Introductions: Learning to Look
Signs and Meanings
Semiotics or semiology is the science or study of signs or sign systems. You heard me.
The study was put forward by Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure
Pierce applied the study to make it scientific
Barthes applied the study to pop culture and media
Semiotics is vital for seeing how a message is communicated.
Essentially, this study gave credence to the belief that language is constructed by people so meaning is not fixed. Like how Buddha says there is no ‘I’ because we are always changing.
There are three types of signs:
1.) Symbol – made up of words and letters
2.) Iconic – which uses pictures and graphics to send a message
3.) Indexical – relying on knowledge of future causality i.e. inferred by body language
Signs are a dyadic model; there are two aspects to a sign: the signifier (the form that the sign will take) and what’s signified (the message communicated)
When I write my essay, I must find the signifiers and what’s signified and use them to back up my point.
Signs adhere to codes and conventions. The ingredients to a sign system are initially meaningless, but when applied with a structure and order, the message is clarified. For example 314151 may look like ascending numbers spaced with 1s, but add a decimal point: 3.14151 it becomes
Repetition helps us get used to this, and it becomes automatic and reflexive despite irregulars e.g. the past tense of ‘I go’ should be ‘I goed’ but it’s actually ‘I went’
Signs communicate through a system of difference. Saussure maintained that a solitary word has no meaning, and it is their relation to other words that give it a definition. For example dark is not an applicable term without the knowledge of light.
Similarly, Barthes describes signs as dyadic because they work two ways, with a denotation (the initial visual) and its connotation (cultural knowledge)
This sign ∝ is simply a squiggle, but its connotations give it a depth. It means ‘proportional to’ but also means vesica piscis, the Jesus fish, not only stopping there, it is Aphrodite’s symbol, and also connected to the Syrian sea goddess Atargatis, and in Ancient Egypt, the fish was often associated with Isis and Horus.
The link between signifiers and what’s signified is arbitrary.
Most things work through convention and our established understanding, our cultural knowledge.
Semiology is linked to Structuralism, a term coined by Levi Strauss, which like semiotics is all about an established order of society and its binary oppositions. For young to be a relative term, there must be old. There are rules of exclusion and associations, which don’t allow for much autonomy is society. For example if you are a woman, you are required to be dominated by a guy.
Semiotics has been criticised for simplification, as has structuralism. This criticism is what’s known as post-culturalism and post-modernism. Semiotics is not great in that it doesn’t assess what the audience ends up doing, only the implicated message.
Following on from this, signs are polysemic – it means there are many possible scenarios through the signs.
To prevent the sign from being polysemic, measures are taken to make the sign easily comprehensible and understood. This measure is known as anchorage. Anchorage is quoted as being there ‘to fix the floating chains of signifieds’ by Barthes. This is sometimes rather brazen and shamelessly unsubtle.
Adverts regularly resort to myth, thus perpetuating myth. For example, to sell alcohol, you must market it towards men because men are typically boozy beer-soaked swilling drunkards.