Semiotics and “The Gentlemen’s agreement” ft. Baby Ice Cream Pt.1

First I want to point out that it is cold as f@#$ today, just putting it out there. So today we were given a substitute teacher in the form of a very small, very quirky Frenchwoman. Her whole thing was semiotics, so from the get-go we all knew what lay ahead of us for the morning lecture.

So right off the bat we got the question: “What are Semiotics?” The answer seemed simple enough.Semiotics, we learned, are the study of signs and symbols. Simple right? Yeah, not so much…not so much at all. Turns out semiotics is REALLY HARD! Let me briefly explain, brace yourselves.

We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans – meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of ‘signs’. Indeed, according to Peirce, ‘we think only in signs’ (Peirce 1931-58, 2.302). Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. ‘Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign’, declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.

The two dominant models of what constitutes a sign are those of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. These will be discussed in turn.

Saussure offered a ‘dyadic’ or two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of:

a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) – the form which the sign takes; and the ‘signified’ (signifié) – the concept it represents. The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified (Saussure 1983, 67; Saussure 1974, 67). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is referred to as ‘signification’, and this is represented in the Saussurean diagram by the arrows. The horizontal line marking the two elements of the sign is referred to as ‘the bar’.

If we take a linguistic example, the word ‘Open’ (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway) is a sign consisting of:

a signifier: the word open; a signified concept: that the shop is open for business.
A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified (Saussure 1983, 101; Saussure 1974, 102-103). A sign is a recognizable combination of a signifier with a particular signified. The same signifier (the word ‘open’) could stand for a different signified (and thus be a different sign) if it were on a push-button inside a lift (‘push to open door’). Similarly, many signifiers could stand for the concept ‘open’ (for instance, on top of a packing carton, a small outline of a box with an open flap for ‘open this end’) – again, with each unique pairing constituting a different sign.

Got that? Ok, I’ll continue…

As for the signified, most commentators who adopt Saussure’s model still treat this as a mental construct, although they often note that it may nevertheless refer indirectly to things in the world. Saussure’s original model of the sign ‘brackets the referent’: excluding reference to objects existing in the world. His signified is not to be identified directly with a referent but is a concept in the mind – not a thing but the notion of a thing. Some people may wonder why Saussure’s model of the sign refers only to a concept and not to a thing. An observation from the philosopher Susanne Langer (who was not referring to Saussure’s theories) may be useful here. Note that like most contemporary commentators, Langer uses the term ‘symbol’ to refer to the linguistic sign (a term which Saussure himself avoided): ‘Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects… In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean. Behaviour towards conceptions is what words normally evoke; this is the typical process of thinking’. She adds that ‘If I say “Napoleon”, you do not bow to the conqueror of Europe as though I had introduced him, but merely think of him’ (Langer 1951, 61).

Thus, for Saussure the linguistic sign is wholly immaterial – although he disliked referring to it as ‘abstract’ (Saussure 1983, 15; Saussure 1974, 15). The immateriality of the Saussurean sign is a feature which tends to be neglected in many popular commentaries. If the notion seems strange, we need to remind ourselves that words have no value in themselves – that is their value. Saussure noted that it is not the metal in a coin that fixes its value (Saussure 1983, 117; Saussure 1974, 118). Several reasons could be offered for this. For instance, if linguistic signs drew attention to their materiality this would hinder their communicative transparency (Langer 1951, 73). Furthermore, being immaterial, language is an extraordinarily economical medium and words are always ready-to-hand. Now, that’s the jist of it all, there’s far more, but honestly, I could not care less, sorry.

To end off Pt.1, I’m going to post a video that we discussed in class. If you love ice cream, you’ll love this ad for it. Enjoy! 🙂


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