The sign, in terms first articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the Swiss linguist, has come to serve as the basic unit of approaches to communication that focus on meaning-making relations rather than on the effectiveness of senders’ communication of intended messages to designated receivers. Semiotic approaches have been taken up by general communication studies, cultural studies, post-1960s literary studies, and other fields. For Saussure and for those who analyze culture in his wake, communication involves not messages but signs, material forms that when articulated and then encountered engender meanings bounded by cultural schemata. The study of signs, then, is at its core social: What conventions determine how signs are made? What conventions determine their readings?
The Social Significance Of Signs
We communicate about the world indirectly through mediating sign languages – gestures, images, sounds, and words but also through such vehicles as decor, design, and dress. Signs may be studied as a matter of dispassionate interest, as instruments of persuasion, or as objects of social criticism. In the latter case researchers would ask: if communication is mediated by signification, what forms of economic, political, and social power determine the mediations? This question applies with force whenever labels (such as ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, nation, race, religion, or sexuality) are attached to people like Post-it® notes, legitimating resource inequalities, whatever the intentions of those who apply them.
Because it does not privilege the intentions of senders as does the sender–receiver model, semiotics finds interest in whatever meanings a communication happens to produce. While those engaged in persuasion judge communication in terms of their goals, semiotic critics scan more broadly. Advertisers, for example, who know the power of signs and are able to catch just the right wave, might well generate unplanned meanings and effects. They invest fortunes to persuade, intending to endow commodities with meanings to increase their value, structurally uninterested in other effects, but in so doing they occasionally shape constellations of mental life. Think of the oft-told tale of advertising for Marlboro, the bestselling brand in the world (Schlach 2002). Like many advertisers, cigarette companies have long enhanced the value of their product by fastening its consumption to images of personal style and sexual allure.
Think how Philip Morris and its advertising agencies appropriated musical and visual motifs from Westerns to assemble a masculinist sign, Marlboro Country. Originally a British brand – note the royal iconography on the traditional Philip Morris logo – Marlboro had in the first half of the twentieth century been marketed as an unusually mild product for women. As if they were semiotic plastic surgeons, Philip Morris’s marketing specialists successfully removed the brand’s feminine connotations and replaced them with masculine ones. In redefining Marlboro as a quintessentially US product in the 1950s, they created the myth of Marlboro Country and added billions of dollars of value to a delivery system that dispenses toxic wastes, first- and second-hand, regardless of gender or nation. But the Marlboro ads have been able to do their work, become signs for consumers, only to the extent consumers have had compatible templates of meaning-making already in mind.
Not explicitly political in his own scholarship, Saussure was concerned less with questions of power than he was with those of disciplinary definition. He consistently contested commonsense notions about natural labeling, arguing against philosophical accounts of language that he likened to “our first ancestor Adam calling unto him the various animals and giving each one its name” (2006, 162). Such natural naming becomes unthinkable if there is no “prior external basis for the sign,” as for Saussure there was not. Just as language divides undifferentiated territories according to cultural maps, he argued in effect, so objects come into existence as meaningful entities only in the moment they are identified.
The Dual Essence Of Language
Those who believe that objects in some sense possess inherent meanings, whether religious or traditionalist, disagree with Saussure, and some linguists remain troubled that Saussure’s theories cannot pass an empirical test. Within the humanities, however, Saussure’s ideas, while contested and revised, have been productive for cultural analysis. Saussure himself saw his linguistic research as but one part of what he hoped would become semiology, or what might now be called the interdisciplinary study of signs. Its root, he wrote, was in the “dual essence of language,” the inseparability of form and meaning. “A linguistic sign,” he was quoted as saying by his students, “is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern” (1983, 66).
The meaning a culture assigns to a particular material articulation he called a signifié assigned to a “significant.” This is now most often translated in English as a “signified” assigned to a “signifier” (Sd/Sr) but occasionally as a “signification” assigned to a “signal.” Not that there is only one meaning for each Sr, or that the meaning is a positive term. Rather, Saussure saw each sign as embedded in a complex chain of differentiations, its meanings comparative and multiple, depending upon its semiotic surroundings. “Morphologically there are neither signs nor meanings, but differences in signs and differences in meanings, (1) each of which exist solely in their relations to others, hence inseparable, but (2) never come into direct contact with each other” (2006, 46; emphasis in original). For Saussure’s theory, “context is everything” (Jameson 1972, 17).
The relationship between concept and sound pattern, between the idea of a cat, for example, and the understood articulation of the spoken or written word “cat,” is “conventional, and thus arbitrary, wholly lacking in any natural link with the object, completely free of and unregulated by it” (Saussure 2006, 140). The object need not exist; “unicorn” can be a sign no less than “cat.” Similarly there is no territory called “Marlboro Country,” yet it no doubt has a place in cultural maps as real for many people as Oklahoma. Herein lies the axiomatic ground for communication and cultural studies oriented toward change. If the relation between, say, what a culture deems “feminine” and human bodies identified as “female” is conventional and arbitrary, then it can be challenged, and it can change. Given notions of “femininity” and “female” may be maintained by powerful institutions, and by interpersonal relations governed by institutional pressures, but they can also be overthrown. Signs in this way share the state of being Marx and Engels found characteristic of capitalist modernity: “All that is solid melts into air.”
Toward A Science Of Signs
Roland Barthes (1915–1980) focused on Saussure’s call for a “science of signs” and argued that the “very history of the modern world,” with its abundant sights and sounds, demanded the development of semiology (Barthes 1970, 9). Thinking of Sd/Sr “in the fashion of the recto and verso of a sheet of paper,” he urged, might help forestall the temptation to think of the sign as only the Sr, “which Saussure wanted at all costs to avoid” (1970, 38). Thinking this way might also help avoid the temptation to think of the Sd as a meaningful object in itself; instead, the Sd is the concept, as understood through the sign. “The signified of the word ox is not the animal ox, but its mental image” (1970, 43). Indeed, although the Sd/Sr relation is commonly represented in fraction-like form, Barthes proposed thinking of the Sd as “behind” rather than above or below the Sr, since it “can only be reached through it” (1970, 49).
Barthes parted from Saussure over the arbitrariness of signification, preferring “unmotivated” to “arbitrary” for the Sd/Sr relation. He maintained that lack of motivation in signs may be complete or be partial, as in fire/smoke or footprints/past presence, a semiotic category of effect/cause that Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) categorized as an “index” (for Peirce, an “icon” had a likeness and a “symbol” was an entirely arbitrary/ unmotivated sign [Peirce 1940, 102]). Barthes also questioned the description “arbitrary” because no individual is “free to modify it” (Barthes 1970, 50), at least under ordinary circumstances of language use. He called the Sd/Sr relation “contractual in its principle, but this contract is collective, inscribed in a long temporality (Saussure says ‘a language is always a legacy’), and that consequently it is, as it were, naturalized” (Barthes 1970, 51; emphasis in original). As a consequence, for post-Saussurean semiology, meaning is never inherent in a Sr. Despite caricatures to the contrary, this is not an argument that anything can mean anything. Communication here is culturally and historically grounded. People might well decode signs according to schema outside the dominant, heteronormative semiotic system, for example taking the Marlboro Man as a gay icon (Landman 2000).
The complexities do not end there. The bar (/) that separates Sd and Sr itself reappears inside each Sd and Sr, endlessly relating and dividing. Saussure, for example, according to his students’ account of his lectures, insisted that the “sound pattern” was “not actually a sound,” but rather “the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound,” “material” only as a “representation of our sensory impressions” (Saussure 1983, 66). No articulation, no perception, no concept exists in separation from the web of connotations that crisscrosses each encounter, bounded by cultural and historical location.
As Barthes argued, the process of signification does not stop with the recognition of a cultural meaning of a performance, picture, piece of writing, or sound. The consequent sign (the third term that comes into being once Sr and Sd align) connects itself through signification to other cultural meanings, in a “second system” (Barthes 1970, 89), perhaps making “Marlboro Country” a connotative signifier of freedom in the outdoors for its fans, or indeed for anyone who knows the code. For its critics, however, the brand’s image can also be a connotative signifier of a marketing campaign that willingly does harm. This second meaning would not only be against the intention of commercial advertising, it would be a reading of that intention, yet still within this culture’s codes.
For a semiology without guarantees, without fixed meanings, denotation might most usefully be conceptualized as the most common connotation, rather than as a foundational meaning on which connotation trades. Thinking of connotation as a location for changeable flickers of meaning highlights its ideological quality. This can be seen in Stuart Hall’s (2006) discussion of encoding/decoding television. Hall offers three general categories to describe the movement from Sr to Sd in this second, connotative system: “dominanthegemonic,” “negotiated,” and “oppositional” (2006, 169–173). The following account is based on Hall.
In the first category, the sign is decoded “in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded,” and meaning is made “within the dominant code” (Hall 2006, 171). Hardly ideal for those who believe in democratic communication, this is the sender-centered “telephone game” come to life. For mainstream journalists, this way of seeing might not seem a way of seeing at all, but a fair and balanced way of reporting the events of the world. Yet as media critics have noted for decades, this form of journalism tends to favor sources and hence viewpoints drawn from public and private elites (Gans 2004). (For example, presenting as fact arguments by pro-business economists against a rising minimum wage while marginalizing economists who disagree.)
In cases in which the movement from Sr to Sd has been “negotiated,” general meaningmaking along dominant-hegemonic lines is supplemented by “particular or situated logics.” One can read the news and find it sensible overall but not applicable to one’s own situation (e.g., someone earning the minimum wage might accept arguments in the media against a general raise but at the same time believe they do not justify her own boss’s refusal to pay more). In this situation, the telephone game hides the matter of interest when it shows the passage of a whispered text altered as it moves through a chain; different, conflicted understandings in life, motivated by conflicting interests, become misunderstandings in the game, providing examples of what elites might consider a failure of communication.
For Hall, oppositional readings see the Sr in terms hostile to the dominant code, and so understand the sign in terms of a Sd that objects to the dominant project with which it is associated (e.g., taking an argument against the minimum wage as a defense of wealth and an assault on the poor). Listeners in the telephone game can drop out in protest against a whisper just heard, breaking the chain. Yet dropping out from semiosis deemed offensive or even from its excess presence is infrequently an option in life. Future research might well explore how these processes have changed over media, space, and time since Saussure first articulated them nearly a century ago and extend the study of signification to the new experience of unending signs on parade.
Louis Althusser (1971) argued that whenever we make sense of our contemporary world according to dominant codes, our very construction as subjects of that world occurs yet again. For him, ideology was not an organized body of ideas but the way the world is “lived” in meaningful terms (Althusser 1971, 217). Yet the sense that, yes, this is the world, is not a recognition of reality – here Althusser followed Jacques Lacan – but a “misrecognition” (1971, 219) that forgets that signs are always maps, always representational, and never territories themselves.
Ideology, then, thrives in the space between Sr and Sd. It does its work most effectively for dominant codes when it goes unseen, as if the Sd could be reached without going through the Sr, as if even for those who know they are looking at an ad, in some realm there could be a Marlboro Man, just as there could be a natural and obvious masculinity, thriving in a Marlboro Country that resonates as a familiar if fictional space. Yet Marlboro Man, the sign, might also be read in opposition, as an image using models hired to profit their employers by making smoking attractive, two of them smokers, both of whom lung cancer would kill.
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