Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sharks and Sequoias: Unexpected Interpretants

All along the bustling streets of New York City, cars zoom through busy intersections grazing the paths of hurried pedestrians or sit idly bumper to bumper spewing harmful fumes into the atmosphere. Although these functional vehicles assume a similar purpose, transporting people throughout the city, they cannot all be considered to be one in the same. Let us not get caught up in stereotypes, however, derived from the type of people that drive a particular class of car (e.g. the rugged, adventurous type-4X4 vehicle), rather let us consider the implications of vehicle naming conventions and the ways in which these designated “signs” impact our conceptions of space and travel. Then, we will ask ourselves how these signs are complicated, constrained, and mediated by the crowded, built environment in NYC.

The names chosen to identify cars are unique and signify objects that are not always inherently linked to the vehicle itself. Yes, it is true that there are some cars like the Ford Escort, for example, in which the name quite literary explains what the car does, “to guide, protect, or honor its passengers.” But, then there are vehicles like the Toyota Sequoia, in which the word “sequoia” is immediately interpreted in my mind as a type of tree, the giant redwood, not a car. What implication does this then have for the vehicle itself? The stark disconnect formed between object and sign challenges our conceptions of what a tree can be or classified as in our minds. Perhaps we should ask, what qualities of “tree-ness” does a car possess? Does the object-sign (car-name) relationship evoke, in the spirit of Charles Peirce, interpretants of sturdiness or leafiness, greenness or hardness?

We can also explore this concept by thinking about the Hyundai Tiburon, which is translated to mean “shark” in Spanish. Obviously, the car itself is not a shark; the object-sign relationship is again skewed and spawns an unexpected interpretant. What qualities, however, does a shark possess that could be associated with a vehicle? Perhaps, we could argue that they share similar qualities, such as sleekness or the ability to maneuver in a dangerous environment. Perhaps, we make the analogy that the open ocean is like the open road. It is interesting to think about these types of signs existing in NYC and the interpretants generated by such unlikely sign-object relationships. Without knowledge of the associated object, one might ask: what is a shark or a sequoia doing in the middle of NYC? How does this idea of the unexpected interpretant affect city-goers? Is another layer of meaning coated onto the sign “Tiburon” because of its placement in NYC, rather than the open ocean? In what ways might these types of signs mediated or constrained by the built environment in NYC?

An overwhelming number of car names are designated to reference place, generally the name of a place that is not necessarily where you are located geographically or where you plan to go. Parked along the streets of NYC, you may see a Chevy Malibu, Toyota Tacoma, or Hyundai Santa Fe. These are not functional markers of place in the City, although the Buick Park Avenue may be. The word Malibu (sign) invokes an idea or feeling (interpretant) of that particular place (object); yet, where does the car (object) itself fit into this trichotomy? Perhaps, the car is linked by connotation or association to the place, and this is the relational interpretant car-makers hope to evoke in drivers – a feeling of place, a longing to be somewhere you are not.
Many car names are also linked to the concept of the journey, such as the Plymouth Voyager, Nissan Pathfinder, or Ford Explorer. This returns us to the idea of function. If cars are designed to transport us from point A to point B, then this naming convention seems to be a logical one. The name “Explorer” (sign) is linked to the vehicle (object) that evokes the concept of “the journey” (interpretant). What a brilliant move for car-makers and ad men/women! These naming conventions covertly manipulate the desires of those who feel constrained by crowded, bustling, overly geometric, concrete environment of NYC.

-- Katie Caljean

Related Links:

The Legend of the Chevy Nova,

Images credits:

1 comment:

Gigs and Digs said...

Wow, firstness jumping right out of your blog photos, Katie! Great job.

As a city-goer, whenever I see or even think of the gargantuous Ford Expedition, it triggers a sense of, "well, there goes one-and-half parking spaces" (probably a different experience for the owner). It is interesting how cars are linked to entities in nature when they are far from natural - what a carbon footprint!

Your post is perfectly timed for this week's Kockelman¹ (2007) reading, which addresses "residential agency" and the control and accountability over sign-expression. Using Kockelman's terminology, it would appear that car manufacturers, as part of a collective whole, intentionally mediate (thematize?) the "unlikely" sign-object relation toward positive "representational" interpretants like, as you've mentioned, a sense of safety inside a Ford Escort. On the other hand, your inquisitive post and the negative interpretants in my previous paragraph indicate a variability and limitation to "committing to one interpretant" favored by the car manufacturers. Large SUVs like the Ford Expedition are less likely to appear in commercials featuring a drive through St. Marks in NYC.

On a side note, I find it ironic that the color of my car is designated by Honda as "Borrego Beige," where borrego is Spanish for bighorn sheep, and a buck rammed into the posterior side of my car while in bumper to bumper traffic.

¹ Kockelman, P. 2007. Agency: The Relation between Meaning, Power, and Knowledge," Current Anthropology 48(3):375-401