test or conflict, or by a gift, or exchange.

Sometimes the narrative is interrupted by an active force or persuasion which causes a new quest and narrative to begin and leads us into a new direction.

The figurative level

The figurative level describes and creates our sense of time, place, and character, with descriptions which use our five senses. This level is important in storytelling and is also used in news stories to quickly set the scene and anchor it in our reality.

At this level we are looking for lexical fields or figurative isotopies. So, house, shop, car, factory belong to the isotopy of the city, whereas wind, rain, sun belong to the isotopy of the cosmic. We look for those relating to time and space and those which repeat themselves.

Then we look for differences: high and low, light and dark, to gain sense and meaning, and which link us to the thematic or deep level.

The deep level

The deep level concerns our inner world, our thoughts, and once we know where transformations occur and what is at stake then we can figure out what that means to us.

Then, it is time to ask: Where do the values come from? Martha Beck says that she was surprised when collecting folktales in China as they were never about falling in love, they were always about getting rich. So, in any story, we need to ask: What tradition are the values linked to? And does a story strengthen or challenge the status quo? Does it echo dominant cultural beliefs?

There are so many myths, so much resonance of stars as souls, a desire to return to an original unity, songs as a yearning for beauty and the sacred, we often don’t recognise them explicitly.

But, then if there are gaps or ambiguities in a text, does this allows us to fill them with our cultural heritage and assumptions? Does this render a text more universal? Or more truthful?

After all what is truth? Is the narrator truthful? Is the point of view true? Semiotics is concerned with the feeling of truth because it is the only measure of truth which human kind has been able to devise, no matter how far we think we have come.

Women in Storytelling – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com

We always wanted to write Rey as the central character, but it was just one of the things we knew we wanted to do: to make the film look and feel more like the way the world looks and feels. – JJ Abrams, The Guardian

It is well known that Star Wars is based on the hero’s quest which is an archetypal story that transcends culture and time. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s quest is hard-wired in our psyche and so when our hero battles villains and the powers of darkness, it resonates and entertains each generation anew. The hero’s quest never gets old which is why the Star Wars franchise, begun back in 1977, has endured.

The pattern of our hero receiving a call to action, going on an adventure, doing great things, and returning home to great reward is very satisfying and appears in many of our stories:Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, to name just two. However, these stories have only ever had women in supporting roles as temptresses or goddesses, and other stereotypes (prostitute with a heart of gold, love interest, the really hot girl disguised in glasses) while men do the self-actualisation.

In Star Wars: A New HopePrincess Leia seems to be the only woman in the whole of that galaxy far, far, away. She is a born leader, but still has to wait around for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca, because everyone is following the rescue the princess trope. She may be feisty (*groan* = a terrible word. Why are men never described as feisty?) doling out snappy one liners and keeping her cool whilst in the clutches of Darth Vader, but she is still doing her best with a terrible supporting role.

Therefore, to watch Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a female character, a woman centre stage at last, is completely satisfying. And, Rey is not alone in this story. The ever fabulous Princess Leia is now a more rounded character as General of the Rebel Alliance, a mum and wife (possibly ex-wife). Leading the stormtroopers is Captain Phasma. And, wise guru, Maz Kanata, is the voice of Force wisdom.  So, we have female stormtroopers, female pilots, and female medical staff in the Rebel Camp. Star Wars has becomes representative of the world we live in today. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity.

The story which contains these women is brilliant. Not least of all because this episode of Star Wars reuses all the best parts of the previous Star Wars episodes, and sets up the promise of a satisfactory ending from the very beginning, whilst continuing to build momentum right to its resolution in the last frame of the film. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath until the credits started to roll. We follow Rey right to that ending, leaving us to speculate about her full story, and looking forward to meeting her again in the next episode.

We believe in Rey because we first meet her on the planet Jakku where she lives as a scavenger who finds scrap metal and machinery from abandoned space ships to trade for not-enough food. It is a lonely existence in which she has learnt to become self-sufficient, and how to defend herself.

Like all great characters, she has worked long and hard to learn her skills. She is knowledgeable about spacecraft and how they are put together which has kept her alive all these years.

When her lonely existence is interrupted, first by a droid, whom she refuses to trade for food, we know that she is a good person. And, then when she is called upon in a crisis to fly the Millennium Falcon, we are not surprised that, not only can she fly it, but she can fix it too. It is completely plausible and logical that she is a talented pilot. She has learnt through many lonely long days of taking apart spaceships for food. Han Solo recognises her talent and offers her a job.

However, Rey has her own ideas about what she needs and follows the heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy (or at least happier) in the process of self-actualisation, which has only just begun.

At the end of the film, we know that Rey is a brave woman with still as yet untapped skills and powers, who does the right thing. But, she is still a mystery to us. There is still a lot more for her to discover about herself and for us to vicariously experience as she does.

Finally, we have a Star Wars heroine on her quest of her own.

Roll on Episode VIII. I can’t wait.

Women and Storytelling: Saint, Spy, Suffragette

Spy, Suffragette, Galadriel, White Queen, Princess Leia Pics

We’re in every home, we’re half the human race…

– Maud Watts, Suffragette

Two years ago, I wrote a blog I called Women Centre Stage. It was inspired by my girls, who had just started school, and had discovered that by using the open world or free play mode when playing Lego Lord of The Rings and Lego Star Wars, they could create their own stories, with all the female characters in the centre of the story. Each time they get a new game, they spend time tailoring it to reflect their lives – lives in which girls have the main roles.

It is 2015, but incredibly, there is a proposal to drop feminism from the A-level politics syllabus. In her column, Bridget Christie wonders why the new Creative United Kingdom passport, celebrating 500 years of British talent, only included two women yet seven men. And, why an Israeli newspaper digitally removed Angela Merkel and Ann Hidalogo from a photo. Women are literally being airbrushed from history.

I am a female computer scientist and on a recent IT course I taught, there were three female students to 40+ male ones. This ratio is a lot worse than when I was an undergraduate and, I didn’t really notice until my girls asked me at breakfast: How many girls do you teach, mummy? …Where are the rest? 

Where are the girls?

The other week, we attended Sung Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral and my girls asked: Where are the girls in the choir? Where are the female statues? Where are the girls’ stories? I thought about my childhood growing up in the Church of England. When I was about 12 years old, female lay preachers were still novel and I was one of many girl choristers. And, so it was easier to believe that it only a matter of time before things would change further. However, when I looked at the one woman standing at the front in St Paul’s the other week, amongst all those men, I felt like nothing had progressed at all.

It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent. They are faithful and they endure like Penelope. Odysseus is off living his life seeking glory whilst Penelope is stuck at home as a desperate housewife.

This traditional supporting and enduring journey of our heroine is described in three steps on Ribbonfarm:

  1. The heroine is yet undeveloped.
  2. Her worth and her ability to persevere is threatened.
  3. She endures gracefully and the more she suffers, the more dignified she becomes, until her dignity gives her strength and she regains her worthiness.

When I read Storytelling and Mythmaking by Frank McConnell, I loved that he said that stories save our lives, and that he used films as well as the classics to illustrate myths. However, he only briefly mentioned women and only enduring women in support roles. The discussion focused on male heroes and anti-heroes and their journeys. An alien visiting earth would think that there had been no movies made with strong female characters during that time span – none what so ever.

Not just heroes with boobs

In contrast to the traditional heroine’s quest, the hero’s quest or journey shows that the 1) hero is uncomfortable in the world, and 2) sees a call to adventure, 3) but refuses until life is unbearable and forces changes 4) the hero meets a mentor, then 5) the hero crosses the threshold of no return 6) is tested, meets allies and enemies 7) ready for the major approach or challenge 8) then the hero undergoes an ordeal and faces death and/or a greatest fear, until 9) there is reward, but still the hero is not out of danger – all can still be lost as the hero begins the 10) journey home, only to near get to home and is 11) tested once more, until all ambivalence about this quest has gone 12) the hero sets about transforming the world as the hero has been transformed.

On the fangirl blog series: the heroine’s journey, they look at what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model so fangirl blog looks forwards to identify strong female stories who are not just heroes with boobs. They have feminine concerns, such as whether to have children or not, and they do not necessarily get a happy ending. Is this a reflection of our times?

Ribbonfarm defines the modern heroine’s journey in these three steps:

  1. The heroine is confused.
  2. Her value and dignity are threatened, and her ability to defend this value is tested.
  3. She proves her value by either transcending or invalidating the test and then she redefines what her worthiness means.

The reluctant Suffragette

Suffragette follows a group of women fighting for the right to vote. The lead character, Maud Watts, follows each step of the hero’s quest within the modern heroine’s journey. She is reluctantly called and refuses the call, until there is no alternative and she becomes convinced that change is the only way forward. She pays a high price for her value, but is able to save another young girl from living the life she has lived. Maud Watts’s goal is to find a different way to live this life, which is ultimately what she does. It is a poignant and moving film.

Suffragette’s writer, Abi Morgan said that many male actors turned down Suffragette because the male roles were only supporting roles.  It also took ten years to get the funding to get it made because it has a predominantly female cast and no romance – not a major box office draw? It is only aimed at half the population.

Incidently, I read a theory (for which I can’t, alas, find original references) that the reason only the women over 30 were given the vote in the UK in 1918, was because so many young men had been killed in World War I, Parliament didn’t want a female majority making decisions on how the country was to be run.

Would the UK and the rest of the world look different today if Parliament had decided that a female majority was a good thing?

Spy v Spectre

Spy movie also follows a heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy in the process of self-actualisation. It has plenty of great female characters too. The most successful spy, Karen Walker, is a woman, as is the boss, Elaine Crocker, and the baddie, Rayna Boyanov, who inherits the business from her dad. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity. A lot of the movie is played for laughs so it is very funny whilst turning the spy formula on its head. The deskbound agent grow into her brilliance in the field and at the end of the movie she turns down the hot guy to have a girl’s night, because she knows what is important. She values her friends and support network.

Spy has ruined all other spy movies for me because it was so good and like my girls, I love watching women come into their own on the big screen. It is much more satisfying. It resonates with us. Spy is particularly brilliant as the main character is a 40-year old woman who she doesn’t need to be anything else but herself in order to achieve success. Susan Cooper embodies a new fabulous heroine with a great message.

After Spy, I watched Spectre and in comparison it seemed very old-fashioned and formulaic, and no fun at all. Bond shoots people and takes parts in fantastically elaborate stunts. He is a maverick who saves a corrupt world whilst getting revenge. He is of course supported by women who endure until they need saving and who find him irresistible. Yawn! The women are only there to boost his ego.

I eagerly await the Spy sequel. Move over Bond, Susan Cooper has arrived.

How stories matter

Lovely pic by © savageminds.org
© savageminds.org

People think that stories are shaped by people.
In fact, it’s the other way round.  – Terry Pratchett

When Salon@615 hosted Anne Lamott in conversation with author Ann Patchett, Lamott described reading as a form of religion, and said that the day she discovered chapter books was the first time she knew that she was saved. Even today, when Lamott get a new book, she knows that she is safe, moreorless, for as long as the book lasts. And wow, I know what she means.

Back when I began six rounds of chemotherapy, I picked up Man’s Search for Meaning which is Viktor Frankel’s account of his time in the concentration camps during WWII, and his theory of Logotherapy. A theory which states that the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, which is what Frankel did. In all the horror of the camps, Frankl learnt to comfort himself physically and mentally, by always carrying a scrap of bread in his pocket and, by imagining himself lecturing Logotherapy in America after the war.

Parts of Frankl’s story were so horrendous that I actually forgot where I was until I looked up and saw that I was on a drip in the chemo room. The NHS actually saved me with their wonderful staff and unbearable treatments but Frankl’s story saved me too. Frankl taught me to comfort myself physically with little gifts (I felt too sick to view food as comfort) and mentally with the dream of me lecturing again.

Stories transport us, away from the terrors of our lives and minds. They can also inspire us to take action big or small. Stories can restore our faith in this crazy life by showing us that things can change, nothing bad lasts forever, and when we have to endure, we can find a story to lose ourselves in. Even if it can’t make us feel better about a given situation, it can give us a break – some relief and release from our lives.

In Storytelling and Mythmaking, Frank McConnell says stories save our lives. He says that vicariously living through a hero’s story is the best form of self-help our civilisation has to offer. We learn to be a better version of ourselves inspired by heroes.

McConnell finds heroes in myths and movies from The Iliad to Taxi Driver, and using Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Northrop Frye‘s theories, McConnell outlines our expectations of a good story. Each story has a society, a hero, and a relationship between the two. Each society has rules – some written, some inherent- which our hero either wishes to enforce like a Samurai or a knight, or which make him bitter for he knows these rules are rotten, like the cynical private eye. Sometimes, our hero is a king and will rewrite the rules of society to form a brave new world. But wherever and whenever these heroes are, they experience one of the four seasons of life – the comedy of spring, the romance of summer, the tragedy of autumn, and the winter of irony and satire. These seasons are the cycle of life itself, and our ultimate quest for salvation – the hero’s quest or monomyth.

[N.B. it is the hero’s not heroine’s quest because Campbell said that women were too busy to sit around telling stories(!). We only find women in fairytales or in supporting stereotype roles in McConnell’s movies while men do the self-actualisation. Alas, women have been suppressed by poor plot lines for centuries.]

The monomyth was identified by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said that when we hear a story we want it to give us a how not a why. We don’t always need to know why something has happened, we just need to know how to deal with it. Like me reading Frankl, he gave me a how to get through chemotherapy which I clung to because anytime I asked why I went a little bit crazy.

But, it is not just non-fiction where we can find a how. Fiction works just as well.

In his Masterclass, James Patterson says that he doesn’t really write realism, he is more interested in creating a great, emotional story. After all, life is often stranger than fiction, and much more unbelievable. Patterson is known as the world’s best selling author because he gets the emotional aspect right. He has been told many times by policemen that his characters feel so right even when the police procedure isn’t. Thanks to this emotional resonance, we trust Patterson’s characters and their stories. Instinctively we know that there are more things in heaven and on earth than we can ever explain. We don’t always need a why.

Emotional resonance often feels like truth, which is why when you share a story with someone, they often share one back, rather like Katie Hopkins’s #myfatstory in which she gained weight simply to demonstrate how easy it would be to lose it again. Luckily, she had a moment of vulnerability and empathy and finally understood that weight gain was more complex than just eating too many calories. Through this, she was able to connect to others and was touched when people were willing to share their stories with her. We all know a Hopkins, she is one of those meany friends who prides herself on giving out home truths and telling it like it is so, it was nice to see her vulnerable and human. Unfortunately, #myfatstory wasn’t a story of transformation as Hopkins turned back into her meany-usual self at the end.

Sharing stories, or mutual communication, helps advance humanity says organisational storyteller Thaler Pekar. For sharing a story, sparks a story and encourages everyone to find new solutions and because of this, content strategist, Contently says that even asking why stories matter, is like asking why we need to eat. Stories help us cope with say, being stuck, instead of panicking and having a pee in the lift.

Over on Lithub, writer Lorrie Moore says that short stories are like life itself – surprising and not entirely invited. Reading a story allows us to find that we need to spend time in the company of people whose troubles we might ordinarily avoid, which allows us to step outside the constraints of our own beliefs and opinions. It might not answer any of our questions, instead it may just animate them in what Moore describes as a a lovely shock of mercy and democracy. And, if that leads us to question even one of our beliefs and to be kinder to our fellow humans or ourselves then that is a good thing.

Ritual: Feast on your life

ritual

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
– Zen proverb

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a ‘why’ life happens as it does, but often, we need a ‘how’.

How does life happen to us? How do we live life? And how do we mark or validate the events which change the shape of our lives?

One way to ‘how’ is through ritual.

A couple of years ago, I happened to attend a naming ceremony at my local Church of England. It was very like a traditional baptism but without the catechism. I didn’t know anyone involved, so can only surmise that the parents wanted to mark the birth of their baby but not have him baptised, as they weren’t or didn’t want to become members of the Church of England.

In years gone by, when church going was something the majority of the population did, the church handled all rituals for us. And today, as the baby’s parents demonstrated, it is still somewhere that many people, who don’t describe themselves as religious, go when they want to mark an event: birth and death; sickness and health, thanksgiving, marriage, and coming of age – to name but a few. People often go when they want some comfort.

But, it is not just the big events which we need to mark and manage. The uneventful days when we are alone can often be just as challenging and in need of a ‘how’. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety.

Last winter, I was dreading the end of the summer and the drawing in of the dark nights. Each time I thought about it, I felt something close to despair. I soon learnt that by thinking about the upcoming rituals and religious festivals, I could make myself feel happier and more accepting of the dark days. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas and New Year helped me through the many long nights until spring arrived and I felt better.

There are many rituals we engage in, whether we know it or not. As a child picking brambles up the hills and moors near to where I grew up, we were told to leave the last couple of brambles on each branch, for the fairies to ensure that they would allow the brambles to grow again the following year. I did not know that this is a Celtic tradition, until I read Shiva Rea’s Tending the heart fire. Leaving out some brambles is like an offering to nature, and/or our ancestors. Similarly, the Halloween tradition of ‘Trick or Treat’, when people dress up and exchange candy, is an echo of the same ritual.

Superstition or pagan offerings? Who cares?  Ritual gives us reassurance and hope that although the world is ever-changing, the sun will rise tomorrow, and there will be more brambles to eat next season.

All is well.

This same reassurance can be found in smaller daily rituals, like baking bread or making a pot of tea.  It is no surprise that the Japanese have turned tea making into an elaborate ceremony.  But less elaborate rituals work just as well. They are a moment of pause, a comforting sequence of familiar sounds and smells which can be offered up as meditation and a moment of mindfulness.  And when done with meaning, they can, as the Zen proverb above says, lead or instill a sense of purpose and enlightenment in all aspects of our lives. Other simpler actions can help too. During the winter, I found that the seemingly easy rituals of lighting a fire and some candles, or putting on a pair of fluffy socks and drinking hot milk, helped me feel better when facing a long winter’s night, just as much as looking forward to Christmas did. I felt soothed and comforted.

When I was younger, I used to always be in a hurry, needing to be somewhere else, and now I see it was because I was looking for reassurance and comfort. I believed that I could only find that elsewhere and from someone else. I didn’t know tea-making, fire-lighting, or fluffy socks could help me create a space in which to be, to look within and at my life, and feel better without any external validation.

The poet Derek Walcott puts it beautifully in Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door

Life gives us many experiences good and bad which enrich us all the same. And sometimes there is no one there to comfort us. Nowhere has this been made more clear to me than when I was contemplating the gap on my CV and the well meaning people telling me not mention it for fear that I would never get another job. I didn’t want their advice or fear. I just wanted some sort of support and recognition.

I am finally learning that those experiences happened and are part of me. I don’t have to pretend otherwise. I don’t need to know why. I don’t need well-meaning people giving me advice or anxiety or even recognition. I only need a ‘how’.  How do I mark those events which changed me, if I so choose?  How do I let them go and move on with the rest of my life?  Only I have the answers .

This is a wonderful surprise, and so I am finally beginning to understand the last line of Walcott’s wonderful Love after love.

‘Sit. Feast on your life.’

The time has come, indeed.