This picture is a text. It tells a story of an Australian culture. One that is here and one that is gone. But to understand the story, we must first understand the cultures.
Raymond Williams tells us that culture is ordinary. He also sees it as complicated. But culture, like the picture, is a text. And Saussure provides us the textual means for an interpretation of that culture: the study of the sign. Semiotics provides us with a means of taking the temperature of the culture. The word culture itself is abstract, and packed of meaning, Culture,from French "colere", via German "Kultur", offers us a blueprint of what we do best as a group. And in the world of the sign, when the signifiers point to their significants we have a simple compass by which can circumnavigate all the denotations and connotations denote and connote at will with nothing more in the armoury than an icon, a symbol or an index. But the question is: how do we use it? What is this picture any good for?
What if, instead of examining the picture as signifier, we think of it as the signified? If instead of it being a vehicle to something else, we examine why it is a vehicle of meaning at all. And perhaps we can uncover a whole daisy chain of signifiers that point back to an antecedent signifier. Let’s ask then what backward connotations can we come up with? It shouldn’t be difficult to determine. People construct meanings using signifiers from an already existing structure over which individuals have no control. Why might this picture exist at all? Metaphor is the substitution of one signifier for another. A good starting point might be to substitute the picture with a code. it is a victorious parade of culture based on the white conquest of Australia. Here the denotation is easy enough. It’s a sunny day on Port Jackson. No humans can be seen directly, but it can safely assumed that they are present. They are the wealthy of Sydney, at play. They are busily bustling past the centrepiece de resistance, The Opera House. The "The Eighth Wonder" (the opera of that name tells the story of the building) is all three types of signs at once; a connection to the land of Sydney, an iconic sail, and a symbol of Australia.
The land of Sydney is Port Jackson. It was the home of the Cadigal, whom the Europeans called the "Eora people" (which meant “from this place”.) Cook looked in here but didn’t land. Philip instinctively preferred it to Botany. And so Great Britain offloaded in Sydney, the first, the biggest and most important city in Australia. With this importance came wealth and wealth needs to service its vanity in many ways. One way is to buy a boat and another is to inspire a unique cultural identity. Sydney could afford lots of each. The paradigm chosen to represent this city’s homage to culture was the sail. The Opera House is Jorn Utzon’s breathtaking vision which conjoins Sydney Harbour with the sea. It was a metaphor for culture, but it was also metonymy for a ship. The lonely building almost yearns to be in the harbour itself. And of course as a perfect simulacrum of something that doesn’t exist, it is supremely postmodern.
Postmodernity is laced with irony as it is a concept that it posits a reality existing in a timeframe later than now as well as reminding us of a more stylised version of the past. The beautifully sad Opera House aches to be among the pleasure crafts, also but silently bears witness to the death of the Cadigal. The code (parole) of this picture might be applied differently but the message (langue) exists independently of the people in it. The paradox is that if culture is ordinary, it exists without people. Britannia no longer rules the waves. The sea will reclaim her own.