semiotics - reading notes

reading notes from Balsem's chapter on Semiotics

page 7-9
(pdf page 3-4)
... signs are socially active forces, and so is interpretation. Therefore, the study of signs and the semiotic perspective on social communication is a relevant activity. But it can only be so if the factors so far encountered are taken into account. Signs are not things, but the result of acts carried out by individuals belonging to social groups. They do not emerge in isolation, but in relation to other signs, previously produced. They are based on grounds and result in effects that deserve to be studied as part of a larger endeavour whose goals stretch beyond purely academic understanding.

Thus conceived, semiotics is a much needed theory. It puruses various goals at the same time, in an attempt to be helpful for various purposes. It is meant to provide tools helpful for the interpretation of cultural products like texts, literary or not, films, paintings, music, gestures. It is also meant to provide insights that help us not only understand, but also counter, eventually undermine, social practices that are felt to be damaging to certain groups of people. It can be of use to students in disciplines like English, various literatures and comparative literature, art history, musicology, film studies, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the study of religion, and in group-related fields like African American studies or women's studies. It can be used for the analysis of cultural products and for the understanding of their ideological basis; in other words, it can be used with or without explicit political purpose.

The most common answer to the question "What is a sign?" is: a sign is something that stands for something else. A flag stands for a nation, a set of letters for a word, the word for a concept; a drawing of Clinton, whether a caricate or not, stands for the President of the United States; an i.d. card stands for the bearer; a trumpet call in military camp stands for the order to wake up; a kiss for affection and an anxious, tense face for the anxiety the person feels. What are the implications of the idea of "standing for"?

Whenever there is a sign, there are two element: the thing that is the sign and the thing that the sign replaces. The thing for which the sign stands is absent; that is why the sign needs to stand in for it. If the absent item shows up, we don't need the sign any more.

... It is the relation between the sign and its environment that make it a sign. This is the syntactical relation.

... It has been designed as a sign, but it can only have that meaning, it can only function as a sign, if somebody sees and understands it as such. This is the pragmatic relation.

... If we take all these requirements together, we can say that a sign is not a thing but a function, an event. A sign does not exist but occurs. A sign occurs, then, when something is perceived, for certain reasons or on certain grounds, as standing for something else to someone. It needs interpretation. Most work in the humanities consists of acts of interpretation.

page 10
(pdf page 5)

Signs allow us to communicate about something which is absent. As soon as a sign-event occurs, the question of that absent item arises: what is it that the sign stands for? What does it mean?

.. Sign and first meaning become a new sign. Logically, the first sign implies the second: the second sign consists of the first sign and its interpretation.

It is precisely because second (and further) meanings are developed out of first, previous meanings, that they are neither vague nor arbitrary. They are not vague but, on the contrary, more specific than the first meanings.

... The Robinson story confirms what we knew already: that signs-events occur only when signs are interpreted and that interpretation occurs in an interaction between sign and sign-user. It teaches us a little more about the process of semiosis and especially of the activity of the receiver or addressee in it, about interpretation that is. It teaches us in the first place that semiosis is a process, which involves agents, events, things and time. Specifically, we have seen that meaning, the result of interpretaion, is no more than the sign itself, not a fixed, objectified thing, but a complex process.

The following features of this process casn be retained:
* a second interpretation is the interpretation of a combination of sign and interpretation
* second interpretations are more specific than the first; first are more general
* second interpretations represent a further stage in the development of the sign event
* second interpretations are not vague, not arbitrary and not less important than the first interpretations
* no interpretation can be "right", "exhaustive", "certain" or "objective"
* but interpretations can be "wrong", that is, inadequate, when the relation whichthe sign-user establishes between sign and interpretation does not exist, is different, or sufficiently grounded
* mistaken interpretations will show by the lack of follow-up; they stop the interpretation, remain isolated, or bring no new insights
* first interpretations are sometimes called denotations; second and further interpretations, connotations

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