Semiotics and Meaning

In this week’s reading Schirato and Yell discuss Signs and Meaning and the theories that apply to this concept. The first theory they discuss is called semiology, or semiotics, which was developed by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Sassure’s theory contends that “there is no inate meaning attached to a language’s terms, only differences. All meaning is produced through ‘language systems’ based on a notion of difference, rather than identity” (19). The main part of his theory dealt with the linguistic sign. This was made up of a signifier, signified, sign. The signifier is the physical form of the sign, the signified is the image or idea that is “evoked” by that signifier and the sign is the combination of the two. Sassure argues that meanings are established due to an arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified. These meanings are not inherent, but rather created which is why different cultures have different words for the same thing in their respective languages.
Schirato and Yell go on to point out the flaws in Sassure’s theory including the signified, intentionality and the arbitrariness of meaning. The authors suggest that the signified is not really different from the signifier but rather just another signifier adding to our understanding of the concept. The second problem is that of intentionality. Sassure argues that “every sign had to be put together and sent by someone” (21). Schirato and Yell point out that there are plenty of signs that are not intended. For example, a shirt may have words that convey a meaning, but if the only reason you are wearing it is because it was the only clean thing that you had than you didn’t really intend to “send the message”. The third problem is with Sassure’s concept of arbitrariness. The author’s argue that while menaing is not natural, it is not simply arbitrary but rather motivated and political. They mention Nietzche and say that “the production of meaning is always, first and foremost, a sign of power” (22).
The other theorist examined in this article is Marxist, V.N. Volosinov. His main argument is that signs are “adaptable, carry a history of meanings, can be used in different ways in different contexts, the production of meaning is always open, always a struggle” (26). I have done some work in other courses on semiotics mostly relating to the visual, rather than linguistic, which reminds me more of Volosinov’s definition. I have studied how symbols can carry different, created, meanings depending on the time and place in which they are used. This is true of the swastika. In some cultures it is considered a religious symbol. Most of the world sees it as a symbol of Nazi Germany with very negative connotations. This is an example of how those in power were able to change the meaning of a certain symbol.

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  1. I like your example of the Swastika. I was thinking about the Christian cross and religious symbols when reading your article myself. It’s very true and amazing how universal an image can be, how it can transcend language barriers and evoke/’signify’ the same meanings to people around the world.

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