Original Sin

Walking around the streets of Daejeon recently, I was struck by this promotional still.

It was outside a motel, and, judging from how TV and movie stills adorned nearly every stay-for-pay in the neighborhood, I interpreted this as a strategy for advertising the paid channels featured in this particular establishment.

The reason I took the photo, however, was not to document the local strategy for scoring motel occupancy; rather, it was due to the content in this particular still. A man, a woman, an apple . . . a knowing wink. Hm . . . why does this combination ring a bell?

As most of you who read this blog know, my interest in communication theory and media studies often leads to discussions of semiotics: how text reveals and/or makes meaning. And, in fact that was the final discussion point in the previous entry on Brown Eyed Girls: if you recall, the idea was how two different videos sharing the same song can end up delivering very different messages.

However, even when two videos are not being compared, meanings engendered by a solitary sign can be multiple. That has been one of the claims about this post-modern epoch, characterized by the breakdown of unified forms. One reason for this, some have claimed, is the explosion of signs, themselves; others allege the robust, frenetic activity of media (itself, also multiplying in form and presence); still others claim that forces such as globalization and the licentious mixing of cultures are culprits. No matter the reason, though, one empirical result has been a detachment of signifiers from signifieds, opening up the possibility that a symbol can actually “be” more than one thing even as it reveals itself to us in its singularity.

. . . Well . . . that is a long, fascinating discussion that I am sure we will have occasion to revisit at another time. For now, even if we allow that contemporary signs can contain multiple meanings, it cannot be overlooked that a sign is incapable of delivering meaning — intended or not — if the recipient is incapable of decoding it. The recipient of the sign must be able to forge a connection between what they hear or taste or touch or see and the potential meanings embedded in that object.

Returning us to the man, woman, apple, and knowing wink.

For many of you in the West, this combination forms a sign that harkens to, first, The Bible, and then, beyond, through connotation, to questions of temptation, knowledge, goodness, and the fall from grace. If you know this story, then the poster, above, is an easy decode; it is an unproblematic sign-set referencing original sin; a tableaux in which the woman is Eve, clearly tempting the man (a stand-in for Adam), with her prominently displayed fruit — substitute, one can surmise, for other, obscured objects — and buttressed by her shared wink with the external audience. Adam, of course (as we all know from our close study of the Bible), is innocent, but not enough to resist Eve’s come-on. And, from these signs, social meaning is born.

Of course, where I come from — that is, where I live today — this sign set is either unknown, or, if familiar, passes without much consideration. The country I live in being far less Christian than Korea. In fact, I would be inclined to wager, were the poster above to appear on a Japanese street, few would even get the reference, let alone pause to consider the issues associated with the story. And, more to the point, the poster would simply not be made because the story would not resonate with a majority of sign processors. Absent impact, it would not be a worthy candidate for persuasion in Japan.

By contrast, it did get made in Korea because it does tickle a nerve of awareness and even interest among Koreans. Western religion is a rather big deal there. These estimates actually make it seem less abundant than a simple walk through the neighborhoods lead one to believe — where crosses, steeples, and churches are relatively abundant. But even so, according to this page, between the 18% who profess Protestant affiliation, and 10% who call themselves Roman Catholic, Korea has the third highest percentages of Christians in Asia (after the Philippines and East Timor). Their attendance of formal group worship even outstrips that of their American counterparts. Which is another way of saying: it ought to come as little surprise that the parable of The Fall is being sampled in Korean popular culture.

And, by extension (but more, as an aside), it is why popular culture — at least in this instance — might have greater resonance to a casual visitor from the West . . . who might otherwise, in most things popularly Korean, have a greater distance from understanding — as, for instance, is the case of objects such as this:

Such a cautionary is important — since even signs that appear knowable, may not be as they are first perceived. For instance, continuing on my neighborhood stroll, I was left to query how I should interpret the following sign:

Because signs are not static and often work in conjunction, it is difficult to avoid reading this poster without referencing the original (as in the first, above). When comparison is made, aside from the presence of “Mr.” in both pictures, the differences seem most stark. For instance, in this latter shot, gracing a convenience store door, a contrasting persona is presented. Far from offering up a knowing, sidelong wink as Eve did, this pert, demure, freshly-scrubbed “girl next door” in white directs a full-faced, wholesome entreaty to passersby.

Temptation? Original sin? Precursor to The Fall? Eve in other dress?

I would be inclined to doubt it — in part because of the clear opposition to the signs embedded in the clothes, posture, demeanor, styling, and gesture of the original Eve.

On the other hand, that is the damning aspect of semiotics: of meaning dependent on social activity situated in specific cultural contexts, bounded by particular cultural knowledge.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to understanding is knowing. And thinking.

Which is why, absent biting into a local apple, sometimes, out on the road, the best strategy may be to not think at all.