What is Semiotics?
In the film They Live the lead character ‘Nada’ finds a set of sunglasses that allow him to decode the messages hidden in billboards and products all around him.
Similar to those sunglasses, semiotics is a powerful tool that can help you more clearly understand the world around you…
…but what is semiotics?
Anyone who has tried to investigate the field of semiotics, has probably encountered the problem of describing what semiotics is. Indeed there are probably as many definitions of semiotics as there are semioticians.
The most common definition of semiotics is that: ‘semiotics is the study of signs and sign systems’
This definition is problematic however as it requires knowledge (what a ‘sign’ or ‘sign system’ might be for example) specific to semiotics in order to interpret it. It is in short a definition that only makes sense to individuals already familiar with the field.
At its simplest semiotics is the ‘study of meaning’, but this still leaves things pretty vague.
Meaning is the lifeblood of the cultures we live in and semiotics therefore, contains within it as many nuanced and diffuse branches as these cultures. Any attempt to define semiotics is influenced by the culture, perspective, and experiences of the semiotician in question.
As such, as we begin this journey into the world of semiotics it is important that I define personally what semiotics means to me, in order to provide some grounding for the discussion that follows.
The definition of semiotics that I find most useful is as follows: ‘semiotics is the study of the creation of meaning and its distribution between individuals and groups’
This personal definition is one that I have adopted over the course of my Semiotics MA studies at the University of Tartu, and my subsequent efforts to explain the value of my studies to friends, relatives, and would be interviewers. To my mind this definition acknowledges the importance of the structured ‘sign systems’ of the first definition by referring to the ‘distribution’ of meaning but also manages to conceive of meaning as a dynamic/creative process, not as a static absolute.
My definition is not a catch all however, and doubtless many will prefer their own definitions of the field. But it is my hope that this definition may serve as a useful touchstone for students new to the field as we explore the more fluid theoretical concepts following series of blogs. To begin however I will first outline some of the reasons why I think the study of semiotics is valuable, and what you can gain from leaning more about the field.
Why Study Semiotics?
Firstly I make no apologies for being something of a semiotic evangelist. Semiotics has been a key part of my life now for the last five years (BA thesis, through MA studies, and now professionally) and colours the way I see and understand most things in the world (in both a literal and metaphorical sense). As such, to me semiotics is a pretty big deal, and while I don’t necessarily expect it to take up the same importance for everyone who reads this blog, I have often found that the best way to try and communicate something alien to new people is to be enthusiastic. At least then, even if not understanding fully, people can see that there must be something positive, interesting, and enjoyable at the root of it all. With this in mind this blog will attempt to bring as much enthusiasm as possible to the world of semiotics.
So what then are the positives to be gained from an understanding of semiotics?
Firstly (and in my opinion most importantly) semiotics increases your empathy for other cultures, beliefs, and institutions. Understanding the processes by which meaning is created and distributed (and the frequent absurdities of this), makes you realise how much of all our behavior is based upon arbitrary symbolism, and is open to ridicule or distrust from those who prescibe to a different set of symbols. Semiotic awareness illuminates how all of us (no matter how enlightened or in touch with truth we may claim to be), are essentially swimming in an unstable soup of meaning, trying to find our way to a shore.
Secondly, though somewhat related, is the way that semiotics can help us all to ‘see through’ the overwhelming mass of messages that surround us, like the glasses in They Live.
While I do not hold the film’s pessimistic view of the media, I find that semiotics does provide value in its ability to cut through much of the extraneous and superficial messaging we encounter, and allow us to more rapidly determine the underlying message.
Thirdly semiotics can also be a great tool for stimulating creativity. Understanding how meaning is created and communicated can inform and inspire a wide variety of creative pursuits. For example a large amount of creative endevour can be considered as efforts to translate meanings from one sign system to another, for example the experience of visually seeing ones loved ones after an enforced absence might be translated into audible signs as music. Acts such as this (writing a poem about the colour yellow, painting the sound of birdsong etc.) can all help to awaken our creative instincts.
Hopefully this background provides some insight into how semiotics can be useful for you. It is important to me to restate however that what will follow in the blog is very much my perspective, informed by my studies at the University of Tartu, professional experience with Sign Salad, and general life experiences. It is a perspective that I expect to be refined, challenged and adjusted in the process of writing this blog. Indeed, it is the aim of this blog not merely to prescribe a path, but to stimulate discussion, creativity and learning. As semiotician Juri Lotman identifies, it is the differences between individuals and cultures that drives cultural development. He imagines a communicative situation stating:
‘Let us assume — we create two ideal persons. They understand each other perfectly and fully, as we might imagine two identical bowling balls. What are they going to talk about? To talk, I do not need a perfect copy of myself, I need another person. I need a difficulty, since the difficulty means the creation of the new, a new thought.’
As we can see, from a semiotic perspective difference is a necessary component of any meaningful dialogue and acts as an important driver of creativity and cultural production. In this spirit it might be hoped that any inadequecies in the thinking that I hope to pursue, might through a constructive and open dialogue become strengths and improved understanding.
Quotation from Juri Lotman can be found in the following article by Kalevi Kull http://www.zbi.ee/~kalevi/semi.1999.127.115.pdf