Daniel Chandler: Semiotics: The Basics

[Readings] (08.17.08, 4:06 pm)


Chandler summarizes the theory of semiotics from a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives. The book reviews the history of semiotics and the various models of sign systems, how they have been applied to analysis of speech and language, and how these have changed over time. The text serves to emphasize some of the moral and cognitive qualities that semiotics has in that interpretation of the world can shape the world.


Chandler first defines a sign as something that stands for something else. “Semiotics involves the study of not only what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else.” Semiotics works to analyze signs in context of a sign system, such as a medium or genre. (p. 2)

Semiotics appears as a rival to “content analysis”, which often resorted to qualitative means. (This mirrors development in sociology from statisical sociology to symbolic). It addresses latent and connotative meanings (as opposed to ostensible textual meanings, then again, textual meaning often derives from metaphorical/semiotic attribution…) “While content analysis involves a quantitative approach to the analysis of the manifest ‘content’ of media texts, semiotics seeks to analyse texts as structured wholes and investigates latent, connotative meanings.” (p. 8)

Semiotics uncovers ideology: moral implications of signs. “Contemporary social semiotics has moved beyond the sctructuralist focus on signifying systems as languages, seeking to explore the use of signs in specific social situations. Modern semiotic theory is often allied to a Marxist approach which stresses the role of ideology.” Saussure separates Langue-Language from Parole-Speech. Differences between system/usage structure/event, code/message, all emphasized in classic structuralist dichotomy. (p. 12)

Study of semiotics denaturalizes signs and makes them visible where normally transparent. Especially relevant in simulation… “Through the study of semiotics, we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in ‘reading’ them.” (p. 15)

Critique of traditional model (Saussure): both signifier and signified are abstract, form rather than substance (speech and idea). Material need arises in sign system… (p. 18) Separation of sign systems. Saussure’s system was structural and relational, not referential. Value of sign is determined by other signs within the system. This descends into Baudrillard’s simulation. (p. 22)

Signs are arbitrary. “The arbitrariness of the sign is a radical concept because it establishes the autonomy of language in relation to reality. The Saussurean model, with its emphasis on internal structures within a sign system, can be seen as supporting the notion that language does not ‘reflect’ reality but rather constructs it.” Heayv Baudrillard connection here, also tradition in AI, gives way to closed disembodied systems. (p.28)

Another model of semiotics, the Piercian model (Charles Sanders Pierce): Has emphasis on process, rather than structure. Divides three part model of signs: Representamen (form sign takes), Interpretant (sense of sign, cognitive value), Object (to which the sign refers). Notion is that interpretant is a sign in eye of interpreter, so the semiotic reflection experiences endless regressesion. Any interpretation may be reinterpreted. Method later adopted by poststructuralists. (p. 33)

Types of relations of signs. Signs relate to each other and reality in a variety of ways. These seem to be from Saussure, but Chandler explains them more here. Symbolic: sign is arbitrary or conventional, relationship must be learned. Iconic: sign resembles object, but generally superficially or exaggeratedly (part stands for whole). Indexical: sign is directly connected in some way, but may be interpreted (readings on thermometer). Can extend: Symbol-AI, Icon/Symbol-Sim/Games, Index-?? (p. 36-37)

Reality is created by the representable. But who represents? What media? Resembles Levy: we affect the world via thought. “A radical response to realists is that things do not exist independently of the sign-systems that we use; reality is created by the media which seem simply to represent it.” (p. 57)

Platonic philosophical idealism: sign of object is Ideal, an Essential object. Saussure can be interpreted towards this perspective. Variations of perspectives: idealist, realist, constructionist. (p. 59)

Film theorist Andre Bazin describes the ‘reproductive fallacy’ of representation. Namely, exact reproduction cannot be made of an object (a text, specifically). Namely this bears on adaptation or translation in representation. Symbology comes into play for psychological or emotional realism in observation of a text (like a tv show), where it may seem true to life. Note that 1) text reproduction is interesting with mechanical reproduction, and 2) reproduction complex on personal level. This is a very extendible thread here… (p. 63)

Analysis of Magritte painting. “The Treachery of Images”: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Process becomes one of defamiliarization. Compare with the analysis of simulation. (p. 65)

Chandler specifically uses the term ‘transparency’ in application to language. Modern language makes invisible the abstraction and arbitration of signs and denotative nature of language (speech acts) in reference to real world. Consider relation of transparency to realism. Realism necessarily implies representation, (much like immersion), and realism cannot really work if it is meant to be transparent. A work may not be real but also transparently refer to something, right? Presence of image implies absence of referent. (p. 73)

Explicit Baudrillard ref here. Signs point beyond themselves and form simulacra in their own system. (p.76)

Chandler defins two axes of understanding: Syntagm and Paradigm. Relates to meaning and media, and the neutrality of the medium. These axes define characteristics of relations of signs. “Paradigmnatic relations can thus be seen as ‘contrastive'”, ie, differences between shapes, colors, between like concepts of a kind. A syntagm is a chain of meaning. “A sentence is a syntagm of words”. There are large units of syntagms composed of smaller units. Maybe not linear chain, but order? (p. 81)

Syntagmatic relationships tend to be…. conceptual, spatial, or sequential. Narrative is especially dependent on this characteristic of sequence. Syntagms can be montage and conceptual flows, but do not need to be narrative explicitly. But is this the case, given concepts and understanding of narratives, is something sequential not a narrative in some degree? Goodman 1990, and Easthope 1990 split structural conventions into “masculine” and “feminine”, masculine structures are “‘tight’, orderly and logical… defensive structures”. It is unclear what feminine structures are, although it is interesting to see the emphasis on gender in reasoning, especially with its attribution to modes of thought. (p. 84-85)

Overview of narrative form from semiotic perspective: “Narratives help to make the strange familiar. They provide structure, predictibility, and coherence. In this respect they are similar to schemas for familiar events in everyday life. Turning experience into narratives seems to be a fundamental feature of the human drive to make meaning.” (p. 90) Narrative is natural the way that language is natural, in that it is familiar and transparent. It is, however, like language and semiotics, deep with room for extra meanings, moral, epistemic, and ontological choices. Consider and compare with Foucault’s “ruptures”: discontinuities, disjunctions in structures and sequence.

Analysis of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. Flows into structuralist semiotician “Algirdas Greimas” who proposed a grammar for any known narrative structure. (in 1938, 1987) Split up narratives into three syntagmatic categories: Performanciels, contractuels, disjuntionnels. These are defined by binary oppositions called “actants”: subject-object, sender-receiver, helper-opponent. Jonathan Culler criticizes Greimas’ methodology (1975). (p. 95-96)

One feature of sign structures is the naturalization of binary opposition, a “us and them” mentality. Paradigmatic distinctions lead to matters of difference and dyadism. These are naturalized in their usage so it is hard to imagine conception without that distinction. Self is defined in terms of negation of other. Relates to Lacanian mirror stage, etc. (p. 104)

Discussion of figurative language. Literal and figurative blend. Eventually tropes appear in semiotic model (figurative becomes literal definition). According to some (Lakoff, Jakobson) metaphor integral to our understanding of meaning in everyday life. Compare w Foucault’s lingistic determinism, that tropes determine what can be known in an age. (p. 124-126)

Types of ‘master’ tropes: Metaphor, Metonymy, Synechdoche, Irony. Consider difference between literal, ironic, lie. Meanings are doubled in semiotic frame… (p. 135-136)

Analysis of codes in society: Codes are domains and partitions and frameworks of interaction and discourse. These define procuedural, functional boundaries. Define cultures and domains. Jameson: Perception is interpretation. There are social codes, textual codes, and interpretive codes. Codes may be applied towards the world, medium or genre, or modality (which is which). (p. 148-150)

In social codes, social determination occurs via codes: consider determinism in simulation, based on codes and grammar. Social differentiation is over-determined by codes. Codes may be verbal, physical, presentational (dress, conduct), etc. Compare w Goffman, treat sociological behaviors as codified? (p. 154)

“Realism involves an instrumental view of the medium as a neutral means for representing reality. The signified is foregrounded at the expense of the signifier.” (p. 161)

Discussion of speech and meaning transmission, models of discourse. Consider instead variation of process, what happens in communication? Empirically what changes other than the transmission of ideas? What does the transmission of ideas DO? (p. 177)

“As an approach to communication which focuses on meaning and interpretation, semiotics challenges the reductive transmission model. Signs do not just ‘convey’ meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed. Semiotics helps us to realize that meaning is not just passively absorbed, but arises only in the active process of interpretation. Even within the structuralist paradigm, someone has to relate signs to each other and to the codes within which they make sense.” (p. 217)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorChandler, Daniel
TitleSemiotics: The Basics
ContextA review of semiotics, and specifically addresses ideas of communication and shared meaning. Covers several theories on how meaning is made and communicated.
Tagsmedia theory, semiotics, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. DC,

    We’re currently exploring sign systems and their applications over at the ahainstitute.com . Thought you might find the discussion interesting. Skip back through some of the “lamen” replies for the really meaty stuff.

    Comment by Dejon H. — August 26, 2008 @ 11:04 am

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