outrage perhaps) and recognise the basis for shared interpretations. Occasionally, when watching a film, we may
find that its technique or budget might militate against the aspirations of its creators. Then we might find ourselves
sneering at its appearance and failure, responding to it in
ways that were unintended simply because it is not effective in marshalling rhetoric.
One final word on the ‘implied audience’ is worth
making. Students sometimes leap to the conclusion that a
text featuring particular social groups is providing a cue
and a clue to the audience that is being addressed. There is some value in this, of course. If we take hip-hop music as
an example, it is a cultural form derived from African-
American experiences and histories. Interestingly,
however, it is consumed across a huge variety of cultures,
notably white middle-class Americans, who became the
key audience for this genre in the 1990s. To assume a direct correlation between appearance and audience, then, is a
fallacy and requires some consideration (if this were the
case then the main consumers of pornography would be
Analytical tools: semiology
Most academic disciplines seem to have an ‘ology’ somewhere in their scope. It indicates that they are a serious,
systematic and logical endeavour. The Greek logos – from
whence we get the suffix-ology – indicates a rational principle and order to explaining phenomena. The ‘ology’ of
media studies (although not ours alone) is called semiology. The prefix sem comes from the Greek for sign
(rather than the Latin for half) and is to be found in words such as semaphore – signalling with flags or lights – and semantics – the study of meaning in linguistics.
Developed long before and outside media studies,
semiology is particularly useful for us in studying the
process of media communication. As we have suggested
previously, communication has sometimes been seen as a
process by which information passes from one person to
another, or from one to many in the case of mass media
forms such as broadcasting. In emphasising the
conveyance of information, this process approach to
understanding communication assumes that meaning is,
literally, a matter of encoding and decoding what needs to
be communicated. The media operate as mediator in this
process – the bit inbetween the communicator and
receiver/s. Semiology takes another perspective to communication as mediation, rather in the manner of our rhetorical
approach, by seeking to identify the factors that
contribute to the way in which meaning is made in the act
of mediation – how the content of media messages come
to have significance and mean what they do.
Semiology is the attempt to explain how things mean
what they mean and the various ways in which things mean
what they do. It is therefore the study of meaning and the
different systems that make meaning possible. These
‘systems’ include images, colour, bodily gestures and music, as well as the various fields of mass communication, i.e.
media forms in all their variety.Where rhetoric draws our
attention to the importance of what someone is saying (e.g.
on a TV screen), along with the setting, the way that they
speak and so on, in placing and ‘affecting’ us, semiology goes further to consider why specific things – a ‘posh’ accent, a black face, a suit and tie, a steel grey backdrop, the street rather than the studio – mean what they do.
Our approach to investigating meaning is further
complicated by the technical language used in semiology.
Often, it seems that the technical language used is simply
there in order to baffle outsiders, i.e. non-academics.
However, one of the reasons why technical language is
employed is to ensure that we all have a shared set of
Think of rhetoric as a means to an end – media language
appealing to us as members of a potential audience
in the first instance and then, once our attention
has been won, working in support of...
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