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"Language is, then, positively a distinctly human opening of and opening to the world:

Not just a distinguishable or instrumental but a constitutive faculty."

--Raymond Williams


 Semiotics, Structuralism and Television--- Seiter


Also see: Media and Communication Studies Site: http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/semiotic.html


The Sign

Denotation and Connotation

Combinations and Codes






S- "Semiotics is the study of everything that can be used for communication: words, images, traffic signs, flowers, music, medical symptoms, and much more."


S- "As a tool for the study of culture, semiotics represents a radical break from traditional criticism, in which the first order of business is the interpretation of an aesthetic object or text in terms of what it’s immanent meaning. Semiotics first asks how meaning is created, rather than what the meaning is."


S- Semiotics and structuralism are so closely related they are said to overlap--- semiotics being a field of study in itself, whereas structuralism is a method of analysis often used in semiotics."


S-"Structuralism stresses that each element within a cultural system derives its meaning from its relationship to every other element in the system: there are no independent meanings, but rather many meanings produced by their difference from other elements in the system."

The Sign

S-"The smallest unit of meaning in semiotics is called the sign..... Saussure conceptualized the sign as composed of two distinct parts.... a signifier, that is the image, object, or sound itself--- the part of the sign that has a material form--- and the signified, the concept it represents.... Saussure stressed that the relationship between the signifier and the signified was entirely conventional, completely arbitrary."

S/Exps: letters in "rain" stand for the concept "rain".

Here is a linguistic example:

Sign:: The written word 'tree'

Signifier: The letters 't-r-e-e'

Signified concept: The category 'tree'








"natural" signs




semiotic convention



S- "A word’s meaning derives entirely from its difference from other words in the sign system of language"

S/Exp: rain not brain or sprain or rail or roan or reign.

S-" "More important, they (Saussure and Pierce) wished to argue that all signs are cultural constructs that have taken on their meaning through repeated, learned, collective use."


S- "Peirce emphasized that even when we try to define a sign, we are always forced to use another sign to translate it; he labeled the sign that we use to describe another sign the interpretant... Peirce saw the process of communication as an unending chain of sign production, which he dubbed ‘unlimited semiosis’".

S/Exp: using words to talk about television; images to refer to real people

S- Sign is always a mediation of the referent. Usually mediated by culture. Confusing because certain signs appear so natural.



S- Eco introduces the distinctions of symbolic, iconic, and indexical signs. Iconic "resembles its signified" (drawing of a dog; map)--- but still mediated; "Indexical signs involve an existential link between the signifier and the referent: the sign relies on their joint presence in time" (smokes means fire; footprints means person); symbolic--- arbitrary linking through social/cultural convention.


A first conclusion about semiotics….

"The important insight that can be gained from the study of semiotics and structuralism is that all communication is partial, motivated, conventional, and ‘biased’, even those forms such as print journalism that are founded on a reputation for truth-seeking and attempt to convey the impression of reliability. The study of semiotics insists that we should discern the distinctive ways of producing and combining signs practiced by particular kinds of television, in particular places, and at a particular point int time, because these codes are inseparable from the ‘reality’ of the media communication."

--- Seiter

Bybee: Other topics: "realism" as a genre; irony; metaphor/metonymy; poetics


Denotation and Connotation







S- "Denotation is the first order of signification: the signifier is the image itself and the signified the idea or concept--- what it is a picture of. Connotation is a second-oreder signfying system that uses the first sign, (signifier and signified), as its signifier and attaches an additional meaning, another signified, to it."

S/Exp: fade to black (signifier gradual fade to darkness/ signifed black/ second order meaning---- ending.) also, hair style/color/ colors/ type size



S- "Barthes argues that connotation is the primary way in which the mass media communicate ideological meaning. A dramatic example of the operation of ‘myth’, as Barthes called such connotations, and of television’s rapid elaboration of new meanings is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger." ... Television played a powerful role in stabilizing the meaning of the space shuttle.... ‘tragic loss of noble and patriotic cause’." NOT FALSE HOPES IN TECHNOLOGY.


"At the denotative level this is a photograph of the movie star Marilyn Monroe. At a connotative level we associate this photograph with Marilyn Monroe's star qualities of glamour, sexuality, beauty - if this is an early photograph - but also with her depression, drug-taking and untimely death if it is one of her last photographs. At a mythic level we understand this sign as activating the myth of Hollywood: the dream factory that produces glamour in the form of the stars it constructs, but also the dream machine that can crush them - all with a view to profit and expediency. (Hayward 1996, 310)"

Quoted from Chandler on Denotation and Conotation.


 Combinations and Codes












"According to Saussurean semiotics, signs are organized into codes in two ways: by paradigms and by syntagms.", (Chandler, 1999)


S- "When he (Metz) wrote his semiotics of the cinema, he identified five channels of communication: image, written language, voice, music, and sound effects. In borrowing these categories, I substitute the term graphics for written materials so as to include logos, borders, frames, diagrams, and computer animated images that appear so often on our television screens."

Codes are the conventional constructions of how we are to interpret the meanings of these various techniques as well as content. For instance grammar/code of close-up vs. Medium vs. Long shot. Convention at work: economics of system dictate need for pleasure and comfort on part of viewer, therefore, as Eco explains, repetition/familiarity important both for industrial efficiency and viewer comfort.




S- "Barthes wrote that in a given syntagm the individual signs are ‘united in absentia" with others of the paradigm that were not selected. The meaning of a given syntagm derives in part from the absence of other possible paradigmatic choices." SEE JOHN CORNER’S ‘COMMUTATION TEST’ IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNICATION STUDIES.

S/Exp--- Can also be applied to program/commercial sequencing.



S- "Study of text as a whole and the kinds of interrelationships/contrasts that the system builds into itself to give it meaning. Contrasts are often times highlighted by calling attention to their basic oppositional/binary structure. For instance in a newspaper the idea of front/back: front page/ back page/ important, less important. More interesting might be news/ads. But could also be very basic categories of cultural experience (although there could always be an argument about "who’s" cultural experience): up/down, culture/nature, male/female.

S- "As Terry Eagleton puts it "Structuralism proper contains a distinctive doctrine... the belief that the individual units of any system have meaning only by virtue of their relations to one another...."

S-- "T. Eagleton has remarked that one of the primary drawbacks to structuralist research is that it is "hair-raisingly unhistorical."" Need to focus on where categories and structures come from.







S- "Semiotic analysis tneds to ‘neaten up’ the texts it studies: some elements are picked out for significance and others are excluded, repressed. Post-structuralism emphasizes the slippage between signifier and signified-- between one sign and the next, between one context and the next-- while emphasizing that meaning is always situated, speciofic to a given context." See Derrida/Kristeva.

Bybee/exp: Volosinov’s "shit".

S- "Emile Benveniste used the term discourse to refer to ‘every utterance asusming a speaker and a hearer, and in the speaker, the intention of influencing the other in some way.’ In its current usage, discourse carries the stronger implication of speech governed by social, material, and historical forces which disallow certain things from being said or even thought while forcing us to say certain other things." See Foucault.



S- "Semiotics is extremely useful in its attempt to describe precisely how television produces meaning and its insistence on the conventionality of the signs."


Notes: Students in presentation groups one and two on semiotics analyzed a cover of cosmo and a range of ads and covers of pc magazines and physical fitness magazines. Cosmo was okay, but missed the power of a teenage mag. Next time need to require that they do cosmo girl or seventeen. For other group, need to focus on one cover or ad. Also need to recover the question that is being anwered semiotically. For instance in the cosmo cover: whose fantasy of feminity is this? Who interests does it serve? How can we use semiotics to answer these questions?

Making strange and what’s not there:

Current issues in terms of women and women’s rights:

Feminization of poverty/pensions for women vs. men, for instance.

Domestic violence.

Patriarchal code still not disappearing. Now women must act like men but still be sexy in a traditional way. Act like men in the workplace, but go home and clean the house and take care of the kids.

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