Semiotics is the study of signs and signification, including both linguistic and nonlinguistic signs. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), who coined the term and did innovative work in the area, regarded it as the study of that which supports inferences; that is to say, of how signs enable interpretive inference to other signs. Peirce held that all we know or experience comes to us through the mediation of signs. He did not hold that all signification is solely the product of social convention or of language proper, maintaining that signs serve as tools for scientific investigation as well as for the exploration of human creations. One consequence of this view is that all inquiry is semiotic inquiry. Another lineage of semiotics, usually designated by the term “semiology,” grows out of a tradition of European structuralism traced back to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and carried forward by such writers as Roland Barthes, Roman Jakobson, and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In this tradition, emphasis is placed on the social structuring of meaning and the rendering of cultural forms as texts. In contrast to Peirce, this tradition places emphasis on the arbitrariness of signs and on binary structures of meaning.
Umberto Eco has helped to bridge the gap between the two traditions, perhaps with incomplete success, by bringing the Peircean approach (and the term “semiotics”) into a common theoretical frame with semiology. Like Peirce, he emphasizes the triadic structure of signs; and like Barthes, he accesses discursive domains through codes. Codes make signs intelligible in linguistic communication, visual information, emotional expressions, color schemes, scientific discourse, social rituals, literary genres, and so on. There is some debate about whether the Peircean logic of signification can be explained as functioning purely as social conventions. To hold so would appear to put one at odds with a central feature of the Peircean theory, that is, the belief that as-yet unconventionalized signs break in unexpectedly, challenging established semiotic conventions from without, a feature especially important to scientific inquiry. Similarly, there are different understandings of whether Peirce’s idea of “infinite semiosis” should be read against the grain of his professed realism. Peirce saw movement toward the fixing of belief as a matter of acquiring interpretive habits within communities; but these habits had to accommodate the recalcitrance that creates doubt and requires new interpretations. This process may go on indefinitely, so long as the opinion of the community of inquiry remains unsettled.
In a general sense, much of the rhetorical tradition can be understood as defining a semiotic practice, not just in respect to the study of tropes and figures, but in respect to how inferences are produced, on the scaffolding of signs, in the minds of audiences and observers. This would also encompass rhetorical invention, which aligns rather well with Peirce’s treatment of abduction. Semiotics was attractive to early film theorists, who were seeking vocabularies and tools for discussing the visual, linguistic, musical, and image editing occurring in films. It was also used as a strategy for reading a wide variety of social signifiers, from clothing fashion to the subject positions constituted within semiotic practices. The idea of “codes,” along with Peirce’s terms, “icon,” “index,” and “symbol,” found their way into common usage in books on rhetoric and communication. During the heyday of structural semiotics in the 1980s and 1990s, Peirce’s philosophical realism may have made his approach less attractive to those rhetorical theorists and critics who shared widely held assumptions about the social construction of reality. As theories of structural semiology have become less fashionable, perhaps a space has been cleared for the largely untaken Peircean option. Apart from some theoretical work dealing with Peirce’s “speculative rhetoric” and some theoretical preparation of the ground for a Peircean approach to rhetoric, there has been little work in rhetorical criticism that takes the explicitly semiotic approach.
On the expansive view of semiotics, found in such writers as Eco and Julia Kristeva, “implicit” semiotic theories can be found in writings stretching from the pre-Socratics to Freud and picking up much in between, reminiscent of the expansive view of rhetoric that invites appropriation of figures such as Habermas and Foucault as “implicit” theorists of rhetoric. One way to draw the distinction between rhetoric and semiotics is to say that semiotics is largely concerned with mapping out the codes, patterns, and conventions of signification, whereas rhetoric is concerned with how such codes, patterns, and conventions can be put to use in the processes of persuasion, identification, and articulation. This is a rough distinction, but it has the virtue of emphasizing the performative, addressive, and pragmatic aspects of the rhetorical tradition, while acknowledging that rhetoric takes flight only on the wings of signification.
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