|Photo by Louise Macabitas.|
As I looked at them, I wondered, "What does Pike mean?" In semiotics, we look at signs and how they work in systems. No sign has meaning by itself. It has meaning in relation to other signs. So, how does Pike function as a sign within a system of other signs?
These signs work in ways obvious and not so obvious. Pike could not signify "power" if there was no sign of "non-power." His signification of "power" works, in part, because the students are present as the subject or target of his power -- placement in space also signifies power relationships, with the higher position signifying greater power than the lower position.
The pepper spray has special signification of state-sponsored authority and even inappropriately applied coercive power, thanks to recent events. It had this potential before Pike doused those students, thanks to Anthony Bologna of the NYPD, who weeks before had sprayed women at the Occupy Wall Street protests. These women were not violent, not threatening anyone, and had been placed behind a police barricade. After that, pepper-spray images at OWS events became almost common.
It is easy to see then that the sign of "pepper spray" was part of a system. Any image of it being used was going to be related to other images of its use, and it was going to be placed in context of them.
|From The Woeful Office blog.|
When people started extracting Pike from the original image and placing him into other images, we could see some "slippage." When a sign is removed from a system, it loses some of its meaning. And when it is placed in a new system, it gains new meaning in relation to the signs that now surround it. However, even though a sign is removed from a system, some of its original meaning clings to it -- like a cloud of pepper spray -- and influences its meanings in the new system. In this regard, despite the slippage that occurred, I was impressed with the consistency of the meaning of "Pepper-Spraying Cop" across the Internet and through his many iterations.
In some images, he was used as a sign of the power of the state trampling on the rights of the people to express themselves. This was most cogently communicated in an image of Pike spraying the freshly signed Declaration of Independence.
In other images, Pike is the sign of the Punisher, the force dishing out punishment for those who misbehave. Such as this Peanuts image.
These images would resonate with those whose sentiments lay with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and those who were outraged as his actions that day. In other images, he becomes a sign of something more generic, less overtly political. He becomes a sign for "inappropriate response."
For instance, he can mean "a lack of sympathy." That is what I took him to mean in this image, where has been inserted into Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World. Not that I ever truly understood that painting, but I have always felt the woman in the foreground is in some kind of distress, perhaps needing to get to that house in the distance. Rather than help her, Pike blasts her in the face with pepper spray.
Despite the changes from his original context, Pike still functions in some similar ways -- as a sign of power and as a sign of power misapplied. My first effort at creating a pepper-spraying cop mashup worked along the same lines. I placed him in an image by Dorothea Lange from the Great Depression. In my image, Pike is a sign of state power being used to control the downtrodden and powerless rather than help them.
In many images, Pike becomes a sign of "killjoy," a general disapproval of those having fun. A friend of mine tried his hand at creating a Pike mashup. In the video of Pike's notorious pepper spraying, someone being overly dramatic can be heard saying the students are "children" that Pike is mistreating. So Bill Genereaux in his blog, TechIntersect, created the image of Pike spraying children on a picnic. The children are not misbehaving. They are not protesting or challenging the authority of the state. But that does not free them from Pike's wrath.
I would say that Lt. Killjoy seems to be the dominant theme, more so than overtly political images. When Pike is inserted into famous works of art, he seems to function there as a sign of disapproval of fun, especially naked fun.
One of the first images I saw was of him in an Eduoard Manet painting, The Luncheon on the Grass.
|I want candy!|
These dynamics were at work in my second attempt at a Pike mashup. An idea that came immediately my mind was to insert him into Henri Rousseau's famous painting, The Dream. Some of this inspiration simply came from my memory's catalog of images featuring a person who is facing in the right direction to be sprayed by Pike's canister -- and images in which Pike's actions would be inappropriate. But perhaps at some conscious or unconscious level, my use of Pike followed the dynamics I just described -- he is spraying a woman who happens to be nude (vulnerable + vulnerable). The woman in The Dream seems less vulnerable than the woman in Manet's painting. In some way, she seems to be in control of the events in the jungle; she does not seem threatened by the lions in the grass. Yet, I have Pike spraying her and not the lions.
Sorry, Lt. Pike. That just does not make sense to me.