Monday, December 03, 2007


This so called "science" of symbols and signs began respectably enough with the Saussaurean "signifier" and "signified". Since that time, however, it has spawned a thousand university media and communication courses, eventually reaching such a point of absurdity that one wit was moved to remark: "Semiotics tells us things we already know in a language that nobody will ever understand." In other words, modern semiotics is filled with incomprehensible jargon--a situation made even more confusing by the fact that Americans mostly follow the model of their countryman Charles Sanders Pierce,while most Europeans follow the Saussaurean model. Stricly speaking, the American branch speaks of "Semiology" while the European term is "Semiotics"--and many of the concepts, though fundamentally different, are customarily mixed up together into a semiotic mash. Furthermore, some of the jargon is odd and pretentious. For example, "a text" in semiotics is not just a literary work, but any encoded message which uses "signs". Many teachers of "communication studies" from the eighties will remember searching the newspapers and magazines for interesting photos to be deconstructed for bias and attitude. As every discourse that uses signs is a "text", then unsurprisingly, the receiver of the message is "the reader"--even if the message is encoded in a picture or on film. Film studies has become popular in the last twenty years, as semiotic theorists have tried to demonstrate that "denotation" and "connotation" exist in movies as in literature. The denoted is that which is shown--but nothing is ever shown without connotations. In a movie, the connotations are provided by the camera angles, what is included and excluded, the narrative structure, etc.

So is there anything in semiotics, or is it just an aging modernist or post-modernist philosophy past its prime? Roland Barthes is famous for his semiotic deconstruction of Balzac, but it has been said that if you strip away the jargon, what Barthes does is not actually very different from the practices of traditional literary criticism. Certainly, semiotics is full of various kinds of pretentiousness--and yet some very fine theorists of language still hold to it even in the modern age. Umberto Eco is probably the best known contemporary semiotician, having written at least two influential books on the subject. His popular novel, "The Name of the Rose" is also said to contain a conscious semiotic structure. It is certainly true that any writer, will appreciate that what he does for most of the time, is combine very conventional words into very conventional sentences. It is only by embedding meaning through images and signs in a work, at crucial points, that what is written comes to possess a particular character--and the better able a writer is to do this, the more interesting his work will be (though no doubt the actual process is mostly unconscious). Perhaps what we need now is for someone to construct a dictionary of the most influential "signs" in western civilization. After we are clear about that, it might be easier to assess the "science" of semiotics itself.


Anonymous medway said...

Is this a sea-change we see, John? I think any admirer of Derrida and deCon accepts the terms of semiotics

9:20 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

I don't think there's any sea change, Mark. Although Foucault emerged from a tradition that included post-structuralism as part of its intellectual baggage, he was never really much interested in it. Most of his concerns and interests were not, strictly speaking, linguistic. I have a lot of sympathy for Chomsky's view of semiotics and deconstructionism as so much mumbo-jumbo. In particular, the view that every possible reading is right tends in the direction of anti-scientificism. In one sense, literary critics have always "deconstructed" works of literary art--but mostly with the intention of showing the author's skill (or lack of it). As a complete "science" I'd say semiotics is dead in the water. However, it may have something to contribute in the narrow field of literary practice and criticism.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous semenjockstrap said...

Absolute rubbish!

8:05 AM  

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