Study Guide

Semiotics Basics

  • Beginnings

    Way back in the mists of time, a philosopher called John Locke had this crazy idea that it would be useful to come up with a way of studying signs. It’s not like signs are some new-fangled thing, after all—they’ve been around as long as we have. What Locke did was highlight the need for developing a way of actually studying these signs.

    However, it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that semiotics really got going, courtesy of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Locke and other theorists may have planted the seeds, but Saussure took things to another blossom by planting a model of how signs work and how we can study them. Focusing on the structure of language, Saussure divided the sign up into two parts: the signifier (the form that a sign takes) and signified (the concept that the signifier brings to mind). If you get confused, just remind yourself of the word “tree” vs. the leafy green thing.

    One of Saussure’s beefs was with the idea that there’s some sort of natural connection between the signifier and signified. Why is a tree called a tree? (Hey, is that from Shakespeare?)

    As far as Saussure was concerned, this is just an illusion: any link that we may make is in our own minds (freaky, man!) and is shaped by the culture in which we live. One of the things about Saussure’s model (and semiotics in general), then, is that it takes the mystery out of the production of signs, starting with Saussure picking apart the structure of texts to explore how meaning is created.

    On top of the signified/signified relationship, Saussure came up with a bundle of other distinctions. One example is his famous division between langue and parole, or, in English, language and speech. Saussure saw language as a system of rules that provides the foundation for communication, whereas speech is the way we use communication (French, English, highbrow, slang, to make a purchase, to express a feeling, to explain semiotics—you name it).

    In Saussure’s eyes, language is the main thing that we critics need to look at; that is, we need to analyze the foundations of communication before we can get into the details.

    Another major player in the early years of semiotics was the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Unlike Saussure’s thing with twos, Peirce was way into trilogies in his own work theorizing the sign, because he believed that the sign is made up of three parts: the representamen (the form that the sign takes), the interpretant (the sense we make of the sign), and the object (whatever it is that the sign refers to).

    The representamen and interpretant are a lot like the signifier and signified, but bringing in the object turns this model into a triangle. It’s not like Saussure was oblivious to the object—though he did spend a lot more time theorizing about trees than walking in nature—but that aspect is something that’s left unsaid in Saucy’s model, whereas Peirce gives it more of a leading role.

    But what about that thing about two’s company and three’s a crowd? Well, Peirce would beg to disagree. In addition to his three-sided model of the sign, he also divided signs into three varieties: symbolic, which is a lot like Saussure’s arbitrary signifier/signified relationship; iconic, in which the signifier resembles the signified in some way; and indexical, where the signifier is directly related to the signified. (Remember, we talked about these three guys in the Buzzwords section). Peirce emphasized, however, that signs can be part of more than one category: a photo, for instance, is iconic and indexical. Try to pierce through that iron-clad logic! Nope, you can’t.

  • Big Players

    As semiotics’ two head honchos, Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce are the theorists who have had the most impact on the field. Saussure’s model of the signifier and signified remains at the heart of semiotics and has influenced a boat-load of scholars.

    However, while structure was Saussure’s catchword, Peirce’s model shifted the focus to process, arguing that even our thought processes are social. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re of two minds or to go over the ins and outs of something. In Peirce’s terms, this is a case the self being in dialogue with the deeper self.

    So you’re dealing with your surface thoughts about an issue as well as how you’ve been socialized to see the various parts of the puzzle over your whole life. Peirce’s triangular model also branched out from Saussure’s, suggesting that there are other ways in which we can theorize signification—the ways that we see things as having certain meanings. It’s not all just built-in, you know!

    Though semiotics began as the study of linguistics, scholars such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco (also a novelist, so super into games with language) broadened its horizons by exploring how we might apply semiotics to other sorts of material. This meant not only visual texts, but also things like objects and gestures, with scholars having taken language as their model when exploring a bunch of other stuff: Claude Levi-Strauss, for example, studied anthropology (human histories and cultures) from the perspective of a structural semiotician, while psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explored the unconscious through this lens.

    Even though semiotics was founded in linguistics, its influence has since spread much wider. Theorists have, however, voiced notes of caution: Jay David Bolter, for example, has stressed that signs are always rooted in a medium (TV, movies, magazines, books, blogs, etc.), while Marshall McLuhan coined the influential phrase “the medium is the message.” For some theorists, then, we need to keep in mind the particular medium that we’re dealing with rather than just thinking, “a sign’s a sign, period.”

    Another thing that scholars have argued is that Saussure’s theory focuses on structure at the expense of historical and contextual issues. A major theorist here is Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov, whose interests in Marxism and literary theory encouraged him to see language as being rooted in social processes.

    Roland Barthes has also extended semiotics into this territory, especially in his 1957 work Mythologies, which focused on the motives that can be involved in sign production. Typically, this sort of approach involves analyzing cultural texts in a way that can reveal their underlying values. Is South Park really just about a group of potty-mouthed cartoon kids? Nope, the creators probably had some sort of message with that portrayal of America’s youth—you know, just a thought.

    If we step into the realm of poststructuralism, Jacques Derrida emerges as another big player that we need to name-drop. In Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida took issue with the rigidness of Saussure’s model. Loosen up a bit, Saucy! Derrida argued that, by ignoring the material qualities of the linguistic sign, Saussure was guilty of privileging speech over writing (in Derrida’s swank-tastic terms, ‘phonocentrism’).

    Sure, Saussure was hardly alone in this, with the spoken word having been privileged in Western culture as far back as Plato. Still, Derrida made a point of shifting the balance in favor of the written word. Can’t be SO SURE about that, Saussure!

  • Key Debates

    Semiotics is a theoretical school that’s open to a various approaches; however, one key concept that we keep coming back to is the arbitrariness of the sign. Good grief, another sign that’s not saying “Happy Hour” or “The End”? Think of it as “Pass Go, Collect $200”—in other words, it’s sort of like the home key in an internet browser because we always end up going back there.

    It’s worth nothing that for some scholars, there are different degrees of arbitrariness. Some signs are more like the things that they represent (like a photo) than others (Garfield is clearly a cat, but he’s not the most catlike one you’ve ever seen). Still, semiotics as a whole rests on the idea that the signifier-signified relationship is arbitrary.

    While this idea applies to all forms of semiotics, some scholars have placed it front and center. This brings us to one of the main debates in semiotics: the extent to which we should bother about historical and social context. Semiotics may have started out as a structuralist thing but it has focused more and more on ideological concerns.

    So sure, ideology is one of those concepts with lots of big scary people like Fredric Jameson and Louis Althusser (who actually is kind of scary because of this one time he was thinking too hard about ideology and accidentally strangled his wife). But murderous massage aside, ideology is a useful little term for a credo or line of thought that’s characteristic of a group’s view on the world.

    The ideas of a political party, for example, make up an ideology. People who follow a certain religion tend to share an ideology. There are communist ideologies, neoliberal ideologies, Buddhist ideologies, Shmoopist ideologies…the list goes on, but what’s important is to think of it as the lens through which different people view the world—whether or not they’re aware of wearing that lens.

    One of the goals of social semiotics is to explore texts in terms of their ideological motives: Marxist scholars, in particular, have used semiotics to reveal power structures that we might otherwise take for granted—and these can take place in cultural artifacts as ranging from Spongebob Squarepants to the Itsy Bitsy Spider song to culture as a whole.

    This isn’t an issue that’s exclusive to semiotics, but applies to literary theory in general, even though some theoretical schools, such as New Criticism, have ignored or avoided historical and social analysis and focusing on the text itself. However, this approach (which is known as “Formalism”) has become much less common over the last few decades and is now seen as old-fashioned. That’s why semiotics isn’t just about signs, but what they refer to in the world. Semiotics, keepin’ it fly!

    This move toward looking at form alongside broader meaning has brought the author and reader back into the mix, but with the emphasis now less on a sender-receiver model than on how readers engage with texts. When this started to happen, semiotics couldn’t be seen as a totally structuralist project anymore; instead, people began to distinguish structuralist semiotics from social semiotics.

    Building on this difference in approaches, semioticians have expressed different views on synchronic and diachronic analysis (remember those from Buzzwords?). Saussure was all about the synchronic approach, which analyzes a structure as it exists at a certain moment in time (like a photo).

    Again, though, many semioticians have come to see this as a limiting way of looking at signs that fails to give historical issues a proper shout-out. Rejecting the idea that sign systems are static, they’ve instead emphasized language and signification as being dynamic and “diachronic”—more like a movie than a photo.

    The takeaway? With all those debates going down, semiotics is as much like a Hollywood blockbuster it’s possible for a theory school to be. Lights, camera, theorize!

  • State of the Theory

    Semiotics may not have blossomed into an academic discipline outside of its uses in literature or sociology or linguistics departments, but it has continued to play a role in theorizing and analyzing all sorts of cultural texts. The Saussurian model has always been influential and still gets mentioned today, but semiotics has opened up a lot since its early days. Social semiotics, in particular, has become more and more popular since the 1970s while the structuralist approach has come to be seen as out-of-date.

    Another way semiotics has grown over the years is in terms of the material that it analyzes. Saussure was writing from the perspective of a linguist, and semiotics is still important in both linguistics and literary theory. However, semiotics these days is seen as a way of exploring all kinds of cultural texts. It owes as much to Barthes as Saussure in this sense, and has become popular within media and communication studies as well as cultural studies.

    The use of semiotics to analyze cultural products is, again, the result of this wider move toward social semiotics. This has led to an interest in the motives that can be involved in the production of texts: it’s not just a question of how a text is put together but why it has been put together in this way. Is Finding Nemo just about a daddy clownfish swimming around the ocean because his son’s off in a dentist aquarium? Sure, but you could also say it gives an important lesson about the importance of families sticking together. That and how to speak whale.

    Approaching the subject from this angle helps emphasize the human aspect (or clownfish aspect) that’s at the core of the production and reception of texts, moving away from the idea that texts exist in their own right and are aren’t influenced by culture.

    Modern semiotics therefore tends to pay more attention to the conditions in which texts are produced, and this means treating the author as a part of society rather than an individual genius. This has also led to more of an emphasis on the reader, with semioticians examining how texts are encoded and decoded (ever felt like Ulysses is written in code? Yeah, us too).

    Whether the reader sees a text as good, bad, Marxist, a survey of English literary history, or totally incomprehensible, the reader isn’t just seen as a passive receiver. Sure, some texts are more open than others, but semiotics these days recognizes our ability as readers to alter or reject a given meaning.

    In summary, the move from structuralism to poststructuralism has meant a greater emphasis on meaning as subjective. If we acknowledge the active role of the reader and the importance of social context, then this raises a big question: to what extent is the act of reading shaped by culture, and to what extent is it an individual, subjective thing?

    For modern semiotics, then, it’s no longer so much about the structuralist/social debate (which, let’s face it, was getting pretty tired)—it’s more about the balance between the subjective and the social.

  • Talking the Talk

    What is literature?

    For a semiotician, literature is a system of signs that’s expressed through writing. It’s not a question of whether a work is “literary”—sure, “Roses are red, violets are blue” sounds nice, and analyzing texts from a semiotic angle helps classify different usages of language, but this isn’t about judging whether a work is worthy of being called “literature.”

    Keep in mind also that semioticians don’t always share exactly the same approach: from a Saussurian perspective, literature is a structure made up of chains of signifiers. However, for a social semiotician, literature also reflects the context (i.e. time period, culture, etc.) in which it’s produced.

    What is an author?

    First off, the author doesn’t have to be some sort of genius. In fact, with its emphasis on a text’s structure, semiotics debunks this concept. Picking a text apart makes us more aware of how the text is constructed, and this brings the concept of authorship down to earth.

    In practical terms, then, the author is a person who has encoded a text, but that’s not to say that the author always takes the same approach: some authors may try to limit their work to a narrow reading while others give the reader more leeway. The move towards social semiotics has also impacted on the concept of authorship, as it focuses on the author as an individual writing within a particular time and place—again, taking us away from the idea of the author as a mythical figure and giving weight to the all-powerful sign.

    What is a reader?

    The reader is a sign-user who decodes any given text. However, decoding can mean different things: where a text uses a dominant code, we might ask whether the reader goes along with this code or questions or challenges it.

    The extent to which we’re able to read against the grain is partly based on the extent to which a text is “open” or “closed,” but even where a text appears to have a set meaning, this doesn’t guarantee that the reader is going to be a passive receiver—that would be too easy for a Shmoop-tastic decoder like us, right?

    Social semiotics has also highlighted the importance of the cultural and historical context in which readers are positioned. This means that the reader isn’t just someone whose job is to figure out the meaning of the text; instead, we bring our own experiences into the mix.

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