An Introduction to Semiotics
You put your foot to the brakes on your car as you approach a red light. You tap the arrow on your mp3 player to make your music start. You start to accelerate when the light turns green. You know to stay between the yellow lines painted on the ground. Symbols and signs help to mediate our interactions with the world by creating systems of understanding. For those who wish to gain a greater understanding of how this process works, there is the field of semiotics.
What is Semiotics?
In the quest to exchange information and relate meaning about the world, human beings have established means of communication — languages, symbols, signs, and other devices — and the study of the creation of these schemata is semiotics. However, semiotics does not explore what something actually means, only how it works within the context of a symbolically built culture. Though questions of signs and meanings had been active in philosophy since early Greek and medieval philosophers took interest in it, the field of semiology was begun by the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure, whose ideas gained prominence in the twentieth century, especially after the posthumous publication of his Cours de Linguistique Generale, and its translation. Another pioneer in the field was the American philosopher C.S. Peirce. Peirce’s development of architectonic philosophy provided a structured system for looking at how humans understood and attributed meaning to the world.
How does it work?
de Saussure’s approach to semiotics has its foundation in the concepts of signifier and signified. The signified is a tangible object or an intangible idea which a person encounters in the world while the signifier is the symbolic structure — whether purely linguistic, purely image-based, or a combination of both — which people use to represent the object or idea. Saussure also recognized that the attribution was arbitrary, since multiple linguistic signifiers could denote the same object or a single linguistic signifier, removed from a visual context would be interpreted in a wholly subjective manner (i.e. one person’s idea of ‘chair’ is different from another’s idea of ‘chair’).
Peirce built his theory of semiotics on the premise that there was a process whose ultimate goal was to achieve meaning. Whenever a subject met a sign in the world, the subject determined the meaning of the sign’s appearance by constraining certain elements to establish a causal relationship between the sign and the object which instigated its appearance. According to Peirce, this is a finite system, with the sign only able to fit into a certain number of categories. If either the sign or the object fell outside of these categories, it would not qualify for the construction of any kind of meaning. Once the relationship has been established between sign and object, the thinking subject then creates an interpretant, attributing meaning to the sign. The interpretant is only a translation of the sign, however, and serves to elevate and reshape the subject’s understanding of the original sign. Peirce did not attribute the ability to construct these kinds of understanding to the whole of either the sign or the object, but instead to those attributes of both which could potentially form a connection between one another.
Since the works of Peirce and de Saussure became available, there have been further developments in theorist’s understanding of signification. Ideas developed around the understanding of an individual’s subjective beliefs and the ability for inter-subjective belief structures to create meaning were of interest to theorists in combination with Peirce’s Philosophical Grammar, providing new insights into how societal structures such as myths and ideologies provided the means to arrive at an understanding of the relationship between a sign and an object.
Applications of Semiotics
de Saussure’s theories regarding the nature of signifier and signified, in particular their arbitrary relationship, had a strong influence in the arts after their introduction in the early twentieth century. Visual artist Rene Magritte serves as a prominent example of pointing out the dissonance between a thing and the symbols used to define it with his work, exemplified by his Trahison des Images in which his painting of a pipe has the caption: “This is not a pipe.”
In the realm of literature, writers began to explore the consequences of deliberately creating a disharmony between the immediate language encountered on the page and its greater meaning in the work as a whole, leading to an increase in the usage of verbal irony in various forms in the twentieth century. The works of the surrealists in both the literary and visual arts took de Saussure’s theories and theories from the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis and applied them to create deliberate discordance between the manifest and latent content of t
Literary and artistic criticism turned the ideas of Peirce and de Saussure into tools of analysis with the formation of the movement of Structuralism in the twentieth century. By discovering the relationships between signifiers and signifieds, Structuralism hoped to construct systems of meaning which could be derived from the language used in a particular work of literature or art. With the advent of cinema and television, the ideas originally applied to the static visual arts and literature gained application to studies in cinema and advertisement.
Anthropology and sociology have also taken interest in the ideas of semiotics in their capacity to transmit cultural ideas and value systems, providing a means of understanding the world to its citizenry.
- Semiotics - Provides access to multiple resources linked to subtopics and relevant thinkers associated with the field of semiotics
- Meaning in Miniature: Semiotic Networks in Material Culture - Looks at the relationship between firsthand and secondhand experience in people’s perception of cultural artifacts
- Marketing on the Internet: A Semiotic Analysis - Study of hidden meanings found in Internet ads
- Color as a Semiotic Resource in Early Sign-Making - Explores semiotics’ usage in helping a child learn to read and write
Picture Credit: Japanese Road Sign (Other Dangers), Wikipedia Commons, Monaneko, 2007