Mythologising and Organising

Paul Dowling

Picture a scene in rural Rajasthan in December. A narrow, roughly metalled road divides fields of mustard plants. The road is sparsely lined with trees, foliage a darker, greyer green than the emerald mustard leaves. A tourist coach chugs along the road passing, every now and then a village of grey-brown low dwellings, men in drab walking or cycling along dirt paths. Women are working in the fields, brightly visible in their bright-coloured saris, each one different.  Now: how do you read this visual text?


Some years ago I took a coach tour in northern provinces of India. The fields of green mustard leaves behind the trees sparsely lining the road between Agra and Jaipur were radiant against the pale blue mountains in the distance.

“Look at the women in the fields,” prompted one of my fellow tourists, “aren’t their colours beautiful.” And indeed they were. Though quite a distance away and mainly bending down, working in the leaves, the women dazzled in purples and blues and reds, each one different, jewels in Rajasthan’s own vast emerald silk sari. The other passengers on the coach agreed and cooed and photographed and felt happy in the warm sun and the mild intoxication of beer at lunchtime. As a sociologist I felt obliged to speak.

“What about the men?” I asked.

“What do you mean, there aren’t any men, we haven’t seen any men?”

“Yes you have, you saw them in the villages that we’ve driven through. What colours were they wearing?”

“Well, mainly drab khakis and greys.”

“So you probably wouldn’t notice them even if they were in the fields.”


“Tell me, in an agricultural environment in which people work spread out over a large area that is pretty much monochrome, what do you think is the best way to ensure that you can keep control of your women and still be free to get up to whatever takes your fancy?” My colleagues were aghast.

“You’ve ruined our afternoon.” And so I had, and perhaps mine as well. Jeremy Bentham could not have designed a more efficient rural panopticon; the vivid markings of this particular beast now merely warned of the sting in its tail; idyllic culture had been stripped of its lustrous garment to reveal the hard core of the social structure that wears it as a veil: sari-technology. Tourist discourse was a cutaway to an idyllic dream; sociological discourse here, a beauty’s awakening, but I was no Prince Charming.

An American in Haiti

In this work I am concerned with the analysis and with the mythologising of text and its meaning. The object text in the case of my Rajasthan example—what Barthes (1981) might have described as the text-as-work—is no more than an assemblage of clips that we as un-selfconscious editors cut seamlessly together to constitute our text-as-text. We know what the text says because we know what game we are playing—I was playing my game in the wrong playground. Oddly, we audience real film in a similar way even though the titles and credits—not to mention our own commonsense—make it quite clear that a great deal of authorship has gone into the construction of the movie. We have no difficulties at all installing ourselves in impossible observer positions, hitching onto the plot en route to the denouement. Even where there is an apparently deliberate attempt to disrupt our smooth ride, the ideal mythologised narrative form is the pattern against which our walkthrough the scenes is revealed as random. These playgrounds are well organised and at the corner of every street. Stranger still, where a text does not declare its authorship we seem to have an irrepressible urge to install one, God, patriarchy, whatever.

Not all playgrounds are as apparently uncontested. To invoke Roland Barthes once again, we might recall his French soldier on the cover of Paris Match. But I’ll use a soldier of my own, this one American (see Brown & Dowling, 1998). The soldier, shown in Figure 1, is suppressing a Haitian. The soldier is a very powerful man, rendered almost monumental by the camera angle. He is armed with a fearsome weapon which he is prepared to fire—his finger clearly rests on the trigger. The soldier is vigilant, on the watch for further trouble. Yet this is a benevolent soldier. Although he holds a deadly weapon, it is pointed downwards and not at anyone. He holds the Haitian down with his knee—a minimum amount of force.

The Haitian contrasts starkly with the soldier. He appears physically small—a feature exaggerated by the foreshortening effect of the camera angle. He is weak and easily suppressed by the soldier who does not need to use his gun. A stick lies on the ground. This might have been a weapon dropped by the Haitian as the soldier pinned him down; a primitive weapon for primitive people. There are two groups of Haitians in the background. One group, on the left, seems to be engaging in a brawl. The members of the other group, in the top right, appear indifferent to the action. Behind the soldier, lies a pile of rubble. Behind him and to his left, a media sound recordist is recording the action for the news.

Clearly, some interpretation has already taken place in this description of the text. The stick might not, after all, be a weapon, for example. This interpretation has been guided by an orientation to another level of description that I want to make, that is, of the ‘mythical’ figures constituted in and by the image. The USA—signalled by the soldier—is a powerful, but benevolent state. This state takes on an altruistic responsibility for other, less developed nations, protecting primitive societies from self-destruction. Haiti is precisely such a society, characterised by criminality, apathy, and low-level technology; and already lying in ruins. The press, represented by the sound-recordist and by the photographer of the image (in the place of the observer), is shown as a neutral organ, telling it as it is.

Now the question you have to ask yourself is, does it matter where the photograph appears? If it appears on the cover of Time magazine, then we may well feel that the above reading is appropriate. Suppose, however, that it appears on the cover of Living Marxism. In this case we would probably reject the celebration of America and the disparaging of the Third World state. Rather, we would probably interpret the text as ironic: this is how America thinks of itself and of its neighbours and this is precisely the problem in contemporary global politics. After all, the gaze of the soldier resembles nothing so much as the optimistic gazes of the blond youths in so many Nazi images. In fact, the text is taken from the front page of The Guardian, a UK newspaper with a broadly centre-left editorial orientation. Here, perhaps, the text signifies the journal’s own neutrality in the play between the literal and ironic readings of the photograph.

Another example: the city-as-work, how do we constitute it as text. I tend to village London according to the occupations and routine journeys and occasional visits of my own life history and these differ somewhat both from the historical, London-as-accretion-of villages or the zoning of new housing development and from the sociological London-as-social-class-map. Each of these and all other readings hypertextualise the city to form unholy allegiances between boroughs, buildings, streets. In order to get their licence, London cabbies must ‘do the knowledge’ of London according to the

"Blue Book" which is a book listing 400 routes through London which the candidate must learn, including all places of interest, museums, hospitals, police stations, cinema's, statues, monuments, restaurants, government buildings and any place that a fare paying passenger might require to go along these routes. (London Taxi website, knowledge overview, last accessed 03/01/04)


London is less an alliance of villages and more a library of narratives.

Happenings and their textualisings: bounding the text

My examples are intended to point at two questions that confront us when self-consciously embarking on textual analysis; questions that must be addressed yet that defy security in response (as any good question must). The first question invites us to specify the text. Barthes’ methodological (if I may call it that) distinction between text-as-work and text-as-text is helpful, but to operationalise it is to forget that the text-as-work has already been established as a text-as-text at the point of its naming. The book on the library shelf—whether or not it has been opened—is already a part of a larger text-as-work which we might establish as a text-as-text by calling it the library, or the institution or practice that houses or sponsors or manages it, and so forth. This issue of text and context (con-text) is clearly a problem that is raised by my consideration of the photograph of the American soldier. Allan Kaprow turns things around somewhat and might be taken to imply that, insofar as it aspires to art, the book shouldn’t be in the library in the first place:

... the better galleries and homes (whose decor is still a by-now-antiseptic neoclassicism of the twenties) desiccate and prettify modern paintings and sculpture that had looked so natural in their studio birthplace. [...] artists' studios do not look like galleries and [...] when an artist's studio does, everyone is suspicious. I think that today this organic connection between art and its environment is so meaningful and necessary that removing one from the other results in abortion. (Kaprow, 2003; p. 85)

For Kaprow, habitat is vital:

The place where anything grows up (a certain kind of art in this case), that is, its "habitat." gives to it not only a space, a set of relationships to the various things around it, and a range of values, but an overall atmosphere as well, which penetrates it and whoever experiences it. Habitats have always had this effect, but it is especially important now, when our advanced art approaches a fragile but marvelous life, one that maintains itself by a mere thread, melting the surroundings, the artist, the work, and everyone who comes to it into an elusive, changeable configuration. (Kaprow, 2003; p. 85)

The habitat is the atelier, presumably, which must house the artist’s entire developing corpus (is it OK for a piece to be moved from the easel to allow work to proceed on the next) and anyone who wishes to experience it. Is it more than coincidence that Kaprow’s article was originally published in 1961, the same year as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? Kaprow escaped the catch by containing his art temporally as well as spatially as ‘Happenings.’ The first of these events, ’18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ was performed in October 1959 in the Reuben Gallery, New York. Clear plastic walls divided the space into three rooms and the audience were sent ‘props’ and told that they would participate in the work and given tickets that showed individual timetables in terms of specified seats in particular rooms at different times. Events included an orchestra of toy instruments, a girl sullenly squeezing oranges and drinking the juice and actors reading placards whilst moving through the rooms. We might interpret ’18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ as an attempt to detextualise art. In a sense there is no art-as-work. It can be planned, even scripted, but the participation of the audience—however limited this might actually have been in practice—accentuates the spontaneity of the live theatre and weakens even if only slightly the distinction between author and audience; the Happening is authored and audienced at least in some degree simultaneously. Further, no one at all sees all of the Happening, not even Kaprow, its originator, who may nevertheless hope to benefit from its mythologising:

To the extent that a Happening is not a commodity but a brief event, from the standpoint of any publicity it may receive, it may become a state of mind. Who will have been there at that event? It may become like the sea monsters of the past or the flying saucers of yesterday. I shouldn't mind, for as the new myth grows on its own, without reference to anything in particular, the artist may achieve a beautiful privacy, famed for something purely imaginary while free to explore something nobody will notice. (Kaprow, 2003; p. 88)

Did his ‘beautiful privacy’ entail another catch, I wonder.

The performance artist, Jack Bowman, includes Kaprow’s Happenings as examples of performance art.

When I did my first major performance art piece at the Cleveland Performance Art Festival on April 9, 1993, I handed out a flyer with the performance of Jack's Theorem and the Primal Thought. On this flyer I wrote "The Act is TRUTH. Nothing that was ever recorded is truth. Nothing that was ever said is truth. Only the ACT." This is the best definition that I am aware of for performance art. (Bowman, J. nd; , also; emphasis in original; last accessed 11/05/04)

Bowman’s ‘definition’ neatly effaces the term ‘truth’ (nothing, including the definition, can be pronounced as true in speech or writing) and, together with it, any recourse to a metaphysics of presence, to a meaning that lies behind the performance. Homer Simpson put it just right, at the end of a family discussion on the possible moral of the story in the episode:

Lisa:       Perhaps there is no moral to this story.

Homer:    Exactly!  Just a bunch of stuff that happened

Marge:    But it certainly was a memorable few days.

Homer:    Amen to that!

(See Chen, 1991)


And the bunches of stuff that comprised Kaprow’s happenings and Bowman’s performances were also (it would seem) memorable having left traces in the memories of participants and audiences and also in museums and video and image archives and in print publications and also distributed across the internet. The question is, has the art been detextualised in the sense that ‘18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ never was and still is not a text-as-work. Well, it has in this sense. But then this is precisely the condition of all text, which is to say, that it is always authored in its reading; the text-as-work is merely an analytic placeholder that reminds us that we need to be clear about just exactly where we are starting from. ’18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ is not the only object of interest that is unavailable as a prototype; this is also the case with my holiday trip through Rajasthan as with all other temporally contained objects. It is also the case with spatially contained objects that are unavailable for reasons of the social and geographical striation of space. Let’s say, then, that such happenings cannot in themselves become the direct objects of textual analysis. But we can have access to what I earlier described as an assemblage of clips, mnemonic or more tangible derivatives of the postulated prototype; in other contexts, this assemblage might appropriately be described as data.

My first question requires the specification of the text for analysis. The answer must delineate the assemblage, the dataset. In the case of the photograph of the American soldier, I must be clear on whether the text is comprised solely by the photograph—or a part of it—or whether it other information, for example, a verbal description of the scene including the location and nationalities of the figures, the Associated Press photographer’s note that was appended to a slightly different shot taken at the same time, the caption that appeared with the photograph, the name of the journal and where it was placed and so forth. I refer to this practice as bounding the text—establishing its extent.

In Doing Research/Reading Research: A mode of interrogation for education, Andrew Brown and I (1998) proposed that a research process might begin with the establishing of an analytical distinction between theoretical and empirical fields. The former consists of general claims and debates connected to the sphere of interest. This field will include the conclusions of previous research and other documentation that might be construed as commentary. It will also include theoretical positions and debates that bear on the general theoretical line that is to be adopted by the researcher. At the most sharply defined point of the theoretical field we placed the research question or hypothesis. On the other side of the divide, the empirical field consists of local practices, experiences, utterances and so forth. In order to address the research question, we must construct an empirical setting in which to conduct the research. We do this through the processes of research design—for example, deciding whether the research is to be exploratory or experimental or some combination of the two—and decisions on sampling and on data collection and analysis techniques. When we have completed the research, we will have compiled, firstly, a set of findings. These are local statements about the empirical setting and are the sharpest end of the empirical field. The extent to which the findings adequately represent the empirical setting is a measure of their reliability. Secondly, we will have an answer to the research question which may now be reformulated as a conclusion. The extent to which the findings address the research question as local instances of it is a measure of their validity.

Let me take an example. Suppose that I am concerned with the gendering of cultural practices in rural Rajasthan. The manner in which I have stated this interest suggests a sociological or anthropological approach, so my theoretical field will include sociological and anthropological and possibly demographic literature and so on relating to Rajasthan. I may be adopting a particular theoretical interpretation of gender; my off-the-cuff analysis on the tourist coach might suggest a general interest in a socialist or radical feminist approach and there is clearly a wealth of potentially relevant literature here. Unless I was to be adopting a strongly experimental line, I would expect my research question to develop over the course of the research. As a starting point, however, I might consider, ‘how do men and women recruit visible cultural practices such as dress in the reproduction of and opposition to dominant patterns of gender relations?’

Now I will return to the scene at the start of the paper. This clearly suggests a possible setting for the research, at least in terms of location. What I now need to do is to generate one or more texts for analysis. Let’s suppose that the setting consists of a coach ride through Rajasthan on 29th December 1993 or, rather, the view from the window of the coach. This setting is spatially and temporally contained just the same as Kaprow’s Happenings. Like ’18 Happenings in 6 Parts’, even as a participant at the time—in my case, as a passenger on the coach—my experience of the setting is partial. There is, in this sense (and in others) no setting as such that does not invite a metaphysics of presence, an authorship, an omniscient God, perhaps, so that to capture the setting would be to attain God’s view. So, I refer to my own recollections of the scene—under other circumstances these may have included fieldnotes, photographs, even interviews with other passengers as observer-informants and with local people had the coach stopped to allow it—the totality of this assemblage is to constitute my text.

Can I get closer to God by enlarging my text? No: if we insist on enumerating texts or their possible component parts, then the total number is always infinite and I can deal only with a finite number; any finite number as a fraction of infinity is zero. But this is only part of the answer because it rests on the nature of my answer to my first question posed in engagement with textual analysis, the question, ‘what is the text?’ The second question is perhaps a little more subtle, ‘what is the text an instance of?’ Answering this question is, essentially, what I have been attempting to do in the whole of my academic work.

Plato’s tennis: referring the text

If we stay on the coach in Rajasthan we will recall that at least two answers to my second question were advanced: the text—a view from the window of the coach as experienced by a given individual—is an instance of idyllic, rural beauty; the text is an instance of patriarchal oppression. The choice depends not on which window we’re looking from, but on what game we are playing, on whether we are tourists out to enjoy the day or whether we are sociologists of a particular kind—and there are many kinds. Now there’s nothing really very surprising about this; we’re well used to the idea that beauty and ugliness lie in the eyes (or should it be the transactional gaze) of the beholder, especially after having learned well the lessons of poststructuralism. But what is surprising is that the language of so much academic utterance, as well as utterances in other regions of discourse, seems difficult to reconcile with even the mildest of relativisms. Here, for example, is Lev Manovich:

What follows is an attempt at both a record and a theory of the present. Just as film historians traced the development of film language during cinema’s first decades, I aim to describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of the new media. […]

Does it make sense to theorize the present when it seems to be changing so fast? It is a hedged bet. If subsequent developments prove my theoretical projections correct, I win. But even if the language of computer media develops in a different direction than the one suggested by the present analysis, this book will become a record of possibilities heretofore unrealized, of a horizon visible to us today but later unimaginable. (Manovich, L., 2001; pp. 7-8)


Manovich’s theory of the present must clearly constitute a transformation of the present—it is other than his record which, itself, must be a selection. This is fine. But he then claims that this will potentially provide access to a driving logic, the engine of media language development. He further seems to suggest that this will enable him to produce testable propositions that will, ultimately, be put to the test of time. Even if they fail as predictions, his propositions will nevertheless constitute a transparent window on today for the future. The text, it seems, is an instance of its referential setting, the present, whether it is looking forward or backwards. Manovich’s move here stands as an illustration of what N. Katherine Hayles has tagged the ‘platonic backhand’:

The Platonic backhand works by inferring from the world's noisy multiplicity a simplified abstraction. So far so good: this is what theorizing should do. The problem comes when the move circles around to constitute the abstraction as the originary form from which the word's multiplicity derives. Then complexity appears as a "fuzzing up" of an essential reality rather than as a manifestation of the world's holistic nature. (Hayles, N.K., 1999; p. 12)

Pierre Bourdieu makes a similar point:

The science of myth is entitled to describe the syntax of myth, but only so long as it is not forgotten that, when it ceases to be seen as a convenient translation, this language destroys the truth that it makes accessible. One can say that gymnastics is geometry so long as this is not taken to mean that the gymnast is a geometer. (Bourdieu, P., 1990; p. 93)

To recognise that beauty lies in the eye of the holder is to admit that the text is an instance not of some external source, but of the system of categories and relations that are brought to bear by the analyst; a gymnastic performance is an instance of geometry, but only when viewed by a mathematician qua mathematician. This is not to say that the viewer can only ever see what they have seen already. An encounter with a text is a point of the potential reformulation of the observer. Previously (see, for example, Dowling, 1998), I have used Piaget’s (1995) equilibration metaphor; the reading of a text is ultimately describable as a process of a coming to a state of equilibrium. This metaphor is consistent with Piaget’s grounding principle of autoregulation or homeostasis. There is a problem with equilibration however in that it constitutes equilibrium as a property of the equilibrating system, either as an edenic or utopian state; crudely, the system has to be able to ‘know’ which direction to move in (Dowling, 1998). It is not at all obvious that this is a helpful assumption; a poetic engagement with a text, for example, does not stand in any obvious relationship to equilibrium, neither do the rhizomes proposed by Deleuze and Guattari (1987). As alternatives, I shall make pragmatic use of autopoiesis or emergence depending upon where I am positioning myself as authorial voice. Hayles (1999) associates these terms with the second and third ‘wave’ of cybernetics respectively and homeostasis predominantly with the first. I shall use autopoiesis—self-organisation—where I am identifying with the analyst and emergence where I am describing the formulation and reformulation of a system from outside of it, as it were.

My use of the term, autopoiesis, derives from the second order cybernetics of Humberto Maturana (see Hayles, 1999), but I am deploying it pragmatically and without general epistemological pretensions. The concept enables me to think about the internal organisation of the audience as (analytically) distinct from the structural coupling of the audience and text that enables the latter, shall we say, to surprise the former but not to communicate the meaning of the surprise. The latter is determined by audience self-organisation which may involve greater or lesser equilibrium or stability, shall we say.

Both tourist and sociologist responses to the Rajasthan text exhibit a fair degree of stability to the extent that they are unsurpising to an observer who plays both games. Of course, there are likely to be variations in response between tourists and between sociologists, but it is nevertheless plausible to construct a stability in the respective discourses at some sufficiently high level of analysis. I shall refer to the extent of this stability is a measure of the institutionalisation of the discourse. The limits to the delicacy of the institutionalisation are revealed in empirical differences in response within the discourse, so that the delineation of such differences is really establishing the level of analysis at which institutionalisation is being described.

The way that I have described it suggests that the institutionalisation of a discourse or practice might be interpreted as the product or language of an alliance of subjectivities. Then the differentiation of discourses—tourist and sociologist, say—marks an opposition of subjectivities. I should make clear at this point that the term 'subjectivity' here refers to the subject or ‘speaker’ of the discourse and may be defined at any level of analysis so that a individual human subject, having been apprenticed into diverse discourses and practices, is appropriately interpreted as an articulation of subjectivities. Thus oppositions and alliances may be inter- or intra-subject.

At a higher level of analysis, we can interpret institutionalised discourses and practices as emergent epiphenomena on the play of structural couplings that constitutes the formation of oppositions and alliances of authors and audiences. The distinction between author and audience merely directs our attention to the particular utterance or action that is of current interest. Viewed from within a system, autopoiesis looks like the acquisition or recruitment or deployment or construction or dismantling of an organisational language or, in its tacit form, a habitus (cf Bourdieu, 1990). From outside of the system, such organisational languages and habituses appear as epiphenomena or, perhaps, as ideologies—cultural practices in relation to social structure. Thus the transmission and acquisition of a discourse or practice, which is to say, pedagogy (whether tacit or explicit) may, from outside of the system, be interpreted as cultural reproduction emergent on the expansion of an alliance (social reproduction).

The decision as to whether we are within or outside a system is simply a question of the level of analysis at which we are operating, whether I am constructing or expositing my theory or considering its status. For example, I may think of my thoughts as the product of my consciousness (autopoiesis) or i may think of my consciousness as epiphenomenal in relation to, say, evolutionary or biological action. Crucially, as I have constructed them here, the languages of autopoiesis and emergence are isomorphic: structural coupling and organisational language correspond directly to social structure and cultural practice. Insofar as the language that I develop is able to sustain this isomorphism, the method will exhibit a fractal quality. That is to say, its deployment is independent of the level of analysis at which it is deployed and indeed, as I have suggested, the method may also be deployed in the analysis of itself.

A brief dismantling of a familiar metaphor may assist in the stabilising of my own organisational language, the metaphor is that of camera as observer. The camera is certainly structurally coupled to the world around it, principally (or ideally) through the medium of light. The camera automatically and through the agency of the photographer selects its subject and adjusts for focus, exposure, white balance and so forth and writes a record to film or digital memory. But there is no autopoiesis involved here in the sense that I am deploying the term. The inscription of the record—the photograph—is simply the structural impact of one part of a system on another; the camera has no organisational language. So there is no transmission of information as such. Information is constituted only at the point at which the photographer views the inscribed image, either in the viewfinder or on the film or LCD display and activates a photographic or tourist or domestic organisational language.

I am now in a position to return to my second question concerning the analysis of texts, that is, 'what is the text an instance of?’ I can now say that the structural coupling between text-as-work and its audience (or, alternatively, the author of its reading as a text-as-text) is that which establishes the possibility of the text-as-text. However, the nature of the text-as-text will be given by the organisational language—the strongly or weakly institutionalised discourse or practice—that the audience deploys. The text, then, can only be construed an instance of that organisational language; any alternative would entail the reification of the text-as-work. As I have established, the latter is purely a placeholder; there can be no such thing as a text that stands outside of an audience's reading of it.

Mythologising the text/Conjuring the real

The language that I am constructing here has the advantage—for my purposes—of coherence and consistency, but the general claim that I am making here is widely recognised, at least; we might say that although there are counters to it, the claim is strongly institutionalised in academic writing in the social sciences. The question that this raises, then, is why is it so widely ignored? I have offered one illustration of this ignorance in the claims made by Lev Manovich who will certainly not be unaware of relativist epistemologies (if this is not an oxymoron), yet he is content to set his own work within the context of what resembles nothing so much as logical positivism—the transparency of the text to scholarly scrutiny and the possibility of the formulation of testable propositions. Here is Dick Hebdige responding to texts by Jean Baudrillard and others:

Whatever Baudrillard or The Tattler or Saatchi and Saatchi, and Swatch have to say about it, I shall go on reminding myself that this earth is round not flat, that there will never be an end to judgement, that the ghosts will go on gathering at the bitter line which separates truth from lies, justice from injustice, Chile, Biafra and all the other avoidable disasters from all of us, whose order is built upon their chaos. And that, I suppose, is the bottom line on Planet One. (Hebdige, D., 1988; p. 176)

What seems to be disturbing Hebdige is that some people are having fun writing academic papers or making advertisements or kitsch watches whilst others are having somewhat less fun and that the one is entailed in the other in some kind of a master-slave dialectic. I feel inclined to point Hebdige in the direction of a story about a wealthy young man who wanted to know what he had to do in order to attain salvation (he can find a discussion of it in Dowling, 1998); but I’m sure that the good Professor’s activities in film studies are, at this very minute, bringing practical relief to the suffering all over the world. Here is an Stuart Kauffman setting the scene for his theory of order in the universe:

If the universe is running down because of the second law [of thermodynamics], the easy evidence out my window is sparse—some litter here and there, and the heat given off by me, a homeotherm, scrambling the molecules of air. It is not entropy but the extraordinary surge towards order that strikes me. Trees grabbing sunlight from a star eight light-minutes away, swirling its photons together with mere water and carbon dioxide to cook up sugars and fancier carbohydrates; legumes sucking nitrogen from bacteria clinging to their roots to create proteins. I eagerly breathe the waste product of this photosynthesis, oxygen—the worst poison of the archaic world, when anaerobic bacteria ruled—and give off carbon dioxide that feeds the trees. The biosphere around us sustains us, is created by us, grafts the energy flux from the sun into the great web of biochemical, biological, geologic, economic, and political exchanges that envelopes the world. Thermodynamics be damned. Genesis, thank whatever lord may be, has occurred. We all thrive. (Kauffman, S., 1995; p. 10)

I am quite astonished at what Kauffman seems to be able to see from his window.  Most of it seems to be composed of the constructs of the natural sciences. It is interesting, though, that when he gets to the social sciences, he sees economic and political order where Hebdige sees chaos. It is not entirely without relevance that Hebdige’s comment appears at the end of his paper and Kauffman’s is in the introductory chapter of his book. They stand as accessible metatheoretical postscript and preface to the substantive achievements of their respective work. What both appear to be doing is, firstly, to make very strong claims on the existence of a reality that is independent of the observer. Kauffman’s window is very similar to my own, no doubt, and I only have to look out to confirm his facts preliminary to voting with him on the issue of the second law of thermodynamics. Secondly, both are painting the scenery with colours selected from very particular paintboxes. Kauffman recruits substantially from the natural sciences, but there is no shortage of tropic language—grabbing trees, sucking legumes, ruling bacteria. Hebdige establishes a chain of identification between sociological and commercial fun-loving tricksters to which he opposes sorry media eventalisings with janusian ghosts in-between. Both fine, prime-time examples of Hayles’ Platonic Wimbledon. The depictions offered by each author is a construction of their respective organisational languages, but their authorship is, here, hiding in the blinding light of their verbal virtuosity to emerge elsewhere in their more measured presentations of their analysis. The text-as-work—the potential view from the window, as it were—is a mythologised world; the transparency of the window passes unchallenged. In each case, the mythologising is a point de capiton that fixes an a alliance with those of the rest of us that have a need to believe that there is a reality out there that we really can reach, and predict, and control, and change.

There is another kind of mythologising.

We used to think of texts as being made out of words and sentences; now under the conjoined influences of postmodern theory and electronic writing technologies, we think of texts as being made out of text. The loom is still needed to weave the individual elements (unless they are "found objects," lifted from other texts), but organization and linearization is now a two-stage process, the virtual text produced by the first stage serving as input to the second. While the writer remains responsible for the microlevel operations, she may bypass the macrolevel stage, thus offering du texte as a freely usable resource to the reader, rather than un text structured as a logical argument aiming at persuasion. (Ryan, M-L.,1999; p. 100)

Composition after Duchamp is idea-generative, not product-oriented. As data-interaction, its only directive: Take whatever data is recorded (call them, perhaps, these 'having become') and from them make a tracing. If three-dimensional objects give off a two-dimensional shadow, writing is now conceived of as a three-dimensional shadow of a fourth-dimensional process of becoming. (Sirc, G., 1999; p. 195)

These extracts, both from the same volume edited by Ryan (1999) far from mythologising the text-as-work, etherealises all text. Just as Marcel Duchamp established, in his ‘readymades,’ the act of the artist’s selection as the degree-zero of all art, so Marie-Laure Ryan and Geoffrey Sirc celebrate the action of the writer. Ryan’s author is the weaver of a gift to be admired briefly, or not, and to be unpicked and rewoven in whole or in part by the next weaver. Sirc’s composer is rather more Nietzschean. In either case, it is now the author rather than the text that is mythologised. Ryan and Sirc are seeking different alliances, perhaps, alliances with authors rather than the audiences that Hebdige and Kauffman are intending to impress. Because it is authorship itself that they are celebrating, Ryan and Sirc have no need to establish a metatheory as such, they can simply theorise.

We might think of the mythologising of the authors whom I have mentioned here—Manovich, Hebdige, Kauffman, Ryan and Sirc—as marketing strategies. It might even be useful to pin labels to their respective target markets: realist audiences in the case of the first three listed; and let’s say, for the time being, constructivist audiences in the case of the last two. The names aren’t crucial, here, they are merely potential strapline markers. They serve what Basil Bernstein (1996) might have described as ‘classificatory’ functions, distinguishing between categories, allowing the nature of what goes on within the categories—‘framing’—to be elaborated elsewhere. But the work of classification is not fully achieved simply by the marking out of categories. Realists will also need to choose between Hebdige’s semiotic mode of analysis and left-political interest and Kauffman’s natural science mode and his focus on biology. Constructivists may prefer Ryan’s weaving to Sirc’s becoming or the other way around. In other words, whilst the marketing or classification of a work may or may not appear to be separated from the work itself as packaging, such demarcation is never really possible. Nevertheless, authors do have strategic decisions to make in relation to marketing strategies. In my experience, packaging is a useful strategy if you have very little in the way of a product; if you do, then you run the risk of a clash or of attention being focused on the package rather than the product. Unless, of course, the package is wholly consistent with the product, in which case, ‘packaging’ is probably the wrong term; it is perhaps more accurate to speak in terms of the public face of the product itself. My own preferred strategy, then, is to go for a product—and it will be recalled that I am referring to an organisational language here—that incorporates its own marketing.

The Soldans of Byzantium: a case study

The organisational language that I shall be introducing is concerned with the analysis of text. I have already introduced two of its key aspects in terms of questions which I shall now state in the form of principles:

1.    The text as object of analysis is to be bounded.

2.    The text is to be understood as an instance of the organisational language that is deployed in its analysis.

In order further to pave the way for the introduction of my organisational language, I shall provide contrasting analyses of a specific text. The text that I have chosen is shown in Figure 2. It is a thirteenth century Italian painting, The Madonna in Majesty, by the Florentine, Cimabue, painted in about 1280. I have chosen this particular image because it has already been subject to a careful and sociologically relevant analysis by Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress (1988). A contrasting of this earlier analysis with my own will enable me to illustrate a number of the general features of the approach that I am taking that I take to be crucial. I shall first introduce and discuss the approach to the analysis that is taken by Hodge and Kress; in the course of this introduction I shall need also to provide some background on, as well as my own interpretations of some of, some of the work that they cite.

Hodge & Kress construct the basis for their ‘diagnostic social semiotic’ reading of the Cimabue work by generating a number of propositions from a discussion of sociological and sociolinguistic theory. In this discussion, they draw on a number of key theoretical antecedents including Émile Durkheim’s categories, organic and mechanical solidarity. These concepts are central in Durkheim’s work, The Division of Labour in Society (1984). In what was his doctoral thesis, Durkheim wanted to ask how it was that, if human beings could be characterised in terms of the destructive will proposed by Schoppenhauer, human societies did not destroy themselves. He answered the question by proposing a modality of social solidarity. Certain societies are characterised by a simple division of labour and a segmental structure, that is, communities within society are essentially interchangeable with each other. The coherence of such societies depended upon a powerful state, repressive law, and a collective conscience. The latter established allegiance to a unifying idea such as a religion. As the division of labour becomes more complex, the collective conscience becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, but is replaced by interdependence within a society that can no longer be described as segmental. The responsibility of the state moves to the maintenance of restitutive law. This more evolved form was referred to as organic solidarity and was seen by Durkheim as an ideal. However, its development was inhibited by pathological forms including, for example, forced division of labour and the anomic form described in Hodge’s and Kress’s analysis. I should point out that Hodge and Kress do not actually cite The Division of Labour in Society, but Durkheim’s work, Suicide (1951). Their analysis also involves a discussion of suicide drawing on this work.

Hodge and Kress align Durkheim’s organic and mechanical solidarity with a classification of speech types that they refer to as ‘high’ and ‘low’ languages which apparently correspond to Bernstein’s (1971) ‘elaborated’ and ‘restricted’ speech codes. Social organisations which exhibit organic solidarity and high languages are characterised, they claim, by ‘hypotaxis’, that is, hierarchical organisation. On the other hand, mechanical solidarity and low languages are characterised by ‘parataxis’, that is, they lack hierarchical organisation. Thus, they argue that hypotaxis and parataxis, which are linguistic categories, are ‘transparent signifiers’ of organic and mechanical solidarity, respectively.[1] Hodge & Kress also draw upon work (influenced by Halliday’s sociolinguistics) on schizophrenic language, which is found to be markedly discohesive in terms of senseless syntagmatic connections, senseless references, and non-congruous relations between speakers. In view of this, ‘schizophrenia is interpreted as a transparent signifier of breakdown in the social order’ (Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988; p. 110). This is summarised, in the sixth of seven propositions, as:

Absence or disruption of hypotactic and paratactic structures is a transparent signifier of the repudiation of kinds of social order and belonging: that is, of Durkheimian ‘anomie’.

(Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988, p. 111)

In fact, the association between, for example, hypotaxis and organic solidarity may be less than ‘transparent’. Such transparency as might be apparent to another reader is probably contingent upon their acceptance of Hodge & Kress’s characterisation of organic solidarity as a ‘hierarchically ordered social structure’. However, there is, as far as I can see, nothing in Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society (1984) which encourages this. Durkheim describes organic solidarity as established by cooperation and mutual dependence and law is predominantly restitutive, that is, facilitating. Hierarchical organisation is comparatively weak as Durkheim proposes:

To the extent that segmentary organs fuse together each social organ becomes larger in volume, and this all the more so because in principle the overall volume of society increases simultaneously. Practices common to the professional group thus become more general and abstract, as do those common to society as a whole, and consequently leave the field more open for particular divergences. Likewise the greater independence enjoyed by the later generations in comparison with their elders cannot fail to weaken the traditionalism of the profession, and this makes the individual still freer to innovate.

Thus not only does professional regulation, by its very nature, hinder less than any other form of regulation the free development of individual variation, but moreover it hinders it less and less. (Durkheim, É.,1984; pp. 243-4)

In mechanical solidarity, there is a necessity for repressive law to sustain the unitary collective conscience. Under these circumstances, some form of hierarchy would seem to be a pre-requisite. This is the reverse of Hodge & Kress’s description of these categories.

In drawing on Bernstein’s work, Hodge and Kress claim that:

Elaborated codes position participants at a distance from each other and from the world of referents, and hence must be explicit. Restricted codes can be implicit because they are context-bound, close to a context which links speakers and hearers in a common bond. So restricted codes express high solidarity, and elaborated codes the opposite. (Hodge, R. & Kress, g., 1988; p. 109)

This does not sit easily with either Durkheim’s or Bernstein’s sociology in the sense that these categories refer to modes rather than degree of solidarity, in the case of Durkheim, nor is it clear that Bernstein’s speech codes ordinalise solidarity. Hodge & Kress also introduce Bernstein’s early work on the classification and framing of educational knowledge. They describe, in particular, collection and integrated curriculum codes. In his introduction to Volume 3 of Class, Codes and Control (1977), Bernstein seems to be quite clear that the codes are derived from the more fundamental concepts, classification and framing, which I have already mentioned above. In Bernstein’s conception: ‘classification’ refers to the strength of boundary between contents and derives from the distribution of power within society; ‘framing’ refers to the organisation of relations within categories and derives from principles of control. It seems odd, perhaps, that Hodge & Kress mention ‘classification’ once (in parentheses appended to their own term, ‘grid’) and do not refer to ‘framing’ at all. Furthermore, whilst they appear to have acknowledged the paradox that Bernstein identifies towards the end of his paper, they have removed any reference to Durkheim. Bernstein’s description reads:

... the covert structure of mechanical solidarity of collection codes creates through its specialised outputs organic solidarity. On the other hand the overt structure of organic solidarity of integrated codes creates through its less specialised outputs mechanical solidarity. And it will do this to the extent to which its ideology is explicit, elaborated and closed and effectively and implicitly transmitted through its low insulations. Inasmuch as integrated codes do not accomplish this, then order is highly problematic at the level of social organisation and at the level of the person. Inasmuch as integrated codes do accomplish such socialisation, then we have the covert deep closure of mechanical solidarity. This is the fundamental paradox which has to be faced and explored. (Bernstein, B., 1971, pp. 224-5; 1977, p. 110)

Hodge & Kress recontextualise:

... the ‘integrated’ [code] is characterised by low boundaries and weak boundary maintenance, so that the form of the code is characterised by cohesion of the whole, though the whole that coheres in this way is formidably complex, and only an elite could grasp it. So we have a contradiction between the meaning of this code as transparent signifier of solidarity and cohesion, and its function, to differentiate between an elite and the rest. Similarly, the ‘collect’ code, with its high boundaries, signifies the individuation of knowledge and society. But ‘collect’ codes declare and enforce the lack of power of the learner, because of a hierarchy of knowledge in which beginners have strict limits, while at the top specialists are excluded from a grasp of the whole. (Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988, p. 110)

Bernstein relates his concepts to the more fundamental concepts of organic and mechanical solidarity, which Hodge & Kress also want to use. However, Bernstein’s paradox challenges the ‘transparency’ of the signifying relationship between code, measured in terms of classification and framing, and social structure. Bernstein later resolves this difficulty via the notion of an ‘invisible pedagogy’ (1977). Hodge & Kress resolve the problem by dispensing both with the derived status of the knowledge codes and with Bernstein’s own language, specifically, classification and framing. They also omit all reference to the relationship of Bernstein’s work to Durkheim’s modes of solidarity, despite the fact that they were discussed in the paragraph immediately preceding the introduction to Bernstein’s sociolinguistics.[2] Hodge and Kress retain Bernstein through the recontextualisation of his speech codes as transparent signifiers for mechanical and organic solidarity (the terms are reintroduced after the discussion of Bernstein has been completed). The trace of his classification and framing work is to be found in their second proposition:

High or emphatic boundaries in the syntagmatic or the paradigmatic plane are transparent signifiers of solidarity and cohesion (within groups) and non-solidarity and discohesion (outside groups); and low, weak boundaries signify the opposite. (Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988, p. 111)

‘Boundaries’ are thus operational indicators which are ‘transparent’ signifiers for the concepts of solidarity (within and between). The exposition on Bernstein and Durkheim seems intended to establish both the theoretical concepts and the validity and reliability of the concept/indicator link—the relationship between social solidarity and boundary strength—which appears to be presumed by the term ‘transparent’. The seven propositions that they present are the terminal level of Hodge’s & Kress’s theoretical discussion before moving onto the analysis of the painting. It is not necessary to my purpose here to discuss them all as I need only to raise the question of the relationship between the inputs from sociology—principally, Durkheim and Bernstein—and the analytic framework that Hodge and Kress develop and deploy. I shall return to this issue later; for the time being, it is enough to point out that, rather than the sociological theory motivating the semiotic analysis, it may be more appropriate to describe the apparatus of linguistic tools, including terms such as, syntagmatic, paradigmatic, hypotaxis and parataxis, as constituting an organisational language for the recontextualisation of the sociology.

Hodge & Kress describe the Cimabue painting in the following terms:

The text itself is marked by strong boundaries on the syntagmatic plane. The frame around the painting is emphatic, a simple angular shape covered in expensive gold leaf. Within this frame, the concern with boundaries continues. Haloes around the saints and angels not only enclose each in their own sacred space but separate their heads from their bodies. The chair the Madonna sits in is a massive barrier, and the saints below her are enclosed by architectural niches. The drawing style is linear, using lines rather than shading to indicate gradations in shape and mass. The represented social relations are similarly shown as fragmented. The society of angels has no internal structure: each relates loosely to the Madonna, or turns away. The saints below have no unambiguous relationship to anyone. The Madonna does seem to be aware of the presence of the Christ child on her knee, but this awareness is not reciprocated. (Hodge, R. & Kress, G.,1988; p. 113)

In terms of the ‘paradigmatic plane’, Hodge & Kress remark on the very limited range of colour, mainly flat and homogenous and close to the primaries. The social world is sharply divided into sacred and profane, the latter being excluded from ‘the presented world’. Other oppositions are male/female and human/angel with members within categories being hardly differentiated from each other. The symmetry of the painting, left-right, and ‘upper-lower dominance’ are paratactic rather than hypotactic and ‘the angels are strung vertically like beads on a string’. Overall:

The effect of the emphatic boundaries, added to the paratactic organisation, is incoherence in the picture as a whole. In Durkheim’s terms, it signifies a strongly anomic, egoistic and fragmented form of society.  (Hodge, R. & Kress, G., 1988, p. 113)

The authors support their reading by offering a brief description of late thirteenth-century Florence as ‘a city-state in turmoil’. They do not attempt an explanation as to why the dominant classes of a chaotic state would be expected to sponsor the production of chaotic cultural artefacts.

My reading of the painting is somewhat different. The throne does indeed constitute a powerful boundary, but it is marking a simple division of labour. The fundamental division is between Heaven (the Madonna, Child and angels) and Earth (the saints). The angels frame the Madonna and Child in a halo that, like the halos around all of the figures, bespeaks the sacred quality of the haloed. Indeed, the haloed/hallowed status of the figures is itself a style-marker, an emblem. The geometry of the painting is, in fact, very far from paratactic. The throne is a pyramid with its vertex at the head of the Madonna. The inclination of the Madonna’s head and the direction of her right hand draw the observer to the real focus of the picture, which is the head of the Child, with his most elaborately embellished halo. The hierarchical ordering of the painting is clear. The angels and saints gaze in all directions, signifying the omniscience of God. But the gaze of the Madonna and of the Child is directly out of the frame at the observer. The Madonna’s hand is raised in a gesture which offers the Child to the world as its salvation. The Child’s hand is raised in the very act of the Benediction, blessing the observer.

The angels and the saints certainly lack individuality, but this, surely, seems inconsistent with the ‘cult of the individual’ which characterises egoistic society. The frame of the picture as a whole signifies the segmentation of the social within a simple division of labour. At its focus, the Word. In front, the World, the observer who, her/himself, is being offered the Word. This is precisely the simple division and unifying Idea of mechanical solidarity. The Idea, furthermore, which is emblemised in the central icon of Christianity. The icon that is formed by the heavy vertical line from the heavenly head of the Madonna to the two central, earthly saints and the line, which joins the heads of the two lowermost angels: the sign of the cross.

A crucial difference (among others) between my sociology, on the one hand, and the sociologies of Durkheim and Bernstein, on the other, is that whilst they are concerned primarily with social structure and its cultural realisation, I—despite occasional appearances to the contrary—prioritise strategic social action and, shall we say, structuration (Giddens, 1984). I, therefore, interpret mechanical solidarity as a form of activity that constitutes a simplification of the division of labour rather than being simply constituted by it. Maximum complexity would differentiate between each individual and even differentiate within individuals in respect of context. Commercial advertising might be taken, in general, as a strategy operating in this direction. Mechanical solidarity strategies simplify. They also privilege the unification of beliefs and sentiments. Such an activity must, clearly, construct markers of this unity. To describe thirteenth-century Florence as not very cohesive is hardly the point. If we make a general claim that all societies are constituted in and by the formation of emergent alliances and oppositions, then our analyses will always reveal strategies that are directed at the establishing, maintenance or destabilising of these. Insofar as the Church is constituted as an institutionalised alliance, then its official texts will be recognised as those given official sanction and tending to maintain the status quo. In everyday language, one might reasonably expect the Church authorities (who patronised Cimabue) to attempt to maintain their authority vis a vis the masses; whether or not they succeeded is neither here nor there.

Giotto (Colle di Vespignano) was a Florentine painter of the next generation (and was possibly Cimabue’s pupil). Hodge & Kress do not offer an analysis of one of his paintings. They do, however, state that Giotto varied the ‘logonomic rules’ that they say characterise Cimabue’s painting. It is for this reason that he is regarded as a significant painter. It is certainly the case that Giotto produced very different paintings as is apparent from the briefest of glances at his Weeping on Christ Dead (Figure 3). Christ, posthumously returned to his mother’s arms, is surrounded by apostles and others. Hands are being wrung, even the angels are agonised in their expressions and their contortions. The simple geometry of the Cimabue is gone; colours are more diverse. The simple division of labour between heaven and earth remains, however. This time, it is marked out by the hard line of the rock. But this line also participates in the essential icon of the cross which again forms the fundamental organising structure of the painting. This time up-ended, its earthy foot penetrates the heaven. Christ—sent down to earth by God—and his mother are at its head and its cross-piece is represented in the line of individuals forming the diagonal at the bottom lefthand of the painting. The cross motif is repeated in the agonised acts of symbolic crucifixion by the angels and by one of the apostles at the centre of the painting. The unhaloed—the ‘observer’ is now included by Giotto in the painting itself—are carefully positioned at the three points of the cross, again receiving the offer of the benediction even at this moment of tragedy. The Giotto represents a markedly different style of painting. But the social semantics are the same: simple division of labour; unifying Idea, emblemised by the cross and the benediction. Again, strategies of mechanical solidarity.

I want now to consider the semiotics of the analyses themselves. I have organised them structurally in Figure 4. In my description of their text, Hodge and Kress have first discussed antecedent work, the first explicit structural feature of their analysis, and I have focused in particular on the sociological contents, Durkheim and Bernstein. In the third column of the table I have indicated that this constitutes a selection (in the case of Hodge and Kress, part of their selection) from a theoretical field. The theoretical field itself is a construction, although it remains a tacit construction in Hodge’s and Kress’s analysis. They move on to construct their organisational language which comprises seven principles, two of which I have referred to explicitly here. This language includes both linguistic and sociological terms as well as less technical, but important analytical terms such as ‘boundaries.’ I have described their setting as a selection from an empirical field of practice and experiences and they have divided this into a text—the Cimabue painting—and the historical setting within which it originated. Again, the empirical field of practice and experience is a construction that is tacit in this part of Hodge’s and Kress’s work.

Now Hodge’s and Kress’s book is titled Social Semiotics which suggests—and this is borne out by the content— that they are placing their emphasis on their organisational language rather than on any particular analysis or on any specific setting; they are not, in particular, writing a treatise on 13th -14th Century Florence or, indeed, on Byzantine or any other forms of painting. However, it seems to me that their overt strategies tend to establish a unitary space comprising the structural features of their analysis. In demonstrating this I shall establish a logic of their text rather than its linear sequence in print. They do not, here, explicitly make reference to broader theoretical or empirical fields, so that their selections are simply points of entry into their text. They then work to establish a more or less seamless, deductive line from their antecedents—here, Durkheim and Bernstein—and their organisational language (their principles). Correspondingly, the tacit empirical field comes to meet them via claims about their setting—the kind of place that Florence used to be—and the presentation of their text as an instance of that setting. Having, so to speak, discovered their text, their organisational language goes to work on its analysis which happily bears out their definitive claims about the original setting. Essentially, they cast out to the world beyond themselves, finding Durkheim, Bernstein and Cimabue and weave them together with their linguistic apparatus in a dexterous demonstration that they are all in agreement.

These are the more explicit strategies. Implicitly, however, they are locating authority for their construction outside of that construction, in the real world. The concurrence between Durkheim and Bernstein and Cimabue and common knowledge (or, at least, easily verifiable knowledge) about Byzantine Florence is itself that which underwrites, well, itself; the value of their organisational language lies in its facility to reveal this to us. Kauffman will deploy similar strategies, though in his case he will start with a dissonance between the second law of thermodymanics (a condensation of Ludwig Boltzman and others) and the view from his own window.  This is the semiotics of conjuring: we know about hats and rabbits and we know that the former cannot at the same time be empty and contain the latter—abracadabra! One problem with conjuring is that, as generations of magicians and academics have shown, almost anything can be pulled from inside almost anything else including, I’m sure, hats from rabbits. So, were we to notice the barriers and lack of obvious hypotactical organization of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (Figure 5) we may be inclined to read it as a transparent signifier of a strongly anomic New York at a time (1942-3) when one might have imagined the powerful unifying ideology of patriotism to be holding sway. There is also the slight problem presented by Giotto. Whilst my reading of his painting constructs similarities with Cimabue’s, the suggestion of fundamental difference by Hodge and Kress suggests that Florence managed to resolve its anomie in pretty short order; the paintings were produced only about twenty years apart. Not a problem for the conjuror as such, for whom alternative outcomes to their wand-waving can only add spice; but perhaps a little sticky for the social scientist.

A second difficulty with the conjuring approach is that there is always the danger that someone will discover the trick. This, of course, has been the point of my challenges to Hodge’s and Kress’s interpretations of Durkheim and Bernstein. What in effect they have done is to establish a cut in the discursive field, placing Durkheim and Bernstein in one hand and Cimabue in the other, then selected the metonyms, boundary, strength (of solidarity) and hierarchical organisation, from the discourses of the antecedent authors and from simple descriptions of Byzentine Florence and Cimabue’s painting and tied these string-ends together using their own linguistic categories; just blow on my hands and, hey presto, the strong is whole again. We can always find metonymic chains linking any two concepts (see Eco, 1984, and his illustrations in Eco, 1989). This is a very common strategy in the social sciences, we simply make someone else’s work say whatever we want it to say; either we make it support our own line or we use it as a fall-guy in our own line of repartee; ventriloquism either way.

There is a third problem with conjuring to the extent that the secrets of the trick are not revealed in the performance. This is a problem because then we are left with rabbits hopping about all over the stage chewing on bits of string. Some conjurors—some of those mentioned here—do try to convince us that we really do need rabbits and bits of string, but insofar as academic work claims to be methodologically constructive—not to meantion, teachable—then we really do need to see the method. Hodge and Kress do not hide behind a magic circle. Rather, they provide details of their organisational language, exemplified in (but not limited to) the seven principles that they apply to Cimabue. The difficulty here is not in the visibility of the language but in the overall incoherence of the attempt to deploy linguistic language to the analysis of a painting in order to reach sociological conclusions. Furthermore, their empiricist description of Byzantine Florence renders the whole reliant upon an unexplored transcendental move wherein the ravaged state of social relations are synthesised by the painter and, presumably, by the churchmen who allow the exhibition of such icons. Despite their attempts to establish a unity in the structure of their analysis, indeed because of the way in which they have gone about this, their structural features are isolated from each other, strung out like beads on a chain, or like the haloed heads of angels and, within the halo, their language stands pristine; we just have to have faith.

My own strategy of course includes elements of conjuring and ventriloguism, not to mention realist, even empiricist language. What I am attempting to do, however, is mark out a method via the strategic alienation or at least diminishing of these elements even as they appear in my own writing. My starting point is in the middle of the structural features, with an always already existing organisational language that constructs and selects from theoretical and empirical fields in autopoietic action. My concern here is to market the organisational language by apprenticing my audience into it. Key features, then, must be explicitness and coherence and, of course, distinctiveness. In my analysis of the painting I am acting constructively and selectively on its features that I am constituting as semiotic resources that are translatable into my own language. Here, that language includes a recontextualisation of Durkheim’s mode of solidarity as a strategic mode; I will not retain this feature in the further development of the language, but it serves as a useful transit stage. I have placed the boundary around my text so as to include certain details of its origination and placement in Byzantine Florence. Rather than claim the painting as an instance of an absent real world, I have constituted it as an instance of my organisational language. Similarly, I have described the theoretical antecedents in terms of my organisational language. For me, these antecedents include Hodge and Kress. I can summarise my description of their analysis alongside my description of my own diagrammatically as in Figure 6. Clearly, insofar as my introduction of autopoiesis is intended as a general description of the engagement of an audience with a text, then the two columns might be expected to be identical. However, my claim is that whilst I am attempting to align my textual strategies, as far as is possible, with my description of autopoiesis in keeping with the proposed fractal nature of the organisational language, Hodge and Kress do not attempt this; indeed, there is no reason why they should since they are marketing their own work and not mine. To put it in the simplest possible terms, whilst I claim that both analyses entail the analysts seeing what they want or are able to see in the objects of their gaze, Hodge and Kress must assume some kind of input or feedback into their organisational language in order to locate the authority for their argument outside of it in a supposed independent world which is potentially available to all for verification. Their column therefore describes their textual strategies rather than their substantive actions.

From mythologising to organizing

This work—or any part of it—stands between two regions of myth just as Stuart Kauffman’s window stands between himself and the world outside. Behind my text, so to speak, I stand as author, as originator; in front of it stands the world to which my text provides access or, alternatively, which grants the world access to me and, through me, access to itself in an infinite loop. Or is it, perhaps, a hermeneutic helix: read my text, know me to understand my text better, better to understand yourself to understand my text better and so forth. Similar constructions are, of course, a part of everyday interaction—though possibly without the perpetual motion around a single utterance. But they are also institutionalised features of academic writing. In order to obtain a PhD a candidate must demonstrate that they have produced an original contribution to knowledge in the relevant field and that this is their own work (at least, this is the case in my own institution). The thesis, authored by the candidate, illuminates and enhances the field. Strange that such ritual persists even in areas where the work of Barthes, Derrida, Eco, Foucault, Lacan et al are standard, even texts by revered authors (itself, of course, an irony). My former mentor, Basil Bernstein once asked me whether I thought that it was possible to produce a postmodern thesis. Never one to be daunted by the rhetorical nature of a question, I offered, ‘yes, but in order to succeed it would have to fail.’ I was perhaps rather naēve over the divergences between the official and local practices of thesis examination. Nevertheless, insofar as the academy must reify its knowledge—which it must celebrate—its faculty—whom it must venerate—and its students—whom it must graduate, there is no official defense of a thesis that undermines either authorship or field.

Institutionalisation reins and commodifies originality which must always be established within the context of the academic regime of myth. But yearning for a de-schooled, convivial society (Illich, 1973) is no more than an appeal to another utopia, another myth. I am taking a different line here, a pragmatic line. I cannot hedge every potentially mythologising utterance, place every word under erasure (and of course place the erasure under erasure). Rather, I want to recruit institutionalised language in the construction and presentation of what Basil Bernstein (1996) and I, following him, referred to as a language of description. Here, I have introduced the expression, organisational language, which I feel is more consistent with, in this case, itself.  Since I have introduced the term ‘pragmatic’, I should perhaps point out that my ‘organisational language’ is not the same thing as Rorty’s (1989) ‘final vocabulary’ and indeed is inconsistent with it, though there are resonances and I would certainly describe the position that I am adopting here as ironic or, at least, stereoscopic (Bann, 1995). From my authorial perspective—albeit a self-reflective authorial perspective—my organisational language is that which constructs texts-as-texts out of texts-as-work which are structurally coupled but informationally decoupled; there is no original text-as-work in the sense of an information-transmitting object. The organisational language develops in a process of autopoiesis—self-organisation. Perhaps it is also worth pointing out at this point that, because my attention is sustained on a particular organisational language, it is unhelpful to inscribe in it any indelible predicate that belongs to another. This particular organisational language is for the construction of orderly and explicit description rather than for the evaluation of its descriptions in political or empathic terms; however my other organisational languages may function, here, I can accept Rorty’s irony, but not his liberal sentiment.

In the opening sections of this chapter I introduced two questions that seem to me to be invoked in any embarking on textual analysis. These may be glossed as: i) ‘what is the text in question?’ and ii) ‘of what is the text an instance?’ I have referred to the process of answering the first question as bounding the text—putting a boundary around it, so to speak. I am given an image of a sunset over the sea (Figure 7). I am entranced by its steely blues and greys and yellows, by the plays in line and form above and below the horizon and the movement that invites me into the suns gravitational well only to be pushed away in a gleeful fort da game, like the waves themselves, massaging the sand, I am intrigued by the islands—pebbles on the horizon. Then I’m told it’s a photograph and I wonder about exposure and white balance settings—are sunsets ever really that colour? Then I’m told the name of the photographer—a close friend—and I think fondly of her shambling along the Korean beach, arm-in-arm with her husband who smiles as she giggles as the sun goes down over the cool waves, she pauses to record the gorgeous moment on her miniature digicam and, later, a twinge of disappointment—the colours were so much more than that. There can be no absolute answer to the question; I have to decide. And to give myself room to manoeuvre I’ll generally leave the answer to this question just a little fuzzy, but I must always be aware that even this fuzziness has implications.

I have spent rather more time on the second question. I have argued that the text is always and only an instance of the organisational language that is deployed in its reading.  As I push the boundaries of my sunset over the sea text I find that my organisational language shifts from, shall we say, my aesthetic language, to a photographic language to a language of creative play with emotionally charged memories. These languages vary in their level of institutionalization. The play of memories is perhaps closest to an ideolect although it nevertheless recruits from film and other media images—I have never seen my friend in this kind of setting with or without her husband (though I have seen them together in other settings). The aesthetic language is still unschooled, but it recruits in a slightly more regulated way via its recognisable (to some) but undisciplined (to the cognoscenti) reference to Freud. The photographic language may or may not pose the right questions, but they do at least derive directly from my reading of the user’s manual for my new digital SLR. The key issue is the decision as to whether this text is an instance of aesthetic experience or photographic practice or personal reverie; it can be all and more, but none of these languages facilitates translation into any of the others. In other words, the organisational language that is activated constructs the objects of which it speaks and there must always be, to a greater or lesser extent, an incommensurability between languages; Hodge’s and Kress’s linguistics will not, unless fundamentally re-organised as a sociological language, speak about the social and not even Durkheim and Bernstein can otherwise provide them with secure footbridges; they’ll have to make do with magic wands. All of this is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that my organisational language should construct objects that it is actually interested in and not simply project objects-at-hand into the unknown and thereby, unknowable, reified, mythical.

The basis of my own organisational language entails that it is not transmittable, that there is a sense in which it must remain ideolectical. However, the nature and extent of the structural coupling between human interlocutors entails, perhaps, that co-autopoiesis can potentially allow the negotiation or emergence of a functional methodological alliance. So, I shall proceed in pedagogic mode and this will entail making the organisational language as explicit as possible, using rhetorical devices where this seems to be helpful. Because the action of the language is the construction of orderly and explicit description, order or coherence must be a characteristic and its development must involve the enhancing of coherence and, indeed, the enhancing of its relational coherence. Since the language does not specialise the range of texts that it can address, it must operate independently of level of analysis, that is, it must exhibit a fractal or zoom quality. In particular, it must be capable of describing itself so that there is no effective distinction between, shall we say, theory and metatheory; there is no space for an epistemology as such. Figure 8 summarises the principles of text analysis and the criteria that are to be applied to my organisational language that I have introduced in this chapter.

As for the limited details of the organisational language that I have introduced thus far and that I will augment just a little here, I have started with the proposition that the sociocultural consists of the strategic formation, maintenance, and dismantling of oppositions and alliances which describe emergent regularities of practice. Alliances define subject positions as what I shall refer to as identity avatars in terms, for example, what may be said or done by whom. Clearly, an alliance defines opposition avatars as objects. The human subject might be understood as a complex of subject avatars grounded in the human body as singular. Focusing attention on an alliance emphasises a regularity of practice and on identities constituted in and by this regularity. Focusing attention on the human subject emphasises subjectivity and the construction and deployment of organisational languages in alliance/opposition forming, maintaining, dismantling strategies.

To return to my own response to my opening text: I could have played the game and attempted to maintain my membership of the alliance of tourists on the coach. This would have given me range of options including, perhaps, the introduction of contrasting or resonating narratives from previous holidays (being careful, of course, not to claim too much in the way of expertise or travel experience by the use of appropriate hedging). However, to oppose the tourist alliance by invoking a discourse that was alien to my companions.  This gave me almost free rein on what I could say. The outcome may have been one of enthusiasm whereby one or more of my audience switched languages to take up the position of apprentice to my teacher thus forming, potentially, a new alliance. That this did not happen should have been no surprise.

[1] In the appendix to their book Hodge and Kress gloss ‘transparency’ and its opposite, ‘opacity,’ as follows: ‘Sign systems function most economically in producing meaning if there is a clear link perceived between signifiers and signified by all users of the signs. However, negative and hostile relationships within the semiosic plane motivate the opposite tendency, an inaccessible link between signifiers and signifieds, leading to systematic distortion of such links. Signs can therefore be ranged on a continuum between transparent and opaque, in terms of how clearly the link between signifier and signified is perceived by a class of semiotic participant.’ (Hodge, R. & Kress, G.,1988; p. 262)

[2] Bernstein’s recruitment of Durkheim itself entails a recontextualising of the latter. Specifically, whilst Durkheim’s types are related diachronically, Bernstein employs them to differentiate, synchronically, within a configuration. In Bernstein’s case this does not constitute a problem because he has adequately re-theorised the concepts in establishing his own coherent system.