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Social Construction and Semiotics

Last week, I wrote about the differences between Taste and taste and alluded to the fact that they are, in many ways, socially constructed.  One quote that really stuck out to me from the reading in Robinson Crusoe this week got me wondering how I could relate this to the idea of Wrong vs. wrong (and, necessarily, Right vs right), where the former is in terms of morality and the latter of correctness.  Of his time owning a plantation in Brazil, Crusoe says, “But we both wanted help; and now I found, more than before, I had done wrong in parting with my boy Xury” (Defoe 31).  Here, most readers (modern readers, anyway) might consider Crusoe’s use of the word “wrong” in the sense of slavery being morally Wrong.  Our protagonist, however, uses the word only in terms of practical correctness; Crusoe was wrong to sell Xury off, because the young man’s free labor would have been beneficial to Crusoe’s farming endeavors.  

So how does all of this relate to Taste and taste?  I said in my last post that formations of Taste and taste result from experience “as a member of some kind of group, be it humanity, society, or a class like this,” and likewise, Barthes discusses sugar and Americans’ (over-)use of it as “an ‘attitude,’ bound to certain usages, certain ‘protocols,’ that have to do with more than food… Sugar or wine, these two superabundant substances are also institutions.  And these institutions necessarily imply a set of images, dreams, tastes, choices, and values” (Barthes 21).  In semiotic terms, sugar is a signifier that points to a set of signifieds.  For Americans, it might point to mental images some favorite desserts, but for the French it might point to mental images of overweight Americans; due to variances in social constructs people are exposed to, signs change –signifiers point to different signifieds.  

As for the matter of of Crusoe’s sale of Xury, the idea of slavery, for Crusoe, points to mental images of signifieds, such as “free labor” and “profit.” Today, our social constructs differ from those of the of the seventeenth century, and, especially in America, slavery, as a signifier, points to signifieds like “suffering” and “shame.”  Crusoe, hailing from seventeenth century Europe, views slavery under the light of right and wrong, whereas today, we look at it as a matter of Right and Wrong.  To draw a parallel back to Taste and taste and and the signifier of sugar, Americans have a taste for sugar, and the French have a dis-Taste for the results of unhealthy eating decisions.  Obviously, the issues surrounding sugar are of very little consequence when considered next to slavery, but I thought this was an interesting way to look at one aspect of Robinson Crusoe through the lens of semiotics.

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One thought on “Social Construction and Semiotics

  1. I really liked how you brought up last week’s reading and used the comparison. The whole idea that taste and Taste are social constructs makes me wonder about other things as well. I don’t know if you’ve ever played monopoly but I think it’s interesting that the only difference between the different currencies, the one use in the game and ours, is the widely accepted belief that one holds more value than the other. But then our entire society is run on widely accepted beliefs, we exchange goods for the appropriate amount of money an amount that is determined by value and value that is determined by experience and how much we want/need that item. Of course, now a days, manufacturing costs come in to play, but those are just wages people are charging to gather or produce that item. Our entire lives are built on the ideas and beliefs in what is right and what is wrong, what has high and low values. It’s crazy that if somewhere in the past one belief or experience had been changed then maybe our systems would be different.

    wc 186

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