An appealing aspect of cultural analysis is its interpretive flexibility; many mundane types of media that seem natural to us are worth scrutinizing. Signs, for instance, can be found in many different cultural texts. Signs, loosely interpreted, can be anything “referring to or standing for something other than itself (Chandler). In this post, I will argue that semiotics, the study of meaning-making through signs, presents a powerful mode of analysis in critiquing modern media. To show this, I will apply semiotics to two instances of alternative mapping.
Before I do this, I will explain briefly some theories of signs. Signs typically have two components; the Saussurian dyadic model of signs breaks every sign into a signifier (the form of the sign) and the signified (its represented content). Different genres and types of media, situating signs in specific configurations that prepare their readings, are of particular import to semiotics. There are two types of analysis regarding signs: syntagmatic and paradigmatic analysis. A syntagm is a sequence of signifiers that gives a text coherence through spatial relations, whereas a paradigm is a set of signifiers and signifieds associated in a broad category (Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners).
One of the most prominent figures in semiotics is Roland Barthes. In The Photographic Message, Barthes (1977) specifies that every reproduction has a denoted message focused on the object being represented and a connoted message constituted by the viewer’s culturally informed projections onto the image (17). To Barthes (1977), the connoted message is central (30). When evident outside of advertising, Barthes (1977), in another essay entitled Rhetoric of the Image, signals that connotation has a clear ideological function.
Both essays are applicable to the study of contemporary signs. Barthes’ distinction between denotation and connotation is salient in the digital age with the alternative imaginaries artists are afforded. Semiotics is especially intriguing in regard to subjective mapping. Such maps exemplify a form of bricolage, wherein the artist “creates improvised structures by appropriating pre-existing materials” (Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners). One sees artists reimagining cartographies as early as Guy Debord with The Naked City.
The above piece is a famous artifact of Debord’s Situationist International movement and its criticisms against capitalism. It segments the city of Paris into various fragments connected by arrows. The Naked City highlights the role of signifiers of “dividing up reality and ‘cutting out’ shapes from the amorphous mass of experience” (Smith and Riley, 2009, p. 103). Naturalized readings of cities are criticized pictorially through the representation as well as in text through its title. In describing the city as naked, Debord pictures it as exposed of its inner operations.
For a more modern example, take Armelle Caron’s work.
Both artists invent new syntagms of city grids. Yet Caron completely exhausts the spatial relations out of each signifier, scaling them amongst each other instead by shape. Like Debord, she draws a new sequence for them, critiquing the accustomed mapping paradigm.
What Barthes underscores in the connoted function of the photograph is that connotation lies in the mode of representation. The intended opposition to our schemas of cartography and city layouts, predicated on cohesion, determines the chosen mode of representation. Therefore, their deconstructions are intertextual through the lack of the typical paradigmatic relation. Intertexuality states that texts are indebted to each other more than they are to their authors due to the relational nature of text (Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners). In Caron’s work, the deconstructed images juxtapose the city grids as part of what Barthes calls anchoring – without that, the reader would likely be confused over what the deconstructed renderings mean.
The pairings Caron shows are much like the relation between the caption and press photograph that Barthes considers. Regarding the relation between text and image, Barthes (1977) holds that it ushers in a “parasitic” connoted message rationalizing the image (25). Here, the pairing of the city grid alongside that of the disassembled image is comparable. One would likely have no idea what the image on the right is supposed to mean without the image on the left to guide the viewer’s interpretation.
Without the descriptive vocabulary semiotics provides, it is more difficult to reach insights of this caliber. Given the proliferation of emergent media forms in the new media age, a focus on semiotics in critiquing contemporary media is critical to understanding their complex operations. In incorporating scholars like Barthes, I think cultural critics can get a better sense of the details in the object of study needed for a grounded, tactful analysis.
Barthes, R. (1977). Image, music, text. New York: Noonday Press.
Caron, A. (n.d). dessins. Retrieved from http://www.armellecaron.fr/cms/index.php?page=plans_de_berlin.
Chandler, D. (n.d.). Semiotics for beginners. Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/semiotic.html.
Debord, G. (n.d.). The Naked City. Retrieved from http://supralimen.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/feet-situationist-international-derive/.
Smith, P. and Riley, A. (2009). Cultural theory: an introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.