The official up-to-date, segmented and illustrated version of this text in the UK is at: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html.
Thus wrote the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder not only of linguistics but also of what is now more usually referred to as semiotics (in his Course in General Linguistics, 1915). The other key figures in the early development of semiotics were the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced 'purse') (1839-1914) and later Charles William Morris (1901-1979). Leading modern semiotic theorists include Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Christian Metz, Julia Kristeva and Algirdas Greimas. A number of linguists work within a semiotic framework, such as Roman Jakobson and Michael A. K. Halliday. Semiotics is difficult to disentangle from structuralism, whose major exponents include Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology and Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis. Modern semiotic theory is also sometimes allied with a Marxist approach which tends to stress the role of ideology (see Woollacott 1982, 103ff).
Semiotics began to become a major approach to media theory in the late 1960s, and although it less central now (at least in its earlier, more 'structuralist' form), it remains essential for anyone in the field to understand it. What you have to assess is whether it is useful to you in shedding any light on aspects of the mass media. Note that Saussure's term, 'semiology' is sometimes used to refer to the Saussurean tradition, whilst 'semiotics' sometimes refers to the Peircean tradition, but that nowadays the term 'semiotics' is more likely to be used as an umbrella term to embrace the whole field (Nöth 1990, 14).
The most common brief definition of semiotics is 'the science of signs'. It involves the study of any medium (or genre) as a semiotic 'sign system'. The term 'science' is misleading: as James Monaco points out, semiotics 'is most definitely not a science in the sense that physics or biology is a science' (Monaco 1981, 140). Some commentators consequently define semiotics simply as the study of signs.
Whilst content analysis involves a quantitative approach to the analysis of the manifest 'content' of media texts, semiotics seeks to analyse media texts as structured wholes. Semiotics is rarely quantitative, and often involves a rejection of such approaches. As Olivier Burgelin argued: 'There is no reason to assume that the item which recurs most frequently is the most important or the most significant, for a text is, clearly, a structured whole, and the place occupied by the different elements is more important than the number of times they recur' (Burgelin 1968, 319; also cited in Woollacott 1982, 93). Whereas content analysis focuses on explicit content and tends to suggest that this represents a single, fixed meaning, semiotic studies focus on the system of rules governing the 'discourse' involved in media texts, stressing the role of semiotic context in shaping meaning (see Woollacott 1982, 93-4).
Semiotics is not a strictly empirical science, though Bob Hodge and David Tripp do employ empirical methods in their classic study of Children and Television (1986). John Fiske notes that:
Because of the influence of Saussure, and because linguistics is a more established discipline than the study of other sign systems, semiotics draws heavily on linguistic concepts. Saussure saw linguistics as a branch of semiotics, though Roland Barthes and some other semioticians have treated semiotics as a branch of linguistics (Burgin 1982, 50). Semioticians commonly refer to films, television and radio programmes, advertising posters and so on as 'texts', and Fiske and Hartley (1978) referred to 'reading television'. Media such as television and film are regarded by some semioticians as being like 'languages'. The issue tends to revolve around whether film is closer to what we treat as 'reality' in the everyday world of our own experience or whether it has more in common with a symbolic system like writing (see Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 38ff).
There is a danger of trying to force all media into a linguistic framework. With regard to photography (though one might say the same for film and television), Victor Burgin insists that:
Some refer to the 'grammar' of media other than language (see Monaco 1981, 121ff). In the semiotics of film, crude equivalents with written language are sometimes postulated: such as the frame as morpheme, the shot as sentence, the scene as paragraph, and the sequence as chapter (suggested equivalences vary amongst commentators) (see Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 39ff). To avoid privileging linguistic terms, Algirdas Greimas uses the term seme to refer to the smallest unit of meaning in a sign (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 54).
James Monaco offers a useful critique of glib analogies between film techniques and the grammar of natural language (Monaco 1981, 129). The film frame, for instance, can surely be broken into smaller meaningful units, though we'd be unlikely to agree about what these might be. Shots seem a reasonable unit, but how do we allow for camera movement within a single shot? And what of sound? So for James Monaco, 'film has no grammar'. He nevertheless discusses what he regards as a more useful (if loose) analogy between film and language with regard to syntax, in terms of conventions regarding not only temporal or linear construction, as in language, but also spatial construction (ibid., 140ff). And he quite reasonably describes cuts and other transitions as 'punctuation' (ibid., 189-90).
In semiotics, 'signs' may be anything from which meanings may be generated (such as words, images, sounds, gestures and objects). For the analytical purposes of semiotics (in the tradition of Saussure), every sign is composed of:
Nowadays, the 'signifier' is commonly interpreted as the material form of the sign.
Whilst this basically 'Saussurean' model is commonly adopted, it is a more materialistic model than that of Saussure himself. He referred to the signifier (signifiant) in terms of a 'sound-image' (image acoustique, 'the psychological imprint of the sound', cited in Nöth 1990, 60), and to the signified (signifié) as a mental concept.
The distinction between signifier and signified has sometimes been equated to the familiar dualism of 'form and content' (e.g. Wells 1977, 3, Andersson & Trudgill 1992, 75): within such a framework the signifier is seen as the form of the sign and the signified as the content. However, such a formulation could misleadingly suggest the equivalence of content and meaning (whereas the latter requires interpretation) (see also Nöth 1990, 61).
Note that unlike Peirce's model of the sign (outlined below), Saussure's model excludes reference to an object in the world (reference is only to a mental concept and to a 'sound-image'). His conception of meaning was purely structural. Such a model can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not 'reflect' reality but rather constructs it. However, some have criticized its detachment from social context (Gardiner 1992, 11). Saussure also emphasized the arbitrariness of the sign (though he was focusing on linguistic signs, seeing language as the most important sign system). In the context of natural language, he stressed that there is no necessary connection between the signifier and the signified: the relationship is purely conventional and arbitrary. Each language involves different distinctions between one signifier and another (e.g. 'tree' and 'free') and between one signified and another (e.g. 'tree' and 'bush').
In contrast to Saussure's 'self-contained dyad', Charles Sanders Peirce offered a triad:
Peirce's triadic model of the sign is complex, and will not be discussed in detail here (see Sturrock 1986 or Zeman 1977 for an introduction to Peirce's semiotics). However, note that the interpretant is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter. The phrase 'unlimited semiosis' is used to refer to the way in which this could lead to a series of successive interpretants (potentially) ad infinitum (Nöth 1990, 43).
Variants of Peirce's triad are often presented as 'the semiotic triangle' (as if there were only one version). Here is a version which is quite often encountered and which changes only the unfamiliar Peircean terms (Nöth 1990, 89):
The notion of the importance of sense-making (which requires an interpreter - though Peirce doesn't feature that term in his triad) has had a particular appeal for media theorists who stress the importance of the active process of interpretation, and thus reject the equation of 'content' and meaning. Many of these theorists allude to semiotic triangles in which the interpreter (or 'user') of the sign features explicitly (in place of 'sense' or 'interpretant'). This highlights the process of semiosis (which is very much a Peircean concept). Whether a dyadic or triadic model is adopted, the role of the interpreter must be accounted for - either within the formal model of the sign, or as an essential part of the process of semiosis. David Sless argues that 'statements about users, signs or referents can never be made in isolation from each other. A statement about one always contains implications about the other two' (Sless 1986, 6).
Note that semioticians (whether Saussurean or Peircean) make a distinction between a sign and a 'sign vehicle' (the latter being a 'signifier' to Saussureans and a 'representamen' to Peirceans). The sign is more than just a sign vehicle (Nöth 1990, 79). The term 'sign' is often used loosely, so that this distinction is not always preserved (even Saussure and Peirce were sometimes guilty of this). In the Saussurean framework, for instance, the distinction between the sign and the signifier can become unclear.
Whereas Saussure emphasized the arbitrary nature of the (linguistic) sign, most semioticians stress that signs differ in the how arbitrary/conventional they are. Based on the ideas of Peirce, three modes of relationship between sign vehicles and their referents are commonly referred to. I have chosen Terence Hawkes's term 'modes of relationship' (Hawkes 1977, 129) rather than the conventional 'modes of signs' for reasons explained below.
The three forms are listed here in decreasing order of conventionality according to Nöth: 'Decoding the similarity of an icon or image with its object presupposes a higher degree of cultural conventionality than decoding signs which "direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion", as Peirce defines the index' (Nöth 1990, 246). Within each form signs also vary in their degree of arbitrariness/conventionality.
The terms 'motivation' and 'constraint' are sometimes used to describe the extent to which the signified determines the signifier. The more a signifier is constrained by the signified, the more 'motivated' the sign is: iconic signs are highly motivated; symbolic signs are unmotivated. The less motivated the sign, the more learning of an agreed convention is required. Fiske points out that:
Note that Peirce categorized a photograph as an index rather than an icon: 'photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that in certain respects they are exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the... class of signs... by physical connection [the indexical class]' (cited in Wollen 1969, 123-4).
It is easy to slip into referring to these three forms as 'types of signs', but they are not necessarily mutually exclusive: a sign can be an icon, a symbol and an index, or any combination. 'A map is... indexical (it indicates where places are) and iconic (it represents places in topographical relation to each other) and symbolic (its notational system must be learned)' (Danesi 1994, 77). Film and television use all three forms: icon (sound and image), symbol (speech and writing), and index (as the effect of what is filmed); iconic signs dominate, although some filmic signs are fairly arbitrary, such as 'dissolves' which signify that a scene from someone's memory is to follow.
James Monaco suggests that 'in film, the signifier and the signified are almost identical... The power of language systems is that there is a very great difference between the signifier and the signified; the power of film is that there is not' (Monaco 181, 127-8). Iconic and indexical signs are more likely to be read as 'natural' than symbolic signs since they are less arbitrary. In being less reliant than writing on symbolic signs, film, television and photography suggest less of an obvious gap between the sign and its signified, which make them seem to offer 'reflections of reality'. Roland Barthes argued that such media serve an ideological function because they appear to record rather than to transform or signify (Woollacott 1982, 99; see also Hall 1980, 132).
Signs are organized into codes in two ways: by paradigms and by syntagms. The distinction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic structures is a key one in structuralist semiotic analysis. These two dimensions are often presented as 'axes', where the vertical axis is the paradigmatic and the horizontal axis is the syntagmatic. The plane of the paradigm is that of selection whilst the plane of the syntagm is that of combination (these terms were introduced by Roman Jakobson).
A paradigm is a set of associated signs which are all members of some defining category, but in which each sign is significantly different. In natural language, the vocabulary of a language is one paradigm, and there are grammatical paradigms such as verbs or nouns. The use of one paradigm (e.g. a particular word or image) rather than another shapes the preferred meaning of a text. Note that the significance of the differences between even apparently synonymous paradigms is at the heart of Whorfian theories about language.
In film and television, paradigms include ways of changing shot (such as cut, fade, dissolve and wipe). Fiske and Hartley (1978, 52ff) show how the medium or genre used by a particular media text are also paradigms which derive meaning from the ways in which they differ from alternative media or genres: as they put it, 'although the signifier remains the same, the sign itself is altered' by a change of genre or medium (ibid., 53). Marshall McLuhan's notion that 'the medium is the message' can thus be seen as a semiotic concern: to a semiotician the medium is not 'neutral'.
A syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting signs which forms a meaningful whole (sometimes called a 'chain'). Such combinations are made within a framework of rules and conventions (both explicit and inexplicit). In language, a sentence, for instance, is a syntagm of words. Paragraphs and chapters are syntagms too. In a photograph or painting syntagmatic relationships are spatial (Silverman 1983, 106). Syntagms are created by the choice of paradigms from those which are conventionally regarded as appropriate or which may be required by some rule system (e.g. grammar).
Roland Barthes (1967) outlined the paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements of the 'garment system'. The paradigmatic elements are the items which cannot be worn at the same time on the same part of the body (such as hats, trousers, shoes). The syntagmatic dimension is the juxtaposition of different elements at the same time in a complete ensemble from hat to shoes.
In the case of film, our interpretation of an individual shot depends on both paradigmatic analysis (comparing it, not necessarily consciously, with the use of alternative kinds of shot) and syntagmatic analysis (comparing it with preceding and following shots). The same shot used within another sequence of shots could have quite a different preferred reading.
Umberto Eco interpreted the James Bond novels (one could do much the same with the films) in terms of a basic narrative scheme:
(see Woollacott 1982, 96-7).
In film and television, a syntagmatic analysis would involve an analysis of how each shot, scene or sequence related to the others. Christian Metz offered elaborate syntagmatic categories for narrative film (see: Monaco 1981, 186-9; Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 40-42).
However, Metz's 'grande syntagmatique' has not proved an easy system to apply to some films. In their study of children's understanding of television, Hodge and Tripp (1986, 20) divide syntagms into four kinds, based on syntagms existing in the same time (synchronic), different times (diachronic), same space (syntopic), and different space (diatopic).
They add that whilst these are all continuous syntagms (single shots or successive shots), there are also discontinuous syntagms (related shots separated by others).
A paradigmatic analysis of a text studies patterns other than internal relationships (sequential or spatial) within a text.
Semioticians often focus on the issue of why a particular paradigm rather than a workable alternative was used in a specific context: on what they often refer to as 'absences'. John Fiske argues that 'the meaning of what was chosen is determined by the meaning of what was not' (Fiske 1982, 62). Some semioticians refer to the 'commutation test' which can be used in order to identify distinctive paradigms and to define their significance. To apply this test a particular paradigm in a sign is selected. Then alternatives which are appropriate to the context are considered. Each must be capable of occupying the same structural position as that which appears in the sign. The effects of each substitution are considered in terms of how this might affect the sense made of the sign. This might involve imagining the use of a close-up rather than a mid-shot, a subtitution in age, sex, class or ethnicity, substituting objects, a different caption for a photograph, etc. (see also Fiske 1982, 111-112; Fiske & Hartley 1978, 54-5).
The structuralist method employed by many semioticians involves the study of paradigms as binary or polar oppositions. These are seen as part of the 'deep [or 'hidden'] structure' of texts.
Umberto Eco analysed the James Bond novels in terms of a series of oppositions: Bond vs. villain; West vs. Soviet Union; anglo-saxon vs. other countries; ideals vs. cupidity; chance vs. planning; excess vs. moderation; perversion vs. innocence; loyalty vs. disloyalty. Eco makes it clear how the textual oppositions are part of a wider ideological discourse (see Woollacott 1982, 96-7). John Fiske (1987) makes considerable analytical use of such oppositions in relation to mass media texts. Critics of such structuralist analysis note that binary oppositions need not only to be related to one another and interpreted, but also to be contextualised in terms of the social systems which give rise to texts (Buxton 1990, 12). Furthermore, those who use this structuralist approach sometimes claim to be analysing the 'latent meaning' in a text: what it is 'really' about. Unfortunately, such approaches typically understate the subjectivity of the interpreter's framework.
The Russian linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson introduced the theory of markedness which relates to the poles of a paradigmatic opposition. He argued that such paired paradigms consist of an 'unmarked' and a 'marked' form. These two forms are accorded different values. The unmarked form is typically dominant (e.g. statistically) and therefore seems to be 'neutral' and 'natural'. The 'marked' form is presented as 'different' and distinguished by some special semiotic feature (Nöth 1990, 76). In relation to the English language, dog is both a class of animals and the term for the male animal of that species; a female dog is labelled differently - as a bitch. Applying this concept to the mass media, Merris Griffiths, one of my own research students, has examined the production and editing styles of television advertisements for toys. Her findings showed that the style of advertisements aimed primarily at boys had far more in common with those aimed at a mixed audience than with those aimed at girls, making 'girls' advertisements' the marked category in commercials for toys.
Semioticians distinguish (perhaps sometimes too tidily) between denotation and connotation, terms describing the relationship between the sign and its referent. 'Denotation' tends to be described as the definitional or 'literal' meaning of a sign; 'connotation' refers to its socio-cultural and personal associations (ideological, emotional etc.).
Roland Barthes introduced the notion that there are different orders of signification (levels of meaning). The first order of signification is that of denotation: at this level there is a sign consisting of a signifier and a signified. Connotation is a second-order of signification which uses the first sign (signifier and signified) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified.
Connotations 'derive not from the sign itself, but from the way the society uses and values both the signifier and the signified' (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 41). A car can connote virility or freedom in Western cultures. The choice of words often involves connotations, as in references to 'strikes' vs. 'disputes', 'union demands' vs. 'management offers', and so on.
Dominic Strinati raises the issue: 'Is there such a thing as pure denotation?' (Strinati 1995, 125). Is denotation just another connotation? In an important paper, the British sociologist Stuart Hall comments on this issue.
The term 'denotation' is widely equated with the literal meaning of a sign:
because the literal meaning is almost universally recognized, especially when
visual discourse is being employed, 'denotation' has often been confused with
a literal transcription of 'reality' in language - and thus with a 'natural sign',
one produced without the intervention of a code. 'Connotation', on the other
hand, is employed simply to refer to less fixed and therefore more
conventionalized and changeable, associative meanings, which clearly vary
from instance to instance and therefore must depend on the intervention of
We do not use the distinction - denotation/connotation - in this way. From our point of view, the distinction is an analytic one only. It is useful, in analysis, to be able to apply a rough rule of thumb which distinguishes those aspects of a sign which appear to be taken, in any language community at any point in time, as its 'literal' meaning (denotation) from the more associative meanings for the sign which it is possible to generate (connotation). But analytical distinctions must not be confused with distinctions in the real world. There will be very few instances in which signs organized in a discourse signify only their 'literal' (that is, nearly-universally consensualized) meaning. In actual discourse most signs will combine both the denotative and the connotative aspects (as redefined above). It may, then, be asked why we retain the distinction at all. It is largely a matter of analytic value. It is because signs appear to acquire their full ideological value... at the level of their 'associative' meanings (that is, at the connotative level) - for here 'meanings' are not apparently fixed in natural perception (that is, they are not fully naturalized), and their fluidity of meaning and association can be more fully exploited and transformed. So it is at the connotative level of the sign that situational ideologies alter and transform signification. At this level we can see more clearly the active intervention of ideologies in and on discourse... This does not mean that the denotative or 'literal' meaning is outside ideology. Indeed, we could say that its ideological value is strongly fixed - because it has become so fully universal and 'natural'. The terms 'denotation' and 'connotation', then, are merely useful analytic tools for distinguishing, in particular contexts, between not the presence/absence of ideology in language but the different levels at which ideologies and discourses intersect. (Hall 1980, 132-3)
Stuart Hall's observations here were very much a response to critics of some remarks by Roland Barthes (see also Hall 1982, 79). Barthes argued that in photography connotation can be (analytically) distinguished from denotation. In Fiske's summary, 'denotation is the mechnical reproduction on film of the object at which the camera is pointed. Connotation is the human part of the process, it is the selection of what to include in the frame, of focus, aperture, camera angle, quality of film and so on. Denotation is what is photographed, connotation is how it is photographed' (Fiske 1982, 91). Victor Burgin argued with the notion that a photograph reproduces its object, insisting that 'the photograph abstracts from, and mediates, the actual' (Burgin 1982, 61): we do not mistake one for the other.
At the connotative level, signs are more 'polysemic', more open to interpretation. However, there is a danger here of stressing the 'individual subjectivity' of connotation: commentators such as Fiske stress 'intersubjective' responses which are shared to some degree by members of a culture; with any individual example only a limited range of connotations would make any sense (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 46).
As Fiske puts it, 'it is often easy to read connotative values as denotative facts; one of the main aims of semiotic analysis is to provide us with the analytical method and the frame of mind to guard against this sort of misreading' (Fiske 1982, 92).
Related to connotation is what Roland Barthes refers to as myth. Barthes argues that the orders of signification called denotation and connotation combine to produce ideology - which John Hartley has described as a third order of signification (Hartley 1982, 217). Cultural myths express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something (Fiske 1982, 93-5; Fiske & Hartley 1978, 41ff). This is an ideological function. British news programmes, for instance, allude to the myth that 'we all favour moderation'.
Susan Hayward offers a useful example of the three levels of signification in relation to a photograph of Marilyn Monroe:
Some key terms from literary criticism and rhetoric are widely used by semioticians. Connotative meaning is often generated by the use of metaphor or metonymy. Metaphor expresses the unfamiliar (known in literary jargon as the 'tenor') in terms of the familiar (the 'vehicle'). The tenor and the vehicle are normally unrelated: we must make an imaginative leap to understand a fresh metaphor. As Fiske notes, 'the visual language that most frequently works metaphorically is that used by advertisers' (Fiske 1982, 97). In film, 'metaphor applies when there are two consecutive shots and the second one functions in a comparative way with the first' (Hayward 1996, 218).
Metonymy involves the invocation of an idea or object through the use of an associated detail (so 'the crown' invokes the notion of monarchy). In film, 'metonymy can be applied to an object that is visibly present but which represents another object or subject to which it is related but which is absent' (Hayward 1996, 217).
Advertisers use both metaphor and metonymy: 'the sign of a mother pouring out a particular breakfast cereal for her children is a metonym of all her maternal activities of cooking, cleaning and clothing, but a metaphor for the love and security she provides' (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 50).
Unlike metaphor, metonymy is based on contiguity: it does not require transposition (an imaginative leap) as metaphor does. This difference can lead metonymy to seem more 'natural' than metaphor. Any attempt to represent reality can be seen as involving metonymy, since it can only involve selection (and yet such selections serve to guide us in envisaging larger frameworks).
Synecdoche is a form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole or vice versa (a policeman is 'the law'; London is 'the smoke'; workers are sometimes called 'hands'; 'I've got a new set of wheels'). As Monaco points out, 'many of the old clichés of Hollywood are synecdochic (close shots of marching feet to represent an army) and metonymic (the falling calendar pages, the driving wheels of the railroad engine)' (Monaco 1981, 136). It is not easy to make a sharp distinction between metonymy and synecdoche.
Metaphor is a paradigmatic dimension (vertical, selective/associative) and metonymy a syntagmatic dimension (horizontal, combinative) (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 50).
There is an amusing discussion of metaphor and metonymy in David Lodge's novel, Nice Work.
A typical instance of this was the furious argument they had about the Silk
Cut advertisement... Every few miles, it seemed, they passed the same
huge poster on roadside hoardings, a photographic depiction of a rippling
expanse of purple silk in which there was a single slit, as if the material
had been slashed with a razor. There were no words in the advertisement,
except for the Government Health Warning about smoking. This ubiquitous
image, flashing past at regular intervals, both irritiated and intrigued
Robyn, and she began to do her semiotic stuff on the deep structure hidden
beneath its bland surface.
It was in the first instance a kind of riddle. That is to say, in order to decode it, you had to know that there was a brand of cigarettes called Silk Cut. The poster was the iconic representation of a missing name, like a rebus. But the icon was also a metaphor. The shimmering silk, with its voluptous curves and sensuous texture, obviously symbolized the female body, and the elliptical slit, foregrounded by a lighter colour showing through, was still more obviously a vagina. The advert thus appealed to both senual and sadistic impulses, the desire to mutilate as well as penetrate the female body.
Vic Wilcox spluttered with outraged derision as she expounded this interpretation. He smoked a different brand himself, but it wasas if he felt his whole philosophy of life was threatened by Robyn's analysis of the advert. 'You must have a twisted mind to see all that in a perfectly harmless bit of cloth,' he said.
'What's the point of it, then?' Robyn challenged him. 'Why use cloth to advertise cigarettes?'
'Well, that's the name of 'em, isn't it? Silk Cut. It's a picture of the name. Nothing more or less.'
'Suppose they'd used a picture of a roll of silk cut in half - would that do just as well?'
'I suppose so. Yes, why not?'
'Because it would look like a penis cut in half, that's why.'
He forced a laugh to cover his embarrassment. 'Why can't you people take things at their face value?'
'What people are you refering to?'
'Highbrows. Intellectuals. You're always trying to find hidden meanings in things. Why? A cigarette is a cigarette. A piece of silk is a piece of silk. Why not leave it at that?
'When they're represented they acquire additional meanings,' said Robyn. 'Signs are never innocent. Semiotics teaches us that.'
'Semiotics. The study of signs.'
'It teaches us to have dirty minds, if you ask me.'
'Why do you think the wretched cigarettes were called Silk Cut in the first place?'
'I dunno. It's just a name, as good as any other.'
"Cut" has something to do with the tobacco, doesnt it? The way the tobacco leaf is cut. Like "Player's Navy Cut" - my uncle Walter used to smoke them.'
'Well, what if it does?' Vic said warily.
'But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It's a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, "smooth as silk". Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name "Silk Cut" to suggest a cigarette that would'nt give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer. But after a while the public got used to the name, the word "Silk" ceased to signify, so they decided to have an advertising campaign to give the brand a high profile again. Some bright spark in the agency came up with the idea of rippling silk with a cut in it. The original metaphor is now represented literally. Whether they conciously intended or not doesn't really matter. It's a good example of the perpetual sliding of the signified under a signifier, actually.'
Wilcox chewed on this for a while, then said, 'Why do women smoke them, then, eh?' his triumphant expression showed that he thought this was a knock-down argument. 'If smoking Silk Cut is a form of aggravated rape, as you try to make out, how come women smoke 'em too?'
'Many women are masochistic by temperament,' said Robyn. 'They've learnt what's expected of them in a patriarchical society.'
'Ha!' Wilcox exclaimed, tossing back his head. 'I might have known you'd have some daft answer.'
'I don't know why you're so worked up,' Said Robyn. 'It's not as if you smoke Silk Cut yourself.'
'No, I smoke Marlboros. Funnily enough, I smoke them because I like the taste.'
'They're the ones that have the lone cowboy ads, aren't they?'
'I suppose that makes me a repressed homosexual, does it?'
'No, it's a very straightforward metonymic message.'
'Metonymic. One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D'you want me to explain it to you?'
'It'll pass the time,' he said.
'Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself'.
'I don't understand a word you're saying.'
'Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it's dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.'
'I told you that.'
'Yes, I know. What you didn't tell me was that "drag" is a metonymy and "cope" is a metaphor.'
Vic grunted. 'What difference does it make?'
'It's just a question of understanding how language works. I thought you were interested in how things work.'
'I don't see what it's got to do with cigarettes.'
'In the case of the Silk Cut poster, the picture signifies the female body metaphorically: the slit in the silk is like a vagina -'
Vic flinched at the word. 'So you say.'
'All holes, hollow places, fissures and folds represent the female genitals.'
'Freud proved it, by his successful analysis of dreams,' said Robyn. 'But the Marlboro ads don't use any metaphors. That's probably why you smoke them, actually.'
'What d'you mean?' he said suspiciously.
'You don't have any sympathy with the metaphorical way of looking at things. A cigarette is a cigarette as far as you are concerned.'
'The Marlboro ad doesn't disturb that naive faith in the stability of the signified. It establishes a metonymic connection - completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible - between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the lifestyle, or the fantasy of living it.'
'Rubbish!' said Wilcox. 'I hate the country and the open air. I'm scared to go into a field with a cow in it.'
'Well then, maybe it's the solitariness of the cowboy in the ads that appeals to you. Self-reliant, independent, very macho.'
'I've never heard such a lot of balls in all my life,' said Vic Wilcox, which was strong language coming from him.
'Balls - now that's an interesting expression...' Robyn mused.
'Oh no!' he groaned.
'When you say a man "has balls", approvingly, it's a metonymy, whereas if you say something is a "lot of balls", or "a balls-up", it's a sort of metaphor. The metonymy attributes value to the testicles whereas the metaphor uses them to degrade something else.'
'I can't take any more of this,' said Vic. 'D'you mind if I smoke? Just a plain, ordinary cigarette?'
In each text signs are organized into meaningful systems according to certain conventions which semioticians refer to as codes (or signifying codes). Such conventions represent a social dimension in semiotics: a code is a set of practices familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework. A range of typologies of codes can be found in the literature of semiotics (e.g. Fiske 1989a, 312-6; see also the typologies of Eco and Barthes mentioned below). I refer here only to those which are most widely mentioned in the context of media and communication studies (the tripartite framework is my own).
Understanding such codes, their relationships and the contexts in which they are appropriate is part of what it means to be a member of a particular culture. Indeed, Marcel Danesi has suggested that 'a culture can be defined as a kind of "macro-code", consisting of the numerous codes which a group of individuals habitually use to interpret reality' (Danesi 1994, 18; see also Nichols 1981, 30-1). These conventions are typically inexplicit, and we are not normally conscious of the roles which they play. Their use helps to guide us towards what Stuart Hall (1980, 134) calls 'a preferred reading' and away from what Umberto Eco calls 'aberrant decoding', though media texts do vary in the extent to which they are open to interpretation (see Fiske 1982, 86ff, 113-115). The 'tightness' of semiotic codes themselves varies from the rule-bound closure of logical codes (such as computer codes) to the interpretative looseness of ideological codes. John Corner (1980) suggests that loosely-defined 'codes' may not be usefully described as codes at all.
Codes are not static, but dynamic systems which change over time, and are thus historically as well as socio-culturally situated. The way in which such conventions are established is called by Giraud codification. Metz shows how in Hollywood cinema the white hat became codified as the signifier of a 'good' cowboy; eventually this convention became over-used and was abandoned (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 63).
John Fiske (1982, 78ff) distinguishes broadcast codes from narrowcast (or restricted) codes. A broadcast code is shared by member of a mass audience; a narrowcast code is aimed at a more limited audience. Pop music is a broadcast code; ballet is a narrowcast code. 'Narrowcast codes have acquired the function in our mass society of stressing the difference between "us" (the users of the code) and "them" (the laymen, the lowbrows). Broadcast codes stress the similarities amongst "us" (the majority)' (Fiske 1982, 81) and tend to be simpler. Broadcast codes are learned through experience; narrowcast codes often involve more deliberate learning (Fiske 1989a, 315). Narrowcast codes have the potential to be more subtle; broadcast codes can lead to cliché.
A distinction is sometimes made between digital and analogue codes. Analogue codes, such as visual images, involve graded relationships on a continuum. Digital codes, such as written language, involve discrete units. Fiske notes that 'turning nature into culture and thus making it understandable and communicable involves codifying it digitally' (Fiske 1989a, 313). Bill Nichols adds that it is often difficult to say what analogue codes mean because trying to put their meaning into words breaks up the continuum (Nichols 1981, 47).
Hodge and Tripp note that 'fundamental to all semiotic analysis is the fact that any system of signs (semiotic code) is carried by a material medium which has its own principles of structure' (Hodge & Tripp 1986, 17). Film and television involve both aural and visual codes. Cinematic and televisual codes include genre, camerawork (shot size, focus, lens movement, camera movement, angle, lens choice, framing), editing (cuts and fades, cutting rate and rhythm), manipulation of time (compression, flashbacks, flashforwards, slow motion), lighting, colour, sound (soundtrack, music), graphics and narrative style. Christian Metz added authorial style, and distinguished codes from sub-codes, where a sub-code was a particular choice from within a code (e.g. western within genre). The syntagmatic dimension was a relation of combination between different codes and sub-codes; the paradigmatic dimension was that of the film-maker's choice of particular sub-codes within a code (Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 42-3). Since, as Metz noted, 'a film is not "cinema" from one end to another' (cited in Nöth 1990, 468), film and television involve many codes which are not specific to these media.
Some codes are unique to (or at least characteristic of) a specific medium or to closely-related media (e.g. 'fade to black' in film and television); others are shared by (or similar in) several media (e.g. scene breaks); and some are drawn from cultural practices which are not tied to a medium (e.g. body language) (Monaco 1981, 146ff). Some are more specific to particular genres within a medium. Some are more broadly linked either to the domain of science ('logical codes', suppressing connotation and diversity of interpretation) or to that of the arts ('aesthetic codes', celebrating connotation and diversity of interpretation), though such differences are differences of degree rather than of kind (see Fiske & Hartley 1978, 60-63).
Fiske and Hartley argue that:
Fiske and Hartley add that it is because the codes of television relate closely to the codes for the perception of the everyday world that the boundary between television and reality is hard to define (ibid., 66). 'Furthermore, watching television shares with everyday life the characteristic of being a familiar and casual activity which most of us engage in without feeling the need for elaborate analysis' (ibid., 67).
Umberto Eco offered ten fundamental codes as instrumental in shaping images: codes of perception, codes of transmission, codes of recognition, tonal codes, iconic codes, iconographic codes, codes of taste and sensibility, rhetorical codes, stylistic codes and codes of the unconscious (Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 44; Eco 1982, 35-8). In his book S/Z (1974), Roland Barthes itemised five codes utilized in reading: hermeneutic (narrative turning-points); proairetic (basic narrative actions); cultural (prior social knowledge); semic (medium-related codes) and symbolic (themes) (see Silverman 1983, Chapter 6).
Semiotic codes vary in their complexity of structure or 'articulation'. A semiotic code which has 'double articulation' can be analysed into two abstract structural levels: a higher level called 'the level of first articulation' and a lower level - 'the level of second articulation' (see Nöth 1990, on which this account is based).
At the level of first articulation the system consists of the smallest meaningful units available (e.g. morphemes or words in a language). These meaningful units are signs, each consisting of a signifier and a signified. Where codes have recurrent meaningful units (such as the Olympic sports pictograms and textile care symbols), they have first articulation.
At the level of second articulation, a semiotic code is divisible into minimal functional units which lack meaning in themselves (e.g. phonemes in speech or graphemes in writing). These structural units are recurrent features in the code. They are not signs in themselves (the code must have a first level of articulation for these lower units to be combined into meaningful signs). These lower units are nonsignifying sign elements. In a code with both levels (a 'double articulated' system) the function of these lower units is purely to differentiate the minimal meaningful units.
Semiotic codes have either single articulation, double articulation or no articulation. Traditional definitions ascribed double articulation only to human language, for which this is regarded as a key 'design feature'. Double articulation enables a semiotic code to form an infinite number of meaningful combinations using a small number of low-level units (offering economy and power). Double articulation does not seem to occur in the natural communication systems of animals other than humans. Several semiotic codes other than human language have been argued to have double articulation, including narrative, architecture, Braille, sign language and non-verbal codes.
Some codes have first articulation only. Where the smallest recurrent structural unit in a code is meaningful, the code has first articulation only. Nöth notes that although bird calls make use of basic units, each of these is a complete message, so bird calls have first articulation only (Nöth 1990, 151). Other examples include hotel and office room numbers where the first digit indicates the floor and the second indicates the serial number of the room on that floor. Some semioticians (such as Christian Metz) argue that codes based on motivated signs - such as film and television - may lack second articulation. Metz declared that in film, 'it is impossible to break up the signifier without getting isomorphic segments of the signified' (cited in Nöth 1990, 469). Other semiotic codes have second articulation only, such as accession codes for books which are simply serial numbers. Codes without articulation consist of a series of signs bearing no relation to each other (e.g. 'the language of flowers'). Unarticulated codes, which have no recurrent features, are 'uneconomical'.
The semiotic notion of intertextuality introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with poststructuralist theorists. Each media text exists in relation to others. In fact, texts owe more to other texts than to their own makers. Texts are framed by others in many ways. Most obvious are formal frames: a television programme, for instance, may be part of a series and part of a genre (such as soap or sitcom). Our understanding of any individual text relates to such framings.
Genre theory is an important field in its own right, and genre theorists do not necessarily embrace semiotics. For general reviews of genre theory see Feuer 1992 and Neale 1980; for an explicitly semiotic account see Fiske 1987, 109-115. Within semiotics genres can be seen as sign systems or codes - conventionalized but dynamic structures (see Feuer 1992, 143). Each example of a genre utilises conventions which link it to other members of that genre. Such conventions are at their most obvious in 'spoof' versions of the genre.
Links also cross the boundaries of formal frames, for instance, in sharing topics with treatments within other genres (the theme of war is found in a range of genres such action-adventure film, documentary, news, current affairs). Some genres are shared by several media: the genres of soap, game show and phone-in are found on both television and radio; the genre of the news report is found on TV, radio and in newspapers; the advertisement appears in all mass media forms. Texts sometimes allude directly to each other as in 'remakes' of films, and in many amusing contemporary TV ads. Texts in the genre of the trailer are directly tied to specific texts within or outside the same medium. The genre of the programme listing exists within the medium of print (listings magazines, newspapers) to support the media of TV, radio and film. TV soaps generate substantial coverage in popular newspapers, magazines and books; the 'magazine' format was adopted by TV and radio. And so on.
Each text exists within a vast 'society of texts' in various genres and media: no text is an island entire of itself. A useful semiotic technique is comparison and contrast between differing treatments of similar themes (or similar treatments of different themes), within or between different genres or media. See Fiske (1987, Chapter 7) for his exploration of intertextuality.
Whilst the term intertextuality would normally be used to refer to allusions to other texts, a related kind of allusion is what might be called 'intratextuality' - involving internal relations within the text. Within a single code (e.g. a photographic code) these would be simply syntagmatic relationships (e.g. the relationship of the image of one person to another within the same photograph). However, a text may involve several codes: a newspaper photograph, for instance, may have a caption (indeed, such an example serves to remind us that what we may choose to regard as a discrete 'text' for analysis lacks clearcut boundaries: the notion of intertextuality emphasizes that texts have contexts). In relation to advertisements, Roland Barthes (1977, 37) noted that linguistic elements can serve to 'anchor' (or constrain) the preferred readings of an image, and Gillian Dyer (1982, 130) adds that conversely an image can also be used to anchor an ambiguous verbal text.
Semiotics emphasizes that signs are related to their signifieds by social conventions which we learn. However, we become so used to such conventions in our use of various media that they seem 'natural', and it can be difficult for us to realize the conventional nature of such relationships. When we take these relationships for granted we treat the signified as unmediated or 'transparent', as when we interpret television or photography as 'a window on the world'. This is an ideological issue, since, as Victor Burgin notes, 'an ideology is the sum of taken-for-granted realities of everyday life' (Burgin 1982, 46). Semiotics can help to make us aware of what we take for granted in representing the world, reminding us that we are always dealing with signs, not with an unmediated objective reality, and that sign systems are involved in the construction of meaning. As Valentin Volosinov declared: 'Whenever a sign is present, ideology is present too' (cited in Gardiner 1992, 14). The underlying codes of social life 'naturalize and reinforce a particular view of reality' (Gardiner 1992, 147). For Roland Barthes such codes contribute to reproducing bourgeois ideology, making it seem natural, proper and inevitable (Hawkes 1977, 107). 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.
In the study of the mass media, semiotic approaches can draw our attention to such taken-for-granted practices as the classic Hollywood convention of 'invisible editing' which is still the dominant editing style in popular cinema and television. Semiotic treatments can make us aware that this is a manipulative convention which we have learned to accept as 'natural' in film and television. Also in relation to the mass media, semiotics has made distinctive theoretical contributions. In association with psychoanalysis, semiotics also introduced the theory of 'the positioning of the subject' (the spectator) in relation to the filmic text (Hayward 1996, 19, 312, 353).
As an approach to communication which focuses on meaning and interpretation, semiotics challenges the reductive transmission model which equates meaning with 'message' (or content). Semiotics highlights 'the infinite richness of interpretation which... signs are open to' (Sturrock 1986, 101). Whilst the the emphasis on the role of the interpreters of a text has helped to reduce the romantic obsession with the role of the author (e.g. the auteur in film), the semiotic notion of intertextuality (highlighting what texts owe to other texts), has contributed to undermining the myth of 'originality'.
Semiotics has sought to study cultural artifacts and practices of whatever kind on the basis of unified principles, at its best bringing some coherence to media and cultural studies. It has encouraged the 'decoding' of a wide variety of popular cultural phenomena with the same seriousness traditionally reserved for the literary, artistic and musical canon. Semiotics may encourage us not to dismiss a particular medium as of less worth than another: literary and film critics often regard television as of less worth than prose fiction or 'artistic' film. To elitist literary critics, of course, this would be a weakness of semiotics. Potentially, semiotics could help us to realize differences as well as similarities between various media.
Sometimes semioticians present their analyses as if they were purely objective 'scientific' accounts rather than subjective interpretations. Yet few semioticians seem to feel much need to provide empirical evidence for particular interpretations. Jack Solomon notes that the central principles of semiotics 'prevent it from being a science - that is, something with universal validity' (Solomon 1988, 232).
In some cases, semiotic analysis can be little more than an excuse for interpreters to demonstrate their mastery of a semiotic jargon which excludes most people from participation. Structuralist semioticians tended to assume that their own intepretations reflected a general consensus: they made no allowance for alternative readings. Semioticians who reject the investigation of other people's interpretations privilege what has been called the 'elite interpreter' - though socially-oriented semioticians would insist that the exploration of people's interpretive practices is fundamental to semiotics.
Some semiotic analysis has been criticised as nothing more than 'arid formalism'. Susan Hayward declares that structuralist semiotics can lead to 'a crushing of the aesthetic response through the weight of the theoretical framework' (Hayward 1996, 352). In structuralist semiotics the focus is on langue rather than parole (Saussure's terms), on formal systems rather than on processes of use and production. Valentin Volosinov argues that the prime determinant of a sign is not its relationship to other signs but rather the social context of its use (Fiske 1992, 299). Semiotics can appear to suggest that meaning is purely explicable in terms of determining textual structures. Purely structuralist semiotics does not address processes of production, audience interpretation or even authorial intentions. It ignores particular practices, institutional frameworks and the cultural, social, economic and political context. Even Roland Barthes, who argues that texts are codified to encourage a reading which favours the interests of the dominant class, confines his attention to the internal textual organization and does not engage with the social context of interpretation (Gardiner 1992, 149-50). It cannot be assumed that preferred readings will go unchallenged (Hall 1980). David Buxton comments that structuralist approaches 'deny... social determination' and he insists that 'the text must be related to something other than its own structure: in other words, we must explain how it comes to be structured' (Buxton 1990, 13).
Dominic Strinati notes:
Synchronic analysis studies a phenomenon as if it were frozen at one moment in time; diachronic analysis focuses on change over time. Insofar as semiotics tends to focus on synchronic rather than diachronic analysis, it underplays the dynamic nature of media conventions (for instance, television conventions change fairly rapidly compared to conventions for written English). It can also underplay dynamic changes in the cultural myths which signification both alludes to and helps to shape (Fiske 1982, 93-5; Fiske & Hartley 1978, 43). Purely structuralist semiotics ignores historicity - unlike historical theories like Marxism.
As Hodge and Tripp note, there can hardly be 'an exhaustive semiotic analysis... because a "complete" analysis... would still be located in particular social and historical circumstances' (Hodge & Tripp 1986, 27). This relates to the most fundamental criticism of semiotics, which comes from Jacques Derrida, who (in Jack Solomon's words) argues that
John Sturrock notes that some semioticians, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, have used semiotics for the 'revelatory' political purpose of 'demystifying' society, and that such approaches can lead to 'loaded' 'readings' of society simply as an ideological conspiracy by one social class against the rest (Sturrock 1986, 91). Sturrock favoured 'a more or less neutral' approach, but few theorists would be likely to accept the possibility of such neutrality.
In treating codes as if they were simply tools which we use without being effected by them, structuralist semiotics neglects the paradox that 'we are... produced by the environment of signification that we have collectively produced' (Fiske & Hartley 1978, 68). John Corner has criticised the way in which some semioticians have treated almost anything as a code, whilst leaving the details of such codes inexplicit (particularly in the case of ideological codes) (Corner 1980).
Since the mid-1980s some semioticians have retained a structuralist concern with formal systems (mainly focusing on detailed studies of narrative, film and TV editing and so on). But many of those still wedded to semiotics have become more concerned with what Stephen Heath calls the 'specific signifying practices' of the makers and users of media texts (see Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 55; see also Fiske on 'ideology and signification'; Fiske 1982, 150-151). Such 'reformed' semioticians practice 'poststructuralist' semiotics, focusing on what one has called 'situated social semiosis' (Jensen 1995, 57). As Victor Burgin notes, of several discourses, 'Marxism and psychoanalysis [the latter particularly derived from the work of Jacques Lacan] have most informed [poststructuralist] semiotics in its moves to grasp the determinations of history and the subject in the production of meaning' (Burgin 1982, 144-5). Strinati argues that semiotics has been used 'to render the Marxist theory of ideology less deterministic and instrumental. However, this still tends to underestimate the ways in which what is produced is itself subject to conflicts and negotiations, and how the meanings produced may not be uniform, consistent, unambiguous or reducible to a coherent dominant ideology' (Strinati 1995, 127).
Semiotics can be applied to anything which can be seen as signifying something. Even within the context of the mass media you can apply semiotic analysis to any media texts, including television and radio programmes, films, cartoons, newspaper and magazine articles, posters and other ads. I strongly recommend detailed comparison and contrast of paired media texts dealing with a similar topic: this is a lot easier than trying to analyse a single text. It may also help to use a good example of semiotic analysis by an experienced practitioner as a model for your own analysis. John Fiske offers a valuable account of 'semiotic methods and applications' (Fiske 1982, 103-117).
See also general reference works on communication, media, language, literary theory, social science and the history of ideas.
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