face this assignment—explaining semiotics and showing how it can be applied to television and popular culture to those who know little or nothing about the subject—with a certain amount of apprehension. I’m not sure whether semiotics is a subject, a movement, a philosophy, or a cultlike religion. I do know that there is a large and rapidly expanding literature on the subject and that many of the writings of semioticians are difficult to understand and highly technical. So my mission, if not impossible, is quite challenging: Not only am I to explain the fundamental notions or elements of semiotics, I am also to apply them to television and television productions as well as to popular culture in general. It is a large undertaking, but I think it can be done. The price I must pay involves a certain amount of simplification and narrowness of focus. I am going to explain the basic principles of semiotics and discuss some sample applications. I hope that after reading this chapter and the annotated bibliography provided, those interested in semiotics will probe more deeply into it at their own convenience. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SUBJECT
Although interest in signs and the way they communicate has a long history (medieval philosophers, John Locke, and others have shown ❖ ❖ ❖
01-Berger.qxd 6/17/2004 4:46 PM Page 3interest), modern semiotic analysis can be said to have begun with two men—Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). (Peirce called his system semiotics, and that has become the dominant term used for the science of signs. Saussure’s semiology differs from Peirce’s semiotics in some respects, but as both are concerned with signs, I will treat the two as more or less the same in this chapter.)
Saussure’s book A Course in General Linguistics, first published posthumously in 1915, suggests the possibility of semiotic analysis. It deals with many of the concepts that can be applied to signs and that are explicated in this chapter. Saussure (1915/1966) wrote, “The linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image....I call the combination of a concept and a soundimage a sign, but in current usage the term generally designates only a sound-image” (pp. 66–67). His division of the sign into two components, the signifier (or “sound-image”) and the signified or (“concept”), and his suggestion that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary were of crucial importance for the development of semiotics. Peirce, on the other hand, focused on three aspects of signs: their iconic, indexical, and symbolic dimensions (see Table 1.1). 4——TECHNIQUES OF INTERPRETATION
Table 1.1 Three Aspects of Signs
Icon Index Symbol
Signify by Resemblance Causal connection Convention
Examples Pictures, statues Fire/smoke Flags
Process Can see Can figure out Must learn
From these two points of departure a movement was born, and
semiotic analysis spread all over the globe. Important work was done in Prague and Russia early in the 20th century, and semiotics is now well established in France and Italy (where Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and many others have done important theoretical as well as applied work). There are also outposts of progress in England, the United States, and many other countries.
Semiotics has been applied, with interesting results, to film, theater, medicine, architecture, zoology, and a host of other areas that involve or are concerned with communication and the transfer of information. In 01-Berger.qxd 6/17/2004 4:46 PM Page 4fact, some semioticians, perhaps carried away, suggest that everything can be analyzed semiotically; they see semiotics as the queen of the interpretive sciences, the key that unlocks the meanings of all things great and small.
Peirce argued that interpreters have to supply part of the meanings of signs. He wrote that a sign “is something which stands...
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