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SemioticsforBeginners:Criticisms

SemioticsforBeginners

DanielChandler

CriticismsofSemioticAnalysis

Otherthanas'thestudyofsigns'thereisrelativelylittleagreement

amongstsemioticiansthemselvesastothescopeandmethodologyof

semiotics.AlthoughSaussurehadlookedforwardtothedaywhen

semioticswouldbecomepartofthesocialsciences,semioticsisstilla

relativelylooselydefinedcriticalpracticeratherthanaunified,fully­

fledgedanalyticalmethodortheory.Atworst,whatpassesfor'semiotic

analysis'islittlemorethanapretentiousformofliterarycriticismapplied

beyondtheboundsofliteratureandbasedmerelyonsubjective

interpretationandgrandassertions.Thiskindofabusehasearned

semioticsanunenviablereputationinsomequartersasthelastrefugefor

academiccharlatans.Criticismsofstructuralistsemioticshaveledsome

theoriststoabandonsemioticsaltogether,whilstothershavesoughtto

mergeitwithnewperspectives.Itisdifficulttoofferacritiqueofa

shiftingtargetwhichchangesitsformsofluidlyasitmoves.

Semioticsisoftencriticizedas'imperialistic',sincesomesemioticians appeartoregarditasconcernedwith,andapplicableto,anythingand everything,trespassingonalmosteveryacademicdiscipline.John Sturrockcommentsthatthe'dramaticextensionofthesemioticfield,to includethewholeofculture,islookedonbythosesuspiciousofitasa kindofintellectualterrorism,overfillingourliveswithmeanings'

(Sturrock1986,89).Semioticanalysisisjustoneofmanytechniques

whichmaybeusedtoexploresignpractices.Signsinvariousmediaare notalike­differenttypesmayneedtobestudiedindifferentways.As withanyotherprocessofmediation,semioticssuitssomepurposesbetter thanothers.Semioticsdoesnot,forinstance,lenditselftoquantification, afunctiontowhichcontentanalysisisfarbetteradapted(whichisnotto suggestthatthetwotechniquesareincompatible,asmanysemioticians seemtoassume).Theempiricaltestingofsemioticclaimsrequiresother methods.Semioticapproachesmakecertainkindsofquestionseasierto askthanothers:theydonotinthemselvesshedlightonhowpeoplein particularsocialcontextsactuallyinterprettexts,whichmayrequire ethnographicandphenomenologicalapproaches(seeMcQuarrie&Mick

Semioticiansdonotalwaysmakeexplicitthelimitationsoftheir

techniques,andsemioticsissometimesuncriticallypresentedasa

general­purposetool.Saussureansemioticsisbasedonalinguisticmodel

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butnoteveryoneagreesthatitisproductivetotreatphotographyandfilm, forinstance,as'languages'.PaulMessarisdisputesthatweneedtolearn to'read'theformalcodesofphotographicandaudio­visualmedia,arguing thattheresemblanceoftheirimagestoobservablerealityisnotmerelya matterofculturalconvention:'toasubstantialdegreetheformal conventionsencounteredinstillormotionpicturesshouldmakeagood

dealofsenseeventoafirst­timeviewer'(Messaris1994,7).JohnCorner

hascriticisedthewayinwhichsomesemioticianshavetreatedalmost anythingasacode,whilstleavingthedetailsofsuchcodesinexplicit

(particularlyinthecaseofideologicalcodes)(Corner1980).

Sometimessemioticianspresenttheiranalysesasiftheywerepurely objective'scientific'accountsratherthansubjectiveinterpretations.Yet fewsemioticiansseemtofeelmuchneedtoprovideempiricalevidence forparticularinterpretations,andmuchsemioticanalysisisloosely impressionisticandhighlyunsystematic(oralternatively,generates elaboratetaxonomieswithlittleevidentpracticalapplication).Some semioticiansseemtochooseexampleswhichillustratethepointsthey wishtomakeratherthanapplyingsemioticanalysistoanextensive

randomsample(Leissetal.1990,214).WilliamLeissandhiscolleagues

arguethatamajordisadvantageofsemioticsisthat'itisheavily dependentupontheskilloftheindividualanalyst'.Lessskilful practitioners'candolittlemorethanstatetheobviousinacomplexand

oftenpretentiousmanner'(Leissetal.1990,214).Certainly,insome

cases,semioticanalysisseemslittlemorethananexcuseforinterpreters todisplaytheappearanceofmasterythroughtheuseofjargonwhich excludesmostpeoplefromparticipation.Inpractice,semioticanalysis invariablyconsistsofindividualreadings.Weareseldompresentedwith thecommentariesofseveralanalystsonthesametext,tosaynothingof evidenceofanykindofconsensusamongstdifferentsemioticians.Few semioticiansmaketheiranalyticalstrategysufficientlyexplicitforothers toapplyiteithertotheexamplesusedortoothers.Structuralist semioticianstendtomakenoallowanceforalternativereadings,assuming eitherthattheirowninterpretationsreflectageneralconsensusorthat 'theirtextinterpretationsareimmanentinthesignstructureandneedno

cross­validation'(McQuarrie&Mick1992,194).Semioticianswhoreject

theinvestigationofotherpeople'sinterpretationsprivilegewhathasbeen

calledthe'éliteinterpreter'­thoughsocially­orientedsemioticianswould

insistthattheexplorationofpeople'sinterpretivepracticesisfundamental

tosemiotics.

Somesemioticanalysishasbeencriticisedasnothingmorethanan abstractand'aridformalism'whichispreoccupiedwithclassification. SusanHaywarddeclaresthatstructuralistsemioticscanleadto'acrushing oftheaestheticresponsethroughtheweightofthetheoreticalframework'

(Hayward1996,352).Semioticanalysisoftenshowsatendencyto

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downplaytheaffectivedomain­thoughthestudyofconnotationsoughtto

includethesensitiveexplorationofhighlyvariableandsubjective

emotionalnuances.

Instructuralistsemioticsthefocusisonlangueratherthanparole (Saussure'sterms),onformalsystemsratherthanonprocessesofuseand production.Structuraliststudieshavetendedtobepurelytextualanalyses, andithasbeensuggestedthatevenwhensemioticiansmovebeyond textualanalysis,'theysubordinateothermomentstotextualanalysis'

(Johnson1996,98).Semioticscanappeartosuggestthatmeaningis

purelyexplicableintermsofdeterminingtextualstructures.Suchastance issubjecttothesamecriticismsaslinguisticdeterminism.Ingiving prioritytothedeterminingpowerofthesystemitcanbeseenas fundamentallyconservative.Purelystructuralistsemioticsdoesnot addressprocessesofproduction,audienceinterpretationorevenauthorial intentions.Itignoresparticularpractices,institutionalframeworksandthe cultural,social,economicandpoliticalcontext.EvenRolandBarthes, whoarguesthattextsarecodifiedtoencourageareadingwhichfavours theinterestsofthedominantclass,confineshisattentiontotheinternal textualorganizationanddoesnotengagewiththesocialcontextof

interpretation(Gardiner1992,149­50).Itcannotbeassumedthat

preferredreadingswillgounchallenged(Hall1980).ThesociologistDon

Slaterhascriticisedthefunctionalismofstructuralistsemiotics,arguing thatmaterialpracticessuchasthe'readingoftexts'mustberelatedtothe socialrelationswhichgiverisetothe'politicsofculturalpractice'. Functionalism,hecomments,'admitsofthoroughlyinternalsolutionsto

problemsofdetermination'(Slater1983,259).DavidBuxtonalsoargues

thatstructuralistapproaches'deny socialdetermination'andheinsists that'thetextmustberelatedtosomethingotherthanitsownstructure:in otherwords,wemustexplainhowitcomestobestructured'(Buxton

alsowhy(socially);structuresarenotcauses.Therelationshipsbetween

signifiersandtheirsignifiedsmaybeontologicallyarbitrarybuttheyare

notsociallyarbitrary.Weshouldbewareofallowingthenotionofthe

signasarbitrarytofosterthemythoftheneutralityofthemedium.

DominicStrinatinotes:

Howcanweknowthatabunchofrosessignifiespassionunlesswe alsoknowtheintentionofthesenderandthereactionofthe receiver,andthekindofrelationshiptheyareinvolvedin?Ifthey areloversandaccepttheconventionsofgivingandreceiving flowersasanaspectofromantic,sexuallove,thenwemight accept [this]interpretation.Butifwedothis,wedosoonthebasis notofthesignbutofthesocialrelationshipsinwhichwecanlocate thesign Therosesmayalsobesentasajoke,aninsult,asignof gratitude,andsoon.Theymayindicatepassiononthepartofthe

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senderbutrepulsiononthepartofthereceiver;theymaysignify familyrelationsbetweengrandparentsandgrandchildrenratherthan relationsbetweenlovers,andsoon.Theymightevenconnotesexual

harassment.(Strinati1995,125).

Feministtheoristshavesuggestedthatdespiteitsusefulnesstofeminists insomerespects,structuralistsemiotics'hasoftenobscuredthe significanceofpowerrelationsintheconstitutionofdifference,suchas

Synchronicanalysisstudiesaphenomenonasifitwerefrozenatone

momentintime;diachronicanalysisfocusesonchangeovertime.Insofar

assemioticstendstofocusonsynchronicratherthandiachronicanalysis

(asitdoesinSaussureansemiotics),itunderplaysthedynamicnatureof

mediaconventions(forinstance,televisionconventionschangefairly

rapidlycomparedtoconventionsforwrittenEnglish).Itcanalso

underplaydynamicchangesintheculturalmythswhichsignificationboth

alludestoandhelpstoshape.Purelystructuralistsemioticsignores

processandhistoricity­unlikehistoricaltheorieslikeMarxism.

AsHodgeandTrippnote,therecanhardlybe'anexhaustivesemiotic analysis becausea"complete"analysis wouldstillbelocatedin

particularsocialandhistoricalcircumstances'(Hodge&Tripp1986,27).

Thisisreinforcedbythepoststructuraliststancethatwecannotstep outsideoursignifyingsystems.Semioticiansseektodistancethemselves fromdominantcodesbystrategiesaimedatdenaturalization.Thenotion of'makingthefamiliarstrange,andthestrangefamiliar'isnowa recurrentfeatureofartisticandphotographicmanifestosandofcreative 'brainstorming'sessionsinmanyfields.Thephraseitselfhasbeen

attributedtotheGermanpoetNovalis(1772­1801,akaFriedrichvon

Hardenberg),whodeclaredthattheessenceofromanticismwas'tomake thefamiliarstrange,andthestrangefamiliar'.Theconceptisfound amongstotherRomantictheoristssuchasWordsworthandColeridge.The notionisalsocloselyassociatedwithSurrealismandwithBrechtian 'alienation'.However,itsadoptionbysemioticiansprobablyowesmostto

RussianFormalistcriticism(Lemon&Reis1965).VictorShklovsky

arguedin1916thatthekeyfunctionofartwasestrangement,

defamiliarizationor'makingstrange'(ostranenie)­i.e.renewingour perceptionofeverydaythingsandeventswhicharesofamiliarthatour

perceptionofthemhasbecomeroutinized(Hawkes1977,62­67).Russian

Formalismwasakeyinfluenceonthedevelopmentofsemioticsin EasternEurope,andthelegacyof'makingthefamiliarstrange'isan importantoneforsemiotics.However,asSimonWatneynotes,the strategyofdefamiliarizationisitself,ofcourse,ideologicalandhasbeen associatedwiththenotionthatthetacticofsurprisemayservetobanish

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coupledwithanawarenessthatwhilstwemaybeabletobypassonesetof

conventionswemayneverescapetheframingofexperienceby

convention.

convention. JohnSturrocknotesthatsomecommentators,such

JohnSturrocknotesthatsomecommentators,such asMikhailBakhtin­aliterarytheorist­haveused semioticsforthe'revelatory'politicalpurposeof 'demystifying'society,andthatsuchapproachescan leadto'loaded''readings'ofsocietysimplyasan ideologicalconspiracybyonesocialclassagainst

therest(Sturrock1986,91).Sturrockfavoured'a

moreorlessneutral'approach,butfewtheorists wouldbelikelytoacceptthepossibilityofsuch neutrality.Marxisttheoristsinparticularemphasize 'thepoliticsofsignification'­significationcannotbeneutral('value­free'). JohnTaggcommentsthatheis'notconcernedwithexposingthe manipulationofapristine"truth",orwithunmaskingsomeconspiracy, butratherwiththeanalysisofthespecific"politicaleconomy"within

tolookbeyondsignstoan'underlying'pre­givenreality,butpost­

structuralisttheoristshavearguedthatthisisimpossible­wecannotstand

outsideoursignsystems.

GuyCookarguesthatthereisatendencyforsomesemioticiansto

representcommunicationasasimpleprocessof'decoding':

ThepopularphraseDecodingAdvertisementswasfirstusedby

JudithWilliamsonasthetitleofabookpublishedin1978,andithas

unveilthroughanalysiswhatshecallsthe'real'meaningofthe wordsandimagesofanad,andthe'realworld'towhichthe'unreal'

imagesoftheadrefer(Williamson1978:47).Inthisthereisaclear

assumptionthat'reality'isnotonlyquitedistinctfrom'fiction'but alsomorallysuperior Thoughthedecodingapproachonoccasion yieldsinterestingresults(inpracticeoftenratherobviousones),a drawbackoftheapproachisitshastysatisfactionthatsuch equivalencesconstituteacompleteanalysis.Thisleadsittojettison allconsiderationofwhatisparticulartothesurfaceofdiscourse,or ofaparticularsignifier,andthusmissmuchofcomplexity,skilland

Cookaddsthat'aweaknessofthesemioticapproachisitsexclusive devotiontosimilarities,andthenanairoffinalityoncethesesimilarities

areobserved,whichblindsittowhatisunique'(ibid.,70).Rosalind

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CowardandJohnEllisalsocommentthat'structuralanalysisprovedtobe inadequatetoaccountforthedifferencesbetweentexts'(Coward&Ellis

structuralformalismoftheoristssuchasPropp,GreimasandLévi­Strauss neglects'surfaceforms'whichmaybeimportantinthemselves(Cook

appearstoignoreissuesofstylisticdifference.

VardaLangholzLeymore,whoherselfemployedastructuralistapproach,

arguedthat:

Semiologicalstudiesderiveagreatinspirationfromlinguistics,yet inmostcasestheyfallshortofcomplyingwithprobablyitsmost revolutionaryaspect,theinfinitecreativityofthebaserules.Inmost semiologicalstudiestheidentificationofstructureistantamountto creatingformalschemataintowhichallindividualmembersofthe systemmay,followingsomerules,bereduced.However,the converseisnottrue.Thesystemsareincapableofgeneratingone singleexamplewhichbelongstotheiruniverseofdiscourse,inthe sensethatChomskyisabletogeneratesentences.Inotherwords, therulesenablingoneto'transformback'fromthedeepstructureto thesurfacestructure,arenotspecified.Inthissensemost semiologicalstudiesarenotgenerativebutstatic.

Somecontemporarytheoristshaverejectedapurelystructuralist semiotics.Butsucharejectionneednotinvolveawholesalerejectionof semiotics.Influentialasithasbeen,structuralistanalysisisbutone approachtosemiotics.Manyofthecriticismsofsemioticsaredirectedat aformofsemioticstowhichfewcontemporarysemioticiansadhere. Whilstsomesemioticianshaveretainedastructuralistconcernwith formalsystems(mainlyfocusingondetailedstudiesofnarrative,filmand televisioneditingandsoon),manyhavebecomemoreconcernedwith

'socialsemiotics'(Hodge&Kress1988).Akeyconcernofsocial

semioticiansiswithwhatStephenHeathcallsthe'specificsignifying

practices'(seeLapsley&Westlake1988,55).Such'reformed'

semioticianspractise'poststructuralist'semiotics,focusingonwhatone

hascalled'situatedsocialsemiosis'(Jensen1995,57).Thisatleastisthe

rhetoricofsocialsemioticians,buttheextenttowhichsocialsemiotics hassofarmettheconcernsofsociologistsisdebatable.However,itis earlydays:'socialsemiotics'isstillunderconstruction.Contemporary theoristswhohaveassociatedthemselveswiththisdevelopmentinclude GuntherKress,RobertHodge,TheovanLeeuwen,KlausBruhnJensen,

PaulJThibaultandJayLemke(Hodge&Kress1988;Jensen1995;

VictorBurginnotesthat,ofseveraldiscourses,'Marxismand

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meaning'(Burgin1982b,144­5).Strinatiarguesthatsemioticshasbeen

used'torendertheMarxisttheoryofideologylessdeterministicand instrumental.However,thisstilltendstounderestimatethewaysinwhich whatisproducedisitselfsubjecttoconflictsandnegotiations,andhow themeaningsproducedmaynotbeuniform,consistent,unambiguousor

reducibletoacoherentdominantideology'(Strinati1995,127;seealso

Tagg1988,23ff,153­83).AnotherinflectionofsemioticsisFoucauldian­

emphasising'thepowereffectsofdiscursivepractices'(Tagg1988,22).

Itisonlyfairtonotethatmuchofthecriticismofsemioticshastakenthe

formofself­criticismbythosewithinthefield.Thetheoreticalliterature

ofsemioticsreflectsaconstantattemptbymanysemioticianstograpple

withtheimplicationsofnewtheoriesfortheirframingofthesemiotic

enterprise.Furthermore,contemporaryapologistshavenotedthatthereis

nothingnewabouttheemphasisonthesocialdimensionofsemiotics.The

rootsofsocialsemioticscanbetracedtotheearlytheorists.Neither

SaussurenorPeircestudiedthesocialuseofsigns.However,Saussuredid

envisagesemioticsas'asciencewhichstudiestheroleofsignsaspartof

sociallife'.AsforPeirce,thenotionofsemiosisasadialogicprocessis

centraltohisthinking.Signsdonotexistwithoutinterpreters,and

semioticcodesareofcoursesocialconventions.However,ithastobe

acknowledgedthatanemphasisonthesocialdimensionofsemioticsin

theformofthestudyofspecificmeaning­makingpracticesisrelatively

recentoutsideofspecializedacademicjournalsanditisnotyetmuchin

evidenceattheheartoftheactivitiesofmanysemioticresearchers.

Semioticsisnot,neverhasbeen,andseemsunlikelyevertobe,an

academicdisciplineinitsownright.Itisnowwidelyregardedprimarily

asonemodeofanalysisamongstothersratherthanasa'science'of

culturalforms.

culturalforms. Contents ContentsPage Preface Introduction Signs

Contents