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Lecture II: Image as a Sign

What is visual culture? What is culture? What are cultural and visual studies? Culture as interactive and fluid process, and a process of negotiation Culture as a contested space where many different ideologies exist Culture as a invested in political and social questions

Some ideas we will be covering today

Representation Meaning Seeing vs. looking Mimesis Semiotics Saussure Sign- signifier and signified Roland Barthes Connotative and denotative levels of meaning Myth/ideology


What is seeing?
to perceive with ones eye to detect things by the use of the eye physical process of receiving and processing visual data

the way we understand and engage with visual data it involves interpretation it is a practice through which meanings are created IT IS AN ACT OF CHOICE it involves power relations

Manet, Olympia 1890s Oil on Canvas

We engage in practices of looking to communicate, to influence, and be influenced (Practices of Looking, p.10.)

Visual Technologies

What is it?

Comes from Greek- mimEsis, from mimesthai = imitation or mimicry

Are the systems of representation mimetic ?

Juan Cotan, Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, c. 1602

Pieter Claesz, Still Life 1645

Pieter Claesz, Still Life 1648

Air Canada advertisement in Pride Week brochure, 2004

Meanings are produced through complex relationships

The participants in a culture give meaning to other people, objects and events. Things in themselves rarely have one fixed or unchanging meaning. A stone can be a part of a landscape, a part of a sacred site or a sculpture

Andy Goldsworthy, Boulder.3

Boulder covered with flower pedals and leaves

The Long Stone Standing Stone Gloucestershire

Is the way we use words or images to CONSTRUCT aspects of our reality Representation is a system It is also a process of negotiation


Construct meanings through systems of representation. This is influenced by their culture, education, interests, status, age, sex etc.

CONTEXT: Museum, home, Street, concert hall Television, radio etc.

Key Questions about Specific Representations What is being represented? How is it represented? Using what codes? Within what genre? How is the representation made to seem 'true', 'commonsense' or 'natural'? What is foregrounded and what is backgrounded? Are there any notable absences? Whose representation is it? Whose interests does it reflect? How do you know? At whom is this representation targeted? How do you know? What does the representation mean to you? What does the representation mean to others? How do you account for the differences? How do people make sense of it? According to what codes? With what alternative representations could it be compared? How does it differ?


In your textbook on the page 25 authors write : The capacity of images to affect us as viewers and consumers is dependent on the larger cultural meanings they invoke and the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they are viewed. Their meanings lie not within their image elements alone, but are acquired when they are consumed, viewed, and interpreted They continue by saying: Images are produced according to social and aesthetic conventions. Conventions are like road signs, we must learn their CODES for them to make sense; the codes we learn become second nature.


It is a science of signs. In its most basic explanation it can be defined broadly as a domain of investigation that explores the nature and function of signs as well as the systems and processes underlying signification, expression, representation, and communication.

Semiotics comes out of linguistics Charles Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure signifier-signified

SIGN as a basic unit of language. Composed of two elements: Signifier and signified.


Signifier SIGN Signified



Charles Peirce Icon, Index, Symbol

The Icon= refers directly to an object

Indexical Sign= it points to or results from something

The Symbol= does not look like its object BUT it alludes to it

The Icon= refers directly to an object

ICONIC signifiers always resemble what they signify.

A picture of your face is an icon of you. The little square with a picture of a printer on your computer screen is an icon for the print function. (Whereas a little box that has the word `PRINT' is not an icon since it has no physical resemblance to printing or the printer.)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Princesse de Broglie (1851-1853), oil on canvas

Indexical Sign= it points to or results from something

dark clouds in the west are an index of impending rain Smoke is an index of fire

The Symbol= does not look like its object/idea BUT it alludes to it OR Symbol is a sign with specific meaning attached to it.

Jan van Eyck Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, oil on canvas 1434

Roland Barthes Connotation and Denotation

Denotational meaning is usually thought of as the literal, obvious or commonsense meaning. Connotational meaning of a sign is related to sociocultural and personal implications or meanings- these are often related to the issues of origin, race, gender, ethnicity etc. MYTH

The Myth