On "Character" II: Syntagm Structures

There’s one problem here with these kind of thematic studies; it’s how we methodology go about aniblogging, go about analyzing. Since some wordpress dashboards can be so fickle, posting embedded youtube videos proves to be quite the hassle at times, and so we’re forced to resort to representing one medium – video – for a single image. This kind of paradigm shift really limits the breadth of information just a few seconds of video has over a single image. Of course you’re allowed to call me lazy, but if I were to post 25 videos in a visual study instead of 25 images, would you really watch every single one? I obviously wouldn’t want to extract 25 clips; that would be a pain in the ass. It’s an incredibly difficult effort to signify that breadth of time with an inert frame, there’s not enough room for meaning in that 3rd dimension, it needs the fourth.

But there are two problems at hand here. Concerning the last post, specifically the brief study of glasses as visual, cultural artifacts, we isolate the sign from its larger sign. Essentially, the representation of a character as a whole, in its entirety, is a syntagm, a structure of signs of which we are able to isolate, remove, speculate upon, analyze, deconstruct various paradigms within that structural syntagm. Paradigms are choices: hair, is it short, long or medium? Color, is it white, grey, silver, black, blue etc.? Skin hue, dark, brown, as pale as paper? Eyes, huge, a little less than huge? Glasses, no glasses? What is the ratio1 of her zettai ryouiki, the grade? A+, C, S-class Rin? All these kinds of choices (there are infinite more) constitute the paradigms that are inherently part the larger character structure. Luckily we are able to perform this very isolation.

There are a plethora of paradigmatic signs here, the syntagmatic sign-structure being the Kallen we are so familiar with. In the left picture2 there’s the glasses, an object of primary concern, the finger pattern3, the smile, the hair style which is nicely juxtaposed to the image on the right, the curvature of the eyebrows, once again juxtaposed to pizza-Kallen, the attire, seemingly attempting to emulate the school teacher, and so forth and so on. In the right image4, there’s the pizza, the facial expression that consists of the eye brow curvature, mouth, wide eyes, the school uniform, the hair style, the juice box, the finger position, once again contrasting the fingers on the left. We can then isolate these signs…

Even semiotic isolation proves to be difficult since the “invisible” Kallen behind the faceless hair styles pervades into the very essence of these stylizations. Nevertheless, the left, being messy, connotes, well, messyness, unrulyness, perhaps lazyness, rebellion, etc. The straight hair connotes self-order, discipline, hygiene, etc. The odd thing is that, as poignant a series Code Geass was, Kallen simply was a number of things. She was the cold-hearted killer, the indifferent school girl, the moe school girl (clad in thigh highs), the naked girl in an awkward situation, the valiant pilot, the helpless imouto, the Japanese, the Britannian, the rebel, and so forth. Kallen is, at one point or another, represented as all these archetypes. The narrow position of her self cannot, simultaneously, represent all these characteristic structures, so her representation is situational, dependant upon context.

Obviously the methodological problem here is attempting to depict a signifier with a complete sign (since I don’t intend to evoke the signified via the contextually incoherent signifier). Nevertheless, it does help to visualize if you have a floating signifier image at hand. So we’re left to equivocate one sign with another; obviously the hand in the left Kallen is not the same as the Nayuki hand here.

You can, if you wish, further divide these signs (syntagms in their own right) into more or less empirical paradigms. These more basic paradigms are things like color, height, length, width, “mass” (if that’s at all quantifiable in two dimensions).

The “first level” is the greater syntagm of Kallen, the entire representation. We can isolate the sign or cultural artifact, the hand, the kind of, so to speak, “semiotic clothing”, then further isolate its constitutive paradigms, one of them being color. Of course this is not to limit the adjustments of color to the effect of only the hand. Obviously if her skin color were different, say she were a greenish tint, that change would affect her entire representation, it would not have to pass through the sign of the hand like a car through a toll booth. The hierarchy of the syntagm does not operate in such a fashion; nevertheless, color is more basic than a portion of a character structure which is, in turn, more basic than the entire character representation, since we cannot signify voice and, generally speaking, personality within the two-dimensional image.

And, of course, pale skin is usually a sign of ambiguous things like grace, elegance, refinement, dare I say “purity“. I am dutifully obliged to note exceptions, this Kallen juxtaposition being one in itself: the pizza-eating school girl is slightly more tanned than our, what I would be inclined to call, seductive teacher model. Within the Geassverse there are exceptions plentiful: orange-kun is dark, and our lovely brown Britannian aren’t depicted as culturally “lower” than the light skinned ones, and this goes to contradict any absolute essentialist position which would posit that since Lelouch is light skinned, all Britannians must therefore be fair. You can, however, notice that a good chunk of the Japanese males are slightly more brown that the counterpart Britannians.

Suzaku seems to be mid hued compared to the darker Tamaki, while Kaguya is pretty pale. Of course it’s not hyperbolized to the point of, say, Honey & Clover (since god forbid a supposed Japanese girl look Japanese, but maybe she’s a foreigner or enjoys colored contacts?).

Take this doujin, for instance.5 There are a whole bunch of things going on here: the crying, the jump suite, the boobs, the protective hand, etc. These things I’ve listed are corroborated by the lack of headband and Domon-esque hair, two defining traits of Kallen’s battle-ready image. She does have, however, that jump suit, which might be more a fetishization of anything skin-tight (similar to thigh highs). The fighting girl concept, perhaps, paradoxically, contributes to this by negating itself. If Kallen is, primarily, a fighter, her position here nullifies those historically masculine things – since it was kinda weird seeing Kallen cry in various episodes, noticeably the one where Lelouch came on to her – with the emphasis on femininity. Here, feminine counter hegemony, the fact that she’s usurped the masculine position of ace pilot (juxtaposed by the GAR Knight of One, Suzaku, attested to by Cornelia) is refuted and appropriated by the dominating and traditional hedonistic (doujinshi itself is rather hedonistic) practice of patriarchal ideology. Contrast this to super-awesome, fist-pumping, Suzaku-owning, huge boob-growing-per-episode Kallen in the first image of this post. Totally in ideological contradistinction.

Essentially, since I’m past the 1000 word limit, it’s crucial to, in trying to understand how characters are constructed, analyze the character as structured, as pieced together with various elements – signs – which contribute to the entire image. This could have been developed more, buttressed with more examples, but the gist was sent. In the next post I’ll hopefully be able to expound upon that notion of “reverse closure” a little more, that is to say the relationships between signs which form the glue that holds the syntagm together. On that note, in summary, this post was briefly looking at key components of structures, not necessarily how they are architected and soldered into place.


1 http://burogublog.wordpress.com/2008/06/08/the-art-and-science-of-zettai-ryouiki/
2 http://www.animetake.com/
3 http://www.thatanimeblog.com/2008/08/21/lwc-61-visual-study-in-feminine-finger-positions/
4 http://www.darkmirage.com/
5 http://www.deranged-minds.com/blog/2007/02/16/code-geass/

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  1. Posted October 29, 2008 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    Interesting take.
    I would think, however, that, similar to the OPs in a way, you have to assume the author had intended that sort of meaning to be imbedded into it, right?

    If the author merely drew that up for no particular meaning…wouldn’t that bankrupt the entire thing?

  2. Posted October 29, 2008 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Real nice. Can’t wait for the final (?) installment. I wouldn’t mind using these as frameworks for reading anime at all. Signs are always selling us something – even if it’s only agreement to what the sign represents. The codification I think is fluid, but I also think the theories of your last 2 posts could at least cover contemporary (after 2000) anime. So a codex of the more common signs can be compiled. Hint to all those Lit/English majors out there!

    Also, good choice on using a Code Geass character for your post on what essentially are about codes (sign systems). I’d like to see a thesis like “De-coding Code Geass: An taxonomy of tropes” Too ambitious a project for the likes of me these days.

  3. Posted October 29, 2008 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    1000 word limit? But you were just getting warmed up…

  4. lelangir
    Posted October 29, 2008 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    thenightshadow: I guess, there are a lot of people that would argue certain things, if not having any meaning, have no meaning relevant to the ones drawn up by bloggers (ie. the debate that Britannia was a metaphorical USA). What do you mean by “bankrupt”? Semiotic bankruptcy? Financial? There’s a difference between the purpose for which it was drawn and the meaning inherent in it – it’s mixing up the means and the ends. Of course there are financial ends, but the thing in itself is a means, so, essentially, it is in itself its purpose.

    ghost: I guess there’s going to be at least 6 posts on the subject, there is quite a lot to talk about concerning “the character”. In the first post that rigid “appearance > personality > ideology” model is pretty bad in some respects, so I’d hopefully tease out the problems in the third post, which is proving quite difficult. I had been working on that one for a week, then decided it wasn’t working so wrote up this one in a day.

    Geass, being contemporary, is perhaps more subject to the idiosyncrasies of high-budget(?) anime, therefore it has to rely on certain tropes and semiotic conveniences to get the message across quickly and effectively, much to the dismay of any sense of extreme “depth”. There’s a lot more competition out there these days, so to an extent I can’t blame guys that want to put food on the table.

    BK: Mmhmmm…

  5. Posted October 29, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think equivocate means what you think it means, haha. But of course you’re entirely correct that the character’s appearance says a lot about him or her.

  6. John Doe
    Posted October 29, 2008 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    I’m not entirely convinced that you fully understand what it is you’re talking about, there is indeed a interesting topic, but your writing is so contrived it detracts from the points at hand. You fail to mention anything of great effect most of everything posted goes along the lines of ‘gee isn’t this neat’ to the tune of ‘I know I’m saying something but don’t know exactly what’.

    If you’re going to talk about Structure and Methodology, you should do so using Structure and Methodology. State something, it’s purpose, your evidence, instead of gibbering on to make a big ass wall’o’text that quite frankly, seemed to me as if it wasn’t very well planned out.

  7. lelangir
    Posted October 30, 2008 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    taler: probably not.

    doe: I feel your disappointment is due to the fact that this post is really, nearly inextricably linked to the third and first post. If you hadn’t read the first, it would probably help greatly. Sorry, perhaps, for making assumptions though.

    In layman’s terms, here’s a powerpoint-esque rundown of the post:

    (1) images cannot capture time, the difficulty of talking about these without being too tl;dr or coming out of our lazy shells.

    (2) syntagms and paradigms are fractal; syntagms are paradigms depending on your frame of reference.

    (3) I tried to reduce signs to empirical paradigms, things irreducible like color (what else could you distill out of it?), size, “mass”, etc. This contributes to the developing of the character structure – how the “character”, while being a singular representation, is actually constructed out of a hierarchy of many signs (paradigms) which eventually compose the larger structure (syntagm). If this is not clear or too boring I can’t help much more than telling yourself you got trolled.

    (4) I juxtaposed to Kallens, identifying various signs.

    (5) This row of signs was the methodological problem. Nayuki’s hand is a complete sign, but it is supposed to be only an empty signifier. Thus the problem here is that, when you see Nayuki’s hand, you think about Kanon 2006 (the signified) when, really, we’re supposed to be thinking about Kallen and Code Geass. Basically, don’t decode Nayuki’s hand as a complete sign, but as an empty, floating signifier which assumes the meaning (signified) of Kallen and Code Geass.

    (6) Next I tried to “deconstruct” the image of Kallen with glasses. I was tempted to use Barthesian terms like “first order” (since that’s the kind of stuff in which I’ve been mentally inculcated) but the point is was that “first” denotes hierarchy – the very hierarchy of the syntagm. But just because character structures are hierarchical does not mean the “second” paradigm acts as a proxy or patrol for the first and third. If you alter the third paradigm, the most basic one, its meaning directly alters the entire meaning, it jumps past the second paradigm and straight into the first, that is the entire syntagm. [reiterate toll booth metaphor]

    (7) skin color, the empirical paradigm I was using, is always a relevant subject. This part was not just about singular character structure but about recurring paradigms within cast structures (which I’ll talk about in a later post). I always contradict myself and explicitly state exceptions (to circumvent essentialism and absolutism) to avoid trolls from picking apart logic but that backfires at times.

    (8) There was evidence: Kaguya is pale. Girls in anime tend to be pale. Girls in anime that are supposedly Japanese, the viewer presumes, do not really look Japanese. Pale skin, an empirical paradigm, is indicative of this.

    (9) The last teasing out of the Kallen doujin served to reiterate the syntagm theme. Then there was the conclusion.

    If 1300 words is a big ass wall’o’text (with plenty of distracting pretty pictures) I once again pity the state of readership. And then there is the catch 22 of tl;dr vs. incoherence. You never win. I’d guess there was quite a bit of structure in here, but talking purely of blogging/semiotic methodology wouldn’t be appropriate for an anime blog, and just since talking only about anime is a little boring (since I have this weird effect of making anime boring). Essentially, as you put it, this is a post about “gee isn’t this neat”. I wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t think so myself in the first place.

  8. Posted October 30, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    It seemed to me that youtube videos on wordpress.com blogs can be easily embedded with [youtube=URL] code regardless of the design theme. Perhaps, it is different for self-hosted wordpress blogs.

    I am not sure why you are forced to represent a video with an image… I would watch all 25 videos if the subject interested me. Images can capture time quite well, but it depends on who is doing the capturing and what do you mean by “capturing time”.

  9. Posted October 31, 2008 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    kitsune: there’s the problem of finding “the perfect” video clip, much as we have the problem of finding the perfect screen cap – therein lies the difficulty of video editing for noobs, especially trying to edit MKV files… (previously I once noted how youtube was a breeding ground for terrible AMVs which surely detracts from the “archaeological” potential of youtube)

  10. Posted November 1, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the depth is at the source, but this is all touching on perception, possibly nu-symbolism (since we’ve long forgotten original symbolism in the West), pattern matching, evocative implementation, stirring palettes and the likes. Our genetics provides interpretation and influence of such things, but also we have grown accustomed… still, what does the blue or red hair mean?

    Well, for most of us, it is going to mean whatever we feel upon questioning, or until another party yields a more satisfactory explanation. Still, it is derived from human by humans, and though it that is a given, the context and environment are already bounded upon implementation….

    … we can’t escape being/perceiving human.

  11. vendredi
    Posted November 4, 2008 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Eh, a little late to the party here, but boy your posts are hard to track. Anyway, just found this a tad interesting:

    “(8) There was evidence: Kaguya is pale. Girls in anime tend to be pale. Girls in anime that are supposedly Japanese, the viewer presumes, do not really look Japanese. Pale skin, an empirical paradigm, is indicative of this.”

    Now I may be misreading you here, but you seem to imply that pale skin means that the person in question is not really Japanese…
    I might beg to differ here; in a lot of Asian cultures pale skin and long hair are usually signifiers of classical beauty – this standard has admittedly eroded somewhat in the modern day, but a quick perusal of say, stuff like the Tale of Genji reveals that usually pretty people were described as both pale with long and silky here.
    Kaguya’s various mix of icons then, suggest if anything more about her character – she’s the classical japanese beauty (a look that is, of course, befitting of an empress). Not sure if you picked up on it either, but the name Kaguya refers specifically to a Japanese folktale princess as well.

    Anyway, the point is that in deconstructing the whole symbology behind character, I think we have to be careful about particular cultural biases – while some tropes I’m sure can be cross-cultural, the target audience at the end of the day is still Japanese – there are certain references i’m sure that have greater salience. Of course, I guess this only applies if you buy into the whole idea that author intention means something, but that’s another debate…

  12. Posted November 4, 2008 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    vendredi: I think you misread me: I wasn’t explicitly stating anything about Kaguya. Hagu and Ayu (H&C) are the blonde/blue eyed characters whose alleged phenotypical/national connections I was hazy about (ie. blue eyed, blonde haired, pale “natural” “Japanese”?)

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