Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, symbols, and signification and investigates how cultural texts create and communicate meaning. In this lesson, we examine semiotics in relation to media texts, meanings, myths and orders of signification and unpack key terms and methods of analysis.
Introduction to Semiotics
The pipe you see on the lesson banner graphic is a famous painting called The Treachery of Images by René Magritte. The French text that appears on the canvas translates as ‘this is not a pipe’.
What was Magritte’s point you may ask? Quite simply, his point was that this really is ‘not a pipe’ but a representation of a pipe. In fact, what you are seeing is not even a famous painting by Magritte. It’s a digital image of his painting. Or, to be even more precise, a digital image of a photograph of the painting.
Magritte was fascinated by how we all perceive what we call ‘reality’ and the relationship between images of reality and reality itself. Magritte’s painting of a pipe is, of course, not a real pipe and, although this might seem obvious on reflection, it remains an important realisation. Of course, Magritte could have made the same point about any number of images. Or if he had been born a century later, perhaps his painting would have looked a little more like this.
…. If you don’t get the joke google Super Mario Bros.
The reason this painting (or any variation of it) is important is because it draws our attention to what goes on each day in our minds when we look at media texts. This is where semiotics (or semiology) can help us.
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, and their use and interpretation.
Semiotics are important for many reasons. As the well known semiotician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce one said:
“We think in signs”.
The fact that you understand the words on this page is evidence that you can decipher a meaning from a complex collection of symbols. The letters of the alphabet are signs both when spoken as sounds and when written on a page; as are words which stand for larger concepts. While the alphabet leaves little room for interpretation, what we each understand from the combination of words can be vastly different depending on our interpretation of signs. A simple sign such as the word ‘cat’, which we might think has one meaning, can have different associations (connotations) depending on your experience with cats, whether you find them cuddly and adorable, or sneeze-inducing wildlife-killers. Added to this are the large range of cat breeds that we umbrella under the term. How do we even agree on what ‘cat’ means then in a sentence, when the range of cats itself is so diverse?
Emojis are another great example of symbolic communication. Communicating using pictures is hardwired into human brains, with the first pictograms thought to date to 9000BCE. Smartphones may have replaced cave walls but the popularity of emojis could suggest that our symbolic literacy hasn’t really changed all that much. Test your semiotic literacy by taking this fun Buzzfeed quiz.
Try your hand, and just for fun, share your results with the class by tweeting your score to @CIU_SAE
Put your emoji-reading skills to the test! Can you guess all eight of these movies? by , Stumped? Guess 3 times to see the correct answer! How well did you do? Share your hints in the comments… but no spoilers!
So what are signs, and how do they work?
A sign is something that can be interpreted as having a meaning other than itself, and which is therefore able to communicate information to the receiver who decodes the sign.
For example, a fire alarm is merely a sound which commonly falls into a frequency range of between 1-3 kHz. However, if you are in a building and hear such a sound, you are likely to decode the sound as a warning to exit the building immediately.
Similarly, a colour is just the perception of light interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors. But we rarely think of colour in these terms. Rather, we use it extensively to convey a variety of meanings. Take the colour red for example. According to the colour psychology wheel below, red is associated with energy, war, danger, strength, power, determination as well as passion, desire, and love.
Of course, every time red is present, we don’t automatically interpret it according to all these possible associations. And sometimes we may not give much thought to its symbolic meaning at all. But now that you know the colour psychology of red, take a look at this selection of public signs, cultural symbols and corporate logos. I’m sure you can easily identify the intended meaning of red in each instance.
Signs can work through any of the senses — visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or taste — and their meaning can be intentional such as a word spoken to explicitly convey meaning, or unintentional such as a symptom like a sneeze, a cough or the smell of infection, which conveys the possibility of sickness or a condition.
Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. To quote Peirce again:
“Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.”
Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.
Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.
In the system of semiotics as developed by Peirce, signs take three different forms.
Icon/iconic: a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it) – being similar in possessing some of its qualities: e.g. a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, onomatopoeia, metaphors, realistic sounds in ‘programme music’, sound effects in radio drama, a dubbed film soundtrack, imitative gestures.
Symbol/symbolic: a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary or purely conventional – so that this relationship must be agreed upon and learned: e.g. language in general (plus specific languages, alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, words, phrases and sentences), numbers, morse code, traffic lights, national flags, a fire alarm.
Index/indexical: a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified (regardless of intention) – this link can be observed or inferred: e.g. ‘natural signs’ which indicate the presence of a natural event (smoke, thunder, footprints, echoes, non-synthetic odours and flavours), medical symptoms that indicate illness (pain, a rash, pulse-rate), measuring instruments (weathercock, thermometer, clock, spirit-level), ‘signals’ (a knock on a door, a phone ringing), pointers (a pointing ‘index’ finger, a directional signpost), recordings (a photograph, a film, video or television shot, a recorded voice), personal ‘trademarks’ (handwriting, catchphrases).
Orders of Signification
Differences between the three orders (layers or levels) of signification are not clear-cut, but for descriptive and analytic purposes Hjelmslev proposed two orders of signification, Roland Barthes later added ‘myth’ to the list.
DENOTATIVE: The first order of signification is seen as primarily representational and relatively self-contained. e.g. the male/female icon above denotes (depicts) a male and female.
CONNOTATIVE: The second order of signification reflects ‘expressive’ values which are attached to a sign. e.g. the male/female icon carries a connotation (infers to us) that behind each door are public conveniences.
MYTH: In the third mythological or ideological order of signification the sign reflects major culturally-variable concepts underpinning a particular worldview – such as the binary of masculine/feminine, freedom or happiness.
Texts, Meaning and Myth
Within semiotics a ‘text’ is a meaningful structure, understood as being composed of signs. (A text in this context could be any piece of media and a semiotic analysis would aim to decipher the ways in which meaning is constructed through the signs present.)
The meaning of a text is determined by rules (or codes) governing the choice and combination of those signs. The rules that govern this meaningful combination of signs will be conventional, so that any reader of the text will require certain skills or competences in order to interpret (or decode) the text. Readers from different social and cultural backgrounds, who have different socially acquired skills and expectations, may therefore read the same text in very different ways.
A text typically has a material existence, but is not necessarily simply a written message (such as a sentence, memo, report or novel). Thus a photograph, a song, an advertisement (combining photographic or other visual signs with written signs), a video or a costume may all be understood as texts.
Edgar, A., & Sedgwick, P. (2007). “Texts” in Cultural Theory: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge. p. 364.
Roland Barthes introduced the idea of Myth in his ‘Mythologies’ (1957). In it he analyses modern cultural phenomena as diverse as soap powder, the representation of Romans in film, and the striptease, revealing the ways in which socially constructed meanings become naturalised. Read the chapter on ‘Soap Powders and Detergents’ below. Based on what Barthes reveals, tweet an ‘honest advertisement’ for soap to @CIU_SAE or share it with the class by posting to the comments box located on the right side of this campus online lesson page.
Barthes, R. (1972). Chapter: Soap powder and detergents [from: Mythologies]. In R. barthes & A. Lavers (Eds.), Mythologies (pp. 36–39). New York: Hill and Wang.
📚 READING TASK
Simulacra and Simulation
French theorist Jean Baudrillard proposed the concepts of Simulacra and Simulation (Baudrillard, 1981), to explain a further order of signification. The fact that we know what magic looks like in the world of film, to the extent that we do not need it to be explained to us each time, is what Baudrillard describes as an example of Simulacra: “copies that depict things that had no original to begin with.” Baudrillard felt that human society had replaced reality with symbols and signs and that human experience is a simulation of reality. Incidentally the Wachowskis made Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation compulsory reading for the cast of The Matrix.
So simulacra are copies of copies? Confused? See if the next video clarifies your understanding.
📢 HAVE YOUR SAY
One of the ways that Baudrillard identified that simulacra work is to build on an idea for something that we believe is necessary, but which is simply a copy of something we were once taught was necessary. Can you think of an example?
If so, then share it with the class by posting to the comments box located on the right side of this campus online lesson page.
A piece of design typically combines multiple signs in multiple ways. In the Avatar poster below, we see symbols (text), and indexes (Neytiri as an index of a species unknown to us, helicopters as and index of the armed forces). These elements interact in multiple ways, for example, the denotative meaning (what is depicted) is a humanoid with blue skin and big ears, but the connotation is that she is an alien (because she is clearly unfamiliar), and primitive but skilled (because her jewellery and piercing are signs that we associate with tribal cultures). At the myth level, we can also infer that the movie may have magical or supernatural themes because of the glowing points of light and our conventions around the depiction of magic in movies. We can also infer action, and military threat from Neytiri’s expression and the presence of the military, and, potentially, if we are familiar with the concept of an avatar, a suggestion that she herself is a symbol of something else.
The AV essay (CIU 210.2): Semiotics as methodology
The semiotic analysis of cultural myths involves an attempt to deconstruct the ways in which codes operate within particular popular texts or genres, with the goal of revealing how certain values, attitudes and beliefs are supported whilst others are suppressed. The task of ‘denaturalizing’ such cultural assumptions is problematic when the semiotician is also a product of the same culture, since membership of a culture involves ‘taking for granted’ many of its dominant ideas. Nevertheless, where we seek to analyse our own cultures in this way it is essential to try to be explicitly reflexive about ‘our own’ values.
Additional reading that will help you complete your assignment.
Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Make sure to check out the CIU Pinterest board on Semiotics when preparing your semiotic analysis, it includes lots of great examples, explanations and helpful hints on how write an effective semiotic analysis.