Semiotics

Ferdinand de Sausure

Ferdinand Sausure (1857-1913) was interested in Linguistics, in other words, he was interested in Language – so you can see why we look at him in Media Studies. As a brief overview, he was interested in the connection between’ a thing’, ‘an object’, a something’ and the meaning that human beings then attach to ‘this thing’.

He wanted to explore this area, as it seemed to suggest that things don’t have an innate meaning, rather that meaning is given to things, often through some form of interaction – hence, the notion of symbolic interactionism.

Sausure then developed an approach to understanding the way in which meaning is created by detaching the signifier (the thing, the object) and the signified (the meaning). So it is important to try and use these two terms when referring to Sausure, when you are discussing key elements or signs in a text.

C S Pierce

Pierce  (1839 -1914) was also a Linguist. Also interested in Language. Also therefore appropriate to Semiotics, when you are looking to use some key language to deconstruct a cultural text. Again he was looking to develop an understanding of the way in which Language is a way of connecting meaning to different signs. Often he is used to identify different types of sign, which can be categorised into three distinct categories:

  1. An iconic sign – which has a direct connection to its’ object (ie it looks or sounds like the object)
  2. An indexical sign – which has an indirect link to its’ object (think smells)
  3. A symbolic sign – which has a random or arbitary link based on a shared knowledge or an agreement, for example, a shared culture or language (think letters, words, writing, shapes, squiggles, colours, sound effects, facial expressions, hand gestures, clothing, hair styles, etc)

I don’t want to present an example deconstruction in this post, as you need to do that in class with your teacher, but if you look at the featured image on this post, you can start to identify a range of different signs.

  • iconic signs – people, glasses, dummy etc things that are present which have a direct connection to its’ object (ie they are not real people, they are a photograph of people, they are not real glasses, it is a photograph of a real pair of glasses). In this way you can start to break down the object – in this case the elements in the photograph – to the objects in real life.  A process which disconnects the signifiers (the things) from the signified (what these things might mean). As such, you can start to understand how reality is constructed through symbolic forms. Or how the world is re-presented / represented through the media.
  • Indexical signs – look at the type of clothing that young people wear, what does that link to? The clothing that I am wearing, which may indicate who I am and what is the relationship between the young people and myself? What do glasses link to? What does placing the glasses on the dummy head mean? All of these signs have indirect links to meaning, because in this instance, we have think about what we see (the signifier) and what it might mean (the signified). In other words, it is not obvious and requires some interpretation, in that the sign provides an index to meaning, but it is not direct, explicit or clear.
  • Symbolic signs – the hand gestures, the writing, the use of black and white & colour, all of which have random or arbitary links.  In other words, you really have to know something about hand gestures and be part of a culture that agrees on their meaning for this to make sense. In a more simple illustration you have to be able to understand the English Language to read and decode the writing, as this would not make sense if you didn’t. At a micro level the signs ‘R.I.P.’ only make sense if you are part of a community or language group that is familiar with this. At a more advanced level, you can only make sense of the meaning of this photograph is you are able to notice and decode the relationship between one sign and another. For example, the hand gestures, the facial expressions and the clothing.
  • Indeed, the way in which signs work together is worth recognising (although this is not associated with Pierce). For example, a group of similar signs is known as a paradigm and the way in which signs work together is often called a syntagym.

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