December 15, 2008

Maria and Meaning

In the book Photographs, Objects, Histories, Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart wrote about the idea of looking at photographs--and I would add images in general--not just for their image content, but also as objects that exist within social and cultural experiences (see page one in Edwards and Hart 2004). Edwards also writes about looking at photographs as embodiments of social relationships (or "relationships made visible" as she puts it). This means that while the image itself (what a photograph depicts) is important, there is much more that can be done with an analysis of visual culture. How are images used toward certain political or social ends? What relationships are evident--between viewer and image maker, etc? Who made them, and why? How are images digested and disseminated by the wider public? What are the responses and reactions?

Here is one good example of how there is much more to look at than the surface content of an image. Recently, Mexican Playboy published this cover:

On the surface, it is just another image of an attractive young woman on the cover, which is the usual way that the magazine sells its product. Really, based on the image content alone, the above image is pretty much the usual fare for magazines like Playboy. But what matters are the other powerful images that this photograph refers to, and the reactions of certain people who have passionate ideas about what that image does and does not mean. And the reactions were pretty strong. The problem of course is that the image of this young woman, whose name is Maria, bears a little too much referential resemblance, at least to many people, to another well known Maria (source):

Add to that the fact that Playboy's magazine was released the day before the traditional festival day held in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe, which made the whole situation even worse. And, despite the apology that the magazine issued (saying that they were only trying to make the cover appear renaissance-esque), I would guess that the editors knew they were playing with fire by making the reference to the icon of the Virgin Mary.

Of course, magazines like Playboy are known for pushing the boundaries like this, so this is really not a surprise. What this is about is attempting to control the meaning of images, and it brings up the difficulty in doing so. There are, of course, many strong social relations and institutions that uphold a certain conception of what Mary is, and how she should be depicted. The Playboy cover was a direct challenge to that image, a risk taken to appeal to a a certain readership market. But, as the reaction and subsequent apology by Playboy shows, there are boundaries and limits to this kind of image manipulation--at least in this case. It is a process of push and shove, in which meaning comes about through actions, reactions, feedback, and so on.

But this is by no means a closed case, as the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe is an icon that is adopted, manipulated, and reworked in many different contexts. Here is one example (source):

And, from the blog My Vanishing Present, here is another (this was taken in Oaxaca City this past summer):

All of these images have a similar referent, but they bring up vastly different ideas, from sexuality and commercialism to religious belief, individual expression, and even revolution. This also illustrates the inherent instability of meaning, and the fact that what an image "means" is never something that can be pinned down and precisely defined. As is the case with the Virgen de Guadalupe, meaning is determined in a complex social, cultural, and political world. The "relationships made visible" that Edwards speaks of become apparent in the contestations that arise, as different groups of people, whether they are the publishers of adult magazines or devout churchgoers, take action to uphold their own ideas about what is and what is not the "true" meaning of a particular icon.

This kind of continual process of meaning-making points to the active and communicative nature of material culture that archaeologists such as Michael Shanks and Ian Hodder (among others) have talked about. Interestingly, what or who "Maria" really is highly dependent upon the very sociocultural situation in which she is evoked. Such meanings, while grounded in past conceptions, are always in a dynamic state of fluctuation. Images, like the ones I have posted here, only capture fragmentary snapshots of this meaning-making process as it traverses diverse social paths.


larry c wilson said...

In other words, meaning is achieved only through interpretation.

barista said...

But your deliberate reduction is more than just "interpretation", isn't it? What you have just carried out is a social act, informed by two colliding universes of experience, and your desire to create an outcome, your intention.

What is interesting about the post is the swirl of activity around those images which actually can't be described as "interpretation."

(I think I have just turned into an anthropological groupie.)

R.A. said...

hey larry:

"In other words, meaning is achieved only through interpretation."

I would argue that interpretation is part of it, but not everything. But not in the case of of "Maria," there is how the different groups interpret who and what Maria is--but there is also the way that Maria is portrayed or represented by different entities. Who has the ability to create or shape the ways that Maria is understood by different people? In the case that would be the Catholic Church, Mexican Playboy, etc.

So ya I would say that interpretation is a big part, but so is the ability to portray Maria in different ways. This case is an example of two large entities battling about meaning a bit--Mexican Playboy and the Catholic Church.

So I might say that meaning comes about through a cycle of representations, interpretations, and then actions by different people, groups, etc.

barista wrote:

"What is interesting about the post is the swirl of activity around those images which actually can't be described as "interpretation."

I agree. Although interpretation is in there, something else is going on as well. People are reacting and doing something about the meaning, changing it in different ways. Challenging the meanings on a daily basis.

But then certain larger groups act to reign those kinds of interpretations in, especially when a competing view makes a little too many waves (and a Maria-esque pic on Playboy's cover definitely qualifies as making waves, IMO).

Anyway, thanks for dropping by to both of you...