An Interpretation About One of My Pictures

After Thursday class, I got help from live blog again. It always reminds me. In class, I definitely felt to get about phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism and etc… However, while I reviewed my note taking, I realized that I really didn’t accept that yet. I have to find out more about it and I started it from mine, because one picture which I took in 2005 on the street came into my head at that moment. Actually, I’m not good at hand drawing, so I hate sketching something, keeping it and explaining with it. I primarily record my memories or thoughts by taking pictures instead of sketching. I take pictures of an object or color which is able to express my emotion, thought and myself around me.


That time was just around the corner of Christmas. I was little excited with Christmas holiday and also little gloomy with it. As I drove by downtown, I did stop in front of this huge advertisement, STARBUCKS. At the moment, it arrested my eyes first, I chucked when I find the Starbucks’ cup shape between two doves and I took picture for my eternal record. When I reviewed my pictures on the computer later, I was surprised that it had every meaning about Christmas. First, it had red color; Christmas theme color. Second, I could feel Jesus Christ from it, even though it didn’t show anything of him. However, the two doves and the word, “LOVE”, made me awake about his existence in this AD.

I’m not sure whether the ideas that I felt from this picture was phenomenological approaches or not. I just have tried to think along the analysis way with fashion magazine of Tuesday class. Actually now, rather than this profound interpretation of meaning, I just like this warm and lovely image from this AD and I cannot resist temptation to get a cup of Starbucks. Also, I became to believe that Starbucks could show me a holiday magic.


  1. chmbrigg

    I think this is a perfect example of a situation where we can play with different types of analysis, and that nicely highlights the differences between hermeneutic and phenomenological approaches as i currently conceive of them. (of course the meaning of phenomenology is socially constructed..)

    If we were to take a hermeneutic approach to determining the meaning of the sign you photographed, we would try to put ourselves back in the place of the copywriter who came up with the sign’s slogan, and (most likely) discount any interpretation that you might have had. For example, if we were able to determine that the writer is not Christian, then we might discount in our analysis the fact that thoughts of Jesus were evoked in you – or in anyone else.

    If, on the other hand, we were to take a phenomenological approach to determining the sign’s meaning, We would analyze not only the author’s original intent, but also his/her lifeworld and the ways that the author’s meaning of the sign emerged from within that, as well as from your lifeworld, and probably those of other people like you who walked by and saw the sign. From the analysis of these three, we would be particularly interested in how these three overlap, and it would be in this overlap that we would look for intersubjective evidence of meaning.

    Particularly interesting to me is the socially-constructed meaning that hermeneutic analysis might throw out in this case. I find thought experiments nice for working through these things: For example, let us suppose that the creator of the sign did not have Jesus in mind when creating the ad, and let’s hypothetically suppose that no one else in the world initially thought of Jesus when they first saw the sign. Then let’s suppose that your interpretation of the sign is then told to another person who starts to interpret the sign with Jesus as a referent, and that person tells another person who also begins to interpret it the same way… until the entire culture sees a meaning in the sign that might never have been intended by the author. Hypothetically the pure hermeneutic tradition would discount this because it is the original seminal meaning that is important, but clearly it is an important part of the cultural effect of the sign, and, if Roland Barthes is right, the meaning constructed within the culture is more important than that of the author, who has died a horribly meaningless death..

    And since i don’t read Vogue, i’ll leave the structural interpretation to those who do.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    I really like the conversation emerging here. One quick note of clarification, so there isn’t too much confusion. Different thinkers use these terms, like “hermeneutics,” in different ways. Thus, the origin of hermeneutics really was to find the “correct” interpretation of a text vis-a-vis an author’s intention, particular because the original text was the Bible and the (ultimate) author of that was presumed to be God. As hermeneutics spread into a strategy of textual analysis, it started to change. So, I don’t think Gadamer or Ricoeur would agree that there is a single correct interpretation on a hermeneutic (or any other) account, though one literary critic, E.D. Hirsch, famously argued that some readings of texts were “valid” (in the scientific sense) because the meaning of the text is put there by the “intention” of the author, and thus any reader that recovers it has a valid or correct reading.

    I guess what I am saying is that Christian, you might be over-schematizing the distinction between hermeneutics and phenomenology (which we all do with similar and complex concepts just to get a handle on things), and I stand by my earlier statement in class that for those of you that don’t want to worry about the distinction between hermeneutics and phenomenology, well, you don’t have to.

  3. jeffreybardzell

    As for Barthes, he would not be surprised that Christ can emerge from a Starbucks ad, because deep and unpredictable things happen in the play of meaning. I’ll have a go at a simplistic structuralist reading.

    Aspects of the color scheme (green and red), the symbolism (doves), and the text (“holiday magic”) clearly signify Christmas, and in particular the social joy and shared experience (“Love”) of Christmas. The Starbucks cup is inserted in a privileged location. Starbucks is for many a social experience, making it basically compatible with the spirit of Christmas. The text “it’s time for holiday magic” has two meanings: first, is “this is the holiday season–enjoy!” in which “it’s time for” scans as “now is the time of” and it clearly references Christian Christmas rituals; second is, “go to Starbucks now!” in which “it’s time for” scans as “let’s go!” and it clearly references Starbucks.

    By inserting a Starbucks cup in the middle of the ad and creating this (deliberately) ambiguous message at the bottom, the advertiser is exploiting the relationship between the visual language of Christmas and its deep meanings for Christians, which is an interesting structural problem in itself. Because two cultural signs*–the Starbucks experience and ritual celebrations of the birth of Jesus–have been brought into an unexpected relationship, complex meanings emerge from their juxtaposition. It seems to me that that relationship benefits Starbucks a lot more than Christianity. It inserts a banal commercial product into a shared and, for most, sacred Christmas ritual.

    So why doesn’t the ad backfire and anger Christians? I would say that in this billboard the Christmas message has priority over the commercial message. In other words, the ad doesn’t put Starbucks and Christian ritual on the same level. Instead, Starbucks is subordinated to the ritual (in a special place, of course, but nonetheless subordinated). Why do I say this? First, Starbucks gets very little sign space. Second, Stabucks brand identity is green, and the sign is predominantly red. This is convenient, because Christmas colors are green and red, but red is typically dominant. Thus, the visual language of Starbucks replaces the subordinate position (green) in the visual language of Christmas, thereby associating itself, but submissively, with the broader Christmas meanings/experience.

    Now many students will challenge and say that “there is no way the designer planned all that.” A structuralist would respond, “I don’t know (and neither do you), and I don’t care.” These colors, words, oppositions, associations are all there in the billboard for all to see, whether or not the ad designer intentionally put them there.

    * I do not mean to imply any theological claim here about the true nature of any religious figure. What I mean is that inasmuch as Christ is signified (directly or indirectly) by this billboard, however, he is–in this context, and among other things–a cultural sign.

  4. chmbrigg

    Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. i somehow omitted the word “pure” from my comment (it was originally included) – as in “pure hermeneutic” – referring to the more traditional Schliermacherian approach, which, unless i’m mistaken (which often happens), is concerned with trying to discern the intrinsic truth and author’s intention when interpreting a text.

    So that folks are not confused, I would like to reinforce Jeff’s point that i was grossly over-schematizing in the previous comment. This is of course the case, because any schema (even a less-schematized one) is, of course, making discrete what is not discrete at all. This happens frequently in the game of driveway hockey, for example, when the participants agree on the distinctions between in- and out-of-bounds. Though we all agree to agree that there is, in fact a boundary, there really is no inherent difference in out-of-boundness between Jeff’s perfectly coiffed rink, his lawn and that of his neighbor. The socially-agreed-upon difference merely helps us to make sense of the world, and for me to beat Jeff whenever i grace the rink with my presence.

  5. jeffreybardzell

    I didn’t say you were “grossly overschematizing”; I said you were “gross.” But that was out loud and you weren’t around. How did you know I said that?


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