This week our topic for discussion (if one person typing away at a keyboard passes for such) is semiotics, also known as semiology. Semiotics is basically a study of signs but it can be applied to a range of human activities and as students of media studies we can use it as a tool to analyse various texts of different sorts from film to print journalism to TV or radio. Perhaps the name most synonymous with semiotics is one of its founding fathers, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
In the same way that speech (parole) requires the establishment of a shared language (Langue) so also communication through other media such as film or music requires a shared understanding of the various elements that make up a particular cultural text and the meaning conveyed by how those elements are brought together. According to de Saussure these elements are selected from a paradigmatic axis while their arrangement in a linked chain according to rules and conventions constitutes the syntagmatic axis.
Roland Barthes brought this analysis a step further and, developing the theme of cultural specificity within communication through signs, he introduced the distinction between denotation and connotation. Denotation refers to the most immediate level of meaning, while connotation constitutes what it means to us in the cultural/social context in which we view it. Barthes refers to connotations as second order or associative meanings and sees them as of particular interest when analysing a text.
The structuralist approach of de Saussure and the post-structuralist, culturally specific, approach of Barthes are not mutually exclusive. The advertisement below for an IWC watch would be immediately understood by most males within Western society, and probably most females too, but in another culture, where the role or image of women is different, the intended meaning may not be conveyed. Here we see a number of elements inserted from what might be regarded as a Western male paradigm of understanding of females, but it is their syntagmatic juxtaposition with the image of a watch that gives meaning and humour to the advertisement. Both de Saussure’s and Barthes’ approach is utilised in our semiotic analysis of this advertisement.
Barthes further developed his semiotic analysis to a third level of signification beyond denotation and connotation. At this third level of signification he believed ideology and myth were conveyed.
Umberto Eco, who wrote a number of clever and interesting books, including The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, also appears to have contributed to the great debate on semiotics with the following quote: ‘A sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie’. It is not clear if any good came from his engagement with this strange subject.