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Semiotics means the study of the study of signs and symbols. The word derives from the Greek semeion, meaning 'a mark, sign, trace or omen'. Semioticians see human culture as comprising of signs. Material objects are important (literally, 'significant') for the meanings we give to them, that is what they 'signify'. Semiotics stands at the furthest extreme from materialist visions of human culture.

The real fun of semiotics is that not only are objects – the 'signs' – most important for what they 'signify', but any one sign is capable of signifying different things in different contexts. Above all, semiotics recognises that many of these signs operate as metaphors or metonyms, which in turn leads into cognitive linguistics. The meaning of the 'signs' in our cultures are not inherent in the signs, or even what they refer to, but derive form the relationships between them. The 'observer' is part of that relationship, so there can never be a detached or 'objective' understanding. This means the presumed detachment of scientific rationalism is illusory.

The literature on semiotics is vast and a search of the Internet will reveal a great diversity of disciplines in which the ideas have been influential (these even extend out of the human world as 'biosemiotics' is an interdisciplinary approach to communication and signification in all living systems). Most of this literature is deeply scholarly and fairly opaque to the general reader. However a number of semioticians have made a name for themselves outside the ivory towers of academe, notably Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes (especially his 1957 book Mythologies [English translation published 1972]), Umberto Eco (such as his collection of essays published in 1987 as Travels in Hyper-reality) and Noam Chomsky.

Semiotics might seem rather aridly intellectual. Far from it, as cyber guru Erik Davis reveals:

    The inevitable loss of adolescence's anxious magic was hastened by the Yale professors who infected me with the deeply skeptical thought viruses of neo-Marxist critical theory, deconstruction, and other post-everything razzmatazz. This semiotic house of mirrors simply confirmed my already ingrained suspicion that reality can only be glimpsed through a kaleidoscope of overlapping and even contradictory perspectives. I came to see the world as a carnival of hybrids, of people and places and modes of mind woven from nucleic acids and dreams, money and poems, sex and machines.
    Erik Davis's homepage

Perhaps picking up from Barthes 1950s semiotic analysis of steak and chips, Elaine Showalter has looked at the semitoics of food.

    The academic world also has changed a lot, and the food evolution has been semiotic as well as sustaining. Since the sixties, among both US and UK scholars, food has signified sex, power, and art. In 1963, with the celebrated eating scene in the movie Tom Jones, food began to stand for erotic desires and possibilities. In her wonderful 1999 memoir My Kitchen Wars, cookbook writer Betty Fussell described her discovery of sensuality in French cooking while she was at Princeton University in the 1960s: 'Every new food opened up new sexual analogues. To explore the interstices of escargots with the aid of fork and clamp, each shell in its place on the hot metal round, each dark tongue hidden deep within the whorls and only with difficulty teased out and eased into the pool of garlic-laden butter – what could be sexier than that?'
    Food: My dinner with Derrida

Semiotics provides important ways of approaching the ideas and 'messages' (intentional and otherwise) of the mass media. Back in 1987 John Fiske wrote:

    It is, of course, the polysemy of the TV text that allows its easy incorporation into a wide diversity of sub-cultures. The semiotic effort of TV is not to produce meanings but to control and hierarchise them. Dallas simply has more meanings than Hollywood can control or than any one audience group can activate. Recent studies of TV news have shown how it is replete with meanings that escape from or contradict the ideological control that the news format attempts to impose. This plurality of meanings is, of course, not a structureless pluralism, but is tightly organised around textual and social power. The preferred meanings in TV are generally those that serve the interests of the dominant classes: other meanings are structured in relations of dominance-subordination to these preferred ones as the social groups that activate them are structured in a power relationship within the social system. The textual attempt to curtail meaning is the semiotic equivalent of the exercise of social power over the diversity of subordinate social groups. There is an unwinnable hegemonic contest for meanings within the text, just as the text is part of the unwinnable hegemonic social struggle. The relations of meanings within the text are structured by the differential distribution of textual power in the same way that social groups are related according to the differential distribution of social power. The polysemic text is no haven for the liberal pluralist of deconstructionism; all meanings are not equal and the activation of any one set of them does not occur at the unmotivated whim of the reader. Meanings are activated by a process of struggle as social interests are promoted by a process of struggle.
    TV: re-situating the popular in the people

TV is not just news and soaps. B. Hodge and D. Tripp's 1986 book Children and Television: A semiotic approach was a pioneering study of how both pedagogic programmes and 'entertainment', such as cartoons, create the world-view of children. More recently Stephani Woodson has looked at the children's TV programme, Teletubbies and noted that it 'does not integrate obvious pedagogical structures'. Indeed:

    Teletubbies disrupts adult constructions of childhood in another way as well. Items appear and disappear at least once, generally twice, a program: these objects include guitars, mirrors, balloons, and magical manifestations like clouds that rain flowers, dancing bears, and trees that rapidly cycle through the seasons. These phenomena surface regardless of narrative or causal logic; in fact they often have no relationship to previous segments at all. They exist as images of play and function only so long as the tubbies remain interested in them. The entire organization of Teletubbiescontains comparable semiotic combinations. Rather than stressing or even creating a straightforward narrative with clear causal relationships, as does Barney and Friends, Teletubbiesexists as image and is arranged around play rather than story. There is no concept of "fate" or "consequence" in this show. Occurrences happen because they happen and "impossible" events can occur just as frequently as more plausible ones.
    Exploring the Cultural Topography of Childhood: Television performing the 'child' to children

Semiotics has long since moved from offering alternative readings of mass media and advertising. Big businesses and their advertising agencies have long been expert semioticians. As Ruth Shalit notes in her article 'The Return of the Hidden Persuaders':

    ... far from being consigned to the maverick fringe, the new psycho- persuaders of corporate America have colonized the marketing departments of mainstream conglomerates. At companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble and Daimler-Chrysler, the most sought-after consultants hail not from McKinsey & Company, but from brand consultancies with names like Archetype Discoveries, PsychoLogics and Semiotic Solutions.
    Cited by John Fraim in Friendly Persuasion: The growing ubiquity of advertising, or What happens when everyone becomes an ad?

Folklore, mythology, cultural studies and many other disciplines are essentially about studying the 'signs' of a culture. Cult studs has always been fully aware of semiotics but folklore and mythology has mostly been studied with, at best, a na´ve awareness of how the 'objects' of human culture are less important than the significance they are given, and how that significance changes depending on the context. Most, perhaps all, the articles in foamy custard can be regarded as having an awareness of semiotics, even if this is not always 'write large'.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003; lightly revised 2005


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