Semiotics: Language and Culture

Linguistic and Cultural Semiotics is a branch of communication theory that investigates sign systems and the modes of representation that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies. Semiotic analysis is rarely considered a field of study in its own right, but is used in a broad range of disciplines, including art, literature, anthropology, sociology, and the mass media. Semiotic analysis looks for the cultural and psychological patterns that underlie language, art and other cultural expressions. Umberto Eco jokingly suggests that semiotics is a discipline for studying everything which can be used in order to lie." (1976, p7). Whether used as a tool for representing phenomena or for interpreting it, the value of semiotic analysis becomes most pronounced in highly mediated, postmodern environments where encounters with manufactured reality shift our grounding senses of normalcy.

Historical Development

The notion that human thought and communication function by means of signs is an idea that runs deep in Western tradition. The sophist, Prodicus (c. 460-395 B.C.E.), founded his teachings on the practical idea that properly chosen words are fundamental to effective communication. Questioning this notion that words possess some universal, objective meaning, Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) explored the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. He suggested a separateness between an object and the name that is used to signify that object: "Any name which you give, in my opinion, is the right one, and if you change that and give another, the new name is as correct as the old," (Cratylus, 360 B.C.E.). Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) recognized the instrumental nature of the linguistic sign, observing that human thought proceeds by the use of signs and that spoken words are the symbols of mental experience, (On Interpretation, 350 B.C.E). Six centuries later Augustine of Hippas (354-430 A.D.), elaborated on this instrumental role of signs in the process of human learning. For Augustine, language was the brick and mortar with which human beings construct knowledge. "All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learned by means of signs," (On Christian Doctrine, I:2).

Semiotic consciousness became well articulated in the middle ages, due largely to the writing of Roger Bacon (1214-1293). In his extensive tract, De Signis (c. 1267), Bacon distinguished natural signs (i.e. smoke signifies fire) from those involving human communication (both verbal and non-verbal signs). Bacon introduced a triadic semiotic model that describes the relationship between a sign, its object of reference, and the human interpreter. This triad remains a fundamental concept within the modern study semiotics. John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas, 1589-1644) elaborated on the triad, laying down a fundamental science of signs in his Tractatus de Signis, (1632). Poinsot observed that signs are relative beings whose existence consists solely in presenting to human awareness that which they themselves are not. It was the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who finally bestowed a name on the study of signs. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke declared that the "semiotike doctrine of signs" should be one of the three major branches of science along with natural philosophy and practical ethics (Locke, 1690: XXI).

Modern Semiotics

There are two major traditions in modern semiotic theory. One branch is grounded in a European tradition and was led by the Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). The other branch emerged out of American pragmatic philosophy by its primary founder, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Saussure sought to explain how all elements of a language are taken as components of a larger system of language in use. This led to a formal discipline which he called semiology. Peirce's interest in logical reasoning led him to investigate different categories of signs and the manner by which we extract meaning from them. Independently, Saussure and Peirce worked to better understand the triadic relationship between physical signs, the objects to which they refer, and the human interpreter.

Saussure laid the foundation for the structuralist school in linguistics and social theory. A structuralist looks at the units of a system and the rules of logic that are applied to the system, without regard to any specific content. The units of human language are comprised of a limited set of sounds called phonemes, and these comprise an unlimited set of words and sentences, which are put together according to a set of simple rules called grammar. From simple units we derive more complex units that are applied to new rules to form more complex structures (themes, characters, stories, genres, style, etc.). The human mind organizes this structure into cognitive understanding.

The smallest unit of analysis in Saussure's semiology is the sign made up of a signifier or sensory pattern, and a signified, the concept that is elicited in the mind by the signifier. Saussure emphasized that the signifier does not constitute a sign until it is interpreted. Like Plato, Saussure recognized the arbitrary association between a word and what it stands for. Word selection becomes a matter, not of identity, but of difference. Differences carry signification. A sign is what all other signs are not (Saussure, 1916/1959: 118).

Charles Sanders Peirce shared the Saussurian observation that most signs are symbolic and arbitrary, but he called attention to iconic signs that physically resemble their referent and indexical signs that possess a logical connection to their referent (Peirce, 1898/1955:98-104). To Peirce, the relationship of the sign to the object is made in the mind of the interpreter as a mental tool which Peirce called the interpretant. As Peirce describes it, semiosis (the process of sign interpretation) is an iterative process involving multiple inferences. The signifier elicits in the mind an interpretant which is not the final signified object, but a mediating thought that promotes understanding. In other words, a thought is a sign requiring interpretation by a subsequent thought in order to achieve meaning. This mediating thought might be a schema, a mental model, or a recollection of prior experience that enables the subject to move forward toward understanding. The interpretant itself becomes a sign that can elicit yet another interpretant, leading the way toward an infinite series of unlimited semioses (Eco, 1979:193). By this analysis, Peirce shifts the focus of semiotics from a relational view of signs and the objects they represent to an understanding of semiosis as an iterative, mediational process.

Charles Morris (1901-1979) was a semiotician who adapted Peirce's work to a form of behaviorism derived from the influence of his teacher, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). For Morris, semiotics involves goal-seeking behavior in which signs exercise control, (Morris, 1971:85). Morris identified four aspects within the process of semiosis: (1) the sign vehicle which orients a person toward a goal, (2) the interpreter, or the subject of the semiotic activity, (3) the designatium, or the object to which the sign refers, and (4) the interpretant, which is the cognitive reaction elicited in the mind of the interpreter (Morris, 1971: 19,38). Morris attempted to subdivide the field of semiotics into three subfields. Semantics studies the affiliations between the world of signs and the world of things. Syntactics observes how signs relate to other signs. Pragmatics explains the effects of signs on human behavior (Morris, 1971: 23).

Russian Influences

Saussure's abstraction of language as a self-contained system of signs became the target of criticism by those who saw language as a socially constituted fabric of human interchange. Language is highly contextual and humans acquire language by assimilating the voices of those around them. Language is not a fixed system but it changes as it is used through interaction with peers in modes of discourse. This philosophy, known as dialogics was the outgrowth of intellectual development in Soviet Russia by a group whose work centered on the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). The Bakhtin Circle addressed the social and cultural issues posed by the Russian Revolution and its degeneration into the Stalin dictatorship. Members included Matvei Kagen (1889-1937), Pavel Medvedev (1891-1938), and Valantine Voloshinov (1895-1936), among others. The group dissolved in 1929 after members faced political arrest. Bakhtin himself was not a pure semiotician, but he engaged with others, most notably Voloshinov, in the investigation of how language and understanding emerges in the process of dialog.

Voloshinov argued that all utterances have an inherently dialogic character. According to Voloshinov, dialog is the fundamental feature of speech. In his view, signs have no independent existence outside of social practice. Signs are seen as components of human activity, and it is within human activity that signs take on their form and meaning (Voloshinov, 1929/1986: 25).

Another Russian, Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), applied the instrumental notion of semiotics toward cognition and learning (the relationship suggested much earlier by Augustine and Aristotle). Vygotsky identified the pivotal role of language during the exercise of complex mental functions. In Mind and Society (1930/1978) Vygotsky observes how planning abilities in children are developed through linguistic mediation of action. The child "plans how to solve the problem through speech and then carries out the prepared solution through overt activity" (Vygotsky, 1978:28). He observed the similarity between physical tools and verbal artifacts as instruments of human activity. From his extensive and detailed observations of child development, Vygotsky concluded that higher-order thinking transpires by means of what he called "inner speech", the internalized use of linguistic signs (Vygotsky, 1986:94).

Rhetorical Techniques and Ethical Implications

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) is probably the most significant semiologist to assume the mantle of Saussure. Barthes developed a sophisticated structuralist analysis to deconstruct the excessive rhetorical maneuvers within popular culture that engulfed Europe after World War II. Anything was fair game for Barthes's structuralist critique including literature, media, art, photography, architecture, and even fashion. Barthes's most influential work, Mythologies (1957/1972) continues to have an influence on critical theory today. Myths are signs that carry with them larger cultural meanings. In fifty-four short essays written between 1952 and 1954, Barthes describes myth as a well formed, sophisticated system of communication that serves the ideological aims of a dominant class. Barthes's notion of myth is that of a socially constructed reality that is passed off as natural. Myth is a mode of signification in which the signifier is stripped of its history, the form is stripped of its substance, and then it is adorned with a substance that is artificial, but which appears entirely natural. Through mythologies, deeply partisan meanings are made to seem well established and self-evident. The role of the mythologist is to identify the artificiality of those signs that disguise their historical and social origins.

Barthes was critical of journalistic excesses that justified the French Algerian War. Skillfully, he deconstructs French journalism rendered by writers who have perfected the art of taking sides while disguising behind airs of neutrality, claiming to express the voice of common sense. Barthes observes that the myth is more understandable and more believable than the story that it supplants because the myth introduces self-evident truths that conform to the dominant historical and cultural position. This naturalization lends power to such myths. They go without saying. They need no further explanation or demystification (Barthes, 1972: 130). American journalism is no less rich with its own mythical contributions to history. From the Alamo (1835-6), to the sinking of the Main (1898), to the sinking of the Lucitania (1917), to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964), to Iraqi aluminum tubes (2003): in each case, the respective signifier was stripped of its own history and replaced with a more natural and believable narrative. These particular examples underscore the ethical implications of mythologies since each was specifically instrumental in recruiting popular support behind an offensive war by making it appear to be a defensive war.

Mythologies are not limited to the realms of journalism, advertising, and the cinema, but they find their way into all aspects of modern society. Science is no exception. Science educator, Jay Lemke, speaks of a special mystique of science, a set of harmful myths that favor the interests of a small elite, (Lemke 1990: 129). Lemke believes that airs of objectivity and certainty in science discourse lend themselves to an authoritarian culture that serves to undermine student confidence. He describes linguistic practices that place artificial barriers between the pedagogy of science and common experience. He asserts that a belief in the objectivity and certainty of science is very useful to anyone in power who wants to use science as a justification for imposing the policy decisions they favor. "Science is presented as authoritative, and from there it is a small step to its becoming authoritarian," (Lemke, 1990:31). George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) describe a myth of objectivism in science writing that portrays a world of objects possessing inherent properties and fixed relations that are entirely independent of human experience. Objectivist writing emerged in the seventeenth century, and today, it assumes the dominant position in modern discourses of science, law, government, business, and scholarship. Postmodern critics point to objectivism's failure to account for our thoughts, our experience, and our language, which is largely metaphorical. Metaphors are pervasive and generally unrecognized within a culture of positivism. Highlighting the use of metaphors is a useful key to identifying whose realities are actually privileged in academic writing (Chandler, 2002:26).

Barthes's role as France's supreme social critic has fallen to a contemporary French writer, Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929). The cultural theorist argues that postmodern culture with its rich, exotic media is a world of signs that have made a fundamental break from reality. Our contemporary mass culture experiences a world of simulation having lost the capacity to comprehend an unmediated world. Baudrillard coined the term simulacra to describe a system of objects in a consumer society distinguished by the existence of multiple copies with no original. We experience manufactured realities: carefully edited war footage, meaningless acts of terrorism, and the destruction of cultural values (Baudrillard, 1988:166).

In an age of corporate consolidation where popular culture is influenced by an elite few with very powerful voices, semiotic analysis is deemed essential for information consumers. Semiotics informs us about a text, its underlying assumptions and its various dimensions of interpretation. Semiotics offers us a lens into human communication. It sharpens the consumer's own consciousness surrounding a given text. It informs us about the cultural structures and human motivations that underlie perceptual representations. It rejects the possibility that we can represent the world in a neutral fashion. It unmasks the deep-seated rhetorical forms and underlying codes that fundamentally shape our realities. Semiotic analysis is a critical skill for media literacy in a postmodern world.


Title: Semiotics: Language and Culture
Author: Martin Ryder
May, 2004


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Semiotics: Language and Culture. from Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics.
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