Academic journal article Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué

Esthetics of the Extreme in Shock Websites

Academic journal article Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué

Esthetics of the Extreme in Shock Websites

Article excerpt

The World Wide Web promises relatively unfettered access to information that was previously difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The Web has been celebrated for its "democratization" of information as well as its ostensible capacity to give a "voice" and an implicit potential audience to anyone who wants to publicly express something. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Web, very early in its existence, became a means for the distribution of mainstream pornographic material. Shocking and unpleasant material--grisly death scenes, cruel fetish porn--has also long been a (somewhat less publicly visible) staple of the Web.

As the content of the Web has expanded, people have found new ways to manipulate the manners in which websites are navigated and interacted with. Innovations of these kinds, it could be said, are like changes in the syntax, or the grammar, of the Web, in that they represent new forms of organization of the Web experience--organization that both structures Web-surfing on what is equivalent to a discursive level and, as a contextual framework, inflects users' experience of individual web pages. As with spoken language, the manner in which content is manifested and how its expression is structured can contribute significantly to its roles in a discourse, and thus its "meaning." An intuitively-accessible format for a shopping website, for example, can be like the Web equivalent of a good real-world salesperson, not only directing the shopper toward desirable items but also fostering a seamless and pleasant overall experience that, as in real-world shopping, may lead to more sales on the strength of its influence on the shopper's experience of the situation.

The syntax of Web navigation, of course, can also be manipulated in the opposite manner, so that attempts to find one's way toward desired information can be frustrating or, in some cases, alarming. These qualities are often simply the unintended results of bad design, though some websites intentionally evoke feelings of frustration and distress in ways that are parodic or expressive. It has been suggested that the reflection of paradigmatic themes and sentiments in the syntactic structuring of texts is an aspect of the poetics of any media form. Umberto Eco, for example, writes that Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" exploits its form to go beyond its seeming semantic simplicity to something more "semantically rich"

As for the content, it seems to offer the most elementary kind of information, the tautology for truism. In order to convey a tautological content the expression seems to rely upon an excess of redundancy...Nevertheless the message gives the impression of saying something that is semantically rich and therefore highly ambiguous. [This produces] an increase of informational possibilities. (Eco 1979, 270)

The syntactic forms taken by media--the ways in which they exploit the channels available to them and the ways in which they allow for determination of content or interpretation on the part of their users--thus influences and complicates reactions to and readings of their more paradigmatic content. Algirdas-Julien Greimas And Jacques Fontanille touch on this interaction in what are perhaps less-binary terms in their discussion of what they call the microsequence and the macrosequence. Greimas and Fontanille are discussing jealousy, but their observations are applicable to any situation in which general patterns and their more specific details work in concert with one another to contribute to an overall effect:

We can envisage the syntax...in two complementary ways: first, though a passional macrosequence characteristic of the whole configuration, which will encompass the presupposed...and the implied...and subsume transformations between arrangements; or second, through a passional microsequence that takes on just one of the arrangements. (Greimas and Fontanille 1993, 170)

Where Eco writes about organizing (syntactic) principles and their interactions with paradigmatic choices, Greimas and Fontanille's discussion focuses on relative scales within the structure of an expression. …

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