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SemioticsforBeginners:Criticisms

SemioticsforBeginners
DanielChandler
CriticismsofSemioticAnalysis
Otherthanas'thestudyofsigns'thereisrelativelylittleagreement
amongstsemioticiansthemselvesastothescopeandmethodologyof
semiotics.AlthoughSaussurehadlookedforwardtothedaywhen
semioticswouldbecomepartofthesocialsciences,semioticsisstilla
relativelylooselydefinedcriticalpracticeratherthanaunified,fully
fledgedanalyticalmethodortheory.Atworst,whatpassesfor'semiotic
analysis'islittlemorethanapretentiousformofliterarycriticismapplied
beyondtheboundsofliteratureandbasedmerelyonsubjective
interpretationandgrandassertions.Thiskindofabusehasearned
semioticsanunenviablereputationinsomequartersasthelastrefugefor
academiccharlatans.Criticismsofstructuralistsemioticshaveledsome
theoriststoabandonsemioticsaltogether,whilstothershavesoughtto
mergeitwithnewperspectives.Itisdifficulttoofferacritiqueofa
shiftingtargetwhichchangesitsformsofluidlyasitmoves.
Semioticsisoftencriticizedas'imperialistic',sincesomesemioticians
appeartoregarditasconcernedwith,andapplicableto,anythingand
everything,trespassingonalmosteveryacademicdiscipline.John
Sturrockcommentsthatthe'dramaticextensionofthesemioticfield,to
includethewholeofculture,islookedonbythosesuspiciousofitasa
kindofintellectualterrorism,overfillingourliveswithmeanings'
(Sturrock1986,89).Semioticanalysisisjustoneofmanytechniques
whichmaybeusedtoexploresignpractices.Signsinvariousmediaare
notalikedifferenttypesmayneedtobestudiedindifferentways.As
withanyotherprocessofmediation,semioticssuitssomepurposesbetter
thanothers.Semioticsdoesnot,forinstance,lenditselftoquantification,
afunctiontowhichcontentanalysisisfarbetteradapted(whichisnotto
suggestthatthetwotechniquesareincompatible,asmanysemioticians
seemtoassume).Theempiricaltestingofsemioticclaimsrequiresother
methods.Semioticapproachesmakecertainkindsofquestionseasierto
askthanothers:theydonotinthemselvesshedlightonhowpeoplein
particularsocialcontextsactuallyinterprettexts,whichmayrequire
ethnographicandphenomenologicalapproaches(seeMcQuarrie&Mick
1992).
Semioticiansdonotalwaysmakeexplicitthelimitationsoftheir
techniques,andsemioticsissometimesuncriticallypresentedasa
generalpurposetool.Saussureansemioticsisbasedonalinguisticmodel
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butnoteveryoneagreesthatitisproductivetotreatphotographyandfilm,
forinstance,as'languages'.PaulMessarisdisputesthatweneedtolearn
to'read'theformalcodesofphotographicandaudiovisualmedia,arguing
thattheresemblanceoftheirimagestoobservablerealityisnotmerelya
matterofculturalconvention:'toasubstantialdegreetheformal
conventionsencounteredinstillormotionpicturesshouldmakeagood
dealofsenseeventoafirsttimeviewer'(Messaris1994,7).JohnCorner
hascriticisedthewayinwhichsomesemioticianshavetreatedalmost
anythingasacode,whilstleavingthedetailsofsuchcodesinexplicit
(particularlyinthecaseofideologicalcodes)(Corner1980).
Sometimessemioticianspresenttheiranalysesasiftheywerepurely
objective'scientific'accountsratherthansubjectiveinterpretations.Yet
fewsemioticiansseemtofeelmuchneedtoprovideempiricalevidence
forparticularinterpretations,andmuchsemioticanalysisisloosely
impressionisticandhighlyunsystematic(oralternatively,generates
elaboratetaxonomieswithlittleevidentpracticalapplication).Some
semioticiansseemtochooseexampleswhichillustratethepointsthey
wishtomakeratherthanapplyingsemioticanalysistoanextensive
randomsample(Leissetal.1990,214).WilliamLeissandhiscolleagues
arguethatamajordisadvantageofsemioticsisthat'itisheavily
dependentupontheskilloftheindividualanalyst'.Lessskilful
practitioners'candolittlemorethanstatetheobviousinacomplexand
oftenpretentiousmanner'(Leissetal.1990,214).Certainly,insome
cases,semioticanalysisseemslittlemorethananexcuseforinterpreters
todisplaytheappearanceofmasterythroughtheuseofjargonwhich
excludesmostpeoplefromparticipation.Inpractice,semioticanalysis
invariablyconsistsofindividualreadings.Weareseldompresentedwith
thecommentariesofseveralanalystsonthesametext,tosaynothingof
evidenceofanykindofconsensusamongstdifferentsemioticians.Few
semioticiansmaketheiranalyticalstrategysufficientlyexplicitforothers
toapplyiteithertotheexamplesusedortoothers.Structuralist
semioticianstendtomakenoallowanceforalternativereadings,assuming
eitherthattheirowninterpretationsreflectageneralconsensusorthat
'theirtextinterpretationsareimmanentinthesignstructureandneedno
crossvalidation'(McQuarrie&Mick1992,194).Semioticianswhoreject
theinvestigationofotherpeople'sinterpretationsprivilegewhathasbeen
calledthe'liteinterpreter'thoughsociallyorientedsemioticianswould
insistthattheexplorationofpeople'sinterpretivepracticesisfundamental
tosemiotics.
Somesemioticanalysishasbeencriticisedasnothingmorethanan
abstractand'aridformalism'whichispreoccupiedwithclassification.
SusanHaywarddeclaresthatstructuralistsemioticscanleadto'acrushing
oftheaestheticresponsethroughtheweightofthetheoreticalframework'
(Hayward1996,352).Semioticanalysisoftenshowsatendencyto
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downplaytheaffectivedomainthoughthestudyofconnotationsoughtto
includethesensitiveexplorationofhighlyvariableandsubjective
emotionalnuances.
Instructuralistsemioticsthefocusisonlangueratherthanparole
(Saussure'sterms),onformalsystemsratherthanonprocessesofuseand
production.Structuraliststudieshavetendedtobepurelytextualanalyses,
andithasbeensuggestedthatevenwhensemioticiansmovebeyond
textualanalysis,'theysubordinateothermomentstotextualanalysis'
(Johnson1996,98).Semioticscanappeartosuggestthatmeaningis
purelyexplicableintermsofdeterminingtextualstructures.Suchastance
issubjecttothesamecriticismsaslinguisticdeterminism.Ingiving
prioritytothedeterminingpowerofthesystemitcanbeseenas
fundamentallyconservative.Purelystructuralistsemioticsdoesnot
addressprocessesofproduction,audienceinterpretationorevenauthorial
intentions.Itignoresparticularpractices,institutionalframeworksandthe
cultural,social,economicandpoliticalcontext.EvenRolandBarthes,
whoarguesthattextsarecodifiedtoencourageareadingwhichfavours
theinterestsofthedominantclass,confineshisattentiontotheinternal
textualorganizationanddoesnotengagewiththesocialcontextof
interpretation(Gardiner1992,14950).Itcannotbeassumedthat
preferredreadingswillgounchallenged(Hall1980).ThesociologistDon
Slaterhascriticisedthefunctionalismofstructuralistsemiotics,arguing
thatmaterialpracticessuchasthe'readingoftexts'mustberelatedtothe
socialrelationswhichgiverisetothe'politicsofculturalpractice'.
Functionalism,hecomments,'admitsofthoroughlyinternalsolutionsto
problemsofdetermination'(Slater1983,259).DavidBuxtonalsoargues
thatstructuralistapproaches'deny...socialdetermination'andheinsists
that'thetextmustberelatedtosomethingotherthanitsownstructure:in
otherwords,wemustexplainhowitcomestobestructured'(Buxton
1990,13).Wemustconsidernotonlyhowsignssignify(structurally)but
alsowhy(socially)structuresarenotcauses.Therelationshipsbetween
signifiersandtheirsignifiedsmaybeontologicallyarbitrarybuttheyare
notsociallyarbitrary.Weshouldbewareofallowingthenotionofthe
signasarbitrarytofosterthemythoftheneutralityofthemedium.
DominicStrinatinotes:
Howcanweknowthatabunchofrosessignifiespassionunlesswe
alsoknowtheintentionofthesenderandthereactionofthe
receiver,andthekindofrelationshiptheyareinvolvedin?Ifthey
areloversandaccepttheconventionsofgivingandreceiving
flowersasanaspectofromantic,sexuallove,thenwemight
accept...[this]interpretation.Butifwedothis,wedosoonthebasis
notofthesignbutofthesocialrelationshipsinwhichwecanlocate
thesign...Therosesmayalsobesentasajoke,aninsult,asignof
gratitude,andsoon.Theymayindicatepassiononthepartofthe
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senderbutrepulsiononthepartofthereceivertheymaysignify
familyrelationsbetweengrandparentsandgrandchildrenratherthan
relationsbetweenlovers,andsoon.Theymightevenconnotesexual
harassment.(Strinati1995,125).
Feministtheoristshavesuggestedthatdespiteitsusefulnesstofeminists
insomerespects,structuralistsemiotics'hasoftenobscuredthe
significanceofpowerrelationsintheconstitutionofdifference,suchas
patriarchalformsofdominationandsubordination'(Franklinetal.1996,
263).
Synchronicanalysisstudiesaphenomenonasifitwerefrozenatone
momentintimediachronicanalysisfocusesonchangeovertime.Insofar
assemioticstendstofocusonsynchronicratherthandiachronicanalysis
(asitdoesinSaussureansemiotics),itunderplaysthedynamicnatureof
mediaconventions(forinstance,televisionconventionschangefairly
rapidlycomparedtoconventionsforwrittenEnglish).Itcanalso
underplaydynamicchangesintheculturalmythswhichsignificationboth
alludestoandhelpstoshape.Purelystructuralistsemioticsignores
processandhistoricityunlikehistoricaltheorieslikeMarxism.
AsHodgeandTrippnote,therecanhardlybe'anexhaustivesemiotic
analysis...becausea"complete"analysis...wouldstillbelocatedin
particularsocialandhistoricalcircumstances'(Hodge&Tripp1986,27).
Thisisreinforcedbythepoststructuraliststancethatwecannotstep
outsideoursignifyingsystems.Semioticiansseektodistancethemselves
fromdominantcodesbystrategiesaimedatdenaturalization.Thenotion
of'makingthefamiliarstrange,andthestrangefamiliar'isnowa
recurrentfeatureofartisticandphotographicmanifestosandofcreative
'brainstorming'sessionsinmanyfields.Thephraseitselfhasbeen
attributedtotheGermanpoetNovalis(17721801,akaFriedrichvon
Hardenberg),whodeclaredthattheessenceofromanticismwas'tomake
thefamiliarstrange,andthestrangefamiliar'.Theconceptisfound
amongstotherRomantictheoristssuchasWordsworthandColeridge.The
notionisalsocloselyassociatedwithSurrealismandwithBrechtian
'alienation'.However,itsadoptionbysemioticiansprobablyowesmostto
RussianFormalistcriticism(Lemon&Reis1965).VictorShklovsky
arguedin1916thatthekeyfunctionofartwasestrangement,
defamiliarizationor'makingstrange'(ostranenie)i.e.renewingour
perceptionofeverydaythingsandeventswhicharesofamiliarthatour
perceptionofthemhasbecomeroutinized(Hawkes1977,6267).Russian
Formalismwasakeyinfluenceonthedevelopmentofsemioticsin
EasternEurope,andthelegacyof'makingthefamiliarstrange'isan
importantoneforsemiotics.However,asSimonWatneynotes,the
strategyofdefamiliarizationisitself,ofcourse,ideologicalandhasbeen
associatedwiththenotionthatthetacticofsurprisemayservetobanish
'distortions'sothatwemay'objectively'perceive'reality'(Watney1982,
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1734).Clearlythestrategyof'makingthefamiliarstrange'needstobe
coupledwithanawarenessthatwhilstwemaybeabletobypassonesetof
conventionswemayneverescapetheframingofexperienceby
convention.
JohnSturrocknotesthatsomecommentators,such
asMikhailBakhtinaliterarytheoristhaveused
semioticsforthe'revelatory'politicalpurposeof
'demystifying'society,andthatsuchapproachescan
leadto'loaded''readings'ofsocietysimplyasan
ideologicalconspiracybyonesocialclassagainst
therest(Sturrock1986,91).Sturrockfavoured'a
moreorlessneutral'approach,butfewtheorists
wouldbelikelytoacceptthepossibilityofsuch
neutrality.Marxisttheoristsinparticularemphasize
'thepoliticsofsignification'significationcannotbeneutral('valuefree').
JohnTaggcommentsthatheis'notconcernedwithexposingthe
manipulationofapristine"truth",orwithunmaskingsomeconspiracy,
butratherwiththeanalysisofthespecific"politicaleconomy"within
whichthe"modeofproduction"of"truth"isoperative'(Tagg1988,174
5).Structuralisttheoriststendtoassumethatwecanusesemioticanalysis
tolookbeyondsignstoan'underlying'pregivenreality,butpost
structuralisttheoristshavearguedthatthisisimpossiblewecannotstand
outsideoursignsystems.
GuyCookarguesthatthereisatendencyforsomesemioticiansto
representcommunicationasasimpleprocessof'decoding':
ThepopularphraseDecodingAdvertisementswasfirstusedby
JudithWilliamsonasthetitleofabookpublishedin1978,andithas
beenechoedwidelyincoursesandpublicationseversince(Umiker
Sebeok1987:249335).TheessenceofWilliamson'sapproachisto
unveilthroughanalysiswhatshecallsthe'real'meaningofthe
wordsandimagesofanad,andthe'realworld'towhichthe'unreal'
imagesoftheadrefer(Williamson1978:47).Inthisthereisaclear
assumptionthat'reality'isnotonlyquitedistinctfrom'fiction'but
alsomorallysuperior...Thoughthedecodingapproachonoccasion
yieldsinterestingresults(inpracticeoftenratherobviousones),a
drawbackoftheapproachisitshastysatisfactionthatsuch
equivalencesconstituteacompleteanalysis.Thisleadsittojettison
allconsiderationofwhatisparticulartothesurfaceofdiscourse,or
ofaparticularsignifier,andthusmissmuchofcomplexity,skilland
humour.(Cook1992,634)
Cookaddsthat'aweaknessofthesemioticapproachisitsexclusive
devotiontosimilarities,andthenanairoffinalityoncethesesimilarities
areobserved,whichblindsittowhatisunique'(ibid.,70).Rosalind
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CowardandJohnEllisalsocommentthat'structuralanalysisprovedtobe
inadequatetoaccountforthedifferencesbetweentexts'(Coward&Ellis
1977,5).Thefocuson'underlyingstructures'whichcharacterizesthe
structuralformalismoftheoristssuchasPropp,GreimasandLviStrauss
neglects'surfaceforms'whichmaybeimportantinthemselves(Cook
1992,71).Thisisparticularlyvexatiousforliterarycritics,sinceit
appearstoignoreissuesofstylisticdifference.
VardaLangholzLeymore,whoherselfemployedastructuralistapproach,
arguedthat:
Semiologicalstudiesderiveagreatinspirationfromlinguistics,yet
inmostcasestheyfallshortofcomplyingwithprobablyitsmost
revolutionaryaspect,theinfinitecreativityofthebaserules.Inmost
semiologicalstudiestheidentificationofstructureistantamountto
creatingformalschemataintowhichallindividualmembersofthe
systemmay,followingsomerules,bereduced.However,the
converseisnottrue.Thesystemsareincapableofgeneratingone
singleexamplewhichbelongstotheiruniverseofdiscourse,inthe
sensethatChomskyisabletogeneratesentences.Inotherwords,
therulesenablingoneto'transformback'fromthedeepstructureto
thesurfacestructure,arenotspecified.Inthissensemost
semiologicalstudiesarenotgenerativebutstatic.
(LangholzLeymore1975,15)
Somecontemporarytheoristshaverejectedapurelystructuralist
semiotics.Butsucharejectionneednotinvolveawholesalerejectionof
semiotics.Influentialasithasbeen,structuralistanalysisisbutone
approachtosemiotics.Manyofthecriticismsofsemioticsaredirectedat
aformofsemioticstowhichfewcontemporarysemioticiansadhere.
Whilstsomesemioticianshaveretainedastructuralistconcernwith
formalsystems(mainlyfocusingondetailedstudiesofnarrative,filmand
televisioneditingandsoon),manyhavebecomemoreconcernedwith
'socialsemiotics'(Hodge&Kress1988).Akeyconcernofsocial
semioticiansiswithwhatStephenHeathcallsthe'specificsignifying
practices'(seeLapsley&Westlake1988,55).Such'reformed'
semioticianspractise'poststructuralist'semiotics,focusingonwhatone
hascalled'situatedsocialsemiosis'(Jensen1995,57).Thisatleastisthe
rhetoricofsocialsemioticians,buttheextenttowhichsocialsemiotics
hassofarmettheconcernsofsociologistsisdebatable.However,itis
earlydays:'socialsemiotics'isstillunderconstruction.Contemporary
theoristswhohaveassociatedthemselveswiththisdevelopmentinclude
GuntherKress,RobertHodge,TheovanLeeuwen,KlausBruhnJensen,
PaulJThibaultandJayLemke(Hodge&Kress1988Jensen1995
Lemke1995Kress&vanLeeuwen1996Thibault1997).
VictorBurginnotesthat,ofseveraldiscourses,'Marxismand
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psychoanalysis[thelatterparticularlyderivedfromtheworkofJacques
Lacan]havemostinformed[poststructuralist]semioticsinitsmovesto
graspthedeterminationsofhistoryandthesubjectintheproductionof
meaning'(Burgin1982b,1445).Strinatiarguesthatsemioticshasbeen
used'torendertheMarxisttheoryofideologylessdeterministicand
instrumental.However,thisstilltendstounderestimatethewaysinwhich
whatisproducedisitselfsubjecttoconflictsandnegotiations,andhow
themeaningsproducedmaynotbeuniform,consistent,unambiguousor
reducibletoacoherentdominantideology'(Strinati1995,127seealso
Tagg1988,23ff,15383).AnotherinflectionofsemioticsisFoucauldian
emphasising'thepowereffectsofdiscursivepractices'(Tagg1988,22).
Itisonlyfairtonotethatmuchofthecriticismofsemioticshastakenthe
formofselfcriticismbythosewithinthefield.Thetheoreticalliterature
ofsemioticsreflectsaconstantattemptbymanysemioticianstograpple
withtheimplicationsofnewtheoriesfortheirframingofthesemiotic
enterprise.Furthermore,contemporaryapologistshavenotedthatthereis
nothingnewabouttheemphasisonthesocialdimensionofsemiotics.The
rootsofsocialsemioticscanbetracedtotheearlytheorists.Neither
SaussurenorPeircestudiedthesocialuseofsigns.However,Saussuredid
envisagesemioticsas'asciencewhichstudiestheroleofsignsaspartof
sociallife'.AsforPeirce,thenotionofsemiosisasadialogicprocessis
centraltohisthinking.Signsdonotexistwithoutinterpreters,and
semioticcodesareofcoursesocialconventions.However,ithastobe
acknowledgedthatanemphasisonthesocialdimensionofsemioticsin
theformofthestudyofspecificmeaningmakingpracticesisrelatively
recentoutsideofspecializedacademicjournalsanditisnotyetmuchin
evidenceattheheartoftheactivitiesofmanysemioticresearchers.
Semioticsisnot,neverhasbeen,andseemsunlikelyevertobe,an
academicdisciplineinitsownright.Itisnowwidelyregardedprimarily
asonemodeofanalysisamongstothersratherthanasa'science'of
culturalforms.

Contents
ContentsPage
Preface
Introduction
Signs
Modalityandrepresentation
Paradigmsandsyntagms
Syntagmaticanalysis
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Paradigmaticanalysis
Denotation,connotationandmyth
Rhetoricaltropes
Codes
Modesofaddress
Encoding/Decoding
Articulation
Intertextuality
Criticismsofsemioticanalysis
Strengthsofsemioticanalysis
D.I.Y.semioticanalysis
Glossaryofkeyterms
Suggestedreading
References
Index
Semioticslinks

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Lastmodified:07/03/201415:46:08

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