19 February 2008

The elite/luxury semioscape

One way I occasionally like to test the consumerist zietgeist is to run searches on major commercial image banks like Getty Images - responsible for more and more of the visual material we find in magazines, newspapers and advertisements. Here are two iNeedle-inspired words to try: luxury and elite (the links should work). What's interesting to see is the inevitable blending of traditional and contemporary markers of elite status - from top hats to infinity pools. What's more interesting to see is just how narrow the repertoire is - it starts to repeat itself very quickly. But what's most interesting is to see how Getty tellingly chooses to cross-reference key search terms with other semantically and ideologically loaded associations. For example, in the case of "elite", the immediate sub-categories suggested are glamour, elegance, relaxation, luxury and - here's where it gets interesting - happiness. And so what one ends up with is, first of all, a glimpse of what my colleague Giorgia Aiello and I have labelled the global semioscape: the transnational circulation of symbols, sign systems and other meaning-making practices. (And these seemingly innocuous symbolic flows evidently have material consequence - see my Indescribable deprivations post.) What one really ends up with, however, is the perpetuation of a mythology of elite status and luxury lifestyle which is not only visually narrow but also culturally and ideologically circumscribed. And perhaps, even, morally circumspect?

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