Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, both individually and grouped in sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is made and understood. Semioticians also sometimes examine how organisms, no matter how big or small, make predictions about and adapt to their semiotic niche in the world (see Semiosis). Semiotics theorises at a general level about signs, while the study of the communication of information in living organisms is covered in biosemiotics.
The subject was originally spelled semeiotics to honour John Locke (1632–1704), who, in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690), first coined the term "semeiotike" from the Greek word σημειον or semeion, meaning "mark" or "sign".
Clarification of terms
Semioticians classify signs and sign systems in relation to the way they are transmitted (see modality). This process of carrying meaning depends on the use of codes that may be the individual sounds or letters that humans use to form words, the body movements they make to show attitude or emotion, or even something as general as the clothes they wear. To coin a word to refer to a thing (see lexical words), the community must agree on a simple meaning (a denotative meaning) within their language. But that word can transmit that meaning only within the language's grammatical structures and codes (see syntax and semantics). Codes also represent the values of the culture, and are able to add new shades of connotation to every aspect of life.
To explain the relationship between Semiotics and Communication Studies, communication is defined as the process of transferring data from a source to a receiver as efficiently and effectively as possible. Hence, communication theorists construct models based on codes, media, and contexts to explain the biology, psychology, and mechanics involved. Both disciplines also recognise that the technical process cannot be separated from the fact that the receiver must decode the data, i.e. be able to distinguish the data as salient and make meaning out of it. This implies that there is a necessary overlap between semiotics and communication. Indeed, many of the concepts are shared, although in each field the emphasis is different. In Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi (1994), suggested that semioticians' priorities were to study signification first and communication second. A more extreme view is offered by Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1987; trans. 1990: 16) who, as a musicologist, considered the theoretical study of communication irrelevant to his application of semiotics.
Semiotics should also be distinguished from linguistics. Although both start from the same point, semiotics links linguistic facts to non-linguistic facts to give a broader empirical coverage and to offer conclusions that seem more plausible because, intuitively, humans understand that one can only interpret language in a social context (sometimes termed the semiosphere). Pure linguistics dismantles language into its components, analysing usage in slow-time, whereas, in the real world of human semiotic interaction there is an often chaotic blur of language and signal exchange which semiotics attempts to analyse and so identify the systemic rules accepted by all the participants.
Perhaps more difficult is the distinction between semiotics and the philosophy of language. In a sense, the difference is a difference of traditions more than a difference of subjects. Different authors have called themselves "philosopher of language" or "semiotician". This difference does not match the separation between analytic and continental philosophy. On a closer look, there may be found some differences regarding subjects. Philosophy of language pays more attention to natural languages or to languages in general, while semiotics is deeply concerned about non-linguistic signification. Philosophy of language also bears a stronger connection to linguistics, while semiotics is closer to some of the humanities (including literary theory and cultural anthropology).
Semiosis or semeiosis is the process that forms meaning from any organism's apprehension of the world through signs.
The importance of signs and signification has been recognised throughout much of the history of philosophy, and in psychology as well. Plato and Aristotle both explored the relationship between signs and the world, and Augustine considered the nature of the sign within a conventional system. These theories have had a lasting effect in Western philosophy, especially through Scholastic philosophy. More recently, Umberto Eco, in his "Semiotics and philosophy of language" has argued that semiotic theories are implicit in the work of most, perhaps all, major thinkers.
Some important semioticians
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the founder of the philosophical doctrine known as pragmatism, preferred the term "semeiotic." He defined semiosis as "...action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs." ("Pragmatism", Essential Peirce 2: 411; written 1907). His notion of semiosis evolved throughout his career, beginning with the triadic relation just described, and ending with a system consisting of 59,049 possible elements and relations. One reason for this high number is that he allowed each interpretant to act as a sign, thereby creating a new signifying relation. Peirce was also a notable logician, and he considered semiotics and logic as facets of a wider theory. For a summary of Peirce's contributions to semiotics, see Liszka (1996).
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the "father" of modern linguistics, proposed a dualistic notion of signs, relating the signifier as the form of the word or phrase uttered, and to the signified as the mental concept. It is important to note that, according to Saussure, the sign is completely arbitrary, i.e. there was no necessary connection between the sign and its meaning. This sets him apart from previous philosophers such as Plato or the Scholastics, who thought that there must be some connection between a signifier and the object it signifies. Saussure's insistence on the arbitrariness of the sign has also greatly influenced later philosophers, especially postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. Ferdinand de Saussure coined the term semiologie while teaching his landmark "Course on General Linguistics" at the University of Geneva from 1906–11. Saussure posited that no word is inherently meaningful. Rather a word is only a "signifier," i.e. the representation of something, and it must be combined in the brain with the "signified," or the thing itself, in order to form a meaning-imbued "sign." Saussure believed that dismantling signs was a real science, for in doing so we come to an empirical understanding of how humans synthesize physical stimuli into words and other abstract concepts.
Louis Trolle Hjelmslev (1899–1965) developed a structuralist approach to Saussure's theories. His best known work is Prolegomena: A Theory of Language, which was expanded in Resumée of the Theory of Language, a formal development of glossematics, his scientific calculus of language.
Charles W. Morris (1901–1979). In his 1938 Foundations of the Theory of Signs, he defined semiotics as grouping the triad syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Syntax studies the interrelation of the signs, without regard to meaning. Semantics studies the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply. Pragmatics studies the relation between the sign system and its human (or animal) user. Unlike his mentor George Herbert Mead, Morris was a behaviorist and sympathetic to the Vienna Circle positivism of his colleague Rudolf Carnap. Morris has been accused of misreading Peirce.
Umberto Eco made a wider audience aware of semiotics by various publications, most notably A Theory of Semiotics and his novel The Name of the Rose which includes semiotic elements. His most important contributions to the field bear on interpretation, encyclopedia, and model reader.
Algirdas Julius Greimas developed a structural version of semiotics named generative semiotics, trying to shift the focus of discipline from signs to systems of signification. His theories develop the ideas of Saussure, Hjelmslev, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Thomas A. Sebeok, a student of Charles W. Morris, was a prolific and wide-ranging American semiotician. Though he insisted that animals are not capable of language, he expanded the purview of semiotics to include non-human signaling and communication systems, thus raising some of the issues addressed by philosophy of mind and coining the term zoosemiotics. Sebeok insisted that all communication was made possible by the relationship between an organism and the environment it lives in. He also posed the equation between semiosis (the activity of interpreting signs) and life - the view that has further developed by Copenhagen-Tartu biosemiotic school.
Juri Lotman (1922–1993) was the founding member of the Tartu (or Tartu-Moscow) Semiotic School. He developed a semiotic approach to the study of culture and established a communication model for the study of text semiotics. He also introduced the concept of the semiosphere. Among his Moscow colleagues were Vladimir Toporov, Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov, and Boris Uspensky.
Applications of semiotics include:
- It represents a methodology for the analysis of texts regardless of modality. For these purposes, "text" is any message preserved in a form whose existence is independent of both sender and receiver;
- Its concepts and methods are highly portable, and have enriched our understanding of many disciplines, e.g., biology, anthropology, computing, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology;
- It can improve ergonomic design in situations where it is important to ensure that human beings can interact more effectively with their environments, whether it be on a large scale, as in architecture, or on a small scale, such as the configuration of instrumentation for human use.
Semiotics is only slowly establishing itself as a discipline to be respected. In some countries, its role is limited to literary criticism and an appreciation of audio and visual media, but this narrow focus can inhibit a more general study of the social and political forces shaping how different media are used and their dynamic status within modern culture. Issues of technological determinism in the choice of media and the design of communication strategies assume new importance in this age of mass media. The use of semiotic methods to reveal different levels of meaning and, sometimes, hidden motivations has led some to demonise elements of the subject as Marxist, nihilist, etc. (e.g. critical discourse analysis in Postmodernism and deconstruction in Post-structuralism).
Publication of research is both in dedicated journals such as Sign Systems Studies, established by Juri Lotman and published by Tartu University Press; Semiotica, founded by Sebeok, Zeitschrift für Semiotik; European Journal of Semiotics; Versus (founded and directed by Eco), et al.; and as articles accepted in periodicals of other disciplines, especially journals oriented toward philosophy and cultural criticism.
Semiotics has sprouted a number of subfields, including but not limited to the following:
- Biosemiotics is the study of semiotic processes at all levels of biology, or a semiotic study of living systems.
- Computational semiotics attempts to engineer the process of semiosis, say in the study of and design for Human-Computer Interaction or to mimic aspects of human cognition through artificial intelligence and knowledge representation.
- Cultural and literary semiotics examines the literary world, the visual media, the mass media, and advertising in the work of writers such as Roland Barthes, Marcel Danesi, and Juri Lotman.
- Music semiology "There are strong arguments that music inhabits a semiological realm which, on both ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, has developmental priority over verbal language." (Middleton 1990, p.172) See Nattiez (1976, 1987, 1989), Stefani (1973, 1986), Baroni (1983), and Semiotica (66: 1–3 (1987)).
- Structuralism and post-structuralism in the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Louis Hjelmslev, Roman Jakobson, Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, etc.
- Urban semiotics
- Organizational semiotics is the study of semiotic processes in organizations. It has strong ties to Computational semiotics and Human-Computer Interaction.
Second Edition 2005
Semiotics can be defined broadly as a domain of investigation that explores the nature and function of signs as well as the systems and processes underlying signification, expression, representation, and communication. As can be demonstrated from numerous cultural traces (verbal, pictorial, plastic, spatial artifacts, etc.), the constitution of signs, the laws that govern them, and their role in human life have been ongoing concerns over the ages. As noted by John Deely (Frontiers in Semiotics, 1986 ; Four Ages of Understanding, 2001) and Thomas Sebeok (Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, 1976 ; The Sign and Its Masters, 1979), the history of investigation into the nature of signs is an important aspect of the history of philosophy in general, and contributions to the theory can be traced back to the Greeks—from Heraclitus to the Stoics, from plato to aristotle—to the Hellenistic and Roman periods; the early Christian thinkers and church fathers (e.g. , st. augustine); medieval authors; humanists such as dante alighieri and philosophers such as francis bacon; seventeenth-, eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century philosophers, grammarians, and scientists such as John Locke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, George Berkeley, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, Jean François Champollion, and Edmund Husserl, to name but a few of the many important contributors to the doctrine of signs. The twentieth century witnessed a revival of interest in the principles of sign systems and processes inherited from this long tradition of intellectual activity, mainly because of the pioneering work of ferdinand de saussure and charles sanders peirce, who are recognized as the founders of the modern European and Anglo-American traditions of semiotics. Overviews of some of the main contributors to the history of semiotics are provided by Tzvetan Todorov (Théories du symbole, 1977 , Theories of the Symbol, 1982), Thomas Sebeok (Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, 1986), John Deely (Introducing Semiotic, 1982) and Paul Bouissac (Encyclopedia of Semiotics, 1998).
Literary semiotics can be seen as a branch of the general science of signs that studies a particular group of texts within verbal texts in general. Although the task of literary semiotics is to describe what is characteristic of literary texts or discourse, it is founded on the same principles and analytic procedures as the semiotics of verbal discourse. However, for two fundamental reasons, there exists no generally accepted definition of the scope and object of literary semiotics. First, the boundaries of literary discourse seem to have been established more by tradition than by objective, formal criteria. Contrary to other semiotic discourses, for example, legal discourse, literary discourse cannot be characterized by a specifically distinctive content. For instance, the literariness of a text (in the framework of the intrinsic structure of the text) varies according to culture and epoch; as Jurij Lotman and others have shown, a text identified as being religious in the Middle Ages is seen as literary today. Second, there is a wide-ranging, continuing debate regarding the status of the verbal sign and the nature of the signifying process, as underscored in the entry "Sign" in both Thomas Sebeok’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (936–47) and Paul Bouissac’s Encyclopedia (572–75). The fundamental differences between opposing semioticians are related mainly to whether they adopt an intentional, or meaning-oriented, description of a sign system or the codes correlating a given expression with a given content or a more extensional, truth-condition-oriented one that concentrates on the processes of communication by which signs are used to designate, to refer to "things or states of the real or of some possible world" (Sebeok, Encyclopedic 937).
To review even the major contributions to literary semiotics in the twentieth century is beyond the scope of this survey. However, Charles Morris, who drew his inspiration from Peirce, can provide us with a conceptual framework that makes it possible to situate various approaches that have furthered the development of the semiotics of literature in relationship to one another. Starting with the definition of "semiosis" as a process in which signs function as vehicles, interpretants, and interpreters, Morris determines three areas of complementary investigation: syntactics, which studies the relation of sign-vehicles within sign systems; semantics, the relation of signs to objects they represent; and pragmatics, the relation of signs to interpreters. Hence, if one considers literary texts in terms of semiosis, they can be defined as syncretic sign systems encompassing a syntactic dimension that can be analyzed on the phonological level (e.g. , the specific sound patterns organizing the text) and on the level of narrative syntax; the semantic level (the content elements of the text); and the pragmatic or communicative context (addresser and addressee). In short, the first two dimensions stress the structural features of texts and are concerned with their expression and content forms, whereas the third dimension stresses the signifying process and concentrates on analyzing texts’ generative processes and interrelations with other texts (Sebeok, Encyclopedic 453–54). Far from being exclusive, the different methodological approaches to each of these domains of investigation mapped out by Morris are complementary.
Contrary to Peirce, who adopted a philosophical and logical perspective to the study of signs and proposed a general theory of semiotics in which linguistic signs had an important but by no means essential role, Saussure worked out the foundations of a general linguistic theory in which he considered language as a system of signs. Linguistics was considered to be part of the general science of semiology, which he defined as "a science that studies the life of signs within society. . . . It would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them" (trans. Baskin, 16).
Although Saussure himself did not make major contributions to the semiotics of literature before his death in 1916, his writings were instrumental in the development of literary semiotics in Europe, especially with respect to the study of the syntactic and semantic dimensions of texts. Jurii Tynianov and roman jakobson openly acknowledge the impact Saussurean linguistics had on the theoretical work undertaken by the Russian Formalists during the first three decades of the century: the heuristic value of the synchronic/diachronic opposition, of the notion of system, of the distinction between speech and language: parolelangue
For linguistics as well as for literary history, the clear opposition between the synchronic (static) aspect and the diachronic aspect was a rich working hypothesis because it demonstrated the systematic character of language (or literature) at each particular period of life. . . . The establishment of two different notions— parole and langue—and the analysis of their relation (the Geneva School) were extremely fruitful for linguistics. To apply these two categories (the existing norm and individual utterances) to literature and to study their relation, is a problem that must be examined in detail. ( "Problems" 101–2)
In his major review of the Formalists’ goals and accomplishments, Boris Eikhenbaum stressed the importance of theory in uncovering the systematic nature of literary facts and, in the words of Roman Jakobson in "On Realism in Art," of focusing not on literature but on "literariness," that is to say, on the pertinent features of literary texts that distinguish them from other discourse. Contemporary linguistic theory was used by the Formalists to compare spoken language with literary language and to consolidate the principle of specification. Victor Shklovskii (Theory of Prose, 1929) made great progress in analyzing the short story and the novel when he linked processes inherent to composition with general stylistic processes and related the variable and permanent aspects of the artistic form of a work with those of other works, thereby setting out the possibilities for a history of forms, one that still remains to be written. Other fundamental concepts, such as motivation, basically concerned with plot construction (circular construction; composition by steps, or the breaking down of action into episodes, frame, and the rhetorical procedures that are built into this; parallelism; enumeration; oxymoron), led to the distinction between elements in the construction of a work (subject) and those that make up its material (fable) and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Propp’s discovery of function in the plot analysis of folktales, one of the most important innovations of the Russian Formalists. Later Soviet semioticians, such as mikhail bakhtin, who wrote major works on François Rabelais, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the dialogical principles governing communication, were influential in extending the boundaries of literary semiotics and reorienting the domain from a more scientistic bent to a semiotics of culture (Todorov).
Whether imported directly from America and Geneva or indirectly via Russia or Vienna, both Peirce’s "semiotic" and Saussure’s "semiology" were influential in the studies of the verbal arts undertaken by the members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, as demonstrated by Ladislav Matejka and Irwin R. Titunik in the preface to their anthology, Semiotics of Art. In his programmatic article "Art as Semiotic Fact" (1934)Jan Mukařovský established the semiotic framework for the study of art and suggested that the work of art should be considered as a sign composed of "(1) a perceivable signifier, created by the artist, (2) a ‘signification’ /= aesthetic object/ registered in the collective consciousness and (3) a relationship with that which is signified, a relationship which refers to the total context of social phenomena" (Matejka and Titunik 6). Other critics, such as Petr Bogatyrev and Jiri Veltrusky (in Matejka and Titunik), made important advances in the study of visual semiotics as applied to folk art, songs, and theater. Theater as a medium is considered by these critics as transforming its constituent elements into a semiotic structure (visual signs, e.g. , decor, costume, body, etc. , and acoustic signs, e.g. , voice, dialogue, music, etc.), and an attempt is made to lay bare the rules underlying these systems. In other essays in Semiotics of Art, Roman Jakobson ( "What Is Poetry?") and Jan Mukařovský ( "Poetic Reference") further the study of poetic language by investigating the problem of poetic reference from the point of view of internal reference and its oblique but essential relationship to the extralinguistic context. Jakobson concludes that art is an integral part of social structure and that although the "concept of the content of poetry is unstable and temporally conditioned . . . the poetic function, poeticity is an element sui generis, one that cannot be mechanically reduced to other elements" (174). (See prague school structuralism.)
French semiotics, which developed directly from russian formalism and Prague structuralism and arrived in Paris via New York thanks to Roman Jakobson’s influence on claude lévi-strauss during World War II, made a critical contribution to the study of literary texts during the mid-1960s. A special issue of Communications edited by roland barthes in 1966 and devoted to the structural analysis of narrative contains articles by the leading European semioticians who had a profound impact on the future and evolution of literary semiotics. In his introduction, which owes a great deal to Louis Hjelmslev’s rethinking and development of Saussure’s concepts of sign, system, and process, to Claude Lévi-Strauss for the study of the paradigmatic notion of structure, and to Émile Benveniste (Problèmes de linguistique générale, 2 vols. , 1966–74, vol. 1 translated as Problems in General Linguistics, 1971)for the concept of level of analysis, Barthes ascertains that narrative analysis must be based on deductive procedures and must construct hypothetical models patterned on structural linguistics. He proposes a multilevel model of analysis in which each level is in a hierarchical relationship to the others and narrative elements have both distributional (if relations are situated at the same level) and integrative relationships (if situated at different levels). In turn, levels are defined as operations or systems of symbols and rules. Barthes then delimits three linked levels of description— "functions," "actions," and "narration" —in which a function has meaning only within the field of action of an actant, and action is meaningful only when narrated.
The other authors in this volume propose alternate and complementary solutions to some of the problems raised by Barthes. Claude Bremond’s contribution, on the logic of narrative possibilities, is situated at the most abstract level and examines the logical constraints (sequences of functions) of the organized events of any narrative. Algirdas Julien Greimas’s text focuses on the more anthropomorphic level of representation, actions, where primary logical functions take on meaning. These actants, or agents, are described in terms not of what they are but of what they do and by their participation in a limited number of classifiable spheres of action, inasmuch as they partake of three major semantic axes: communication, desire (quest), and test. Moreover, agents are arranged in pairs, and the large number of characters in a narrative is reduced to a structure (Subject/Object, Addresser/Addressee, Helper/Opponent) that is projected along the entire narrative. As an object of communication, narrative is dependent upon an Addresser (narrator) and an Addressee (narratee), and formal marks of both narrator and narratee are considered as being immanent to the text (see Denis Bertrand in Perron and Collins; Greimassian Semiotics; and Budniakiewicz for a more up-to-date elaboration of Greimas’s theory of narrativity). umberto eco’s article, which analyzes Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, deals with narrative combinatories, whereas Tzvetan Todorov, in his study of the categories of literary texts, proposes a more global and more integrated theory of narrative that not only takes into account functions and actions but also concentrates heavily on the level of narration. The volume closes with an important article by gérard genette on the boundaries of narrative that establishes distinctions between diegesis and mimesis, narration and description, and narrative and discourse and lays the groundwork for his influential work on the structure of time (i.e. , the relation between the form of expression and the form of content of time) in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
It is possible to trace two major tendencies in France that evolve from the intellectual activity of the mid-1960s. The first, founded on the Saussurean-Hjelmslevian legacy, best represented by work done by Greimas, has become known as the "Paris school" of semiotics. This school, which concentrates more on syntactic and semantic domains of the discipline, adopts an immanentist attitude to texts, as pointed out by Herman Parret in his introduction to Paris School Semiotics(Perron and Collins). Greimas’s own monumental Maupassant, in which he examines a short story from the perspective of his theoretical transpositional model of signification, whereby complex procedures of textual production are identified and thematic readings are linked up with semantic analysis, is the most exemplary of these studies. (See also Greimas, On Meaning, as well as Schleifer and Broden, for an overview of Greimas’s semiotic theory.) In two of his recent books, De l’imperfection (1987)and Sémiotique des passions (1991, The Semiotics of Passions, 1993), the latter coauthored with Jacques Fontanille, Greimas, having in his prior works set in place a modal syntax, explores the possibility of constructing a discursive syntax based on aspectualities (states of a temporal process—inchoateness, duration, termination—that allow for the representation of temporality as process). This final stage, which builds on the actional and cognitive dimensions of analysis worked out from the 1960s to the 1980s, attempts to give a semiotic interpretation to traditional theories of passions. Greimas and Fontanille seek to establish a coherent methodology that articulates the relationship between semiotic theory and philosophy, and they also endeavor to rethink semiotic theory in general, founded on the actional and the cognitive, by introducing the concept of passion. The study of the passional dimension of numerous literary texts is accompanied by a disengagement with Peirce’s semiotic and an engagement with phenomenology and catastrophe theory, notably as represented by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (proprioception) and René Thom (perception, saliency/ pregnanz), whereas François Rastier investigates methods useful to the analysis of language and literature and seeks to better understand signs, all the while emphasizing their relation to action and culture.
The second tendency is represented by the large number of works that draw their inspiration from a radical questioning of the structural principles defining semiosis. julia kristeva and especially Barthes were instrumental in this respect. Indeed, the latter begins his study S/Z by challenging the very possibility of structural analysis to account for the specificity or individuality of any text. He then shifts the problematic from that of science and ideology to that of writing and rewriting, in short to a semiotics of addressers and addressees, of signs and interpreters. In so doing he also substitutes a semiotics of codes for a semiotics of signs and processes and, without structuring or hierarchizing them, determines five codes under which all the textual signifiers can be grouped: hermeneutic (enigma), semic, symbolic, proairetic (actions), and cultural (references to a science or body of knowledge).
In his innovative work, Umberto Eco attempts to overcome some of the dramatic oppositions that exist between the Saussurean (Hjelmslevian-Greimassian) and Peircean theories of semiosis, which originate from very different epistemological contexts and traditions (see Perron’s introduction in Greimassian Semiotics). In The Role of the Reader (1979)Eco integrates the three domains of semiotics identified by Morris and works out an elaborate theory of the reader as an active principle of interpretation in the generative process of text. He begins with the hypothesis that an author must form a model of a possible reader and must also assume that the set of codes relied upon is shared by the reader. He rewrites the standard communication model (Addresser-Message-Addressee) to better take into account the semantic-pragmatic processes at work within texts and examines the various codes and subcodes in which a message is emitted and by which an author organizes and communicates a text to a reader. Eco introduces operative notions such as model reader and closed and open texts, and he integrates concepts dealing with discursive and narrative structures, topics, isotopies, textual levels, and intertextual competence into a general semiotic theory of narrative. (For a detailed account of Eco’s contribution to the study of literary texts, see Capozzi.)
Robert Scholes, whose work deals with particular texts and ways in which they may be read and interpreted, does not concentrate on the syntactic or semantic dimension of narrative per se but adopts a semiotic approach based on the study of codes. He shows how the literary work, far from being a closed system "free of authorial intention, free of historical necessity, and free of the readers’ projection of value and meaning" (15), as new criticism would have us believe, is, on the contrary, an open text linked to history, to cultural, semantic, and literary codes, and to other texts. Other critics, for example, Terence Hawkes (Structuralism and Semiotics, 1977), Jonathan Culler (Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, 1975 , and The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 1981), terry eagleton(Literary Theory: An Introduction, 1983), and fredric jameson(The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism, 1972), have offered both a critique and discussion on the limits of the semiotic project. In an attempt to go beyond the paradigm of structural semiotics, Jackson Barry in the innovative work Art, Culture, and the Semiotics of Meaning examines how the perception of the artistic form, including verbal texts, can contribute to the emergence of meaning. From Saussure to Hjelmslev, to Greimas, to Peirce, to recent developments in cognitive sciences, Barry explores how the form of art, its signifier, literally helps "make" meaning.
Semiotic theory has been refined and modified progressively through the investigation of various literary genres and specific domains. Paul Zumthor, Donald Maddox, and Eugene Vance, among others, have been instrumental in reshaping a "new kind of linguistically informed medievalism that is as much oriented toward studying the discursive consciousness of medieval intellectual life as it is toward the documentation of events" (Vance, "Chaucer’s" 725). James Burke considers the authorship of Cantar de Mio Cid, one of the great works of Spanish literature, by examining its key structural components and shows that the text was produced in a manner typical for the Middle Ages by an author who followed procedures very specific to the period, whereas Stephen Nimis has contributed to the study of narrative semiotics in the epic tradition from Homer to Milton.
Michael Riffaterre has played a central role in advancing poetic theory by integrating a theory of intertextuality with semiotic theory and by providing a flexible definition of the notion of intertext. He begins by defining the semiotic process within the context of the reader and the act of reading and then distinguishes two levels or stages of reading: "heuristic reading," where meaning is apprehended and the reader’s competence comes into play, followed by "retroactive reading," whereby the reader performs a structural decoding as a variant of the same structural matrix. Riffaterre defines and makes operational notions such as matrix, the minimal and literal sentence transformed into a longer, complex, and nonliteral periphrasis that results in the poem; model, the form of the variants actualized; descriptive systems, networks of words associated with one another around a kernel work; clichés, set phrases actualizing the semes of a matrix or of a descriptive system; and hypograms, formed out of a word’s semes and/or presuppositions.
Numerous monographs and articles have been published on the semiotics of the theater and the novel. Anne Ubersfeld, Thomas Pavel, Keir Elam, Mark Kobernick, Patrice Pavis, Fernando de Toro, Jean Alter, Marvin Carlson, and André Helbo and his collaborators have written pioneering and seminal works on the semiotics of drama. While recognizing that a semiotics of theater must consider all aspects of dramatic discourse as parts of a signifying whole, Ubersfeld concentrates on the text itself and studies the relationships between its two distinct but inseparable parts, "dialogue" and "didascalia" (stage and production directions). Pavel proposes an original theory and methodology of plot analysis drawn from literary structuralism and generative grammar and applies his model to a group of English Renaissance tragedies. De Toro (Theatre Semiotics and "Toward a Specification") attempts to give a comprehensive and systematic approach to theater discourse that links its various components. He examines the process of communication-reception—in binaries such as enunciative situation and utterance, deixis and anaphora, the functions of theater language and actors’ discourse—in order to furnish us with a base on which to establish the specificity of discourse at the linguistic level. Elam’s work, the first full-length study of theater semiotics in English, provides both an exhaustive survey of all that has been done in the field beforehand and a personal theory of theater semiotics, illustrated by analysis of texts from classical (Hamlet) to modern drama (Endgame), whereas Kobernick undertakes a detailed study of the semiotics of drama and the style of Eugene O’Neill.
A second wave of critics, more interactive and contextual, examines theater from the point of view of performance, the sociosemiotic dimension, theater structures, and audience improvisation. Patrice Pavis goes beyond the first wave of theater semiology, which aspired to global coverage and "scientific" rigor, and concentrates on various aspects of semiological theory and stage practice—gesture, body language, reception, the discourse of drama criticism, systems of notation of theatrical performance—before concluding with the semiological analysis of two avant-garde theatrical performances. In another study, de Toro ( "Toward a Socio-Semiotics") attempts to link the semiotic approach to theater to a possible sociosemiotics; that is, he tries to connect two theoretical and epistemological levels of the theater phenomenon, the formal and the contextual. He explores three major areas where semiotics and sociology could come together: the tasks of the sociosemiotics of the theater, the dramatic/performance text, and the process of reception in the theater. Alter’s work tackles the sociosemiotic dimension of theater from a different point of view. He proposes to begin entirely anew by reexamining the basic notions about theater and semiotics, elucidating their problematic concepts, and proposing a new theory that would not give in to prevailing opinion.
Working within the Saussurean framework that postulated the need to define the function of signs within a social context, Alter examines a number of plays and performances from various perspectives—reference and performance, a grammar of theater referentiality, transformational processes (production/reception and playwrights, directors, actors and their works). In so doing he reviews most of the current literature in the area in an attempt to give his theory an anthropological foundation. Carlson also examines a representative number of plays from a sociosemiotic perspective by analyzing the way theatrical signs are produced and the ways they are received and interpreted by an audience. First he studies how audiences develop interpretive strategies from sources both within and outside the production system itself, then he focuses on the semiotics of space and its relationship to interpretation of the theater event, and finally he deals with the creative contribution of the audience. In brief, Carlson’s work envisions the theater not only as a signifying textual system but also as a much vaster phenomenon inscribed in a physical surrounding and a society that maintains a permanent relationship with an audience. A final work by Helbo and his collaborators analyzes the theatrical event and the numerous elements that make up a performance—text, actor, space, spectator, social circumstances—from a variety of directions and using different methodologies, but mainly semiotic analysis. The seven sections of this work provide an overview of current theory, as well as new tools for analyzing performances.
A great deal has been written on the semiotics of the novel, but much of it has concentrated on synchronic semiotic structures, for example, Claude Bremond (Logique du récit), who studies the logic of possibilities; Seymour Chatman (Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, 1978); Roland Le Huenen and Paul Perron, who examine in detail the semiotics of character in Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet; and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, who gives an overview of narrative structures. Paul Perron, in Semiotics and the Modern Quebec Novel, distinguishes the multiple signs in the Quebec novel Agaguk and establishes a narrative grammar, based on the actional, cognitive, and passional semiotic theory, that can be applied to a text as complex as a novel. For this purpose he redefines the concept of sign and introduces a semiotics of passions that conditions the personages actions. Little has been written on the diachronic structuration and the dialectical process of production of narrative texts, and Wladimir Krysinski seeks to fill this void. In his work, theory and practice confront and sustain one another in an attempt to understand the novel as a historically motivated semiotic process. Not only does Krysinski attempt to work out a general semiotic theory but his analysis also focuses on modern texts by writers from Dostoevsky to Roa Bastos, including henry james, André Gide, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Claude Simon, and Hubert Aquin. Thomas Broden, in his analysis of Yeux bleus cheveux noirs by Marguerite Duras, examines body movements and the sense of touch, deriving from them other principles that inform the syntagmatic organization of discourse. He more particularly studies how modulations of pace, time, tempo, and tensivity articulate the unfolding of the narrative.
Theoretical work by Teresa de Lauretis and Kaja Silverman makes important contributions to the semiotic analysis of texts, especially of film texts. De Lauretis problematizes the earlier structural models that consider desire as a type of thematic investment and reexamines the relations of narratives to genres and to epistemological frameworks. She shows how the productivity of the text engages the reader as subject in, and for, its process and places the reader in certain positions of plot space. Narrative is considered as obeying an Oedipal logic that constrains and defines each reader within the position of a sexual difference conceived as follows: male-hero-human on the side of the subject and female-obstacle-boundary-space on the other side. In Femmes imaginaires (1986, Lethal Love, 1987)Mieke Bal extends her earlier study of a more "scientific" bent, one inspired by Genette’s structuralist narratology, and works out a feminist narratology that ascribes to the gender of the narrator the same theoretical status as narrative point of view, for instance. The critique of poststructuralist semiotics is furthered by Silverman, who maintains the centrality of psychoanalysis to semiotics and also emphasizes "sexual difference as an organizing principle not only of the symbolic order and its ‘contents’ (signification, discourse, subjectivity), but of the semiotic account of those things" (viii). Both of these important studies extend the theoretical boundaries of literary semiotics into a domain of sociosemiotics and contribute to the redefinition of an important area of cultural studies focusing on current feminist theory and practice.
A number of studies attempt to focus and refocus semiotics on the literary work in general and its apprehension through the reading process. Literary semiotics is exploring two major areas of investigation, the first related to working out a semiotic theory of reading and the second examining the mediating function of the literary sign between symbolic forms and the materiality of the world. Although these two areas deal with what Charles Morris identified as the pragmatic dimension of semiosis, or the relation of signs to their interpreters, both build on prior theoretical work carried out by numerous semioticians in syntactics and semantics. Under the impetus of paul ricoeur’s Temps et récit (3 vols. , 1983–85, Time and Narrative, 1984–88)and relying on a multidisciplinary approach, Bertrand Gervais focuses on the activity of reading, or what he calls the "reading contract." Gervais studies the structural features of the conceptual network of actions, their reception from the theoretical perspective of semiotics, the logic of actions, artificial intelligence, and the cognitive sciences. By isolating the discursive representation of action and considering it as a nodal component both of the narrative and of reading, and hence by instituting a cognitive level of reading, Gervais frees semiotic theory and analysis from the narrow confines of the structuralist and poststructuralist paradigm, opening up a very promising area of further inquiry.
If a major school of semiotics represented by Greimas and his collaborators seems to be disengaging its work from Peirce and embracing phenomenology and catastrophe theory, numerous other semioticians are reexamining Peircean theory and demonstrating its heuristic value in the study of literary texts. Julio C. M. Pinto’s semantico-semiotic approach to the reading of time is also an attempt to develop an approach that goes beyond structuralism, which concentrated on how time was organized in a text. Pinto sets out to study the reader’s behavior with respect to temporal relations and to explain reading strategies within semantic and semiotic theory. He adapts Peirce’s categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness and equates them with perception, apprehension, and interpretation of the reading process before applying the model to the study of a play by Harold Pinter and a novel by Lèdo Ivo.
Michael Cabot Haley, in his study of the semiosis of poetic metaphor, examines the trope in light of Peirce’s definitions of the sign. He deals successively with metaphor as symbol, index, and icon; metaphor as image, diagram, and metaicon; metaphor as firstness; Peircean hypoicons in poetry; the Peircean index in poetic metaphor; the index of figural displacement; and metaphoric semantic growth. John Sheriff proposes, first, a radical critique of semiotic studies stemming from Saussurean or structuralist theory that describe a literary work only as a closed formal network (Morris’s syntactics and semantics), thereby negating its signification, that is, negating the relation of the text to its interpreters, to being and possibility. Second, Sheriff reexamines Peirce’s triadic theory of signs and studies what he considers to be the three aspects of a literary text: the text not actualized through the act of reading is seen as a virtual signifier, corresponding to Peirce’s eighth category of legisigns (rheme); the act of reading actualizes meaning by giving an interpretation related to the lived experience, and here the text corresponds to the ninth category of legisigns (dicisign); and the text as sign of autorepresentation, the most abstract level, corresponds to the tenth category (argument).
Most of the semioticians currently working in the Peircean paradigm to some degree or other adhere to Sheriff’s critique of the limits of Saussurean- or structuralist-inspired semiotic theory and support the need, through the dynamics of semiosis, to open up the study of text onto the social environment. As Jean Fisette notes, these works, which raise important epistemological questions about the concept of texts, their mode of existence in a given culture, and also their contribution to the issue of symbolic productions in general, could herald a "renewal of studies in literary semiotics which, this time, would be free of all the canons inherited from structuralism" (184).
See also roland barthes, drama theory, umberto eco, fiction theory and criticism, film theory and criticism, julia kristeva, narratology, charles sanders peirce, prague school structuralism, russian formalism, ferdinand de saussure, and structuralism.
See bibliographies in mikhail bakhtin, roland barthes, umberto eco, fredric jameson, julia kristeva, paul ricoeur, and russian formalism for texts by and on those writers and topics. Primary Sources
Jean Alter, A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre, (1990); Mieke Bal, Femmes imaginaires: L’Ancien Testament au risque d’une narratologie critique 1986, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories Bal, trans. , 1987; Mieke Bal, Narratology, (1985); Jackson Barry, Art, Culture, and the Semiotics of Meaning, (1999); Roland Barthes Communications, 8 (1966)special issue on structural analysis of narrative, ; Émile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale 2 vols., 1966–74Volume 1 Problems in General Linguistics Mary Ellen Meek, trans. , 1971; Paul Bouissac, Encyclopedia of Semiotics, (1998); Claude Bremond, Logique du récit, (1973); Thomas Broden, A. J. Greimas (1917–1992): Commemorative Essay Semiotica Volume 105 3–4 (1995); Thomas Broden, Narrativité et dynamique du corps chez M. Duras RSSI: Recherches Sémiotiques / Semiotic Inquiry Volume 19 (1999); Therese Budniakiewicz, Fundamentals of Story Logic, (1992); James Burke, Structures from the Trivium in the Cantar de Mio Cid, (1991); Rocco Capozzi, Reading Eco, (1997); Marvin Carlson, Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life, (1990); Didier Coste, Narrative as Communication, (1989); John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding, (2001); John Deely, Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine, (1982); John Deely et al., Frontiers in Semiotics, (1986); Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, (1984); Fernando de Toro, Theatre Semiotics, (1995); Fernando de Toro, Toward a Socio-Semiotics of the Theatre Semiotica Volume 72 (1988); Fernando de Toro, Toward a Specification of Theatre Discourse Versus Volume 54 (1989); Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, (1980); Jean Fisette, Compte rendu RSSI: Recherches Sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry Volume 11 (1991); Gérard Genette, Figures III 1972, partial trans., Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method Jane E. Lewin, trans. , 1980; Bertrand Gervais, À l’écoute de la lecture, (1993); Bertrand Gervais, Lecture littéraire et explorations en littérature américaine, (1998); Bertrand Gervais, Récits et actions: Pour une théorie de la lecture, (1990); Algirdas Julien Greimas, De l’imperfection, (1987); Algirdas Julien Greimas, Maupassant: La Sémiotique du texte 1976, Maupassant: The Semiotics of Text Paul J. Perron, trans. , 1988; Algirdas Julien Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, Paul J. Perron trans. Frank H. Collins trans. (1987); Algirdas Julien Greimas, Jacques Fontanille, Sémiotique des passions 1991, The Semiotics of Passions Paul J. Perron, trans. , Frank H. Collins, trans. , 1992; Algirdas Julien Greimas, Jacques Fontanille, Greimassian Semiotics special issue, New Literary History Volume 20 (1989); Michael Cabot Haley, The Semiosis of Poetic Metaphor, (1988); André Helbo, et al., Approaching Theatre, (1991); Roman Jakobson, On Realism in Art 1921Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views Ladislav Matejka , Krystyna Pomorska , 1962; Mark Kobernick, Semiotics of the Drama and the Style of Eugene O’Neill, (1989); Wladimir Krysinski, Carrefours de signes: Essais sur le roman moderne, (1981); Roland Le Huenen, Paul Perron, Balzac. Sémiotique du personnage romanesque: L’Exemple d’ Eugénie Grandet, (1980); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale 1958, Structural Anthropology Claire Jacobson, trans. , Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, trans. , 1963; Donald Maddox, The Semiotics of Deceit: The Pathelin Era, (1984); Donald Maddox, Veridiction, Verification, Verifactions: Reflections on Methodology New Literary History Volume 20 (1989); Ladislav Matejka Irwin R. Titunik Semiotics of Art: Prague School Contributions, (1976); Charles Morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs Foundations of the Unity of Science Volume 1 (1938); Stephen Nimis, Narrative Semiotics in the Epic Tradition: The Simile, (1987); Thomas Pavel, The Poetics of Plot: The Case of English Renaissance Drama, (1985); Patrice Pavis, Dictionary of the Theatre, (1996); Patrice Pavis, Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of the Theatre, (1982); Paul Perron, Semiotics and the Modern Quebec Novel, (1996); Paul Perron Frank Collins Paris School Semiotics 2 vols., Volume 1 Theory 1988Volume 2 Practice 1989; Julio C. M. Pinto, The Reading of Time: A Semantico-Semiotic Approach, (1988); François Rastier, Meaning and Textuality, (1997); Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry, (1978); Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, (1983); Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale 1916, Course in General Linguistics Wade Baskin, trans. , 1959Roy Harris, trans. , 1983; Ronald Schleifer, Introduction to, Structural Semantics, (1987); Robert Scholes, Semiotics and Interpretation, (1982); Robert Scholes, Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, (1976); Robert Scholes, The Sign and Its Masters, (1979); Thomas Sebeok Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, 3 vols., (1986); John Sheriff, The Fate of Meaning: Charles Peirce, Structuralism, and Literature, (1989); Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, (1983); Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtine: Le Principe dialogique 1981, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle Wlad Godzich, trans. , 1984; Tzvetan Todorov, Théories du symbole 1977, Theories of the Symbol Catherine Porter, trans. , 1982; Jurii Tynianov, Roman Jakobson, Problems in the Study of Literature and Language 1928, Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views Ladislav Matejka , Krystyna Pomorska , 1962; Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le théâtre 1978, Reading Theatre Frank Collins, trans. , 1999; Eugene Vance, Chaucer’s Pardoner: Relics, Discourse, and Frames of Propriety New Literary History Volume 20 (1989); Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages, (1986); Paul Zumthor, Essai de poétique médiévale, (1972)
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- Communication studies
- Critical theory
- Information theory
- Logic of information
- Logic of relatives
- Media studies
- Semiotic dynamics
- Semiotic information theory
- Communicology: The link between semiotics and phenomenological manifestations
- Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée
- The Commens Dictionary of Peirce's Terms
- Arisbe, The Peirce Gateway
- Portal Louis Hjelmslev
- Semiotics for Beginners
- "What is semiotics?" by Eugene Gorny
- The Semiotics of the Web
- Charles W. Morris
- Ryder, Martin, Instructional Technology Connections: Semiotics, Webpage
- Semiotics and the English Language Arts
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Medieval Semiotics
- Semiotics and ontology: John Deely and John Poinsot