AN INTRODUCTION TO SEMIOTICS
SEMIOTICS: The study of signs and the way they work
1. The sign itself
2. The codes or systems by which they are organized
3. The culture within which they operate
1. What is a sign
A sign (text, image, gesture, logo, hairstyle): anything cultural that conveys meaning
The sign divided into = the signifier + the signified
(the container) + (the meaning)
These are inseparable - like the two sides of a piece of paper
Charles S. PIERCE (1850, 1930) concern as a philosopher:
- with our understanding of our experience and the world around us.
He provides the following models by which to discuss the sign:
SIGN Signifier Signified
Symbol (relationship is conventional/learned/ = arbitrary)
Index (relationship is sequential/ = physical connection)
Icon (relationship is visually similar/ = analogous)
(*,*) (looks like a face)
The signifier is empty, the signified is full
The signifier is the container, the receiver/viewer helps to create the meaning through interpretation (it signifies/has meaning for the viewer/receiver)
Decoding is as active as encoding common or specialized cultural knowledge create the connections
2. Codes and System
Ferdinand de Saussure, french linguist (mid 20th Century)
- primarily interested in language
- Whereas Peirce was interested in the sign as an "object", Saussure was concerned with the ways words related to other signs
- Saussure argues that meaning is better defined by the relationships of one sign to another than by the relationship of that sign to an external reality.
. the color "red" gets its meaning in relation to other colors
(red is not blue and is not yellow, a mouse is more like a rat than an elephant)
. I select one word over an another in the dictionary
. red traffic light in relation to green traffic light
. Saussure calls this relationship "value"
Motivated Signs - Some signs are easier to read than others - the more abstract/symbolic, the harder to interpret
. High motivation: a picture of something is easier to read
. Low motivation: words have to belearned to know their association to their meaning
- Again convention/culture provides the framework by which to read the signs
2.1 The Organization of Signs - Paradigm & Syntagm
Paradigm - A set/group from which a choice is made and only one unit may be chosen
. I select the green shirt to wear today instead of the blue one
. I will have a pizza with sausage instead of mushrooms and drink coke instead of beer
Syntagm - Once a unit is chosen from a paradigm it is normally combined with other units.
. I select the green shirt to wear with the black pants and red coat
. I will have the sausage pizza with green salad and drink beer
The important aspect of syntagm is the rules or conventions by which the combination of units is made.
. I will not wear a tuxedo with beach sandals but with black shoes
. I will not eat pizza and ice cream at the same time
2.2 The Meaning of Things are also organized according to TIME
diachronic = change over time
. my style of dressing and haircut have changed over time
synchronic = relationship in same time
. my style of dressing in relation to my parents' style or my friends' style
2.3 Metonymy & Metaphor (Roman Jakobson, linguist)
Metonymy: works by associating meaning where a part stands for the whole
. "I've got a new set of wheels" (= car , motorcycle, etc.)
."We need some new blood in the project" (= we need new people with new ideas)
. Metonymy involves transfer of meaning from one thing to another similar thing
. Metonyms are powerful conveyers as they work indexically -
Metaphor - works by comparing things that are not literally alike
. "She is bright like the sun", "put that file on the desktop", "he is a beast"
. "He cracked up", "I am a little rusty today", "The BLT is a lousy tipper"
(A great book on metaphors is: ""Metaphors we live by, by G.Lakoff, M. Johnson)
3.0 Psychoanalytic Interpretations
. Jacques Lacan's (french, 1901-1981) thinking revolutionalized the theory and practice of psychoanalysis and has had a major impact in fields as diverse as film studies, literary criticism and philosophy.
. He began with the theories of Freudian psychoanalysis and expanded/transformed it in a number of ways. In the 1930's he socialized with the Surrealists and incorporated references from linguistics and cultural anthropology into his field.
The dictionary is an ideal way of exploring psychoanalytic language since it has the same structure as a language.
. It is a synchronic system in which the terms have no positive existence, since they are each defined by their mutual differences.
. It is a closed, self-referential structure in which meaning is nowhere fully present but always delayed in continual metonymy > it defines each term by reference to other terms.
. Like psychoanalysis, all languages are in a state of continual flux (change) since they change through usage.
THE SIGN - Lacan defines it as that which "represents something for someone"
. Lacan argues that the relationship between signifier and signified is extremely unstable
. He argues that signifiers exist prior to signified - organized into language
. The user changes one signifier with an other to carry on the signified (meaning)
. When signifieds are produced, theyconstantly slip and slide underneath the signifier
(That's why psychoanalysis is interested in jokes, puns, unexpected behavior, dream interpretation, etc. These are all ideal places for expressions by of the unconscious which communicates by shifting the meaning of a thing onto something else: a form of rewriting to ease the pain of traumatic memory)
SIGNIFICATION is therefore not a stable bond between signifier and signified but a process
. Meaning is not found in any one signifier but in the play between signifiers
. Signification is imaginary - the construction of meaning is symbolic
. The signified is not given, it is produced
. Lacan uses Peirce's INDEX to distinguish between the psychoanalytic and medical concepts of the symptom.
. Whereas in medicine the symptom is regarded as an index of the disease, in psychoanalysis, the symptom is not an index but a signifier (an empty shell used to convey some meaning)