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Concerning images - Sonesson

Concerning images - Sonesson

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Published by: CACOETHES SCRIBENDI on Sep 05, 2007
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04/13/2013

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Göran Sonesson
1
An essay concerning images.From rhetoric to semiotics byway of ecological physics
*
Contrary to received opinion, a great book is often a great good. The
Traité du signevisuel 
, at least, may be expected to do a lot of good to the particular domain of semioticsconcerned with visual meaning, both internally, in raising the scholarly level of thatspeciality, and, in relation to other parts of semiotics and to other disciplines, in presenting, for the first time, a complete body of theory involving the visual mode of semiosis.First announced some seventeen years ago (Groupe µ 1976), the
Traité
has been preceded by a long series of articles and conferences consecrated to the problems of  pictorial rhetoric, the more recent of which now reappear, slightly modified, as chapters of the book. Yet the
Traité
is far from being a compilation: it seems more likely that, in their earlier guises, these chapters had been undauntedly cut out of the body of the manuscript.Indeed, many pieces of theory that, at least in the opinion of the present reviewer, seemedunclear in their earlier presentation, or were difficult to interpret, show to advantagewithin the framework of the book.On the other hand, the book would seem to retain some traces of having had anearlier incarnation in the shape of articles: the location of some chapters does not seem to be the most convenient for the reader (for instance all the critical observations of the firstchapter, which might have been more accessible at a later stage of the reading), the habit of returning, over and over again, mostly in brief passages, to the same themes, and, most of all, the use, from the beginning of the book, of terms and concepts explained only muchlater, sometimes complete with a promise of later elucidation, sometimes passed-over insilence. In some cases, of course, every reader with a slight knowledge of semiotics may be supposed to have at least a superficial understanding of the terms beforehand (for instance, in the case of ‘iconicity’ and, perhaps, ‘isotopy’), but in other cases, the termsemployed (‘plastic sign’ as against ‘iconic sign’), can only be understood by those whohave previously acquired some part of the ‘repertory’ (to put it in their own language) of Groupe µ semiotics. This practise is unfortunate: it tends to shut out those readers whoare not familiar with the theory already (but, then again, nobody is likely to start his/her exploration of the theory with such an imposing volume as this).Rhetoric is concerned with the way meaning is brought about by means of breakingthe norms for how meaning would normally be produced. Setting out to explain the
 
Göran Sonesson,
 An essay concerning images
2workings of a rhetoric of visual meaning, Groupe µ soon found out that almost nothing isknown about the way in which such meaning is created in ordinary, non-rhetoricalcircumstances. Their first task thus became to establish the rules which rhetoric isconcerned to overrule (It might also be argued, as ethnomethodologists have said aboutsocial rules, that the study of norm-breaking may serve as a discovery procedure permitting to establish the rules; but, although this may be part of the context of discoveryof the present theory, it is not part of its context of presentation). After a chapter discussing the confusions and delusions of a few selected philosophies of art, as well as of some exponents of aesthetics and semiotics, and some remarks on the relation of semioticsto linguistics, the authors embark on a cursory study of visual perception, based on physiology and perceptual psychology (notably of the constructionist brand), from whichthey derive a set of elementary concepts of visual semiotics, such as
 field, limit, line,contour, form, figure
and (
back)ground.
They also isolate
textures,
based on averageluminance and granularity, and
colours,
each one of which is characterized by a chromaticdominant, a degree of saturation, and an amount of luminance. Together with
 forms,
further specified as to position, dimension, orientation, and forms as such, textures andcolours are the three principle elements of visual meaning, which, when occurrences areassociated with
types,
add up to
objects.
There is then much discussion of types, related torepertories of recognisable objects, and of the process of perception, conceived along thelines of constructivism and artificial intelligence.At the end of the third chapter, a distinction between the plastic sign and the iconicsign is introduced, as a subdivision of the visual sign. There follows two, very substantialchapters, consecrated to the iconic and the plastic sign, respectively. Interestingly, thechapter on iconicity starts out as a critique of the traditional critique of iconicity insidesemiotics, associated with such names as Eco and Goodman. This metacritique turns outto be largely parallel to the one we have ourselves conducted (notably in Sonesson 1989a;1992a,f), but it is undoubtedly entirely independent and also much less argued (Indeed,although Sonesson 1989a is quoted in other parts of the text, these remarks were clearlyadded at a late stage in the preparation of the manuscript, to late to integrate the results of our study in iconicity. which is unfortunate, because it would have much fortified their argument). On the other hand, Groupe µ goes much further in showing that, once theexistence of iconic signs is demonstrated, the real work begins in elucidating the intricatemechanism which accounts for them.The authors thus propose a theory of the iconic sign, comprising three separateelements, the signifier, the referent and the type, not to be confused with more familiar triads, as the representamen, the object, and the interpretant, or the expression, thecontent and the referent: indeed, all three elements are internal to the sign system. After some brief considerations of articulation what remains of the iconicity chapter isconsecrated to a study of the various transformations by means of which the referent is
 
Göran Sonesson,
 An essay concerning images
3made into a signifier. The chapter on the plastic sign breaks new ground in trying toisolate the elements characterising texture, colour, and form, and then daringly proposessome very general meanings for these elements. Well into the body of the book (page 255onwards), we are at last treated to the principle dish: visual rhetoric. After a generaldiscussion of the rhetoric effects pertaining to iconicity and plasticity, iconic and plasticfigures are introduced in separate chapters, and there is also a chapter about mixed figures.Finally, the authors ponder some consequences for general rhetoric, analyse the frame as a particular rhetoric object, and then dedicate a few pages to the rhetoric of visual objectshaving three dimensions, such as sculpture and architecture.The range of the theory, and the extent of its coverage, is impressing. The systemiccharacter of the presentation (in spite of some apparent contradictions mentioned below)will set a new standard for the discipline. Fortunately, there should still be a possibilityfor the adepts of visual semiotics to pursue their studies, for some tasks remain undone,and a few puzzles unresolved. In the following, we would like to point to some remaining problems for the theory, some of which appear to be very deeply embedded into its basicframework. As we proceed, our remarks will turn into a reflection on the fundamentalconcepts of semiotic theory, as applied to the visual world.
On the definition of semiotics
It is a curious fact that, all through their study, the authors nowhere deem it necessary todetermine, in any more explicit fashion, what kind of study semiotics is supposed to be.In the introduction, they do not even seem quite sure that they are really doing semiotics(‘Si l’on veut absolument situer ce travail dans un courant quelconque, on pourra lequalifier de sémiotique’; p.11), but that is probably only an instance of the subject matter,rhetoric, having invaded the metalanguage, for the body of the text, including the subjectheadings, is replete with references to that very discipline, which they even set out todefend against some dubious claimants. It could be argued, of course, that neither doesevery contribution to sociology or psychology contain a definition of the respectivedisciplines: but the institutional situation of semiotics is unfortunately not comparable tothat of the above-mentioned disciplines. Although there is thus no explicit concern withthe definition of semiotics in the book, a certain conception of semiotics is not only hintedat in several places, but it is also often presupposed in the arguments. It is precisely because we are very much in agreement with (part of) what may be gathered from thesesuggestions, that we regret that the conception in nowhere spelled out.
The semiotician’s piece of the cake
It still seems to be impossible to establish a consensus among all semioticians on whatsemiotics is all about; and many semioticians (including the Groupe µ) will not even careto define their discipline. However, if we attend less to definitions than to real research practice, and if we leave out those would-be semioticians who simply do not seem to be

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