CCTP-748: Seminar Discussion: Week 4

Examples to think about this week:
Superbowl ads: semiotics in action

This one is getting the buzz: "Chrysler - Eminem - Made in Detroit"
You can follow our ordinary interpretive "grammar" for each element of image, spoken word, music, stylization.
The signs we take in become signifiers of the symbolic levels of meaning: this is the key to branding and "image" making.

Vocabularies and Metalanguage

Many good comments and questions this week. It strikes me, as is always the case with this topic, that the fundamental barrier to understanding structuralism and semiotics is the terminology, which has to use ordinary words (from our natural language) as a metalanguage vocabulary, and then people get distracted by what words like "sign" or "structure" mean outside theory and philosophy.

For "sign", think: "any communicable vehicle of meaning" (sound, language, images, graphics, film)
For "structure" think: "the underlying system that makes meaning possible in a meaning-making / meaning-using community"
For "structure" think: "the system of learned, internalized rules and codes that make new meaningful expressions possible"
For "structure" think: "the system of learned codes for making symbolic and second-order meanings possible from the information given in first-order or "literal" meaning-units"

--Martin Irvine

Stephanie Stroud

Saussure's ability to define "semiotics" as a field of study, yet leave the details of the study somewhat undefined is not surprising to me. In fact, I find myself somewhat unable to wrap my mind around the interdisciplinary nature of this study. Where does linguistics stop? Where does anthropology (or any other study) begin? Where does semiotics exist in relation?

A more understandable theorem, I think, is Saussere's notion that signs glean the most meaning, and thus function, from binary opposites situated in a specific social code. Social codes, however, change over time. So how are binary opposites like "masculine" and "feminine" effected? The color pink, for example, is one of the most obvious signs for "feminine" today. Historically, however, pink has been a sign for "masculine". I've attached an interesting slide show on the meaning of the color pink throughout history and across cultures: Pink is for Battleships. If obvious indicators of binary opposites, like pink and blue can change over the course of history, does that indicate that binary opposites themselves change? Feminine/masculine… gentle/aggressive, moon/sun… Yin/yang? How does that impact the relevance of semiotics?

Pierce says the three types of signs, likenesses, indications and symbols, must exist together. Furthermore, these types of signs necessarily grow out of one another. Language, music, images and other communicative art forms all effect one another; They are all closely tied together.

From a linguistics point of view, Edith Piaf's song "Non, Je ne regrette rien" brings to mind the intricate connections of signs -- in this case, language and music -- and ultimately, the culturally specific sign they produce. The harmony between the lyrics and the melody of "Non, Je ne regrette rien" does not exist in a natural state in English. The annunciation of French -- with emphasis typically on the final syllable of words -- compliments the melody of the song perfectly. The annunciation of English -- with emphasis typically on earlier syllables -- is at odds with the the natural melody of the song. Attempts to translate this song to English have posed problematic: In order to maintain the melody and lyrical rhythm, the translation would have to be compromised. In oder to maintain the consistency of the lyrical meaning, the rhythm would have to be compromised. Thus, the song "Non, Je ne regrette rein" does not exist in its complete form outside of French. Language -- rhythm and meaning -- is at the very core of its existence.

Another example that races to the forefront of my mind is Wade Davis' description of an anthropological mission, which he includes in the book "Light at the Edge of the World". Davis carefully describes a group of scientists who set out to live and learn about a tribe that has never been contacted by outsiders. The scientists have no intention of distressing the people with an unannounced visit, so they cleverly agree to take friendly pictures of themselves -- after all, human emotion can be understood universally, right? -- fly over the tribe, and drop the photos out of the plane. The tribe will find the photos, see that these are friendly faces and be prepared to welcome the scientists with open arms when they arrive. In actuality, however, when the tribal people collected the pictures -- which was a form of technology they had never been exposed to -- they interpreted it as a sign more or less translating to, "Warning: these demons are on their way." When the scientists arrived, making the same friendly gestures and faces they had in the pictures, the tribesmen instantly speared them to death. While a picture may say a thousand words, and while human emotion may be universally consistent, technology and signs are not universally or consistently recognized.

Suz Shenk

Saussure: Interested in Linguistics and the system of semiotics; privileges the spoken word. Saussure sees writing is a vast system of signs, consisting of a signifier (form which the sign takes) and a signified (concept). “They are not direct referents to the objects they refer to, they are a kind of heuristic that allows members of a group to more easily process information. Words are terms in a system – they have values by virtue of their exchange to other words or by virtue of their relation to associate words. Words/signs do not have value in isolation. In addition the connection selected between words has an arbitrary value as well. And the relation between elements is based on differences. Saussure considers the signs as not a static system, but evolving with alterations, not always rational or presupposed; it is an organism, in that it is always adapting, albeit not an independent one, because it is not a “perfectly formed” concept that we have direct access to, but “exists perfectly only in the mass of brains.”

I am particulary interested in his comment from the first reading “Language is an object which gives rise to all kinds of mirage. Most interesting of all, from a psychological point of view, are the errors language produces. Everyone, left to his own devices, forms an idea about what goes on in language which is very far from the truth.” Not only is language an abstract itself, but it conjurs up a "mirage" of falsities?

Anything left out? Agency, the fluency of a population, knowledge formation, speaker/listener, the “truth” of a language?, visual signs

Peirce: Interested in signs and the sign relation – the object enables the sign. Communicating signs is about locating a thing in a moment in time and with regard to the listener’s contextual/previous understanding. Peirce’s description of likeness is the earliest way of transmitting knowledge through signs (in that it has some similarity to the object it is alluding to.) The index is a way of coding a sign to refer to another “thing” in question (maps, thermometers, etc.) Finally, the symbol is the most abstract and is “assigned” to a meaning rather than having intrinsic value itself. “The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist."

Anything left out? The creation of symbolic meaning vis a vis linguistics, historical trajectory, written vs. audible communicative signs

I found that this YouTube video did a nice job summarizing the main points of both Saussure and Peirce:

When I read this week’s readings, I thought of a famous scenefrom Mad Men, where Don Draper coins the name for a slide wheel projector and presents his marketing idea to Kodak. His description of the wheel as a carousel, immediately conjures up a referent of “nostalgia,” not of the object, but of the name he gives it. There is no intrinsic meaning in the word “carousel” itself; only when it is related to individual experiences and referents—the fairs, the playgrounds, the innocence of youth—does the word have symbolic meaning and power. Advertisements, thus, are ways of harnessing the heuristics within symbols, likenesses (icons), and indices to convey in as few words, images, and diagrams possible the symbolic power of product, based on the audience’s experiences or imagined experiences.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, it’s one of the best examples of the spoken word (which Saussure would appreciate) conjuring up a multitude of sentiments.

Mad Men ´The Carousel´ from Emilio on Vimeo.

Zachary Allard

There are no doubt weaknesses and gaps in Saussure and Peirce’s ideas, but they laid the groundwork for some of the fundamental concepts that remain pertinent to navigating the digital age. Without them, there could not be the post-structuralists whose ideas are key. The internet is nothing but an elaborate signifier (of signifiers) that basically embodies Lacan’s ideas about the primacy of the signifier. Chandler describes Lacan’s idea as, “how the signified inevitably 'slips beneath' the signifier, resisting our attempts to delimit it.” That was merely to with language in Lacan’s view. But, the internet certainly subsumes whatever it is signifying within its nature. What is dynamic about something like the internet is how many layers of signifiers to navigate there are. First of all, there is the medium itself(webpages)—which shapes whatever it is people “receive.” Then, there is the text, video, images, etc that are also signifiers which are also on some level arbitrary and must decoded. There are many, many layers of decoding going on, even when reading the most basic webpage.
Also fascinating, is just how accepted the concepts of the primacy of the signifier and importance of symbols in meaning-making have become in popular culture. Last week the television show, Park and Recreation, had an excellent example of the importance of signifiers that was surprisingly sophisticated. The critically acclaimed show concerns the employees of a small town parks department. In this particular episode, the department ran into trouble when it tried to bury a time capsule, and every kooky native of the town wanted to put their own bizarre paraphernalia within it. To resolve the conflict, the protagonist included a video of the town hall meeting in which everyone argued for/demonstrated their own contribution. There are a couple things interesting about this conclusion, aside from its sitcom weakness of wrapping things up too neatly. First, it boldly asserts that this signifier can stand in for all the physical objects that were also meant to be signifiers. It is again, an instance of several layers of signifiers that must all be decoded to take away any meaning. Secondly, it is also important to note how easily these characters accept the decision as legitimate. Granted, it is a television show and resolution is key even for the best series, but nonetheless, the naturalness of the acceptance demonstrates just how much the ideas of structuralism and post-structuralism have permeated culture.

Ariel Leath

Saussure asks us to “Attach no importance to the word word. The word word as far as I am concerned has no specific meaning here. The word term is sufficient…,” which is difficult because “word” and “term” are colloquially interchangeable. What makes a word meaningless, but a term sufficient? The cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind when attempting to dissect his meaning. To say a term is worth a thousand words may not conjure the exact meaning Saussure meant to instill, but it can still help to understand the vast world of semiotics, signs and meaning. A term, a word affected by cultural sign systems, is what Saussure seems to consider the basic element of linguistics. Chandler alludes to this construction of a term when he defines sign systems as a way to study how meanings are made and the interplay with our realities as we construct them through exchange.
What ends up blowing my mind about the entire verbiage surrounding semiotics is the age-old chicken-or-egg dilemma. How does one construct a reality that in turn creates meaning in terms without using existing words? Though there are many terms that have established connotative “realities” (home/house, happy/sad, puppy/dog), what happens when a paradigm shift occurs and new words need to be injected with meaning before, again, new “empty” words can exist?
Chandler explains pragmatics as “the relation of signs to interpreters.” If I understand correctly, interpreters of signs are also destroyers of meaning. This is based on the idea that the medium is the message and, as Chandler explains, “the more frequently and fluently a medium is used, the more 'transparent' or 'invisible' to its users it tends to become. For most routine purposes, awareness of a medium may hamper its effectiveness as a means to an end.” Though pragmatics, as an area of study, seems to fit into the study of semiotics, it also seems like the boldest way to destroy that which the other studies (semiotics, semantics, etc) are attempting to uphold.
Semiotics is, it seems, incredibly layered. It is hard to imagine the study of semiotics as more than a way to pick up the pieces of what is happening in linguistics and make sense of it all. It aims to dissect the cultural influences on discourse, to deconstruct signs, and to validate the realities with which we all associate. I feel as though I may have either stumbled upon something that will eventually open my philosophical mind-doors, or I have completely missed the mark.
Bartes does a fantastic job of baiting you with what looks to be (but isn’t) an easily understood point about semiotics in his book Mythologies. In my opinion, it’s a great close to an opening:
“We now know that myth is a type of speech defined by its intention (I am a grammatical example) much more than by its literal sense (my name is Lion); and that, in spite of this, its intention is somehow frozen, purified, eternalized, made absent by this literal sense (The French Empire? It’s just a fact: look at this good Negro who salutes like one of our own boys). “

Siyang Wu

At first, semiotic seems so abstract and far away from daily life. Saussure and Peirce‘s work, though are imperfect and left a lot deficiencies for descendants to fill up, provided the foundation. As it to me, “semiotic” is a historical and social word, just like “economy”, which is pervading in every corner of world and involving all individuals in.

Without understanding Saussure’s book, people might never get to know the existence of “signifier” and “signified”, and the difference between them. And thus, they could never realize how these abstract concepts influence their lives.

In movie industry, signs(words, images, sounds,gestures and objects) is words used by movie directors to describe their stories. The system of signs is built by directors. The obligation of a director is to select, organize and integrate signs. What the director wants to express, no matter whether an episode of history, a story, or a spirit, are consisted of signs. What is interesting is that audiences always have different understanding and interpretation towards the same sign, which is, in my opinion, contributed by the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified. Take one of the most famous movie, Shinning, for example, what did “shinning” really mean evoked a long-term discussion among audiences, some interpreted it as the ability of remote-controlling, some made the points that it was kind of precognition. Variance in interpretation finally generated topics. The arbitrariness utilized by director contributed to its eventual success. “A sign... is something which stands to somebody for somthings in some respect of capacity”, said by Peirce, reveals the truth that different people could gain different signified when they try to interpret the same signifier. Self interests, social background, individual’s experience and other socials norms work together to influence the understanding of a sign.

On the other hand, advertisement directors encounter more limitations. Impulsed by business and commercial goals, advertisements, compared with movies, have much clearer destination, building a strong link between customers and the brand.

This one is funny and impressive, but I think is kind of failure, since nobody can tell the difference between Coke’s can and Pepsi’s by the scar on the monks’ forehead. Integrated marketing communications(IMC) then comes to my mind. IMC “is the coordination and integration of all marketing communication tools, avenues, functions and sources within a company into a seamless program that maximizes the impact on consumers and other end users at a minimal cost.” In this process, the same sign is continually imposed into customers’ mind. Considering the strategy McDonald utilized for instance, from 2003, they began to use “I’am love in it” to promote their brand. It was their first time to use one series of advertisement and the same advertising message to propagandize in more than one hundred countries around the world. In its all marketing communication channels, “I am love in it” was imposed to customers. And now, when you hear this sentence, the yellow big M comes to your mind immediately.

Joshua Weaver

Having taken a couple of linguistics classes during undergrad, the main premises behind Saussure seemed very familiar. And, after reading through the literature, I realized that it was Saussure’s pseudo-structuralist approach to language that helped mold modern-day linguist studies. The obscurity and ubiquity of the “langue” is an interest aspect of Saussure’s perspective on linguistics and semiotics. Linguists and anthropologists alike (e.g., Franz Boas, Sapir-Whorf) have long purported the existence and importance of “semiological facts”, described by Saussure as “...a set of signs fixed by agreement between the members of that society; these signs evoke ideas, but in that respect it’s rather like rituals, for instance.” (p. 8) The social imperative of A language as described above paves the way for myriad language dynamics, such as idiomatic and expressive language. I also wonder how Saussure’s perspective would view purely aural-oral languages that lack any orthographical script, or sign languages. The ritualistic properties of language as depicted by Saussure, I believe, are more readily accessible in languages without script as the melodic texture of voice is the driving force behind the language’s perpetuation rather than written accounts (e.g., history).

I do take issue with Saussure’s belief that the ideas that “linguistic values” signify are merely products of said value. (p. 16) I agree that the variable constructs of any single language affect the expression and conveyance of ideas; however, I fail to believe that persons’ abilities to conceptualize and express conceptions are particularly dependent on language. Incongruities in language do not necessarily constitute incongruities in perception.

Peirce’s semiotics model is a tad more convoluted than that of Saussure. However, it seems that its intricacy gave it more practicability. The model conjured images of advertisements and propaganda. One of the most resonating aspects of the model was the idea that the object constrains the sign; thus, the relation between the sign and the object is essentially the most important facet of semiotics. For instance, the Statue of Liberty signifies myriad representations of egalitarianism and democracy while idle on the banks of the New York Harbor; but, it can represent vastly different ideas when hung against the wall of the United States embassy in Tehran.

external image 800px-Teheran_US_embassy_propaganda_statue_of_liberty.jpg

Erin Coleman

As a former student of Latin and an Italian major in college, I have always been fascinated with the complex relationships between one language and another, the evolution of language over time (especially as relates to the Romance languages), and the pitfalls of translation. In spite of these interests, however, I have had no formal linguistic training. While many of the ideas put forth in Saussure’s Third Course on General Linguistics were familiar to me (either intuitively or through my experiences with Latin, Italian, and French), I appreciated his writing largely for its linguistic vocabulary. The notions of signifier and signified, arbitrariness of language, and the distinction between langue and parole are fundamental to any intellectual discussion of language, yet this terminology was largely new to me. Two concepts of Saussure’s musings on the nascent science of semiotics were of particular interest: the assertion that ideas are fundamentally inseparable from language, that is, all ideas are necessarily linguistically-constructed, and the notion of the arbitrariness of language.

In general, I found Saussure’s writing more compelling and accessible than Peirce’s, though the two are obviously complementary. One of the major advantages of Perice, however, is the universal applicability of his ideas, beyond the purely linguistic discussed by Saussure. One quote from Peirce sticks with me: “No combination of words (excluding proper nouns, and in the absence of gestures or other indicative concomitants of speech) can ever convey the slightest information.” I found his subsequent analysis of an imaginary dialogue between villagers A and B both interesting and useful as an illustration of what amounts to a fairly revolutionary statement.

To be honest, I remain somewhat confused over the contemporary interpretation of Saussure. In Bouissac’s “Perspectives on Saussure,” he argues both that the Swiss thinker is aptly described as the father of modern linguistics, while at the same time that he is severely outdated and his ideas so disorganized that they incapable of coherent summation. Bouissac even questions whether Saussure “still matters” (though he subsequently concludes that he does...if only for his influence on the contemporary social sciences). I’m interested to see what other people think of Saussure’s ideas.

As an aside: Last week I wrote about Brian Friel’s Translations and its relevance to Rorty’s writing. In many ways, however, the arguments put forth in this seminal Irish play are more relevant to a discussion of Saussure and Peirce. The play confirms Saussure’s idea of linguistic structuralism and offers an interesting perspective on the cultural history of language.

While I appreciated semiotics as an academic exercise in reading the two great theorists, it wasn’t until reading Bal’s “Semiotics for Beginners” in On Meaning-Making that I truly understood the practical and “real world” implications of such a study. In reading Bal’s cultural deconstruction of hair relaxer (which was brilliant), the implications of semiotics for branding, marketing, and PR became readily apparent to me. What is advertising if not the careful selection of sounds and images to create specific associations within the mind of the consumer? I am probably the one person in America who did not actively watch the SuperBowl (I’m a baseball fan), but I did see a few of the commercials, and the one that I was most surprised by was the Chrysler “Imported from Detroit” ad. Someone has already called attention to it at the top of the discussion page, but I wanted to reiterate the relevance of the ad to this week’s discussion. There were a number of aspects of the ad that were surprising to me, including the use of a controversial celebrity, Eminem, as well as the American spin on the traditional idea of importation from oversees.

Lily Hughes

The linear history that defines the progression of theory perhaps proves to be both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of teaching theory.

I promise this has something to do with semiotics (and not merely in the sense that everything has something to do with semiotics). I must first, however, explain my opening statement.

Theory, even at its most pessimistic and regressive, exists as an evolution of thought. The Western education system, mimicking the logical explanation of time, tends to teach in a linear structure, that is it begins at the beginning and ends at the end. Since the evolution of theory through history and society conforms to this composition of pedagogy, it tends to be taught in this manner. Indeed, every theory class I have ever attended has functioned in this way. This makes sense. Imagine learning postmodernism before modernism, post-structuralism before structuralism, Irigaray before Lacan, Lacan before Freud. This seems entirely nonsensical and, in fact, quite detrimental. Theory, as I'm sure many scholars will agree, is dense enough without being taught (recognizably) backwards. The flip side to this (the weakness), however, is that you can only learn new theory once. After the completion of a theory module there is no return to the start. Revision is of course possible, application is encouraged, but a return to a 'pre-enlightened' state is, I argue, impossible. Thus for those of us whose prior knowledge extends beyond Saussure and Pierce to the works of Derrida, Foucault, and Said, commenting on exclusively on structuralism without mention of the aftermath seems counter intuitive.

Are we meant to repeat critique that has already been written? Or marvel at the revelations of semiotics as if we were new to the field? Do we choose a new example, a cultural text, and walk through the motions of analysis, only to 'discover' two weeks later that our analysis was insufficient? I know I ranted last week, but I have found myself in this situation many times before and am always at a loss.

The truth is that I have a great respect of the structuralists (this is the bit about semiotics) and find their work far more 'successful' than that of other schools (Marxists, Postmodernists, Psychoanalysis). Of course, if someone labeled me a structuralist I would object and insist on the addition of 'post' as a prefix, since deciphering the meaning of signs in language (or indeed, in culture) remains somewhat insufficient without the consideration of power hierarchies. Furthermore binaries, while once essential to structuralism are, I believe, becoming obsolete. Binaries grew out of a world in which the self was both singular and original, since this was our natural form, the assumption followed that this was our natural order and the world could be categorized accordingly. Since we were one, everything was one. Society was a series of singulars paired to reveal meaning. While contrast still defines meaning, the concept of 'binary' is far too restricting. In a contemporary theoretical context, a single, for such things must remain, rarely opposes another single. Rather it might oppose a series of singles, or perhaps something that never existed as a single. This system of multiplicity, if used correctly, is capable of shifting dominant hegemony, as it disrupts the traditional paradigm that enables binary oppositions to enforce power. As opposed to the binary of norm to other, it becomes norm to others. The disassembling of other, so that it becomes others, allows the composition of multiplicities such as other to others (or even others to others), this creates the illusion of other as norm, since the multiplicity itself does not remove power from the previously binary structure. It is within this illusion that others find power, for post-modernity requires nothing more than an illusion to invert what we conceive as true.

Part I: Semiotics a Language?

external image newyorkr.gif

How does anything represent anything? Neurophysiologically, the pars triangularis in the Broca’s area of the human brain works to produce comprehension of propositional language but the above question is concerned with something more than just processing data about input, but processing data about processing data. Investigation into semiotics is metacognitive approach in that its object is awareness about awareness. In this kind of investigation we run into the same kind of methodological paradox in investigating consciousness. We must use the tool to describe the tool, i.e., consciousness to describe consciousness, language to describe language, signs to describe signs. This is problematic because words, as all signs, are not transparent. They are not just vehicles with which we describe experience but they are themselves part of the experience as Fig 1. illustrates.


Without language, the experience of the triangle is just the experience of the triangle, as when a dog experiences it. Language adds the experience of the rule of the triangle, or the idea of it. The words “APEX” and “BASE” become more than the experience of the form of the letters, but change the experience of the triangle – in this case, evoking the effect of rotation. Linguistically, we come to identify the object with the concept, making words the objects of experience as well. Therefore, the Saussurean langue is that Wittgensteinian lebensform, or “form of life.”

This ‘picture theory of meaning’ suggests that sentences (with a sense) are a picture, or mirror (Hume), of facts that are propositionally true or false (atomic propositions). Obviously, as combinations of these propositions increase with their logical connectives, verifying their truth-values becomes more complex, as do their meanings. According to Rudolf Carnap, meaning is inextricably tethered to its method of verification, thus, dissolving the analytic – synthetic distinction of propositions. Although I think Saussure’s approach to semiotics as being a kind of multi-modal philology is a just one, thinking in terms of verification of a semiotic sign’s meaning is kind of strange. The meaning of a sign, although conventionally established is not propositionally fixed, it is phenomenological. Semiotic codes are not rigid. I often wonder if this kind of ontological subjectivity delivers a fatal blow to the possibility of Semiotics as a science, or a least a kind of analytic philosophy. It certainly explains the shift to post structuralism, with its methods of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Derridian deconstruction, as well as the works of Foucault and Deleuze, which we will get to in due course.

At present, my question here concerns the Saussurean linguistic way of looking at Semiotics as a kind of syntax and Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar. Most signs are not propositions and therefore have no logical necessity, yet the relationship between most signs overlaps and intertwines with language in subjective experience. If comprehension of language is based on a few algorithms, based on atomic logical functions, and how they interact, is the stuff of cultural semiotics strictly limited to expressions of power (Foucault)? How do groups generate completely new, and sometimes contradictory, meanings from a fixed text? Most cultic groups interpret natural objects as being signs because of the algorithms within the propositions of scriptures. The meaning of the sign is not merely phenomenologically subjective, it is false. The cross as an object becomes identified with conceptual meanings that morph with the diachroneity of the interpreters' language. Therefore, I considered most semiotic signs to be merely artifacts with no inherent truth. Then what? Is the positivist program of the disenchantment of all second-order metaphysical claims the best way to interact with signs? How should the bushman interpret the Coke bottle? Should its meaning and dialectic be entirely relegated to scientific or philologic description?

(an effective example to illustrate the arbitrariness and utter meaninglessness of the sign)

The relationship between the above video and Steinberg's illustration of consciousness on the cover of the New Yorker is this: the sign means nothing other than how it stimulates the interactions of logical functions, or algorithms, to generate new comprehensions of data with what bits of the cultural encyclopedia that the brain has already downloaded.

Part II: Multilayered Semiosis

My preface to this cursory analysis is that I think with our examples we are kind of jumping ahead to the post structuralist notion of cultural semiotics. However, Suz Shenk's Mad Men analysis brought an interesting notion to mind: that some contemporary adverts are not as heuristic and unobtrusive as the Kodak Carousel ad but are rather decidedly overt and in so doing, conceal a more exclusive relationship to the product, i.e., a kind of ‘Warholian’ commodification of a formerly disguised semiosis into a sign-itself). The pop artist does more than encode an object with meaning; she encodes and amplifies the entirety of a sign’s semiotic process as it exists in that culture in time. In a similar way, this Old Spice ad is more than just a surge of objects coded with its culture’s conceptions of masculine virility and it is more than just a parody/irony of the absurdity of the unobtrusive sales pitch (as you would expect in an SNL skit). Rather, the process of normative advert semiosis becomes the sign for the new advert with the same telos. This seems to be a product of the postmodern condition – all of its pastiche, parody, bricolage, intermediality, and intertextuality seem to have wrought a perceptual deftness in decoding normative adverts to the extent that the message must be encoded in another layer of semiosis, which appeals to the very act of deconstructing. This kind of Kantian "freeplay" replaces the nostalgia (as in Mad Men) as the adhesive to the product, camouflaging that at the end of the day Old Spice body wash is cheap as shit and smells offensively sporty, and that wealthy yachters who boast cascades of precious stones and purebred steeds most likely smell completely different.


Brittany Coombs

Did anybody notice the release of the book “Georgetown Icons” last week? (I had to, since I work for College Communications and it was promoted by us heavily.) It’s a museum-quality book full of gorgeous photographs of various iconic buildings on campus. But what is an “icon”? I think if you had pressed me before these readings, I would have said it was a type of sign. But Peirce divides signs into three categories – icons, indications and symbols. And I think according to his criteria, a more accurate title for the book would be “Georgetown Indications.” Icons, Peirce says, convey ideas about things by imitating them, while indications convey ideas about things by being physically connected to them. He actually makes a point to say that photographs are indications, not icons, based upon the fact they communicate meaning by precisely capturing reality, which is their function, not by imitating reality or suggesting reality, as words do, for example. But a question I have, then, is if Peirce would not designate photography as art, since art – paintings, music, etc. – is indeed an imitation or suggestion of life. I think Peirce would indeed separate the two – a painting of a piano “suggests … new aspects of supposed states” of pianos (icon), while a photo of a piano connects us in space and time to the piano captured (indication). I kind of agree with this, it’s a cool concept that’s not too heady. But what then do we make of artists like the British graffiti master Banksy, who spraypaints pictures that interact with the real world? Apparently he is the rare artist who is iconic and indicative at the same time. (Which reminds me: Does Peirce say whether a sign be only one of his three types at once? Is hybridity possible?)

Banksy's graffiti. Is this art iconic, indicative, or both?
Banksy's graffiti. Is this art iconic, indicative, or both?
Something else that struck me: Peirce says that “no combination of words can ever convey the slightest information.” At first this statement seems flat-out wrong, but it’s evidently true – only a few words are universal because only a few concepts are universal; most words are esoteric or endemic in some way and need to be explained to people outside the loop. I also want to give a little love to the symbol concept. I like how Peirce said symbols grow and change over time as people interact with them, which gives rise to new symbols. It reminded me of this interesting Cracked story, “8 Historic Symbols That Mean the Opposite of What You Think.” The inverted cross is a great case study in the metamorphosis/reappropriation of symbols over time.

Benveniste also offers some cool ideas. I liked how he played the role of spoiler to Saussure’s notion that linguistic signs are “arbitrary.” While he admits it’s “an obvious truth” that linguistic signs mean different things in different times and places, which means that signs don’t inherently mean anything, he claims Saussure undermines his own argument by thinking of the signified – the thing described/represented by the sign – as existing only in conceptual terms. The thing actually exists in real life! I hope I understood this right, but I understood Benveniste to mean that it’s not the linguistic sign itself that’s arbitrary, but rather the fact that some particular sound image ended up associated with some particular real thing. Moreover, Benveniste says that signs are more important for what they are not than for what they are, and all signs need other signs to exist in order to know their place or relation to each other. He carries this idea further by saying that language is really all about establishing ourselves as “subjects” in relation to each other, understanding that I am me and you are you. The fact language helps us communicate, he says, “is only a mere pragmatic consequence” (729). Don’t think I’ve ever heard that argument before. I also enjoyed his anti-“instrument” stance on the relationship between humankind and nature – like Foucault later would, he tells us to stop searching for the precise moment language was born and to just examine it for what it means here and now.

Qres Ephraim

Marie Claire recently profiled modern women and the subjects divulged the number of sex partners they had amassed. Carlin Ross, former lawyer and current partner to famed feminist and Sexologist Betty Dodson, was among those profiled. Ross, a good-looking 37 year-old, stands with 100 partners, 15 of which are women.

I’d like to make the argument that the image chosen was specifically to avoid using a slutty image as a signifier.

It's a rather somber portrait for someone is unabashedly “happy to be a woman.” De Saussure’s argument “the meaning, which appears to us to be the counterpart of the auditory image, is just as much the counterpart of terms coexisting in the language.” (13) Marie Claire chose a somber picture – what slut (which has negative connotations) wouldn’t be the least bit bothered by her lesser status?

My problem with this type of reading seems to be a lesson in over-reading images. We could hypothesize all day about the meaning of these images. I must then be soothed by the writings of Bal, “the interpretations of signs is dependent upon the subjects who use them.” (19) Groups, even society at large, can grasp the image, the very word and divulge meanings that can continue to perpetuate the negative associations to promiscuous women.

Here's an image of Betty and Carlin together. Hardly somber.Betty-and-carlin.jpg