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Semiotics Essay Introduction

Arthur Asa Berger
Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism

In this chapter I address some of the basic concepts in semiotics, to show how it enables us to find meaning in texts and other phenomena. I try to explain each concept as simply as possible, and I quote extensively from important passages written by various authorities, to give the reader some idea of how these writers  express themselves. There is, however, a certain amount of technical language involved with semiotic analysis that cannot be avoided. There are many advanced books on semiotics available or those who wish to pursue the study of semiotic theory and applied semiotic analysis; interested readers will find several such titles in the list of suggested further reading that follows the final chapter in this volume.

Semiotics can be seen as a form of applied linguistics; semiotic malysis has been applied to everything from fashion to advertis- ing, from James Bond stories to Star Wars. The most fundamental concept in semiotics is the sign; semiotic theorists posit human beings as sign-making and sign-interpreting animals. It is with signs that this discussion of semiotics and cultural criticism begins.

Signs in Semiotics and Semiology

Semiotics is, literally speaking, the science of signs. The word semiotics comes from the Greek root semeion, or sign, and is used to describe a systematic attempt to understand what signs are and how they function. Semiotics is probably the more commonly used term, but some students of signs use the term semiology,  literally "words" (togas) "about signs" . Semiotics  is associated with the work of the Americon philosopher, C S Peirce (although its roots are in medieval philosophy) and semiology with the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Both are concerned with how meaning is genereated and and communicated.  In his posthumousty published book A  Course in General Linguistics, Saussure (1966) states
 

Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, military signals, etc. But it is the most important of all these systems.  A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable it would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from Greek, semeion "sign") Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. (p. 16)


This may be looked upon as one of the charter statements about semiotics / semiology. Saussure suggests that signs are made of two parts: a signifier (sound, object, image, or the like) and a signified (concept). The relation that exists between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, based on convention, or, to use the technical term, unmotivated. Because of this fact, we develop and use codes to help us learn what some signs mean.

In addition, Saussure asserts that concepts do not mean anything in themselves; they gain their meanings only relationally  or differentially: "Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive characteristics but negatively by their relations with the other  terms of  the system" (p.ll7). For all practical purposes, the most important relationship among terms is binary opposition.

One difference between semiotics and semiology is that semiotics draws its basic ideas from a trichotomy elaborated by C. S  Peirce (1931-1935,1958). According to Peirce, there are three kinds  of signs-icons, indexes, and symbols:

Every sign is determined by its object, either first, by partaking ir the characters of the object, when I call a sign an Icon; secondly, b) being really and in its individual existence connected with the in- dividual object, when I call the sign an Index; thirdly, by rnon! or les! approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object, in consequence of a habit (which term I use as including 2 natural disposition), when I call the sign a Symbol. (quoted in Zeyman 1977,p.36)

Because semiotics is concerned with everything that can be seen as a sign, and given that just about everything can be seen as a sign (that is, substituting for something else), semiotics emerges as a kind of master science that has utility in all areas of knowledge, especially in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. It has been used, as noted above, in criticism of the fine arts, literature, film, and popular fiction as well as in interpreting architecture, in studying fashion, in analyzing facial expression, in interpreting magazine advertisements and radio and television commercials, in medicine, and in many other areas. Let us consider signs now in a bit more detail, with a focus on how they function.

How Signs Function

A sign can also be defined as anything that can be used to stand for something else, but understanding how signs function is some-what complicated, because, for Peirce and semioticians, there are always "others" involved. According to Peirce, a sign "is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity" (1977, p. 27). He adds a philosophical point:

It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe-not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as "the truth"-that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs. (Peirce; epigraph in Sebeok, 1977, p. vi)

If the universe is perfused with, if not composed exclusively of, signs, then humans are, of necessity, semiotic animals-whatever else they may be (rational creatures, tool makers, featherless bipeds, and so on). Umberto Eco (1976) has added an insight worth considering. If signs can be used to tell the truth, they can also be used to lie:
 

Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else. This something else does not necessarily have to exist or to actually be somewhere at the moment in which a sign stands for it. Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth; it cannot be used "to tell" at all. (p. 7)


Phenomena such as wigs, dyed hair, elevator shoes, imitation foods, impersonators, and impostors all involve "lying" with signs.  Saussure (1966) first describes signs as being made of a concept and a sound-image: "The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image" (p. 66). He later modifies his definition:
 

 I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [singifie] and signifier [signifiant]; the last two terms have the advantage of in- dicating the opposition that separates them from the whole of which they are parts. (p. 67)


He uses the term semiology to describe the science that would study "the life of signs within society," originally placing semiol- ogy within social psychology. He suggests that a sign is like a piece of paper: One side is the signifier and the other is the signified, and together they make the sign/ sheet of paper. Symbols, however, are a different matter.
 

Symbols in Saussure's System

A symbol is a subcategory of a sign. It is a sign whose mean- ing is not completely arbitrary or conventional. Saussure (1966) explains:
 

The word symbol has been used to designate the linguistic sign, or more specifically, what is here called the signifier. ...One charac- teristic 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. The symbol of justice, a pair of scales, could not be replaced by just any other symbol, such as a chariot. (p. 68)


Peirce sees the symbol as conventional, unlike the icon and index, which are not conventional in his view of things.

What is important about symbols is that they stand for something, they convey meanings. These meanings are often connected to historical events, traditions, and so on. The symbol, generally an object or an image, because it can represent historical events, because it "contains" all kinds of extraneous matters connected to it, because it can be a repository of meanings, because it can have so many connotations, can become very important to people. Think of religious icons, for example. Carl Jung (1968) explains this matter in some detail in his book Man and His Symbols:
 

 Thus a word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider "unconscious" aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason. (p. 4)


We are profoundly affected by symbolic phenomena, Jung suggests, all the time-when we are awake and when we dream.

As Freud has pointed out, in our dreams we use the processes of symbolic condensation and displacement to disguise our real thoughts and desires and evade the dream censor. It would wake us up if it recognized the sexual content of our dreams, as mani- fested, for example, in phallic symbols and symbols of the female genitals. In our visual and literary arts we also use symbolization in an attempt to generate certain responses-assuming there is common understanding of what specific symbols mean (which is not always the case, of course).

In literary criticism, for example, we often find that the study of symbolism in texts is connected with an investigation of their mythic elements-what might be called a myth and symbol school of analysis. Heroes and heroines in novels and plays and films often have symbolic dimensions: What they say and what they do often are symbolic and allegorical as well as connected, indirectly, to the actions of ancient mythic heroes and heroines. That is why some critics argue that all texts are intertextually related to other texts, even though audiences may not be aware of the fact or the creators of texts aware of what they have done.

It is because texts of all kinds-fi1ms, television programs, novels, plays, works of visual art-are full of symbolic phenomena (objects, actions of characters, geographic locations, and so on) that they resist easy interpretation. Their symbolic (and mythic) aspects make them extremely complex, and so they are seldom easily understood.

Icon, Index, Symbol: Peirce's System

In Peirce's theory of semiotics there are three kinds of signs: icons, which communicate by resemblance; indexes, which com- municate by logical connection; and symbols, which are purely conventional and whose meanings have to be learned. Peirce developed an extremely involved theory of signs, but it rests on the cornerstone of his trichotomy-icon, index, and symbol. He differs from Saussure, who argues that the relationship between a signifier (sound, object) and its signified (concept) is arbitrary and based on convention (except in the case of the symbol, where the relationship is quasi-motivated or quasi-natural).

In Peirce's theory, both icons and indexes have natural relation- ships with what they stand for: for example, a portrait of someone and the person being portrayed (an icon) and smoke indicating fire (an index). The meanings of symbols, on the other hand, have to be learned. Table 4.1 presents Peirce's trichotomy in graphic form. Semiotics is important, Peirce argues, because the universe is in essence a system of signs. Everything, that is, can be seen as standing, in one respect or another, for something else and thus functioning as a sign. Let us now look at one aspect of Peirce's trichotomy in a little more detail.

Table 4.1 Pierce's Trichotomy



 
Kind of SignIconIndexSymbol 


 
Example
Signify by
Process
paintings 
resemblance
can see 
smoke/fire
causal connection
can figure out
words, flags
convention
must learn 

An image is conventionally understood to be a visible repre- sentation of something, though it can also be a mental picture of something (such as the image of the businessman as found in early-20th-century American literature). We live in a world of photoelectronic images, and with the development of television, all kinds of images that we never would have seen in real life are now brought to us, in mediated form, on the video tube. As the result of developments in printing, photography, and video, im- ages play an increasingly important role in our lives. Indeed, some scholars suggest that we have moved from a logocentric (word-centered) to an occulocentric (image-centered) world, with sight exercising hegemony or domination over our other senses.

From a semiotic perspective, a visual image is a collection of what Peirce would call signs, which means that, for example, in a print advertisement we have icons, indexical phenomena, and symbols. Icons are relatively easy to interpret because they communicate by resemblance, but understanding indexical signs in- volves finding some kind of a relationship between signs and their meanings, and symbols are purely conventional, which means we must learn their meanings. In considering images with which we are not familiar, such as paintings from earlier periods, we may not recognize the symbology, so our understanding of the messages conveyed in such images may be relatively primitive.

Let me offer an example. In the painting by Ian Van Eyck titled Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, painted in 1434, we find a number of symbols whose meanings are not evident to most people in the late 20th century. The painting shows a man holding hands with his wife (who looks pregnant and has her hand on her stomach) in an ornate room. Behind the two figures we see a convex mirror, lighted candles in a chandelier, and a small table with fruit on it. In front of the couple we see a dog. Table 4.21ists the symbolic objects or representations in the painting and their meanings for people of the period.
 
 

SymbolMeaning

lighted canle in chandelier
convex mirror
dog
bride's hand on her stomach
fruit on table 
presence of Christ, ardor of the couple
eye  of God
marital faithfulness
willingness to bear children
Virgin Mary 

Today, most would not know the meanings of many of these symbols (or even recognize that candles and dogs could have symbolic meaning), but the symbology would have been evident to many people living in 1434. Just as we may not recognize the significance of symbolic phenomena from earlier times, we may be blind to the symbolic significance of phenomena from different cultures.

When we look at an image (a painting, an advertisement, a work of sculpture, an object) we can look at it in two opposing ways, according to art historian Alois Riegl. Claude Gandelman (1991) discusses Riegl's theories:

Riegl stated that one type of artistic procedure, which corresponds to a certain way of looking, is based on the scanning of objects according to their outlines. This trajectory Riegl called the optical. The opposite type of vision, which focuses on surfaces and emphasizes the value of the superficies of objects, Riegl called the haptical (from the Greek haptein, "to seize, grasp" or haptikos, "capable of touching:").

On the level of artistic creation, the optical look-if the eye belongs to the painter-produces linearity and angularity, whereas haptic creativity focuses on surfaces. Using Riegl's formula, all forms of art may be grouped under the heading "Outline and/or color in plane and volume." ...The optical eye merely brushes the surface of things. The haptic, or tactile, eye penetrates in depth, finding its pleasure in textile and grain. (p. 5)


From the haptic perspective, vision becomes a form of touching. Riegl was not the first person to deal with this notion (it is found in the work of Descartes and Berkeley, also, Gandelman points out), but his calling our attention to these two opposing ways of perception is important. It is also possible, of course, to combine these two perspectives.

If seeing haptically is a form of touching, it would suggest that our relation to images is much more complicated than we might suppose. We do not simply glance at images and put them out of our minds; our experience of looking is much more powerful than that. This might explain, in part, the phenomenon of scopophilia, literally "looking (scopo) loving (philia)," a psychological phenomenon involving people who derive sexual pleasure from looking at others or, in the case of autoscopophilia, from looking at themselves.

Images, then, play a significant role in our lives, whether we recognize this to be the case or not. They have to be interpreted, and this takes a good deal of work, for it is not always easy to understand how images function.  Cultural critics have, in recent years, expanded upon their interest in images and now talk about the phenomenon of representation. This concept (addressed previously, in Chapter 3) deals with images of all kinds in the context of the social and political order in which these images are found, and considers such matters as who creates images, who controls the image making in a society (especially images generated and spread by the mass media), and the functions these images have for the sociopolitical order and for individuals.

Codes

At the simplest level, codes are systems for interpreting the meanings of various kinds of communication in which the meanings are not obvious or evident. Consider the two apparently meaningless "words" below;
 
 

As soon as I tell you that the codes for interpreting these series of letters are, respectively, plus 1 and minus 1, you can easily find that both are coded ways of saying codes:
 
 

DPEFT
CODES
BNCD

In the world of espionage, messages are often coded (so that if they are somehow intercepted they will not be understood). The same applies to the world of culture. Much of what we see and hear around us in our culture carries messages, but because we do not know the codes that enable us to find the meanings in these messages, we do not pay any attention to them, or, if we do,  we tend to interpret them incorrectly. We also tend to be blind to the codes that we have learned because they seem natural to us; we do not realize that when we find meaning in things, we are actually decoding signs. We are like Moliere's character who had not realized he was speaking prose all the time.

There are in every society, semioticians suggest, culture codes- hidden structures (in the sense that we are not aware of them or pay no attention to them) that shape our behaviour. These codes deal with aesthetic judgments, moral beliefs, cuisine, and many other things. They are directive and generally are highly articulated and specific, even though those who use them tend to be unaware of them. We need codes because we need consistency in our lives. Codes vary in scope from the universal to the local.

If the relationship between a word and the object it stands for, or a signifier and a signified, is arbitrary and based on convention, as Saussure suggests, and symbols are purely conventional, as Peirce suggests, then we need codes to tell us how to know what words mean and what signifiers and symbols mean. The meaning is arbitrary, based on convention, not natural. Thus, by extension, what we call culture can be looked upon as a collection or system of codes, analogous in many respects to language.

Terence Hawkes (1977) addresses this relationship; in discuss- ing the work of the French cultural anthropologist Claude Levi- Strauss, he writes:
 

He attempts to perceive the constituents of cultural behaviour, ceremonies, rites, kinship relations, marriage laws, methods of cooking, totemic systems, not as intrinsic or discrete entities, but in terms of the contrastive relationships they have with each other that makes their structures analogous to the phonemic structure of language. (p.34)


Thus the work of cultural critics involves the process of decoding texts of various kinds in many different realms: words, images, objects, literary and subliterary works, social rituals, food prepa- ration, socialization of children, and numerous other areas.

Creators of texts that are distributed through mass media have a problem of difference between their own codes and the codes of the audiences for these texts, who may (and probably often do) decode them differently from the way the creators intended. In such cases, it is difficult to avoid what Umberto Eco calls , "aberrant decoding." This problem exists in oilier areas as well-for instance, when individuals who have been socialized (that is, have learned codes for behaviour) in subcultures become members of  mainstream institutions and have difficulty in behaving "properly" (e.g., when a member 0f a motorcycle gang becomes a student at a university).

We now move on to discussion of two concepts that affect cultural meaning in rather specific ways: connotation and denotation.

Connotation

Connotation is a term used to describe the cultural meanings attached to a term-and, by extension, an image, a figure in a text, or even a text. In contrast, denotation refers to the literal meaning of a term, figure, text, or so on. Connotation comes from the Latin connotare, "to mark along with." Thus connotation deals with the historic, symbolic, and emotional matters suggested by or that "go along with" a term.

Take the figure of James Bond as an example. From a denotative point of view, he is the hero of a number of popular spy novels and films. But the connotations of James Bond extend to such matters as sexism, racism, absurd images of the British held by others, Bond's personal idiosyncrasies, the nature of the British  intelligence establishment, the Cold War, images of Americans, and Russians, and so on.

In his Mythologies (1972), Roland Barthes deals with the mythic significance or what could be called the cultural connotations of a number of phenomena of everyday. life in France, such as wres- tling, steak and chips, toys, Garbo's face, and the striptease. His purpose is to take the world of "what-goes-without-saying" and show connotations (which reveal themselves generally to be ideo- logical matters) connected with them. For example, he notes in a discussion of toys in France:
 

French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine. ..School, Hair-Styling. .., the Air Force (parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys). (p. 53)


These "somethings" are the connotations of these objects, which Barthes explores in some detail, with brilliant stylistic flourishes and imaginative reaches. He does the same thing for Japanese culture in Empire of Signs (1977, 1982).

We can make an analogy with Saussurean semiological theory here. In a sense, we can suggest that denotation is the signifier and connotation is the signified, recognizing, however, that one signifier can have many signifieds. From Peirce's perspective, connotation would involve the realm of the symbolic, in which conventions are crucial. The meaning of the symbol has to be learned, and a given symbol can have many different meanings. The process of condensation is also relevant here. An image in a dream can be made of many different images or parts of images, and the connection of these different images to one image is similar in nature to the process of connotation.

Denotation

Denotation involves taking terms literally (including images, sounds, objects, or other forms of communication), in contrast to connotation, which involves looking at the various meanings a term carries with it or has given to it. Denotation deals with the literal meaning a sign conveys. Thus a Barbie Doll denotes a toy doll, first marketed in 1959, that was 11.5 inches high, had measurements of 5.25 inches at the bust, 3.0 inches at the waist, and 4.25 inches at the hips (these measurements have changed in recent years). What we have here is a literal description of a Barbie Doll and no more. What Barbie Dolls connote is another matter, about which there are many different views. For example, some scholars have suggested that the introduction and subsequent great popularity of the doll (and others like it) mark the end of  motherhood as a dominant role for little girls in the United States, because Barbie spends her time as a "courtesan," buying clothes and having relationships with Ken and other dolls. She does not prepare little girls to be mothers, as earlier dolls did, dolls the girls could treat as babies, imitating their mothers' roles. A great deal of criticism involves examining the connotations of objects, characters, and images and tying these meanings to historical, cultural, ideological, and other concerns.

We turn now to a discussion of metaphor and metonymy, which noted linguist Roman Jakobson suggests are fundamental ways of generating meaning. (I list Jakobson as an American in Table 1.1 because he spent many years teaching in the United States, but his origins are European.)
 
 

Denotation Connotation 

literalfigurative
signifiersignified(s)
evidentinferred
describessuggests meaning
realm of existencerealm of myth 

Metaphor

Metaphors are figures of speech that communicate meaning by ana1o~ by explaining or interpreting one thing in terms of some- thing else {e.g., "My love is a red rose"). Similes also communicate by analogy, but in a weaker form that uses like or as {e.g., "My love is like a red rose"). Many people learn about metaphor in literature classes, where metaphor and simile are described as "figurative" language, and assume that metaphors are used only for poetic or literary purposes. They assume that metaphor is a relatively unimportant phenomenon. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) argue to the contrary; they see metaphors as central to our thinking:

Most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. (p. 3)

Metaphor, then, plays an important role in the way we think and pervades our thinking. It is not just a literary device used by poets and other writers to generate certain kinds of emotional responses; it is a fundamental part of the way humans think and communicate.

Lakoff and Johnson discuss a number of different kinds of metaphors. Among them are the following:

•  structural metaphors, which shape how we think, perceive, and act
• orientational metaphors, which deal with spatial orientation, as reflected in polar oppositions
• ontological metaphors, which interpret life in terms of common objects and substances

We often use verbs metaphorically, as in the following: The ship sliced (the ship is a knife or is like a knife) through the waves. We could substitute other verbs-raced, cut, tore, or something else-and in each case a different meaning would be conveyed. Metaphor, then, is not limited to the figurative language one finds in poetry; rather, it is a fundamental means of generating meaning. The same applies to metonymy, which is discussed in the next section.

Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which meaning is communicated by association, in contrast to metaphor, where meaning is communicated by analogy. The term metonymy is composed of two parts: meta, or transfer, and onoma, or name. Thus, literally speaking, metonymy is "substitute naming."

In an essay of considerable theoretical importance (and difficulty) on aphasia-a disease associated with brain damage that prevents people from expressing ideas-Roman Jakobson (1988) discusses the difference between metaphor and metonymy:

Every form of aphasic disturbance consists in some impairment, more or less severe, either of the faculty for selection and substitution or for combination and contexture. The former affliction involves a deterioration of metalinguistic operations, while the latter damages the capacity for maintaining the hierarchy of linguistic units. The relation of similarity is suppressed in the former, the relation of contiguity in the latter type of aphasia. Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder, and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.  The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively. (pp. 57-58)

We have, then, two polarities: metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor communicates by selection (a focus on the similarity between things) and metonymy by combination (a focus on the association in time and space between things). Simile is a weaker form of metaphor (using like or as) and synecdoche is a weaker form of metonymy (in which a part stands for the whole, or vice versa). These differences (and a number of others, drawn from other sections of Jakobson's article) are shown in Table 4.4.
 
 

MetaphorMetonymy 


 
analog/similarityassociation/contiguity
selectioncombination
similesynecdoche
romanticismrealism
surrealism (in paintings)cubism (in paintings)
poetryprose
Freud's identification and symbolism (in dreams)Freud's condensation and displacement (in dreams)

According to Jakobson, one can determine a writer's style based on how he or she uses these two rhetorical devices and which of these "poles" prevails. The distinction has relevance for any symbolic process, as Jakobson (1988) explains:
 

A competition between both devices, metonymic and metaphoric, is manifest in any symbolic process, be it interpersonal or social. Thus in an inquiry into the structure of dreams, the decisive question is whether the symbols and the temporal sequences are based on contiguity (Freud's metonymic "displacement" and synecdochic "condensation") or on similarity (Freud's "identification" and "symbolism").  (p. 60)

It is relatively easy to analyze metaphors, Jakobson adds, but dealing with metonymy is much more difficult, and the process, which he says "easily defies interpretation," has been relatively neglected.

What makes things even more complicated is that we frequently find the two processes mixed up together. Thus, an image of a snake in a painting or advertisement can function metaphorically as a phallic symbol and metonymically as suggesting the snake in the Garden of Eden. This reference to Eden has a historic aspect to it, which leads us to our next set of concepts, synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis.
 

Synchronic Analysis and Diachronic Analysis

Ferdmand de Saussure (1966) makes a distinction between static (synchronic) and evolutionary (diachronic) linguistics, a distinction that we now apply to modes of analyzing texts and cultural phenomena:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co- ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made. ..between (1) the axis of simultaneities .., which stands for the relations of coexisting things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions ..., on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis together with their changes. (pp. 79-80)

Saussure further explains the difference between these two perspectives by suggesting that we imagine a plant. If we make a longitudinal cut in the stem of the plant, we see the fibers that " constitute the plant" (p. 87), but if we make a transverse cut (that is, a cross-sectional cut), we see the fibers in a certain relationship to one another-which we do not see when we look at the longitudinal cut. Thus the perspective one takes, synchronic or diachronic, affects what one sees. The differences between synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis are shown in Table 4.5. A person cannot deal with something from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives at the same time, Saussure adds, but both perspectives are necessary; Saussure makes this distinction as part of an argument for studying linguistics from a synchronic as well as a diachronic perspective.
 
 

Synchronic Analysis Diachronic Analysis 


 
Simultaneity 
Instant in Time
relations in a system
analysis is the focus
static
succession 
historical perspective
relations in time
development the focus
evolutionary 

Let us consider how the distinction between synchronic analysis and diachronic analysis applies to the study of media and popular culture. A person can focus on the way a given phenomenon, such as MTV or rap music, has evolved, or he or she can focus on the phenomenon at a given point in time, or he or she can use one perspective and then the other-bul one person cannot take both perspectives at the same time. This notion that the two approaches are mutually exclusive is similar to the figure and ground  phenomenon involved in an often-seen optical illusion: a picture of two silhouetted profiles that can be seen instead as the silhouette of a vase. One can look either at the figure and see the vase or at the ground and see the faces, but one cannot see both at the same time.

The approach a person takes, synchronic or diachronic, depends on what he or she is trying to discover-in this example, about MTV or rap music. If taking the synchronic view, the person would look at MTV or rap at a given point in time and try to relate it to cultural, social, and political matters. If taking the diachronic perspective, he or she would examine the way MTV or rap has evolved over the years, important figures in MTV or rap, and that kind of thing. Another way an investigator might look at rap music involves its relation to other forms of African American expression, such as the doubles, in which case he or she would be looking at it in terms of its historical connections.

Conclusion
Semiotics and semiology focus our attention on how people generate meanings--in their use of language, in their behaviour (body language, dress, facial expression, and so on), and in creative texts of all kinds. Everyone tries to make sense of human behaviour, in our everyday lives, in the novels we read, in the films and television shows we see, in the concerts we attend, in sports events we watch or participate in--humans are meaning-generating and meaning-interpreting animals, whatever else we are. We are always sending messages and always receiving and interpreting the messages others send us. What semiotics and semiology do is provide us with more refined and sophisticated ways of interpreting these messages-and of sending them. In particular, they provide us with methods of analyzing texts in cultures and cultures as texts.
 
 

Semiotics for Beginners

Daniel Chandler

Introduction

If you go into a bookshop and ask them where to find a book on semiotics you are likely to meet with a blank look. Even worse, you might be asked to define what semiotics is - which would be a bit tricky if you were looking for a beginner's guide. It's worse still if you do know a bit about semiotics, because it can be hard to offer a simple definition which is of much use in the bookshop. If you've ever been in such a situation, you'll probably agree that it's wise not to ask. Semiotics could be anywhere. The shortest definition is that it is the study of signs. But that doesn't leave enquirers much wiser. 'What do you mean by a sign?' people usually ask next. The kinds of signs that are likely to spring immediately to mind are those which we routinely refer to as 'signs' in everyday life, such as road signs, pub signs and star signs. If you were to agree with them that semiotics can include the study of all these and more, people will probably assume that semiotics is about 'visual signs'. You would confirm their hunch if you said that signs can also be drawings, paintings and photographs, and by now they'd be keen to direct you to the art and photography sections. But if you are thick-skinned and tell them that it also includes words, sounds and 'body language' they may reasonably wonder what all these things have in common and how anyone could possibly study such disparate phenomena. If you get this far they've probably already 'read the signs' which suggest that you are either eccentric or insane and communication may have ceased.

Assuming that you are not one of those annoying people who keeps everyone waiting with your awkward question, if you are searching for books on semiotics you could do worse than by starting off in the linguistics section.

It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek seme�on, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. (Saussure 1983, 15-16; Saussure 1974, 16)

Thus wrote the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder not only of linguistics but also of what is now more usually referred to as semiotics (in his Course in General Linguistics, 1916). Other than Saussure (the usual abbreviation), key figures in the early development of semiotics were the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (sic, pronounced 'purse') (1839-1914) and later Charles William Morris (1901-1979), who developed a behaviourist semiotics. Leading modern semiotic theorists include Roland Barthes (1915-1980), Algirdas Greimas (1917-1992), Yuri Lotman (1922-1993), Christian Metz (1931-1993), Umberto Eco (b 1932) and Julia Kristeva (b 1941). A number of linguists other than Saussure have worked within a semiotic framework, such as Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1966) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982). It is difficult to disentangle European semiotics from structuralism in its origins; major structuralists include not only Saussure but also Claude L�vi-Strauss (b. 1908) in anthropology (who saw his subject as a branch of semiotics) and Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in psychoanalysis. Structuralism is an analytical method which has been employed by many semioticians and which is based on Saussure's linguistic model. Structuralists seek to describe the overall organization of sign systems as 'languages' - as with L�vi-Strauss and myth, kinship rules and totemism, Lacan and the unconscious and Barthes and Greimas and the 'grammar' of narrative. They engage in a search for 'deep structures' underlying the 'surface features' of phenomena. However, contemporary social semiotics has moved beyond the structuralist concern with the internal relations of parts within a self-contained system, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations. Modern semiotic theory is also sometimes allied with a Marxist approach which stresses the role of ideology.

Semiotics began to become a major approach to cultural studies in the late 1960s, partly as a result of the work of Roland Barthes. The translation into English of his popular essays in a collection entitled Mythologies(Barthes 1957), followed in the 1970s and 1980s by many of his other writings, greatly increased scholarly awareness of this approach. Writing in 1964, Barthes declared that 'semiology aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification' (Barthes 1967, 9). The adoption of semiotics in Britain was influenced by its prominence in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham whilst the centre was under the direction of the neo-Marxist sociologist Stuart Hall (director 1969-79). Although semiotics may be less central now within cultural and media studies (at least in its earlier, more structuralist form), it remains essential for anyone in the field to understand it. What individual scholars have to assess, of course, is whether and how semiotics may be useful in shedding light on any aspect of their concerns. Note that Saussure's term, 'semiology' is sometimes used to refer to the Saussurean tradition, whilst 'semiotics' sometimes refers to the Peircean tradition, but that nowadays the term 'semiotics' is more likely to be used as an umbrella term to embrace the whole field (N�th 1990, 14).

Semiotics is not widely institutionalized as an academic discipline. It is a field of study involving many different theoretical stances and methodological tools. One of the broadest definitions is that of Umberto Eco, who states that 'semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign' (Eco 1976, 7). Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as 'signs' in everyday speech, but of anything which 'stands for' something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Whilst for the linguist Saussure, 'semiology' was 'a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life', for the philosopher Charles Peirce 'semiotic' was the 'formal doctrine of signs' which was closely related to Logic (Peirce 1931-58, 2.227). For him, 'a sign... is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity' (Peirce 1931-58, 2.228). He declared that 'every thought is a sign' (Peirce 1931-58, 1.538; cf. 5.250ff, 5.283ff). Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic 'sign systems' (such as a medium or genre). They study how meanings are made: as such, being concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality. Semiotics and that branch of linguistics known as semantics have a common concern with the meaning of signs, but John Sturrock argues that whereas semantics focuses on what words mean, semiotics is concerned with how signs mean (Sturrock 1986, 22). For C W Morris (deriving this threefold classification from Peirce), semiotics embraced semantics, along with the other traditional branches of linguistics:

  • semantics: the relationship of signs to what they stand for;
  • syntactics (or syntax): the formal or structural relations between signs;
  • pragmatics: the relation of signs to interpreters (Morris 1938, 6-7).

Semiotics is often employed in the analysis of texts (although it is far more than just a mode of textual analysis). Here it should perhaps be noted that a 'text' can exist in any medium and may be verbal, non-verbal, or both, despite the logocentric bias of this distinction. The term text usually refers to a message which has been recorded in some way (e.g. writing, audio- and video-recording) so that it is physically independent of its sender or receiver. A text is an assemblage of signs (such as words, images, sounds and/or gestures) constructed (and interpreted) with reference to the conventions associated with a genre and in a particular medium of communication.

The term 'medium' is used in a variety of ways by different theorists, and may include such broad categories as speech and writing or print and broadcasting or relate to specific technical forms within the mass media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books, photographs, films and records) or the media of interpersonal communication (telephone, letter, fax, e-mail, video-conferencing, computer-based chat systems). Some theorists classify media according to the 'channels' involved (visual, auditory, tactile and so on) (N�th 1995, 175). Human experience is inherently multisensory, and every representation of experience is subject to the constraints and affordances of the medium involved. Every medium is constrained by the channels which it utilizes. For instance, even in the very flexible medium of language 'words fail us' in attempting to represent some experiences, and we have no way at all of representing smell or touch with conventional media. Different media and genres provide different frameworks for representing experience, facilitating some forms of expression and inhibiting others. The differences between media lead Emile Benveniste to argue that the 'first principle' of semiotic systems is that they are not 'synonymous': 'we are not able to say "the same thing"' in systems based on different units (in Innis 1986, 235) in contrast to Hjelmslev, who asserted that 'in practice, language is a semiotic into which all other semiotics may be translated' (cited in Genosko 1994, 62).

The everyday use of a medium by someone who knows how to use it typically passes unquestioned as unproblematic and 'neutral': this is hardly surprising since media evolve as a means of accomplishing purposes in which they are usually intended to be incidental. And the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more 'transparent' or 'invisible' to its users it tends to become. For most routine purposes, awareness of a medium may hamper its effectiveness as a means to an end. Indeed, it is typically when the medium acquires transparency that its potential to fulfil its primary function is greatest.

The selectivity of any medium leads to its use having influences of which the user may not always be conscious, and which may not have been part of the purpose in using it. We can be so familiar with the medium that we are 'anaesthetized' to the mediation it involves: we 'don't know what we're missing'. Insofar as we are numbed to the processes involved we cannot be said to be exercising 'choices' in its use. In this way the means we use may modify our ends. Amongst the phenomena enhanced or reduced by media selectivity are the ends for which a medium was used. In some cases, our 'purposes' may be subtly (and perhaps invisibly), redefined by our use of a particular medium. This is the opposite of the pragmatic and rationalistic stance, according to which the means are chosen to suit the user's ends, and are entirely under the user's control.

An awareness of this phenomenon of transformation by media has often led media theorists to argue deterministically that our technical means and systems always and inevitably become 'ends in themselves' (a common interpretation of Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism, 'the medium is the message'), and has even led some to present media as wholly autonomous entities with 'purposes' (as opposed to functions) of their own. However, one need not adopt such extreme stances in acknowledging the transformations involved in processes of mediation. When we use a medium for any purpose, its use becomes part of that purpose. Travelling is an unavoidable part of getting somewhere; it may even become a primary goal. Travelling by one particular method of transport rather than another is part of the experience. So too with writing rather than speaking, or using a word processor rather than a pen. In using any medium, to some extent we serve its 'purposes' as well as it serving ours. When we engage with media we both act and are acted upon, use and are used. Where a medium has a variety of functions it may be impossible to choose to use it for only one of these functions in isolation. The making of meanings with such media must involve some degree of compromise. Complete identity between any specific purpose and the functionality of a medium is likely to be rare, although the degree of match may on most occasions be accepted as adequate.

I am reminded here of an observation by the anthropologist Claude L�vi-Strauss that in the case of what he called bricolage, the process of creating something is not a matter of the calculated choice and use of whatever materials are technically best-adapted to a clearly predetermined purpose, but rather it involves a 'dialogue with the materials and means of execution' (L�vi-Strauss 1974, 29). In such a dialogue, the materials which are ready-to-hand may (as we say) 'suggest' adaptive courses of action, and the initial aim may be modified. Consequently, such acts of creation are not purely instrumental: the bricoleur '"speaks" not only with things... but also through the medium of things' (ibid., 21): the use of the medium can be expressive. The context of L�vi-Strauss's point was a discussion of 'mythical thought', but I would argue that bricolage can be involved in the use of any medium, for any purpose. The act of writing, for instance, may be shaped not only by the writer's conscious purposes but also by features of the media involved - such as the kind of language and writing tools used - as well as by the social and psychological processes of mediation involved. Any 'resistance' offered by the writer's materials can be an intrinsic part of the process of writing. However, not every writer acts or feels like a bricoleur. Individuals differ strikingly in their responses to the notion of media transformation. They range from those who insist that they are in total control of the media which they 'use' to those who experience a profound sense of being shaped by the media which 'use' them (Chandler 1995).

Norman Fairclough comments on the importance of the differences between the various mass media in the channels and technologies they draw upon.

    The press uses a visual channel, its language is written, and it draws upon technologies of photographic reproduction, graphic design, and printing. Radio, by contrast, uses an oral channel and spoken language and relies on technologies of sound recording and broadcasting, whilst television combines technologies of sound- and image-recording and broadcasting...

    These differences in channel and technology have significant wider implications in terms of the meaning potential of the different media. For instance, print is in an important sense less personal than radio or television. Radio begins to allow individuality and personality to be foregrounded through transmitting individual qualities of voice. Television takes the process much further by making people visually available, and not in the frozen modality of newspaper photographs, but in movement and action. (Fairclough 1995, 38-9)

Whilst technological determinists emphasize that semiotic ecologies are influenced by the fundamental design features of different media, it is important to recognize the importance of socio-cultural and historical factors in shaping how different media are used and their (ever-shifting) status within particular cultural contexts. For instance, many contemporary cultural theorists have remarked on the growth of the importance of visual media compared with linguistic media in contemporary society and the associated shifts in the communicative functions of such media. Thinking in 'ecological' terms about the interaction of different semiotic structures and languages led the Russian cultural semiotician Yuri Lotman to coin the term 'semiosphere' to refer to 'the whole semiotic space of the culture in question' (Lotman 1990, 124-125). The concept is related to ecologists' references to 'the biosphere' and perhaps to cultural theorists' references to the public and private spheres, but most reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin's notion (dating back to 1949) of the 'noosphere' - the domain in which mind is exercised. Whilst Lotman referred to such semiospheres as governing the functioning of languages within cultures, John Hartley comments that 'there is more than one level at which one might identify a semiosphere - at the level of a single national or linguistic culture, for instance, or of a larger unity such as "the West", right up to "the species"'; we might similarly characterize the semiosphere of a particular historical period (Hartley 1996, 106). This conception of a semiosphere may make semioticians seem territorially imperialistic to their critics, but it offers a more unified and dynamic vision of semiosis than the study of a specific medium as if each existed in a vacuum.

There are, of course, other approaches to textual analysis apart from semiotics - notably rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis and 'content analysis'. In the field of media and communication studies content analysis is a prominent rival to semiotics as a method of textual analysis. Whereas semiotics is now closely associated with cultural studies, content analysis is well-established within the mainstream tradition of social science research. Whilst content analysis involves a quantitative approach to the analysis of the manifest 'content' of media texts, semiotics seeks to analyse media texts as structured wholes and investigates latent, connotative meanings. Semiotics is rarely quantitative, and often involves a rejection of such approaches. Just because an item occurs frequently in a text does not make it significant. The structuralist semiotician is more concerned with the relation of elements to each other. A social semiotician would also emphasize the importance of the significance which readers attach to the signs within a text. Whereas content analysis focuses on explicit content and tends to suggest that this represents a single, fixed meaning, semiotic studies focus on the system of rules governing the 'discourse' involved in media texts, stressing the role of semiotic context in shaping meaning. However, some researchers have combined semiotic analysis and content analysis (e.g. Glasgow University Media Group 1980; Leiss et al. 1990; McQuarrie & Mick 1992).

Some commentators adopt C W Morris's definition of semiotics (in the spirit of Saussure) as 'the science of signs' (Morris 1938, 1-2). The term 'science' is misleading. As yet semiotics involves no widely-agreed theoretical assumptions, models or empirical methodologies. Semiotics has tended to be largely theoretical, many of its theorists seeking to establish its scope and general principles. Peirce and Saussure, for instance, were both concerned with the fundamental definition of the sign. Peirce developed elaborate logical taxonomies of types of signs. Subsequent semioticians have sought to identify and categorize the codes or conventions according to which signs are organized. Clearly there is a need to establish a firm theoretical foundation for a subject which is currently characterized by a host of competing theoretical assumptions. As for methodologies, Saussure's theories constituted a starting point for the development of various structuralist methodologies for analysing texts and social practices. These have been very widely employed in the analysis of a host of cultural phenomena. However, such methods are not universally accepted: socially-oriented theorists have criticized their exclusive focus on structure, and no alternative methodologies have as yet been widely adopted. Some semiotic research is empirically-oriented, applying and testing semiotic principles. Bob Hodge and David Tripp employed empirical methods in their classic study of Children and Television(Hodge & Tripp 1986). But there is at present little sense of semiotics as a unified enterprise building on cumulative research findings.

Semiotics represents a range of studies in art, literature, anthropology and the mass media rather than an independent academic discipline. Those involved in semiotics include linguists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, literary, aesthetic and media theorists, psychoanalysts and educationalists. Beyond the most basic definition, there is considerable variation amongst leading semioticians as to what semiotics involves. It is not only concerned with (intentional) communication but also with our ascription of significance to anything in the world. Semiotics has changed over time, since semioticians have sought to remedy weaknesses in early semiotic approaches. Even with the most basic semiotic terms there are multiple definitions. Consequently, anyone attempting semiotic analysis would be wise to make clear which definitions are being applied and, if a particular semiotician's approach is being adopted, what its source is. There are two divergent traditions in semiotics stemming respectively from Saussure and Peirce. The work of Louis Hjelmslev, Roland Barthes, Claude L�vi-Strauss, Julia Kristeva, Christian Metz and Jean Baudrillard (b 1929) follows in the 'semiological' tradition of Saussure whilst that of Charles W Morris, Ivor A Richards (1893-1979), Charles K Ogden (1989-1957) and Thomas Sebeok (b 1920) is in the 'semiotic' tradition of Peirce. The leading semiotician bridging these two traditions is the celebrated Italian author Umberto Eco, who as the author of the bestseller The Name of the Rose (novel 1980, film 1986) is probably the only semiotician whose film rights are of any value (Eco 1980).

Saussure argued that 'nothing is more appropriate than the study of languages to bring out the nature of the semiological problem' (Saussure 1983, 16; Saussure 1974, 16). Semiotics draws heavily on linguistic concepts, partly because of the influence of Saussure and because linguistics is a more established discipline than the study of other sign systems. Structuralists adopted language as their model in exploring a much wider range of social phenomena: L�vi-Strauss for myth, kinship rules and totemism; Lacan for the unconscious; Barthes and Greimas for the 'grammar' of narrative. Julia Kristeva declared that 'what semiotics has discovered... is that the law governing or, if one prefers, the major constraint affecting any social practice lies in the fact that it signifies; i.e. that it is articulated like a language' (cited in Hawkes 1977, 125). Saussure referred to language (his model being speech) as 'the most important' of all of the systems of signs (Saussure 1983, 15; Saussure 1974, 16). Language is almost unvariably regarded as the most powerful communication system by far. For instance, Marvin Harris observes that 'human languages are unique among communication systems in possessing semantic universality... A communication system that has semantic universality can convey information about all aspects, domains, properties, places, or events in the past, present or future, whether actual or possible, real or imaginary' (cited in Wilden 1987, 138). Perhaps language is indeed fundamental: Emile Benveniste observed that 'language is the interpreting system of all other systems, linguistic and non-linguistic' (in Innis 1986, 239), whilst Claude L�vi-Strauss noted that 'language is the semiotic system par excellence; it cannot but signify, and exists only through signification' (L�vi-Strauss 1972, 48).

Saussure saw linguistics as a branch of 'semiology':

    Linguistics is only one branch of this general science [of semiology]. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics... As far as we are concerned... the linguistic problem is first and foremost semiological... If one wishes to discover the true nature of language systems, one must first consider what they have in common with all other systems of the same kind... In this way, light will be thrown not only upon the linguistic problem. By considering rites, customs etc. as signs, it will be possible, we believe, to see them in a new perspective. The need will be felt to consider them as semiological phenomena and to explain them in terms of the laws of semiology. (Saussure 1983, 16-17; Saussure 1974, 16-17)

Whilst Roland Barthes declared that 'perhaps we must invert Saussure's formulation and assert that semiology is a branch of linguistics', others have accepted Saussure's location of linguistics within semiotics (Barthes 1985, xi). Other than himself, Jean-Marie Floch instances Hjelmslev and Greimas (Floch 2000, 93). However, even if we theoretically locate linguistics within semiotics it is difficult to avoid adopting the linguistic model in exploring other sign systems. Semioticians commonly refer to films, television and radio programmes, advertising posters and so on as 'texts', and to 'reading television' (Fiske and Hartley 1978). Media such as television and film are regarded by some semioticians as being in some respects like 'languages'. The issue tends to revolve around whether film is closer to what we treat as 'reality' in the everyday world of our own experience or whether it has more in common with a symbolic system like writing. Some refer to the 'grammar' of media other than language. For James Monaco, 'film has no grammar', and he offers a useful critique of glib analogies between film techniques and the grammar of natural language (ibid., 129). There is a danger of trying to force all media into a linguistic framework. With regard to photography (though one might say the same for film and television), Victor Burgin insists that: 'There is no 'language' of photography, no single signifying system (as opposed to technical apparatus) upon which all photographs depend (in the sense in which all texts in English depend upon the English language); there is, rather, a heterogeneous complex of codes upon which photography may draw' (Burgin 1982b, 143).

We will shortly examine Saussure's model of the sign, but before doing so it is important to understand something about the general framework within which he situated it. Saussure made what is now a famous distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue refers to the system of rules and conventions which is independent of, and pre-exists, individual users; parole refers to its use in particular instances. Applying the notion to semiotic systems in general rather than simply to language, the distinction is one between between code and message, structure and event or system and usage (in specific texts or contexts). According to the Saussurean distinction, in a semiotic system such as cinema, 'any specific film is the speech of that underlying system of cinema language' (Langholz Leymore 1975, 3). Saussure focused on langue rather than parole. To the traditional, Saussurean semiotician, what matters most are the underlying structures and rules of a semiotic system as a whole rather than specific performances or practices which are merely instances of its use. Saussure's approach was to study the system 'synchronically' if it were frozen in time (like a photograph) - rather than 'diachronically' - in terms of its evolution over time (like a film). Structuralist cultural theorists subsequently adopted this Saussurean priority, focusing on the functions of social and cultural phenomena within semiotic systems. Theorists differ over whether the system precedes and determines usage (structural determinism) or whether usage precedes and determines the system (social determinism) (although note that most structuralists argue that the system constrains rather than completely determines usage).

The structuralist dichotomy between usage and system has been criticized for its rigidity, splitting process from product, subject from structure (Coward & Ellis 1977, 4, 14). The prioritization of structure over usage fails to account for changes in structure. Marxist theorists have been particularly critical of this. In the late 1920s, Valentin Volosinov (1884/5-1936) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) criticized Saussure's synchronic approach and his emphasis on internal relations within the system of language (Voloshinov 1973; Morris 1994). Volosinov reversed the Saussurean priority of langue over parole: 'The sign is part of organized social intercourse and cannot exist, as such, outside it, reverting to a mere physical artifact' (Voloshinov 1973, 21). The meaning of a sign is not in its relationship to other signs within the language system but rather in the social context of its use. Saussure was criticized for ignoring historicity (ibid., 61). The Prague school linguists Roman Jakobson and Yuri Tynyanov declared in 1927 that 'pure synchronism now proves to be an illusion', adding that 'every synchronic system has its past and its future as inseparable structural elements of the system' (cited in Voloshinov 1973, 166). Writing in 1929, Volosinov observed that 'there is no real moment in time when a synchronic system of language could be constructed... A synchronic system may be said to exist only from the point of view of the subjective consciousness of an individual speaker belonging to some particular language group at some particular moment of historical time' (Voloshinov 1973, 66). Whilst the French structuralist Claude L�vi-Strauss applied a synchronic approach in the domain of anthropology, most contemporary semioticians have sought to reprioritize historicity and social context. Language is seldom treated as a static, closed and stable system which is inherited from preceding generations but as constantly changing. The sign, as Voloshinov put it, is 'an arena of the class struggle' (ibid., 23). Seeking to establish a wholeheartedly 'social semiotics', Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress declare that 'the social dimensions of semiotic systems are so intrinsic to their nature and function that the systems cannot be studied in isolation' (Hodge & Kress 1988, 1).

Whilst Saussure may be hailed as a founder of semiotics, semiotics has become increasingly less Saussurean. Teresa de Lauretis describes the movement away from structuralist semiotics which began in the 1970s:

    In the last decade or so, semiotics has undergone a shift of its theoretical gears: a shift away from the classification of sign systems - their basic units, their levels of structural organization - and towards the exploration of the modes of production of signs and meanings, the ways in which systems and codes are used, transformed or transgressed in social practice. While formerly the emphasis was on studying sign systems (language, literature, cinema, architecture, music, etc.), conceived of as mechanisms that generate messages, what is now being examined is the work performed through them. It is this work or activity which constitutes and/or transforms the codes, at the same time as it constitutes and transforms the individuals using the codes, performing the work; the individuals who are, therefore, the subjects of semiosis.

    'Semiosis', a term borrowed from Charles Sanders Peirce, is expanded by Eco to designate the process by which a culture produces signs and/or attributes meaning to signs. Although for Eco meaning production or semiosis is a social activity, he allows that subjective factors are involved in each individual act of semiosis. The notion then might be pertinent to the two main emphases of current, or poststructuralist, semiotic theory. One is a semiotics focused on the subjective aspects of signification and strongly influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, where meaning is construed as a subject-effect (the subject being an effect of the signifier). The other is a semiotics concerned to stress the social aspect of signification, its practical, aesthetic, or ideological use in interpersonal communication; there, meaning is construed as semantic value produced through culturally shared codes. (de Lauretis 1984, 167)

This text outlines some of the key concepts in semiotics, together with relevant critiques, beginning with the most fundamental concept of the sign itself. I hope it will prove to be a useful companion to the reader in finding their own path through the subject. But before launching on an exploration of this intriguing but demanding subject let us consider why we should bother: why should we study semiotics? This is a pressing question in part because the writings of semioticians have a reputation for being dense with jargon: Justin Lewis notes that 'its advocates have written in a style that ranges from the obscure to the incomprehensible' (Lewis 1991, 25); another critic wittily remarked that 'semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand' (Paddy Whannel, cited in Seiter 1992, 1). The semiotic establishment is a very exclusive club but, as David Sless remarks, 'semiotics is far too important an enterprise to be left to semioticians' (Sless 1986, 1).

Semiotics is important because it can help us not to take 'reality' for granted as something having a purely objective existence which is independent of human interpretation. It teaches us that reality is a system of signs. Studying semiotics can assist us to become more aware of reality as a construction and of the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing it. It can help us to realize that information or meaning is not 'contained' in the world or in books, computers or audio-visual media. Meaning is not 'transmitted' to us - we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering. We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized. Through the study of semiotics we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in 'reading' them. Living in a world of increasingly visual signs, we need to learn that even the most 'realistic' signs are not what they appear to be. By making more explicit the codes by which signs are interpreted we may perform the valuable semiotic function of 'denaturalizing' signs. In defining realities signs serve ideological functions. Deconstructing and contesting the realities of signs can reveal whose realities are privileged and whose are suppressed. The study of signs is the study of the construction and maintenance of reality. To decline such a study is to leave to others the control of the world of meanings which we inhabit.

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