Imagining the Semiotic Bandwagon that may not be going somewhere… but maybe should be
Months ago, I was chatting with a friend about how much I regretted not focusing more on semiotics during my MA (she was in the same English Literature cohort). “Why,” she asked, “isn’t that a dying thing?” Apart from the life it has found in media studies, I admitted that it could very well be. University campuses are not offering semiotics courses as much as they used to because demand is not there and with the poststructuralist fervor of years gone by now turning into a post-postmodern one, semiotics might seem like an ancient artifact. “Maybe it shouldn’t be a dying thing,” I said to my friend. “I don’t think people realize semiotics’ potential to draw on so many other fields of inquiry. We keep hearing about the value of being interdisciplinary in our academic study but I think that semiotics had that tendency built into it from the start.”
My friend reminded me of how our discussion of signifier and signified and signs in our first class was an eye-rolling couple of hours in which we talked about why a chair isn’t a cat and a cat isn’t a chair and how chair is only a “thing to sit on” and not a “thing to pet or feed” because we humans, with our minds (as advanced as they are) assign certain meanings to certain things. And then we spend a couple of hours aimlessly “discussing” or abstracting the (dis)advantages of doing so. I rolled my eyes with the memory of that particular class discussion and realized I should deliberte on it more. I knew that my interest in semiotics had grown from a place in which I wanted to utilize my love of language and literature to speak to cultural and social justice issues and the way in which my students “made meaning” out of what they read- particularly those students who’d been 'othered'. I wanted to use semiotics to do critical discourse analysis in order to make a difference in their lives and in their educational experiences; the last thing I wanted was to endlessly abstract and go nowhere with a discussion about cats and chairs.
More recently, I was asked by RAD book club members to write this piece about what semiotics is and why I think it has the potential to inform our research. I am, by no means, any sort of expert, having come into it quite lately -but I also come to it having had the fortunate opportunity of taking a class with renowned University of Toronto semiotician, Professor Marcel Danesi. He literally wrote the book (s) on semiotics! In class we talked Bakhtin on speech genres, Kristeva on intertextuality, Lakoff on metaphor -and once had a great discussion about semiotics as being the field to bring together so many interdisciplinary thoughts and ideas to speak to the very broad compendium that is language and society. Below are some of my notes from that discussion (edited and structured for clarity and readability).
At its most elemental level, semiotic academic practice is the study of signs and signification. Developed by renowned Course in General Linguistics (1915) speaker Ferdinand de Saussure (his students published their notes after his death), it seeks to understand how meaning is made: how the signifier (anything that can be “read”) refers to a concept or an idea referred to as that which is signified - and how both of these make up the sign. The sign becomes the repository of meaning possibilities. Arbitrary or symbolic signs are ones in which the connection between signifier and signified is conventional or culturally specific (most of the words we use and understand in specific ways fall under this category). Iconic signs are those where the signifier looks like the signified (for example, a picture). Indexical Signs are those where the signifier is caused by the signified (for example, smoke signifies fire).
Consider, for example, the bandwagon - a signifier. Your see the image above - that is the signified. The sign then equals both of these ideas but then we might consider also the denotation and connotation of the word “bandwagon.” The dictionary entry might state that it is a wagon that often is used in parades to hold the musical band members. Our understanding of the term now of people who jump on a bandwagon is different - the top urbanictionary.com defines bandwagon as such:
When someone adopts a popular point of view for the primary purpose of recognition and/or acceptance by others.
Man, Nanlawon has been posting on our forums forever and everyone hates him. Then this new chick, Toolesbabe, joins the forum and just hops on the bandwagon ripping on him, even though she'd never even read a single post by him. WTF?!
Furthermore, in my house there are a number of sports fans so my understanding of the term is even more nuanced as when my daughter says to her brother: Oh, you’re jumping on the Jays bandwagon because of them acquiring David Price; you’re just like all the other so-called “fans”! My daughter then believes herself to be the “true” Blue Jays baseball fan and the metaphor of a bandwagon which works to hold those untrue fans is imagined. The semantic shifts and movement of “bandwagon” as with other more complex ideas and cultural notions then is something that is worth studying if we want to understand how people make meaning when they utilize or hear signs.
Much modern-day linguistic methodology finds its source in the work of de Saussure who saw language as a stable system of signs. Forms of literary criticism also draw heavily on semiotic principles or utilize them as a starting point for other ideas and theories. Roland Barthes and Mikhail Bakhtin come to mind. The thoughts and ideas of anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss and psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan cannot be studied without a consideration of how they were indebted to the field of semiotics. Philosophers like Charles Sanders Peirce and social development researcher (and so much more as we read last month) Lev Vygotsky drew on and adapted semiotic ideas. It is the interdisciplinary nature of semiotics, I think, that allows for the academic complexity required in order to find solutions to a myriad of social problems.
If the study of language and society involves the examination of how people communicate their ideas and how others receive them, then it should be understood that that process is also contextually, historically, and culturally situated. And if language has the power to create the very meanings and situations that it evokes, then we must have at our disposal a tool or method that can help deconstruct how language does so. This tool must allow for context, economics, historical, sociological-- and probably a number of other factors as well. I think that semiotics is the tool that it can allow for these factors. Of course, if we’re looking at it as an “objective” science which only considers the actual sign without considering the complexities of those who’ve and that which has determined it then we miss out on its complexities - its power, as it were. The semiotics I envision has to involve deep practice and when it seeks to solve real-life social problems or cultural conflicts it has to “get messy” and understand that there is an ethical imperative involved when determining signs and how they impact people’s lived experiences.
Certainly, this type of semiotics needs to go beyond the structuralist sort (of which my friend thought dying) in which the focus is on the rigid structures of language- or “langue,” as de Saussure termed them. The semiotics I envision is more aligned with those of social semiotics where the focus is on the non-rigid or variability in language - or “parole” as de Saussure termed them.
Hodge and Kress (1988) state that the focus on parole in social semiotics demonstrates how individual creativity, changing historical circumstances, and new social identities and projects impact how people design and interpret meanings. Social semiotics also studies how people study texts and how semiotic systems are shaped by social interests and ideologies, and how they are adapted as society changes. I’m currently reading Thibault’s (1991) work: Social semiotics as praxis: Text, social meaning making, and Nabokov's Ada. He begins chapter 1 by stating the following:
The conceptual framework of this book is a "social semiotic" one. The choice of the term social semiotic rather than semiotic is determined by my conviction that it is time the theory and practice of semiotics began to think beyond its idealistic foundations as the “science of signs” and hence beyond its self-identification with many of the foundational ideological assumptions of Western culture. These include the disjunctive oppositions meaning/reality, truth/falsity, signifier/signified, word/referent, material/ideal, interior/exterior, meaning/thought, mind/body, immediacy/ mediation, and nature/culture. “Thinking beyond” should not be taken to mean that I am defining my own position negatively or as one of simple opposition to these and other foundational axioms and principles of our culture. It is, I believe, a question of talking a position in relation to these and the social meaning making practices in and through which they are constructed. This entails a social semiotics that is a social and political intervention in these practices as practices (pg 3).
So social semiotics isn’t concerned with why a chair isn’t a cat unless it involves some sort of ethical critique or imperative. In the spirit then of signs and signifiers, I propose a semiotics “bandwagon” in which we recognize (and utilize) this multimodal field of study in our research and praxis.
Danesi, M. & Perron, P. (1999). Analyzing Cultures: An Introduction and Handbook.
Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Hodge, R. and G. Kress. (1988). Social Semiotics. Cambridge: Polity
Thibault, P.J. (1991). Social semiotics as praxis: Text, social meaning making, and Nabokov's
Ada. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.