The Field of Semiotics
The modern world is saturated with visual communication. Media, both news and entertainment, is driven by the interplay between visual symbols and human actions – between symbols and meanings – the field of semiotics.
Semiotics was born out of the field of linguistics in the mid-20th century. Whereas linguistics is the study of human language, semiotics is the study of all forms of symbolic communication, including not only words but also visual communication, gestures, media, the arts, and even (in some cases) animal communications. The field of semiotics is raising the following questions:
- How do symbols work?
- How do symbols communicate ideas?
- How do those ideas in turn influence what we do in the world?
For the purposes of SEE IT! DO IT! FEEL IT!®, the important aspect of semiotics is the study of visual symbols. We’ll look at what a few famous semioticians have had to say about the visual modes of communication that permeate the modern world at all levels, and explore the significance of their theories for our own action in the world.
Saussure and the Interpretation of Signs
Semiotics was born when the influential linguist Ferdinand de Saussure made his now-famous argument redefining the word sign. For Saussure, a sign had two parts: a signifier and a signified and it was only in the interaction between the two that symbolic communication could be undertaken.
The semiotician had to understand not only the symbol and the concept it referred to – he or she also had to understand the conventions that established the relationship between them.
For example, an early semiotician might have studied the presence of stop signs in the streets of a given city. From a scholarly perspective, they might have noticed that different communities use different colors, shapes, or typefaces to communicate the same message. For Saussure, it was important also to
- understand the history of these signs,
- he process of designing them, and
- the various conventions that drove those processes.
To understand a sign, then, was not only to understand what the sign communicates, but also how. Of course, these questions are mostly theoretical – how we answer them may not make much difference to the average person.
Peirce and Communicative Activism
Ferdinand de Saussure was one of two men now known as the Fathers of Semiotics. The other was an American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce agreed with Saussure’s views on visual communication as a form of “pseudo-language,” but he also went beyond Saussure’s arguments.
For Peirce, the important point for semiotics was to see that the usage of symbols is equivalent to their meaning. A symbol is defined purely by the way that people employ that meaning, and meanings can change over time as human beings communicate with one another in new ways.
This seems like an obvious point to us, but it has far-reaching implications that linguists before Peirce generally did not recognize. Peirce’s philosophy (known as pragmaticism) opened up many possibilities for future action, notably the possibility of communicative activism.
Communicative activism is the practice of changing the meaning of a symbol by using it in unconventional ways. That is, rather than taking symbols and concepts as given, the communicative activist takes them as subject to deliberate change through collective effort.
By its very nature, communicative activism sparks controversy, since it causes people to disagree about something as basic as the meaning of their own symbols and languages.
But it has also been shown to be extremely effective. Take, for example, the term “queer,” which was once used as a term of abuse against gays and lesbians. Now, queer is used as a broad term encompassing all kinds of nontraditional sexualities. Its power as a term of abuse has been completely stripped away through the communicative activism of the gay community.
Something similar often happens with tools of visual communication, notably flags, religious symbols, and hair and clothing styles. One example, small but extremely informative, is the current fight within the skinhead subculture.
SKINHEADS – CHANGING PEOPLE’S PERCEPTION
Skinheads were once famous for being neo-Nazis, and shaving their heads was a way of communicating their allegiance to the racist, anti-Semitic Nazi ideology. The majority of modern-day skinheads, however, oppose racism and anti-Semitism, and belong to the wing known as SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), which sees the movement as one of class solidarity and community service.
In the effort to differentiate themselves from the older, more hateful brand of skinheads, these young people are faced with a choice: should they abandon the distinctive hairstyle and other forms of visual communication that defined their movement? Or should they stick with those symbols and try to change their meaning? Many young skinheads have decided that they should change people’s perceptions rather than changing their own modes of communication – in order to do this, they have actively embraced the old symbols in an effort to wrest control of them away from the older generation.
Although the fight is far from over, the tactics employed by SHARP are an informative example of communicative activism and the contestation of visual symbols in practice.
The visual methods of SEE IT! DO IT! FEEL IT!® enable effective workshops on changing people’s perception on specific symbols or values – communicative activism. Experience and learn: How do symbols work? How do symbols communicate ideas? How do those ideas in turn influence what we do in the world?