That which we call rose by any other name
would smell as sweet
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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)
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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'.
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.
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
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 -
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'?
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?
Yes, because the sun is always bigger, it always stays like it is and so does the
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
. 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
The camera never lies
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
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.