Galaxy of Signifiers: G.I. Joe and Jenny Holzer

While watching the G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra movie trailer during the Superbowl, I remembered an amazing article in the October issue of The Believer recounting the impact of G.I. Joe on visual conceptions of war, particularly during the 1980s, when most of today’s soldiers in Iraq were coming of age:

“G.I. Joe’s epic advertising campaign peaked in 1985, when Hasbro had toys, cartoons, comic books, and countless merchandising tie-ins swamping the market. That was a historic moment for American culture. In a paper about war and culture, political scientist Patrick M. Regan estimated that 9.5 percent of all toys produced in 1985 were war toys–‘the highest ratio of war toys to total toys outside of the World War II period.’/ On a metaphorical level, the role of Dr. Mindbender and other G.I. Joe toys had also expanded. While the new comics still stroked kiddie consumerist impulses, they also delivered ideological medication–rehabilitating the image of the American military.” (Jason Boog 23)

IGN Preview/synopsis of forthcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

The relationship between the image of G.I. Joe and television is intriguing because the show appeared as simple images telling a simple story of how a group of characters interact during a semi-fictional war scene. In reality, the television program was designed to sell two different products to viewers–toys and an understanding of the American military.  As Boog notes (20), G.I. Joe was a typical 80’s children’s cartoon through its episodes comprised of feature-length product placements that happened to have a narrative structure.  In this sense, the G.I. Joe television program is the signifier and the G.I. Joe toys are the signified content.  However, the G.I. Joe characters and toys are also role playing devices, encouraging fantasized battles in different countries and “military environments” (deserts/The Middle East, jungles/Southeast Asia, etc.) among viewers.  Consequently, there is a second relationship at work in which the toy is the signifier and the child’s relationship with the American military is the signified content.   Ultimately, these different motivations within the program stem from two distinct voices that direct the audience towards different desires.

When he examines Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z, Roland Barthes discusses a way to approach a classic, narrative-based text in which multiple voices are present:

“…in the classic text the majority of utterances are assigned an origin, we can identify their parentage, who is speaking: either a consciousness (of a character, of the author), or a culture…The best way to conceive a classical plural is then to listen to the text as an iridescent exchange carried on by multiple voices, on different wavelengths and subject from time to time to a sudden dissolve, leaving a gap which enables the utterance to shift from one point of view to another without warning…” (41-2).

In G.I. Joe, the “voice” of the commercial/television show appears simple but is actually without an overt, single origin. The shift Barthes describes occurs mentally (sub- or unconsciously) within the viewer, who consumes images of the toys and the American military as a single package.  While the integration of commercialism and propaganda is a somewhat standard approach to advocating for the consumption of both, the G.I. Joe instance is also interesting in its relationship to much of Jenny Holzer’s work found in the retrospective Jenny Holzer: PROTECT PROTECT (which originated at the MCA Chicago and will open at the Whitney on March 12).


Jenny Holzer, Thorax, 2008. Text: U.S. government documents. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. © 2008 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Christopher Burke.

Holzer’s 2008 sculpture Thorax is particularly relevant.  Within its cylindrical structure, text circulates in blue, purple, and pink, often overlapping within a single line; the lines of text themselves “speak” silently.  The voice of Thorax‘s words poses as an unidentifiable source, scrolling an endless string of signifiers that connote a range of meaning.  These phrases literally floating in the air immediately provoke the questions viewers of commercial television (and often visual culture) rarely ask themselves: “What is the meaning, origin, and relationship among the words and information presented before me?”  In the instance of Thorax, the words have a single, direct source that can be immediately identified on the label copy: declassified U.S. military documents.

“Jenny Holzer: Programming” video by Art:21 (begins with Holzer’s Thorax in motion)

Holzer’s texts succeed in evoking a reconsideration of consumerist visual culture, in part, through their  pluralism.  Barthes proposes the pluralistic text as the ideal:

“In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning, it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared as the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach…” (S/Z 6)

By this definition, Jenny Holzer’s LED sculptures are likely the closest tangible object to this theoretical “galaxy of signifiers” one could hope to imagine.