Study Guide

Semiotics Critics

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  • Jean Baudrillard

    Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

    Wait, what? We live in Disneyland? Why does it sound so evil? And what’s this “hyperreality” thing—is that what you feel when you’re on a Splash Mountain?

    When we get into things like the real no longer being the real, there’s no getting away from it: we’re in the realm of philosophy (which is its own form of amusement park, when you think about it).

    Actually, though, when you look through the cotton candy and big words, the concept that Baudrillard outlines isn’t as complex as it might seem, and the example of Disneyland is a useful case in point. What Baudrillard is saying here is that Disneyland appears like a fantasy world in that, while we may enjoy visiting it (who doesn’t love shaking hands with Goofy?), we know it’s not a reflection of reality. When it comes to real life, however, it’s a different story, and we tend to see everyday life and the world around us as natural.

    Amidst this fog of “naturalness,” Baudrillard makes it his business to say, “you know what? This isn’t really real.” For him, the whole purpose of Disneyland is to prevent us from realizing that it’s the surrounding world (i.e. modern day America) that’s no longer real.

    Baudrillard’s reference to prison gives us another example of this concept, in that having actual prisons in society blinds us to the wider prison that is life. Pretty bleak stuff, huh? Oh, and if at this point you’re thinking, “this is kind of like The Matrix” then you’re right—in fact, Baudrillard’s book made a cameo appearance in the movie. If you don’t remember, it’s just because books aren’t as freaky as spoons to bend backward.

    So. Baudrillard suggests that, within this era of capitalist consumerism (you know, with mass communication, MTV, iPods, everyone wanting more money and more things), we’ve reached a stage of “hyperreality” in which there’s no longer any authenticity—only simulation. As Baudrillard points out, this isn’t just a case of being presented with a false image of reality: no, no, that’s far too simplistic a concept for Mr. Baudrillard.

    Instead, what he’s describing is something more complex and sophisticated: a world in which we’re blinded to the fact that the real is no longer real. This may sound like some kind of sci-fi horror but, for Baudrillard, it’s the world that we’re living in today.

    The key concept here is simulation. Far from reality being replaced by simulated image, we’ve got to a point where simulation has gone into overdrive, We’re no longer talking about a copy of an original, but a copy of a copy. The result of this is that reality has become lost among this sea of copies, or (as Baudrillard would put it) “simulacra”—copies without originals. As far as semiotics goes, then, it’s safe to say that any original referent is long gone. Uplifting, huh? If you’re freaked, go for a walk in nature—that’ll sort you out (or will it?).

  • Jonathan Culler

    The notion that linguistics might be useful in studying other cultural phenomena is based on two fundamental insights; first, that social and cultural phenomena are not simply material objects or events but objects or events with meaning, and hence signs; and second, that they do not have essences but are defined by a network of relations, both internal and external. Stress may fall on one or the other of these propositions—it would be in these terms, for example, that one might try to distinguish semiology from structuralism—but in fact the two are inseparable, for in studying signs one must investigate the system of relations that enables meaning to be produced and, reciprocally, one can only determine what are the pertinent relations among items by considering them as signs.

    Though Ferdinand de Saussure was all about linguistics, other theorists (including Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco) have explored the ways in which we might extend semiotic analysis into other areas. Discussing this, Culler points out that there’s no such thing as just an object or just an event. Instead, he gives us a neat little formula:

    Every aspect of culture, and every cultural text, is:

    a) invested with meaning and

    b) exists as part of a network of relations.

    Don’t bullet points and semiotics go great together?

    Anyway, discussing points a and b, Culler notes that we may place greater stress on one than the other but that really, it’s impossible to separate them: we can’t study signs without considering the system of relations through which they operate, and, likewise, we can’t study systems unless we consider the items within them as signs. In other words, it’s a two-way street.

    To sum up, Culler emphasizes that signs come in all shapes and forms, and guess what that means? That the insights gained from linguistics may be relevant to culture in a wider sense. Sure, there may be differences between various texts and mediums, but what Culler argues is that all aspects of culture have an internal structure and are part of wider structures.

    Structure is a key term here, because, as we know, Saussure’s original linguistic theory took a structuralist angle. So it makes sense that, if other elements of culture also work as structures, then we can probably approach them from a linguistic angle too. Tah-dah!

    Still despite its possible usefulness, the extent to which we can apply linguistics to different forms of cultural texts is something that’s open to debate—as theorists have suggested, it might be that the Saussurian model needs to be adjusted in some way. Nevertheless, the scope of linguistics is something that we need to think about when we’re analyzing different areas of culture.

  • Terry Eagleton

    Signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world, are by that token authoritarian and ideological. It is one of the functions of ideology to “naturalize” social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself. Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the “natural” sign is one of its weapons. Saluting a flag, or agreeing that Western democracy represents the true meaning of the word “freedom”, become the most obvious, spontaneous responses in the world. Ideology, in this sense, is a kind of contemporary mythology, a realm which has purged itself of ambiguity and alternative possibility.

    Signs are pretty common in day-to-day life. We see them all over and in loads of forms. For that reason, they often seem natural to us. That leads to a slippery slope where the link between signifier and signified becomes taken for granted, meaning we sometimes lose sight of its constructedness. This isn’t really surprising, but it would be wrong to think that it’s always an accident.

    This is where the concept of ideology comes in: sign producers (or other interested parties) can encourage people to read signs in a particular way while also attempting to pass this off as nature rather than culture. Eagleton notes, for instance, that patriotic gestures such as saluting a flag become so ingrained that they become commonplace and spontaneous. Quite the eagle-eye, Eagleton!

    This applies to loads of things when we think it’s “natural” to think a certain way, act a certain way, salute a certain way, etc. And that’s what ideology boils down to—transforming culture into “nature.”

    Referring to ideology as a “contemporary mythology,” Eagleton brings to mind Roland Barthes’ discussion of mythologies: not Greek gods and all that stuff, but modern sign associations, which can be so powerful that there doesn’t seem to be any space for ambiguity or alternatives. Ideology can therefore be pretty influential, even if we don’t recognize it—which, let’s face it, is the whole point.

    All in all, it’s important to recognize that sign associations aren’t just innocent and natural. This doesn’t mean that all signs are produced according to sinister, Dr. Evil-esque motives, but one of the roles of semiotics is to uncover links that have become routine, and to ask what cultural codes come into play when signs are produced and interpreted.

  • Umberto Eco

    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 in 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 in fact be used “to tell” at all. I think that the definition of a “theory of the lie” should be taken as a pretty comprehensive program for a general semiotics.

    Here, Eco gives us an idea (or at least an echo) of the wide scope of semiotics. As we mentioned earlier, semiotics doesn’t have a strict method or set of core texts. What we can say, however, is that semiotics involves the study of signs, and that a sign is something that stands in for something else. Some scholars may zone in on linguistics while others (such as Roland Barthes) have a broader outlook. Despite the hundreds of rides in this wide-ranging theme park, Eco does a good job of defining semiotics.

    Next, Eco goes on to argue that semiotics studies “everything which can be used in order to lie.” So it’s like the Pinocchio of theories? Well, it’s not so much that people always use signs in order to tell fibs; it’s more that the very act of standing in for something else opens a sign up to having all sorts of motives and meanings, depending on how and when it’s used. Remember that there’s no actual cord binding the signifier and signified. Instead, there’s a space in which an imaginary connection is created.

    Another thing that Eco discusses here is the sign’s role as a substitute, meaning that a sign can stand in for something else, whether or not that something is actually present when the sign stands in for it, or even exists at all (i.e. as an object in the here and now).

    Sure, a sign like “tree” can refer to a leafy thing planted outside your house, but a sign like “Mars” can stand for a thing that’s zillions of light years away (or for a Roman God, or a chocolate bar), and a sign like “apathy” can stand for a thing that’s not even a thing.

    If we recognize this, then this helps emphasize that there’s no real connection between signifier and signified: what we’re talking about is a conceptual space in which a connection can be set up and, over time, come to seem run-of-the-mill.

    When Eco suggests that a “theory of the lie” should be taken as a program for semiotics, it might seem like he’s just being controversial by calling his academic colleagues a bunch of two-faced liars. If you think about Eco’s reasoning, however, you get a better idea of the logic behind his statement. After all, if the connection between signifier and signified is arbitrary, then the signifier can hardly be seen as a beacon of authenticity, can it?

  • Michel Foucault

    Freed from wisdom and from the teaching that organized it, the image begins to gravitate about its own madness. Paradoxically, this liberation derives from a proliferation of meaning, from a self-multiplication of significance, weaving relationships so numerous, so intertwined, so rich, that they can no longer be deciphered except in the esotericism of knowledge. Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, allusions that they finally lose their own form. Meaning is no longer read in an immediate perception, the figure no longer speaks for itself; between the knowledge which animates it and the form into which it is transposed, a gap widens. It is free for the dream.

    One thing that semiotics highlights is just how common signs are in everyday life, whether they come in the form of objects, gestures, texts…in short, anything that carries some sort of cultural meaning. Sometimes there’s a dominant meaning associated with a sign and a strong link between signifier and signified. However, Foucault emphasizes that it’s not always so simple.

    As we’ve seen, people don’t always decode texts in the way the encoder intended. Not only this, but the link between signifier and signified can be unstable and cause us to make all sorts of other possible connections.

    Because the signifier isn’t actually connected to a signified, sign systems can break down and cause our perception of meaning to get out of whack. This means that we don’t recognize meanings instantly anymore; instead, a gap starts to widen between things and their meanings.

    What Foucault is discussing here is a crisis of signification: a scenario in which there are so many signs and so many different connections that the system goes bust (bra size? Top-half statue? Awry? Gahh!). It’s kind of like that final block in Jenga that causes the whole thing to come crashing down. As Foucault stresses, we can only weigh down a thing so much before it reaches breaking point (and if you’ve ever felt totally bogged down with schoolwork, chores or whatever, then you’ll be able to relate).

    Foucault consequently makes us aware that signification can be complicated, disorganized, and ultimately, reach a point of excess. We may start out with a simple equation like signified + signified = sign, but things may not always be so straightforward in reality. If we can trust reality in the first place, right?

  • Roman Jakobson

    If “child” is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar, nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs—sleeps, dozes, nods, naps. Both chosen words combine in the speech chain. The selection is produced on the base of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.

    In this quote, Jakobson sums up the way in which a chain of speech is constructed. We may not always pay attention to the individual parts of a text or a sentence, but a writer often selects words from a bunch of terms that could also fit the bill: as Jakobson notes, we may choose the word “child,” but we could also pick the words “kid” or “youngster.”

    A lot depends on the tone we want to put across and the context that we’re writing/speaking about, as well as our own context (for example, the word “youngster” is something you’d be more likely to hear from a 70-year-old than a 17-year-old). This goes for both nouns and verbs, and it’s through making such choices that sentences take shape.

    When we’re putting together a sentence, we choose terms based on a whole load of factors. Jakobson gives us several examples: synonyms and antonyms, for example, refer to words that have either the same meaning as (synonymy), or the opposite meaning to (antonymy), a particular word—as you’ll know if you’ve ever used a thesaurus.

    This has to do with not only selection, but also combination: we may start out by making selections, but it’s through the association of ideas and impressions that a sequence builds up.

    Jakobson’s focus here is on poetic language, with one of his arguments being that the poetic function takes structural equivalence (which is associated with the process of selection) and transfers it into the process of combination. This may sound pretty complex, but, in short, it’s the difference between selecting words on the basis of their being equivalent and combining words on this basis. For Jakobson, the first approach is typical of ordinary language and the second marks out poetic language.

    By summarizing the differences between ordinary and poetic language, Jakobson gives us an idea of how to approach texts through a structuralist lens. Studying literature in this way therefore allows us to engage with texts on a deeper level and to define, and compare, their various features. How poetic!

  • Charles Sanders Peirce

    A sign is in a conjoint relation to the thing denoted and to the mind. If this triple relation is not of a degenerate species, the sign is related to its object only in consequence of a mental association, and depends upon a habit. Such signs are always abstract and general, because habits are general rules to which the organism has become subjected. They are, for the most part, conventional or arbitrary. They include all general words, the main body of speech, and any mode of conveying a judgment.

    Peirce is the guy who revamped the Saussurian model of signifier/signified, coming up with a three-part model of signification instead featuring the icon, the index, and the symbol. The quote above gives us the gist of Peirce’s thinking, including the three elements that he sees as making up the signifying process: the sign, the thing denoted, and the mind.

    As with semiotics in general, Peirce emphasizes that the relationship between the sign and its object is a matter of habit rather than something ready-made (sound familiar?). Like Saussure, Peirce refers to the connections established through signification as being based on convention and repetition (though these connections can, of course, become cultural norms). As Peirce also observes, signification operates on both a macro and a micro level, taking in of every part of communication.

    We all know that theoretical works can be difficult to get a handle on, but the above quote gives us a nifty summary of both Peirce’s triangular model and the “arbitrariness” that gets mentioned in pretty much any discussion of semiotics. It also brings us back to the fact that the term “sign” doesn’t just relate to a particular kind of text or image, but applies to all kinds of stuff.

  • Ferdinand de Saussure

    These signs thus function not according to their intrinsic value but in virtue of their relative position...All conventional values have the characteristic of being distinct from the tangible element which serves as their vehicle. For instance, it is not the metal in a piece of money that fixes its value. A crown piece nominally worth five francs contains only half that sum in silver. Its value varies somewhat according to the effigy it bears. It is worth rather more or rather less on different sides of a political frontier. Considerations of the same order are even more pertinent to linguistic signals. Linguistic signals are not in essence phonetic. They are not physical in any way. They are constituted solely by differences which distinguish one such sound pattern from another.

    As the father of what we know today as semiotics, Saussure brought a structuralist approach to the study of signs and emphasized that the link between signifier and signified is arbitrary. That should pretty much be your mantra by now, but this is from one of the original works on the idea so you’re seeing it at the start, you lucky dog.

    Using the example of a coin, Saussure emphasizes that the coin’s value isn’t based on what it’s made of. It’s not as though coins and banknotes have any inbuilt worth—like all cultural objects, they become invested with meaning. This consequently gives us another example of the conventionality that Saussure sees as defining sign production.

    This quote also highlights the structuralist basis of Saussure’s approach, pointing out that an object’s value is created in relation to other objects. In terms of money, we can see that this isn’t just a question of a particular coin but rather money as a cultural system (it’s even easier to visualize with paper money: is a $100 bill made of better paper than a $20? Nope, but Ben Franklin gets you a bit closer to buying the new iPhone).

    This doesn’t just apply to physical objects, either: Saussure adds that the same goes for linguistic signs. Whatever the form, signs take on meaning when we consider them in relation to one another. This means recognizing not just what a sign represents but what it doesn’t represent: that is, what sets it apart from the other signs around it.

    These signs may seem similar on the surface, but if we study them on a semiotic level, we may find that this is far from the case. So Saussure helps demonstrate that signs don’t just have their own internal structure but are part of wider structures too. You sure? So sure!

  • Kaja Silverman

    The unconscious is obliged to express itself exclusively through “thing-presentations”—i.e. the mnemic traces left behind by perceptual flow. Freud suggests that these memories are predominantly visual and auditory. The preconscious, on the other hand, has at its disposal a double signifying register, consisting of “thing-presentations” and “word-presentations.” These two categories coincide with what Saussure calls “signifieds” and “signifiers”; the thing-presentation, like the linguistic signified, designates a concept, while the word-presentation or linguistic signifier refers to a sound image. Once again we are reminded of the profound interconnections between linguistic semiotics and psychoanalysis, interconnections which result both from the fact that language can only be activated through discourse, within which the subject figures centrally, and from the fact that subjectivity it itself a product of two signifying activities, one unconscious and the other preconscious or conscious.

    As this quote shows, Silverman focuses not just on semiotics but on the links we can draw between semiotics and psychoanalysis. Taking the Saussurian model of signifier and signified as her starting point, she suggests that the preconscious mind works in a similar way: discussing Freudian theory, for example, she sees the “thing-presentation” as equivalent to the signified, and the “word-presentation” corresponding to the signifier.

    Since we’re dealing with semiotics, there’s no need to get into the details of psychoanalysis right now (and what a tragedy that is). What Silverman helps demonstrate, though, is that linguistics isn’t some sort of abstract realm, and that the structure of language is similar to the structure of the mind. This ain’t no coincidence, either: signification doesn’t exist in a bubble but is produced and consumed by human subjects.

    As Silverman points out, language can only be activated by discourse, and discourse isn’t neutral, but part of culture. “Discourse” is another term that gets thrown around a lot in academia, and it’s important to recognize that it’s not just another word for language or communication. When we use this word, we’re referring to how people communicate in a particular context; in fact, academic communication is itself a discourse (you know, the dreaded “academic-speak” that killed the dinosaurs).

    The thing to remember here is that language and culture aren’t abstract; they’re developed by human beings. Structuralist semiotics might sometimes seem to overlook this human element, but Silverman suggests that the structure of language can’t be separated from the structure of the mind. So if you think it’s all in your head, then it probably is. Not that there’s anything unnatural about that (just make sure you question what “natural” is, though).

  • V. N. Voloshinov

    Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside itself. In other words, it is a sign. Without signs there is no ideology. A physical body equals itself, so to speak; it does not signify anything but wholly coincides with its particular, given nature. In this case there is no question of ideology.

    However, any physical body may be perceived as an image; for instance, the image of natural inertia and necessity embodied in that particular thing. Any such artistic-symbolic image to which a particular physical object gives rise is already an ideological product. The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object, to some degree, reflects and refracts another reality.

    Here, Voloshinov emphasizes the relevance of ideology to semiotics. We live in a world that’s full of objects. Some are manufactured for particular reasons. Alarm clocks. Microwaves. Hello Kitty backpacks. Others are organic, like plants and bugs and other living matter.

    But wait! Taking the organic as an example can open a can of worms (whether or not your organic example is worms) because it’s the organic that seems most natural to us. As Voloshinov states, the physical body (which we could call the ultimate organic object) isn’t just a signifier but exists in its own right and has its own individual presence in the world.

    What Voloshinov emphasizes is that just because the body is a product of nature doesn’t mean that it can’t also become part of culture: as soon as a physical object is interpreted and gives rise to denotations (direct meanings) or connotations (implied meanings), it has entered the realm of signs and becomes part of ideology. Sound ominous yet?

    Anyway, this doesn’t mean that your worm or whatever is no longer part of physical reality—the object has the same presence as before, but it becomes shaped by cultural codes and takes on a signifying role.

    As Voloshinov illustrates, then, signs are engaged with reality and help shape that reality too. It’s pretty much inevitable that an object—even a natural object—should become a part of signifying systems. And the body is like anything else in that way: we’re born into a world in which meaning and language have already been established and we can’t just brush that to the side.

    We might wish we could do that in some cases, as cultural codes can sometimes seem oppressive, unfair, or don’t match up with how we see ourselves. Still, signification plays a major role in everyday life and the production of meaning. Now that’s a can of worms.

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