Semiotics of Popular Culture

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Alton Lee

Semiotics of Popular Culture

The power of a symbol or image, superior enough to change the world, is about as powerful as anything in the world is capable of being. The Semiotics of Popular Culture reveals to us that a single image, or in today’s world an icon, can be comprehended and processed into energy that has a lasting effect far beyond our lifetime. Communication is vital to our sustainability and longevity. Signs are intended to be read and understood. What we observe visually, is put into action after our brain has transmitted the message of a sign. Certain signs and/or symbols need more consideration or thought to be understood, while others become second nature. History has proven throughout, that signs are an important form of communication for survival and success. We use signs to coordinate, co-operate and coexist within our individual environments. Today our world is universally literate to each other thanks to the advancements of the digital age. Pop-Culture creates a global cohesion for all, rather than separate radical movements. What our eyes see, can dictate our emotions and lead us to make decisions in our lives that could potentially change the world we live in. Such an image powerful enough to generate activity on a grand scale and contribute to the stability of a world power, almost never happened. Arguably the most recognizable image ever taken, the Iwo Jima Flag Raising, made a greater impact than was expected, at a time when globalization began to emerge. Once the American Press of 1945 obtained the photograph, the image's popularity grew and took on a life of its own. The composition of the photo was understood as “Victorious” to a nation desperate for victory.

The day was February 23, 1945 and the setting, a small volcanic Japanese island in the South Pacific Ocean. Intense fighting between tens of thousands of Japanese and Americans had been going on for four days prior. Finally the Marines of the 28th Marine Regiment had gained the upper hand in a battle that had already seen some of the highest number of casualties in the history of mankind. To show the other thousands of men fighting in and around the surrounding area that the island was becoming less Japanese and more American controlled, the Marines raised the United States Flag. Seen as being too small to achieve its purpose, Marine commanders ordered another flag be raised that would be clearly visible by all. The second raising of the flag would allow civilian photographer, Joe Rosenthal, to capture the still image that would be the symbolic meaning of victory in the Pacific campaign of World War II. Images of the smaller flag flying over Iwo Jima had also been taken and like the first flag, were not as powerful as the second, much larger flag. Several images of the fierce battle exist, but the photo shot by Rosenthal, would captivate the spirit of the nation onward to victory. The subjects of the photo, five marines and a sailor, all from different regions and backgrounds of the country are depicted raising the 48 starred United States flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi. However, this was not the significant moment of triumph when the Marines take the higher ground, which they are commonly known to do. That moment happened earlier in the day and this proves to us that the perception of the American people, whether on that island or back at home, is considered highly valuable and of extreme importance. An image capable of such popularity did not exist without controversy. Criticism arose of the photograph being staged. The identities of the first and second flag raisers were confused and became a conflict among the American press and military. Both matters were truthfully revealed, put to rest and the photo lived on to inspire generations of Americans beyond the 20th Century. "The raising of the flag means the Marine Corps for the next 500 years." These were the words of the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, moments after the flag was raised. Indeed the Marine Corps holds the flag raising in high regards because it represents the Corps values of Honor, Courage and Commitment. The photo was a documentation of the Marines in one of their finest moments, for one of the first times in their history dating back to 1775. The gestures of the men with the diagonal pole improvised as a staff, has inspired the Marine Corps War Memorial, a representational bronze sculpture, and the architecture of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, both in Washington, D.C. The significance of the photograph would achieve monumental recognition in postage stamps, savings bonds, and re-enactments all over the country including the 2006 Warner Bros film “Flags of our Fathers.” The aesthetic appeal may be attributed to the men, whose identities are concealed under the cover of their battle dress uniforms, and their body gestures, all working together in unison to hoist up a founded pole with a United States flag attached. What is not seen, is the cost such a simple act. Only three of the six men in the image would survive the infamous battle, gain fame and notoriety for their positions in the frame, and witness how huge the photo had become and made them. The symbolic meaning of the photo was seen and understood to the American people as "Winning the War" and the surviving flag raisers were bestowed by the American public with the title of “Hero.” The picture did not show the graphic details of death and violence associated with combat, but rather of perseverance in battle. Only the men fighting for their countries knew exactly how the battle was unfolding on that island in 1945. The photo has been repeatedly used and replicated over the past seventy years and is considered one the most reprinted and replicated images in world history. The United States Flag, a symbol of its people, principals and values, waving in the theatre of war, was as huge a morale boast to the American offensive, as it was to the demoralization of the Japanese defense. The flag raising would be used to mount support financially for the war and provided proof, that the United States was achieving success. Eventually the Japanese would surrender to the U.S. and Rosenthal's photo would win the Pulitzer Prize.

In a world of signs and symbols, and the reaction to those signs and symbols, how many have had as much an impact as the Iwo Jima Flag Raising photograph? It was a sign of the future, and how the United States would establish itself as a “World Power.” The photo reached San Francisco from the island of Guam, via radio photo, from there, the nation used the image as positive reinforcement towards the driving force behind an overwhelming war effort back home. It became a symbol of the Greatest Generation in a defining moment. The digital age we now live in is dominated by signs and symbols, and how we react, is how we will be perceived in eternity. It has been seventy years since the flag was raised, and of the many advances or changes that have occurred in that time, one aspect remains, we read signs because they inform us of what we want to know and what we can expect in the future.

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