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Week 2's lecture on Signs, Semiotics and Myth.

jenny kidd

on 31 January 2017

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Part 1: Semiotics
Some principles of semiotics
1. The linguistic Sign
'we think only in signs' [Peirce, 1931-58, II.302]
2. Codes (Groups of signs)
‘Since the meaning of a sign depends on the code within which it is situated, codes provide a framework within which signs make sense. Indeed, we cannot grant something the status of a sign if it does not function within a code… Codes transcend single texts, linking them together in an interpretative framework. (Daniel Chandler).
“Words are not labels which are attached to things that already exist in a pre-given ‘natural’ state. Nor are they labels attached to ideas which already existed in the human mind before language came along. Instead language and the other communication systems which we collectively use, provide the conceptual framework in and through which reality is available to us.’
Jonathon Bignell, Media Semiotics
1. linguistic signs are arbitrary and agreed by convention

2. language is a system governed by rules, where each example/instance of speech/writing involves selecting signs and using them according to the rules.
The Saussurian sign in semiotics
according to Daniel Chandler ‘a sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified’
Social codes
- verbal language
- bodily codes
- commodity codes
- behavioural codes

Textual codes
- scientific codes, including mathematics - aesthetic codes
- genre
- mass media codes
An exercise: Deciphering the public toilet 'code' of genre.

Think about how gender is being constructed – are some of the examples more problematic than others? Think about cultural specificity, power relations, humour, sexuality.

Where in the world do you imagine these examples might have come from? How do you know?

Stand back and consider the collection as a whole… what is the overarching narrative that is being constructed?
Part 2: Myth
the difference between
denotations and connotations

X = Y
'Whether the good wrestler wins or not, the bout will have made Good and Evil easily readable through he medium of the coded signs the wrestlers use to communicate their roles and their emotions to the crowd' (Jonathon Bignell)

‘The meanings of wrestling are not natural but cultural, not given but produced, not discovered but worked for, not real but mythical.' (Jonathon Bignell)
‘But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro* in serving his so-called oppressors.'
[*please note translators term not my own] [Roland Barthes, Mythologies]
[semiotics'] advocates have written in a style that ranges from the obscure to the incomprehensible' (Lewis 1991: 25)

'semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we will never understand' (Paddy Whannel cited in Seiter 1992: 1)
'We represent or symbolize the different colours and classify them according to different colour-concepts. This is the conceptual colour system of our culture' (Hall, 1997)
To understand this notice I need to do a great deal more than simply read its words one after the other. I need to know, for example, that these words belong to what might be called a 'code of reference' - that the sign is not just a decorative piece of language there to entertain travellers, but is to be taken as referring to the behaviour of actual dogs and passengers on actual escalators. I must mobilize my general social knowledge to recognize that the sign has been placed there by the authorities, that these authorities have the power to penalize offenders, that I as a member of the public am being implicitly addressed, none of which is evident in the words themselves. I have to rely, in other words, upon certain social codes and contexts to understand the notice properly. But I also need to bring these into interaction with certain codes or conventions of reading - conventions which tell me that by 'the escalator' is meant this escalator and not one in Paraguay, that 'must be carried' means 'must be carried now', and so on. I must recognize that the 'genre' of the sign is such as to make it highly improbable that... [it is intended that I cannot travel on the escalator unless I am holding a dog]... I understand the notice, then, by interpreting it in terms of certain codes which seem appropriate (Eagleton 1983, 78).
What signs are used here? what are their connotations?

What is being presented about the ‘natural fact’ of terrorism?

What myths are we presented with?
What signs are used? What are their connotations?

Is there a dual layer of connotation here?
We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of gods and heroes. But for Barthes myths were the dominant ideologies of our time.' (Daniel Chandler)
Week 2: Signs, Semiotics and Myth
Part 1: Semiotics
Part 2: Myth
to close...
'semiotic enquiry is grounded on the assumption that there exists a 'need for meaning' in all human beings and that this is, arguably, the reason why media products of all types are so engaging... They provide representations that feed our need for meaning'

... 'it behoves us to make sure that our children will be able to distinguish a meaningful news documentary from an ad fro running shoes' (Marcel Danesi)
'the capacity for linguistic signs to be meaningful depends on their existence in a social context, and on their conventionally accepted use in that social context'
Jonathon Bignell, Media Semiotics
'an outline of a person in a dress on a door signifies that behind that door is the women's restroom. If the person is portrayed with pants, the men's restroom most likely lies beyond the door. The implied dress of the drawing signifies who belongs in what space and what sort of expectations one may have of the space beyond the door. The fact that many women wear pants and in some cases men wear dresses is immaterial to the semiotics of the bathroom door sign... Each individual learns to translate the culture's signs into a meaningful code of representation' (McCullough 2007)
Full transcript