sign

A sign, according to the multitude of definitions found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as both a “thing” in the world and an analytical concept, can take on a nearly infinite number of forms in order to convey and express, or, perhaps, point to meanings both precise and indeterminate. The sign, thus, is primarily a communicative and expressive device. Unlike the “mark”, according to Walter Benjamin, which is temporal and “emerges from something”, the sign is both spatial and connected to persons: “it is printed on something”, (1996: 84-86) most often, one could add, by someone. The sign, often, is indicative of that which it is not. To engage with signs as things in the world and as concepts (through semiotics: the study of signs) is to fix, expand, refine, understand, express or alter the possible range of meanings associated with any given sign.

Returning to the OED let us examine signs in terms of how and what they may signify. That is, following the OED, I will describe the various forms (expressive, concrete and written, or image-like) and the configurations of meaning (information, qualities, conventions) they make take-on and convey. In terms of form, signs may be a) expressive, through i) acts and gestures that imitate or communicate (pointing in the direction of travel). They may ii) perform or pretend (an exaggerated display of anger to signal the opposite), or iii) rely on conventional gestures or signals (a referee at a football game using the established gesture—or signal—for “holding”). Signs can also be b) concrete or written (that is, they may be objects in the world or particularly recognizable written and repeatable marks. In the case of the latter, they may point to absence more than to any physical presence.). Signs may be i) objects or written marks that carry special meaning and serve to distinguish (the opulent architectural forms of a church signaling sacred space from profane); ii) a conventional mark that serves to replace words (K in place of thousand); iii) a decimal point or a plus or minus sign in front of an integer in math; iv) a seal that attests to ownership. Additionally, signs may be c) images or imprints i) that serve to signify a figure through likeness (such as a statue); ii) marks on a banner or poster (the symbol of a political party); iii) an “emblem or token” (such as those carried and collected by religious pilgrims); or iv) an insignia (the mark of military rank worn on the collar).

With regard to the meanings, ideas, hints, feelings, or limits signs and their users may work to convey, signs can a) give information (iconic signs, such as a shoe outside of a shoe repair shop in order to attract attention, a NO PARKING sign). They can also speak to b) (shifting) qualities, in i) abstract forms, a “sign of the times”. Signs can ii) be external, visible (or invisible) expressions of an inward aspect (a nun’s habit or the absence of a reflection when a vampire looks in the mirror). Analogously, in the case of medical terminology, external bodily signs can act as iii)“objective evidence or indication” of an internal disease. Signs can convey qualities through iv) a physical relationship, such as a trace or “vestige” of a historical presence, or v) by their physical resemblance to the object. Most often, signs tend c) to look backward to culturally agreed-upon norms made implicit through earlier acts of naming, signifying, and perceiving. That is, no matter the form, they take on meaning only within a particular context of agreed upon conventions and norms. Other types of signs, however, such as those associated with divination, astrology, religion, or meteorology may be predictive—that is, they “indicate” that which is to come. The content of the meaning of these future-oriented signs, however, only becomes meaningful within particular historical contexts of shared meaning.

A risk in media studies and analyses of signs more broadly is a tendency to universalize and de-historicize notions of signs, what counts as a sign, the processes by which they are used, and how they relate to objects and interpretants. That which is considered a sign, how, and what it conveys, is susceptible to the vagaries of space and time. Importantly, signs have changed a great deal in the shift form the “medieval” to the “modern”. Signs, for medieval theologians, were most often defined as analogies. The natural world was filled with explicit, readable signs of God’s work. It was Peter Lombard who limited the particular acts (or “works”)—the seven sacraments—that one could do to signify one’s movement towards an increasingly internal piety in the 12th century. Earlier Catholic theologians, however, held a broader view of where one could find signs of God. For Hugh of Saint Victor, to an inquiring mind, the entirety of the material world, and not just the sacraments, signaled the mysteries and secrets of the spiritual realm. God would not have created a world whose meanings could go unknown or undiscovered by Man. Instead, the Word of God could be matched perfectly on to the signs of his work offered by Nature. For medieval Catholics, the world was filled with a complex melding of indices and icons. Indices such as the Eucharist, and the miracles enacted by saints could be iconic in terms of co-presence of the sign and its source, which was God. Other signs were iconic of God and his works by nature of their analogical similarity. The theologians and logicians themselves, however, also mapped this iconicity on to things in “nature”. The apparent persistence of “things” in “threes”—three kinds of love, three kinds of wisdom, etc. for Augustine and others appeared to be naturally derived from nature itself, working the “sign” (the sign here being “threeness”) and that which it represented into a dialectical complexity that made it difficult to disentangle the two. That is, whether “things” existed a priori in “threes” in the world, or “threeness” was mapped onto the world via a worldview influenced by a vision of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit became difficult to separate.

To suggest that this mapping of signs onto their sources occurred perfectly in the Medieval West would overstate the matter. The desire for (and impossibility of) an “indissoluble” link between interior being and exterior signs was a popular theme in religious devotional texts and secular narratives and legends of the time. In his fascinating collection of narratives of popular medieval religion, John Shinners (1997) includes several stories of demons, spirits, and ghosts that are revealing in this respect. One German story from the 1280s recounts the experience of a woman whose “husband came to her and had relations with her in due manner” until she discovered he was away from home and realized that her lover had been a demon, cleverly disguised. While she could not tell the demon from her husband, the children she bore from this encounter clearly revealed their source as she “gave birth to three monsters at once. One monster had teeth like a hog’s, the second had a startlingly long beard, the third had one eye in its face,” (217). Thus, the extensive work required to encounter the world as an analogous to the divine was not without its limitations, frustrations, and challenges. It would be mistaken to suggest that signs were an unproblematic fact of the world for medieval Christians.

The Protestant Reformation, however, did initiate an important shift in how signs could be observed, read, interpreted, and understood. This shift subsequently carried over into the modern period. Perhaps, in part, in response to the anxiety that surrounded the illegibility of signs during the medieval period, many theorists of modernity have insisted that the modern world, in Heidegger’s terms, effectively created “the world as picture,” a space in which signs now “derive [their] . . . legitimacy . . . from the technics of representation.” Similarly, for Foucault, the modern world implied a shift from signs that pointed to a single source to signs “as representation in its pure form” (Cole & Smith 2010: 6, 9). Due to the shift from analogy to representation, signs in the modern period could now be analyzed, categorized, and investigated in new, more rigorous, ways.

Any talk of signs would, of course, be incomplete without taking account of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Peirce. A key difference between these two modern semiotic theorists has been reproduced time and again in theories of media theories which account for forms of representation, mediation, and signification to occur either through binary or tripartite processes.

Saussure’s primary contribution to theories of the sign was his insistence that the relation between signs and their signifieds is arbitrary. Once this arbitrary relationship between a signifier and that which it signifies (the signified) (or, in Peircean terms, between a sign and its Object) is established, however, signs take on distinctions that follow particular patterns. One may not simply arbitrarily assign any signifier to any signified. Rather, while following the “original” act of naming (or, although Saussure did not move too far away from linguistic signs, gesturing) was arbitrary, sign users who followed this originary moment become locked into these established norms and use them in ways that forgets their arbitrary nature.

For Peirce, (via Parmentier), a sign is “anything, whatever, real or fictile, which is capable of a sensible form, is applicable to something other than itself, that is already known, and that is capable of being so interpreted in another sign which I call its Interpretant as to communicate something that may not have been previously known about its object. There is thus a triadic relation between any Sign, an Object, and an Interpretant’,” (Peirce in Parmentier 1994: 24-25).  Peirce’s “addition” (although written prior) to a Saussurean understanding of the sign is the insertion of an additional step in the process of signification. A sign stands in relation to an object only via the image in the mind (an Interpretant) of another. That is, signs and objects do not exist apart from how they are articulated, received, and interpreted (or, importantly, misinterpreted). Given this triadic relationship, a sign cannot be defined in isolation, but must be understood as being necessarily connected to objects and interpretants. Further, interpretants (and, to a lesser extent, objects) can themselves become signs. While Saussure’s binary signs quickly lock sign-users into a rigid system of signification in which the relationship between signifiers and signified has been formed and fastened long before the moment of its use, Peirce’s insertion of interpretants acknowledges that sign-use may fail as often as it may succeed. This space given to the communicative element of signs necessarily points to the possibility of their being miscommunicated. One important effect of this gap inserted into the sign, thus, is the comparative space it gives to sign-users to escape the rigidified system described by Saussure. The interpretant: the manner in which the sign appeared in the mind of the recipient of a communicative (but not only linguistic) act may then come to produce a “new” sign that differs from that which stood in the mind of the sign-user at the beginning of this complex process. Peirce’s expansion of the sign into a tripartite process is further amplified by three additional triads he uses to explore the sign in itself, the sign in relation to the object, and the sign in relation to an interpretant. In each of these triadic relationships Peirce inserts a sense of the abstract quality or concrete materiality (qualisigns, icons, and rhemes) into our understanding of signs. Or, he inserts elements of space and time (sinsigns, indexes, and dicisigns) into the relationship between signs and their objects. Finally, he gives signs a sense of the complex cultural processes that precede any given act of sign-use (legisigns, symbols, and arguments).

A clear tension exists between the shared knowledge that necessarily precedes any process of signification—including the relationship between sign, object, and interpretant as well as what constitutes a sign at all—and the uncertain nature of the interpretant. The extensive work required to structure shared frameworks of knowledge is potentially destabilized by the unknown spaces occupied by interpretants that are capable of re-structuring these frameworks in ways both familiar and new. The significance both of the vagaries of signs and interpretants within particular moments of interaction and the effects of the weight of each past utterance or instantiation that they are made to carry relates back in important ways to the relationship between the sign and media studies.

A connection may be drawn between Charles Peirce and Marshall MacLuhan in terms of their status as initiators of sorts in their respective disciplines of semiotics and media studies. A similar link may be found between their insights, as both expand upon the underdetermined and immensely expansive nature of signs. MacLuhan’s famous declaration that “the medium is the message” implies that the sign is not just a “sign-image” but that it is expressed in particular forms (spoken, sung, gestured, written, drawn, sculpted, painted, filmed, digitized, etc.) These forms, as the OED has displayed for us, are equally important and communicate as much as the content of signs. That is, how one communicates cannot, perhaps, be separated from the content, the meaning, (or what) one articulates (or intends to articulate).

For media studies, this awareness of form, quality, space, time, and process and vital to any articulation of the manner in which social worlds are represented, articulated, and expressed in any given moment. Moving beyond the content expressed in any particular medium requires acknowledging the concrete materiality of a medium and the weight of its prior usage that signs of this medium are required to carry. Further, in order to begin to understand the content and information these signs convey requires understanding the particular work, context, and risk of failure implied within any instance of sign use.

Elayne Oliphant

Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. 1996 [1917]. “Painting, or Signs and Marks.” In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 1. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Cambridge: The Belknap Press.

Cole, Andrew. And D. Vance Smith, eds. 2010. The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages. Durham: Duke University Press.

Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,

Parmentier, Richard J. 1994. Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1955. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Justus Bucher, ed. New York: Dover.

Saussure de, Ferdinand. 1972. Course in General Linguistics. Illinois: Open Court Publishing.