Symbolic Networks: Meaning Systems, Semiotics, Intertextuality

Importance of Semiotics

Emily Fuerst

Daniel Chandler’s sections on semiotics, signs and intertexualities laid a great framework for each concept which helped me understand some of our other readings further. As he discusses semiotics he explains that the meanings we find within signs can be found in numerous mediums. Chandler state’s “Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware” (Chandler). This reminded me of reading the infamous Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Throughout the books, the reader creates an image of the character’s and settings within their minds. Although the text describes characteristics of the character’s appearance, each individual has their own idea of how the characters looks. Through semiotics the relationship between the text and the images we create are examples of signs. Similar to the Hunger Games series, the novels became so popular that movies were created to visually display the stories. Unfortunately when the movies are made the images you have in your mind in relation to the main characters are now changed. Now when Harry Potter or Hermione’s name is mentioned, the original sign for them I had created is replaced by actors and actresses in the movies.

When I was considering the Harry Potter series, the idea of genre seemed imperative to discuss as well. In one sense, the series has the typical heroic figure which would be Harry. In one of my old communication books, Ciggarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things by Marcel Danesi, she touches upon how the hero is considered an ultimate sign or symbol. Within this relationship of text and image, we portray this hero as a sign who embodies truth, honesty, justice and moral strength. She lists in her book the 7 main elements of Hero Code which are:

1st Heroes have to be sent typically away from their birthplace to avoid death

2nd Ancient heroes lead an obscure early life

3rd Many heroes lose their parents

4th Heroes have superhuman powers (what we admire the most)

5th They all have a fatal weakness (kryptonite)

6th Some are protected by a magical weapon, such as sword

7th Hero is dedicated to helping people and setting things right in the world


I thought this list was imperative to mention since a number of these codes fits in with the Harry Potter series. For instance, Harry is sent away at his birthplace where his parents were killed so he wouldn’t be murdered as well. He lost both of his parents, he protects himself with a sword and the character is constantly trying to save Hogwarts from evil. Chandler states “A text is an assemblage of signs (such as words, images, sounds and/or gestures) constructed (and interpreted) with reference to the conventions associated with a genre and in a particular medium of communication” (Chandler). In order to understand the different signs and symbols within novels or films, different genres help the reader/viewer understand and interpret the main message being presented. Jean-Paul Riopelle goes into depth about the importance of genres as well in the reading on Intertexutality Revisited. It is important to note that semiotics is learned and culture has a large influence on the study.

It’s interesting to learn how different cultures view signs and symbols differently. For example when someone gives thumbs up, this sign can have different meanings to different cultures and societies. In America, we typically associate this sign as a positive reinforcement and imagine that the person is saying “great job”. Where in Iran or Iraq this sign is viewed as an obscene gesture. The “A-OK” is another hand gesture sign that can be interpreted differently depending on the surrounding culture. This sign is interpreted in the states as meaning that everything is great or fine. Where in Latin America and France this sign signifies that you are referring to “your anus” (Baxamusa). Not only are nonverbal gestures important to understand in regards to signs, Mieke Bal writes “That adequate interpretation of signs is a vital necessity in modern life is obvious: responding inappropriately to traffic lights may kill you, ignoring social conventions may cost you jobs or friendships, mistaking a novel for a newspaper or vice versa may spoil your pleasure or give you wrong ideas about reality” (Bal 5). Overall semiotics is an extremely important concept to understand, if we didn’t understand signs we wouldn’t be able to make meaning.
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Bal, Mieke. "On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics." Semiotics for Beginners. Polebridge Press, 1994. Web. <>.

Baxamusa, Batul. "Hand Gestures in Different Cultures." Buzzle. N.p., 19 May 2010. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <>.

Chandler, Daniel. "Semiotics for Beginners." . N.p., 03 April 2005. Web. 1 Oct 2012. <>.

Danesi, Marcel. Of Ciggarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things. Second Edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. 83. Print.

Semiotic analysis in product marketing

The signs around us tell the story of our norms, conventions, and current way of life. Using semiotics, they can be used to gain insight into consumer’s cultural attitudes and behaviors. One way to do this is to interpret visual language in prospective ads or evaluate it in competitor's ads to gauge their effectiveness.Let’s look at the narrative discourse of a specific women’s perfume advertising campaign for Christian Dior's Jadore, featuring Charlize Theron. The objective is to identify sign systems related to consumption behaviour and their underlying meanings:

A simplistic semiotic analysis of the video clip consists of three parts:

1. Semantics: Our senses pick up on product attributes that “mean” something to us based on cultural ties. Opulence, class, the color of gold featuring predominantly, being in demand, being desired, being expected, are some of the feelings that the visual narrative describes for a specific target audience or audiences.

2. Pragmatics: The signs focus on how consumer characteristics influence purchasing and usage activities. Who is the target segment. Women that gravitate towards status symbols? Are Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich are "ideal" representations of status symbols for the target audience?

3. Syntax: Examines the cultural rules and rituals associated with the consumption of the product, including the length and the complexity of the consumption ritual. The ritual of getting dressed, being in the company of women whose look is “immortal”, walking like a runway model.

In addition, the semiotic analysis of syntax though visual language can provide an indication of market penetration via consumption acceptance, and trend changes in product use over time.

Is the ad successful at conveying the following themes?

1. The rapture of alluring fashion in all its prestige and beauty.

2. What goes through every woman's mind when she's dressing to impress.

3. The decadence, pace and frenetic energy of a fashion show.

4. The enchanting power of Jadore, the fragrance.

In closing, semiotics studies range in complexity, and can be combined with other studies to develop product design language, culturally relevant product concepts, target brands with finer granularity, and add qualitative value to a statistical market study.

Cobley, Paul. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. First ed. London: Routledge, 2008. 3-92. Print.Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. New York: Berkley, 2004. 1-356. Print.

Home: Noun
Merriam-Webster defines home as:

1a: one’s place of residence: DOMICILE
2: the social unit formed by a family living together
3a: a familiar or usual setting : congenial environment; also: the focus of one’s domestic attention <home is where the heart is>
4a: a place of origin <salmon returning to their home to spawn>; also : one’s own country <having troubles at home and abroad>
b: HEADQUARTERS 2 <home of the dance company>
5 : an establishment providing residence and care for people with special needs <homes for the elderly>
6 : the objective in various games; especially : HOMEPLATE

In both the film and the book, Gone with the Wind, home is of the utmost importance. Scarlett O’Hara insists on returning to Tara, her home, no matter the costs. Once Scarlett arrives home she does whatever she has to do in order to keep her home. It seems as if there is nothing Scarlett won’t do in order to keep Tara. The importance of Tara, and home, was impressed upon her by her father, Gerald O’Hara. In the movie, the book quote is very similar, he says, “Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”

Tara is a symbol for home in the case of Gone with the Wind. The word home is in turn a symbol for any number of meanings, including those listed from Merriam-Webster. This same site explains the origin of home, “Middle English hom, from Old English hām village, home; akin to Old High German heim home, Lithuanian šeima family, servants, Sanskrit kṣema habitable, kṣeti he dwells, Greekktizein to inhabit.”

“Any reality drawn into the sphere of culture begins to function as a sign. But if it already has a sign character (for any quasi sign of this kind is, in a social sense, undoubtedly a reality), then it becomes a sign of a sign” (Lotman 229). This becomes abundantly clear when considering Gone with the Wind; I mentioned previously the name Tara is a symbol for home, which is a symbol for any number of the definitions above. Tara also is a physical building and there is a score specifically named “Tara’s theme” in the film.

Home plays a very important role in the film, as it does in our culture. Home signifies safety to some, pride to others and, often times, independence. In Gone with the Wind, it signifies all of these ideas. Lotman says, “We understand culture as the nonhereditary memory of the community, a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions” (213). Although the book was published in 1936 and the film was released in 1939, the principle of home is still relevant today.

Even a house can be a symbol for a home. Growing up in a very rural area, I have learned a house is not the only place people consider home: the fields the farmers work in, the barns which house the animals and even the tractors used on a daily basis are considered home. Much like in Gone with the Wind, there is a sense of pride and protectiveness over these ideas of home.

I am left with a question: What is the basis upon which the symbol of “home” exists? It seems as if the symbol of home could go on (and on and on and on and on). What is the true source of “home?”

“home.” Merrium-Webster, 2012. Web. (3 Oct 2012).
“Gone with the Wind: Home to Tara.” 06 Aug 2008. YouTube. Accessed on 3 Oct 2012.
“Gone with the Wind – Tara’s Theme.” 24 Jun 2009. YouTube. Accessed on 3 Oct 2012.
Lotman, Yu, and BA Uspensky. "On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture."
The Johns Hopkins University Press. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 01 Fed 2010. Web. 3 Oct 2012. <>.

-Kassie Barroquillo