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Symbolic Force: A Corporate Revitalization Video and Its Effects
Author(s): Greg Urban
Source: Signs and Society, Vol. 3, No. S1 (Supplement 2015), pp. S95-S124
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Semiosis Research Center
at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
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Symbolic Force: A Corporate
Revitalization Video and
Its Effects

Greg Urban, University of Pennsylvania

A condensation symbol is a complex and relatively discrete bundle of icons, indices, and

symbols, in the Peircean sense, that calls up affect and directs that affect toward social

ends. This article analyzes a corporate motivational video produced by Harley-Davidson,
Inc., an American motorcycle manufacturing company, as a condensation symbol. In ad-

dition to analyzing the formal features of the video, the article furnishes evidence, in the

form of interview data, that the symbol is capable of influencing the orientations of indi-
viduals who view it. The “symbolic force” of the video is the force of interest that causes the

orientation to the company carried by the symbol to be transmitted to its viewers. In this

sense, the video resembles the dominant ritual symbols described by Turner. The present
research also suggests, however, that the video summons distinct kinds of affect in dif-

ferent individuals, exerting a differentiating effect within social space.

ictor Turner ð1967, 36Þ described symbols as “forces.” They were for
him “determinable influences inclining persons and groups to action.”

By tapping into “human interests, purposes, ends, and means” ð1967,
20Þ, symbols affected social conduct. Turner here built on Durkheim’s earlier
notion of “religious forces,” developed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious

Life. The latter, although operating in the human mind, acted as “material

Contact Greg Urban at Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 3260 South Street,
Philadelphia, PA 19104 ð[email protected]Þ.

I am deeply grateful to various research assistants and friends, who collected some of the interview data
for this project. In the interests of protecting anonymity for interviewees, I shall not mention the interviewers
by name. Earlier versions of this article were presented and discussed at the Johns Hopkins University Peabody
Conservatory of Music ðSeptember 2013Þ, the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association
ðNovember 2013Þ, the Semiotic Anthropology Conference at the University of Pennsylvania ðApril 2014Þ
organized by Asif Agha, Paja Faudree, and Becky Schulthies, and a colloquium at Monash University in Mel-
bourne, Australia ðAugust 2014Þ organized by Julian Millie. I am grateful for the numerous comments and
suggestions I received there, as well as for additional close readings of the near final text by Kyung-Nan Koh,
Richard Parmentier, and Eitan Wilf.

Signs and Society, vol. 3, no. S1 (Supplement 2015). © 2015 Semiosis Research Center at Hankuk University of
Foreign Studies. All rights reserved. 2326-4489/2015/03S1-0005$10.00


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forces which mechanically engender physical effects” ð½1912� 1969, 190Þ, as
when individuals or groups engage in prescribed ritual behaviors.

In this essay, I analyze one complex symbol, a motivational video produced

by the motorcycle manufacturing company, Harley-Davidson, Inc. I use the

term “symbol” advisedly, to make obvious the connection to Turner’s work

and also because this usage has currency with business people and the public

more generally, for whom “symbols” are socially prominent signs, such as the

American flag, Christian cross, swastika, Star of David, or skull and crossbones.

At the same time, the popular usage lacks the analytical clarity of the

Peircean distinctions, where the same word appears but with more precise

meaning in his trichotomy of the sign mode: icon, index, and symbol. Indeed, a

symbol in the popular sense is a complex, cognitively discrete bundle of icons,

indices, and symbols in the Peircean sense.1 Following Sapir’s ð1934Þ distinc-
tion, the Peircean symbol could be glossed as “referential symbol” and the

Turnerian symbol as “condensation symbol.” As Turner ð1967, 29Þ explains,
referential symbolism requires “formal elaboration in the consciousness,” while

condensation symbolism “strikes deeper and deeper roots in the unconscious,

and diffuses its emotional quality to types of behavior and situations.”

My contention in this essay is that the Harley-Davidson video, as con-

densation symbol, does, indeed, exert a kind of “force,” as Turner proposed. In

other work ðUrban 2001, 2010Þ I argue that culture—as socially learned and
socially transmitted—is impelled and modified in its motion by forces. My

goal in analyzing the video will be to link this circulatory or motional idea of

force to the cognate notions developed by Turner and Durkheim, specifically

as manifested in the corporate motivational video.

As I hope to show, the video is about group building—the collectivity—as in

the case of the Ndembu mudyi tree analyzed by Turner. Similarly to the

Ndembu, where conflict arose around the separation of mothers and daugh-

ters, internal strife because of corporate restructuring threatened the York

manufacturing facility at the time the video was made. The force of the symbol

in each case was to realign individual goals and sentiments with those of the

collectivity. What I add to Turner’s account, however, is the insight that such a

process is one involving motion, as the orientation to the collectivity gets

1. For an overview of the Peircean distinctions, see Parmentier ð1994Þ, especially chaps. 1 and 2. The word
“symbol,” as popularly used, comes closer to Saussure’s than to Peirce’s usage. Saussure ð½1916� 1959, 68Þ writes:
“One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of
a natural bond between the signifier and the signified.”

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transmitted to those who interact with the symbol. Further, I argue that the

force operative, in this case, is interest. A semiotic analysis of the symbol allows

us to break open the object of interest—the symbol—in order to better un-

derstand the nature of the force it exerts.

In the framework of motion I am presupposing here, interest is one of the

four great forces affecting cultural motion. A given aspect of culture moves

ðor is inhibited in its motionÞ because people are attracted to it ðor repulsed
from itÞ. Interest in this sense is linked to the concept of utility in economics,
although it more explicitly acknowledges the role of affect. However, other

forces are at work as well in the motion of culture. Some aspects of culture get

perpetuated because they have been perpetuated in the past, that is, thanks to

inertia. Then there is the active force of metaculture or culture that reflects

back on other culture, as, for example, when a film review inclines us to want

to watch a particular film or word of mouth about a restaurant gets us to want

to dine there.2

My proposal here is that the Harley-Davidson video shares symbolic char-

acteristics with the milk tree or mudyi analyzed by Turner. However, the video

is also significantly different. The Ndembu symbol is confined in its operation

to a preexistent group. It is carried forward through time via inertia and also

metaculture ðif Durkheim is right about the role of duty in relation to religious
traditionÞ. In addition, the symbol likely kindles interest in some if not all
participants, for example, members of each new generation or even those who

have not contemplated the symbol since the previous ritual. While the Harley-

Davidson video is a complex condensation symbol, including component sym-

bols ðAmerican flags, Harley-Davidson logos, etc.Þ that have a greater time
depth, it is also a piece of culture created in the here and now. Its circulation

depends largely on the interest people have in it, on the emotions it is capable

of kindling.

Additionally, as I propose to show, the interest can be both positive and

negative, with some people feeling inspired by the video and identifying with it

and the Harley-Davidson company, and others actively disliking the video and

disidentifying with it. For this reason, the symbol exerts a differentiating force

within social space, acting as a boundary marker and sorter, a kind of Max-

well’s demon counteracting the force of entropy.

2. A fourth class, in this view, consists in entropic forces, which have long been discussed in cultural and
linguistic anthropology under the heading of “drift.”

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Brand and Motivation
The body of recent anthropological literature with which the present research

most closely articulates is that concerning brands and branding ðCoombe 1996;
Moore 2003; Holt 2004; Manning 2010Þ, along with the considerable cog-
nate ethnographic research done inside advertising firms or for firms as brand

consultants ðMcCracken 1990, 2005; Moeran 1996; Mazzarella 2003; Malefyt
De Waal and Morais 2012; see also Foster 2008Þ. Manning ð2010Þ describes
two phases in the brand research, which he calls “Saussurean structuralist” and

“poststructuralist.” The former, he argues, is mainly concerned with brands as

types, in the linguistic sense, contrastive elements within a Saussurean system

of sign contrasts. The distinctiveness of the brand is the main concern. The

latter, more recent “poststructural” phase is one “in which the omnivorous

associationism of brand . . . not to mention rampant anthropomorphism,

comes to approximate the fetish” ðManning 2010, 36Þ.
With the exception of Foster ð2008Þ, there seems to be little or no awareness

in most of the recent anthropological literature that a parallel can be drawn

between branding and totemism, a phenomenon of great interest to earlier

generations of anthropologists, including Durkheim ð½1912� 1969Þ and Lévi-
Strauss ð½1962� 1963Þ. However, the relationship has been recognized in the
business literature more generally ðCayla 2013Þ. Within anthropology, Fos-
ter ð2008, 81Þ suggests that mass-mediated forms, such as are governed by
trademark and contribute to brands, “circulate with enough currency to pro-

vide people with everyday idioms of expression, as Emile Durkheim once noted

of totems.” As in the case of totemism, they make “society imaginable and

intelligible to itself in the form of external representations” ðMazzarella 2004,

I take note of this connection not out of antiquarian interest but because

of the curious chronological reversal in the relationship between totemic and

branding research as regards structuralism. Whereas Durkheim and early think-

ers focused attention on the nature of the relationship individuals and groups

had to the totemic emblem, Lévi-Strauss ð½1962� 1966, 224Þ seemed to put an
end to investigation of the relationship between individual/group and totem

through his Saussurean insight: “totemism is based on a postulation of ho-

mology between two parallel series—that of natural species and that of social

groups—whose respective terms, it must be remembered, do not resemble

each other in pairs. It is only the relation between the series as a whole

which is isomorphic: a formal correlation between two systems of differences.”

On analogy to brands, his interpretation, like Manning’s ð2010, 36Þ account of

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the structuralist phase of branding, suggests that there is no correlation be-

tween, say, Mac users and the Macintosh brand, but only contrasts between

the Macintosh and other brands, on one level ðthe emblem or signifier levelÞ,
and Macintosh users and other users, on another level ðthe signified or social
group levelÞ.

The move toward a poststructuralist ðor, better, postmodernÞ view of brand-
ing, with its “omnivorous associationism of brand” and reawakening of the

fetish, directs attention in archaeological fashion to the earlier stratum beneath

Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, that is, to the connection between brand and in-

dividual/group. Some brands fit into and form part of lifestyles, and so are

experienced as closely tied to individuals and the groups with which they align.

The Macintosh user or the Harley rider is actually connected with the com-

puter or motorcycle in an experiential way, just as Durkheim surmised clan

members were to their totem.

I suggest that for symbols such as the Harley-Davidson motivational video

or the Ndembu mudyi tree, the connection depends upon a kind of force. In the

Harley-Davidson case, especially, and with brands more generally, the force is

interest, with the individual being attracted to the brand products because of

emotions that arise through interactions with them. In the case of totemism,

according to Durkheim, at least, the force is metacultural, as if the individuals

were commanded by tradition and felt themselves compelled to obey, as if they

were fulfilling their duty. Undoubtedly, however, interest played some role as


From our twenty-first-century vantage, of course, we can appreciate that the

contrastive and fetishistic ðor structuralist and postmodernÞ interpretations of
totems, as well as brands, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are essentially

related. The greater the contrastive impetus ðas in the 1980s Mac vs. PC warsÞ,
the greater the fervor of attachment to the brand, just as war between nations

tends to increase patriotism.

Many of the people interviewed in the course of the present research

believed the Harley-Davidson video to be a commercial, although others felt it

was not. The interpretation of the video as a commercial suggests its con-

nection to brand. The assumption underlying my own analysis is that the

video was initially designed as a morale builder or revitalization video for those

demoralized by the York manufacturing facility restructuring, which affected

not only workers at the Harley-Davidson plant in York, Pennsylvania, but

virtually everyone in that small city of about 43,000 people. However, Harley

dealers around the country did pick up on the video and put it on their

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websites, indicating that it became a commercial, even though it is less about

the motorcycle and more about the people who make it. The deployment of the

video by retailers on websites suggests, indeed, that the video exercises an

attractive force over at least some people, notably those closely aligned with the

Harley-Davidson brand.

In what follows, I first provide an analysis of the video as a “dominant

symbol,” in Victor Turner’s ð1967Þ sense, breaking it into its constituent con-
densation symbols and showing how it works to bring about what Turner

ð1967, 36Þ called the “transference of affectual quality.” I follow that by an
account of the conflictual circumstances surrounding the creation of the video,

and with respect to which it is apparently a response. Finally, I turn to inter-

view data shedding light on various constituent symbols of the video as well

as on their role in the operation of interest as a force—both attractive and

repulsive. This last is the semiotic attempt to fathom the symbol as Maxwell’s

demon, operating within a large-scale social space, creating or maintaining

distinctions within that space.

Objective Characteristics of the Symbol
The mudyi or milk tree, also called the African rubber tree, has a salient phys-

ical characteristic. When cut, its bark exudes “milky beads,” a feature in-

dexically associated with nurturance, bonding, and togetherness owing to its

iconic resemblance to breast milk ðTurner 1967, 20Þ. At the highest plane,
Turner argues, the tree comes to stand for the “unity and continuity of Ndembu

society” ð21Þ.
Of course, there are obvious differences in the objective characteristics of

the symbol between a kind of tree and a video. First, the video as symbol in-

cludes words and music as part of its formal observable properties. In the

Ndembu case, words and music are part of the ritual in which the milk tree

plays a role, but they are not properties of the milk tree per se. Second, the

video unfolds in time through watching ðand re-watchingÞ, whereas ritual
unfolds in time around the milk tree. Third, the milk tree as symbol is part

of traditional Ndembu culture, not invented by the present generation; the

video, obviously, is a present-day creation, part of the self-conscious deploy-

ment of culture by and within a corporation, even though it employs tradi-

tional constituent symbols.

Figure 1 is a summary representation of the objective characteristics of the

video. The horizontal axis of the diagram is a timeline of the unfolding video,

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Figure 1. Objective characteristics; “transference of affectual quality”

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known on the web as “Harley-Davidson York Transformation.” The video lasts

just under three minutes.

The vertical axis of this figure distinguishes groups of related constituent

condensation symbols within the video. The three main groups are those per-

taining to ð1Þ America and American small town or small city life; ð2Þ the
Harley-Davidson corporation; and ð3Þ gender/ethnicity characteristics of in-
dividuals figuring into the background of scenes, as well as the three main

interview subjects featured in the video, all white males. I will argue that the

intended symbolic force of the video pertains to the relations between the first

two. However, the third as well, as the present research unfolded, proved to be

a factor in the force field.

For the first two groups, the figure distinguishes along the vertical axis

between visual signs and spoken words. The visual signs in the first group that

are marked in the figure include images of the American flag and of the ea-

gle. This group also includes the written words United States of America. The

spoken words marked, in this case, are America or American, Free or Freedom,

and WorkerðsÞ or Craftsmen. For the second group, the visual signs are the
Harley-Davidson logo ðe.g., on a flag or on a motorcycleÞ, as well as the writ-
ten words Harley-Davidson. The vertical category of gender/ethnicity distin-

guishes white male from black male from white female.

A fourth group on the vertical axis marks a speeded up segment of the

video, as well as a rapid succession of still images creating a sense of speeded up

motion. I have treated shot frequency in a second figure ðfig. 3 belowÞ, which I
will discuss subsequently. While shot frequency manipulation is a well-known

filmmaking technique, it operates typically beneath the level of awareness of

the average viewer, though it influences their affective experience. A montage

of stills, in contrast, is more readily accessible to viewer awareness.

My central contention regarding the constituent signs depicted in figure 1 is

that, as Turner argued for the Ndembu mudyi tree, the overall symbol calls up

feelings—in this case feelings about America, small town life, and craftsmen.

Following Turner, the first segment of the video, circled in figure 1, represents

the sensory or “orectic” pole of the symbol. This is the pole that taps into

feelings and summons emotions. It calls forth through its interpretation a sort

of Jeffersonian image of belonging.

In the case of the mudyi or “milk tree,” the orectic pole is associated with the

milky sap produced when the bark of the tree is cut. According to Turner, the

milky sap is iconic with mother’s breast milk and thus calls forth warm feelings

of attachment between mother and child. The intent of the Harley-Davidson

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video, I believe, is to summon warm feelings of attachment to America and its

way of life, including the American worker as craftsman.

The focus of the video shifts in the second segment, again circled in figure 1,

to the interior of the Harley-Davidson York manufacturing facility. The signs

in this segment pertain to what Turner calls the “ideological pole” of the sym-

bols. The structure suggests that, as in the case of the mudyi or milk tree, the

symbol effects a “transference of affectual quality.” The ideological content

becomes imbued with feelings. That transference is solidified in the third seg-

ment of the video when signs pertaining to America are intermingled with

Harley-Davidson signs.

In addition to the signs depicted in figure 1, there is a soundtrack, which I

have endeavored to map out in figure 2. The soundtrack includes a series of

chords, forming musical progressions, apparently played on a synthesizer.3

There is as well a synthetic rhythm and beat. Both chord progressions and

rhythm/beat are more prominent in some phases of the video than in others.

The soundtrack also consists of spoken words, both by a narrator and by

several factory employees.

Narration in the opening segment centers around a supposed put-down of

America: “There are people who believe America can’t build things anymore,

that our cities, workers, products, and technology can’t cut it in the global

economy.” The narrator states that these critics believe “we are destined to

become a nation of paper shufflers, burger flippers, pixel pushers.” Interest-

ingly, this tack draws directly on a speech made by President Ronald Reagan at

this very facility in 1987: “Some said that you couldn’t make the grade. They

said you couldn’t keep up with foreign competition. They said that Harley-

Davidson was running out of gas and sputtering to a stop.”4 When shown an

excerpt of the Reagan speech after the Harley-Davidson York Transformation

video, interviewees had no difficulty grasping the continuity in rhetorical

strategy here. As mentioned earlier, many of the constituent condensation

symbols within the video, such as the American flag, the Harley-Davidson logo,

the eagle, and so forth have considerable time depth, even if the video itself is a

new bit of culture, constructed out of these older threads.

In his speech, Reagan goes on to counter the critics: “Well, the people who

say that American workers and American companies can’t compete are

3. The musical transcription in fig. 2 consists only in chord progressions, and is, at best, approximate, due
to difficulties in distinguishing the music when spoken words were present. I endeavored to recreate the music
on a Korg synthesizer but was unable to do better than a crude approximation.

4. Ronald Reagan, “Remarks to Harley-Davidson Employees” at the York, Pennsylvania, facility, May 6,

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Figure 2. Timeline of the soundtrack, spoken words and music

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making one of the oldest mistakes in the world. They are betting against

America itself, and that’s one bet no one will ever win. Like America, Harley is

back and standing tall.” The narrator of the Harley-Davidson video too

counters the critics: “This is the story of some people who believe something

different.” While the narrator is speaking, a sequence of ascending chords is

present in the background, reaching its peak at this point along with a cres-

cendo in volume. There is no other point in the video at which the music plays

such a prominent role. Indeed, at some points in the subsequent video the

volume is too low to enable one to pick out the chords.

Evidently, the intent of this first segment is to summon competitive feelings,

in this case about America and American workers, but also about Harley-

Davidson. The occasion for Reagan’s 1987 speech was the survival of Harley,

thanks to a government bailout, in the face of intense competition from the

Japanese motorcycle industry beginning in the 1960s. The company was forced

then, as in the recent period, to restructure in order to survive. And it was one

of the uplifting success stories. The video draws on this earlier success.

The narrator goes on to say: “These are people who believe in American

craftsmen because they are American craftsmen. They are people who trans-

formed the factory by holding onto their values while modernizing their

methods. Their product is rolling across six continents now. They are the

people who build Harley-Davidson motorcycles, right here in America.” So the

story here is an “indexical icon,” summoning feelings surrounding past

underdog stories and bringing them to bear on the present representations of

the Harley-Davidson York facility. As in the other semiotic machinery dis-

cussed earlier, the words and music at this point form the sensory-orectic pole

of the video as symbol. They help to charge this symbol with affective signif-


The narrative then shifts to the workplace, as we listen to interviews with

workers interspersed with narrator commentary. The first worker says: “We, ya

know, put our blood, sweat, and tears to make the product we make.” He goes

on to predict the triumph of the underdog: “There’s gonna be a time when

everybody looks at Harley-Davidson and says ‘that’s the way I want to run

my company.’” The narrator reinforces the underdog triumph: “They’re build-

ing a factory to run at a pace that would tucker out any other factory in the

world.” This is a narrative whose general outlines Americans have heard

many times in connection with sports and also with war.

After emphasizing the hard work and teamwork ethic that enables this

success, the narrative introduces the theme of freedom. Riding Harley-Davidson

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motorcycles, the workers themselves say, gives you the experience of freedom,

makes you free: “Anywhere you go everybody’s got a right to freedom. You go

out and get on your bike, you’re free.” The final segments then, after the rapid-

fire montage of stills giving a sense of speed, concerns the export of freedom to

the world, with shots of the motorcycles rolling off the assembly line and the

names of destinations for those motorcycles appearing: California, Saudi Ara-

bia, Michigan, Russia, China. The …

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