| Media Theory and Semiotics: Key Terms and Concepts
Binary structures and semiotic square of oppositions
Many systems of meaning are based on binary structures (masculine/
feminine; black/white; natural/artificial), two contrary conceptual
categories that also entail or presuppose each other. Semiotic interpretation
involves exposing the culturally arbitrary nature of this binary opposition
and describing the deeper consequences of this structure throughout
On the semiotic
square and logical
square of oppositions.
A code is a learned rule for linking signs to their meanings. The term
is used in various ways in media studies and semiotics. In communication
studies, a message is often described as being "encoded" from
the sender and then "decoded" by the receiver. The encoding
process works on multiple levels. For semiotics, a code is the framework,
a learned a shared conceptual connection at work in all uses of signs
(language, visual). An easy example is seeing the kinds and levels of
language use in anyone's language group. "English" is a convenient
fiction for all the kinds of actual versions of the language. We have
formal, edited, written English (which no one speaks), colloquial, everyday,
regional English (regions in the US, UK, and around the world); social
contexts for styles and specialized vocabularies (work, office, sports,
home); ethnic group usage hybrids, and various kinds of slang (in-group,
class-based, group-based, etc.). Moving among all these is called "code-switching."
We know what they mean if we belong to the learned, rule-governed, shared-code
group using one of these kinds and styles of language. Someone from
rural Australia might at first be lost with kind of English spoken in
south LA, a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, or rural Alabama.
But codes also function at the symbolic and ideological level. These
interpretive frames or linking grids were termed "myths" by
Roland Barthes in his seminal collection of essays called Mythologies.
The nearly automatic and unconscious use of codes pervades all aspects
of culture from basic verbal communication to mass media. We have codes
for all kinds of popular culture genres, all the symbolic moves in advertising,
political terms, race, and identity.
The term "culture" is, of course, a contested term with multiple
meanings in various contexts and discourses. In the context of semiotics,
culture can be viewed as the sum of rule-governed, shared, learned and
learnable, transmittable, symbolic activity used by a group in any given
place and time.
"Culture is the generator of structuredness... [and] the nonhereditary
memory of the community" (Lotman). Meanings, values, significance
circulate in second-order languages (symbols, values, images, stories,
myths) that use both ordinary language (one's native language) and other
sign-systems like visual images, mass media, and information technology.
All these ways of transmitting shared and stored meanings involve a
mediated content. To be in a culture means to be in preexisting but
constantly changing sign-systems.
In the "Cultural Studies" model, "culture" is a field of conflicting
and competing forces resulting from structured asymmetries in power,
capital, and value.
Cultural Studies as an academic field has been accused of dematerializing
or leveling media content in order to objectify ideological and political
messages for analysis. The approach is often further characterized as
an "effects" model of analysis that focuses on capitalist
and corporate mechanisms of control and usually omits the agency and
activity of individuals, groups, and subcultures who are the receivers
and users of media.
Stuart Hall's "cultural marxism" approach builds out a more
complex model based on extending the theory of hegemony, the social-economic
processes for "manufacturing consent" among the lower classes
(the "have-nots" or "have-lesses") to buy-in to
the view promoted by ownership classes ("the haves").
In this view of cultural studies, mass media and communications typically
encode (implicitly presuppose as a context for meaning) a dominant ideology
which finds mass acceptance. Media is thus ideologically encoded to
maximize the willing consent of the consumer and "have-nots"
to "keep with the program" and perpetuate the status quo of
power and wealth distribution.
Hegemony of ideologies that protect the governing and ownership class
is not a matter of force, coercion, or obvious deliberate manipulation.
It functions so well because it relies on the willing consent of those
with less power and wealth to accept a dominant ideology, to see the
world and act according the view of those above.
Examples of mainstream ideologies that circulate in the media and protect
- Free speech (as a belief, when few have power in what they voice)
- Individuality (great for marketing, since consumerism requires the
simultaneous presentation of unique personal choices and identities
and the need to look and buy like everyone else in an identity group)
- Freedom of choice (part of our individuality beliefs, also the main
assumption in consumer culture and marketing: the ideology of the
In this view of hegemony and culture, social behavior is overdetermined
by multiple identity factors like race, social class, sex and gender,
and nationality, which are encoded in hierarchies of power, significance,
and economic value.
But Hall and others like Dick Hebidge show that people have many strategies
for dealing with media contents: operate in the dominant code, use a
negotiable code (accepts but modifies the meaning based on the viewer's
and viewer communities position), or substitute an oppositional code
(using critical awareness, demystification, irony, subversion, play,
parody, like DJ sampling). In this way, many subcultures are formed
around group uses of media, images, and music that create identities
and differentiations from mainstream or dominant culture.
Cultural Dictionary and Cultural Encyclopedia
Ideas developed by Umberto Eco. These terms describe how members of
a culture participate in exchanges of meaning by greater or lesser access
to and competence with a preexisting, constantly accruing, constantly
reconfiguring body of words, terms, concepts, discourses, and actual
artifacts maintained in a culture's memory. Our learned codes for associating
signs and symbols with their meanings are a function of this macro-cultural
Encyclopedia. The various vocabularies, discourses, dialects, and the
whole lexicon of a language (like English) form a cultural dictionary,
which preexists any individual user, who has varying levels of access
to, and familiarity with, the whole Dictionary. Language, discourse,
narratives, and visual images are the memory machines of culture. Infocom
and media technologies are externalized memory machines for transmitting
culture (Debray), and thus function as a physical or material disseminator
of the larger cultural encyclopedia. Selectivity and privileging of
certain contents is a function of ideology and processes of hegemony
(ways in which everyone buys into a dominant view, those in power co-opting
those with lesser power). Ideology privileges certain contents of the
shared Encyclopedia, and selectivity or hierarchizing of cultural knowledge
discloses the social function of the Encyclopedia as culturally constructed,
not given or natural.
The important point about these ideas is their emphasis on process
and historical continuity at the social and cultural level, independent
of any individual member of a group, who is born into a culture that
is always already happening.
The distinction between describing language and cultural systems as
a complete system at one historical moment (synchronic), or the successive
stages through time (diachronic). Cultural analysis of the contemporary
moment often assumes a present-day slice of a system functioning with
its own internal self-completeness (synchronic analysis), even though
its arrives with a history and memory of earlier formations and changes
over time (diachronic analysis).
Statements in communication always imply a receiver of the statement,
and statements we make are often responses to prior statements made
by someone else. In short, what we say and mean is part of an ongoing
Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian theorist and literary scholar,
saw that literary texts were always dialogic in relation to readers
and audiences, and that literary discourse proceeds only by referencing,
quoting, assuming an other's speech or words. The reader/audience is
therefore always already inscribed in the medium/message/text/visual
sign. Discourses, texts, cultural message presuppose and embody a network
of implicit references, gestures, an unmarked quotations from other
Bakhtin is also credited with first defining intertextual or structural
dialogism (see Intertextuality). He saw literary discourse and
individual literary texts as an intersection of multiple textual surfaces
rather than as a fixed point or meaning; that is, as a dialogue among
various texts, genres, and voices: the writer's, the character's, the
historical cultural context, the readers'/audiences.
As Julia Kristeva explained Bakhtin's breakthrough theory, each statement
in a discourse, each expression in a text, is an intersection of words
or texts where at least one other word or text can be read. Discourse
thus can be described as having a horizontal axis, composed of the writer,
characters (in a novel), and genre being written, and the vertical axis,
composed of the text and its context in a larger universe of discourses,
texts, meanings, values. Any text, therefore, is always at least double,
presupposing, incorporating, and transforming an other voice, text,
A contested and slippery term in the variety
of its ordinary and specialized uses. For our context, "ideology"
does not refer to individually held "personal" beliefs, but to a set
of mediated views of the world that circulate in a culture and provide
self-replicating views of power and inclusion and exclusion. Operative
senses of the term:
Ideology as the world framed in discourse
(Foucault) mediating the structures of power and authority to individuals.
Individual subjects are said to take up social positions--identity positions,
subjectivity--already formed in discourse (for example, in laws, social
class language, religious language, social institutions).
Ideology as the socially constructed sense
of identity and values, functioning to obscure the real sources of power,
and to reproduce/perpetuate existing power structures (by gender, race,
class, nationality, etc.) (an extension of the earlier Marxist notion
of ideology as "false consciousness").
Ideology as the consciously held belief
system of individual members of a social group, which may or may not
reflect the underlying structures of power and authority.
Ideology and Discourse
Discourse constitutive of its objects; objects of knowledge do not
preexist the discourse/discursive practices/disciplines which constitute
them make them visible, "objectify" them as such. This is
not to say that real-world material facts don't exist, but that they
don't have any meaning to us, aren't knowable, aren't communicable,
outside of a discursive-conceptual field. "History is only known
to us in narrative form." (Jameson)
Interpretation and Semiosis
Interpretation is the main outcome of the semiotic process, or semiosis.
Interpretation is the discursive result or output of positing meaning
in any sign system. An extension of the theory of semiosis (Peirce,
Eco)--the temporal sequences of sign relations in generating meaning--is
the notion of the homology of form in sign systems: interpretations
often take the same form as the set of signs being interpreted. For
example, the interpretation of a text usually takes the form of another
text; the interpretation of an art object can be found in subsequent
art works or supplementary texts. The important point is to see acts
of interpretation, making meaning, as occurring within a system of symbolic
relationships. An interpretation is a supplement to a prior set of signs.
An interpretation is not an opinion but an act of positing meaning in
a culturally significant expression or work. In the terms of semiotics,
nothing is prior to interpretation except intelligibility--something
is presented as meaning something, it has the signature of significance,
the grounds of intelligibility, language community recognition, interpretive
community recognition, a sense that something is or isn't "in our
The theory of intertextuality assumes that meaning and intelligibility
in discourse and texts is based on a network prior and concurrent discourse
and texts. Every text is a mosaic of references to other texts, genres,
and discourses. Every text or set of signs presupposes a network of
relationships to other signs like strings of quotations that have lost
their exact references. The principle of intertextuality is a ground
or precondition for meaning beyond "texts" in the strict sense
of things written, and includes units of meaning in any media. Expanding
the theory for cross-media symbolic activity, we could call this "intermediality"
or "intersemiality" (the structures of meaning presupposed
or embedded in any set of signs like nodes in a network). The notion
of "intersemic" describes the interdependence and implied
relation of any unit of signs (like a movie) to a network of other texts,
genres, artifacts, documents, and symbolic works (images, artworks)
in a culture. See also multimedia semiotics and Dialogic/Dialogism.
The most fundamental macro-question in communication, media theory,
and cultural theory is the nature of mediation: we are always already
in language, in symbolic systems, and we know our lived-in world by
language, discourse, and signs, not by immediate access to "things
in themselves" (Kant). To be always already in a world of symbolic
mediations means that we're always in a world of socially constructed
values, hierarchies, and ideologies. Much of contemporary media and
communication theory assumes the primacy of mediation in any theoretical
model: medium, milieu, structures/systems of mediation. Debray adds
the dimension of cultural transmission over time (the diachronic, "through
time" dimension) to simple mediation or communication (the synchronic
or concurrent dimension) as a theoretical foundation for mediology.
The "Prison House of Language" dilemma (Jameson): all forms
of knowledge presuppose that we are always already in language, and
we cannot step outside language and signs to comprehend an unmediated
or non-representable world.
The irreducible structure of any sign system consists in the separation
of the signifier and the signified, something present and something
absent, something appearing as a trace or mark (signifier) and something
deferred (signified content or meaning). Derrida's early model of "differance"
(differentiation in binary semantic structures and deferring/deferral
of meaning in signifier/signified structure) has been influential.
An immediate/unmediated presence of meanings and things is unavailable
to language users and thus to culture as a whole. Illusions of direct
or immediate (unmediated) meanings/values/real things are behind ideologies,
religions, systems of belief. Semiotics and post-Foucauldian discourse
analysis does not deny the existence of real things or a world outside
language and signs, nor of our need to describe a real world outside
of language and mediation, but exposes our inability to give meaning
to anything without the structuring preconditions of our systems of
discourse and cultural sign systems.
- All communication entails, requires, presupposes mediation, not
things as they are.
- Fours sense of "medium": media type, channel, mediation, environment.
- The content and form of media present a socially constructed system
of meaning, not "reality" outside representation.
- "History is only accessible to us in narrative form." --Fredric
- "Film gives us not the world as it is but the world as we desire
it to be." --Fritz Lang, Director, in Godard's Contempt
Reference and Representation
Closely related to the question of mediation and the structure of signs
is the problem of representation and referentiality in language. Philosophers
of language in the 20th century have worked through the problem of how
language can be said to refer to real things or to concepts outside
specific statements. Logic and the truth-functions of scientific language
were thought to depend on the ability to use language (in some formalized
way) to refer to real things or states of affairs in the world. Statements
of fact are known as "propositions" in logic (a statement
which is either true or false). Statements are thus said to have "reference"
or the property of "referentiality" in pointing to real things.
But today, most philosophers have concluded that logic is mainly internally
self-referential and that using language to refer to things outside
language in "the real world" is only one of thousands of things
we do with language. Wittgenstein
at first held a "picture theory" of logical and scientific
propositions that represent, in the way that language can, a world of
facts, or, in his terms, "whatever is the case," in the world.
He then exposed the problems in this view. Language and statements follow
their own rules (language games), and allow us to do and say certain
things, but the relationship between our statements and the world outside
them is not rule-governed. We can't step outside of language and look
at the world in some kind of unmediated, extra-linguistic or pre-verbal
state. Referring to real things, or using language to construct a category
we call "real" about which statements can be made, is thus
only one type of semiotic activity in the sign system of language. [See
Stanford Encyclopedia entry on "reference."]
The theory and description of sign systems. Foundational assumption:
"All symbolic systems in a culture function like a second-order
language or text." And like a language, any symbolic system is
assumed to be complete and extensive at any given moment in history
(the synchronic dimension). The description of sign systems from language
to visual media and larger human constructions like cities allows an
analysis of interpretation, the structure of social values, and the
ideological uses of all kinds of information we are surrounded by in
daily life. The important point is to see all this meaning-making and
symbolic activity as rule-governed, learned, and constructed as opposed
to natural or given in reality. Individual people in a culture may have
greater or lesser knowledge or access to "the cultural encyclopedia"
(Eco) of symbolic relationships and contents. The daily use of available
signs and symbols in cultural encoding and decoding is an issue of a
person's "competence," not a question about the sign system
itself. If we think about cultural signs of all kinds as a second-order
language, we can investigate a kind of semiotic deep structure, a grammar
of meaning, a repertoire of codes, acquired by members of a culture
in ways similar to, but distinct from, internalizing the grammar of
one's own native language. (See Chomsky on deep structure and grammar;
Peirce, de Saussure, Barthes, Lotman, and Eco on semiology or semiotics
as a system.)
Multimedia Semiotics/Multimodal Semiotics/Social Semiotics
In the everyday use of languages and signs, we combine several kinds
of physical media in communicating and making meaning--from voice and
printed texts to mass media images, music, movies, computer Web content,
and digital multimedia. The various material means of conveying meaning
(sometimes called communication "modalities") often overlap
and pass on or interpret meaning from other concurrent media in our
culture. We can talk or write about a movie, watch TV news that interprets
an event, watch a TV mass media genre like a sit-com that requires knowledge
of the codes for this genre, and listen to music, write email, and read
over multimedia Web pages all at the same time. We are constantly sending,
receiving, and making meaning in various kinds of media, often conveying
and interpreting meaning from one medium to another. This practice points
to the existence of our larger contemporary and inherited semiotic system,
or what some have termed a semiosphere, the whole universe of available
and possible meanings in a cultural system. Social Semiotics takes the
meaning-making process, "semiosis", to be more fundamental than the
system of meaning-relations among signs themselves, which are considered
only the resources to be deployed in making meaning. Social semiotics
examines semiotic practices, specific to a culture and community, for
the making of various kinds of texts and meanings in various situational
contexts and contexts of culturally meaningful activity.
Martin Irvine, 2004-2005