Semiotics/ Semiology

A highly influential branch of study, Semiotics or the study of signs, can be considered the foundation for literary theory. Many of the revolutionary theories of the twentieth century, such as Structuralism and Poststructuralism, Structural Anthropology (Levi-Strauss), Psychoanalysis (Lacan), Cultural Studies (Barthes) and the theories of Foucault have drawn their ideas from Semiotics.


Introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce as Semiotics, in the end of the 19th century, and as Semiology by Saussure in his Course in General Liiiguistics (1916), this science deals with the study of signs that are not just confined to the literary realm, but also to the non-literary, which spans across an entire gamut of human activities, such as rituals, customs, dress code and so on, and which convey common meanings to the members of a particular culture. Thus Semiotics can be considered one of the larger structures of structuralism itself, as Saussure himself referred to it as a “larger imaginative province for the study of language”. Though Semiotics and Sernioiogy have been used interchangeably to refer to the same study, there are certain basic basic differences in the way both CS Peirce and Saussure perceived, defined and classified the “sign”.

CS Peirce classified sign into icon, index and symbol, based on the relation between the signifying item and that which it signifies. Accordingly, an icon is a sign by virtue of its similarities with what it signifies. For instance, the similarity of a portrait to the person it depicts. An index is a sign which has cause/effect relationship with what it signifies (smoke signifies fire).

A symbol becomes a sign, as the relationship between the signifier and the signified is socially constructed by convention and the meaning is arbitrarily attributed, for instance, the red traffic tight signifying “Stop!”.

The Saussurean sign consists of two inseparable parts, the signifier (word image) and the signified (the concept) and it is due to the interaction between various signifiers and signifieds that meaning is generated in a language. With the example of the 8.25 Geneva to Paris express, Saussure illustrates the relationality of meaning. Like CS Peirce’s “symbol”, Saussure propounds that meaning is arbitrary and constructed through convention, except in the case of onomatopoeic words. The identity of all elements in a language is determined by their difference from and opposition to other elements in a particular linguistic system. Consequently, in structural linguistics, any individual utterance of sign/ language (the parole) should be understood as only a manifestation of the overall system of language {the langue). Thus a semiotic study focuses on establishing the general signifying system that each particular instance manifests.

Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957) developed the notion of a highly ideological sign system called myth, which itself contains two semiotic systems, the first order signification or the denotation, and the sign of the denotation becoming the second order signification or the connotation Barthes studied the bourgeoisie myths of French daily life such as soap, steak, and chips, which are usually displayed by the media “neutrally and innocently”, when they are in fact ideologically and historically determined.


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