Students in online courses are often offended by comments in a discussion forum or by blog postings. Controversial topics arouse negative commentary instead of an attitude of "listening" and open-mindedness. Online instructors find themselves powerless to guide students into more productive modes.
How we, as readers, make meaning is something we often take for granted until we take a look at how we have been conditioned by society, experience, and convention to attach certain meanings to certain symbols. The fact that this process is often unconscious makes us all the more malleable and subject to manipulation.
A good example is what sportsmen and conservationists call "The Bambi Effect," which, briefly stated, explains the revulsion we feel when cute woodland creatures are harmed or threatened. A. Waller Hastings' article in The Journal of Popular Film and Television describes how identification, anthropomorphism, and transfer occur by means of semiotics and film narrative. Savage Art Resources further explores and comments on the phenomenon with an installation in their gallery consisting of the work of ten artists. Entitled The Bambi Effect, the pieces of art include Robyn O'Neil's drawing "It Produces Food and He Taketh Away," a visual commentary on the intrusiveness of modern, synthetic-clothed man in the environment. The bottom line is this: be aware of when you are being manipulated. Do not accept everything at face value. Emotions are powerful persuasive tools, particularly when unleashed by images that evoke nationalistic fervor, family bonds, the idea of innocence assaulted, etc. Bambi, (1942), as well as other Disney films has been analyzed and deconstructed in "Disney Films: Bambi," much to the dismay of loyal viewers who prefer only to see the "archetypal life-cycle story" of mythic proportions, rather than the ugly reality of a revenge fantasy.
Leni Riefenstahl understood the power of images to evoke a sense of national identity, individual, and collective power. She became known (and reviled) as Hitler's favorite filmmaker, and architect of masterful propaganda films. In fact, her film version of Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will, has been considered one of the best propaganda films ever made. When she died at age 101, the commentary on her work, vision, and context, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, received renewed attention.
It does seem a bit strange that two of the Nazi Party's most effective propagandists and apologists were women: first, in the form of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche (Friedrich's sister), who helped construct a "philosophy" for the party through her careful editing of her brother's work; and second, in the form of a visual artist, Leni Riefenstahl.
Once we become aware of how and why we believe what we believe, and once we become conscious of how we interpret our perceptions, we can start to question each cognitive step along the meaning-making road.
One step is to ask students to ask themselves whether or not they find themselves mystified or annoyed by the observations and analyses of texts and popular culture? The following text can be of great help in understanding the approach that is taken in much literary and cultural criticism.
The World Is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking About Culture and Its Context., by Jonathan Silverman and Dean Rader. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.
Although The World Is a Text was designed as a reader to accompany first-year college composition classes, it is an invaluable source of readings and interpretive strategies. Not only does it open one’s eyes to the multiplicity of interpretive possibilities embodied in all “texts” (literary, cultural, phenomenological), it also helps one understand how scholars can say the things they do about video-game based movies such as Tomb Raider, nutritional supplement advertising, the design of theme parks, political campaign television “spots.”
An introduction to semiotics, deconstructive philosophy, rhetoric, post-colonial discourse, gender studies, and post-structural thought, the text teaches students how to “read” and find meaning in “texts” of all sorts. Texts are more than the printed word. They are any decodable thing, and it is assumed that they possess the capacity to either generate or mediate meaning.
Along the way, we must accept that there are multiple interpretations for each set of signs, and that texts (as repositories of signs) can have multiple meanings.
The interpretive strategies that are employed can be profoundly destabilizing, even emotionally troubling to readers. What do you do when it is suggested that “truth” and “reality” are constructs?
Further, many readers are upset by the notion that politics, persuasion, and power manifest themselves in all texts at the moment in which an individual seeks to assign or make meaning from them.
There is nothing to fear – the fact that there are different ways to read and interpret texts is a robust endeavor, dating back as far as Augustine’s City of God, Books XX and XXII, where he discusses how one passage of scripture can have literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical meanings.
Nevertheless, the experience of interpreting texts -- in whatever form they occur -- images, mp3s, film -- and in whatever delivery method one uses, makes the ability to engage in robust discursive analysis more important than ever.