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A Case Study in Ambiguity, Assumption, and Intertextuality: An Orange Juice Label
by Christopher Orson Spencer

One facet of Herbert von Hundstein's theory of universality is that all components of culture, from obvious propaganda campaigns to written notes exchanged on refrigerator doors, are meaningful and representative of society as a whole. Von Hundstein writes in Kultur ist Alle; Alle ist Kultur,

The most mundane may also be the most significant, for is our culture any less forgotten in the private conversations of two lovers? Culture does not exist in a vacuum: it permeates all like oxygen, and for that reason anything in existence is a product of its culture. (34)

Therefore, a parking ticket, office memo, and orange juice packaging are all representations of culture. It is the orange juice label that concerns us here, and its promotion of ambiguity, assumptions of the audience's supineness, and reliance on other texts.

The word "minute" has multiple meanings, as does "maid," and thus "minute maid" is infinitely problematic. Are we to assume that the "maid," an unmarried girl or woman, is only a maid for a minute? After those sixty seconds, is her virginity gone? If this is the intended reading, being the primary denotations for both words, then should this company really be selling orange juice and not sex toys? Examining the phrase "minute maid" from a grammatical viewpoint, we could easily extrapolate that "minute" here serves as an adjective, modifying "maid," and thus means "a very small" maid. Perhaps virgin dwarfs create orange juice. The company presumes to convey a quickness created through the additional services of an assistant, a maid making a laborious process go by in a minute; however, that reading is only one of many possible.

During the 2000 presidential election in the United States, much hoopla was made about "fuzzy math." Here too, on the orange juice, can examples of fuzzy math be found. Under nutrition facts, we learn that there are two servings of 240 milliliters; yet only 473 milliliters are contained within the bottle, according to a different panel. While obviously totals have been changed due to rounding, one must ask what else has been changed in order to make nice whole numbers for the public. The ambiguity of how much liquid is actually contained within the bottle may not matter to most, but the lack of precision is discombobulating. A simple +/- (plus or minus) 7 milliliters would do the trick.

The assumption that Americans do not care about the metric system has been with us for decades, and it still continues. The preciseness of measurement is of no concern to the common man, the label seems to cry, because a serving size is eight fluid ounces, and there are sixteen fluid ounces. If the milliliters are too complicated, as everyone assumes the metric system must be for Americans, just use the fluid ounce measurement. With its use of parentheses to isolate metric measurements in the nutrition facts, the orange juice label, like most of American society, effectively discredits and whispers the existence of alternative forms of measurement.

Most foodstuffs are required by law to include nutritional information, and for that reason, the maker of this orange juice assumes some familiarity with reading said labels. Abbreviations such as "fat cal, sat fat, [and] cholest" are used without explanation: readers familiar with nutritional information automatically interpret those items as fat calories, saturated fats, and cholesterol. "Carb" means carbohydrates, yet can a newcomer to the land of nutritional facts ascertain as much without prior experience of reading labels? Clearly a particular audience is intended: only those who regularly read nutritional information need attempt to interpret this label. A certain amount of intertextuality exists, assuming readers are familiar with unexplained abbreviations.

Not only are drinkers of this beverage assumed to be previous partakers of labels, but they must be active participants in the process of drinking as well. They must "shake well before enjoying." It is unknown what they must shake: must they shake themselves, the bottle, the machine that dispenses the bottle, or everything? Not only must the one who will drink the beverage "shake well," but he or she must also "enjoy" the drink. This leads to many unanswerable questions. If I shake poorly, will my enjoyment be hampered? What happens if I shake well, but do not enjoy the drink? Sticklers will also point out that it is not clear what is to be enjoyed either: perhaps the enjoyment stems from the shaking of oneself and is completely unrelated to the beverage itself.

"Refrigerate after opening" is another problematic command. Refrigerate what after opening what? Must we refrigerate simply the unused portion of orange juice after opening the bottle? Must we refrigerate the bottle itself even if we have "enjoyed" all the juice within? This also leads to more complicated questions: at what temperature must I refrigerate the unused portion (if indeed, that is what is meant)? Users might be tempted to call "consumer information," yet it is unclear how information about consumers would be helpful in determining what to refrigerate and at what temperature.

Although "pasteurized" and "all natural" appear on the label, it is highly unlikely that the label itself is all natural or pasteurized. Indeed, with the plasticine properties of the label, it is impossible for the label to be all natural. Therefore, those two descriptors must refer to the contents of the bottle (since the bottle itself is also clearly a plastic object and thus "unnatural"), although this distinction is not completely obvious.

A familiarity with religion is necessary to understand one more component of the orange juice label: the letter K in a triangle signifies that the juice is kosher. A large number of Gentiles are clueless regarding the intricacies of maintaining a kosher diet, and many more would not know what a triangle around a K means. Thus some familiarity with Jewish tradition and teaching is necessary to grasp all dimensions of the orange juice label experience.

There is yet to be determined an acceptable level of ambiguity for publicly-accessible works, although some theorists are actively attempting to set such standards. Eirik and Bjorn Norstrand of Oslo have published papers documenting their research into Norwegian candy wrappers and intended audience with an eye towards developing national guidelines for clarity in communication. Beyond the Food and Drug Administration's demands and requirements for nutritional information, very little will cause orange juice labels to be less ambiguous, assumptive, and intertextual in the future.

Let us not oversimplify and assume that one orange juice label does not matter, that the simple commands "shake well before enjoying" simply fall on blind ears and deaf ears. As von Hundstein states, this orange juice label contains a microcosm of society: within its directives lie the problems and successes of society. The orange juice label thus serves as a litmus test of American culture in general, and we can determine that American culture requires a fairly informed populace used to interpreting assumptions and intertextuality to avoid problematic ambiguity.

Works Cited

Minute Maid. "Orange Juice Label." Packaging on product purchased 27 Apr. 2001.

Von Hundstein, Herbert. Kultur ist Alle: Alle ist Kultur. Trans. Gary Boyle. Dresden: U of Dresden P, 1994.