Beware Signifiers: Progression of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish Signage Board


Alex Todaro

I’d like to start out by saying that this began as an exploration of messages in our society. How do we develop these messages? Produce and distribute these messages? What are the aesthetic principles to these messages? I’m searching for a bloodline that rings throughout the entire platform of communication tactics. Hoping that the sum is directly reflective when analyzing its parts. I started out thinking about these messages objectively but was quick to realize that when dealing with messages, you’re not just looking at how a sign looks and where it’s placed; you’re dealing with its words and indefinitely words aren’t without their healthy dose of subtext. This isn’t simply an exploration into messages; this is a scope into communication, leading to ideals, leading to communities, leading to humanity. Messages are representative of us, a modern trail of breadcrumbs, leading us to what we hope will manifest itself into validity or some sort of raw truth.

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Denotatively what we have here is a back-lit advertising box. Ornamented with the crest and information of the Catholic Church Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Established in 1886 and located on Belmont Street in between Halsted and Broadway. Once a week, typically on Mondays the message on the main part of the sign is changed. A short phrase that echoes ideals of the Catholic Faith; I would assume that most of these sayings have come straight from the bible but I can’t be sure. My best guess is that the messages relate to what the following sermon of the week will speak to. This box is located stage right of the main doors and stairway of the church, facing the street and sidewalk. On average, with walking pedestrians and cars passing regularly, I would guess that nearly just shy of a thousand people see this sign everyday. The exact percentage of people who read this message is undetermined, but I believe the right question with all messages, is how many people cognitively digest it? The sign uses a san serif grotesque typeface in all caps. If I had to guess I would say the typeface is Arial or Arial black. This type of lettering that is used here to spit sermon is a familiar voice. It tells us the price of gas, the daily specials at diners, what movies are playing, where the garage sale is, and how we can get two custom tailored suits for the price of one. The letters are bold, openly spaced and easy to read at a glance. In this respect it does a fine job, literally, of getting the message across.

Connotatively it becomes a bit more of a challenge. Among the list of things to breakdown we’re presented with an array of options. What has the hierarchy? The individual messages themselves for each week? The Syntagmatic relevance of the signs changing every week relating back to a whole? The ideals of the church and their platform for marketing these ideals? The box itself as a platform for presenting messages? Or even the action of documenting the signage through my window? For the purpose of my analysis I’ll try to bottle neck all of these options into a general category reflecting off one another. But I think it’s important to make these distinctions.

So in these respects, connotatively what we have here is the church marketing its ideals in a typical fashion. The fundamentals of this based in the same sense of similar street advertising, IE: I have a message I want to inform the masses about, in order to do this I will put a sign on the street with my message in hopes that people will see it, perhaps identify with it or be curious about it and will seek out my service. For the purposes of the church, the service is literal, Sunday from eight to noon and a night service a seven o’clock. The business however, is saving souls. To follow these messages is to subscribe to a way of life.

The signs themselves are chalked full of intertextuality. The first impression is biblical. As mentioned before it’s apparent that the messages deal with issues and codes of the church and so it is rightly assumed that the messages would reinforce those values. It’s easy to look at all the examples and assume it’s the same sign, the same message. This is the beauty of repetition and relates to one degree of the syntagmatic approach, a good example of this is Andy Warhols car crash paintings, or when you repeat a word so many times that it loses all meaning. The pattern of repetition reduces all specific words to a subtle roar. The important signifier in this case is that the sign is of the church, you wouldn’t have to read any of the specific messages to know the general rhetoric. This is because of the index of the church. There’s an imbedded logical connection that replaces the dulling down of repetition. This is an important point of church marketing, the repetition establishes its presence in the social environment but turns it into a sort of backdrop. It’s then left to the assumed ideologies and indexed relations that people correlate with the church to fill in this meaning. Much to how we develop proverbial reputations of celebrities’. To me this could be taken as a manipulated obfuscation tactic.

The next big push I see from the signs is a strong gesture towards interpellation. All signs either specifically address you or your, otherwise they remark on general groups of people; “those”, “whoever”. In two cases the sign establishes itself using the article “me” and once uses “us” implying the sign and a collected group of followers of the signs ideologies. Therefore, from this evidence the sign has a specific agenda towards a general target audience with high intentions of separating an “us” and “them”. Within this “us and them” principle there’s a heavy influence of jingoism. Appealing to a psychological group mentality. Diachronically society has always implemented an “us and them” foundation. It’s the root of community, segregation, revolution, politics, and identity. It’s based off a relation to what we are not. Historically speaking, it’s the oldest trick in the book.

To project these ideas further I think it’s important to look into the text a little bit closer. The key words that stick out to me are as follows: Blessed, fear, last, first, sell, cross, follow, bowed down. It’s important to keep in mind that Catholicism is full of symbolism and metaphor. Or to put it in another way, the afore-mentioned subtext has its own subtext. Using the auteur theory we can assume that this religion will stay aligned with its distinctive style. When looking at these key words another word pops into my head: submission. “Blessed are those who fear”, “the last are the first”, “sell what you have”, “those who were bowed down”. The last message specifically houses a double entendre. Speaking to a group of society who must bow down in the face of shame and social construction and doubly speaking to the expectation that you will have to bow down and submit again in the face of the lord. He will then raise you spiritually and physically into the heaven. “Sell what you have” is a suggestion to abandon materialism and doubly to strip oneself of self. Those who fear are blessed. Although maybe not to the strictest sense, there’s an undertone of metaphor in all of these sayings. We are the sheep, the lord is our Sheppard.

Another important thing to look at is the relevance of these messages in a contextual sense. More specifically, to understand how these messages fit with the current issues of society. I think it’s fairly safe to say that there is an air of fear and desperation generally accepted in our society at large. Money isn’t worth what it used to be, jobs are hard to come by, industry is hurting, and we don’t know whom to trust. Like any marketing campaign, it’s important to know your audience. The church knows its audience; A bunch of lost puppies looking for some sort of relief in a hard physical world. The beauty of this campaign is that you don’t need traditional amenities to gain success or acceptance. All you need is the hand you’ve been dealt. The price tag says submission, weakness and humility. And when this paradigmatic transaction is complete you’ll have bought your strength. It’s a one-stop shop in this structural retail outlet called salvation.

I would like to note that I’m not trying to attack Catholicism. In my best efforts I’m trying to think about this as objectively as possible. My intent is on breaking down messages. Inevitably there’s a degree of over-spill that may occur when ripping these things up and putting them back together. This is a box with words in it, the words are loaded and they are aimed at me day and night.

Note: This text is also available on Alex Todaro’s website, which is available here.

© Alex Todaro 2010

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