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Put simply, semiotics is the study of signs. Although the study of signs has a history that goes back (at least) to the work of St. Augustine, modern semiotics has its origins in semiology, a science of signs developed by French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and in the work of US logician Charles Sanders Peirce. For Peirce, a sign is defined as something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” Peirce develops a set of logical distinctions between iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs. Iconic signs function by way of likeness or resemblance (a portrait is an iconic sign that represents its sitter; an architectural model is an iconic sign that represents a building). Indexical signs function through direct connection or relationship (smoke is an index of fire; a knock on the door is an index of a visitor). Finally symbolic signs – which include language – function purely by convention. The connections between the word rose” and the bloom of a thorny bush, or between a flashing red light and the requirement that one stop are arbitrary; they function symbolically and must be learned.
In his Course in General Linguistics, a set of lecture notes published posthumously in 1916 by his students, Saussure describes language as a sign system and words as signs. As signs, words are part of a larger structured totality that Saussure describes as ”langue.” Langue here is to be understood as a self-contained and essentially abstract system that must be differentiated from parole – the everyday usage of words. Saussure’s science of signs is thus a structuralist study of the way that signs function within langue. Understanding signification – the process by which signs come to function within langue – requires analysis of the individual abstract components of language systems: sign, signifier, and signified. The sign is the complete whole that results from the association between a signified (a concept or idea) and a signifier (a sound, a collection of letters, a word).
Contemporary semiotics views the study of the linguistic sign as only one aspect of a much larger project – the study of signs in general. The broad definition of a sign as something which stands to somebody for something,” offered by Peirce, has been beneficial to a contemporary rethinking of the goals and objects of semiotic analysis to include a whole variety of meaningful signs: media texts, visual images, fashion, public performances, and the like. Perhaps the most influential figure in contemporary semiotics is French social and literary critic, Roland Barthes, who applied the semiotic method in a series of essays that analyzed the use of signs and perpetuation of myths in mid twentieth century French culture. In this text, titled Mythologies, Barthes famously analyzes the image of a black soldier saluting the French flag on the cover of a Paris-Match magazine. This image works denotatively, indicating a soldier who salutes his flag. However, the image may also be understood to function ideologically by way of connotation. In the context of French colonial history, the image does more than represent a black soldier; it represents the presumed loyalty of all black Algerians to French colonial power. Most importantly, this is a mythical representation that works to naturalize colonialism and to undermine criticism of French imperialism. In this and other examples, Barthes points to the ways in which signs are recruited to produce ideological meaning. Semiotic analysis thus permits the analyst to identify cultural value-systems (mythologies) that are embedded in signs and absorbed by readers.
The principles of semiotics have been widely employed by many of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Structuralists like anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and Louis Althusser employed semiotic principles to identify the underlying structures of social institutions and shared cultural stories or myths. Psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan read Saussure alongside Freud in order to consider the ways in which the unconscious is structured like a language. Jacques
Derrida’s enormously influential project of deconstruction turns on a rejection of Saussurean models of the sign.
In its capacity to identify the workings of ideological sign-systems, semiotics has been enormously influential in the field of cultural studies. For sociologists and social theorists, semiotics has been employed to understand social formations more generally. In the North American context, semiotics is closely linked to communications studies, with emphasis on the ways in which all human activities -and all human interactions – require the use of signs.
- Barthes, R. (1972)  Mythologies. Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York.
- De Saussure, (1983)  Course in General Linguistics. Duckworth, London.
- Peirce, C. S. (1972) Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings. Harper and Row, New York.