In-class group exercise on first steps in semiotic analysis

First Steps in “De-Blackboxing” Kinds of Meaning-Making

First semiotic analysis: using the concepts, distinctions, and approaches that you’ve encountered so far. You can use this background for what we will do with specific examples in class.

We can “de-blackbox” much of what we do in the everyday process of identifying the kinds of things we take as meaningful. We use the individual expressions, representations, and artefacts of our popular culture as interfaces to the meaning systems that they are part of. But, as in language, we are normally unaware of how we make meaning (enact being symbolic) with individual genres of expression because it’s not self-conscious.

We will analyze examples of expression and representation in everyday genres — a kind of image or photo, a kind of movie or TV show (or, more manageable, a segment or shot from one), a kind of music genre, a genre of artwork or other visual composition. How and why do these individual instances mean what we take them to mean?

First step:
Seeing that we always recognize
individual forms as instances of kinds of things, instances of genres, which are clusters of types (in Peirce’s terms). We can’t understand a specific example, instance, or case without making inferences (usually unconscious) about the kind, sort, genre, or type of signifying thing that it is. After this step, we begin making all the other levels and layers of meaning associations. (Again, we can’t observe ourselves doing this, but wait and find out how and why we can “reverse engineer” what must be going on from what we can observe.)

We always experience tokens (individual perceptible instances) of types of things. Signs and symbols are only recognized in replicable or repeatable forms. That’s why no “one off” thing can be understood or used symbolically — we couldn’t correlate its features to a known pattern or have any way of discovering what genre(s) it belongs to.

We never experience “photography” or “music” in general:  we always experience instances of genres of photos and instances of genres of music. When thinking about how a specific instance means (how it has the meanings it can have in whatever social context it’s being received in), first try to bring to a conscious and explicit level a description of the kind or type of thing that it is.

Examples: We’re All Pattern Recognizers
You know almost immediately the difference between a documentary or news photograph and a selfie or family snapshot. Same with different types of genres in examples of music, art works, and all the media representations we see on our digital screens. How and why can we do this? How and why do we need to differentiate forms and pattern match features to their types or genres? Why is “mapping” (in the logical and computer science sense of the term) from instances to types, classes, and sorts of things a normal part of human thinking? (It is.) A built-in feature of being symbolic creatures is being pattern recognizers.

What is a pattern? A pattern is an inferred abstract generalizable form that holds over many instances and cases wherever we detect them, and a pattern can be instantiated or imposed in unlimited forms of new representations. (Analogy: remember the regular patterns of speech sounds [phonology], syntax combinations, and word classes that make up a language. Those patterns are bi-directional for both expression and interpretation. This capability holds throughout our sign systems.)

Pattern matching is the first step or level of making meaning from individual, here and now, expressions and representations; it’s the foundation of always being socially semiotic. Everyone can make inferences from what’s present in a specific perception of something represented (features, characteristics, repetitions of form) to the most likely conceptual, emotional, and highly abstract-symbolic responses. Pattern matching to the identity (kind of thing) of a photo, piece of music, artwork, style of writing, is what we all can do to begin the more complex associations that follow.

From Patterns to Genres:
From experiencing many instances, we sort and store (remember) the inferences about patterns of form and meaning, the regularities and continuities of types as they are instanced in individual expressions and representations. We soon have a sense of our kinds or types of cultural genres of expression and representation, both everyday and “high culture” genres that we experience in literature, museums, concert halls, and high-design architecture. When we experience instances of new forms or genres that are unknown or unfamiliar to us, we then continue to use inductive leaps of reasoning to patterns we may recognize, and when we don’t “get” a new thing, we can ask others to provide identifying information (“oh, that’s a style of music from…and it works like this…”) or find background information (“oh, that artist was working in a genre used in the 14th century, and the symbolism refers to…”) to learn how to add to our “encyclopedia” repertoire of symbolic associations.

We soon have (totally unconsciously) developed conceptual frameworks from our available intersubjective meaning networks to continue recognizing feature patterns in new, previously unexperienced instances of things. This is the broader “pan-semiotic” principle of productivity and combinatoriality we learned in linguistics: unlimited generative productivity of meaning formation from finite means (in whatever structures an individual sign system like music, written narrative, or visual art are based on).

We know that something is meaningful–fulfills a sign or symbol function–when our expectations and anticipations of significant features, the patterns that add up to how something can be recognized as an instance of a genre in our culture’s types or symbolic forms and expressions, are fulfilled. And we can go on to discover how instance of expression or representation can use combinations of features from more than one genre, type, style, or kind for making complex and nuanced meanings in whatever interpretive context. Think of all the hybrid, mixed, and remixed styles and genres we have. We create new hybrid genres all the time (popular music, TV, and the movie industry expects and even wants hybrid, mixed genres to be developed).

So, let’s get to work, and see what we can see when we open the lid on the black boxes a bit. We will find interfaces to many of the structures that we can’t see but have to be there to explain everything we can see.

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About Martin Irvine

Martin Irvine is a professor at Georgetown University and the Founding Director of Georgetown's graduate program in Communication, Culture & Technology. He is interested in a wide range of interdisciplinary topics, including media theory, semiotics, cognitive science approaches to language and symbolic culture, computation and the Internet/Web, philosophy and intellectual history, art theory, contemporary music, vintage guitars, and all things post-postmodern.