Semiotics Final
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Semiotics Final Document Transcript

  • 1. That which we call rose by any other name would smell as sweet (Shakespeare) Semiotics and Its Historical Traces T his modern term ‘Semiotics’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Semeiotikos’ which means an observant of signs. Earliest writings available to us reveals that the writers of the classical period used the term ‘Semeion’ as a synonym for ‘Tekmerion’ to mean evidence, proof, symptom of what was at least temporarily absent or hidden from the view. For example smoke is a sign of fire, clouds as a sign of an impending storm and so on. In these events we have natural object or event which can be directly observed in the present standing of the other. However, the concept of ‘Paradigm’ signs was discussed in the writings of Sextus Empiricus as the medical symptom as a mean of diagnosing the condition of a patient. So the principal Semeiotikos was thus physician seeking to determine the hidden disease. Among classical writers it was Quintillian who explicitly points out the three temporal directions of the sign: with the inference from sign to what is signified going from effect to prior cause as the founding of the fossils of the aquatic animals in a desert shows the presence of the water reservoir at that place in some past time, with the inference now from a presently observed cause to a future effect as a serious wound is the sign of an impending death, and contemporaneous inference means the inference from the present sign to the present cause as the presence of smoke signifies the presence of fire at the same time. These classical writers also differentiate, following Aristotle, between ‘Infallible’ and ‘Refutable’ signs. For example the seizing of heart beat is a sign of sure death. However, refutable signs can be explained through fast breathing as a sign of fever, since a man may breathe hard without having a fever. Classical philosophers did not attempt to include within the extension of ‘Semeion’ Words or Sentences as a linguistic signs. However, Parmenides drew a contrast between ‘Semeia’ (Sign) as a reliable indication of what they stand for and ‘Onoma’ (words) which are arbitrary posited names introducing distinction where none exist in the objective world. Contrary to it classical included within the scope of their discussion certain conventional signs such as ‘Torch’ and ‘Bell’. These signs were
  • 2. determined by lawgivers and are in our power whether we wish them to make known one thing or the other. It was Aristotle who discussed linguistics or language in terms of sign and argued in the opening passage of De Interpretation that spoken expressions are symbols (Symbola) of mental impression, and written expressions are the symbols of spoken expression. And just as not all men have the same writing, so not all make the same vocal sounds but the thing of which all these are primarily the signs (Semeia) are the mental impressions for all men. Here one thing is very important that Aristotle refers to spoken or written words not as signs (Semeia) as he does at the end of his statement, but as symbols (Symbola) which are arbitrarily instituted marks of significance. Because they are arbitrary they vary from one culture to another. We can see that Aristotle draws a relationship between written and spoken words on the one hand and the spoken to the mental impression on the other. So we can not say that written words are the evidence of the spoken rather we can say that written words replaces the spoken words and serves as a more permanent substitute which enables communication at a greater distance, both spatially and temporally. In the same way and on the same grounds we can say that spoken words or expressions are the replacement or substitute for mental impression. Just as the same spoken words can be replaced by a variety of written marks depending on the culture’s system of writing, so the same mental impression should in common by all can be replaced by a variety of speech sounds. So we can notice that written and spoken words are termed as symbols and contrasted with signs, though they were like signs if they could function as evidence of the mental state of those producing them. It was during the Middle Ages that the conception of the sign was given a new dimension. The Greek word Semeion was translated in Latin word ‘Signum’ and included natural occurrences and linguistic expression within its circumference. However the main focus was on the latter, transforming the linguistic sign into ‘Paradigm Signs’. It was St Augustine who proposed that a sign is something which is itself sensed and which indicated to the mind something beyond the sign itself. Under this general definition a distinction was made between natural occurrences and linguistic expressions and were termed as ‘Natural’ signs and ‘Conventional’ signs respectively. Natural signs are those which without the intent or desire of signifying makes us aware of something beyond themselves. Contrary to this is the ‘signa data’ (Signs Given or Produced). Such signs are used by living creatures with the intent of conveying something to others or to show the
  • 3. motion of the spirit or something they have sensed or understand. However, here comes a very slight difference between signa data and conventional signs. Signa data produced with the intent of communication may not be conventional in the sense of confirming to a rule established within a linguistic community. The mental word or impression will be one which is common to all men, but for the purpose of transferring to another mind the speaker must use an arbitrary conventional words unique to his linguistic community. Now the primary Natural-Conventional contrast shifts towards the contrast between mental and spoken and written words by which they are made public. Hobbes calls them ‘Private’ and ‘Public’ signs. Private signs are for our own use while public signs are signs by which we make our thought known to others. Here the term sign has no virtual affinity with the ‘Semeion’ of classical period, which had excluded from the domain of sign exactly what it is now being restricted to. These public and private signs are included in the scope of branch of philosophy. Locke later terms ‘Semiotics’ and whereof the business is to study the nature of sign. After these in the Modern Ages come Peirce and Saussure who revolutionize the idea of sign, Semeiotics and Semeiology. Both the scholars proposed their own models of sign and their own philosophies. The tradition of Saussure became Semeiology and the tradition set by the Peirce came to light as Semeiotics. However, nowadays semeiotics is an umbrella term to embrace the whole field. Peirce’s Semeiotics involves the study not only of what we call sign but also of any thing which stands for something else. It means that sign can take form of words, image, sound, gesture and so on. While Saussure’s Semeiology was a science which studied the role of sign as a part of social life. Contemporary semioticians study signs not in isolation but as a part of a semiotic system. They study how meanings are made and how the reality is reconstructed through signs to communicate. Here the two genres Semeiotics and Semantics meet. However, Semantic deals with what the words or signs mean, while Semeiotics deals with how the sign means. Semeiotics also relates with other branches of linguistics: Semantic: The relationship of the signs with what they stand for. Syntactic: The formal or structural relationship between signs. Pragmatics: The relation of signs to the interpreter.
  • 4. Here a question arises why semioticians choose the language for study. There are many other communicative systems also comprising signs. However, language is the most developed and organized communicative system which has a strong tradition behind it and it can translate any other communicative system in itself. It does not mean that semiotics is limited to the human language only rather linguistics is only a part of Semiotics which deals with all sorts of communications through any medium. However, it chooses the language system to deal with. Now come to the most fundamental point what is sign. According to Peirce nothing is sign unless it is interpreted as a sign. Anything can be sign as long as someone interprets it as signifying something else. These signs, however, convey meanings by a familiar system of convention. Peirce and Saussure offered two different models of what constitute a sign. Saussure offered ‘Dyadic’ model while Peirce offered ‘Triadic’ model. According to Saussure’s model a sign is composed of A Signifier – The form which a sign takes A Signified – The concept it represents So sign is the realm or entity where Signifier and Signified both meet and their relationship is called Signification. A sign must have both the Signifier and the Signified. a totally meaningless Signifier or an absolutely formless Signified is impossible. However, same Signifier can stand for a different Signified. Similarly many Signifiers can stand for the same Signified. For Saussure, both the Signifier and the Signified were purely psychological. However, this model gradually tends to take a very materialistic approach. Now the signifier is commonly interpreted as the material form of the sign which can be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted. However, it should be kept in mind that for Saussure both the Signifier and the Signified were Psychological, Saussure’s Signified is not to be identified with a referent but is a concept in the mind – not a thing but the notion of the
  • 5. thing. As symbols or signs is not proxy of their objects but a vehicle for the conception of the object. In talking about things we have conception of them, not the thing themselves and it is the conception not the thing that symbols directly mean. Saussure was aware that the term Signifier and Signified showed the inseparable unity like the two sides of a piece of a paper. They were intimately linked in the mind by an associative link. Within in the context of the language a sign could not consist of sounds without sense or sense without sound. Saussure argued that signs only make sense as a part of formal, generalized and abstract system. His concept of meaning was purely relational rather than referential. For him signs refer to each other. Within the language system everything depends upon relation. No sign makes sense but only in relations with others or in some context. So it can be said that it is not the individual Signifier that stands for or reflects the individual object or event in the real world, rather entire system of signs, the entire field of ‘Langue’, lies parallel to reality itself. It is the totality of the systematic language which is analogous to whatever organized structure exists in the world of reality, and that our understanding processes from one whole to the other rather than one to one basis. It means that the value of the sign is not absolute and independent one and it is determined by the relationship between the sign and the other sign within the system as a whole. Although Saussure’s Signifier is treated by its users as standing for signified but there is no intrinsic, direct or inevitable relationship between the two. He stressed the arbitrariness of the sign rather in more formal words: arbitrariness of the link between Signifier and the Signified. As Saussure’s main concern was with linguistic signs he felt that the arbitrary nature of the sign was the first principle of the language. He observed that there is nothing at all to prevent the association of any idea whatsoever with any sequence of sounds whatsoever. When we say that the relationship between Signifier and Signified is arbitrary it does not mean that there is no rule governing their relationship and one is free to associate any signified with any signifier or vice versa. The relation between the two is not a matter of individual’s choice; if it were then communication would have become impossible. It can be said that individual has no power to alter any sign in any respect once it has become established in the linguistic community. Levi Strauss rightly argued that the sign is arbitrary ‘a priori’ but cease to be arbitrary ‘a posteriori’ – after a sign has come into historical existence it cannot be arbitrarily changed. Although it seems that a Signifier is chosen freely, but from the point of view of linguistic community it is imposed rather
  • 6. than freely chosen because a language is always an inheritance from the past which its users have no choice but to accept. Even in the case of arbitrary colors of traffic lights, the original choice of ‘Red’ for ‘Stop’ was not entirely arbitrary since it already carried relevant association with danger. Here we can see that Saussurean legacy of arbitrariness is shifting towards conventional notions – dependent on social and cultural conventions. In case of linguistic signs a word means what it does to us only because we collectively agree to let it do so. Saussure felt that language is the most suitable system which can serve as a model for the whole of Semiology. When Saussure was formulating his model of Semiology, across the Atlantic a famous philosopher and logician Charles Sander Peirce formulated his own model of sign, of Semiotics. Contrary to Saussure’s model Peirce’s model is ‘Triadic’ involving three things as the components of sign: The Representamen: The form which the sign takes (not necessarily material) An Interpretant: Not the interpreter but the sense made of the sign An Object: To which the sign refers In this model Representamen is similar in meaning to Saussure’s ‘Signifier’ while the Interpretant is similar in meaning to the ‘Signified’. However, the difference between Interpretant and Signified is that Signified is a goal in itself while Interpretant is itself a sign in the mind of the interpreter. Peirce argued that a sign, in the form of the Representamen, creates an equivalent sign (Interpretant) in the mind of the interpreter and then this Interpretant further signifies the thing in the real world which is an object – the referent which Saussure excluded from his model. Though to some people the idea of Signified (Interpretant) acting as a Signifier for an object may seem vague or rather complex one but the people familiar to the use of dictionary definitely convince that an entry in the dictionary and every lexical item in the lexicon refers to another which in turn signified the other thing and the process goes on.
  • 7. After Peirce many Semiotic triangles were introduced out of which one fairly famous is of Ogden and Richards in which they merely changed the terms as ‘Symbol’, ‘Thought’ and Referent. The broken line at the end of the Semiotic Triangles intended to indicate that there is not necessarily any observable or direct relationship between sign vehicle and referent. Unlike Saussure’s abstract signified Peirce’s referent is an object real in the world and thus allocates a place for an objective reality which Saussure’s model lacks. Unlike Saussure who gave the notion of arbitrary relationship between Signifier and the Signified Peirce explained the different types of relationships between the two. He gave rather several logical typologies of signs. It is important to note that these typologies are not the kinds of signs rather these are the modes of relationships between Signifier and Signified. The actual number of these sign form is astonishingly great to the extent of 59049. However these were boiled down to the mere figure of 66 and further packed in three following modes: Symbol / Symbolic A mode in which Signifier and Signified do not resemble at all and their relationship is purely conventional – so that the relationship must be learnt. Icon / Iconic: A mode in which signifier resembles or imitates the signified in looking, sounding, feeling, smelling and so on. Index / Indexical: A mode in which signifier is not arbitrarily but directly connected in some way to the signified – this link can be observed or inferred. Symbolic signs are always conventional to the highest degree. Iconic signs are always involved with some degree of conventionality. However, indexical signs direct the attention to their object by blind compulsion. For Peirce symbol is a sign which refers to the object that it denotes by the virtue of a law, convention or an association of general idea which operates to cause the symbol to be interpreted as referring to that object. So all books, word, sentences and other conventional signs are symbols. A sign is an icon insofar as it is like that thing and used as a sign for it. However, indexicality is the most unfamiliar case. As we have already said that there is a genuine relation between sign ad object, it is just like a piece torn away from the object it signifies.. the index is connected to its referent as the matter of fact. Unlike the icon (the object of which can be fictional) an index stands
  • 8. unequivocally for this or that existing thing. It is important to note that Peirce’s these three modes of signs are not necessarily mutually exclusive: a sign can be symbol, an icon, an index or any combination of these. For example a map is indexical in pointing to the location of things, iconic in its representation of the directional relation and symbolic in using the conventional symbols. In other words we can say that determination of whether a sign is symbolic, iconic or indexical depends upon the way in which it is used. A sign can be symbolic in one context and iconic in the other. A sign may be iconic for one person and indexical for the other. For example the sign of woman can be iconic for some particular women or indexical in some broader sense. So we can say that when we call a sign symbolic, iconic or indexical we are not referring to the objective quality of that sign rather we are refereeing to the viewer’s experience of the sign. Moreover, viewer’s experience of the sign is not a permanent phenomenon rather it is subject to change over the time. In other words any fixation of the chain of the signifiers is temporary and socially determined. Peirce stipulates that there is a life in these signs and they go through a certain order of development. He argued that iconicity is the most original and default mode of signification, an index is a degenerate in lesser degree whilst symbol is a degenerate in greater degree. He favored his notion by presenting the fact that all the primitive writings such as Egyptian Hieroglyphics were iconic. The historical evidence also indicates a tendency of linguistic signs to evolve from indexical and iconic forms towards symbolic forms. Writing system evolve from Pictographs. Ideographs and Hieroglyphics and afterwards take the abstract alphabetical shape / form. The Origins of Language Curiosity is the instinct of man even right from the very natal day. An infant shows curiosity when any thing comes to his view. Same is the case with curiosity about language but curiosity about the only language which exist into his environment. For this an already well developed language must be there which makes an infant curious and he starts to learn it. But a question is who first of all use language and made man learn it. There are different theories about it as has been described by C . Barber and George Yule. But here we will discuss origin of language with reference to semiotics. As you know semiotics is the study of signs.
  • 9. Armstrong, Stokoe and Willox (1995) look beyond these theories for the origin of language. Frank and Wilson (1998) argue that the human hand cum brain has evolved with the capacity of doing every thing humans do including the production of language signs. Chomsky (1957) commented that language evolved naturally in specie that itself had evolved wit in the latest to emerge our branch of primate order. Modern researches speculate that speech was evolved in human history between 4,000-140, 00 but there are also many clues and vestiges in the research which point to beginning of genuine language much earlier perhaps about million years ago in initial form of sign languages. Gestures have recently been studied as output from the same source as speaker’s vocal output McNeil (1992). McNeil means to say that part of brain which deals with speech and sign is the same. It puts the conclusion that the production of speech and sign cannot be separated from each other rather they are complementary. David McNeil finds gestural and guttural symbols accomplishing the same purpose of communication. When early human communication had evolved from the global gesture stage to: The hand- is- noun. Movement- is- verb. This two element grammar may be simple but it is powerful and its acquisition towards a fully human mind, facial expression of approval, amazement and many other emotions and the moving hand is expressing a sentence. It is economical as well as logical to believe that these uses were representational as well as instrumental sources of various signs. Even the users of today express themselves through gestures (signs) cum language. But that such signs are also used as give the meaning e.g. good bye, victory etc. But it would irresponsible to suggest that modern sign languages as ASL and BSL are just like the very first sign languages . We must know that the signs in their initial stage were very much simple and it is the process of evolution which developed the signs into complex system of today’s languages through sign languages and pictoral forms of languages and ideographic forms of languages with unique features and unique grammar as well. William C, Stokoe (1997) confirms that these gestures surely have been accompanied by varying facial expressions and all behaviors subsumed in popular phrase ‘body language’ quite probably with incidental vocalization as well. There is no clear
  • 10. evidence in all this however only likelihood that movements became sign languages before there was or could be spoken language. It is well known evidence that a child in the early days of his life communicates gesturely for some months before he uses the language of his adult caretaker. It is a question like which came first ‘chicken or egg’ as which came first ‘signs or words’ But most probably they are signs because according to the theory of evolution by Darwin for the origin of life and then origin of HUMAN LIFE there are many phases of development. The same must be the case with human language. Evolution is always from simple to complex system. First of all it was communication which was of vital importance through simple sign system towards complex system of vocal languages. Modality and Representation Modality and representation are linked together through Reality. Representation always involves reality which is revealed through modality. Here modality is the truth value of a sign which is source of representing reality. Semiotics involves studying representation as signs always represent any signified reality. To semioticians, a defining feature of signs is that they are treated by their users as 'standing for' or ‘representing reality’. As Russell commented that words are the labels we put on things since Words are only Names for Things. Reality or the world is created by the language we use: Even if we do not adopt the radical stance that the real world is a product of our sign systems, we must still acknowledge that there are many things in the experiential world for which we have no words and that most words do not correspond to objects in the known world at all. Thus, all words are 'abstractions', and there is no direct correspondence between words and 'things'(reality) in the world.
  • 11. We believe that 'Words are only Names for Things', a stance involving the assumption that 'things' necessarily exist independently of language prior to them being 'labeled' with words. According to this position there is a one-to-one correspondence between word and referent and language is simply a nomenclature - an item-by-item naming of things in the world. As Saussure put it, ‘This is 'the superficial view taken by the general public’ A language consists of many kinds of signs other than simply nouns. Clearly, language cannot be reduced to the naming of things. The less naive realists might note at this point that words do not necessarily name only physical things which exist in an objective material world but may also label imaginary things and also concepts. Peirce's referent, for instance, is not limited to things which exist in the physical world but may include non-existent objects and ideas. However, as Saussure noted, the notion of words as labels for concepts 'assumes that ideas exist independently of words. A radical response to realists is that things do not exist independently of the sign systems which we use; 'reality' is created by the media which seem simply to represent it. However, such observations clearly do not demonstrate that the lexical structure of language reflects the structure of an external reality. Saussure's model of the sign involves no direct reference to reality outside the sign. This was not a 'denial' of reality in the Saussurean model the signified is only a mental concept; concepts are mental constructs, not 'external' objects. For Peirce, reality can only be known via signs. If representations are our only access to reality, determining their accuracy is modality. Peirce introduced the notion of 'modality' to refer to the truth value of a sign. He introduced three kinds of Modality. 1. Actuality, (logical) 2. Necessity
  • 12. 3. Possibility (hypothetical) Furthermore, his classification of signs in terms of the mode of relationship of the sign vehicle to its referent reflects their modality. Peirce asserted that, logically, signification could only ever offer a partial truth because if it offered the complete truth it would destroy itself by becoming identical with its object. Philosophical idealism considers that reality is purely subjective and is constructed in our use of signs. Philosophical idealism may see no problem with the Saussurean model. Indeed, the Saussurean model has itself been described as 'idealist'. On the contrary, Philosophical realism believes that a single objective reality exists indisputably 'outside' us. According to this stance, reality may be 'distorted' by the media which we use to apprehend it because reality can only be represented with partial truth not a complete truth. Even those who adopt an intermediate constructionist (or constructivist) position believe that language and other media play a major part in the social construction of reality. They may tend to object to the absence of social reality in Saussure's model. Umberto Eco provocatively asserts that Semiotics is, in principle, the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. Modality Markers Modality Markers are such clues as refer to what are variously described as the plausibility, reliability, credibility, truth, accuracy or facticity of texts within a given genre as representations of some recognizable reality. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen acknowledge that ‘A social semiotic theory of truth’ cannot claim to establish the absolute truth or untruth of representations. Modality refers to the reality status accorded to or claimed by a sign. More formally, Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress declare that modality refers to its value as truth or fact. Modality Judgments In making sense of a text, its interpreters make 'Modality Judgments' about it. It is drawn on their knowledge of the world and of the medium. For instance, they assign it
  • 13. to fact or fiction, actuality or acting, live or recorded. Clearly the extent to which a text may be perceived as real depends in part on the medium employed. Writing, for instance, generally has a lower modality than film and television. However, no rigid ranking of media modalities is possible. Example: John Kennedy showed children a simple line drawing featuring a group of children sitting in a circle with a gap in their midst. He asked them to add to this gap a drawing of their own, and when they concentrated on the central region of the drawing, many of them tried to pick up the pencil which was depicted in the top right-hand corner of the drawing! Being absorbed in the task led them to unconsciously accept the terms in which reality was constructed within the medium. This is not likely to be a phenomenon confined to children, since when absorbed in narrative we frequently fall into a 'suspension of disbelief' without compromising our ability to distinguish representations from reality. Charles Peirce reflected that 'in contemplating a painting, there is a moment when we lose the consciousness that it is not the thing, the distinction of the real and the copy disappears.
  • 14. Example: Whilst in a conscious comparison of a photographic image with a cartoon image of the same thing the photograph is likely to be judged as more 'realistic', the mental schemata involved in visual recognition may be closer to the simplicity of cartoon images than to photographs. People can identify an image as a hand when it is drawn as a cartoon more quickly than when they are shown a photograph of a hand. This underlines the importance of perceptual codes in construc ting reality. Umberto Eco argues that through familiarity, an iconic signifier can acquire primacy over its signified. Such a sign becomes conventional 'step by step, the more its addressee becomes acquainted with it. At a certain point the iconic representation, however stylized it may be, appears to be more true than the real experience, and people begin to look at things through the glasses of iconic convention. The media which are typically judged to be the most 'realistic' are photographic - especially film and television. James Monaco suggests that 'in film, the signifier and the signified are almost identical... The power of language systems is that there is a very great difference between the signifier and the signified. This is an important part of what Christian Metz was referring to when he described the cinematic signifier as 'the imaginary signifier'.
  • 15. In being less reliant than writing on symbolic signs, film, television and photography suggest less of an obvious gap between the signifier and its signified, which make them seem to offer 'reflections of reality’ But photography does not reproduce its object. Whilst we do not mistake one for the other we do need to remind ourselves that a photograph or a film does not simply record an event, but is only one of an infinite number of possible representations. All media texts, however 'realistic', are representations rather than simply recordings or reproductions of reality. . For Bazin, aesthetic realism depended on a broader 'truth to reality' Modality judgments involve comparisons of textual representations with models drawn from the everyday world and with models based on the genre; they are therefore obviously dependent on relevant experienceof both the world and the medium. Different genres, whether classified by medium (e.g. comic, cartoon, film, TV, painting) or by content (e.g. Western, Science Fiction, Romance, news) establish sets of modality markers. The content comes to be accepted as a 'reflection of reality' John Tagg argues that the signifier is treated as if it were identical with a pre-existent signified and the reader's role is purely that of a consumer. Signifier and signified appear not only to unite, but the signifier seems to become transparent so that the concept seems to present itself, and the arbitrary sign is naturalized by a false identity between reference and referents, between the text and the world. However, Tagg adds that such a stance need not involve positing 'a closed world of codes' or the denial of the existence of what is represented outside the process which represents it. He stresses 'the crucial relation of meaning to questions of practice and power, arguing that 'the Real is a complex of dominant and dominated. Example:
  • 16. Anthony Wilden suggests several alternative interpretations regarding this sign:  this [pipe] is not a pipe;  this [image of a pipe] is not a pipe;  this [painting] is not a pipe;  this [sentence] is not a pipe;  [this] this is not a pipe;  [this] is not a pipe. Although we habitually relate the 'meaning' of texts to the stated or inferred purposes of their makers, Magritte's own purposes are not essential to our current concerns. It suits our purposes here to suggest that the painting could be taken as meaning that this representation (or any representation) is not that which it represents. That this image of a pipe is 'only an image' and that we can't smoke it, seems obvious - nobody 'in their right mind' would be so foolish as to try to pick it up and use it as a functional pipe. The most realistic representation may also symbolically or metaphorically 'stand for' something else entirely. Furthermore, the depiction of a pipe is no guarantee of the existence of a specific pipe in the world of which this is an accurate depiction. Indeed, it seems a fairly generalized pipe and could therefore be seen as an illustration of the 'concept' of a pipe rather than of a specific pipe. One function of art is 'to make the familiar strange.’ One reason for the confusion of signifiers and referential signifieds was that we sometimes allow language to take us further up the 'ladder of abstraction' than we think we are. The ladder metaphor is consistent with how we routinely refer to levels of abstraction -
  • 17. we talk of thinkers with 'their heads in the clouds' and of 'realists' with their 'feet on the ground'. As we move up the ladder we move from the particular to the general, from concrete reality to abstract generalization. The General Semanticists were of course hard- headed realists and what they wanted wasfor people to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. Claude Lévi-Strauss declared that understanding consists in the reduction of one type of reality to another. As we all know that the word 'dog' cannot bark or bite. In his massively influential book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud argued that 'dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated. It would of course be incorrect to read these symbols in accordance with their values as pictures, instead of in accordance with their meaning as symbols'. He also observed that 'words are often treated in dreams as things'. Levels of Reality The confusion of 'levels of reality' is also a normal feature of an early phase of cognitive development in childhood. Jerome Bruner observed that for pre-school children thought and the object of thought seem to be the same thing, but that during schooling one comes to separate word and thing. Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf at the age of eighteen months, was gradually taught to speak by her nurse. At the age of nine whilst playing with water she felt with her hand the motions of the nurse's throat and mouth vibrating the word 'water'. In a sudden flash of revelation she cried out words to the effect that 'everything has a name!' Piaget illustrates the 'nominal realism' of young children in an interview with a child aged nine-and-a-half: Could the sun have been called 'moon' and the moon 'sun'? No. Why not? Because the sun shines brighter than the moon. But if everyone had called the sun 'moon', and the moon 'sun', would we have known it was wrong?
  • 18. Yes, because the sun is always bigger, it always stays like it is and so does the moon. Yes, but the sun isn't changed, only its name. Could it have been called... etc.? No... Because the moon rises in the evening, and the sun in the day. Thus for the child, words do not seem at all arbitrary However, in the Middle Ages words and images were still seen as having a natural connection to things. Words were seen as the names of things rather than as representations. . By the seventeenth century clear distinctions were being made between representations (signifiers), ideas (signifieds) and things (referents). Scholars now regarded signifiers as referring to ideas rather than directly to things. Representations were conventionalized constructions which were relatively independent both of what they represented and of their authors; knowledge involved manipulating such signs. Olson notes that once such distinctions are made, the way is open to making Modality Judgments about the status of representations as there is no representation without intention and interpretation. Illusion of Transparency The medium of language comes to acquire the illusion of transparency. Yet even an image is not what it represents - the presence of an image marks the absence of its referent. The difference between signifier and signified is fundamental. Nevertheless, when the signifiers are experienced as highly realistic as in the case of photography and film - it is particularly easy to slip into regarding them as identical with their signifieds. Yet in the commonsense attitude of everyday life we routinely treat high modality signifiers in this way. Thus television is frequently described as a 'window on the world' and we usually assume that: The camera never lies
  • 19. We know, of course, that 'the dog in the film can bark but it cannot bite. In the sense that there is always an unavoidable difference between the represented and its representation so it can be argued: The camera always lies Signs cannot be permitted to swallow up their referents in a never-ending chain of signification, in which one sign always points on to another, and the circle is never broken by the intrusion of that to which the sign refers. Some theorists note that an emphasis on the unavoidability of signification does not necessitate denying any external reality. David Sless comments that 'I am not suggesting that the only things in the universe are signs or texts, or that without signs nothing could exist. However, I am arguing that without signs nothing is conceivable. These would be the successive phases of theimage: 1. It is the reflection of a basic reality. 2. It masks and perverts a basic reality. 3. It masks the absence of a basic reality. 4. It bears no relation to any reality. Baudrillard argues that when speech and writing were created, signs were invented to point to material or social reality. In the postmodern age of 'hyper-reality' in which what are only illusions in the media of communication seem very real, signs hide the absence of reality and only pretend to mean something. Such perspectives, of course, beg the fundamental question, 'What is quot;Realquot;? The semiotic stance which problematizes Reality and emphasizes mediation and convention is sometimes criticized as extreme 'cultural relativism' by those who turn
  • 20. towards realism - such critics often object to an apparent sidelining of referential concerns such as 'accuracy'. However, even philosophical realists would accept that much of our knowledge of the world is indirect. We experience many things primarily as they are represented to us within our media and communication technologies. Since representations cannot be identical copies of what they represent, they can never be neutral and transparent but are instead constitutive of reality. Judith Butler puts it, we need to ask, 'What does transparency keep obscure?' Semiotics helps us to not to take representations for granted as 'reflections of reality', enabling us to take them apart and consider whose realities they represent.