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Review of  Semiotics and its Masters

Reviewer: Sara Vilar-Lluch
Book Title: Semiotics and its Masters
Book Author: Kristian Bankov Paul Cobley
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 29.1232

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Semiotics and its Masters” (Volume 1), edited by Kristian Bankov and Paul Cobley, presents the major lines of investigation in current semiotics research. Primarily intended for semiotics scholars, it is also appropriate for researchers of neighbouring disciplines –e.g. linguistics and philosophy. The compendium is organized in eight sections. Section 1 examines the role of semiotics within the humanities. Sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 explore semiotics contributions to different fields: semiotics as metalanguage, and the possibility of a phenomenological approach (Section 2), society (Section 3), media studies (Section 4) and ethics (Section 5). Section 6 examines performative signs and the concept of paradox. Section 7 considers semiotics theoretical grounds, and Section 8 revises the contributions of some of the leading figures in the discipline.

Section 1: Semiotics in the world and academia

Cobley opens the compendium with “What the humanities are for –a semiotic perspective”, an overview of the current popular debate on the future and importance of humanities. The most common arguments in favour of the humanities tend to adopt a liberal standpoint (humanities as the dwelling of “good”, i.e. human nature, multiculturalism and diversity), and assume an instrumentalist approach. Cobley distances himself from the usual positions and presents semiotics as an anti-humanist interdisciplinary practice able to bring humanities closer to the other sciences. From the semiotics’ perspective, humanities enable a form of knowledge which does not deny the social significance of human understanding.

The impossibility of dissociating human cognition from the social dimension is examined in “Semioethics as a vocation for semiotics”, by Petrilli and Ponzio. The authors portray two main approaches in semiotics: the “decodification semiotics” (from Saussure), which regards meaning as a pre-established entity independent from the signs (with the exception of truth value), and “interpretation semiotics” (from Bakhtin/Voloshinov), which understands meaning as the product of the (dialogic) interpretation of signs. Interpretation is not a recognition (of the sign), but an addition of a “signifying surplus” or value (i.e. it is dialogic). Semiotics accounts for the ultimate reliance on signs of all human endeavours; semioethics remembers that signs (and all communication and understanding) are not free of value. Understanding semiotic relations impregnated with value establishes responsibility as the nature of all human relationships.

Li’s “‘General semiotics’ as the all-round interdisciplinary organizer” opens with a criticism of current academic research (i.e. marketization and vulgarization of content, and an insurmountable separation between Western and non-Western research). The horizontal and interdisciplinary nature of semiotics turns General Semiotics (GS) into a discipline able to resolve the crisis in humanities. Yet GS will only provide the necessary “epistemological directions” to humanistic studies if the discipline abandons all philosophical-fundamentalism. GS is established as a “universal semantic anatomical organizer” (p. 54) in opposition to philosophy, identified with epistemological absolutism, a fundamentalist standpoint necessary to be left behind for the progress of knowledge to be accomplished.

Section 2: Semiotics, experimental science and maths

In “Semiotics as a metalanguage for science”, Danesi offers a semiotic examination of representation in mathematics. The article presents different historical attempts to achieve a consistent metalanguage, and examines Gödel’s demonstration of the impossibility of a representation system free of self-reference (i.e. there will always be a statement whose truth or falsehood cannot be proved). Mathematics metalanguages constitute a paradigmatic case because signs are not mere notation systems but a discovery in themselves that enables progress in the discipline. For Danesi, examining metalanguages brings the question of representation and reality, the “raison d’ être” of semiotics (p.78) (i.e. up to which point our systems of representation offer a transparent mirror of reality, and whether reality is independent of the signs we use to represent it).

Sonesson continues with the topic of representation in “Mastering phenomenological semiotics with Husserl and Peirce”, and establishes phenomenology as a requirement in cognitive semiotics. Sonesson breaks with the tradition and argues the possibility of bringing together Husserl’s and Peirce’s phenomenology despite their multiple differences. Husserl understands the perceptual world as pre-predicative, overriding all possibility of determining any list of descriptive categories prior to the phenomenological practice. For Peirce, “firstness”, “secondness” and “thirdness” constitute universal categories and all perceived reality is constituted of signs. Sonesson presents Peircean phenomenology as a variation of Husserl’s that accounts for the epistemological domain of mediation between the subject and the world. Husserl’s intentionality (i.e. directedness of the mind to the phenomenon, consciousness is always consciousness of something) is associated with Peirce’s “direct observation” (i.e. the observation of an appearance and reaction to it that relate the subject to the world). The article ends examining several applications of Peircean dyads and triads in social studies.

Section 3: Society, text and social semiotics

In “Farewell to representation” Marrone adopts a socio-semiotic approach and presents the text as the starting point of all semiotic investigation. Language, discourse and signs are understood as social processes, all semiotic phenomena is inherently social. The dichotomy Text-Context becomes meaningless: context is itself compounded of semiotic-load. “Text” is not understood as “empirical object” but as a “theoretical model” that enables the description of all cultural reality. The rest of the chapter develops the criteria that need to be considered in performing a semiotic analysis, i.e. negotiation, biplanarity, textual closure, holding (of the text as a whole), multiple textual levels, enunciation and intertextuality.

In “Social semiotics. Towards a sociologically grounded semiotics”, Lagopoulos and Boklund-Lagopoulou argue that semiotics (especially cognitive semiotics) has frequently adopted the “individualistic paradigm” of biology and psychology, and attributed a “weak awareness of society”. Instead, the discipline needs to follow the turn already taken in linguistics (e.g. Hymes, Halliday, Bernstein, Hodge and Kress) and adopt a social stance. Semiotics accounts of social phenomena have followed two directions: (i) “semiotic relevance”, which equates the social with the cultural, and identifies both spheres with semiotics, and (ii) the dialectic approach, which regards social (i.e. material) conditions as irreducible to cultural phenomena. The authors offer several case studies to sustain the suitability of the dialectic approach and defend (i) the necessity to distinguish semiotic from material conditions, (ii) the potentiality of material conditions to influence semiotics, and (iii) the possibility to use semiotics to influence or maintain the social reality.

Section 4: Semiotics and media

In “What relationship to time do the media promise us?” Jost depicts our relation with the media as being primarily temporal: the media constructs new relations with time that condition audience’s beliefs and the narrative tension unfolded in the programme. The genre of a programme evokes a double promise that defines the expectations of the audience: ontological (i.e. what is expected from the particular genre) and pragmatic (i.e. the name of the programme conditions viewers’ beliefs). Genres are based upon temporal promises that induce a particular construction of space and time in relation to the events depicted. Jost distinguishes the phenomenon of indexicality (attributed both to images and time), i.e. the more the broadcasted images resemble an index, the more authenticity (and less intentionality) those will be attributed. Still, even in programmes that portray themselves as shots of reality (e.g. breaking news), the readability prevails and images and events are aligned in causal relations. The narrative adds an iconic character to the time of the programme, and the later ceases to be an imprint of the real (p. 156). In the news, the narrative inserts suspense and increases the tension toward the outcome of the reported events. TV news turn banal objects into “symbols of expectation” (p. 166) and the ambition of novelty shifts the importance from the content to the form of the delivery.

Luis Fernández’s “Semiotics and interstitial mediatizations” develops further the relation of semiotics with the new media and argues the current semiotic models and methods need some innovation to give proper account of the new types of mediatizations. The author stresses the importance of a semiotic study of the graphics in public spaces and the media of sound, both of them regular elements of our everyday life. New social networks have called into doubt the distinction between production (i.e. emission) and recognition (i.e. reception) attributed to mass media and broadcasting (p. 175), the classic objects of study in media semiotics. While traditional mass media is correlated with a “spectatorial position”, the new mediatizations are regarded as interstitial and interactive, which reaffirms the necessity of developing new semiotic methodologies.

Section 5: Semiotics for moral questions

In “Spaces of memory and trauma: a cultural semiotic perspective”, Violi argues the appropriateness of adopting a semiotic approach for the study of trauma. Traditional humanistic studies on trauma adopt a “naturalistic-essentialist perspective” (p. 192): trauma is frequently understood as an irreparable event that has broken the stability of life, associated with the impossibility of representation and established as the inherent nature of a place or object. On the contrary, a semiotic perspective regards trauma as a semiotic product: events and places (the factual world) have no inherent meaning (i.e. events are not traumatic in themselves), all meaning is brought to existence when it is recognized as such by a social community (i.e. the trauma emerges once the event has taken place). An event and the sense-of-the-event remain separated by a necessary temporal gap. Trauma objects are subjected to the double process of de-semantization (i.e. of the object as thing) and re-semantization (i.e. addition of trauma). The re-semantization constitutes an authenticity attribution or generation of an indexical link (i.e. objects and sites are regarded as traces of the event). Violi completes the article with a case study (the Bologna railway station) and shows how a human’s relation with reality is always semiotically mediated.

Pardo Abril’s “Media coverage of the voices of Colombia’s victims of dispossession”, constitutes a semiotic analysis of videos of testimony denunciation (VTD) in Colombian mass media. VTDs are commonly employed to give voice to those affected by social marginalization. VTD genre is described as the capacity to communicate counter hegemonic stories and call into doubt the collective memory as established by the institutionalized discourses (p. 206). The study gives an account of how the distinct semiotic components operate and examines the political and social effects derived. The analysis shows how counter voices have been incorporated in the general dynamics of the mass media; victims of the dispossession are “passivized”, presented as agentless individuals, and audiovisual resources reflect and reconstruct social hierarchical relations of power.

Section 6: Questioning the logics of semiotics

Volli’s “Sense beyond communication” constitutes a criticism of the tendency in semiotics to study signs with a representational function. The objection to representation echoes the traditional conception of communication as depicted in the conduit metaphor (cf. Reddy, 1979). Communication is portrayed as a message (container of the informative content) transferred from a sender (or deliverer) to a receiver. The model implies the existence of a channel and a code (to be de-codified by the receiver). Representation is broken by signs that are performative (i.e. self-effective) in themselves, i.e. do not refer to or re-present any external reality. Performative signs communicate in “being there”: the sign coincides with the (perceived) phenomenon. The communication is the perception of the phenomenon in a certain way (p. 228), the appearance of the phenomenon is its expression. The meaning attribution to the phenomenon in the perception is ultimately grounded in the social context (e.g. wearing a particular dress in a wedding). “Appearance” is important insofar as it evidences that being in society implies being in constant communication with others. The communication of “appearance” not only tells about “what is there” (the perceived phenomenon), but also how we expect others to treat us in doing something in a particular moment for the appearance we have adopted (p. 236).

In “Semiotic paradoxes: antinomies and ironies in a transmodern world”, Seif takes a critical stance toward the traditional perception of signs as generating one interpretation (or meaning) at a time, and claims the need to reconsider how we understand paradoxes. Paradoxes are constitutive of the world and yet are commonly perceived as problematic due to a general intolerance towards ambiguity and uncertainty. The issue with paradoxes is that they are regarded as problems, which constructs them as a duality. Paradoxical thought should not be understood as an exclusive disjunction (either-or) but as an inclusion (both-and) (p.243), thus entailing the refusal of absolute values. Paradoxes raise awareness of the misleading equation between real and truth. Seif mentions irony as a common example of paradoxes, i.e. “telling truth by lying” (p.246); two oppositional frames of reference are juxtaposed so they cannot be conceived separately. Irony entails that we are able to conceive different scenarios simultaneously, which would make possible the paradoxical thinking.

Section 7: Manifestoes for semiotics

Deely’s “Semiosis and human understanding” presents the theoretical foundations of semiotics research and establishes semiotic awareness as the major specificity of human understanding. Human understanding is “the ability to discover the passage of being in time” (p. 257), and the whole chapter can be read as a development of this opening statement.

Knowledge of things is ultimately obtained from experience, i.e. sensation. Sensation, derived from our interaction in the world, is accompanied by perception, our interpretation of the thing. We do not perceive nor deal with “things” as they are in the world, but we perceive “objects”, products of our perceptual (interpretative) relation with the world. Our primary relation with the world is semiotic: we “concern ourselves” with objects, and we have knowledge of things insofar we have objectified them, i.e. turned them into signs –where sign is anything that generates an impression in our sensation. The specificity of the human understanding is the capability to see objects as things, i.e. entities that exist independently of the relation established with them. The essence of human understanding is the recognition of the process of objectification and meaning attribution or, in other words: the discovery that our being-here is relational, which entails a constant removal of the thingness of the world.

Establishing semiotic awareness as a human specificity turns transcendence into a pivotal characteristic of human existence –we are continuously projecting (and interpreting) ourselves. In “Culture and transcendence –the concept of transcendence through the ages”, Tarasti turns “transcendence” into the guiding axis that enables to bring together different Western and Eastern philosophies. Tarasti recognizes transcendence is understood differently in different cultures and epochs, but argues the possibility of a transcultural (and trans-historical) theory. Tarasti illustrates the historical development of the concept, and distinguishes three types of transcendence: empirical (i.e. entities absent in the world but present in our minds), existential (i.e. the transcendental ego or condition of possibility of a unified consciousness), and radical (i.e. the Absolut, impossible to be known and only spoken about through metaphors). Understanding semiotic processes as a relation between a signifier and an absent (projected) signified, turns transcendence into a central element of semiotics.

Section 8: Masters on past masters

Gorlée‘s “From Peirce’s pragmatic maxim to Wittgenstein’s language-games” examines the differences and similarities between Peirce and Wittgenstein, commonly regarded as the two fathers of pragmatism. Gorlée draws some general parallelisms between the authors, i.e. the usage of a fragmentary writing style, and a shared concern for a non-deceptive terminology, which led Peirce to the invention of new terminology, and Wittgenstein to the employment of non-specialised terms. Gorlée argues the possibility to bring together Peirce’s pragmatic maxim and Wittgenstein’s language-games. For Peirce, the total meaning of a symbol is the sum of all the possible behaviours the symbol can generate in all the potential circumstances of a particular type. Gorlée points the Peircean maxim entails an open-ended conception of meaning, which will vary according to the context of the symbol. Thus, the pragmatic maxim ultimately negates the possibility of reaching a complete meaning attribution to a symbol. Wittgenstein’s language games also portray meaning as contextually generated in the use of signs, always in accordance to the rules governing the particular context. Symbols do not have a static meaning: meaning attribution is context-dependent. Both Peirce and Wittgenstein are portrayed as opponents to all absolute truth/falsehood attributions to signs.

Pezzini’s “Semiotics as a critical discourse: Roland Barthes’s Mythologies” examines the origins of European semiotics and refers to Barthes’ “Mythologies” as one of the most influential works. Barthes established semiotics as a critical analysis of the consumer ideology. Ideology was understood as a value system that had been naturalized, and which permeated all everyday social productions and practices. Myths, the different products of ideology, can circulate in society as given facts insofar as they assume the existence of a common “significant consciousness” that acknowledges their facticity (p.358). Since all myths employ symbols, semiotics enables a textual analysis of all products of the mass culture.

In “Ricoeur, a disciple of Greimás? A case of paradoxical maieutic”, Hénault examines the relationship between Greimás and Ricoeur. Ricoeur, initially structuralist, adopted a belligerent position against structuralism after an open dispute with Lévi-Strauss, who claimed Ricoeur’s hermeneutics were pure subjectivism. The frictions with structuralism made Ricoeur accuse semiotics of making abstraction of the texts, which led to a fierce confrontation in the first debate with Greimás. Still, Ricoeur gradually changed his stance toward Greimás’ semiotics and ended up adopting Greimás’ semiotic concepts in his own hermeneutics.


The semiotic studies comprised in the volume address three main and interdependent areas: (i) human beings live in a world of “significance-addition”, (ii) the addition of meaning is already present in perception, (iii) the awareness of (i) and (ii) has brought the crisis of representation.

As illustrated in Pezzini’s chapter, semiotics as social critique began with Barthes’ “mythologies”: all social phenomena are permeated with (ideological) meaning that has been mistaken by the natural, factual world. But meaning-addition is not only a product of the consumer society, it rather constitutes our primary relation with the world. Human portrayals of reality are constructed as claims for authenticity (e.g. live-broadcasting, cf. Jost; testimony sites, cf. Violi; scientific theories, cf. Danesi), but all depictions entail a significance surplus, nonexistent in the factual world. Echoing Roquentin (cf. Sartre, 1966), either we live or we narrate our living, and all possible accounts will carry an addition (significance, causality, good/bad luck) absent in the factual existence. News broadcasting removes banality from ordinary objects and fills them with necessity (cf. Jost), and objects in memory sites lose their mundaneness and are perceived as imprints of trauma (cf. Violi).

Meaning-addition is not just a product of narrative. Meaning is already embedded in perception insofar as perception is founded on a relation (cf. Sonesson, Volli, Deely). The pen I use when I write is not a “raw thing” in my hand: I see it, and I see an-object-to-write-with; the significance of the pen, i.e. being-a-pen, is established in my relation with it as the object I will use to write (cf. Deely). We encounter somebody and we do not see a “raw face”, we interact with appearances that oblige us to take a particular position toward the others and act in accordance. Volli’s account of appearance as a self-effective sign brings together semiotics, aesthetics and ethics. Following his point, it can be argued the aesthetic positioning (the no indifference toward the Other, who demands a specific action based on the attitude perceived) is a pre-condition for ethics (cf. Saito, 2007). Thus, semiotics echoes Heidegger’s revelation about our relational being in the world: we are in a constant relation with others (human beings and objects), and it is in concerning ourselves with the other that the “meaning-addition” takes place (cf. Heidegger, 2003).

Understanding meaning generation in relational terms calls into doubt the classic concern for representation. Representation, i.e. making present again in the mind what is given outside, comes together with the concern for adequacy with the real, and a perfect adequacy is attributed a positive truth value. Questioning representation problematizes the possibility of an absolute truth. Seif’s re-evaluation of paradoxes entails a reconsideration of the correspondence theory of truth, ultimately based on the assumption of the actual possibility of a transparent representation of the world. As it can be inferred from Gorlée’s chapter, pragmatism stands in strong opposition to truth by correspondence. The pragmatist negation of absolute truth/falsehood attributions to signs retakes the consideration of all meaning as contingent, i.e. not naturally given in the factual world.

A constant dialogue between semiotics and philosophy is evidenced along the collection (cf., for example, Sonesson, Seif, Deely, Tarasti, Gorlée, Hénault). While philosophy stands as the theoretical procurer, semiotics is attested as the discipline specialized in the study of signs with an applicable vocation. In these terms, Li’s allegation that semiotics needs to leave behind all “philosophical fundamentalism” in order to gain complete knowledge integrity does not come without surprise and a certain uneasiness. The studies comprised in the collection have shown how semiotics’ ability to maintain a dialogue with philosophy and the rest of humanistic disciplines constitutes one of its main strengths.


Heidegger, Martin. 2003. Ser y Tiempo. Madrid: Trotta.

Reddy, Michael, J. 1979. “The Conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language”. In: A. Ortony (Ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.164-201

Saito, Yuriko. 2007. Everyday Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1966 La Nàusea. Barcelona: Proa.
Sara Vilar-Lluch is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her main research areas are Systemic Functional Linguistics, Appraisal Theory and Discourse Analysis; she is also interested in metaphor and face theory. In her PhD project she studies the representations of ADHD and the diagnosed individuals in the psychiatric, educational, political and family institutional discourses.

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