Semiotic Approach To Cultural Analysis Essay
The Semiotic Method
Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon
from Signs of Life in the USA. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994. 4-9.
To interpret and write effectively about the signs of popular culture, you need a method, and it is part of the purpose of this book to introduce such a method to you. Without a methodology for interpreting signs, writing about them could become little more than producing descriptive reviews or opinion pieces. There is nothing wrong with writing descriptions and opinions, but one of your tasks in your writing class is to learn how to write academic essays, that is, analytical essays that are well supported by evidence. The method we are drawing upon in this book--a method that is known as "semiotics"--is especially designed for the analysis of popular culture. Whether or not you're familiar with this word, you are already practicing sophisticated semiotic analyses every day of your life. Reading this page is an act of semiotic decoding (words and even letters are signs that must be interpreted), but so is figuring out just what your classmate means by wearing a particular shirt or dress. For a semiotician (one who practices semiotic analysis), a shirt, a haircut, a television image, anything at all, can be taken as a sign, as a message to be decoded and analyzed to discover its meaning. Every cultural activity for the semiotician leaves a trace of meaning, a kind of blip on the semiotic Richter scale, that remains for us to read, just as a geologist "reads" the earth for signs of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other geological phenomena.
Many who hear the word "semiotics" for the first time assume that it is the name of a new, and forbidding, subject. But in truth, the study of signs is neither very new nor forbidding. Its modern form took shape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the writings and lectures of two men. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was an Amencan philosopher and physicist who first coined the word "semiotics," while Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was a Swiss linguist whose lectures became the foundation for what he called "semiology." Without knowing of each other's work, Peirce and Saussure established the fundamental principles that modern semioticians or semiologists--the terms are essentially interchangeable--have developed into the contemporary study of semiotics.
The application of semiotics to the interpretation of popular culture was pioneered in the 1950s by the French semiologist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) in a book entitled Mythologies. The basic principles of semiotics had already been explored by linguists and anthropologists, but Barthes took the matter to the heart of his own contemporary France, analyzing the cultural significance of everything from professional wrestling to striptease, from toys to plastics.
It was Barthes, too, who established the political dimensions of semiotic analysis. In our society (especially in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal), "politics" has become something of a dirty word, and to "politicize" something seems somehow to contaminate it. But Barthes's point--and the point of semiotics in general--is that all social behavior is political in the sense that it reflects some kind of personal or group interest. Such interests are encoded in what are called "ideologies," which are essentially world views that express the values and opinions of those who hold them. Politics, then, is just another name for the clash of ideologies that takes place in any complex society where the interests of all those who belong to it are constantly in competition with each other.
But often the ideological interests that guide our social behavior remain concealed behind images that don't look political at all. Consider, for example, the depiction of the "typical" American family in the classic TV sitcoms of the fifties and sixties, particularly all those images of happy, docile housewives. To most contemporary viewers, those images looked "normal" or natural at the time that they were first broadcast--the way families and women were supposed to be. The shows didn't seem at all ideological. To the contrary, they seemed a retreat from political rancor to domestic harmony. But to a feminist semiotician, the old sitcoms were in fact highly political, because the happy housewives they presented were really images designed to convince women that their place is in the home, not in the workplace competing with men. Such images--or signs--did not reflect reality; they reflected, rather, the interests of a patriarchal, male-centered society. If you think not, then ask yourself why there were shows called Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, and My Three Sons, but no My Three Daughters? And why did few of the women in the shows have jobs or ever seem to leave the house! Of course, there was always I Love Lucy, but wasn't Lucy the screwball character that her husband Ricky had to rescue from one crisis after another?
These are the kinds of questions that semiotics invites us to ask. They may be put more generally. When analyzing any popular cultural phenomenon, always ask yourself questions like these: Why does this thing look the way it does? Why are they saying this? Why am I doing this? What are they really saying? What am I really doing? In short, take nothing for granted when analyzing any image or activity.
Take, for instance, the reason you may have joined a health club (or decided not to). Did you happen to respond to a photo ad that showed you a gorgeous girl or guy (with a nice-looking guy or girl in the background)? On the surface of the ad, you simply see an image showing--or denoting--a patron of the club. You may think: "I want to look like that." But there's probably another dimension to the ad's appeal. The ad may show you someone with a nice body, but what it is suggesting--or connoting--is that this club is a good place to pick up a hot date. That's why there's that other figure in the background. That's supposed to be you. The one in the foreground is the sort of person you are being promised you'll find at the club. The ad doesn't say this, of course, but that's what it wants you to think because that's a more effective way to get you to join. Suggestion, or connotation, is a much more powerful stimulant than denotation, but it is often deliberately masked in the signs you are presented with every day. Semiotics, one might say, reveals the denotative smokescreens around you.
Health club membership drives, you may be thinking, aren't especially political (though actually they are when you think of the kinds of bodies that they are telling you are desirable to have), but the powerful effect of a concealed suggestion is used all the time in actual political campaigns. The now infamous "Willie Horton" episode during the 1988 presidential campaign provides a classic instance. What happened was this: Some Republican supporters of George Bush's candidacy ran a series of TV ads featuring the photographic image of one Willie Horton, a convicted rapist from Massachusetts who murdered someone while on parole. On the surface, the ads simply showed, or denoted, this fact. But what they connoted was racial hatred and fear (Willie Horton is black), and they were very effective in prompting white voters to mistrust Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis and to vote instead for George Bush.
Signs, in short, often conceal some interest or other, whether political, or commercial, or whatever. And the proliferation of signs and images in an era of electronic technology has simply made it all the more important that we learn to decode the interests behind them.
Semiotics, accordingly, is not just about signs and symbols: It is equally about ideology and power. This makes semiotics sound rather serious, and often the seriousness of a semiotic analysis is quite real. But reading the text of modern life can also be fun, for it is a text that is at once popular and accessible, a "book" that is intimately in touch with the pulse of American life. As such, it is constantly changing. The same sign can change meaning if something else comes along to change the environment in which it originally appeared. Take the way shoelaces have changed their meaning in recent years.
Image ... Is Everything, or, the Semiotics of Shoelaces
A few years ago (fashion systems move quickly), American high school students began wearing hightop basketball sneakers (preferably Nike or Reebok) with the laces unlaced. At the time, our students explained why they did this: "Because it's more convenient," they told us, "keeping them unlaced makes it easier to put them on and take them off." A functional answer. One that appears "natural" and therefore politically neutral. But then, if mere function were behind it all, why were kids lacing their sneakers the year before and why are they lacing them again now? Or why weren't they wearing loafers? To answer such questions, we first must look at the difference between a laced and an unlaced sneaker.
In itself, the difference between lacing and unlacing a sneaker means nothing. But consider it as part of the teen fashion system of the late 1980s. That is, compare it to the other accessories and ways of wearing those accessories that were in fashion then among American teens. Consider baseball caps. If you were to wear one, would you put it on bill forward or bill backward? Or take overalls. Would you wear them with the straps hanging or buckled? Now, how would you interpret a young man wearing a baseball cap bill forward, with buckled overalls and laced Keds hightops? How would he differ from one wearing his cap backward, dangling both straps of his overalls, and wearing unlaced Nike Air Jordans? The differences are everything here, for in the last few years, an observer of fashion example number one who knew the code would interpret him as an unfashionable hick, while example number two would have registered as dressing in the height of teen fashion.
But why was it fashionable to wear one's baseball cap backward, shoelaces untied, and overall straps unbuckled? To answer these questions, we must take our fashion statement and associate it with related popular trends from the period, including music, television, and the movies. In short, we have to look at the whole spectrum of pop culture to see what was going on and whether any of it relates to our fashion sign.
So, what music was hot when unlaced Nikes came into fashion? Heavy metal? Yes, but metal fans wore motorcycle boots with chains on them. Black leather. Stuff like that. Meanwhile, the post-punk scene was getting into Doc Martens. So what else was important at the time? Rap, of course. "Straight outta Compton." And what did rap fans wear at the time? Baseball caps worn bill backward, unlaced hightops (preferably Nikes and Reeboks), and happing overalls (or, perhaps, baggy trousers). Now, who else dressed this way? Who, in fact, started it in the first place?
If you answered that question "black street gangs and rap stars," you are on to the system through which we may interpret such things as shoelaces and baseball caps. In semiotic terms, a system is a kind of field of related things, and their meaning comes from how they relate to each other. Unlaced shoelaces may mean nothing when taken by themselves, for example, but when viewed withinthe system of teen fashion in the late eighties, a system that included the growing popularity of the imagery of the urban street gang, they may mean a lot, projecting an image that anyone who knew the system could quickly pick up. To those in the know, the system even had a name: hip-hop.
At this point in our analysis (which we have slowed down, so to speak, to show how it happens), we can ask some simple questions whose answers may be quite complex. Why, for example, was it so important to wear Nikes or Reeboks? Why did some kids literally kill for a certain brand of shoe? What images did these brand lines project that Keds did not? And why, finally, did a fashion sign once associated with street gangs, and thus with a racial and economic underclass, become such a popular fashion sign among middle- and upper-class kids? To answer such questions, you must first make a distinction between what a fashion sign might mean to you personally and what it signifies to society at large. You may have some very private reasons for dressing as you do, for example, and many of the signs in your life may have deeply personal meanings (your favorite blue jeans, for instance, may remind you of your first date). But in a cultural interpretation, you want to focus on the social meaning of things, what they mean to others. To discover the social dimensions of the signs in your life, you will want to explore as much of the American cultural spectrum as you can. In the case of unlaced sneakers, you may want to look at what was popular at the time in teen television programming. Do you remember, for example, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a sitcom featuring a kid from Compton (a code word for the black ghetto) who moves to Bel Air (code for extreme white affluence)? Or In Living Color, a teen-audience variety show that featured, among other regulars, Homey the Clown, a white-middle-class-bashing street parody of Bozo the Clown (that icon of the lily-white suburban sixties) whose appeal crossed over (like the Fresh Prince) from Compton to Bel Air? Such popular shows belonged to the same system of teen fashion that shoes and caps belonged to and can help you to decode what was going on among America's teens at the time they appeared.
Rather than pursuing this interpretation, we will stop to let you draw your own conclusions. Try to recall what you yourself thought. Did you reverse your cap because everyone else was doing it, or because you wanted to identify with your favorite rapper? Did you feel that your way of dressing conveyed a political message, or were you just being fashionable? If fashion was all there was to it, ask yourself why the styles of an urban underclass became fashionable to suburban kids?
In practice, the interpretational process we are inviting you to begin may occur in the blink of an eye, as you quickly size up the meaning of the innumerable signs that present themselves to you in an average day. Some signs may even look rather "obvious" to you, but that's because you've already made the interpretation. Ordinarily, however, our interpretations stop at the threshold of the more probing questions--just as we have paused here--at the questions that ask not only whether something is fashionable but what it means that the thing is fashionable in the first place. That's what cultural semiotics is all about: going beyond what a sign is to explain what it means.
Binary structures and semiotic square of oppositions
Many systems of meaning are based on binary structures (masculine/ feminine; black/white; natural/artificial), two contrary conceptual categories that also entail or presuppose each other. Semiotic interpretation involves exposing the culturally arbitrary nature of this binary opposition and describing the deeper consequences of this structure throughout a culture.
On the semiotic square and logical square of oppositions.
A code is a learned rule for linking signs to their meanings. The term is used in various ways in media studies and semiotics. In communication studies, a message is often described as being "encoded" from the sender and then "decoded" by the receiver. The encoding process works on multiple levels. For semiotics, a code is the framework, a learned a shared conceptual connection at work in all uses of signs (language, visual). An easy example is seeing the kinds and levels of language use in anyone's language group. "English" is a convenient fiction for all the kinds of actual versions of the language. We have formal, edited, written English (which no one speaks), colloquial, everyday, regional English (regions in the US, UK, and around the world); social contexts for styles and specialized vocabularies (work, office, sports, home); ethnic group usage hybrids, and various kinds of slang (in-group, class-based, group-based, etc.). Moving among all these is called "code-switching." We know what they mean if we belong to the learned, rule-governed, shared-code group using one of these kinds and styles of language. Someone from rural Australia might at first be lost with kind of English spoken in south LA, a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, or rural Alabama.
But codes also function at the symbolic and ideological level. These interpretive frames or linking grids were termed "myths" by Roland Barthes in his seminal collection of essays called Mythologies. The nearly automatic and unconscious use of codes pervades all aspects of culture from basic verbal communication to mass media. We have codes for all kinds of popular culture genres, all the symbolic moves in advertising, political terms, race, and identity.
The term "culture" is, of course, a contested term with multiple meanings in various contexts and discourses. In the context of semiotics, culture can be viewed as the sum of rule-governed, shared, learned and learnable, transmittable, symbolic activity used by a group in any given place and time.
"Culture is the generator of structuredness... [and] the nonhereditary memory of the community" (Lotman). Meanings, values, significance circulate in second-order languages (symbols, values, images, stories, myths) that use both ordinary language (one's native language) and other sign-systems like visual images, mass media, and information technology. All these ways of transmitting shared and stored meanings involve a mediated content. To be in a culture means to be in preexisting but constantly changing sign-systems.
In the "Cultural Studies" model, "culture" is a field of conflicting and competing forces resulting from structured asymmetries in power, capital, and value.
Cultural Studies as an academic field has been accused of dematerializing or leveling media content in order to objectify ideological and political messages for analysis. The approach is often further characterized as an "effects" model of analysis that focuses on capitalist and corporate mechanisms of control and usually omits the agency and activity of individuals, groups, and subcultures who are the receivers and users of media.
Stuart Hall's "cultural marxism" approach builds out a more complex model based on extending the theory of hegemony, the social-economic processes for "manufacturing consent" among the lower classes (the "have-nots" or "have-lesses") to buy-in to the view promoted by ownership classes ("the haves").
In this view of cultural studies, mass media and communications typically encode (implicitly presuppose as a context for meaning) a dominant ideology which finds mass acceptance. Media is thus ideologically encoded to maximize the willing consent of the consumer and "have-nots" to "keep with the program" and perpetuate the status quo of power and wealth distribution.
Hegemony of ideologies that protect the governing and ownership class is not a matter of force, coercion, or obvious deliberate manipulation. It functions so well because it relies on the willing consent of those with less power and wealth to accept a dominant ideology, to see the world and act according the view of those above.
Examples of mainstream ideologies that circulate in the media and protect hegemonic power:
- Free speech (as a belief, when few have power in what they voice)
- Individuality (great for marketing, since consumerism requires the simultaneous presentation of unique personal choices and identities and the need to look and buy like everyone else in an identity group)
- Freedom of choice (part of our individuality beliefs, also the main assumption in consumer culture and marketing: the ideology of the shopping mall)
In this view of hegemony and culture, social behavior is overdetermined by multiple identity factors like race, social class, sex and gender, and nationality, which are encoded in hierarchies of power, significance, and economic value.
But Hall and others like Dick Hebidge show that people have many strategies for dealing with media contents: operate in the dominant code, use a negotiable code (accepts but modifies the meaning based on the viewer's and viewer communities position), or substitute an oppositional code (using critical awareness, demystification, irony, subversion, play, parody, like DJ sampling). In this way, many subcultures are formed around group uses of media, images, and music that create identities and differentiations from mainstream or dominant culture.
Cultural Dictionary and Cultural Encyclopedia
Ideas developed by Umberto Eco. These terms describe how members of a culture participate in exchanges of meaning by greater or lesser access to and competence with a preexisting, constantly accruing, constantly reconfiguring body of words, terms, concepts, discourses, and actual artifacts maintained in a culture's memory. Our learned codes for associating signs and symbols with their meanings are a function of this macro-cultural Encyclopedia. The various vocabularies, discourses, dialects, and the whole lexicon of a language (like English) form a cultural dictionary, which preexists any individual user, who has varying levels of access to, and familiarity with, the whole Dictionary. Language, discourse, narratives, and visual images are the memory machines of culture. Infocom and media technologies are externalized memory machines for transmitting culture (Debray), and thus function as a physical or material disseminator of the larger cultural encyclopedia. Selectivity and privileging of certain contents is a function of ideology and processes of hegemony (ways in which everyone buys into a dominant view, those in power co-opting those with lesser power). Ideology privileges certain contents of the shared Encyclopedia, and selectivity or hierarchizing of cultural knowledge discloses the social function of the Encyclopedia as culturally constructed, not given or natural.
The important point about these ideas is their emphasis on process and historical continuity at the social and cultural level, independent of any individual member of a group, who is born into a culture that is always already happening.
The distinction between describing language and cultural systems as a complete system at one historical moment (synchronic), or the successive stages through time (diachronic). Cultural analysis of the contemporary moment often assumes a present-day slice of a system functioning with its own internal self-completeness (synchronic analysis), even though its arrives with a history and memory of earlier formations and changes over time (diachronic analysis).
Statements in communication always imply a receiver of the statement, and statements we make are often responses to prior statements made by someone else. In short, what we say and mean is part of an ongoing dialogue.
Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian theorist and literary scholar, saw that literary texts were always dialogic in relation to readers and audiences, and that literary discourse proceeds only by referencing, quoting, assuming an other's speech or words. The reader/audience is therefore always already inscribed in the medium/message/text/visual sign. Discourses, texts, cultural message presuppose and embody a network of implicit references, gestures, an unmarked quotations from other works.
Bakhtin is also credited with first defining intertextual or structural dialogism (see Intertextuality). He saw literary discourse and individual literary texts as an intersection of multiple textual surfaces rather than as a fixed point or meaning; that is, as a dialogue among various texts, genres, and voices: the writer's, the character's, the historical cultural context, the readers'/audiences.
As Julia Kristeva explained Bakhtin's breakthrough theory, each statement in a discourse, each expression in a text, is an intersection of words or texts where at least one other word or text can be read. Discourse thus can be described as having a horizontal axis, composed of the writer, characters (in a novel), and genre being written, and the vertical axis, composed of the text and its context in a larger universe of discourses, texts, meanings, values. Any text, therefore, is always at least double, presupposing, incorporating, and transforming an other voice, text, discourse.
A contested and slippery term in the variety of its ordinary and specialized uses. For our context, "ideology" does not refer to individually held "personal" beliefs, but to a set of mediated views of the world that circulate in a culture and provide self-replicating views of power and inclusion and exclusion. Operative senses of the term:
Ideology as the world framed in discourse (Foucault) mediating the structures of power and authority to individuals. Individual subjects are said to take up social positions--identity positions, subjectivity--already formed in discourse (for example, in laws, social class language, religious language, social institutions). Ideology as the socially constructed sense of identity and values, functioning to obscure the real sources of power, and to reproduce/perpetuate existing power structures (by gender, race, class, nationality, etc.) (an extension of the earlier Marxist notion of ideology as "false consciousness"). Ideology as the consciously held belief system of individual members of a social group, which may or may not reflect the underlying structures of power and authority.
Ideology and Discourse
Discourse constitutive of its objects; objects of knowledge do not preexist the discourse/discursive practices/disciplines which constitute them make them visible, "objectify" them as such. This is not to say that real-world material facts don't exist, but that they don't have any meaning to us, aren't knowable, aren't communicable, outside of a discursive-conceptual field. "History is only known to us in narrative form." (Jameson)
Interpretation and Semiosis
Interpretation is the main outcome of the semiotic process, or semiosis. Interpretation is the discursive result or output of positing meaning in any sign system. An extension of the theory of semiosis (Peirce, Eco)--the temporal sequences of sign relations in generating meaning--is the notion of the homology of form in sign systems: interpretations often take the same form as the set of signs being interpreted. For example, the interpretation of a text usually takes the form of another text; the interpretation of an art object can be found in subsequent art works or supplementary texts. The important point is to see acts of interpretation, making meaning, as occurring within a system of symbolic relationships. An interpretation is a supplement to a prior set of signs. An interpretation is not an opinion but an act of positing meaning in a culturally significant expression or work. In the terms of semiotics, nothing is prior to interpretation except intelligibility--something is presented as meaning something, it has the signature of significance, the grounds of intelligibility, language community recognition, interpretive community recognition, a sense that something is or isn't "in our language."
The theory of intertextuality assumes that meaning and intelligibility in discourse and texts is based on a network prior and concurrent discourse and texts. Every text is a mosaic of references to other texts, genres, and discourses. Every text or set of signs presupposes a network of relationships to other signs like strings of quotations that have lost their exact references. The principle of intertextuality is a ground or precondition for meaning beyond "texts" in the strict sense of things written, and includes units of meaning in any media. Expanding the theory for cross-media symbolic activity, we could call this "intermediality" or "intersemiality" (the structures of meaning presupposed or embedded in any set of signs like nodes in a network). The notion of "intersemic" describes the interdependence and implied relation of any unit of signs (like a movie) to a network of other texts, genres, artifacts, documents, and symbolic works (images, artworks) in a culture. See also multimedia semiotics and Dialogic/Dialogism.
The most fundamental macro-question in communication, media theory, and cultural theory is the nature of mediation: we are always already in language, in symbolic systems, and we know our lived-in world by language, discourse, and signs, not by immediate access to "things in themselves" (Kant). To be always already in a world of symbolic mediations means that we're always in a world of socially constructed values, hierarchies, and ideologies. Much of contemporary media and communication theory assumes the primacy of mediation in any theoretical model: medium, milieu, structures/systems of mediation. Debray adds the dimension of cultural transmission over time (the diachronic, "through time" dimension) to simple mediation or communication (the synchronic or concurrent dimension) as a theoretical foundation for mediology. The "Prison House of Language" dilemma (Jameson): all forms of knowledge presuppose that we are always already in language, and we cannot step outside language and signs to comprehend an unmediated or non-representable world.
The irreducible structure of any sign system consists in the separation of the signifier and the signified, something present and something absent, something appearing as a trace or mark (signifier) and something deferred (signified content or meaning). Derrida's early model of "differance" (differentiation in binary semantic structures and deferring/deferral of meaning in signifier/signified structure) has been influential.
An immediate/unmediated presence of meanings and things is unavailable to language users and thus to culture as a whole. Illusions of direct or immediate (unmediated) meanings/values/real things are behind ideologies, religions, systems of belief. Semiotics and post-Foucauldian discourse analysis does not deny the existence of real things or a world outside language and signs, nor of our need to describe a real world outside of language and mediation, but exposes our inability to give meaning to anything without the structuring preconditions of our systems of discourse and cultural sign systems.
- All communication entails, requires, presupposes mediation, not things as they are.
- Fours sense of "medium": media type, channel, mediation, environment.
- The content and form of media present a socially constructed system of meaning, not "reality" outside representation.
- "History is only accessible to us in narrative form." --Fredric Jameson
- "Film gives us not the world as it is but the world as we desire it to be." --Fritz Lang, Director, in Godard's Contempt
Reference and Representation
Closely related to the question of mediation and the structure of signs is the problem of representation and referentiality in language. Philosophers of language in the 20th century have worked through the problem of how language can be said to refer to real things or to concepts outside specific statements. Logic and the truth-functions of scientific language were thought to depend on the ability to use language (in some formalized way) to refer to real things or states of affairs in the world. Statements of fact are known as "propositions" in logic (a statement which is either true or false). Statements are thus said to have "reference" or the property of "referentiality" in pointing to real things. But today, most philosophers have concluded that logic is mainly internally self-referential and that using language to refer to things outside language in "the real world" is only one of thousands of things we do with language. Wittgenstein at first held a "picture theory" of logical and scientific propositions that represent, in the way that language can, a world of facts, or, in his terms, "whatever is the case," in the world. He then exposed the problems in this view. Language and statements follow their own rules (language games), and allow us to do and say certain things, but the relationship between our statements and the world outside them is not rule-governed. We can't step outside of language and look at the world in some kind of unmediated, extra-linguistic or pre-verbal state. Referring to real things, or using language to construct a category we call "real" about which statements can be made, is thus only one type of semiotic activity in the sign system of language. [See Stanford Encyclopedia entry on "reference."]
The theory and description of sign systems. Foundational assumption: "All symbolic systems in a culture function like a second-order language or text." And like a language, any symbolic system is assumed to be complete and extensive at any given moment in history (the synchronic dimension). The description of sign systems from language to visual media and larger human constructions like cities allows an analysis of interpretation, the structure of social values, and the ideological uses of all kinds of information we are surrounded by in daily life. The important point is to see all this meaning-making and symbolic activity as rule-governed, learned, and constructed as opposed to natural or given in reality. Individual people in a culture may have greater or lesser knowledge or access to "the cultural encyclopedia" (Eco) of symbolic relationships and contents. The daily use of available signs and symbols in cultural encoding and decoding is an issue of a person's "competence," not a question about the sign system itself. If we think about cultural signs of all kinds as a second-order language, we can investigate a kind of semiotic deep structure, a grammar of meaning, a repertoire of codes, acquired by members of a culture in ways similar to, but distinct from, internalizing the grammar of one's own native language. (See Chomsky on deep structure and grammar; Peirce, de Saussure, Barthes, Lotman, and Eco on semiology or semiotics as a system.)
Multimedia Semiotics/Multimodal Semiotics/Social Semiotics
In the everyday use of languages and signs, we combine several kinds of physical media in communicating and making meaning--from voice and printed texts to mass media images, music, movies, computer Web content, and digital multimedia. The various material means of conveying meaning (sometimes called communication "modalities") often overlap and pass on or interpret meaning from other concurrent media in our culture. We can talk or write about a movie, watch TV news that interprets an event, watch a TV mass media genre like a sit-com that requires knowledge of the codes for this genre, and listen to music, write email, and read over multimedia Web pages all at the same time. We are constantly sending, receiving, and making meaning in various kinds of media, often conveying and interpreting meaning from one medium to another. This practice points to the existence of our larger contemporary and inherited semiotic system, or what some have termed a semiosphere, the whole universe of available and possible meanings in a cultural system. Social Semiotics takes the meaning-making process, "semiosis", to be more fundamental than the system of meaning-relations among signs themselves, which are considered only the resources to be deployed in making meaning. Social semiotics examines semiotic practices, specific to a culture and community, for the making of various kinds of texts and meanings in various situational contexts and contexts of culturally meaningful activity.
Martin Irvine, 2004-2005