Saturday, October 21, 2006

Semiotics 101

Just a short note before we get into the core of the matter. This blog is set up to chronicle all my Theory Module research for my MA Art and Media Practice course. Exactly what it says on the tin (metaphorically speaking), this blog aims at posting my reactions and musings, to assigned theory readings. So if you're looking for the latest information about Brittany Spears or the latest chart show, then look no further, for I sincerely advise you to read on in an attempt to get that head of yours thinking outside the social, and commercial box!

For my first posting I am requested to comment on Dani Cavallaro's ''Critical and Cultural Theory'' book. In particular part 1, chapter 2 ''The Sign''; online excerpts of roland barthes writing in particular extracts from Roland Barthes essays ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ [Analysis of the Panzani Ad] ‘Myth Today’ (in Mythologies), 'Denotation, Connotation and Myth' and the online edition of Daniel Chandler’s 'Semiotics for Beginners', in particular ''Signs''

So feel free to click on any of the hyperlinks underlined for more details.

Chronicalling what I deem the most important text to understanding semiotics 'ABC'-style; seeing as I'm going to take the Semiotic subject from its elimentary stages (yep this topic is very much 'semiotic for beginners' for me as it gets), I will be commenting first on Cavallaro's ''The Sign'', as it gives the basic definitions of terms I was later exposed to regularly throughout the assigned readings.

Firstly, Semiotics is...?

Just to make sure we are all on the right track, let's firstly define what Semiotics is. Basically Semiotics is '..the study [and analysis] of language as a system of signs' (Cavallaro, p16). Semiotics views that all aspects of a culture can be taken as a system of signs.

What are Signs?

Signs are regarded as verbal and visual languages, movements, postures and gestures, buildings and furniture, clothes, accessories, and even menus. Therefore, understanding a culture would entail 'detecting and interpreting' its system of signs.

This is not to say that signs embody certain, or specific meanings or concepts, instead '..they give us clues which only lead to meaning through interpretation'.

Ferdinand de Saussure's Sign Elements
According to Swiss linguist Saussure who revolutionised the study of language, a sign consisted of two elements:
  • The Signifier: the sound-image or form
  • The Signified: the conveyed or represented concept
This can be further illuminated by the following dyadic diagram of the sign.

The sign is the whole that results from the association, or combination of the signifier with the signified.
The relationship between the signifier and the signified is known as 'signification', and this is represented in the diagram to the left by the arrows. Whereas the horizontal line is referred to as 'the bar'.
Therefore, from the diagram above we can conclude that the representation of the signifier and signified through a sign, cannot be seperated from eachother: each exists to compliment the other, and cannot exist without the other.

Let's take a linguistic example. The word 'Tree'.
The Signifier: the sound uttered when the word 'tree' is said, and the letters t-r-e-e put down on paper when writing.The Signified: the concept of a natural growth with green leaves and a brown stalk, with many branches
Thus, a sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified.

Semiosis: Charles Sanders Peirce and the Tryiadic Sign Model

A pragmatist philosopher and logician Peirce identified three types of signs.

The Icon: a sign based on a resemblance between signifier and signified (e.g: a portrait)
The Index: a sign in which signifier and signified are causally related (e.g: natural signs, smoke means fire)

The Sign Proper/Symbol: the sign in which the relationship between signifier and signified are intirely arbitrary (they must be learnt).

Peirce also created his own model of the sign in the form of a triadic, three pronged, model. For according to Peirce, a sign is only capable of conveying meaning by the availability of an interpreter who is ultimately in the position of recognising it ' a sign, and to connect it to some relevant aspect of the world' (Cavallaro, p.18). Also that the interpreter themself is a sign for 's/he is able to interpret signs insofar as s/he has been equipped by a culture with the means of doing so' (Cavallaro, p.18).

Therefore, according to Peirce's triadic model, a sign consists of:
  • The Representamen: the form which the sign takes
  • An Interpretant: the sense made of the sign
  • An Object: to which the sign refers

In simple Layman terms, and using a traffic light sign for 'stop' example this can be explained as: a red light facing traffic at an intersection (the representamen); vehicles coming to a halt (the object) and the idea that a red light indicates that vehicles must stop (the interpretant).
Therfore a sign, representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some aspect or another. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent, or maybe an even more developed sign. That sign which it creates is what is called the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. And the interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant is referred to as 'semiosis'.

What are Denotation and Connotation?

According to Daniel Chandler, Denotation can be described as the definitional, literal, obvious or commonsense meaning of a sign. In the case of words (linguistic signs), the denotative meaning is what we'd find in a dictionary. But according to art historian Erwin Panofsky, 'the denotation of a representational visual image is what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the image as depicting'.

Connotation though is used to refer to the 'socio-cultural and 'personal' associations (ideological, emotional etc.) of the sign'. These are, in turn, related to the interpreter's class, age, gender, ethnicity, society, etc. Nevertheless, connotations are not just personal meanings, but they are determined by the codes and conventions to which the interpreter has access, namely the environment, or social surrounding.

Using an example of, and with reference to, a photograph, according to Fiske 'denotation is what is photographed; connotation is how it is photographed'. Consequently, connotation cannot be easily seperated from denotation, for no sign is purely denotative, lacking connotation. This is because comprehension and interpretation are similarly inseperable too.

The Power of Connotation: The Panzani Advert
Demonstrating the power of connotation in the context of advertising, Roland Barthes uses the following Panzani advert to show this. According to Barthes, this advert contains many signs.

Signifier: open bag with products spilling out from it
Signified: a scene representing a return from the market connoting the freshness of the products and the domestic preparation which they will be used for.
Connotation: a knowledge about habits of a very widespread culture where shopping around for oneself is opposed to the hasty stocking up of a more 'mechanical' civilization.

Signifier: bringing together of tomato, pepper and red, green and yellow hues
Signified: Italy, or more, Italianicity.
Connotation: certain French and Italian tourist stereotypes

Signifier: the serried collection of different objects
Signified: the idea of a total culinary service as though Panzani furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish

And Finally:
Signifier: the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings
Signified: the 'nature morte' or, the 'still life'
Connotation: a heavily cultural knowledge

So we can say that changing the form of the signifier while keeping the same signified can generate different connotations, as we can see from the above Panzani advert, for changes of style or tone can involve different connotations. Even the choice of words can involve connotations, for example 'union demands' vs. 'management offers'.

...and Myth?

Humans usually associate myths with classical fables about gods and heroes, for example 'Hercules'. But according to Barthes myths are the dominant ideologies of the time. Served to maintain them, signs and codes are generated by myths. Even constant usage of the term 'myth' suggests that it refers to beliefs which are actually false, but the semiotic use does not necessarily mean this.

Myths can actually be inferred as extended metaphors, for like metaphors 'myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture'. They are there to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture.

For Barthes, 'myths serve the ideological function of naturalization'. Their function is to naturalize the cultural, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely natural, normal, obvious, timeless, even common-sense; thus inferring true reflections of the way things are. On the other hand though, myths can also work to hide the ideological function of signs and codes. The power of such myths is that they 'go without saying' and so appear not to need to be interpreted or deciphered.

Semiotic Analysis: Three Orders / Levels of Signification
  • First Denotative order: primarily representational and relatively self-contained
  • Second Connotative order: reflects 'expressive' values which are attached to a sign
  • Third Mythological or Ideological order: the sign reflects major culturally-variable concepts underlining a particular worldview (for example: masculinity, femininity, freedom, etc).

Therefore, in conclusion, the semiotic analysis of cultural myths involves an attempt to deconstruct the ways in which codes operate, and revealing how certain values, attitudes and beliefs are supported whilst others are suppressed.

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