Thinking through Signs

Welcome to the first (formal) blog thread.

Last night we discussed what is and is not a medium, as well as the relationship that content has to various media. We also spoke a bit about certain processes associated with media existence and activity, in addition to (potential) impacts arising (from media activity) out in the social world . . . I know, it was a lot to take in.

Now, in our first reading, by John Fiske, the focus seems to be less on media than on content. Specifically, the reading centers on “signs” and how this relates to: (1) human communication, and (2) how signs might be formalized into a coherent “system” of meaning.

Building on this reading, think a bit about any of the following:

  1. sign language
  2. body language/gesture
  3. written script
  4. spoken words
  5. sound
  6. music
  7. odor
  8. taste
  9. emoji

What place do any (or all) have in a theory of signs? How are they related to our understanding of communication. How do any of these operate (concretely) as signs and/or within a hermetic system of meaning?

Identify an example (or two) of one of these (above elements) and explain it/them using some of the ideas or concepts in the Fiske reading.

Finally, is media’s role in this exercise: negligible, pervasive, or case-by-case (situational)?

{I know–it sounds like an essay prompt. Well, it doesn’t have to be. Write about whatever strikes your fancy, and no more than 1 to 3 paragraphs is expected. [Some writers, of course, can’t help themselves and before they know it, have penned 7 or 12!]}

5 thoughts on “Thinking through Signs

  1. I think that sign language, body language, written script, spoken words, music, and emojis are all symbols that human give meaning to based on societal norms, popular thought, and other sorts of rules created by man. These signs differ across cultures and have different connotations depending on who you ask. They are abstract. I think that odor, taste, and sound can be seen as indexes because they are an extension of the things they represent. For example, cows make the moo noise, the smell of poop is distinguishable around the world, and strawberries have a taste that is different from other foods. These are pretty concrete signs that don’t necessary change across cultures.

    Fiske mentions that written scripts are the ultimate example of symbols because the people who create the scripts determine their meanings. For example, we know that the word person means a human being because our ancestors decided that the word “person” in the English language would be a symbol for a human being.

    I think media’s role is pervasive because when it comes to non-universal signs like symbols, the media breaks the borders and makes them more universal. For example, people in Europe would not know what the dab is if they didn’t come across someone dabbing on the Internet or social media. The media allows people to be aware of the different meanings attributed to symbols that vary across cultures.

  2. Although it is rather specific the first thing I thought of when analyzing those nine items was Fiske’s description of the paradigm and syntagm. In the text he explains that Saussure defined a paradigm as a group of signs or objects that share a similar characteristic. The formation of a sign involves choosing a paradigm to represent it (for example road warning signs are all triangular). To Saussure, a syntagm is the resulting sign that has used traits from multiple paradigms to convey a unique meaning.

    Looking at the nine items I immediately noticed that all of them could be classified as a paradigm. In that sense media is the resulting syntagm that is formed from the combination of these paradigms. For example me screaming, “No!” involves the sound my throat makes, the spoken word, and my body language could all contribute to the creation of one message/media.

    In this lens media becomes a pervasive part of the theory of signs. The theory of signs essentially becomes a break down on the formation of media and a categorization of types.

  3. While reading Fiske, one of the first questions that popped into my head during the breakdown of Pierce & Saussure’s ideas pertaining to semiotics was, “Where does sign language fit into this?” According to Pierce, words are signs that are interpreted by interpretants based on one’s past experience with the words. Saussure, the linguist, signify words based on how they interact with other words – there’s the “physical existence” of the word then what the word means according to the interpretant. This argument makes more sense in terms of sign language. Though I’m still not sure whether Saussure would classify sign language as “arbitrary” because of its direct relationship to the written word, or iconic because of its physical representation, or somewhere in between, the idea that we “read” or interpret sign language based on the context of the signs that come before and after it seems to fit Saussure’s analysis better than it would fit Pierce’s.

    However, further down in Fiske’s article, he says, “Signs with no conventional dimension are purely private and thus do not communicate.” “Conventions,” as defined a few sentences earlier, are “an agreement amongst users about the appropriate uses of and responses to a sign.” If this is the case, then does it mean that people who know sign language cannot truly communicate with people who do not? If I’m not sure of the conventions of sign language, can I respond appropriately; and what if I use another form of communication to respond, like “arbitrary” words? If I read Ong’s piece correctly, I think I agree more with him than any of the other people Fiske wrote about – signs, orality, and visual representations of words (symbols) have been about for so long that maybe we shouldn’t reduce them to being arbitrary and shouldn’t take them out of our academic readings of Words. At least it helps with the sign language bit.

    I don’t really know what to think about media’s role in this reading. I guess it’s pervasive in the system of signs that comes from categorization, but at the core level of letters, units, and Saussure’s idea of arbitrariness, media itself seems less important and certainly less pervasive.

  4. After reading Fiske, I wanted to explore how sign language and spoken word relate to the theory of signs. Sign language and spoken word are both extensions of language. I found it particularly interesting how our mental associations differ between sign language and spoken word. They both take the english language and use our mental associations of signs to create meaning. With sign language, the signifiers of the sign are the physical symbols being displayed by hand. When we’re presented with the sign, our signified mental concept consists of us converting the physical symbol into a word that we are familiar with. Its like they symbol is an index of the word. This relationship makes sign language an iconic medium; With spoken word, the signifiers are the individual letters that come together to compose words. As we put these words together, our signified mental concept of the sign associates them to experiences, memories, and mental images. In some ways, spoken word can be seen as arbitrary.

    As far as media, I think it’s role is case by case. It has always been the vessel that allows us to communicate. Media in this sense is arbitrary because there are many signs, like language, that have . However, we live in a time that is heavily influenced by social media; there are signs that we make meaning of, like memes, that are understood based on their iconic relations.

  5. This is somewhat off the topic, but I am in a religion and film class right now and we are discussing how the different ways that things are portrayed through various forms of media, cause people to have certain take aways from it. With this in connection with signs, I think they are one in the same because in Fiske’s essay he spoke about the triangle diagram and how different things can cause for different interpretations of things. So, I am curious do you think that viewers can control the things that they take away from these forms of media or do you think that media plays the dictator in just controlling how the viewers feel?

Leave a Reply