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Looking Through Semiotics

Abstract: In this series of posts I will looking first at semiotics (semiology) beginning with a definition and critical examination of semiotics, which I will use as a starting point for re-viewing several artist's work or thoughts (writing, statements and interviews).

What is semiotics?
Semiotics is a difficult concept to define because the easiest definition fails as it spirals into semantics. Defined as "a study of signs" the immediate question becomes: "What is a sign?" In the case of semiotics a sign can include text (language), images (paintings, photographs, street signs) and body language. The purpose of examining these sign systems as described by a founder of the study Ferdinand de Saussure is to develop a science.

"A science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge."

Saussure's view that semiotics is a "science" is one method for understanding this study of signs. For another major semiotician, Charles Pierce, semiotics was a "formal doctrine of signs" and a sign is "something which stands for somebody for something in some respect or capacity...every thought is a sign".
Semiotics can be further defined in relation to "structuralism". Saussure along with Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan are among those related to methods of structuralism.

"Structuralism is an analytical method which has been employed by many semioticians...Structuralists seek to describe the overall organization of sign systems as 'languages' --as with Levi-Strauss and myth, kinship rules and totemism, Lacan and the unconscious and Barthes and Greimas and the 'grammar' or narrative. They engage in a search for 'deep structures' underlying the 'surfaces' of phenomena. However, contemporary social semiotics has moved beyond the structuralist concern with the internal relations of parts within a self-contained system, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations. Modern semiotic theory is also sometimes allied with a Marxist approach which stresses the role of ideology."

Roland Barthes in the late 60s described the aim or semiotics as

"to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification."

Another scholar Umberto Eco states, "Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign". Or, in other words, semiotics is concerned with anything, which 'stands' for something 'else'. Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as part of semiotic sign systems. Paying particular attention to studying how meanings are made. Contemporary semioticians are "concerned not only with communication but also with the construction and maintenance of reality."
Obviously, there is a lot discrepancy between the many definitions of semiotics and the analytical approaches taken. For my purposes here I will try to contain the discussion to the most essential ideas and issues, as I understand them. I think it will be possible to see many of the issues raised by semiotics in action by looking at several artist's writing or thoughts from their statements. Most of my information on semiotics is from Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. I will leave the citations and heavy research lifting to him and the wikipedia. I will also include a bibliography at the end of this post.

A Brief Look at Semiotics

Chandler begins with much of the information I have represented above and gets into the nuts and bolts of semiotics with his description of "signs". As already mentioned signs can be "words, images, sounds, odors, flavors, acts, or objects...but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning." According to Charles Pierce (representative of one form of semiotics) "Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign" not unlike a Duchampian understanding of art making. Signs are the starting point of semiotics and Charles Sanders Pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure are seen by Sanders as representative of the two most dominant forms of semiotics.
Saussure's understanding of signs is based on a two-part model of signifier, the form, which the sign takes, and the signified, the concept it represents. A sign must have both parts to function. For Saussure neither concept need exist in a material form and a sign is read as frozen in time. Chandler uses the words of Susanne Langer to round out this idea. "In talking about things we have the conceptions of them, not the things themselves...signs directly mean the conceptions of things". In this way signs are immaterial concepts. Signs are also defined as "arbitrary" because they have no intrinsic value. Sanders explains that there is nothing "tree like" about the word tree. Saussure also argues that signs only make sense as part of a formal, generalized, and abstract system. For Saussure language and linguistics is a branch of his science of signs and "within the language system everything depends on relations, mostly of one sign to another...both signifier and signified are purely relational entities." Chandler further complicates this by adding that for Saussure the relation of signs is always negative and oppositional. What characterizes each sign most exactly is being whatever the others are not.
Charles Pierces' understanding of semiotics argues that signs differ in how "arbitrary/conventional or by contrast transparent" signs are. Pierce argues that signs are never fully arbitrary and can thus be "classified". He theorized that 59,049 types of signs exist. Despite this number Pierce helpfully suggests three major modes of signs: Symbols, Icons, and Indexes. These categories function as typologies and refer to how signs refer to their signified. The relationships are "the icon by a quality of its own, the index by real connection to its object, and the symbol by a habit or rule for its interpretant" (3). Semiotics seems plagued by word play, Chandler is constantly aware that word choice is incredibly important in trying to define these differences, but difference as mentioned before is how all signs are defined.

Why Semiotics!?
After spending a week reading Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners I realize that I can't hope to cover the entire scope of the topic. I hope I have provided enough to at least facilitate a basic understanding of semiotics but before I dive into looking at some art work I want to re-present some of the positive and negatives of using a semiotic approach.

Anti/Pro Semiotics
Chandler suggests many positive reasons for pursing a semiotic approach but he is careful to also layout the pitfalls of the approach. As a starting point language (signs) define reality. Chandler claims that because of this it is possible to use semiotics as a "potentially unifying conceptual framework and a set of methods and terms for use across the full range of signifying practices, which include gesture, posture, dress, writing, speech, photography, film, television and radio". Further, using either a structuralist or social semiotic approach can clarify meaning by look at underlying structures and conventions or by exposing how different meaning can be drawn out for different readers. Almost by default this means that semiotics can cause us to examine meaning and context that might otherwise be taken for granted as simply convention or tradition. This quality of semiotics is seen as "denaturalizing" conventions and not allowing for passive interpretation. We are constantly reminded that signs and their meaning is constantly mediated.

"For Roland Barthes various codes contribute to reproducing bourgeois ideology, making it seem natural, proper and inevitable. One need not be a Marxist to appreciate that it can be liberating to become aware of whose view of reality is being privileged in the process. Many semioticians see their primary task as being to denaturalize signs, texts and codes. Semiotics can thus show ideology at work and demonstrate that 'reality' can be challenged."

Beyond examining how meanings are created semiotics allows for multiple interpretations. Further, semiotics explains that meaning must be sought, or worked for. Using advertisements as an example Chandler explains:

"Signs do not just 'convey' meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed. Semiotics helps us to realise that meaning is not passively absorbed but arises only in the active process of interpretation. In relation to printed advertisements, William Leiss and his colleagues note:

'The semiological approach... suggests that the meaning of an ad does not float on the surface just waiting to be internalized by the viewer, but is built up out of the ways that different signs are organized and related to each other, both within the ad and through external references to wider belief systems. More specifically, for advertising to create meaning, the reader or the viewer has to do some 'work'. Because the meaning is not lying there on the page, one has to make an effort to grasp it.'"

Of course Chandler is careful to expose the weaknesses of the semiotic approach. Some of the strengths of semiotics function as double edged swords. The structuralist approach for example is critiqued for ignoring the social context of meaning and interpretation.

"We must consider not only how signs signify (structurally) but also why (socially); structures are not causes. The relationships between signifiers and their signifieds may be ontologically arbitrary but they are not socially arbitrary. We should beware of allowing the notion of the sign as arbitrary to foster the myth of the neutrality of the medium."

Social semiotics has largely accommodated this critique, however. The first Chandler provides is one which I have also exposed above. Semiotics lacks broad consistency in "scope and methodology". Semiotics is also vulnerable because of reliance on individual interpretation. As Chandler puts it:

"At worst, what passes for 'semiotic analysis' is little more than a pretentious form of literary criticism applied beyond the bounds of literature and based merely on subjective interpretation and grand assertions. This kind of abuse has earned semiotics an unenviable reputation in some quarters as the last refuge for academic charlatans."

Chandler compounds this by stressing that because of a tendency to over rely on an individual analyst semiotics can fail to provide evidence or provide only heavily biased evidence.

"Certainly, in some cases, semiotic analysis seems little more than an excuse for interpreters to display the appearance of mastery through the use of jargon which excludes most people from participation. In practice, semiotic analysis invariably consists of individual readings."

There are many other criticisms of semiotics but these feel the most important to me.

The Semiotic Approach in Action
I will use Chandler's DIY tips found here for this, and I will post the results of the process next.


Semiotics for Beginners

Wikipedia Pages

1. Semiotic elements and classes of signs (Peirce)
2. Semiotics
3. Semiotic Elements and Classes of SIgns

4. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, A Sourcebook of Artist's Writings
5. Art in Theory 1900-2000, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood.
6. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, Chapter on Language in Art.

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