Saturday, 28 July 2012

A brief history of semiotics

Werner Hammerstingl ©2000 

Semiotics, translated as the science of signification, is often said to derive from two sources: 

  •  the American pragmatist ( theory of meaning which identifies the content of a proposition with the experienciable difference between it being true or false) philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914),
  • and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). (Saussure's  "Course in general linguistics" was post-humously published in Paris, 1916 by his ex students) and first appeared in English in N.Y.1959 (translated by W. Baskin from the French).
Saussure concept of language was as a system of mutually defining entities.
He distinguished between diachronic and synchronic linguistics. Diachronic linguistics is the study of language change (also "historical linguistics" i.e. Shorter Oxford is based on on historic principles). Synchronic linguistis studies the language used at any given point in time.

This can then be divided further into general linguistics, the attempt to establish general principles for the study of all langages and the determination of characteristics of human language as a phenomenon. and, when concentrating on the facts of a particular language system, descriptive linguistics. Saussure also made a distinction betweeen contrastive linguistics which is when the focus is on the differences between languages, especially in a language teaching context. The primary purpose of Comparative linguistics, (the last category) is to identify the common characteristics of different languages or language families.

The area of linguistics was invigorated in the USA during the 60's.

Noam Chomsky (1928-) who is Professor of Modern Languages and linguistics at MIT popularised linguistics with his book " Syntactic structures" which was published in 1957.
He outlined and justified a generative conception of language , in other words the relationship between language and the human mind, especially the philosophical and psychological implications.

Marshall McLuhan
presents the notion of the "medium is the message" in his book "Understanding Media"(1964)

Roland Barthes (1915-), A  Professor at the College de France in Paris published "Elements in Semiology" in 1964 . In 1977, Stephen Heath, a lecturer at Cambridge translated and combined a series of Roland Barthes essays into a book called "Image, Music, Text" which is now a core text  for students in the discipline of semiotics.

Jean Baudrillard published "Simulations" in 1983

Umberto Eco (1932-)  He is a professor of semiotics, the study of communication through signs and symbols, at the University of Bologna, a philiosopher, a historian, literary critic, and an aesthetician.
Published 'Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language'.1984
The subjects of his scholarly investigations range from St. Thomas Aquinas, to James Joyce, to Superman. He lives in Milan. It is, in particular, the latter tradition which has gone through a rich development in our century, beginning in Russia and in Czechoslovakia during the first decades, then encountering a new vigour in France and Italy in the fifties and the sixties, and finally diffusing over the whole world, notably to Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Poland, and Spain, in Europe, and to USA and Latin America. With the single exception of Denmark, the Nordic countries have been newcomers to this game. At present, in the best work, the philosophical rigour of Peirce has been intimately united to the empirical approach found in Saussure.

Above all, semiotics is a peculiar point of view: a perspective which consists in asking ourselves how things become carriers of meaning. Thus, the task of semiotics involves the determination of criteria which may help separate different sign types and other kinds of signification. Well-known instances of such typologies are Peirces trichotonomy icon/index/symbol and the opposition between the analogue and the digital. Both these distinctions turns out to be insufficient, if not inadequate, when they are confronted with actually existing system of signification.

One reasons for this is that one and the same sign instance may play several different parts at the same time: a picture may represent something, express something, refer to its own material character, allude to something, be a metaphor or constitue some other type of indirect sign for something. Since semiotics is interested in finding general rules and regularities, it tries
to describe these phenomena as generic functions in some kind of system. 
But it must be admitted that these generic functions are modified by the contexts in which they appear. 

Therefore, semiotics is not only called upon to describe similarities and dissimilarities between different ways of conveying signification, but equally the different ways in which several 
system of signification collaborate at the transmission of meaning (spoken and written language, gestures and facial expression during a chat or as part of a theatre representation or a film; that which may be conveyed by new media such as the computer, etc.). In contrast to the abstract approach characterising earlier semiotics, semiotics of culture looks at similarities
and convergences between different systems of signification in historically
existing cultures.
Semiotics of culture, initiated by the Tartu school in the early seventies, mostly with a view of interpreting Russian history, and which was then developed by mostly German and North American semioticians. Our aim, however, is to apply this point of view to the differences between pre-modern and modern forms of communication in the widest sense of the term, and to their modification in recent times. We are particularly interested in the spatial expression of these forms of communication, for instance the shape of the city. Another focus of our interest is the influence of new media, such as television and computers, and the increasing importance of some old sign types, such as pictures. Another line of reasoning which we are pursuing has to do with the position of the art sphere within culture, as a specific, but ever-changing, part of the wider domain of picture production. We have also taken an ever more acute interest in the difficulties of contact between Swedish culture and other cultures, those outside its domain of spatial extension, naturally, but also those which nowadayes occupy the same space, that is the immigrant

   * See "The multimediation of the lifeworld"
   * "In search of Swedish Nature. Beyond the Threshold of the People's
   * "The Culture of Modernism"
   * A schematic overview of the problems addressed by cultural semiotics

This interest has developed from an earlier preoccupation with the more
formal differences between the potentialities of verbal language and
pictures for conveying information. This research interest in now pursued,
partly in the sense of a revision of visual rhetoric, and also as a study of
the different potentialities of pictorial and verbal vehicles for conveying
specific types of information such as, most notably, narrativity. 


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