Author Archives: Lauren Neville

Mapping our universe with signs

“A sign is something by knowing which we know something more. The whole universe is perfused with signs.” – C.S. Peirce

I find that the best way to comprehend the particular details of semiotics is to simply pick one sign vehicle that I can dissemble into the many components and theories surrounding semiotics. This week, I received a package in the mail from my summer trip to Fiji. The package was a hand crafted and personalized map of the islands. While looking at the map, I began thinking of the long history behind this symbolic tool that was an early form of writing and distributed cognition. Being that the whole universe is perfused with signs, it is not unusual that humans have been dedicating themselves to depicting the surrounding universe into a symbol form for thousands upon thousands of years through mapping.

imageProfessor Irvine notes, “We are able to store and forward symbolic thought from one generation to many others. Enabling a cumulative cultural ‘ratchet effect’ also known as ‘progress.'” This storage through time allows for the cumulative process in which all symbol systems evolve including maps that are known to hold the knowledge of geographical landmarks, political boundaries, and pathways to resources. The knowledge within these maps are also made from societal needs and created from the knowledge of many members of communities. They are created to be referenced over and shared throughout time while still holding the knowledge of a time in which they were created.

Ferdinand De Saussure discusses the recognition of two dimensions of meaning – the context-free and the socio-cultural value. This distinction is crucial for understanding any system of symbols that we come across. In the context of the complex meaning systems of maps, I found that socio-cultural value is key. The map I have was hand crafted and the artist not only wrote in all of the names of cities and towns within the island, but he drew in small depictions (what we would call icons) of the experiences that I had in certain places. He would ask what things you did and where to his customers to give more meaning to the map. He drew things like a person scuba diving, small trees being planted, and a boat traveling down a river (all experiences I had in those places in Fiji). When I showed this to friends, many said, “This map must really hold more meaning for you than a regular map.”

image (1)I then asked myself if this map does offer more meaning and why. I suppose that the meaning of all the symbols on a standard political geography map do not offer strong signifiers. Simple names may not provide the context of the experience held within the mind.

Aristotle writes, “And just as letters are not the same for all men neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs of – experiences in the mind – are the same for all, and what these mental experiences are linknesses of – actual things are also the same. ”  I think that this is important to note because while each map acts the same in what Peirce would call its material-perceptible form, we as a collective then have the initial learned associations. For example, everyone could tell it was a map and that it potentially held more meaning than other maps. However, in the triadic form, the response formed by such a map was only held within my own personal experience.

Our cumulative experiences with maps have changed throughout time simply based on our ability to change between the three basic classes of signs from likenesses, indicators, and general signs because of our abilities to capture the surrounding universe in different symbolic forms. While hand drawn historical maps are known for their geographical inaccuracies, we now use satellite and photo imagery to gain precise details of the planet and surrounding universe. However, it is important to remember these new and highly accurate depictions of the universe are still symbols of instances in time.



Irvine, Martin (2016). The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.

Irvine, Martin (2016). Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology Key Writings. Compiled and edited with commentary by Martin Irvine. Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Georgetown University.