Seaside as Sign

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm

By Tina Richardson

It is impossible to separate the seaside resort from the modernist project itself. The British seaside is, amongst other things, the product of an improved transport system that resulted from industrialisation. Evolving in the 19th century, it also produced another ‘space’ for the citizen to consume in in order for the continuation of production. It carried with it, at least in its early days, notions of conspicuous consumption, the outward representation of wealth and status. Therefore even in the Victorian period it was already well-grounded in the ideology of reproduction (Marx), the cyclical nature of capital’s structural process. Fèlix Guattari explains that through its use of a system of signs “the capitalist Signifier, as simulacrum of imaginary power, has the job of overcoding all the other Universes of value.” (1995: 105). This is done through a system of signs that are ideologically coded, and yet appear as ‘natural’.

The contemporary seaside’s manifest form is pure spectacle: its multitude of signs bombard the senses and attempt to hijack individual subjectivities converting them into what Guattari describes as capitalist subjectivity. While it does not in any way reach Jean Baudrillard’s fourth order of the sign, that which has no bearing on reality, it could easily be considered a level two sign: not providing a true representation of reality, while simultaneously implying that reality does actually exist. However, what makes the seaside particularly interesting is its juxtaposition: a space of consumption set alongside the sand and sea. The dividing line between this culture/nature dichotomy is starkly apparent in a geographical sense; setting up interesting spatial tensions that encourage examination. John Fiske provides a superb semiotic analysis of the seaside in his essay ‘Reading the Beach’. In the introduction he states: “Like all texts, the beach has an author – not, admittedly, a named individual, but a historically determined set of community practices that have produced material objects or signs.” (2004: 43).

We all read the beach, whether we realise it or not. However the test, I would say, is whether we read solely the dominant signs as opposed to those which are less apparent.


Fiske, John. 2004. ‘Reading the Beach’, Reading the Popular (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers). pp. 43-76.

Guattari, Félix. 1995. Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm, trans. by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

For information on my other work, please go to: particulations

  1. I really enjoyed reading this 🙂 I think another interesting point is that we are all asked to ‘read’ the beach from a very young age because it is such a big part of children’s fiction, TV programmes, films and television generally. Walton uses this fact to talk about seasides embodying a ‘democratic’ form of cultural capital. Another thing I’ve noticed in my teaching is that, for the vast majority of my students, their readings of the beach are taken from ‘overseas’ resorts, rather than from British ones…

  2. Thanks for your reply, James. Can you tell me the name of the Walton text that you refer to, cheers. T

  3. Hi, sure – it is ‘The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century ‘ by John Walton (2000). Here it is on amazon:

  4. Tina, this focus on the collective construction of cultural understanding is really interesting and useful. I think Fiske will have to go on my reading list.

  5. Yes, it’s a really good book in general. Obviously similarities with Barthes Mythologies…

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