Performing the erotic: (re)presenting the body in popular culture
Van Reenen, Dionne
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In 1995, Mitchell suggested that spheres of public culture, and the academies that study them, are in the midst of a ‘pictorial turn’ which entails thinking about images in digital communication and mass multimedia as forms of life. In the study reported in this thesis, a critical semiotic analysis of mainstream, moving images that are designed, performed, mediated, and repeatable was conducted. The study focuses on the role of social constructs of gender, race, and class (along with size, age, and ability) in the ordering processes of society which are, in turn, sustained and reproduced by the (re)presentation of eroticised bodies in visual media in the twentyfirst century. The study is informed by the premise that rapid technological advancements, the deregulation of media industries, and ongoing convergence possibilities have made the availability and accessibility of mass media on numerous (personal) devices commonplace in modern life but not in the form of traditional media that deliver data or content to an audience. Rather, media now take the form of interactive communication and participatory culture. A critical semiotic analysis of the images used in the study, as well as an analysis of the relevant literature, confirmed this hypothesis with further insights that, in the contemporary era, the cultural constructions and political materialities of bodies, as well as normative understandings of beauty, desirability, and value, all congregate around questions of representation and global homologies. By way of synthesis, the study argues that the dynamics of ‘virtuality’ in the digital age are altering traditional demarcations of space, place, time, and community and have paved the way for formations of global cultures that are, at the same time, informative, expedient, empowering, homogenising, prescriptive, and imperialising. Global cultures are recognised as discursive formations that people can only reason about from within. With that limitation in mind, the study sketches the contours of a critical tool that the emergent imaginary critical consumer might be able to utilise. As one positions oneself within this imaginary, it becomes possible to treat the relation between consumer and commodity as dialectical. As a consequence of these analyses, the study expands the theory and application range of linguistic and cognitive metaphors by applying them specifically to modes of aestheticisation and performance of the erotic in contemporary visual media. The study uses metaphor theory to identify discursive markers on bodies at the surface (or representational level) that produce performative frames which sustain orderings of body prototypes (at the ideological level). These framings and orderings are critiqued as trading in ideologies and stereotypes that have long been in sociocultural production and circulation. The analyses of images and scripts show them to be sensationalist; however, they are not new, despite being presented as such in the expanding inundation of visual entertainment worldwide. The study argues that such orderings engage in a reiterable exchange of already circulating social and cultural capital in which not everyone may participate with equal opportunity and agency and some, not at all. Such forms of capital are primarily distributed as a means to generate more economic capital in an age where commodification and consumption, not the public good, are of central importance in human activity and action.