LINGUIST List 14.2416

Fri Sep 12 2003

Review: General Linguistics: Chandler (2002)

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  • aide ma, Semiotics: The Basics

    Message 1: Semiotics: The Basics

    Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 11:28:59 +0000
    From: aide ma <>
    Subject: Semiotics: The Basics

    Chandler, Daniel (2002) Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge.

    Announced at

    Edward McDonald, Chinese Central Television. INTRODUCTION

    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). DESCRIPTION

    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 & Kress 1988). 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 -- social, textual and interpretative -- 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 (p. 150). 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.'' EVALUATION

    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. Routledge

    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

    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.