Understanding Semiotics.


Understanding Semiotics.


How we communicate with each other, from passing each other on the street, to the more complex forms of communication is the essence of what we will understand by the study of media and communications. When there is a breakdown in communications within any relationship the penalties can be disastrous. More significantly this breakdown in communications, when it occurs in the media can often have disastrous consequences.

In the media there is always a message and successful communications is most important. To understand communications we must study the works of the theorists. Theories are constructed to establish the quality of a specific model of communications. Some theories are, in the modern age, considered out-dated but still retain significance because they help us to understand how we got to today’s thinking.

This article on media and communications will focus on both the communicator and the recipient. The study of this co-relationship between both elements of the communicative process is necessary because the former needs to understand the needs of the latter and vice versa. To understand this relationship we need a number of tools. Once these tools are applied any form of media can be analysed regardless of it being audio, video or print.

As communicators we need to understand the essential elements of the science of communications and the ‘texts’ it uses. The concept of text is not necessarily about wordage but the message the sign is sending us. We need to fully comprehend not only what is being said but also what is not being said. We must keep in mind that the media has an agenda that is constructed and we need to know what this agenda is and why it is constructed in a particular fashion. Nothing is as it seems and there is always something else going on. It is our task to explore these questions.

If we are successful in our understanding we begin to ask questions about what media messages are telling us about ourselves and others. We get our opinions from the media and as such we must evaluate them in the context of their source. We get our knowledge from the media and we are saturated by it. We are constantly subjected to media forces. As a result of this we have to approach it with an open mind. These messages we are receiving are delivered to us with numerous constraints and this inevitably means these messages may be, in some way, contaminated. We are continuously exposed to media in all its forms. We need to explore how the media will package its message in a saturated environment. Media professionals working in the media industry and producing professional products are doing so in specific ways and for specific reasons.

Semiotics is a radical way of thinking about what we see and hear going on around us. It is an analysis of the generation of meaning in all forms of communication. Semiotics focuses on the signs that flash by us as we move through our daily lives. It is also the study of the codes which can be deconstructed, using various tools, to help us ascertain in which codes are organised. Signs and codes are at work all around us all the time. We hear new terms all the time as the media becomes more complex a new language is required. In semiotics we look at signs, signifiers, signification, denotation, connotation, icon, index and symbol.

The main theorists in Semiotics are Ferdinand de Sassure who focused on the language and linguistics of signs, Charles Pierce who studied images and non-verbal signs and Roland Barthes who focused on Contemporary Media. The word ‘Semiotics’ is from the Greek word ‘semeion’, meaning sign. It is a study of signs with society. It can be applied to a wide variety of media texts. It investigates the complexity of media messages and can be understood (partially) by a theory of signs. Semiotics can assist us as Media Students in many ways. The process of signing is closely tied up with questions of textual power. It shows how meaning is made or produced and it further shows how all our knowledge, values and beliefs are social rather than individual. Semiotics gets us thinking about representation, how texts (messages or signs) can be examined, not just for obvious content but for what these ‘texts’ have to say.

Saussure was a Swiss Linguist who was interested in the language of signs and the complexity of sentence construction and how signs relate to each other. He argues that the arbitrary nature of the sign is at the heart of human language. One of the things that characterises verbal language, in comparison to pictures, is that the relationship between signifiers and signified is an accident or arbitrary. This actually means there is no direct relationship between the signifier and the signified; the relationship is determined by convention, rule or agreement among the users.

Signs are organised into codes. The notion of code is very important when it comes to semiotics because it is connected to cultural communities that share conventions. Culture is a community of codes and a code, in this context, is a convention that associates a signifier with a certain signified or meaning. An example of this would be if you visit another country you may become lost in terms of dress, manners and greetings and so on.

When the credits go up on the screen we know the film is over. We just know that, as cinema goers we are used of these conventions, they are predictable and convey meaning to us. If we go to see a horror movie then convention dictates that we will become ‘scared’ and this is often indicated by the posters outside the door, the name of the movie, a certain cast member perhaps or any other messages ‘encoded’ from to the signified (you) by the signifier (the movie maker). The codes built into the advertising, for example, a bloody hand, a chainsaw with blood dripping from it, a dark graveyard or a man with a baseball mask on holding a pickaxe are the codes sent to the signified by the signifier that the movie promises to deliver terror. In watching the movie the codes are at work again as tension is piled onto the signified using the language of signs such as headless carriages, flying bats, bloody crucifixes and neck bites to imply that this movie is a horror about Vampires. These ‘codes’ are built into the Vampire genre and if they do not emerge in one way or another then we can feel cheated or we may have misread the signs. If it is a ‘comedy’ about vampirism but we misread the signs and expected a horror then the coded language may have broken down in your case because you may be the only one in the cinema expecting to scream while others are laughing.

The male and female signs on toilet doors do not really resemble men and women but we recognise them as conventional signs, not restricted by wordage or language, and we know what goes on beyond the door. These types of signsare often referred to as ‘motivated signs’ and they give us hints and motivate us toward the intended meaning. Come this way if you are a Lady and need to use the toilet and go that if you are a gentleman and need to use the toilet is easily stated by symbols of Male and Female forms. This clearly demonstrate that the relationship between signifier and signified can be not only motivated but also based on conventional standards within a specific society.

The notion of ‘Difference’ is crucial to semiotics. The sign acquires its meaning through its relations with other signs. For example, we understand the ‘light’ because it is not dark, we know it is morning because it is not night. This concept of ‘difference’ works as an organising ‘principle’ in social life and extends all the way from letters and words to questions of cultural difference. Everything exists is terms of opposites, it is not hot so it must be cold.

Difference is organised along two dimensions and these are Syntagms and paradigm. A syntagm is the same as a sentence, it is linear (moves horizontally), one word follows another to the end of a sentence, where we arrive at a meaning. This can also be extended to the linear dimensions of a text. The point is it provides a wide variety of possibilities when constructing sentences. The syntagm is the sentence designed to move us in a specific way, to react in a specific way or to behave in a specific way. The paradigms are the categories from which we make choices. Language, clothes, food, characters are examples of ‘paradigms’. These paradigms may be violated by the wrong selection of styntagms.

The concept can be simplified in the following way. In poetry there are two simple principles and these are ‘verse’ and ‘poem’. The poet uses his poem to communicate a message to his reader. With the verse, there are lines and within the lines there are words and within the words there are syllables and within the syllables there are letters. In this example then we see a selection of syntagms (pronounced sin-ta-jims) within the paradigm (pronounced par-a-dime) of poetry.

Producers select from various paradigms in order to put together a meaningful whole (Syntagm). For example, if I want to write a poem about poverty, there are endless options that I can take as the signifier, if I want the signified to get a particular meaning I will have to be very selective and choose from particular paradigms in order that the syntagm/the final product or poem will be as I intended. The concept of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations is central to Sausseurs idea of language as a form of communication.

In fact, this is the key to what a text means at a deep level. Think of Soap Operas on TV and the choices that have been made in relation to the paradigm or characters – the choice of characters chosen are crucial to the theme. In most soaps the producers have chosen a variety of age groups, youths, middle agedmen and women and the elderly. Many of the elderly characters are involved in jobs and we have to ask what is this saying? Does it tell us something about the elderly in our society? Here we can see syntagms and paradigms at work.

Roland Barthes was a French literary scholar and cultural critic and a follower of Saussure. He extended semiotics to the life of signs in society, applied to visual images. He simplied his thinking as ‘Denotation vs. Connotation. This distinction is important because the ‘signified’ are fluid (a variable). His thinking was simple in that he suggests that connotative meanings are regulated by codes or conventions that link the signifier to the signified.

We see a sign, we think about it and we link or associate it with something in reality. So, from this we see there are two steps involved, although they happen simultaneously. We see a chair, it sends us a sign – the sign says ‘I am a chair’, so we automatically sit down. This is called ‘denotation’. It can be said then that ‘denotation is the first and direct meaning. Connotation is the indirect meaning or, what the chair implies or what thoughts or feelings it conjures within any individual. A stool in a bar may denotes numerous things like a soft seat, good company, a drink and so on while a chair in a classroom denotes study, teaching, long winded concepts and so on and so forth. Our denotation of the chair is influenced, for example, by its location. By bringing signs and connotations together, myth is in the making. The illusion is created by the combination of signs and connotations.

We see a sign, think about it – link or associate it with something in reality. So, there are two steps involved although they do happen simultaneously (together).

Barthes work brings us closer to semiotic analysis of the media. The distinction between denotation and connotation developed because the meanings (signified) of signs change with time and place. They are not fixed. The same signifier (sign) can mean different things to different people at different times in different locations.

For example, in the 1970’s platform shoes were ‘cool. The American eagle denotes a bird but connotes pride/power and a willingness to use violence if necessary to feed and defend itself. At first semiotic level it is a motivated sign for a particular kind of bird, it denotes the kind of bird we know as an eagle. At second semiotic level the figure of the eagle connotes pride and power. In this way it can be used as an arbitrary symbol for the United States of America.





About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 3, 2012, in Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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