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This review appeared in Volume 11(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
How can scholars interest students in learning about a particular way of making sense of the world? How can they write engaging accounts without reducing the complexity of the cultural, social, and historical contingency of concepts and practices they associate with semiosis, a method some academics acknowledge as a field of specialization, many universities recognize as a program of study in its own right, and applications of which scholars in the sciences and humanities articulate diversely?
In Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics, Marcel Danesi examines semiosis through the conceit of studying a video that documents Cheryl and Tod, a heterosexual couple in their late twenties, mutually enjoying their dinner date in a "fashionable modern day restaurant" located in a North American city (2). By advancing this situation, Danesi sidesteps the staid and lackluster presentation we might expect of an introduction to semiosis (e.g., chapter 1: Signifier, chapter 2: Signified, chapter 3: Sign, chapter 4: Signification ...). Indeed, he steers his project onto the high road. Not only does Danesi predicate semiosis on social pleasures readers may associate with middle to upper class "twenty-somethings" enjoying the good life (the consumption of expensive food and alcohol, cigarettes, ambience and, in a sense, one another), he suggests that semiotics is "the discipline that endeavors to understand the human quest for meaning" (1). He proposes to link the former to the latter in ten chapters, the titles of which describe a wide range of fascinating topics: the universe of signs, how humans represent the world, why we put on make-up, what is language, metaphor and the making of meaning, why we tell stories, meanings of spaces, the meaning of clothes and objects, the artistic nature of the human species, and advertising, pop culture, and television.
As proposed, this project couldn't be more delightful. It promises to be interesting and thought provoking for students and professors alike. Yet, Danesi's inattentiveness to the complexity of his strategy - he narrates his discovery of signs in a video and analyzes them for readers - foils what might have been an important discussion about forms and practices by which we semiotically comprehend everyday life - including our presence and participation therein.
Typically, he begins each chapter by suggesting he has stopped the video on a passage displaying yet another facet of semiosis in action ("let's pause the tape for a second to ponder a few relevant questions," 131; "as we allow the tape to go forward," 131). Language like this works to involve readers in Danesi's conceit. In addition, it may indicate to readers that the study in which Danesi suggests they are participating depends on them "watching" video representations of a couple on a date instead of sitting in the same room with a couple they observe becoming engrossed in one another. Art historian Alex Potts suggests, "There is a long tradition of cultural common sense that considers the visual image to be somehow more natural, offering up a replica of reality rather than a conventionally coded representation of it as in language" (1996: 21).
In fact, Danesi suppresses video as an example of visual culture "conventionally coded." Consistently, he treats objects, spaces, people and images as signs full of yet transparent to meaning, lacking material form and presence. To wit, a semiotician is "intrigued by seemingly trivial forms of discourse because ... they reveal meaning ..." (66). What counts as trivial? What are the material and physical forms in which discourse becomes available to us? How do such forms participate in semiosis, and thus relate to signs Danesi claims to discover and analyze? To introduce the topic of the "self," Danesi discusses portraits that he likens to "probes of the face, aesthetic interpretations of many meanings that the 'human mask' is capable of conveying" (54). After surveying evidence from societies for whom portraiture figured as a prominent category of visual culture, Danesi cites photographs that Dorothea Lange produced in the Thirties, when she worked for the United States government's Farm Security Administration. For the author, the significance of Lange's work rests mainly on its ability to communicate ideas without mediation catalyzed by the materiality of form, genre, or practice. Lange, he writes, was "among the first to portray the poignancy of everyday life through the faces of real people ..." (55).
What is wrong with this analysis of a picture? To be sure, the author posits signs as having three dimensions - physical, referential or representational, and conceptual (11). However, will readers realize how these dimensions interrelate, or what links them to meaning? Danesi misses many opportunities to explore mediation. I do not mean "mediation" in its abstract conceptualization as "codes," which is one of the author's terms for groups of signs or sign systems, but as something specific in materiality, function, tradition, and social and cultural significance. The author's lack of discussion on this subject puzzled me because in the middle of his book I read that "forms are recognized as legitimate meaning-bearing signs" (44). Today, many art and cultural historians take pains to investigate how the activity of someone who constitutes something as a sign occurs in relation to what certain technologies make possible (or what users and viewers perceive that a cultural technology makes possible) through conditions of materiality and use. For instance, we might consider material and formal aspects of video to include features of video in its thing-state (as video camera, video player, and cassette). As we watch a video, we might attend to the size of the screen on which we watch, the grain or clarity of images, the color of what we see, the placement of the camera in relation to its subject, the speed of the shot, and so forth. What might count as material characteristics of video could depend on what equipment the videographer used and when she used it. For example, artist and critic Margot Lovejoy points out that not until the late 1960s did the Sony Corporation manufacture the video camera and recorder known as the Portapack (1997: 97), a technology the characteristics of which included a tiny black and white image issuing as poor (broadcast) quality. In addition, as we watch a video, we may bring to our watching certain expectations, associations, and habits we relate to this medium as the medium, in turn, makes possible certain kinds of narratives as opposed to others (Klein 1996: 379).
On the one hand, Danesi stipulates that "forms are recognized as legitimate meaning-bearing signs when they fit structurally into their respective codes" (44). He insists that a sign has "some physical feature in its make-up that individuals recognize as keeping it distinct within some specific code" (43). Perhaps related to the issue of some physical feature is the "literal base" on which the author claims that meaning "and metaphor is added ... so that discourse can be embellished" (93). By "code" Danesi means a way readers make sense of what they "observe" in the video passage on which he "paused"; yet the author does not specify how form is specific to code, whether or not either is palpable, or exactly how codes "mediate the relationship between people in a society and are, therefore, effective shapers of how we think of others and ourselves" (5). He complicates "code" when he implies it relates to theatre or theatricality: "code provides a script for each person to assume a role" (5). Are readers to literally understand Danesi that codes issue as dialogue? Truly, what is "the nature of the script that is used by people to act on that stage [of everyday life]?" (14), or the "human need for a master script" that Danesi ascribes to semiosis? (16).
Readers must grasp what Danesi means to explain as he introduces terms because he depends on each to perform like a building block contributing nuance to the larger structure of semiosis as a process of finding and interpreting meaning. If, like me, readers consider that the way Danesi handles "code" is vague, then they may have problems understanding the importance of terms he relates to this one. In fact, "codes" lead to "texts," as the former weave together and so produce the latter (6). By the time readers encounter "discourse," "ritual," and "slang" (in chapter 5), they may no longer remember how the author defined "code," let alone grasp how this concept relates to new terms at hand (79-82).
To reiterate, Danesi tells readers that forms are important in some ways. On the other hand, he permits contributions form makes to denotative and connotative dimensions of semiosis to remain unacknowledged and unproblematized. Truly, is he comfortable in enabling readers to conflate representations specific to video, and experience lived in "real" time? Is he sensitive to this conflation, but willing to overlook it because he presumes that his readers grew up in a world wherein the mass media promotes itself - and is sometimes accepted - as (a) reality? It is interesting to speculate about what conditions have made it possible for academics to elide the active, material presence of a technology, such as the video camera and those who use it and watch its results, as source, form, technology, and practice.
Individuals and institutions making a living from one kind of technology associated with contemporary American visual culture are guilty, too, of suppressing the presence of other kinds. Think of television. To a line up of shows such as Candid Camera and America's Funniest Home Videos, shows that foreground one kind of camera producing visual representations (while they elide the presence of television cameras in the studio broadcasting videos that "star" in the shows), television networks have added Real World and Cops. Although these shows depend on video, the networks render absent its active presence from the shows' titles. What might we learn if, in a semiosis of symptomology, we address Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things as a sign of American culture, a culture that privileges images as signifiers waiting to receive a signified (say, from a particular advertiser) but, at the same time, is willing to suppress the physical reality and authorship (including authorial and technological labour productive) of those signs? Some scholars descry this tendency in academia today. Potts even warns: "Everything becomes code and structure and any suggestions of what in common parlance is understood as material reality is bracketed out - whether this be the material substance of the sign as object or the physical identity of the object to which the sign is understood to refer" (1996: 26).
Were there other reasons compelling Danesi to treat video as the protagonist in his narrative, yet suppress so many dimensions of this cultural technology with which individuals living in North American at the beginning of a new century might be familiar? In addition, Danesi ignores the presence of the videographer and himself (as the individual determining those parts of the video that readers "see"). Perhaps, after all, links between means and examples of representation, and reality, elude the author. At the end of the last chapter (chapter 10) he reveals the purpose of his book: "to illustrate what a semiotic study of the system of everyday life would entail ..." (195). On their own, readers will have to speculate why the author implies that studying video amounts to studying a "system of everyday life."
In the previous section, I argued that Danesi suppresses the materiality of video as media and form and, instead, privileges signs "in" it. Jan Mukarovsky (1988: 1-2, 3) considers the work of art as a bridge across which spectators pass into meaning and collectivity. He treats physical aspects of art as a signifier, a "thing-work" he privileges for its potential to invoke "this other reality for which the work of art is a substitute." Arriving at the "other reality" depends on a universally homogeneous encounter with a work of art as well as viewers' expectations that art is, in their perception of it, and first of all, materiality. Further, the materiality of art performs as a lower order, an entry into the perception of meaning, the higher level of which is the meaning to which materiality leads. Mukarovsky's account of semiosis diverges from Danesi's. In Mukarovsky's, meaning devolves on a continuous oscillation between the work of art as "as a sign composed of a sensuous symbol created by the artist" and "the total context of so-called social phenomena: philosophy, politics, religion, economics, etc" (1988: 3, 4). For Mukarovsky, semiotic analysis articulates for art viewers how two entities relate: "the work of art is intended to mediate between the author and the collectivity" (1988: 1). In contrast, Danesi absences both the materiality of video as "a "thing-work" and the videographer who used it.
In essays he published in the 1960s, art historian Meyer Schapiro raised prescient questions about materiality and signs. For instance, how - for whom, when, and in what situations - does the materiality of imagery become significant? In what ways can we describe the process wherein materiality or form signifies? In "On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content," Schapiro (1966: 43) points out that by assigning form in art a (tacit) role of performing as a transparent vehicle through which meaning results (for the viewer), we thus "appreciate forms without attending seriously to their represented meanings." Here, Schapiro anticipates Derrida's critiques of the frame as neither inside nor outside art, an area associated with two dimensional works that scholars ignore and so render as an invisible common sense, what art historians Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson qualified as "a zone of aberration" (1991: 193). Schapiro proposed what must follow: "A picture would be a different image of its object and would have another meaning if its forms were changed in the slightest degree" (1966: 41-2). Thus, Schapiro ground the semiotic significance of art in its materiality. How can we bring this to bear upon Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics? One possibility is to consider how the images Danesi treats as signs would differ were they not presented in video, as Danesi claims, but in another medium. In "On Some Problems in the Semiotics of the Image-Sign and their Role in Constituting the Sign," Schapiro (1969: 3) discusses the "image-field" by which he means a rectangle framed as a distinct plane of surface having definite boundaries and features like horizontals representing ground lines. He wants to make strange - estrange viewers from - material features of art rarely treated seriously as "sign-bearing matter" (1969: 26). Some thirty years ago, this art historian problematized how and in what circumstances do we, or do we fail to, charge material, form, technique, or technology as a sign.
Danesi casts interpretation as "familiarity with meanings of signs in specific contexts, with the type of code to which they belong, and with the nature of their referents" (26). I wonder in what ways familiarity issues from meaning or a particular act of interpretation. How does one become familiar with meanings of signs in a context? (Bal and Bryson [1991:175] questioned the nature of "context" for art historians and described "context" as "a text itself, and it thus consists of signs that required interpretation"). Are Danesi's readers to understand that first, semioticians discover signs, then they proceed to unlock codes containing their meaning? (Below, I'll return to the notion of "container"). Near the end of An Introduction to Semiotics, Danesi explains that "codes are dynamic, flexible systems, adaptable to the whims of individuals and entire societies" (195). Based on how he proceeds and what he proposes elsewhere in the book, readers may conclude otherwise. Signs are stable and permanent. Signs are things rather than processes, objects - not events. Suspended in the medium of video, signs are patient and generous. They await Danesi to recognize and benefit (readers) from them ("Martha's videotape has still much more to offer the semiotician," 147).
Another way Danesi slights semiosis as "an event in the world" concerns Martha. Only parenthetically do readers learn she was responsible for making the video of the young couple on their date. In fact, by the end of the book, the author dispenses with even cursory references to Martha and her product (such as, "let's return to Martha's videotape," 55). Readers may wonder in which ways does the video belong to Martha? To her understanding of the world? To herself as a subject whom may reproduce certain ideologies through her work? Video artist and critic N. Katherine Hayles (1996: 262) once warned: "Because they have bodies, books and people have something to lose if they are regarded solely as informational patterns, namely the resistant materiality that has traditionally marked the experience of reading no less than it has marked the experience of living as embodied creatures." For readers, what moral or ethical dilemmas could result because the author of Introduction to Semiotics neglects to address the videographer as an "embodied creature" who participates in semiosis?
Bal and Bryson proposed that the subjectivity of whomever we describe as "artist" fills a cultural construction, boundaries of and the unity around which, they posit, are permeable and in flux, opening up to "potentially infinite regressions and expansions ..." (1991: 184). Like many scholars, they defer to psychoanalytic theory, especially the work of Jacques Lacan, in order explain that not only is "artist" a sign constituted in a particular culture and society having historical dimensions. In fact, many scholars and critics of visual culture study links between artist, self, and electronic media. Kathie Rae Huffman (1996: 202) concluded: "With the endless opportunities to document life around them during the past decade, individuals have become so familiar with the act of observing space and time - in electronic form - that the medium has become infused with new meanings and opportunities to understand the self and others." Here, Huffman posits difficulty in trying to separate electronic form and subject positions.
Furthermore, Bal and Bryson (1991: 200 posited that any subject position is, ultimately, a sign, the significance of which develops as we perceive this sign in relation to others ("the subject's entry into the networks of signification"). They cited this point to illuminate the presence and activity of individuals who constitute authorship as a sign: "Semiotics argues that it is only in concrete material circumstances that signs operate; but it also raises a number of questions concerning the tracing of these operations in reception-analysis" (1991: 187). Questions to which they refer (1991: 186-88) include: "from where, from what position, is the [art historical] reconstruction [of reception] being made?"; what institutional forces (in art history) identify reception with one group rather than another; what codes are necessary for viewing as a process, and who has access to these codes? In an overview of semiosis intended for students of visual culture, Alex Potts (1996: 17) underlined the point: "We all know that we do not literally see meaning in a work of art. Rather something compels us to view it as having significance which is not simply to be found there in a thing, and this compulsion clearly has a lot to do with the habits of our culture."
As Danesi erases Martha from her video, he claims for himself a dual authorial position. He performs as narrator of the account of Tod and Cheryl and as author of the book. Thus, he establishes himself and readers who associate with him as voyeurs in a surveillance situation, that is, in relations of power ("the semiotician is, above all, a people-watcher," 2). Signs related to intimacy, sexuality, and availability become available when authors and readers "watch" from afar ("the task of the semiotician is to look everywhere for the 'signs of life'," 195). No less troubling is that Danesi considers this activity empowering. Semiosis "allows us to filter the implicit meanings and images that swarm and flow through us everyday, immunizing us against becoming passive victims in a situation" (21). Readers may surmise that inoculation from social ills issues to those who practice semiosis.
Word choices and phrasing invoke other kinds of distance - not the same thing as mediation - and thus separate readers as viewers of the video, from the videographer and cultural technology with which she worked. For instance, Danesi implies that what his readers see becomes available at their leisure, when they may identify components of a "hidden story" (1) or "unravel the meanings of symbols" (1). Although he acknowledges that "the notion of 'mental depth'... is a product of metaphorical meaning" (93), nevertheless, and consistently, Danesi casts many parts of his discussion as a dialectic - one he never examines - between exterior and signifying interior, surface and signifying depth. When, for example, he extends the model to subjectivity - "The self, like a mask, is a sign standing for the human individual" - he fails to acknowledge for whom the individual-as-self-as-mask "stands" as a sign, what facets of individuality are so signified, what is signified (or not), and in what "concrete situation[s], as an event in the world" (1991: 53) does the mask as faŤade pass as or substitute for a self positioned behind it?
There are still other ways Danesi in which distances himself and his readers from semiosis. I noticed that he relies upon stability and totality as features of the situation he observes. "Semiotically, culture can be defined as a container of the meaning making strategies and forms of behavior that people employ to carry out their daily routines" (24). Danesi fashions the cultural component of semiosis structurally, as a container pre-existing the semiotician, one that stills and keeps its subject, thus presenting it through certain conditions enabling a particular kind of scrutiny. Elsewhere, the author distances readers from the subject of his book by forgetting to relate semiosis to the topic at hand, as occurs in an extensive discussion about metaphor in chapter 5. I'm not suggesting the discussion is uninteresting - to the contrary. The complex distinctions Danesi proposes between abstract and concrete concepts are especially insightful (98-102). However, he does not bring these insights to bear on semiosis. While he admits, "everything I have written in this book, too, has been structured by metaphorical cultural models" (104), will readers have closed An Introduction to Semiotics already, because they could not identify its subject?
Semiotic "unraveling" involves Danesi relating (video representations of) Cheryl and Tod to examples of social history he considers similar in meaning. Examples include "historically based link[s] between smoking and romance" (2) and references to many events of the past and present, far and near. He begins in the fifteenth century when tobacco comes to the New World. He introduces twentieth-century health warnings and laws pertaining to smoking. Along the way, he wonders why people smoke (this has to do with the "social history of sexuality and gender," 3). Without articulating persuasively how what he presents relates to the scene at hand, or to semiosis as a practice, Danesi ruminates on mating. He tells readers that the videographer recorded "a courtship display, a recurrent, largely unconscious mating ritual rooted in gesture, movement, and body signals that keep the two sexes differentiated and highly interested in each other" (4).
Why is this relevant? Moreover, why does the author address "signifying order" by recounting an "inclination to tribalism" that he qualifies with remarks like: "A modern society is a super-tribe" (16) and "all systems of everyday life have tribal roots" (19)? Repeatedly, he returns to the tribal and prehistoric, concepts that, for him signify origins, specifically, the origins of a meta-code. Or, he conflates culture and nature. The subtitle of chapter 9 reads "the artistic nature of the human species." In this chapter, Danesi traces the origins of art to the Old Stone Age (165). Oddly, by declaring that "visual art predates civilization" (173), he raises doubts about whether or not the "Old Stone Age" was part of civilization.
Virtually every concept Danesi considers significant to semiotic analysis -speech and language (67), language as an "edifice of knowledge" (69), syntactic structure (72), to take examples from just one chapter, provides him with an opportunity to ignore the video "at hand" and scavenge social history for examples he considers related and thus relevant. Art historian Lyckle de Vries offered the following as a description of the misapplication of iconography, and it elucidates the approach of the author of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: "Reasoning such as this, starting from an intuitive interpretation of formal elements, jumping from these to a level of general culture, and then descending from there to reach conclusions on the level of individual objects ..." (1999: 49). What will readers learn as Danesi digresses from calling readers' attention to a sign, to defining concepts related to semiotic analysis, to surveying a patchwork of examples of cultural and social histories having an unclear relationship to the topic with which the author began the chapter, to revisiting tribal or preliterate societies or numerous events he associates with past civilizations? (In chapter 9, metaphorically, he throws up his hands - "Art is everything to everyone," 164). In the manner of Braudel, Danesi renders social history as quantification (example after example from many times and places) evoking the appearance of scientificity and a comprehensiveness the author may hope will suffice, at one and the same time, as social history and its explanation (as a way to account for the sign). Readers need have no uncertainty that social history is Western history: "The most effective writing code is, of course, alphabetic" (77).
The author writes: "given the long history of cosmetic make-up and hairstyles, it is now a straightforward matter to understand in semiotic terms why Cheryl wore her hair long" (52). Never mind whether or not it is problematic to tell novices of a method that something related to its application has become "a straightforward matter." Can and should semioticians "do" history in order to explain a sign? In each chapter, the author recites social history yet pulls back from specifying - in time or place, for instance - the visual representations he claims to study in a video. Instead, he reaches for allusions to timelessness and universality. He clarifies little when, on the last page of the book, he transposes semiosis into anthropology: "This book has attempted to argue that the nature of Homo Sapiens cannot be understood primarily in biological terms"' (198); and, "We can know ourselves today only by knowing how we got here" (199). Why does this semiotician situate his subject diachronically, yet insist on its ultimate transcendence from history? For semioticians, what counts as history? Does it inhere in the practice of semiosis? Is history in the sign? Is the sign timeless?
Chapter 8 provides a welcome exception. Here, the author ruminates, synchronically, on the ways that cities, McDonald's restaurants, and malls today function as spaces having many dimensions of social significance (141ff). Elsewhere, he provides brief but interesting accounts of contributions Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce made to semiosis (11-13), and features of structuralist and post-structuralist thought (17-18).
Based on Pott's explanation of Saussurian semiotics, we might consider Danesi a fan: "Saussure is not concerned with analyzing the signifying process as such, and within his schema the latter effectively becomes a simple operation in which a signifier evokes a signified" (1996: 19). Yet, Danesi is silent about whether he considers his account partial to the theories of a particular individual or school. Nor does he demonstrate how readers might practice the theories of Saussure or Peirce. Since, by and large, Danesi does not indicate how his selections from social history illuminate semiosis, or consider what historians can know about semiotic activity in the past, or wonder in what situations semiosis and historical study intersect or diverge, Danesi obfuscates what he hopes Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things will demonstrate most: "the basic goal of semiosis ...[is] to identify what constitutes a sign and what its meanings are" (11).
Bal, Mieke and Bryson, Norman (1991) "Views and Overviews: Semiotics and Art History," Art Bulletin 73: 174-208.
De Vries, Lyckle (1999) "Iconography and Iconology in Art History: Panofsky's Prescriptive Definitions and Some Art Historical Responses to Them," in Picturing Performance: The Iconography of the Performing Arts in Concept and Practice, Thomas F. Heck (ed.), Rochester: University of Rochester Press, pp. 42-64.
Hayles, N. Katherine (1996) "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers," in Electronic Culture - Technology and Visual Representation, Timothy Druckrey (ed.), New York: Aperture Foundation, pp. 259-277.
Huffman, Kathie Rae (1996) "Video, Networks, and Architecture: Some Physical Realities of Electronic Space," in Electronic Culture - Technology and Visual Representation, Timothy Druckrey (ed.), New York: Aperture Foundation, pp. 200-207.
Jan Mukarovsky (1988) "Art as Semiological Fact," in Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, Norman Bryson (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-7.
Klein, Norman (1990) "Audience Culture and the Video Screen," in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds.), New York: Aperture Foundation, pp. 375-403.
Lovejoy, Margot (1997) Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Potts, Alex (1996) "Sign," in Critical Terms for Art History, Robert Nelson and Richard Shiff (eds.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schapiro, Meyer (1966) "On Perfection, Coherence, and Unity of Form and Content," in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, Selected Papers of Meyer Schapiro, New York: George Braziller, 1994, pp. 33-49.
--- (1969) "On Some Problems in the Semiotics of the Image-Sign and their Role in Constituting the Sign," in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, Selected Papers of Meyer Schapiro, New York: George Braziller, 1994, pp. 1-32.
Jennifer Ellen Way teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the theory and history of twentieth and twenty-first century visual art at the University of North Texas. This semester she is teaching a new course on methodologies and the historiography of art history. She received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Texas, Austin in late 1997, and her MA from Vanderbilt University. Originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Way earned the BA in art history from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.