Semiotics – sometimes known as semiology – are signs or signals given off by a text which are then relayed as a message to the viewers. It was developed by French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure who introduced semiology as a method of creating meaning and actually ‘structuring’ the realities that they seem to describe, as opposed to merely describing the world ‘as is’.
Semiotics is therefore structuralist in that it sees language as a construction as opposed to being a natural thing. It is merely through our shared ‘perceptions of sign systems’ that we are able to collectively relate to meaning in signs in the same way. These can shift (for example think of the word ‘Black’, ‘Gay’, ‘Sick’, ‘Bad’ and how their meaning has changed/slipped) over time and can be culturally specific.
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall raised the debate of how language and culture is constructed and inherited to create such meanings. These meanings can shift depending on specific cultures and how they are adopted into certain societies. For example, the introduction of hip-hop music in the 1970s has brought about slang words and phrases such as ‘bounce’ (to leave), ‘crib’ (house) and ‘keep it real’ (be yourself).
Semiotics uses the term ‘signs’ to describe the way that meanings are produced. A sign has several characteristics:
- The signifier: The actual physical form of the sign. The sound-image.
- The signified: The concept the signifier refers to.
- The referent: the real thing that the signifier and signified refer to.
- Sign systems are constructed.
Very often these categories work by means of creating differences (binary oppositions); Claude Levi-Strauss (i.e. a man is a man precisely because he is not a woman).
Charles Sanders Peirce mentioned three types of ‘visual sign’:
Indexical: There is a causal, contiguous or sequential relation to the sign and what it stands for. For example, smoke is sequential to ‘fire’, a thermometer is an index of ‘temperature’.
Iconic: Always resemble what they signify. A photograph of a dog, a sign on a toilet door, a ‘child crossing’ road sign.
Symbolic: Nothing in a symbol produces intrinsic meaning. (Words, nike logo, flags). It is arbitrarily linked to its referent.
Representational of Australianism? Myth?