Review of Semiotics: The Basics
Date: Sat, 6 Sep 2003 14:48:15 +0800 (CST)
From: "[gb2312] aide ma"
Subject: Semiotics: The Basics
Chandler, Daniel (2002) Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge.
Reviewed by Edward McDonald, Chinese Central Television.
This is a textbook in the same Routledge series as Larry Trask¡¯s
Language: The Basics (now in its second edition), alongside other texts
on sociology, politics, philosophy, and archaeology. The writer of a
textbook on semiotics faces problems not encountered by writers on these
other disciplines in that, as the author notes in his opening remarks, it
is not "widely institutionalized as an academic discipline" (p.2), and as
he sums up in his closing chapter, it is still "a relatively loosely
defined critical practice rather than a unified, fully-fledged analytical
method or theory" (p.207). Other recent similar introductory works have
chosen different strategies to deal with this looseness and lack of
agreement about the aims and content of the field. For example, Bronwen
Martin's Dictionary of Semiotics (2000) adopts an encyclopedic approach,
not attempting to forge a consensus out of the babel of competing voices,
but rather identifying the different key concepts used in the field;
while the Critical Dictionary of Linguistics and Semiotics edited by Paul
Copley (2001) adds an introductory section of ten essays on major figures
and issues alongside the dictionary proper. Such works of course have
their place, but they are perhaps less useful for the beginning student
in that they perform an essentially passive, referential function in
regard to existing works. Chandler attempts the more ambitious aim of
actually trying to "offer a coherent account of some key concepts" in
semiotics (p.xvi), not trying to represent it as a single unified
approach, but rather as a field with similar sets of questions, and
moreover to critique how well it achieves its goals. In my opinion, he
achieves that aim so well as to make his book potentially one of the
foundational works in a new unified conception of the discipline, like
the Language of Sapir (1921) or Bloomfield (1933).
Chandler divides his discussion into an introduction on the definitions
and uses of semiotics followed by 7 chapters: 1. Models of the sign; 2.
Signs and things; 3. Analysing structures; 4. Challenging the literal; 5.
Codes; 6. Textual interactions; and 7. Limitations and strengths. He also
provides suggestions for further reading, Going further (pp 221-2), and a
useful Glossary of key terms (pp 223-246). Although each chapter can be
read by itself, the book has obviously been designed as a whole, and
similar problems and concepts are addressed from different angles in the
separate chapters. The Introduction (pp 1-15) humorously eases the reader
into the problem of defining the subject by imagining a scenario of
someone going into a bookshop and asking for a book on semiotics, being
met at first "with a blank look" (p.1), then trying to explain exactly
what the "study of signs" does *not* include, and ending up with the shop
assistant judging you as "either eccentric or insane" (p.2). He moves
quickly through the problem of definitions (though in a sense the whole
book is one long definition of semiotics), and then covers in turn the
Saussurean and Piercean traditions; some influential methodologies; the
relationship of semiotics to linguistics; the key distinction between
langue and parole; and finally why we would want to learn about a
discipline which, quoting one trenchant summing up, "tells us things we
already know in a language we will never understand" (p.14).
The first two chapters, Models of the Sign (pp 17-54) and Signs and
things (pp 55-78) provide one of the clearest and most illuminating
discussions of this difficult topic I have ever read. Chandler first
deals with the key features of the Saussurean sign as relational and
arbitrary, then the famous Piercean typology of icon, index and symbol,
in a way that explains the thinking of these theorists on their own terms
as well relating them to each other. He also covers related topics such
as the distinction between type and token, and digital and analogue. He
goes on in the second chapter to cover a topic semiotics is often accused
of ignoring, the vexed question of the relationship between "the word"
and the "thing", introducing the further key concepts of referentiality
and modality (in the sense of "perspectives on reality", see Hodge &
Chapter 3, Analysing structures (pp 79-122) is a long chapter dealing
with the many and varied ways in which texts, in the widest sense of that
term, have been analysed in different semiotic traditions. Starting from
the basic Saussurean axes of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic, Chandler
looks at different kinds of syntagmatic relations: conceptual, spatial,
and sequential. In the light of these relations, and concentrating
particularly on narrative, he briefly introduces different kinds of
analysis such as Propp¡¯s narrative functions in fairytales,
Levi-Strauss¡¯s fundamental structures of myths, and Greimas¡¯s narrative
syntagms. He then moves on to notions of paradigmatic opposition,
introducing the cultural binary oppositions of Levi-Strauss, Jakobson¡¯s
notion of weighted oppositions or markedness, and Greimas¡¯s formalism of
the semiotic square as a way of capturing oppositional relations,
finishing up with a brief look at Derridean deconstruction.
In Chapter 4, Challenging the literal (pp 123-146), Chandler shows how
semiotics "represents a challenge to 'the literal' because it rejects the
possibility that we can neutrally represent 'the way things are'" (p.
123). He explains the realisation in recent scholarship that our
representation of reality is inescapably mediated by rhetorical tropes
and metaphors, and discusses the different kinds of metaphor broadly
understood, including metonymy and synecdoche, as well as the difficulty
of drawing a clear line between denotation and connotation. Chapter 5,
Codes (pp 147-174), looks at the social dimension of semiotics, taking
codes as providing a "set of practices familiar to users of the medium
operating within a broad cultural framework" (pp 147-8). The notion of
code can be seen as deriving from our basic perceptual modes, since
perceptual distinctions like that between figure and ground as identified
by gestalt psychology, already represent a codification or mediation of
reality, rather than a simple representation (p.150 ff). Chandler defines
at least three kinds of codes ¨C social, textual and interpretative ¨C
and sees them as corresponding to "three key kinds of knowledge required
by interpreters of a text", knowledge of the world, of the medium and
genre, and modality judgments of the relationship between world and text
Chapter 6, Textual interactions (pp 175-206) looks at texts as semiotic
objects, which position text users as holders of different
subjectivities, playing various roles in semiotic interaction, and which
'speak to' other texts through relations of intertextuality. Chandler
discusses different models of communication, such as Jakobson's famous
model of the situation of verbal communication, and the six basic
functions of language derived from it. He covers such notions as
perspective, modes of address, reading positions, and the problematising
of the classic notion of authorship in such concepts as intertextuality
(a text always derives from other texts) and bricolage (a text is to a
large extent made up of existing fragments of other texts). The final
chapter, 7, Limitations and strengths (pp 207-220), deals briefly but
cogently with the uses of semiotic analysis, critiquing many analyses
which are merely impressionistic and subjective interpretations, and
stressing that interpretations of sign systems must be related to actual
interpretative practices in a community. Although openly critical of the
limitations of the discipline as it stands, Chandler is equally firm
about its centrality to all our lives, as he points out in his final
summing up (p.219): "There is no escape from signs. Those who cannot
understand them and the systems of which they are a part are in the
greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can. In short,
semiotics cannot be left to semioticians."
Chandler's book is innovative both in its approach and in its origins,
deriving from an original text developed for the internet. The fact that
it was written for undergraduate students, and no doubt trialled many
times with different groups of students since its initial airing in 1994,
goes some way towards explaining its clarity and accessibility. However,
the book is not simply a regurgitation of some "broad consensus", since,
as I pointed out above, none exists in this field, but reflects the
personal experience of a researcher tracking his own path through the
complex thicket of semiotics, in this case in relation to theories of
writing (Chandler 1995).
As Chandler points out, "no treatment of [semiotics] can claim to be
comprehensive" and his own particular account of the field "betrays its
European origins (in a British inflection), focussing on Saussurean and
post-Saussurean semiotics", with key theorists frequently drawn on
including, besides Saussure, Pierce, Jakobson, Hjelmslev, Barthes and
Eco. In his suggestions for further reading, Chandler remarks that it is
wise to "[consult] the foundational theorists, Saussure and Pierce¡–since
they are frequently misrepresented in popular texts " (p.221) and he has
obviously followed his own advice, his readings of Saussure in particular
being both well-informed and fair. At the same time, in a field covering
such a wide scope, he has not been afraid to cull from secondary or even
tertiary sources, though perhaps he is only being more honest than most
academic writers in admitting that he has read a particular theorist only
in the context of another's work.
Having trekked my own way through writings on the semiotics of music,
among which Nattiez's work (1990) is a rare glimpse of clarity in a fog
of opacity, I feel I can appreciate the hard thinking and editing that
must have gone into Chandler's introduction. He has not been afraid to do
some fairly extensive 'mediating' himself, to make sense of other's
writings in his own, as well as in their terms, and thus provide a
pathway for his readers to develop their own understandings. At the same
time, he has a genuine respect for other theorists, and is careful to
present their work in context, and with a sympathetic understanding of
their aims. Finally he is not afraid to evaluate concepts and theoretical
suggestions, to critique, and to point out possible gaps and
inconsistencies. This book is not only a model of an introductory
textbook, but goes far beyond the limitations of that genre to give us a
genuinely new and consistent view of the field. I would recommend it to
anyone already researching in the field, as a way of refreshing their
understanding of the potential of semiotic analysis, as well as a perfect
guide for teaching students from undergraduate level up.
Bloomfield, L. 1933. Language. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Chandler, Daniel (1995) The Act of Writing: a Media Theory Approach.
University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
Copley, Paul (2001) Critical Dictionary of Semiotics and Linguistics.
Hodge, Robert & Gunther Kress (1988) Social Semiotics. Polity.
Martin, Bronwen (2000) Dictionary of Semiotics. Cassell
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques (1990) Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of
Music. trans. Carolyn Abbate. Princeton University Press.
Sapir, Edward (1921) Language. Harcourt.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Edward McDonald has taught linguistics and semiotics at the National University of Singapore and at Tsinghua University in Beijing; he is currently working as an English editor at Chinese Central Television. His research interests lie in the areas of the grammar and discourse of modern Chinese, ideologies about language, and the semiotics of language and music.