Back to Project 10: Symbolism and Semiotics


So you would think that the end of term symposium would mark the beginning in a lull of activity but I am fired up by it and the work on symbolism needs progressing as I don’t think I can address the issue without exploring the issue of Semiotics and have found Chandler’s book (2002) invaluable in this. Here are my notes.

This book is a small 272 page introduction to the subject and is published as one of a series of books covering a range of subjects from Shakespeare to sociology. The book is structured into seven key areas:

  • Models of the sign
  • Signs and things
  • Analysing structures
  • Challenging the literal
  • Codes
  • Textual interactions
  • Limitations and strengths


  • Semiotics = the study of signs
  • Umberto Eco “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” p2
  • A sign – something which stands for something else
    • The meaning is most often referred to as the “text”
    • The texts can take the form of anything that represents something other than itself
  • The medium
    • Can be the channels involved – visual, audible etc
      • The medium is more invisible the better it is at its function to communicate meaning
    • Some people argue that the medium can have its own autonomous meaning “the medium is the message” M McLullan p4
    • The truth is that we use a medium for its purpose it becomes part of that purpose eg writing involves the use of the pen

Models of the sign

The Saussurean model

  • Two sides of a page – signified (thing) – signifier (the meaning or concept) p19
    • The relational system – the meaning of signs is seen as in their relationship to each other rather than in the material properties p22
    • Arbitrariness – there is no inherent relationship between signified and signifier in language – there relationship is arbitrary (but fixed by the language) p31

The Peircean model based on a three part model

  1. The representament – the form the sign takes
  2. The interpretant – the sense made by the sign
  3. The object – the thing to which the sign refers
  • Relativity – arbitrariness of signs is not equal
    • Symbolic mode – purely arbitrary relationship
    • Iconic mode – resemblance or imitating the signified
    • Indexical mode – having a direct connection with the signified

Digital and analogue

  • Digital modes involve discrete units and depend on the categorisation of what is signified p46
  • Analogue modes involve graded relationships on a continuum

Rematerializing the sign

  • A street rebuilt is still referred to as the same street
  • A chess set is a chess set whatever it is made from
    • So these are examples of tokens of the same types

Signs and things

  • Language is more than just the naming of objects p56
  • Languages categorise things differently – so there is no direct relationship between a word and a thing
  • Reality is created by the language we use

Primacy of the signifyer (referentiality)

  • in the Saussarian model
    • Signifieds are social constructed through signifiers (language)
  • In the Peircian model
    • Truth value of a sign (modality) = the reality status accorded to or claimed by a sign

Analysing structures

Structural analysis = identifying the units and their relationships with each other

Two kinds of signifiers

  • Syntagmatic = this and this and this (form) – surface structures
  • Paradigmatic = this or this or this – (content) – connotations

These are shown on horizontal and vertical axes on page 80

The syntagmatic dimension

  • Narrative (sequential relations)
  • Spatial relations (high/low; centre/periphery)
  • Conceptual relations – exposition – say what you are going to say, say it, say what you have said

Structural reduction = looking at function and purpose within the structure


  • Form an important aspect of semiotic analysis
  • The language of opposition
  • Oppositions are rarely equally weighted


  • Paired signifiers = part of the hidden structures in texts p106
    • Can become aligned eg content with other content such as men and power

Challenging the literal

Semiotics = challenges the literal understanding of things – this chapter explores how

Rhetorical tropes

  • Rhetorical forms shape realities – form and content are mixed and value laden
  • Literal language – as objective as possible
  • Figurative language – subjective/descriptive

Tropes “Reality is framed within systems of analogy” p125

  • Metaphorical types- all based on relationships
    • Orientational
    • Ontological
    • Structural

Metonymy – based on replacing a thing with an associated name – eg Hollywood in referring to the film industry p130

Irony – imply a meaning in opposition to their literal meaning

Denotation and connotation – terms used to describe the relationship between the signifier and the signified

Myth – for Barthes they naturalise the cultural p 145

The production and communication of texts requires shared codes of communication (Jakobson 1971) p147

Codes provide the frameworks in which signs make sense

“Codes organise signs into meaningful systems which correlate signifiers and signifieds”

Types of codes

  • Social- eg language and behavioural codes
  • Textual – eg science, photography, painting
  • Interpretive – eg perceptual and ideological

Invisible editing – eg the conventions employed in film editing which the audience are mostly unaware of

  • Broadcast and narrowcast codes – mass media codes and subcultural codes
  • Interaction of textual codes – codes do not work in isolation from each other but interact

Codification – codes change and evolve

Models of communication

  • Involve encoding and decoding

The positioning of the subject

  • People (in semiotic terms) have different subject personalities/identities
    • So they interpret signs through the ideological identify p180

Adopting a perspective – eg pictorial codes show that sight and so reality is socially constructed

Modes of address (eg texts, photos etc) – are influenced by three interrelating factors

  • Textual context – the conventions of the genre
  • Social context – it is consumed in
  • Technological constraints – of the medium employed eg photography

Reading positions – Hall argued that texts offer three broad interpretational stances for the reader

  • Dominant
  • Negotiated
  • Oppositional

Bricolage – making new messages by appropriating old signs and making new meanings by their rearrangement

Limitations and strengths
Semiotics at its worst is little more than a “pretentious form of literary criticism” p207 and it had been charged with being Imperialistic – because some semioticians apply it to everything and present it as wholly objective

Good semiotics is

  • about knowing limitations of the interpretation and being culturally aware
  • denaturalising assumptions (challenging positivists) and challenging conventional wisdom that define reality as objective
  • helps show the social construction of meanings and subjects

What does this all mean for my work?
The book reminded me a lot of some of the issue in Image Music Text by Roland Barthes (1977) as all images hold codes and work as different levels – mimetic and symbolic. In fact I much preferred that book as this made hard going in some areas.

My aim in the next piece of work will be to experiment with injecting some personality into the standard symbol, rather than changing it as I did in the first experiment, and in so doing hopefully make its cultural social construction explicit – to get people to question the symbol’s purpose and meaning.

Semiotics by Daniel Chandler, Routledge 2002 (2006 edn)

About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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