I first came into contact with structuralism and semiotics in Intro to Literary Criticism. As a class we went through several short stories by Kafka and identified the systems of interconnected oppositions that created the imagery. I found it interesting but not too terribly useful; of course raising a knife meant the character wasn't lowering it, hate was the opposite of love and the urban background was not, in fact, a rural paradise. Everything was binary and ambiguity was forbidden. Naturally I didn't take to this form of critique and when we moved on to other methods I pretty much left structuralism behind for good. I regret this blind spot in my education; understanding the smallest forms of language is essential to understanding its most powerful combinations, just as knowing the atomic structure of an element like gold or mercury helps to understand how large amounts of the stuff will react and behave in the real world.

Here I'll go for full disclosure and tell all of you that I have a soft spot for fantasy and science fiction stories. Since the top of our syllabus is a picture from Blade Runner, I think you'll forgive me. Despite my interest in the fantastical, one thing I have always disliked about these genres is their tendency to retrograde, the tradition of rehashing and rehashing the same exact characters and ideas done to perfection ages ago. Let's take one the most common tropes and break it down using structuralism and semiotics - vampires.

The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897.
The Vampire, by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897.
Bela Lugosi, from Dracula (1931)
Bela Lugosi, from Dracula (1931)
Robert Pattinson, from Twilight (2008)
Robert Pattinson, from Twilight (2008)


Ugh. Vampires. At the moment they are ubiquitous in our culture, and yet every author, director or artist insists on making sure their vampires look and behave in completely different ways, beyond what one would call "artistic license." You have your classic Dracula-style vampires, Anne Rice's decadent New Orleans vamps, the two-faced Buffy vampires, sparkly Twilight vampires... the only thing they have in common is a propensity for human blood, except when they don't. Yet their creators insist on using the signifier "vampire" to describe their creatures, abominable or otherwise. Why?

Because language is so relational, such as in my Kafka examples, the use of the term "vampire" calls to mind a number of images (and not just binary oppositions). According to Saussure "everything depends on relations" (Saussure, 1983, 121). Or in Langer's words, "it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean" (Langer, 1951, 61). The use of a culturally ubiquitous term like "vampire" assures that the character in question will be associated with centuries of built-up relations. Vampires are powerful and dangerous, sexy and hypnotizing. As a writer of fantasy you could explain, in detail, why your character has these particular attributes but it's much easier to just use a common trope and assume your readers will make the connection. Then the creator can add a little twist, or a number of twists, to differentiate your character while still making use of the signifer's connection to already established images. The True Blood vampires, for example, have a synthetic blood and don't need to prey on humans. Twilight vampires don't burn in the sunlight. These little differences make vampires just "safe" enough for the protagonists of these two properties to fall in love with vampires without giving up the relations an old signifier like "vampire" has built up over centuries of cultural consciousness. As in Lacan's model, the signifier is of greater importance than what is being signified. As long as readers see the word vampire, the writer's individual definition or description doesn't matter. In Peirce's model, we'd call this the interpretant which stands between representamen and object. The object is a sparkly vegetarian, yet the interpretant, influenced by innumerable relations, guides the representamen into areas defined by Dracula, Nosferatu, and other classics.

-Tracy Carlin


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Mario Lanza in Pagliacici

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-Metasebia Yoseph







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Starbucks as we know it vs Starbucks in Saudi Arabia

(above“signs” are a tribute to the European essayist, Mieke Bal ,of “Semiotics for Beginners” who makes mention of being confused by road signs in the US as a native of Europe!)

Looking at both Saussure and Pierce’s structural interpretations of Semiotics and Cultural Theory, there are multiple ways in which societies use symbols and signs to communicate and develop ideas that shape cultural norms and perceptions. The idea that “symbols grow”, as Peirce suggests in his more elaborate model that involves the additional “interpretant” (who brings in his/her own understanding and experience), reminds me of the process of remediation in which information and images can be reused or rethought over time as a continuous chain of non-ending signs. Though Saussure should get some credit for formulating a basic model, there are shortfalls in his simplistic view and the critiques that Benveniste outlines are quite relevant.

I found interesting how in Saussure’s model, that the difference between the signifier and the signified is what influences the cultural message and how in Peirce’s model, it is the constraints that illuminate how much is understood about signs and symbols. In the latter case, therefore, it is assumable that once the parameters of understanding are expanded, the constraints are relaxed and presumably with time more enlightened and more expansive interpretations can be made (thus the “infinite semiosis of the Triadic model).

The readings for the week made me think of a video very rich in symbols and signs, laden with images and language that try to bust cultural stereotypes using Peirce’s various “Thought –Signs” and “Sign-Vehicles”, “Objects”, and the three different types of Interpretants (where both individuals and whole societies can engage in Immediate/Dynamic/Final interpretations). After watching the video, if the viewer keeps returning to the images and thereby expands his/her view of the subject through deeper interpretations of the symbols, perhaps cultural perceptions/misinformation and stereotypes can begin to be dismantled. The fact that the singer himself, as a Muslim Country Western singer, is a symbol that defies the cultural norm is a message in and of itself.




~ Sarah


While engaging with this week's readings, I couldn't help but think of the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat – especially when considering Saussure's “Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics” and Peirce's notion of the sign.

Not only did he draw on 'found' surfaces, graffiti-ing on walls, clothes, and postcards, but Basquiat also famously incorporated both words and symbols into this paintings. Despite their widespread appeal, his paintings are often difficult works that are coded in many different ways. For Basquiat, and artists with similar approaches like Keith Haring, complex, multifaceted works were a means to both deconstruct singular ways of producing or creating, as well as a means of attempting to construct a new language that might better communicate one's intended message. These languages or forms, however, were not limited to the established textual and visual codes. In his painting “Leeches”,
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Basquiat works within some standard conventions – a canvas, words in English, recognizable figures – but deterritorializes the text and images. Fragmented figures and jarring colors combine with fragments of sentences – words and letters are often crossed out – to play with our expectations of engaging with painting and poetry as languages we are sure we understand. Basquiat, too, even destroys the notion, or 'language', of coloring within the lines – a “universal” notion derived from what we are socially taught.

By communicating to us through obscure and shape-shifting signifiers, Basquiat forces us to reevaluate our understanding of content itself – including his works, but also our relationship with classic languages and sign systems. In “Famous Negro Athletes”,

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Basquiat reduces 'sports', which are often portrayed in colorful, heroic, and figurative ways, to symbols and phrases that, in this context, mean something different than in another context. Even though the phrase 'Famous Negro Athletes' superficially celebrates achievements, the presence of the word 'negro' connotes a denigration of those same achievements. Visually, too, the baseball, with its seams sewn up with what resemble stitches, denotes America's pastime while also connoting something more sinister as well. Basquiat constantly plays with our relationships to signs. Now, obviously the reason these signs mean anything to us, even if they are disjointed, is because we encounter them on a daily basis – in ways that are socially constructed but also validated through social and institutional interactions. But when arranged in new (here – syntagmatic) ways, new meanings arise out of the relationships between signs, between image and text, context and content. This still, however, helps to reinforce the notion that signs have meaning only through their relationship to other signs, which goes back to the earliest tenets of the semiotics of Peirce, who defined semiotic systems by their social, collaborative nature.

- Jen Feldman

The Semiotics of Art Historical References
Joel Parker, "the Bathers", 2008, 86” x 120”, Oil on Panel.
Joel Parker, "the Bathers", 2008, 86” x 120”, Oil on Panel.

Paul Cézanne, "the Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)", 1894–1905. 127.2 × 196.1 cm. National Gallery, London
Paul Cézanne, "the Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)", 1894–1905. 127.2 × 196.1 cm. National Gallery, London


It is not a novel statement to say that art borrows from itself, reusing old ideas and making new ones out of them. However, less discussed is direct use of art-historical references and the power such acts have in creating emotion and meaning. Semiotics can help us to begin why such references pack such a punch.
When I say art-historical references, what I mean is art which directly references well known works which preceded it. Through the denoted image referenced, it can access a large archive of connotations already in place. With such references, the work of art can use these ideas to strengthen or nuance its message or comment on art history itself. Instead of starting from scratch and creating a whole new language and structure of meaning and signs within which to function, works of art which use art-historical references can use the power of what has come before it, using the semiotics of such work as a reference point.
Take for example, the painting above by Joel Parker (a fellow graduate of the School of Art at WUSTL), we see that his painting, in both name and theme, directly reference a history of painting (there are many painting with the same title), including Cezanne's piece. We see references in the nudity, the poses, the landscape backdrop, and even in the use of brushstrokes. By using these ideas, Parker is not only creating an image of some naked girls "shotgunning" cans of beer, but is using learned symbols and semiotics to reference a rich history of ideas. He has created a long chain or signifier and signifieds, which create the meaning in his work. The painting can function on many level of Peirce's ideas of signs, as both an Icon of the denoted, and a symbol of the connoted.


Kehinde Wiley, "Sleep", 2008 Oil on canvas 132 x 300 in. Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Kehinde Wiley, "Sleep", 2008 Oil on canvas 132 x 300 in. Rubell Family Collection, Miami
Kehinde Wiley, "Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy–Carignano", 2006; oil on canvas; 122 x 122 inches; collection Xavier and Alexandria van Campenhout
Kehinde Wiley, "Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy–Carignano", 2006; oil on canvas; 122 x 122 inches; collection Xavier and Alexandria van Campenhout

The work of Kehinde Wiley is another prime example of using art-historical references and the frameworks of meaning created by their semiotics to create new messages. Here, Wiley references many different religious images and master's works such as Titian, yet repurposes them, putting young African-American men in the roles usually held by old white men. Thus, he is using the semiotics of importance and holiness to make a comment a many-times maligned part of society, drawing critiques and making comments on society through use of symbols and semiotics.
In this way, we can bring in Chomsky's thoughts. While Chomsky seems to have dealt directly with linguistics and did not extrapolate his work to images, we can still see ideas that might be pertinent. With language, while there is infinite combinations of words and sentences, as Chomsky posits, there is still the ability to create "generative grammar" and a framework within which we can see these combinations formed. Clearly, with art, there is no such structure and grammar is antithetical to the creative process. If there are infinite sentences that can be constructed, there are infinity times a million ways (to get technical) to create something on a canvas. However, if we look at art-historical references as "phrase markers", parallels can be drawn. Reusing such phrase markers (such as poses, or styles, or direct referent images), we create a sort of grammar which that painting and the history it references can function within. Of course, as we see so often, such ideas can be thrown away, completely new ideas can emerge, and equally great art can be created. But it is interesting to see how the semiotics of art history can be used to create meaning.

-Christian Storm



In Saussure’s semiotic model, signifiers achieve meanings via codes. That is to say, signs don't have meanings itself. They make themselves signified by connecting to others. In the Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics , the author discussed how English and other Latinate language works by transferring an auditory image into a concept. It makes me to think about my mother language, Chinese. Different from English, Chinese symbol are described by visual image, characters. For example, the character ‘mountain’ ( shan) is directly comes from the shape of the real mountain. However, for its auditory image, ‘shan’, it could also means ‘cancel’ or other meanings. That is to say, in Chines oral speaking, auditory images can only transferred in to signified by context and sentence structures. This phenomena is explained by Saussure’s semiotic model that people auditory image achieve its signified by experiences. The contexts and sentence structures in Chinese are experiences. Also, these experiences and codes are shaped by social structures, which means most people can understand.

Chinese Hieroglyphic
Chinese Hieroglyphic

Chinese Hieroglyphic

Chomsky’s generative grammar focuses on the cognitive system of human beings to explain how does languages been transmitted into ideologies of human beings. As a bilingual speaker that speaks one auditory image based language and one visual image based language. I always transferred meanings of auditory signs and visual signs in my brain especially at the beginning of leaning English. At that time, while I am talking to an English speaker, I always need to transfer Chinese sentence into image and transfer the image according to English language rules.

A Chinese contemporary artist, Xu Bing tried to discuss how social structures shaped the meaning of signs by his art works: Books from the Sky , New English Calligraphy and Book from the Ground .
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Book From the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987

Book From the Sky, Xu Bing, 1987

Book From the Sky is a book comprised of printed volumes and scrolls containing four thousand ''false'' Chinese characters created by Xu Bing in 1987. From 1987, Xu Bing used three years to create a book without content. He did an experiment that to separate the content significant from the sign ‘book’. As he said, the meaning of book is not only reflected by the content but also the printing techniques, composing techniques, bookbinding techniques, papers and the physical structure of book itself. He creates four thousand false Chinese characters and composing them as normal books to help people reconsider the aesthetic values of books. For this project, while he separated the meaning of books and its significance of content meanings, Xu Bing also separates the meaning of Chinese characters from characters itself. From this point, Book From the Sky is more like an experiment to bread the original codes between signifier and signified.



(New English Calligraphy, Xu Bing, 1994)
New English Calligraphy is another test made by Xu Bing to discuss the relationship of Chinese language and English language. He tried to transmit the auditory images into visual images. As he explained in the video, he used the way of writing Chinese calligraphy to re-write English words. In this process, Xu Bing changed the original signifiers and makes a new rule for people to decode it.
Book From the Ground, Xu Bing, 2007
Book From the Ground, Xu Bing, 2007

Book From the Ground, Xu Bing, 2007

Book From the ground, Xu Bing, 2007
Book From the ground, Xu Bing, 2007

Book From the ground, Xu Bing, 2007

Book From the Ground is a collection of universal symbols from all over the world, for example, the signs on the airplanes. Xu Bing uses this project to discuss signs shaped by a universal sharing of identification and world social structures.
---Xindi Guo