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Semiotics II - key theorists

A closer look at the theories of three influential semioticians, applied to examples from contemporary illustrators.
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on 8 February 2011

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Transcript of Semiotics II - key theorists






sign theories Iker Ayestaran. Diario Público. Charles Sanders Peirce Ferdinand de Saussure Roland Barthes (1915-1980)
was a French literary theorist and semiotician. (1857–1913)
the "father" of modern linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs (1839–1914)
defined semiosis as an irreducibly triadic process Background II) Sign= signifier + signified III) Duality & Meaning IV) Signification signification
& Value Langue & Parole Paradigm I) Saussure presented “Semiology” as the science which studies the role of signs as part of social life II) Studies the language system synchronically (frozen in time) as opposed to diachronically (in terms of its evolution) III) Semiotics was employed by Saussure to look at language as a system of signs – instead of focusing on the origins of language, Saussure tried to understand how meaning is constructed by looking at how signs (words) form a language (system of signs). IV) Saussure’s theories were thus based on the structure of language, and his semiotic model therefore developed around words as signs. V) Saussure presented two fundamental elements which make up the sign - the signifier and the signified. The word/sign which refers to the object, is known as the signifier.
The form which the sign takes.
Its material/tangible form. The concept that is referred to by the word, is known as the signified.
the concept it represents
the sense made of the sign (Kate Hindley. Edmund.) "bear criminal" signifier + signified signifier + signified "girl criminal" (Kate Hindley. Eunice.) signifier + signified (Kate Hindley) "partners in crime" (technically, these examples are actually texts comprised of many different signs. How many signifiers can you identify here?) Gustavo Aimar I. Duality - the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and based on convention. II. It is the divide between meaning and form. IV. Exceptions to this rule are onomatopoeic words (imitation of what is represented, through the sound it makes). III. The combination of letters that make up a signifier (word), differs from one language to the next. How the word sounds/is written holds no relation to what it stands for/object. The word "dove" bears no relation to the object it represents. D.Billy. FOOOSH. 2007. Site intervention with party streamers and twisting balloons. Brooklyn, NY Brueghel. The tower of Babel (1563). Oil on canvas. Relational Differential Meaning is therefore structural and relational, rather than referential: it is not determined by the relationship of the sign to reality, but by the relationship between the sign and other signs Meaning is also differential – negative/oppositional differences (what it is NOT) The duality of signs have implications on how sense is made of signs - on meaning: The relationship and difference between the signs operate here to striking effect. Édouard Manet. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1862–1863).
Oil on canvas. 208 cm × 265.5 cm. Musée d'Orsay, Paris Signification is dependent on a relationship between the signifier and signified The value of a sign depends on the relationship of a sign to other signs
- it is thus context dependent
- generates a system of differences John Mellet Olivia Rauffman Pesky Illlustrator John Faust Value is a more precise and technical term for Saussure.
It correlates closely with "exchange value".

The value of a sign (what it can express) can be established in two ways.
- by comparing dissimilar signs which can be exchanged (e.g. a blue jacket, warm jacket, a dress jacket)
- by comparing similar signs (e.g. terror, dread, anxiety, horror, distress, fright, panic, alarm, trepidation, apprehension, nightmare, phobia, concern) (language) the system of rules/conventions which is independent of and pre-exists the individual users (speech/utterance)
Use of language in particular instances.
A given act or artifact of language
(spoken word, a novel, a poster, a poem)

If this distinction is taken beyond linguistics, it also implies a distinction between system and usage, structure and event, code and message. Social networking a status update
Suspence thrillers Shutter island
Rock Musica song by The Killers
Illustration page 5 of Hello, Sailor! by ?
French Poetry a poem by Rimbaud Is an ordered array of signs combined according to certain rules

A word ( c – r – o – w ) and a sentence ( I saw a crow) are both syntagms.

In both a word and a sentence (syntagmatic structure), each unit/sign has a syntagmatic relationship with the unit/sign which follow or appear before it (value).

Visually for example, a painting can be considered a syntagm (made up of different signs), but also as part of a syntagmatic system such as a triptych.

The creation of syntagms/combinations of signs are controlled by conventions (a feature of the syntagm; grammer is a convention of writing; when you draw a comic, style could be considered a convention). Is a set of signs, any of which are interchangeable within a certain context.

A paradigm has two basic characteristics – the units/sign apparent in the set have something in common, but each unit is different (notably) from the others.

One paradigm leads onto the next.

The alphabet is a paradigm; once a word is formed it becomes part of another set of paradigms (nouns, verbs); that could lead into another paradigm, poetry etc.

The way in which you use something/make a set dictates the paradigm which follows. Syntagm Syntagm (linear, chain-like, narrative) paradigm (sign sets, synonyms,, alternatives) (Paul Thursby. Alphabet) In a visual work, the syntagm is the collection of signs of which it is composed. (The formal elements and their composition)

The paradigms would be the alternatives that could have been used for every single element instead. (A "paradigm shift" would result in a similar kind of illustration, but in a completely different style)
Roland Barthes outlined the paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements of the 'garment system' in similar terms.

The paradigmatic elements are the items which cannot be worn at the same time on the same part of the body (such as hats, trousers, shoes).

The syntagmatic dimension is the juxtaposition of different elements at the same time in a complete ensemble from hat to shoes.

In the case of film, our interpretation of an individual shot depends on both paradigmatic analysis (comparing it, not necessarily consciously, with the use of alternative kinds of shot) and syntagmatic analysis (comparing it with preceding and following shots). The same shot used within another sequence of shots could have quite a different preferred reading.
Sign Model Semiosis Categories interpretant Representamen Object icon index symbol photographs unlimited figures of speech (the form a sign takes). In Peirce’s model the representamen is similar to Saussure’s signifier. It is a representation of the sign / physical evidence; the representamen is not only a word, but can also be a photograph; painting; illustration or a sound. (the sense made of a sign) The interpretant is what Saussure’s model called the signified. The user of the sign controls the outcome of the interpretant. What the interpretant suggests is a mental concept, based on a user’s understanding through previous experience of the sign. The interpretant is variable, which implies that it doesn’t have a single definable meaning. (to which the sign refers, that which the sign stands for, the external, actual thing) {cute yellow R-shaped rabbit} {children's teaching aid} {I miss Fluffy...} interaction between the representamen, interpretant and object
an active process between the sign and reader of the sign
Meaning is thus not contained in the sign, but arises in the process of interpretation (Technically this photograph is another representamen, or even a collection of representamen - a 'text'). A better example would have been a real, live rabbit...) This interpretation is potentially unlimited (through a chain of associations – signs thus generate further signs). David Crow explains the phenomenon of unlimited semiosis as follows:

“the interpretant resulting in our mind from the first representamen can then become a further sign and trigger an infinite chain of associations where the interpretant in one sequence becomes the representamen of the next sequence”
(Visible Signs, 2003:36) a sign in which the representamen is perceived as resembling or imitating the object (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it). Iconic signs (icons) are "realistic".
(In art history, iconography is the study of pictorial conventions) (resemblance/
imitation) An indexical sign is one where there is a direct physical link between the sign and the object. The representamen is not arbitrary, but it relates to the object in terms of causation or a physical relationship.
Smoke is an index of fire / pen for writing. Smoke is an index of fire / pen for writing. A footprint is an index of someone having stepped here previously. Dark brooding clouds is an idex of heavy rain. In printmaking, the imprint is an index of the plate. (physical link/
imprint/cause/effect) - a sign where there is no logical relationship between the representamen and its object. A symbol’s meaning has to be learned (conventions) or remembered. The reader must already know what the connection is between the sign and its meaning. A country’s flag is a symbol, so are the letters of the alphabet – symbolic signs (learned meaning
/convention) Chris turnham. Green Pheasant A photograph is an iconic sign because it resembles the object that was photographed.

A photographic print is an index of the negative. The negative is an index of the light that reflected physically off the photographed object (the light literally made an "imprint" on the photochemical emulsion on the film)

A Photograph of a white dove can symbolize peace since white doves are generally accepted symbols of peace/forgiveness/everlasting love/the Holy Spirit etc.

All photographs are thus iconic and indexical, and sometimes symbolic graphic reduction - the range of simplification from iconic to symbolic simile metaphor metonym A comparison of two signs. "she is as tall as a flagpole" - An association of signs

One sign is associated with another of which it signifies a part, the whole, or a related concept

"the crown" = "the monarchy"
"die bokke" = "national rugby team"

Like metaphor it is a figure of speech (trope), and in a similar way to metaphor it uses a sign to stand for another sign which is directly related to it or closely related to it in some way

Metonymic signs highlights the object/interpretant and not the representamen.
like simile a figure of speech or a linguistic device in which a sign that literally denotes one thing is used figuratively for something else, as a way of suggesting likeness or analogy between the two.

Metaphors disregard ‘literal’ resemblance and can therefore be iconic as well as symbolic.

In substituting one sign for another in a set, we transfer its characteristics to that of the new sign.

“You are my sunshine”
“Speech is silver, but silence is golden”
“It's a jungle out there” Chinese bone script is based on ‘idea painting’, it is far more global and recognizable than other phonetic language systems. With the pictorial script, it could be read and understand even though people do not know the language.

As the traditional Chinese script goes horizontally, it could be roughly read with its pictorial feature (drive, car, visit, valley, onto a boat, wind). Since it is idea painting, it could be explained as ‘I drive a car to visit a valley and go up to the wind with a boat’. (1929 – 2007) was a French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer. His work is frequently associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism. Jean Baudrillard The reader Myth Connotation
& Denotation Text & Image Codes textual Social Interprative Anchorage
& Relay Message Linguistic- non-coded iconic- coded iconic- Modality Language official unofficial Motivation Although there are similarities between the interpretant and the signified, it was not a concern of Saussure to examine the relationship between the sign and the reader.

That which is referred to, the object, doesn’t feature in Saussure’s studies.

Roland Barthes developed Saussure’s theory by adding the part of the reader to the linguistic sign-model.
Roland Barthes placed specific emphasis on the role of reader in creating meaning

He applied linguistic concepts to other visual systems of signs. His studies revolve around two levels of signification... The connotations of a sign are the set of its possible signifieds The denotations of a sign are the most stable and objectively verifiable of its connotations {straight forward meaning} {broader associations} Denotation is often thought of as the ‘literal’ meaning of a sign – the ‘true’, first-order signification which is independent of any other ‘secondary’ connotations
Yet, denotation is not so much the natural as the naturalised meaning of a sign
Denotation is thus a process of naturalisation Connotation: The viewer applies knowledge in a second level of signification; role of convention

Because the relationship between signifier and signified is an arbitrary one, there is nothing in the nature of the sign itself to tie a given signifier to one signified alone

Words are capable of having more than one meaning, and even of changing their meaning with time

Instead of a signifier paired to a single definite signified, the sign can more accurately be pictured as having a spread of signifieds, which can be called its connotations

Connotation emphasises the plurality of the signifieds

Connotations may be plural

Like all meanings, they arise through codes that are shared

Connotations are not simply what you make of the sign; they are what the codes to which you have access make of the sign

Through connotation, the entire social world enters the systems of signification

The link between signifier and signified is effected by a code, langue

Within a certain range, some meanings are more prevalent and certain codes are more dominant

The most stable meanings of the sign are called its denotations the obvious denotations are not as innocent as they seem... Remember this...? In 'Mythologies', Barthes referes to the “mystification” that transforms Bourgeois culture into the seemingly universal – he demonstrates that “obvious” denotations are often carefully constructed and that there are complex systems that maintain these constructions.
Myths thus refer to the overall cultural system of meaning in which denotation and connotation takes place
Daniel Chandler defines Barthes’ concept of “myth” as follows: “[Myths] operate through codes and serve the ideological function of naturalisation”
Language is thus a social institution and a system of values Ideology Naturalisation overcoding Myth is a coding system in which a dominant term stand metonymically for all terms in the system
The effect of myth is a radical simplification of all the relationships within that system
Myth overcodes an entire system onto a single dominant element and a single relationship
Among the ways in which it can perform that simplification is binary opposition – all relationships are reduced to two opposing and hierarchic terms. The transformation of denotation to connotation progresses into ideology in the form of myth.
Barthes consider myths as the result of meaning that is created/controlled by groups/subcultures in our society controlling/changing language and media.
The process of generating myths disables our political content/perception during signification, partly because the transformation process of meaning is not clear.
These myths have become part of the natural order of things – notions of masculinity and femininity; signs of wealth and poverty etc. A text is a combination of signs
A single sign is capable of taking on many different meanings.
This depends on the code or sub-system within which it is used and interpreted
Meaning is therefore not the product of the sign itself, but of the code within which it is used
Codes provide positions from which it is possible to speak verbal language (phonological, paralinguistic subcodes);
bodily codes (bodily contact, proximity, physical orientation, appearance, facial expression, gaze, head nods, gestures and posture);
commodity codes (fashions, clothing, cars);
behavioural codes (protocols, rituals, role-playing, games). scientific codes, including mathematics;
aesthetic codes within the various expressive arts (poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, music, etc.) - including classicism, romanticism, realism;
genre, rhetorical and stylistic codes: narrative (plot, character, action, dialogue, setting, etc.), exposition, argument and so on;
mass media codes including photographic, televisual, filmic, radio, newspaper and magazine codes, both technical and conventional (including format). Here we may list the 'isms', such as individualism, liberalism, feminism, racism, materialism, capitalism, progressivism, conservatism, socialism, objectivism, consumerism and populism; (note, however, that all codes can be seen as ideological) These three types of codes correspond broadly to three key kinds of knowledge required by interpreters of a text, namely knowledge of:

1) the world (social knowledge);
2) the medium and the genre (textual knowledge);
3) the relationship between (1) and (2)

The 'tightness' of semiotic codes themselves varies from the rule-bound closure of logical codes (such as computer codes) to the interpretative looseness of poetic codes. The actual text itself
(headline, slogan or caption to the image). - a symbolic message and functions on the level of connotation. The result of signification depends on the readers decoding of the sign, through having knowledge of systematic coding of the image. -works on the level of denotation. If the message is non-coded the signified is motivated, and the medium therefore simply resembles what it is. The coded iconic- and non-coded iconic message cannot be separated; the reader reads both messages together at once – the medium cannot be separated from the message. The addition of text to an image can either alter or fix the meaning of an image – it is, as Barthes calls it ‘parasitic’ (referring to a number of signifieds, it speeds up the process of unlocking the meaning).
Text that is joined to an image has two possible functions... - Anchorage occurs when a text limits the numbers of readings of an image
- Anchored symbols/text guides the reader through a number of clearly recognisable meanings of an image.
“Anchorage text has then a repressive value in inspecting an image” (Crow 2003:76) Relay – text supplies meanings which are not found in the image
Text in this case is complimentary to the image; it’s additional/supplementary use advances the reading and understanding of an image by adding to it extra/new meanings/clues
For example film subtitles or visible dialogue in narrative illustrations.

Since writing is also a form of visual communication: is the word necessarily just a “phonetic sign” and image a “visual sign”? ..how much the signifier describes the signified.

A photograph of a crow is more motivated and iconic than a line drawing of a crow.

An arbitrary/symbolic sign would be unmotivated and needs convention (overall agreement of response to a sign) to communicate.

Highly motivated signs require little involvement of the sign user to understand it – motivation reduces the necessity of convention.
The creator of the unmotivated sign must be sure that the readers already know the conventions involved in the sign, or its meaning will be lost. We make decisions based on the assumption that certain representations are more reliable than others – the “reality” status of a sign
Modality refer to the reliability or authority of a message
Certain media (such as television or photographs) seem to have a higher modality than others (such as writing)
“a window to the world” / “the camera never lies”
Andre Bazin calls this the “reproductive fallacy”

But photographs and films do not simply record events or reproduce reality
Even “realistic” types of representation reflect an aesthetic code and a physical and ideological point of view
“Reality” seems to pre-exist the representation and the representation appears to be unmediated
In supposedly “scientific” discourse, for instance, the medium is also treated as irrelevant or neutral

News photos operate under a hidden sign marked 'this really happened, see for yourself'. Of course, the choice of this moment of an event as against that, of this person rather than that, of this angle rather than any other, indeed, the selection of this photographed incident to represent a whole complex chain of events and meanings is a highly ideological procedure. But by appearing literally to reproduce the event as it really happened news photos suppress their selective/interpretive/ ideological function.
They seek a warrant in that ever pre-given, neutral structure, which is beyond question, beyond interpretation: the 'real world'. At this level, news photos not only support the credibility of the newspaper as an accurate medium. They also guarantee and underwrite its objectivity (that is, they neutralize its ideological function)
(Hall 1981, 241-2). Linguistic communities: languages need “speakers” (groups who use the same linguistic signs)

Socio-political processes grant acceptance to practices – “official”/legitimate language and institutions responsible for maintenance of legitimate/official language

There are also “official” visual languages and “rules” that govern the production of visual texts

Difference used to determine hierarchical position – deviation measured against the norm “Street art” and graffiti is an example of an unofficial language; it develops outside of institutional official language.
Official institutions/authorities view graffiti as an act of vandalism
Graffiti can also be seen as a series of gestures directed in opposition the discourse of establishment.

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