Study Guide

Semiotics Texts

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll (1865 and 1871)

    Just in case you’ve been living down a rabbit hole yourself, these two classic stories are about a young girl named Alice who experiences all kinds of surreal encounters in a fantasy world. In Looking-Glass, she enters another world through her mirror, while in Wonderland, she dreams that she has discovered this strange kingdom after having followed a white rabbit (who’s dressed in a waistcoat and is worrying about being late for an important event—yep, we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore).

    In both cases, Alice finds herself in a land in which weird and wacky imagery abounds, identity is always shifting, and language often fails as a means of communication. Fertile ground for semiotic analysis, indeed.

    Within these fantasy worlds, words are often shown to have multiple meanings—that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much confusion. How might we relate this to the concepts of encoding/decoding and the closed/open text?

    What sort of relationship exists between language (langue) and speech (parole) in the Alice books? Is there some sort of imbalance or disconnection that contributes to all the misunderstanding?

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

    In each of these stories, the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes solves a case by which everyone else is totally baffled. After having been presented with all the available facts, Holmes picks up on things that most people wouldn’t have noticed—often to the amazement of his sidekick Watson. The police may poke fun at his approach, but Holmes shows again and again that his ability to interpret signs is second to none. So take that, haters.

    Holmes often makes accurate remarks about a person’s lifestyle despite barely knowing the person in question. What is it, then, that sets Holmes’s line of thinking apart? It’s not like he’s a mind-reader or magician, so how is he able to make these deductions?

    To what extent are denotation and connotation important to Holmes’s investigations?

  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

    Following a plane crash at the start of the novel, a group of schoolboys finds itself stranded on a desert island. With no adults in sight, the boys must find a way to not only attract help but to survive for however long they’re stuck on the island. Three guesses what happens next. Yep—while the boys may start off civilized, things don’t stay that way for long. We’re not just talking about a schoolyard tussle, either: when order breaks down, it does so with a bang.

    The thing is, it’s not just practical matters (like building a hut) that the boys have to deal with. There are monsters, boy band (well, tribe) rivalries, you name it. Golding certainly isn’t scared to get into the dark, psychological stuff, and it’s the power dynamics between the boys that really set this novel apart.

    What role does signification play in establishing the power relations that play such a big role in this novel?

    The boys are a long way away from civilization and seemingly regress to a more animalistic state. Does this mean that they become disconnected from culture altogether? How does that sort of disconnect change the sign system in which they operate?

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

    As we’ve seen, semiotics has paid more and more attention to cultural issues and power relations, in some cases takes up Marxist critique. Animal Farm is a classic fictional take on this subject, focusing on a group of farm animals who are seriously fed up with how they’re being treated by human beings and, consequently, overthrow the owner of their farm.

    At first it’s all good, but they soon come to realize that their new life of “equality” is anything but. The pigs, in particular, get really sly and bossy (who would’ve thought there was more than rolling in mud puddles?). But it’s to the extent that, by the novel’s ending, we can’t tell the difference between the pigs and the humans anymore.

    Okay, so technically we could read this as a tale about talking animals, but if we scratch the surface, we find a political fable that’s all about human power relations and class conflict. So, not exactly Babe then…

    Why do you think Orwell might have chosen to explore this theme through the use of allegory? Why didn’t he just write about human dictatorship?

    The farm is led by a pig, Napoleon, accompanied by a simpering sidekick called Squealer. What do you imagine that these characters would be like as humans?

  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

    Gothic horror, psychological turmoil, and poor home decor are the order of the day in this Victorian short story. The story begins with the narrator chronicling her thoughts as she spends her days secluded in her bedroom—her seclusion due to her husband’s belief that she’s suffering from nervous disorder.

    However, it’s when she starts focusing on the room’s wallpaper that things really get out of control: imagining a woman crawling around amidst the wallpaper’s pattern, the narrator becomes more and more consumed by these visions and, ultimately, loses touch with reality altogether.

    In an obvious sense, wallpaper is just wallpaper. However, the narrator comes to regard the wallpaper in her room as something else altogether. What leads to this transformation? How does wallpaper go from a patterned wall covering to something much more uncanny?

    The wallpaper is the key motif in this story, but are there any other motifs—or signs—that are also important?

  • “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath (1959)

    This poem begins, “I’m a riddle in nine syllables” and it’s made up of nine lines that each consist of, yep, nine syllables. As we can gather from the title, the poem is chock-full of metaphors and the meaning doesn’t necessarily leap out right away. However, if we think about what the metaphors signify, we can tell that Plath’s talking about pregnancy—that would explain the “riddle” of the number nine (as in nine months), right?

    Plus, the speaker makes lots of references to fruit, fatness, and growth, and, because of what we know of pregnancy in both a physical and cultural sense, it doesn’t take long for us to get the memo. We also get an idea of how she feels about this when she refers to herself as “An elephant, a ponderous house,” which suggests she sees herself as a huge, lumbering figure (we’re talking an epic fat day here).

    This poem therefore relies on our ability to interpret metaphors, and, because of this, we can tell that the speaker isn’t exactly glowing with the joys of impending motherhood.

    What is the value or effect of using metaphors rather than describing something literally?

    In line six, Plath writes, “Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.” Keeping in mind the theme of the poem, what does she mean by this?

  • “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens (1923)

    Some poems have titles that are vague and make you wonder what to expect from the poem itself (“Metaphors,” for example). Not this one—the title of Stevens’ poem tells us exactly what to expect: namely, thirteen ways (in the form of thirteen short stanzas) of looking at a blackbird.

    Though blackbirds are pretty and all, it’s not really the bird itself that’s so important, but the various impressions that we can take from the act of looking. Because of this, the poem gives us a useful example of semiotic concepts such as denotation/connotation and the different signifieds that can be associated with a single signifier.

    Can you think of thirteen ways in which we might look at something other than a blackbird? How could doing so help us explore the different connotations that a signifier might have?

  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

    One of the most famous satirical works of all time, Gulliver’s Travels is narrated by an explorer and anthropologist who visits all sorts of strange lands and gives us a rundown of their customs and language systems. Gulliver is quite the linguist as well as befriender of strange-sized individuals, and he spends a lot of time learning and detailing the languages of these various cultures.

    One theme that runs through the book is that language can be misleading and confusing, since the cultures that Gulliver visits have come up with some, er, innovative methods of getting back to basics—a trio of professors in Lagado suggest getting rid of words and communicating via things instead, for example. This may seem silly, but that’s kind of the point. Swift uses humor and exaggeration to explore the wide world of language and communication in folks of all sorts of unexpected islands.

    Given that this is a satirical novel, what do you think the idea of communicating with objects rather than words is meant to satirize?

    How does Swift’s commentary on language reflect the context in which it was written? And is it still relevant today?

  • 1977: Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology

    1977: Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology

    Barthes wrote lots of great stuff that could be included here (Mythologies is definitely worth checking out); still, as far as semiotics goes, you can’t go wrong with this essay collection.

    Building on Saussure’s idea of a general science of signs, Barthes summarizes some key terms and concepts relating to semiotics, grouping these under the headings “Language and Speech,” “Signified and Signifier,” “Syntagm and System,” and “Denotation and Connotation.” Now that’s a fun set of couples to go line-dancing with. On top of this, he explores how meanings are produced in relation to things like fashion and food and other important things, highlighting the relevance of semiotics to daily life. Think semiotics is just a stuffy, academic thing? Think again.

    Barthes emphasizes that, even when we’re analyzing objects, images, and behavior, language is as important as anything to that analysis. Why is this? How does language come into play when we’re dealing with material goods and topics that don’t make obvious use of linguistics?

    Thinking about the distinction between language (langue) and speech (parole), Barthes argues that there are certain semiotic systems in which speech is restricted (as opposed to language and speech being 50/50) and writing is favored. Why might this be? And what are the implications for means of communication?

  • 1994: Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

    1994: Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

    Want a side order of philosophy with your semiotics? If so, then Baudrillard’s your man. In this book, Baudrillard outlines the concept of simulation: a process in which reality fades out of view and is replaced by “simulacra,” i.e., images that are false and hollow yet seem real and natural to us.

    Originality no longer exists in this scenario; instead, we’re surrounded not only by copies, but by copies of copies. According to Baudrillard, simulation has gone into overdrive, yet people have become so used to living in this environment that they don’t realize that it’s unreal. Pretty deep, huh?

    Think about Baudrillard’s concept in terms of semiotics: what bearing does the rise of simulation—and the loss of reality and originality—have on signification?

    Discussing science fiction, Baudrillard contrasts an earlier type of utopian sci-fi with a newer variety (J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash is a key example) that’s no longer about parallel universes but this universe—a technologically-advanced “hyperreality” of simulation in which “one is always already in the other world.” Do you feel that this sort of fiction reflects today’s world? Is there any authenticity left, or are we living in—or heading towards—a state of total simulation?

  • 2004: Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics

    2004: Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics

    Let’s get real: if you’re just getting into semiotics then you won’t want to dive headfirst into some of the more complex stuff. What you need is a good introduction (or refresher), and this book is ideal for getting your wheels turning and your signs, um, signing. Semiotics can involve lots of fancy words, but Chandler helps bring them down to earth, as well as providing a really useful intro. So, if you’re looking for Semiotics 101 then look no further.

    In the chapter titled “Intertextuality,” Chandler states that “every reading is always a rewriting.” How could we apply that to some literary texts (like Gulliver or Alice)?

    Chandler discusses modality judgments; that is, the extent to which we see a text/representation as being authentic and having the status of “reality” (yeah, we’re keepin’ it real here). What sort of factors might we take into account when making such judgments? Do we perceive some mediums as being more “real” than others?

  • 1981: Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction

    1981: Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction

    While semiotics and structuralism started out as best buds, Culler suggests that, forget these two, it’s deconstruction that can be useful in showing how language and representation are always coming undone. As an example, Culler points to M.H. Abrams’ 1953 book The Mirror and the Lamp (a classic text on Romantic literary theory): while Abrams writes that the Romantics abandoned mimesis (i.e. mirroring) for self-expression, Culler argues that Abrams ends up suggesting the opposite—that they never got rid of mirror images.

    Culler also deconstructs the apostrophe—no, not the punctuation mark, but a poetic device in which a speaker addresses things or people who aren’t actually there. What Culler argues here is that speakers who address nature (e.g. the clouds) or spirits present themselves as visionaries, when really, they’re just being artsy-fartsy. That critics have mostly avoided discussing the apostrophe is, for Culler, because poetry might lose some of its street cred if we flagged up this sort of thing.

    Discussing the apostrophe, Culler notes that using a term of address (“ye birds,” for example) brings the addressee into the present even if they’re really from the past. When poetry makes use of the apostrophe, then, what effect does this have on narrative, and of our understanding of what’s going on?

    In his deconstruction of The Mirror and the Lamp, Culler points out that “a mirror is no use without light, and there is no point in illuminating a scene unless something will register or reflect what is there.” So what can shed light on things in an analytically meaningful way? And is it inevitable that all contrasts collapse under deconstructive analysis?

  • 1979: Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

    1979: Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

    Unlike the thinkers behind some early structuralist works, Eco recognizes that signs are dynamic rather than unchanging, and that we need to take account of the conditions in which they’re produced. Eco also explores the relevance of semiotics to all sorts of texts and areas of culture by outlining some key concepts.

    For example, instead of the standard concept of the “sign” (which he calls “naive and non-relational”—ouch), Eco prefers the term “sign-function” to emphasize signification as relational, complex and changeable. He also discusses denotation and connotation, and highlights that sign systems can overlap and cause misunderstandings or conflicts in interpretation.

    Thinking about Eco’s distinction between coding, signification, and communication, how can we see these processes relating to one another? Imagine that they’re a structure of building blocks: how would they fit together?

    Eco sees ambiguity as an important device in aesthetic texts. Why is this? Does ambiguity just create disorder, or can it have other uses?

  • 2003: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

    2003: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

    In this book, Lakoff and Johnson show that we don’t just talk, but also think in metaphors. We’ve all heard the phrase “time is money,” right? Well, this goes hand in hand with similar references to saving/wasting/running out of time, and so it emphasizes that, within modern industrial culture, we often think of time as a commodity rather than an abstract concept.

    What Lakoff and Johnson show, then, is that metaphors aren’t just used for poetic effect. The same goes for metonymy, which is a type of substitution—e.g. calling a painting “a Picasso,” which swaps the producer (the artist) for the product (the artwork). Metaphors and metonymy are so much a part of language that we often don’t notice them—we may not even realize that we’re using them—but, as Lakoff and Johnson show, they’re everywhere.

    Lakoff and Johnson outline different types of metaphor, one of which is “orientational”—referring to distance, depth and positioning not in a literal sense (“look up there”) but a metaphorical one. Can you come up with any examples? (Hint: think of words like up/down, deep/shallow, front/back etc.)

    What motives might underlie the use of metonymy? Think about some of Lakoff and Johnson’s examples: what’s the purpose of using the term “a Picasso”? What effects does this produce?

  • 1991: Charles Sanders Peirce, Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic By Charles Sanders Peirce

    1991: Charles Sanders Peirce, Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic By Charles Sanders Peirce

    As a philosopher, scientist, logician, and mathematician, Peirce was a major brainbox and wrote some pretty heavy-going technical stuff. Still, since we’re focusing on literature rather than math, this anthology is ideal: complete with handy introductions and notes, it gives us an accessible look at Peirce’s three-sided model of the sign (made up of representamen, interpretant and object) and his division of signs into three types (symbolic, iconic and indexical). Ultimately, these writings help show that, for Peirce, thought itself is organized in terms of signs.

    As we can see, Peirce had a thing for dividing stuff into threes. But what are the effects of splitting up the sign into not two, but three terms? How do these terms match up with or revise Saussure’s model?

  • 1916: Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

    1916: Ferdinand De Saussure, Course in General Linguistics

    Technically, this book wasn’t written by Saussure himself: it’s made up of notes collected by students during Saussure’s lectures at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911. Still, this is one of the founding texts on semiotics and structuralism, giving us the lowdown on the concept of the sign and highlighting the arbitrary (yep, it’s that word again) relation between signifier and signified.

    Critics have argued that, by adopting a full-on structural approach, Saussure portrayed language as a closed system and failed to consider the social and historical contexts in which signs are used. Thoughts? How have other critics responded?

    Saussure distinguished langue (language) from parole (speech), with langue referring to the rules that govern language and parole referring to specific usages of language. Saussure focused on langue, as he believed that it’s the underlying structures of a system that are the most important. However, other theorists (such as V. N. Voloshinov) have reversed this priority. For what reasons might we choose to focus on speech? What do you see as the pros and cons of these two approaches?

  • 1983: Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics

    1983: Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics

    This book brings together semiotics and psychoanalysis—which, if you think about it, is a pretty good combo. After all, Freud’s analysis of dreams was all about getting to the root of some of the weird images swimming around deep in our minds. Summarizing the major semiotic theories and lingo, Silverman highlights the role that language plays in establishing ourselves as subjects.

    However (and this is what sets this book apart), she also points to sexual difference as another major force that shapes signifying and social activity. So, Silverman emphasizes that being male/female isn’t just a matter of biology, but of culture, and that we need to recognize how this comes into play in both psychoanalysis and semiotics.

    Silverman states that “the individual” isn’t just another way of saying “a person”: in cultural terms, it has traditionally referred to someone stable, independent, male (this isn’t explicit but we know the score), and untouched by historical or cultural context. Silverman consequently prefers the concept of “the subject.” So why’s that? In what ways does that terminology improve on or deconstruct the idea of “the individual”?

    Silverman defines a cultural code as “a conceptual system which is organized around key oppositions and equations, in which a term like ‘woman’ is defined in opposition to a term like ‘man,’ and in which case each term is aligned with a cluster of symbolic attributes.” Are there any other binary (either/or) oppositions that you see as playing a major role in life—and texts—today? How is the use of binary forms of understanding key to semiotics as an analytical method?