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Critical Semiotics

Instructor: Scott Simpkins

Lecture One: The Lingua Franca of Semioticians

Key for References to Assigned Readings:

F - Deely, John, Brooke Williams, and Felicia Kruse, eds. Frontiers in Semiotics. (1986). Bloomington: Indiana University Press

E- Eco, Umberto. (1979) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

D - Deely, John. (1990). Basics of Semiotics Bloomington: Indiana University Press

The Discussion of Semiotics

"Semiotics" could be said to exist only as a topic of discussion.

Although it is commonly referred to as though it were a concretely established discipline (or even a "science"), the legerdemain behind this practice cannot be exaggerated.

A more responsive handling of this situation is found in the case of Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress's depiction of a "traditional semiotics." They oppose this term to another form of semiotics that they designate - a social semiotics - based on the presumption that positing a "mainstream" discipline allows them to talk about "variant" manifestations as a result. Yet they acknowledge that, in fact, "the 'tradition' of traditional semiotics is not monolithic or even an agreed body of theories and concepts" (13). Through this tentativity, Hodge and Kress openly acknowledge the sleight of hand that is usually employed surreptitiously by discussions that presume "semiotics" to exist as a conceptually homogeneous enterprise. Consequently, as well, Hodge and Kress offer a discussion of semiotics that is unusually sensitive in this fashion by questioning the assumed existence of what is frequently accorded the status of an entire discipline. (Their approach is somewhat parallel, in this respect, to placing a concept sous rature, or "under erasure," as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida have [with admittedly different purposes], by literally "crossing-out" these terms when they feel obliged to use them, thereby suggesting that the expression of that concept is inadequate, yet necessary. This gesture will be figuratively extended here by proposing a "semiotics" that exists only potentially as a process of dialogue, as opposed to a maturely conceived and consensually established field.)

The Dominant Paradigm

A more common approach to semiotics involves presenting it, on the one hand, as a multidirectional and often ideologically invested rehearsal of discussions about the nature of signs and signification that have gone on for centuries, while, on the other hand, also maintaining that it is ultimately a well-grounded discipline informed by an elaborate and precise conceptual agreement embraced by semioticians in general. This is demonstrated by Daniel Chandler's World Wide Web text, "Semiotics for Beginners," which declares that "these notes do not stray far from a current consensus as to key terms" used in semiotics. John Deely's study, Basics of Semiotics, reveals this maneuver it its title itself. And, while the blurb on the back cover suggests that Deely realizes "Semioticians still lack a unified theory of the purposes of semiotics as a discipline as well as a comprehensive rationale for the linking of semiosis at the levels of culture, society, and nature," at the same time it goes on to assert that "This short, cogent, philosophically oriented book outlines and analyzes the basic concepts of semiotics in a coherent, overall framework" (emphasis added). For Deely, and other similarly inclined writers on semiotics, the only way this domain can be rendered cogently, coherently, and with brevity, is to rely upon illusory assumptions of consensus about essentially unresolvable disagreements regarding sign models and their concomitant theoretical presuppositons. Obviously, a great deal of descriptive subtlety is lost in the process of presenting "semiotics" as a conveniently organized enterprise in a manner that glosses over the immense complexity required to account for the conflicting views regarding every facet of it.

Accordingly, when Umberto Eco somewhat casually refers to A Theory of Semiotics as "an attempt to introduce into the semiotic framework a theory of referents" (viii, emphasis added), he has slipped into his assertion an essential assumption about the existence of such a framework without sufficiently qualifying the extremely problematic implications of this assertion. Likewise, the editors' comments in the preface to Frontiers in Semiotics incline toward totalization as they remark: "The readings [included in the anthology] globally taken provide . . . a corrective and an enhancement of popular conceptions of semiotic today" (xvii). Yet, in the end, these essays clearly make just one more contribution to a series of "popular conceptions" because there appears to be no way to situate an authoritative "correction," and possibly not even an "enhancement" of semiotic theory, although the potential value they hold for contributing to the ongoing "discussion" of semiotics always remains a possibility.

The Benefits of Tentativity

Hodge and Kress again usefully demonstrate one benefit of semiotic discussion in that nonexistent or immaterial entities can be posited and explored much in the same way that existent or material ones can. "Unicorns" would be a good example. We could talk about their manifestations throughout history, the structural, relational, and symbolic properties they are said to possess, and even the ways in which they have acquired a type of materiality as the topic of a shared conversation.

The same is true for "semiotics" itself.

Nevertheless, a study of this "discussion" (as this first lecture undertakes) can help to reveal - or perhaps at least offer a provisional construction of - the contours of what, in certain very local circles, modern "semiotics" could be said to entail. Rather than following the lead of the early Wittgenstein and resigning ourselves to passing over in silence those issues associated with semiotics that resist comfortable agreement, it could be quite fruitful to explore the points of contention related to this discipline as a means of engendering further conversations about it.

The Indiana Group

Without implying that one could accurately grasp the nature of a given conversation about semiotics, and certainly without privileging this explanation as revealing the "basics" of semiotics, one can offer observations about a conversation in order to introduce and interrogate what some writers view as "central" components of semiotics. The conversation explored here has taken place among an arguably related group of writers who have focused primarily on semiotic studies undertaken by, and derived from, the work of the American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, and to a far lesser extent, that of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure.

For the sake of convenience, I will refer to these writers as the "Indiana Group," based largely on the considerable influence of the Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies at Indiana University in the United States and the University of Indiana Press series, Advances in Semiotics (general editor, Thomas A. Sebeok), that has disseminated numerous - and, to a certain extent, heterogeneous - views of semiotics. Many of the concepts discussed by the IG will be derived from the texts referred to at the beginning of this lecture and should be seen only as very specific, and perhaps even idiosyncratic, perspectives on what could be called "semiotics." In other words, they no more present a unified conception of semiotics than anybody else does (or, more precisely, than anybody else can); they will be used only to facilitate conversation about one discussion of semiotics as an example of the numerous others that have taken place, or are currently under way.

Within the IG discussion, semiotics is viewed as the study of signs and the ways in which sign systems convey (and are used to convey) meaning. Immediately, of course, problems arise even with what seem to be fairly simplistic concepts. What, for instance, is meant by a "sign" and in what ways do signs relate to supposedly similar signs to constitute a system? Moreover, is this systemic relation immanent, or imposed to neatly arrange something in a manner that in no way reflects the actual nature of sign relations? And, could we determine what that "actual nature" is in order to test the validity of this presumed system? Furthermore, what is meant by "meaning"? Is it related to, or grounded firmly by, "context," or "intention," or "structure," or cultural "convention"? Obviously, such questions effectively undermine an attempt to posit a sense of agreement or essential definition for semiotics, and this is where the major limitations of presumably "semiotic" discussions arise.

(For an extensive discussion of one view of the implications associated with the various terms aligned with this enterprise - "semiotic," "semiology," "semeiotic," etc. - see F 255-263.)

The Sign According to the IG: The Case of Eco

While numerous competing models of the sign have been offered, they share enough conceptual similarities to constitute something of a consensus among the discussions of the IG semioticians. Consider the way that Eco defines semiotics as a discipline "concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign." "A sign," he argues, "is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else" (E 7). (Similarly, Charles Morris suggests that "something is a sign only because it is interpreted as a sign of something by some interpreter" [quoted in E 16].) EcoŐs model posits a sign-decoder relationship; in other words, it agrees with PeirceŐs general contention - as reiterated by Eco - that a "sign" is something that means (or "stands for") something to someone.

Eco positions the sign component as external to the signifying entity. This would be a form of extra-phenomenological communication, one that entails not the exchange or interaction of consciousness characteristic of phenomenology, but instead, entails an importation or extrapolation of meaning derived from semiotic components supposedly originating from the decoder. In other words, this definition denies the possible significance of sign-vehicle agency - the impact of an encoder of a sign, for instance - and allows, as a result, for the signifying entity to possess semioticity separate from its possible association with an encoder. Recognizing that a cloud signifies the potential approach of rain would be a sign in this fashion. This would be an example of what Eco et al. call "natural signs" (F 69).

Elsewhere, Eco asserts that "it is not necessary that the source or the transmitter be human, provided that they emit the signal [or message] following a system of rules by the human addressee" (E 8). Again, though, this "emission" or "transmission" of meaning implies that the decoder performs a sending agency, or even intention, that serves as a basis for grounding meaning that is further specified through semiotic convention. Moreover, it is mediated by an androcentric agency that is in no way directly linked with what might inhere within the signifying object (i.e., something that would constitute its "nature"). Although Eco qualifies this by observing that signs differ "according to whether they originate from a sender or a natural source" (E 177), his previously cited statement necessitates that the natural source (something that one takes away from) somehow emits a meaning not unlike "intention" - a problematic issue indeed.

The Imposition of Meaning

Within this isolated example from Eco, the claim of privileged knowledge of "context" or "intention" or "meaning" is truly difficult to support, especially considering that this would be a meaning constructed by the decoder as opposed to the encoder. In fact, it seems certain that an encoder is ultimately incapable of enforcing any significant control over what the decoder does with a given sign-vehicle. As Saussure argues, even if you created your own language system, one in which you specify very concretely the denotations, connotations, etc. of each unit and subsequent combinations thereof, you would immediately lose all power to control the use of that language once it were put into circulation and utilized by others. Conversely, the decoder has no means of grounding the act of decoding within this model because, following Eco's restriction that the message has to be constructed according to "a system of rules [known] by the human addressee," this "system" could doubtlessly vary tremendously from one addressee to the next. Thus, the addressee (or decoder) could be simply rendering a sign intelligible in virtal isolation from consideration of elements such as the system, society, or convention, insofar as none of these facets can exercise genuine control over an decoder's attempts to project meaning onto something.

While this might seem like an occurrence of what Martin Krampen refers to as "suffering the imposition of meaning" (F 90), this imposition cannot be avoided since it typically is considered the basic mechanism behind semiosis according to its rendering by the IG (as indicated by this specific illustration from Eco). Think about the static, mechanical ways that semiosis would work if the decoder were only capable of understanding a sign based on an accurate, intended meaning somehow originating from, and only authorized by, the encoder (as opposed to an external encoding agent). At the same time, however, we all know how frustrating it is to, for instance, have someone claim to know what we "really meant" by saying something or "miscontruing" our intention related to an utterance. Eco makes a compelling argument when he claims that, "although of considerable importance within its proper domain, the notion of 'referent' has most unfortunate results within the framework of a theory of codes, and to underestimate its malignant influence leads to a referential fallacy" (E 58).

Other forms of "imposition" of meaning of this nature can be found in KrampenŐs description of the semiotics of plant design (F 90) or Eco's depiction of the "message" of a staircase (E 260). It also can be seen in Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," in which the narrator - someone who has allegedly had extensive contact with the inscrutable Bartleby - attempts to illuminate this mysterious figure for us through several anecdotes and a closing revelation that Bartleby's strange disquietude may have been caused by the philosophical ramifications of his temporary employment in a dead letter office. Bartleby's puzzling response to requests to explain his behavior - "'I would prefer not to.'" - leads the narrator to desperately secure a narrative intelligibility for it, and thus Bartleby also suffers the imposition of meaning upon his decidedly quirky social interaction.

Obviously, however, other types of semiotic exchanges do have an encoding agency originating from the signifying entity itself, a factor which Eco's definition neglects. I might send a note to someone with a clear intention to inform her of a specific condition, for instance. The comprehension of my message by the decoder would not be a matter of taking my note (and the accompanying signifying process and components) as a sign regardless of my originating motive; rather, it would be a matter of drawing upon a wide array of semiotic practices (linguistic competency, social awareness of the "note" genre as well as knowledge about the social event of "note passing," the history of interpersonal relations between us, etc.) that would enable my decoder to intelligibly produce meaning from my act of note transmission. And my originating motive could clearly be among the "meanings" she produces.

Note, too, that in the example mentioned earlier, Eco stresses "significance" in a way that unnecessarily limits the range of his definition by making a distinction without concretely elaborating on its relevance. Surely "insignificant" details in the creation of a sign are more accurately described as having lesser or inoperative significance, as opposed to no significance whatsoever. The kind of paper I use in my note example above would illustrate this point. While it might appear unimportant, it nonetheless is a necessary element for the transmission of my message. Think, moreover, of the possible relevance of the kinds of paper used for resumes or billets-doux, or the ways in which stationery figures significantly in Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Purloined Letter," as a bibliographical code that the crafty Dupin is not only able to "crack," but to effectively manipulate as well. In this respect, Eco's emphasis on "significance" can be viewed as an attempt to propose an airtight definition of semiotics that, ultimately, is full of holes.

Terminological Problems

Eco's model dramatizes the potential vulnerability of "semiotics" in general and also helps to explain its status as a lingua franca among the discussion of a group one could construct for the sake of an illustration (like the IG). While everybody approaches semiotics from a singular perspective on different models and different interpretations of them, the use of a single, common term to designate this practice contributes to the illusion that everybody is talking about the same thing. Sebeok, who also is Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica, Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, appears to reflect this view in his survey of the various terms used to label what is referred to here as semiotics when he notes: "While every contributor to Semiotica - to stick with a parochial illustration - may indulge his personal taste when attaching a label to the theory of signs, his terminology within the same piece of discourse will not oscillate ad libitum, for his initial selection will have signaled to his sophisticated readership whether he has chosen to align himself with the Locke-Peirce-Morris tradition, the Mead variation, or the Saussurean pattern of thought and action" (F 262). But, each of these "traditions" is ceaselessly contested among both its adherents and its detractors, and it is undeniable that the "oscillation" Sebeok depicts does indeed continue without likely cessation into a cohesive body that could be honestly called, to use Sebeok's phrase, "the theory of signs."

An easy way out of this bind is to adopt a syncretic position that seems to be grounded by judiciously selected and lucidly defined "key" concepts. Chandler, for instance, advises readers of "Semiotics for Beginners" that explicit term definition is not necessary if they stick to the agreed-upon "key terms" of semiotics and adds that "if you use other semiotic terms you need to make clear whose definition of them you are using." The actual situation in the discussion of semiotics is much more complex than that, however, because all of the terms or concepts found within it are always vulnerable to semiosic slippage, the deferral of meaning inherent in a process of signification based on difference and relation as opposed to the transparent conveyance of meaning-without-mediation. To suggest that simply designating whose terms you're using will clear up this problem is to deny that there is a conceptual problem underlying "semiotics" at all.

Authority and Primary Sources

Even drawing upon the terms derived from what could be called the "primary sources" of modern semiotics - Peirce and Saussure, for example - would hardly provide a substantial basis for a solid depiction of the constituent elements and concerns of "semiotics." In part, this is the result of the deferral characteristic of semiosis (mentioned above) in which the thing itself cannot be used to signify something (while still maintaining its essential quality as the thing itself) because, within this model, something else is always used to signify the thing itself. But, it is also the result of the fallacy behind the presumption of authority associated with the use of "primary" sources which, in the case of both Peirce and Saussure, are undeniably inadequate, although in radically opposed ways.

That is because Saussure essentially said too little about what constitutes "semiotics" and Peirce said too much at times, which inevitably led to an equally inadequate condition. One could argue that the gist of Saussure's commentary on semiotics can be found in this one statement: "I call the combination of a concept [or signified] and a sound-image [or signifier] a sign" (Course 67). Peirce, to the contrary, frequently reworked his models, adding new terms and new forms of earlier conceptualization that resulted in a bewildering panorama of sign commentary without necessarily illuminating precisely his notion of semiosis.

His three triadic divisions of signs illustrate this point well: Peirce posited these divisions of signs within his semiotic scaffolding through fairly vague definitions and rendered them all the more confusing through reconsideration. Although he commonly used these three divisions (qualisign, sinsign, legisign; icon, index, symbol; and rheme, dicisign/dicent, argument) that produced 10 sign classes, he referred to them in other ways as well so that, as Thomas Goudge notes, when reading these texts, "one can never be sure whether some new facet of semiotic is being discriminated or whether an old aspect is simply being given a new label" (139). Furthermore, Peirce later expanded these divisions into 10 trichotomies that produced 66 sign classes, but then failed to fully explain them.

Within this dilemma, then, the notion of semiotic authority is certainly questionable, so that Sebeok's contention regarding "sophistication" of understanding among semioticians is more a case of agreeing to use inadequate and incomplete models of the sign than an instance of real understanding because such an understanding cannot ultimately find complete authorization. An emphatic example of this is Umberto Eco who, at least in the popular conception, is held to possess a truly sophisticated grasp of semiotics. Yet his works are often criticized for their needless, erroneous or heavy-handed reductions. (In one case, The American Journal of Semiotics even published an essay by Victorino Tejera that asked: "Has Eco Understood Peirce?")

Model Shortcomings

The process of selecting and eliminating seemingly constituent parts of the overall process of semiosis also leads to conveniently explicable models that, at the same time, are limited precisely to the degree that this excision and shaping take place. Peirce, for instance, was very sensitive to potential criticism regarding his penchant for triadic models which arrange arguably fluid and chaotic elements into a possibly inaccurate, but alluringly systemic order. Or, consider Eco's elimination of many other components of semiosis in order to posit a conceptual correlation between merely the "expression plane" and the "content plane" (E 48) or to portray semiosis as "a correspondence as realized during a transmission process" (E 54).

Peirce's triad of signs based on their relation to the thing they represent - icon, index and symbol - serves as a convenient illustration of easy and imprecise appropriation in the discussion of semiotics. Even though Peirce has noted that they can intertwine in potentially subtle and complex ways, and therefore do not stand as distinctly different categories as much as interdependent gradations, they nevertheless are frequently used as though they were separate entities. (This also happens with Saussure's concept of the signifier and the signified.)

To take one example: the icon. At one point, Peirce defines it (not very helpfully) as "a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not . . . Anything whatever, be it quality, existent individual, or law, is an Icon of anything, in so far as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it" (2.247). In the course of their attempts to make vague definitions like this one more precise, many semioticians in what I am proposing as the IG discussion have resorted to imposing tight perimeters around such terms and thereby sacrifice the larger conceptual potential that they evidently had for someone like Peirce.

Joseph Ransdell, in this fashion, identifies the mechanism of the icon as that of conceptual "likeness" (F 248). Charles Morris says it's "any sign which is similar in some respects to what it denotes" (quoted in E 192). Eco adds that "iconic signs do not possess the 'same' physical properties as do their objects but they rely on the 'same' perceptual 'structure', or on the same system of relations (one could say that they possess the same perceptual sense but not the same perceptual physical support)" (E 193). This "surrogate stimuli" (E 194) is seen in a sign based on onomatopoeia that essentially signifies something by imitating, and thus reproducing, it, he asserts. (Eco even presents an extensive "critique of iconism" in E 191-217.)

What these efforts to "clarify" the icon lead to, though, is the aforementioned conceptual myopia that fails to retain the multiplicitous relation that Peirce apparently had in mind. After all, consider the icon in this way: in order to render an icon intelligible, you have to know (through experience, etc.) that there is some meaningful relation between it and the thing it stands for. This would draw upon the index. Additionally, these relations are culturally determined so that the symbol component of this function would need to be considered at the same time. Thus, the icon is really only part of a web of interrelated sign-relations as opposed to an autonomous entity that can be discussed accurately as existing in isolation. The IG discussion, as I have characterized it here, tends to reify this presumed autonomy, often at the expense of a much more dynamic view of semiosis.

Sebeok appears to offer a nuanced description of what has been called "semiosis" (or what John Deely depicts as "the action of signs" [D 11]) when he asserts: "A message is a sign, or a string of signs, transmitted from a sign-producer, or source, to a sign-receiver, or destination" (F 36). To Sebeok, the "sign" is something concrete that is "transmitted" to someone, as opposed to other conceptions, such as a popular one by Peirce, which view it as a process of intellection. But, while Sebeok considers the potentially dual nature of the initiating source of a sign-process (unlike Eco's description above), he nonetheless privileges the phenomenological view at the expense of the extra-phenomenological. In order for a decoder to be figured as as "a sign-receiver, or destination," the sign has to be actively originated. While Eco allows for the possibility of negative agency, Sebeok makes agency a necessary component of semiosis. This view of the sign presupposes a sign-creator (or encoder) of some kind, so again a sign relay between encoder and decoder is assumed for a semiosis based on what Deely calls "subjective interaction" (D 23) that results in message transmission. Along these lines, Paul Perron argues that a sign is "first of all a construct" (quoted in D 2) and Eco similarly opines that communication consists of "the passage of a symbol," so it is assumed that somebody, some agent, must be doing this constructing and passing (E 8, emphasis added). The cloud-rain connection as a "sign" of possible rain would, indeed, lack both a sender and a message-goal (correlatives of Sebeok's "sign-producer, or source" and "sign-receiver, or destination"). But, admittedly, one could argue for the existence of a "natural" phenomenon as a sort of "sign-producer, or source" in this case and the "sign-receiver, or destination" serving to designate whoever might encounter the cloud and make a connection that produces an intelligible sign indicating potential rain.

Working With the Lingua Franca

In order to make most models of the sign fully workable, you typically have to refine and extrapolate from their conceptual components to accommodate exceptional instances and conceptual flaws overlooked by their originators. This is one of the more fruitful aspects of the lingua franca of semiotics as is demonstrated by the extent to which discussions identified with "semiotics" spend so much time finetuning the conversations of other "semioticians." This would be consistent with DeelyŐs contention that "semiosis is above all an assimilative process" (D 102), and anybody who has even only just begun to decode the outside world (not to mention the inside one) is already well aware of the "semiotic competence" (E 241) that day-to-day living requires: the significance and usefulness of gestures, for instance, or intonation, or feedback by the encoder, or previous interaction between the encoder and the decoder. A virtually limitless array of components associated with this process can figure into the analysis of semiosis as well, according to its contours as depicted by the IG.

The same is true for dealing with texts purporting to outline semiotic theory and practice, wherein you have to negotiate between what you associate with "semiotics" and what everybody else involved in the discussion associates (and often quite differently) with it. Of course, parallels with the interruption of the Tower of Babel construction come to mind regarding this situation.

Additional References

Chandler, Daniel. (1994). "Semiotics for Beginners"
web site: http://www.Music.indiana.edu/~ltomlin/semiotic.html#top

Gates, Henry Louis. (1988).The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press

Goudge, Thomas. (1950). The Thought of C. S. Peirce. New York: Dover Publications

Peirce, Charles Sanders. (1931-1935). "Division of Signs," Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vols. I-VI. Ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

de Saussure, Ferdinand. (1959). Course de Linguistique Générale, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger [1916], trans. Wade Baskin as Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

Tejera, Victorino. "Has Eco Understood Peirce?", The American Journal of Semiotics 6.2/3 (1989), 251-264.

Lecture Two:
Two Extensive Critiques of Semiotics


Stewart, John. (1995) Language as Articulate Contact: Toward A Post-Semiotic Philosophy of Communication (Albany: State University Press of New York

Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. (1988). Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

copyright Scott Simpkins 1996
Send comments or questions to Scott Simpkins: scotts@unt.edu
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