LINGUIST List 31.1918

Wed Jun 10 2020

Review: Pragmatics; Semantics; Sociolinguistics: Danesi (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 06-Mar-2020
From: Gloria Dou <>
Subject: Understanding Media Semiotics
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Marcel Danesi
TITLE: Understanding Media Semiotics
SUBTITLE: 2nd Edition
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Gloria Yan Dou, The University of Hong Kong


Understanding Media Semiotics by Marcel Danesi offers students an in-depth guide to understand the “meaning structures” that media texts/products help spread into the everyday of modern life. The author adopts a historical and anthropological perspective and takes us on a journey to explore the development of media technologies and their influences on our social life and culture. Consisting of a total of nine chapters, this book contextualizes various media within their context of invention and production, and analyzes how meaning comes to be constructed and circulated in these media within a semiotic framework. Especially, this book has been informed by the emergence and evolution of social media as compared to when the first edition was published in 2002.

In Chapter 1, “The mediated world”, the author gives an overview of the mediascape we inhabit today. He starts by explicating that human communication is mediated in nature, although the representational means may take different physical forms across different time periods. No matter it is before the advent of alphabets or in today’s “Digital Galaxy”, the notion of mediation has always been an essential one in understanding civilization. He then briefly introduces the major types of mass media and new media representations that constitute the mediascape, and relates them to writing and earlier transmission media. Danesi points out that convergence is manifest in the digitization of all media technologies, which would come to shape social conditions and world orders. How exactly this is realized will be a focus of this book.

In Chapter 2, “An outline of semiotic theory”, Danesi presents the reader with some basic notions and concepts in semiotic theories, laying out the theoretical foundation for the book. He points out that Saussurean terminology will be adopted in most of the book, but it is complemented with Peircean notions when necessary. He goes on to give a flashback of Barthes and Baudrillard who applied semiotic theories to media critiques. While Danesi stresses the study of how mass media produce or recycle signs as the primary goal of media semiotics, he claims that there is no need to overly “ideologize” semiotic analysis as semiotics is supposed to be a discipline to study sign-based behavior, not for political critiques. Some alternative approaches or notions are then introduced to the reader, such as discourse theory, visual rhetoric, narratology, and metaphor, to enrich the book’s theoretical basis.

Danesi gives a detailed account of print media’s development, and its modern counterparts, in Chapter 3, “Print media”. Orality was a notable component of human communication in the pre-literate age, but it was taken over by literacy as a result of the emergence of pictographic and then alphabetic systems in human society. With the advent of printing technology, efficient dissemination of knowledge gave rise to the publishing industry; books, newspapers and magazines became items for mass consumption. As a result, the world evolved fast socially and culturally. A new world order, or to use McLuhan’s (1962) words, the Gutenberg Galaxy, was established. The Print Age valorized reading over listening, and favored linear-narrative models. In today’s world, most of print media artifacts have taken new forms, such as electronic books and blogs, that are featured with hypertextuality.

Chapter 4, “Audio media”, presents the reader with the history of different music genres and radio genres. In the first half, it delineates how the music industry benefited from the advent of recording and radio broadcasting technologies, and elucidates how music transforms itself from an elite art form to a common commodity and reaches large audiences. Music crystallized as a social code: it was born from the social conditions, and in turn shaped them. The latter half of the chapter is concerned with the evolution of radio. Radio programs were integrated with advertising that affected people’s lifestyles and engendered audience research. In the Digital Galaxy, the radio develops into the Internet radio that is accessible around the globe.

Chapter 5, “Film and video”, illustrates the crucial role played by vision-based and vision-enhancing media in understanding today’s mediascape, or the “visually mediated world”. As a composite of images, narratives and music, cinema creates semiotically powerful representations, accentuated with rich digital effects. While Hollywood establishes its dominance in the film industry, movies gain widespread popularity in other countries as well. In a specific section entitled “Cinema and postmodernism”, Danesi discusses how cinema helps promote postmodernism as a cultural trend by employing postmodern technique, scenario and imagery, thus problematizing and deconstructing modernist beliefs.

Chapter 6, “Television”, embraces TV as a social text that shapes the groupthink. The author argues that while the TV has been engaging a massive audience, it is also inculcating materialistic values in the society. After providing a detailed account of TV’s emergence and its genres, Danesi discusses at length TV’s psychosocial impacts on people, including the mean world syndrome, the mythologizing effect, the history fabrication effect, and the cognitive compression effect. TV sets the social agenda and affects public opinions, but also induces social change by causing shifts in people’s mindset.

The author moves on to talk about “The computer, the internet, and artificial intelligence” in Chapter 7. The rapid advances in computer technology transformed “systems and modes of mass communications” and shaped “cultural signifying orders” throughout the world, spawning an age called Digital Galaxy. Nevertheless, Danesi observes that Digital Galaxy is an extension of the Gutenburg galaxy. For instance, writing continues to serve as the primary medium through which knowledge is transmitted, albeit taking multimodal and hypertextual formats; hypertextuality is an extension, not a metamorphosis, of the linear textuality of print books. And the sense of connectivity brought about by the computer, as Danesi quips, returns us to the “unified fields of old tribal cultures”. Then he discusses major types of social media networks that are typical to the age of Web 2.0, which allows users to communicate interactively within the community.

Chapter 8, “Advertising”, provides an interesting target to study modern signifying orders. The chapter is concerned with two fundamental questions: 1) how are meanings encoded in advertising textuality? 2) how are signification systems created by advertisers for people to be perceived as meaningful? To answer these, Danesi first walks the reader through the history of advertising, and then analyzes the rhetorical and image-making techniques employed by advertisers in embedding the ad message to appeal to potential customers. He also illustrates a few advertiser’s strategies in creating a signification system, such as branding and ad campaigns. In addition, he discusses co-option and incorporating artworks as ways of creating advertising textuality to be built into products.

The final Chapter, “Impacts of the media”, serves three aims. The author starts with an overview of semiotic analysis, reviewing its main features and embracing it as a perspective for analyzing media texts. Next, he contemplates the impacts of media on writing and on mind and culture. He notes that the popularity of emojis simultaneously carries an imaginative mode of expression and is reminiscent of the pictographic writing of our ancestors. While he continues to list out some critical views of the mediated culture, he is skeptical about the kind of “media bashing” attitude which tends to blame media influence for every single social and moral issue we are dealing with today. Finally, he reflects upon the relation between the media and contemporary culture, and is optimistic about humanity despite some constraints of the media.


Through an anthropological lens, this book provides the reader with a rich and useful guide to understand the meaning structures of major media communication tools, how they derive from the social and technological conditions, and how they come to shape our society and culture. There, however, are two considerations that the reader may want to take into account.

First, this book has drawn primary inspiration from the mass media and lacks in-depth discussion of the features of new media communications. Logan (2010) defines new media as those digital media which are “interactive, incorporate two-way communication and involve some form of computing”. New media allows users to become active participants in producing media content to be disseminated. In light of this, to what extent Saussurean semiology is still applicable to our understanding of media semiotics is problematized.

Second, Danesi seems to indicate that semiotics does not require a critical analysis in the sense of the political and ideological connotations embedded in the message. However, mass media production nowadays is tightly linked to power, and those in power can function as gatekeepers who decide which content gets to make it to mainstream media and which does not. This is especially the case when social media content moves into broadcast news (Hänska Ahy, 2016). Therefore, the discussion of power and ideology is still highly relevant in media semiotics.


Hänska Ahy, M. (2016). Networked communication and the Arab Spring: Linking broadcast and social media. New Media & Society, 18(1), 99-116.

Logan, R. K. (2010). Understanding new media: extending Marshall McLuhan. Peter Lang.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto.


Gloria Yan Dou is PhD Candidate in School of English, The University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include digital photography, computer mediated communication, and identity and globalization.

Page Updated: 10-Jun-2020