What is Semiotics?

What is Semiotics?

There are many different Semiotic research programs, so I will limit myself here to introducing the two kinds of Semiotics that I practice: (a) François Rastier’s Interpretive Semantics, a neo-saussurean, praxeological approach to studying linguistic texts (also called Textual Semantics); and (b)  “Paris School Semiotics”, in the tradition of Hjelmslev & Greimas; even more specifically the Semiotics of Discourse as developed by Jacques Fontanille and others. While these two semiotic approaches are very different they both contribute to a Semiotics of Cultures.

At this point in time, I believe that Rastier’s semiotic theory is the most convincing and useful semiotic approach out there. He has regained much of what was lost and misunderstood in the works of Saussure and he’s currently leading the way to a genuine Semiotics of Cultures (which we could just as well be called anthropology).


(1) From the point of view of Interpretive Semantics and the Semiotics of Cultures as developed by Francois Rastier, we find a neo-saussurean, radically nominal, praxeological approach to meaning in line with the rhetorical & hermeneutic traditions. It is a non-onotological, non-metaphysical, non-positivisist, non-logico-grammatical semiotics. From this point of view, meaning is immanent to an interpretive situation, not to a sign, a referent, an object, or a mind. Meaning is not determined by the relations between signs or elements of a sign, but rather through an interpretive path, the movement that produces these relations. Rastier’s Semiotics breaks away from most semiotic research programs in very fundamental ways. He also revives some of Saussure’s most important and often misunderstood contributions to linguistics and Semiotics in general.

François Rastier offers a view of semiosis focused on the interpretation of linguistic texts (oral or written) which is intricately connected with socio-cultural practice in which any interpretation takes place.  I will paraphrase and translate his definition of semiosis here:

Semiosis should not be defined as a relation between the signifier and the signified of a sign, but rather as the relation between the content and expression of texts and other semiotic performances. Semiosis is not defined by the logical relation between the two “faces” or “sides” (e.g., reciprocal supposition), but instead by the interpretive trajectories that produce it. Furthermore, the expression (signifier) and content (signified) planes are to be understood as a duality, in the Saussurean sense, not as an opposition. In other words, they are two points of view, not two discrete entities. The relations that establish meaning go from signified to signified (content to content) or from signified to signifier (content to expression). Therefore, Semiosis is defined by the network of relations between signifieds within a text; the signifiers serves as interpretants that permit the construction of these relations. Semiosis can only be fixed as a result of interpretation, not as its point of departure. In sum, meaning is produced in the trajectories that discretize and unite signifieds among themselves, by passing through signifiers.

For speakers, the signification of a word becomes mixed up with the enunciative and interpretive tradition in which they find themselves and which they perpetuate in their own way. In no case whatsoever can a word be reduced the relation between a sign, a concept, and a thing (referent or object), nor the traditional aliquid stat pro aliquo upon which many semiotic approaches are based. Signs are merely reified interpretations, or more precisely, those moments of interpretive trajectories that associate mental presentations with particular perceptions called signals. It must also be noted that a word is not a a sign, but rather a textual unit, a syntagm, a passage. Morphemes are the elementary units of language, while the text is the minimal unit.

[Source: Rastier, F. “De la signification au sens – pour une sémiotique sans ontologie” IN Dalla significazione al senso : per una semiotica senza ontologia, in Eloquio del senso, a cura di Pierluigi Basso e Lucia Corrain, Costa & Nolan, Milan, 1999, pp. 213-240., pp. 223-224)]

The sign is not the optimal unit of analysis for the kind of semiotics I practice.  The optimal unit is either a discourse (Fontanille) or a text (Rastier), both of which are defined in relation to the interpretive situation (or context) – social, historical, intertextual, etc. —  in which they occur.  I prefer the textual approach over the discursive approach because the text is an empirical cultural object, while discourse is more of a domain of semiotic activity; a corpus is made of texts, not discourses.

Following Saussure’s notion of kenome, Rastier has introduced the notion of passage – a stabilized moment of interpretation – to replace the sign.  A passage maintains the double, twofold  structure of the sign (i.e. the expression and content planes), but it can only be defined in relation to the context that precedes and follows it. For more on this, stay tuned for my upcoming paper “From the Sign to the Passage“.

(2) From the Point of view of the Semiotics of Discourse – derived from the “Paris School” tradition – Semiotics is the general theory of signification, which can also be called the general theory of langage, more in line with the logico-grammatical tradition than the rhetorical-hermeneutic one.  It also integrate elements of phenomenology in the form of tensive semiotics.  At its core is the Semiotic Function, or semiosis,  which can be defined as the positioning of a body — and its inevitable re-positioning — which in so doing establishes an interior domain of perception (interoceptivity), an external domain of perception (exteroceptivity), and a “self-aware” domain of perception (proprioceptivity).  This positioning – which is constantly in flux – allows the “perceiving body” to establish an isomorphic relationship  between the two “worlds” (inner and outer) in terms of expression vs. content (or signifier v. signified).  This “border” between expression and content is re-re-established at every moment; and it is always the result of an interpretive process (or trajectory.) When a form of expression corresponds to a form of content, we have semiosis. Ultimately, Any signifying whole — or sign — is the result of interpretive processes. In fact, the distinction between signifier and signified is a methodological one, not a “real” one, for they are two points of view from which we can look at semiosis.

Generally speaking….

Everything we experience has meaning because we are always interpreting the world.  A semiotician wants to identify and describe the underlying systems and processes of this experience. It is not a typology and description of signs. It is about the production and interpretation of texts and other semiotic performances. In other words, it is not a theory of signs or signification, but rather a theory of meaning. Semiotics endeavors to account for how meaning emerges, moves, and changes, and how we make sense of things; in short, its about how meaning is constructed or experienced through semiosis. In literary studies for example, one may ask what a text says or what its author is trying to say, but a semiotician wants to know how the text says what it says when we read it (i.e., how we can interpret it). And because very single act of interpretation is unique, the focus is more on interpretive trajectories rather than he identity of signs (after all., a typology of signs depends on a typology of interpretive paths).

Linguistics is the semiotics of languages, but there are many others. It depends on the semiotic system we are analyzing or describing (e.g., textual semantics, socio-semiotics, visual semiotics, audiovisual semiotics, plastic semiotics, the semiotics of marketing, architecture, fashion, art, and so on).  Basically, any cultural or natural domain that involves meaningful practices — which is just about everything! — can be studied from a semiotic point of view. It is important to emphasize that Semiotics is just one point of view, but a useful one, for the semiotic dimension of our lives is precisely where cultures happen . It can complement any other discipline concerned with meaning, and I can’t think of a discipline that is not concerned with signifying and interpretive processes in some form or another. In fact, we are so immersed in, and inseparable from, the semiotic world that it is impossible to call it a “discipline”. We are “bathing” in it.

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