What is this strange device, heralding a new journal, this misshapen suit of armour masquerading as a coat of arms on a sandstone ground in the name of Australian cultural studies?
What are the textual devices being deployed by the cunning media manipulators of Perth to seduce and win over the innocent academic reader?
What devices can the critical semiotician deploy to unmask the editorial strategies, lay bare the devices and offer a coherent reading of the cover of our journal?
Semiotics cannot claim any major advances in the analysis of the visual arts. There have been a number of structuralist readings of individual works, but they have generally lacked a critical edge relating the formal structures to social and ideological functions. Visual texts galore have been analysed from the mass media, whether static images in magazine adverts, cartoons, and news photos, or moving ones in TV adverts, news, documentary or filmed narrative; and there has been no lack of ideological theory linking such hegemonic messages to their economic and political sources. But the tendency has been to play down the visual signifiers, to underestimate the power of visual thinking in the rush to produce a coherent reading of political or psychological signifieds.
We don't need a heavy critical apparatus or a welter of specialized jargon to make sense of a visual text. Starting from the signifiers, the forms that carry the meanings, in the syntagmatic array of the text, we can explore the paradigms from which they have been selectedlists of potential signifiers which might have been used for the same points in the structure. We will then have some evidence concerning the paradigms of signified meaning, an accumulation of reasons for the selections made, some foregrounding of features on a number of levels that point to a coherent and motivated reading. Before we leap hermeneutically to assign particular ideological tendencies to the meanings we discover, we will still have to ask whose meanings they are: whose is the gaze behind that mask, or is this pure speculation?
The signifiers of painted or drawn messages are colour, line, rhythm, scale, texture, form, perspective, frame and composition. Here we have only two colours: tan and black. The evidence of the printer's catalogue suggests that the cover designers had a paradigm of only a dozen colours to choose from in this weight of card and chose unerringly the colour of Ayers Rock, of Fremantle sunsets, of a well-oiled sun-tan. Sidney Nolan's sketch from the end covers of a book (Lynn and Nolan, l979) was originally in white on sepia, giving the apparition a ghostlier aura of sun-bleached bones and ghost gums and photographic negatives. Perhaps the cover designers
were aiming to highlight the threat of Kelly's original mask as it loom ed out of the glow behind the burning Glenrowan Hotel, striking terror, by syntagmatic association, into the hearts of all possible subjects of 'cultural studies', ie. of us all.
The lines of the sketch are rapid and imprecise, conveying the fast improvisatory technique and nervous rhythms of an artist commit ted to capturing the fleeting moment of his subject's action and his own creation; the brave and pathetic improvisation of Ned Kelly's helmet balanced precariously on his slender, vulnerable neck the surging rhythms of the Wombat Ranges offering an infinity of lines of retreat behind which Ned might disappear again at any momentor rapidly drawn-up lines of defence to mask the editors' retreats?
The scale is significant. We have no perspective here, in fact Nolan has resorted to the medieval device of contra-perspective in which the stylised mountains in the foreground are dwarfed by the dominant human figure in the background (Uspensky, 1972: Chap. 7). An ageless, featureless landscape is dominated by a monstrous jack in-the-box with its features hidden, an assertion of massive and articulate native democratic forces threatening the Irish constables, the British police chiefs and the British-model colonial administration in Melbourne that maintained law and order a century ago for a society of alien landowners. Surely the scale of the visual threat on the journal cover is an assertion of an Australian, anti-establishment cultural studies, whatever the origins of the editorial board members!
The scale, of course, only pertains to the image, and Nolan may have been remembering not only the reactions of the witnesses as Ned Kelly in his armour lurched into view at Glenrowan ('It's the Bunyip! It's Old Nick! He appeared to be about nine feet tall') (Clune 1954: 293), but the hyperbolic image of Ned and the 'Kelly Gang' created by the media: the press writing for an easily alarmed Melbourne readership in the two years leading up to their death and capture, or the mass of books, films, TV episodes, paintingsand now a journal cover!devoted to them since. In an age of media self-consciousness we must ask whether the editors of AJCS might not actually relish a rather notorious 'outlaw' image. Certainly in the syntagmatic array of the front cover Ned's helmet turns the journal's title into a heraldic motto: a real touch of semiotic class!
There is little to say about texturecompared with, say, a paintingalthough the rather coarsely textured card betokens a further commitment to the folksy and ecological in preference to the smooth, glossy format of a publication representing the economic and political establishment. (Is it an inviolable rule that the physical durability of small publications should be in inverse proportion to their lasting value?) In any case, the lines of the hills continue pointing across the spine and the back of the cover to the Journal's real 'texture', the richness and variety of its verbal intellectual context. Nor are the themes there adumbrated alien to our Ned Kelly image:
banks, prisons, crimes of passion, images in the media and 'inventing Australia': never mind the width, feel the texture.
At last we must engage with form. The recurrent motif of Ned Kelly's helmet in Nolan's paintings is an assertion of abstract form. As Elwyn Lynn reminds us: 'Nolan cast about in abstract modes ... Kasimir Malevich's levitated rectangles and squares were animated (in more than one sense of that word) as Nolan says, into Kelly's helmet' (Lynn and Nolan, 1979: 11). Just as Malevich, the Constructivists and their contemporaries, the Formalist critics, in the 1920s were preoccupied first and foremost with form, so we must assume the editors and contributors to the Journal will at least take the formal qualities of textswhether verbal, visual, architectural or institutionalas their starting point. We may note that two of the editors have published on Formalism and all five show a strong structuralist tendency in their publications. Moreover, they all teach a structuralist-based semiotics. Now naive critics of structuralism assert its apoliticism, its disconnection of form and content, its neglect of ideology. But for contemporary structuralism, as for Malevich, Tatlin Shklovsky, Eikhenbaum, Eisenstein and all the other great trail-blazers of the 1920s, form is political: not only are the form and content of the artistic text inextricably linked through the con textualised relation of signifier and signified, but the choice of a form from a paradigm of potential forms offered by a code, a genre, a society or a period is fraught with political significance. The 'vulgar sociologists' of Proletkult (Shklovsky's and Trotsky's label!) in the late 1920s ignored this; such vulgarity in the 1980s would be less forgivable.
From what paradigms of meaning have the editors selected Ned Kelly's helmet and what rich levels of significance are generated within each paradigm? Ned's original helmet was intended primarily for defence, reducing his vulnerability in the confrontation with establishment forces that were bound to outnumber and eventually overwhelm the pathetic quartet of youthful outlaws. And yet in shaping into armour the stolen mouldboards of ploughs the Kelly gang were unconsciously inverting the proverbial 'swords into ploughshares.' Certainly, Kelly lost no opportunity to provoke the authorities, whether physically in his cattle-rustling, in the shoot out at Stringybark Creek, in his bank raids and in attempting to overturn the police train near Glenrowan or verbally in his letter after the Euroa bank robbery, his 'Jerilderie testament' or his final confrontation with Mr Justice Redmond Barry at his trial. Are the editors of AJCS following his example? There is certainly a consistency about the targets for the Journal's critiques: the banks, international corporations, media monopolies, prison 'screws' and officialdom in all its guises. And more than one article enjoys cocking a snook at the authorities who run Australia.
On one level Kelly's mask is the eternal watchful eye of populist democracy, seeking out and accusing all corruptions of political and economic power, candidly speaking out for the disinherited:
I wish the men who joined the Stock Protection Society to withdraw their money, and give it, and as much more, to the widows and orphans and poor of the Greta district, where I spent and will again spend, many a happy day, fearless, free and bold Their money only aids the police to procure false witnesses and go whack with men to steal horses and lag innocent men. It would suit the members of the Stock Protection Society far better to subscribe a sum and give it to the poor of their district. (The Jerilderie Letter, cited in Clune, 1954: 213)
Whatever the democratic populist aspirations of the editors however, it seems clear that Sidney Nolan welcomed the ambiguity offered by Ned Kelly's mask:
he wanted disruption and dichotomy as well as connection and relationship. He did not see a series like those done on Ned Kelly in 1946 and 1947 ... as connected aesthetically or historically. Too close an adherence to narrative would have destroyed the immediacy, the sudden impact and separate presence of each unit Lucidity and incongruity and something of the makeshift adaption of the bricoleur ... It is not just that symbols in Nolan are ambiguous, they are antagonistically so; Kelly's helmet is both retreat and aggressive implement (Lynn and Nolan, 1979: 12-13)
The helmet is first of all a mask, then, a retreat from the public eyes and a shield from authority's bullets, but that wide slit represents a merciless gaze, the eye of Cod, watchful parental eyes, a fierce Cyclops, the more inescapably insistent for being not just faceless and anonymous, but by its very abstraction and emptiness merging with either a landscape (in some of the paintings) or a void: the unflinching eye of social conscience. Yet such a reading of that signifying slit, while suiting the ideological aims of the editorial board may be too determinist for Nolan's image. Iconic signs, unlike verbal symbols, are immediate and bring time to a halt. The 'sudden impact and separate presence' are important to Nolanand possibly to our Journal's cover. Certainly the notion of arrest, of sudden impact on the casual browser, was uppermost in the minds of the editors. But sustaining an ambiguity of meaning may be important for the Journal as well. It might be a mistake for the editors to risk being easily written off as 'Marxist post-structuralist', or 'deconstructionist' or 'Foucauldian' or 'radical anti-corporationist', they might make it their policy not just to preserve a wide readership, but to keep the options open for a wide range of dissident, and sometimes conflicting opinions. The Journal may be strengthened if it can preserve in its contents that element in its cover design that Sir Kenneth Clark sees as shared by Sidney Nolan and Benjamin Britten: 'in both their imaginations there is something very strange just over the horizon, something which may never reveal itself, but which gives, by refraction, a faint colour of menace to almost all their work' (Clark, Maclnnes, and Robertson, 1961:10).
Of frame and composition we need say little, having dealt with these under scale. In this cover design they are strongly related since the horizontal rectangle of the slit in the mask mimics the horizontal block of the journal's title while being contained in the upper most of two squares framed by the vertical rectangle of the cover. The black square of Kelly's body has been truncated by the lines of the hills that lead to another rectangle: the text of the body of the journal on the back cover. We should note too that the frame of the cover cuts out a whole section of Nolan's sketch, which has a woman standing in the doorway of a cabin nestling under the hills. In that design the Kelly figure is more benign, guarding the women folk who were so harassed by the Victorian police, although the direction and purpose of the gaze remain ambiguous. The very scale and focal centrality of the gaze when reproduced and framed on the cover seems to make its modality unequivocally assertive: All men may be brothers, but here and now Big Brother is watching you!
What kinds of meaning seem to be foregrounded in our semiotic analysis? Can we infer some of the meanings intended by the editorial board in choosing this cover design? An assertive but anonymous gaze, fixed firmly in an Australian setting scrutinises the abstract forms of contemporary culture, sympathetically protective of the popular, the natural, the ecological, and threateningly critical of the social, political, and economic establishment and its agents. But the message is made more complex through the interaction of three myths: the Ned Kelly myth of popular lore, the Ned Kelly myth of a significant part of Sydney Nolan's oeuvre and the myth of cultural studies'. Mythical thought, Lévi-Strauss tells us, is an intellectual form of bricolage. The bricoleur is a man who makes as well as he can what is required from what he finds to hand. He casts about, improvises, amalgamates the unlikely and reorients the purposes of implements and objects: like the Kelly boys' fashioning their preposterous armour out of bits of ploughs; like Nolan spraying Ripolin on hardboard to produce a major corpus of his work; like the editorial board of a new journal casting desperately about for a cover design, swapping ideas in hasty chats in corridors and finally lighting on an image that seems to epitomise all the main tendencies of their enterprise. Is this interpretation itself an act of bricolage, an amalgamation of the unlikely, constructed after the act of meaning-making to which even we have no access?
Dear reader, dear semiotician, dear bricoleur, shed your mask; in an age of reader-centred criticism your last resort is to read our meanings for yourself ...
Clark, K., MacInnes, C., and Robertson, B. (1961) Sydney Nolan London: Thames and Hudson.
Clune, Frank. (1954) The Kelly Hunters, Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Lynn, E. and Nolan, S. (1979) Sydney NolanAustralia, Sydney: Bay Books.
Uspensky, Boris. (1973) A Poetics of Composition, Berkeley: University of California Press.
New: 30 June, 1997 | Now: 24 April, 2015