Media theory, in being concerned with the mediation of information, is oftentimes concerned with meaning-making. McLuhan’s familiar aphorism, “the medium is the message,” can be read as revealing the deterministic qualities of a medium, where the importance is displaced from the content mediated to the structures of mediation (McLuhan, 7). Each distinct medium produces meaning based on a system of internal codes, or signs, which must be decoded. Semiotics is the study of these systems. Emerging from a structuralist doctrine, specifically within the field of linguistics, semiotics addresses the process of meaning-making, focusing not on the “message” communicated by a sign, but on the constitutive elements of the sign: essentially, how does a sign communicate?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines semiotics (and indicates its interchangeability with ‘semiology’) as the “study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy provides further insight by defining semiotics as
the general study of symbolic systems, including language. The subject is traditionally divided into three areas: syntax, or the abstract study of signs and their interrelations; semantics, or the study of the relation between the signs and those objects to which they apply; and pragmatics, or the relationship between users and the system.
Semiotics is thus a discipline of relations; it regards a system of representations, and their dynamic relationships, rather than focusing on a unique instantiation of meaning-making. As such, semiotics formulates itself as only one of many approaches to an interdisciplinary field such as media studies, among which tension may exist. Daniel Chandler points to the tension existing between a semiotic analytical approach and ‘content analysis,’ for instance: “While content analysis involves a quantitative approach to the analysis of the manifest ‘content’ of media texts, semiotics seeks to analyze texts as structured wholes and investigates latent, connotative meanings” (8).
The technical term semiotics developed in the fourth century BCE to refer to the medical practice of interpreting symptoms. Etymologically derived from the Greek seimos, meaning sign, the use of this term indicated the recognition of symptoms as signs, and thus of something to be interpreted (Encyclopedia of Semiotics). The broader, modern employment of the term denotes a discipline stemming from the works of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and of American logician Charles Saunders Peirce. For Saussure, concerned primarily with linguistics, ‘semiology’ was to be a “science” of signs (Saussure, 68); Peirce defines ‘semiotic’ as a “formal doctrine of signs,” or logic (Peirce, 98). Semiotics today refers to the study of signs in both the Peircean and Saussurean traditions.
Saussurean Model of the Sign
In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure lays the groundwork for his semiology by analyzing the linguistic sign. His model of the linguistic sign is dyadic, composed of two parts, representing it as “a double entity, one formed by the associating of two terms” (Saussure, 65). Because he is speaking purely of the linguistic sign, he calls these two components “concept” and “sound-image,” the latter pointing directly to the language in its dialogic form, speech (ibid, 66). This medium specificity is abstracted by his generalization of these terms to “signified” and “signifier” respectively (ibid, 67). These two exist in a dynamic relation where “each recalls the other”—that is, a signified and signifier do not exist independently, but are mutually related within the whole that is the sign (ibid, 66). This diagrammatic representation found in Saussure’s writings illustrates their relationship:
The arrows to each side of the diagram indicate the mutual relation of both terms. The central bar separates them as component parts of the whole designated by the ovoid.
Important to Saussure’s semiology is the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. The linguistic sign is arbitrary in that the signifier and the signified are not inherently bound in the relation in which they find themselves, there is no “inner relationship” linking them (ibid, 67). The determinants to their relationship are thus found not within it but without. Arbitrariness of the sign itself does not point to arbitrariness of the conventions through which a sign is decoded; there are concrete social relationships between a signifier and a signified which are not arbitrary. Chandler notes that “as part of its social use within a code (a term which became fundamental among post-Saussurean semioticians), every sign acquires a history and connotations of its own which are familiar to members of the sign-users’ culture” (Chandler, 31).
Peircean Model of the Sign
In contrast to Saussure’s dyadic model of the linguistic sign, Peirce outlines a triadic model—that is, a model constituted by three parts. Peirce is not focused merely on the nature of the linguistic sign, but with drawing an analogy between logic and semiotic as the formal doctrine of signs. The constituent parts of the sign are:
- The representamen – “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce, 99). This is the form which the sign takes. The representamen acts psychologically, creating “an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign.”
- The interpretant – the sign created by the representamen. Like Saussure’s signified, the interpretant is an impression created by the representamen (similar to the signifier) which is purely psychological, or immaterial. However, it differs in that the interpretant is a sign itself and thus “the Interpretant, or the Third, cannot stand in a mere dyadic relation to the Object but must stand in such a relation to it as the Representamen itself does” (ibid, 100). As a sign, the interpretant in a sense functions as an interpretant because it is a secondary representamen.
- The object – that which the sign stands for. Unlike Saussure, Peirce included as a part of the sign that which the sign points to in reality.
The sign operates by “represent[ing] the Object and tell[ing] about it” (ibid, 100). It is not the object in itself nor can it “furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that object” (ibid, 100). The icon-symbol-index trichotomy outlined in “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” refers to three distinct ways in which the sign may operate. However, Chandler notes that “although it is often referred to as a classification of distinct ‘types of signs’, it is more usefully interpreted in terms of differing ‘modes of relationship’ between sign vehicles and their referents (Hawkes 1977, 129)” (Chandler, 36). The icon is considered the fundamental form of the sign; it is a representamen which functions by possessing qualities of its own which are similar to what it represents. In another break with Saussure’s linguistic-center model of the sign, the Peircean model explicitly allows room for the rules of signification of the image. Instead of placing the linguistic sign, that is language or word, and image in opposition to one another, Peirce allows room for the interaction between both in the process of meaning-making. Indeed, he asserts:
The only way of directly communicating is by means of an icon; and every indirect method of communication must depend for its establishment upon the use of an icon. Hence, every assertion must contain an icon or set of icons, or else must contain signs whose meaning is only explicable by icons. (Peirce, 195)
The icon as defined by Peirce recalls the common sense notion of an image, because it signifies by similarity. That is, an icon creates meaning by resembling the object it points to. This is important media studies since the interaction between word and image is of particular interest because of the hazy distinction between these two forms, particularly because an image is not necessarily visual. Language may easily conjure images, and the medium of language is used to communicate ideas about images.
Precisely because language is needed to theorize media and to talk about media, Umberto Eco in Elements of Semiotics argues for a semiotics that considers language to be considered the only system of signs:
Saussure, followed in this by the main semiologists, thought that linguistics merely formed a part of the general science of signs. Now it is far from certain that in the social life of today there are to be found any extensive systems of signs outside human language. (1)
This argument’s primacy of language as the sole system responsible for the process of meaning-making reduces image to language, asserting that the signified cannot exist outside of language—“to perceive what a substance signifies is inevitably to fall back on the individuation of language” (Eco, 2). In this framework, everything signifies through language.
Other post-Saussurean semioticians, such as Roland Barthes, have extended the field of semiotics to include the image as communicating through a system of signs that exists independently from, but functions relationally with, language. In analyses of advertisements in Image-Music-Text, Barthes analyses the different types of messages that can be encoded in an image. His semiotics of images, such as advertisement or captured photographs, focuses on the distinctions and interactions of the linguistic message, the coded iconic-message, and the uncoded iconic message (Barthes, 36).
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The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Chicago. 30 January 2010 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t98.e2818>
Bouissac Paul. “semiotic terminology” Encyclopedia of Semiotics. Ed. Paul Bouissac. Oxford University Press, 2008. University of Chicago. 30 January 2010 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t249.e261>
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” in Music-Image-Text, 32-51. New York: Hill and Wang.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The basics. New York: Routledge.
Eco, Umberto. Elements of Semiology. Great Britain: The Chaucer Press.
Peirce, C. S. “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs.” in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 98-115. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Nature of the Linguistic Sign” in Course in General Linguistics, 65-71. New York: McGraw-Hill.