Category Archives: Week 5

Pop Art and Semiotics (Roxy)

Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and the late 1950s in the United States. In pop art, Material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and combined with unrelated material. (Wikipedia) Pop art is the abbreviated version of popular art, since one of its aims is using images of popular culture in the art to narrate, parody, or to satirize.

These are examples of famous pop art.



According to C.S. Peirce, human thought is based on signs in symbol systems, each of which have a structure of material and cognitive relations. Language can be the most obvious symbol. But, actually, human beings cannot only rely on the language to express their feelings, since we are facing such a complex world. We can count on other symbols, visual symbols must be one of the popular ones. Compared with language, the components of visual symbols can be more arbitrary, creative, and abundant.

Although some linguist and philosopher, such as Susanne Langer, denied applying the laws of syntax that govern language on the analysis of articulation. I still think there exist a lot of similarities underneath the differences. I, here, use a famous Asian artist: Kusama Yayoi and her arts as an example to interperate.


u=955618547,2833888708&fm=21&gp=0The parallel constraint-based architecture of interpreting the theory of processing is used here to analyze the art work.Pretty same as the figure of linguistics, the processing of art can also be divided into three parallel structures: the spots structures, the syntactic structures, and the conceptual structures. (Jackendoff)

WechatIMG13The Spots Structures
Rather than the lexicon of linguistics, we can see clearly that Kusama Yayoi’s art works are composed by thousands of spots. They are the basic components of her art works. She, herself also mentioned that even earth is one of the millions of spots, when you finished one sport, you have already finished the universe and this world. In her art works, those spots are just like cells, or molecules, which are the origin and basis of the life.

WechatIMG15The Syntactic Structures

The combination of the spots also has its own syntax, so that to express. This syntax can also branch outward to color and size of the spots.

We can also see another obvious feature of her work, the infinite. She uses millions of spots to change the original formation of a stuff, and creates a continuing relation between this stuff and the outer space. So when facing this art work, it is hard for the audience to tell the reality and the world she created.

The Conceptual Structures

Pumpkin is one of her representative works. To Kusama Yayoi, pumpkin is an index of food. She had experienced the World War 2, pumpkins are the only food for them to survive through the famine. From then, pumpkin becomes her favorite vegetable. She sees pumpkin as the most humorous vegetables, and the flexible one as well. So in her art works, we can see the pumpkin is soft instead of having hard skin.



[1] Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

[2 Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language, selections on the “Parallel Architecture” model of language as a combinatorial system. Chap. 5.5, pp. 123-128; Chap. 7, pp. 196-200.

Parallel Computing and Surrealist Syntax – Alex MacGregor

I had first encountered the idea of “parallel architecture” in a computer science environment. As the amount of data we’re collecting continues to grow exponentially, the traditional method of linear computing has become ineffective. We simply could not build processors big enough to handle the sheer size of data we’re now dealing with. Parallel computing, also sometimes referred to as “distributed computing” has provided a solution to this problem by distributing the data load across multiple processors and thereby divvying up the workload. Linguistics, with its ability to produce an infinite number of possible sentences, can be seen as the ultimate workload, so using parallel architecture in a cognitive setting makes sense.

Visualization of Parallel Computing from WikipediaTripartite Parallel Architecture from Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language

I’ve previously touched upon it in my older posts, but the convergence of semiotic/linguistic concepts and computational concepts continues to excite me.

As for analyzing symbolic genres through the lens of a sign system, surrealist art provides an excellent avenue to do so. If we take a look at Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, we can see iconic resemblances, albeit distorted, throughout.

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) by Salvador Dalí

The head smiling in the clouds, the hand grasping a breast, the leg, the man in the bottom of the picture, and the town in the background are all recognizably connected to their respective signified, and as such are operating within the iconic mode. But when looking at this painting in a more abstract, meta sense, we can see how it is also operating in the symbolic mode. The scene is obviously one that does not, and cannot, exist in reality, so in order to analyze and derive meaning, we must utilize learned references. For example, Dali meant this painting to be a symbolic critique of the Spanish Civil War. The beans in the foreground were meant to augment the mass of flesh in the painting and represent war as a devourer of life. The skyline was meant to evoke that of Catalonia, which was a major revolutionary hub during the war. The signifier (painting) does not resemble that signified (Spanish Civil War), except when we utilize these agreed upon heuristics and abstractions. As such, the painting can be viewed as icons within a symbol.

What makes Surrealism interesting is by distorting the image on the iconic level and “playing” with the visual syntax, you can derive an interesting semantic result. Just like with linguistic grammar, we notice an awkwardness when the various elements, be they word classes or visual features, are out of their order. We call the former bad grammar, but the latter has been made into an art form.


Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar. Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.


Not the Gumdrop Buttons (Becky)

Shrek is one of my favorite animated movies. I think I still love it after ruminating on it as much as I have over the past few days. I looked at the scene in which Lord Farquaad interrogates the Gingerbread Man (Gingy), which involves conventional visual and linguistic sign systems.

In this scene, Farquaad and Gingy are talking to each other, and they use words, phrases, and sentences from a lexicon that is common to those who speak English. Most of these utterances follow syntactical rules. But the characters also employ defective lexical items, such as Gingy’s “pthuh” when he spits, which has semantics and phonology but doesn’t have syntax—although I’m not sure this example has meaning without the spitting visual. (I also wonder what a visual “defective lexical item” would be. Abstractions, maybe? It has semantics and “phonology,” but perhaps it does not have syntax.)

These lexical items “serve as interface rules,” as Jackendoff writes, that “correlate the parallel structures.” They are the bridges between the three major parts of the architecture of language—phonological, syntactic, and conceptual structures—which works in a nonlinear way. Interfaces seem very important, but how they actually work is unclear to me.

The interfaces and the parallel architecture as a whole help us make sense of what Gingy and Farquaad say. Our phonological structures somehow decipher the uttered lexical items according to learned rules; because of these rules, we know how the word “monster” is pronounced, for instance. Meanwhile, thanks to syntax, we understand the lexical items in the phrase “you’re a monster” to be instances of more general categories, such as contractions and nouns. That allows us to understand, for instance, more about what is being said because we know how these types are supposed to behave in English. And because of the semantic formation rules we know, we understand the negative implications of the word monster. In terms of sign functions, there’s more to this equation, but it seems that it boils down to the nature of a monster (the object, to use Peirce’s term) + the person of Farquaad (the representamen/sign vehicle) = Farquaad is being negatively described (the interpretant). I believe the resulting association of Farquaad with a monster is highly conventional, while Farquaad is less conventional in comparison (though I think both are symbolic signs).

Intersubjectivity and pragmatic context come into play quite a bit as well. Beyond the general Western fairy tale context, Gingy’s “eat me!” comment assumes the viewer understands that, though the directive could be taken quite literally in this case because he’s supposed to be made of gingerbread, he’s using the phrase as an expletive.

Something like a parallel architecture is potentially making sense of the visual side too. Our visual “phonogical” structures are perhaps decoding minimal visual units (pixels?) into something our brain understands. These units come together to form different patterns—of borders of shapes, light variation, textures, and so on. Something in our brains is capable of recognizing the patterns—the syntactical structures or the “phonological” structures, or some combination of both? The animators created these visual patterns according to syntactic rules that we can decipher thanks to shared understanding; something that is supposed to be like a human, for instance, shouldn’t have lips on its forehead. And semantic structures decode these images in different ways, such as Gingy’s eyebrow and mouth movements being understood to convey concern.

And then there are the previous experiences that influence our visual understanding of the scene. To use one example, anyone familiar with interrogation and torture visuals understands that this is a menacing situation without the characters even saying a word thanks to various (analogical?) signs, such as the lighting, Gingy’s placement on the table, the evidence of “milk boarding,” and other items. I can imagine a child unfamiliar with waterboarding asking why there was milk around Gingy’s head.

The visual interfaces here are a bit mysterious. I wonder if the patterns themselves could be interfaces; they seem as though they could correlate the various structures.

While much of the scene can be understood using just one of the sign systems, there are parts whose full meaning seems to depend on both visual and linguistic information. I wonder what kind of interfaces might bridge the divide between these two sign systems to bring all of the meaning together. Is it the same parallel architecture making sense of it all? Is there some interface that encompasses all sign systems? Now, I’m probably just be grasping for straws, or gumdrop buttons.


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Irvine, Martin. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” Unpublished manuscript, accessed September 28, 2016. Google Docs file.

Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Carson Collier

As most of you probably do not know, it is illegal to curse in the commonwealth of Virginia. If caught and found guilty, there is up to a $250 fine for each profanity used. As you can imagine, this law is not enforced very often. Until you take a visit to Virginia Beach and see the signs attached to street lamps all over the boardwalk. (Image 1)



Image 1

Looking at the sign as a whole, we can apply it to some different models. With Saussure’s dyadic model there is a Signified and a Signifier, and the relationship these share creates a sign. “A sign must have both a signifier and a signified. You cannot have a totally meaningless signifier or a completely formless signified…” (Chandler, p. 15). In this case the signified would be the actual sign and the signifier would be the indication that you are in a ‘no cursing zone’.

In Peirce’s Model there is the representamen, an interpretant and an object. The representamen is the physical sign itself. The interpretant is that this is a no cursing zone. The object is that the combination of the physical sign and the indication of a “no cursing zone” evoke a feeling of ‘warning’ or ‘no’.


Let us look at the different aspects of the sign. First, we see a big red ‘no’ symbol (Image 2). This aspect of the sign is iconic, it is commonly known to indicate some kind of warning. This indication of a warning is almost instant and you know to look for what the warning is referring to.


Image 2

After our brain processes the ‘warning’ or ‘no’ aspect of the sign, we see a sequence of characters meant to convey profanity. What I find interesting about this, is that any sequence of characters can covey ‘profanity’. This particular order does not have a different meaning then something like this:


Or this:


Does this idea fall under a different set of rules?

Fun Fact
According to the fines associated with this law brought it over $6,000 worth of profit for the city. 


Chandler, D. (2007) Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Irvine, M. “Introduction to Meaning Systems and Cognitive Semiotics“.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs


Shark Attack – Ojas Patel

via GIPHY (idk why I’m having so much trouble embedding this GIF, sorry y’all, you’ll have to click the link)

The GIF above comes from a famous scene in Jaws when the protagonist, chief of police Martin Brody, witnesses the event he’s anxiously and begrudgingly anticipating: a shark attack (check out this song if you’re into weird, experimental, abrasive hardcore with tenor sax, or if you just wanna hear someone scream “shark attack”). The scene is famous for its thematically befitting use of the dolly zoom, a technique in which the camera simultaneously pulls away from and zooms in on the subject. The technique creates the effect of the background moving farther away and more of the peripheral scenery coming into view, while the subject’s distance stays the same, or as in this case, pulls closer. A technique first popularized in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this distortion in perspective has a disorienting effect. In this scene, it intensifies the panic spreading through the tourists and Amity Island townies witnessing the event. I’m going to attempt a reading of this scene through the lens of semiotics and parallel architecture.

Applying Peirce’s triadic model of semiosis to film, we can think of the sensory data, the audio and video, as representamen. This includes the score, the image of the beach, and people in the foreground, etc. Brody’s physical features, and all the representamen are representative of the object, or the ideas the video and audio are supposed to represent. The scene’s role as a narrative device and what it adds to the tone and catharsis of tension can be considered interpretants. All of these components together give the shot interpretable meaning that functions like a sign. Furthermore, we can distinguish the different types of signs. In the symbolic realm, the distortion of space through time is symbolic of the scene’s tone. Ellen’s hands and how they’re placed on Brody’s shoulders is indexical of affection. Finally, the image of the beach is iconic of a beach. And let’s not forget, our interpretations of these signs are signs in themselves. Turtles, turtles, turtles, it’s just turtles all the way down.

I’ll try to discuss the shot in terms of parallel architecture. The phonological components of film would be the raw sensory data – the audio and video. The screaming of the beach patrons, the colors and shapes, and the film score all function as minute, sensory components of meaning. The semantic components would be the themes, logical structure, emotional response, etc. The syntactical components would be the sequences of images/audio/scenes. In the shot above, the syntax of frames maps us from the first image where the background is close up to an image in which it is much farther. However, the syntax of frames, as in parallel architecture, is not solely responsible for generating the meaning of the shot; the syntax is its own generative process that interfaces with the phonological and semantic structures of the film.


Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2002.

Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2002.

It’s a long way to go from a frog to a hate symbol (at least for me) – Ruizhong Li

‘Pepe the Frog’ meme deemed a hate symbol by Anti-Defamation League

When I saw the title this morning, I am not sure whether I can understand what it means, even though I know every single word in this title. As I scrolled down the screen, a picture showed up:

The Deplorables

OK, well, I have to admit that the only thing I know about the picture is that the guy in the middle is Donald Trump. But, wait … what’s that frog? It looks so familiar to me. Oh! that’s the famous meme! The sad frog! As I looked back to the title, I realized that the frog is not named as “sad frog”; it’s called “Pepe the Frog”. And as I continued to read the news, I even found out that the frog was not designed as “a sad frog” at the very beginning. The design of the picture looks like adapting from the poster of The Expendables – nice mimicking, but, what does “The Deplorables” mean? These people (and the frog) are put into the same frame because they are “The Deplorables”. The literal meaning of “deplorable” is “deserving strong condemnation”, but as I continued the search, it turns out that “the deplorables,” means people who are racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic.

… STOP! I am overwhelmed now. The series of self-asking and self-answering process shows that several pairs of triadic (as Peirce would say) relationships are going on here. The frustrated feeling accompanies with my superficial understanding – I only know one vertex of the triangle. For example, if I was overhearing someone’s conversation, and they were talking about “Pepe the Frog”, I would probably ask a question: what is “Pepe the Frog”. And they would show me a picture, and as soon as I saw the picture, I would suddenly realize that, “Oh! It is THIS frog”. I only store the symbol (representamen) of the frog in my mind, and merely with the symbol I cannot communicate the referent (object) with people. It is the object that provide people with an interface to communicate the concept and thought (interpretant). There is no direct relation between the symbol and the referent, I think the relation between the symbol (representamen) and the referent(object) is mediated by the thought (interpertant). Since I have a wrong u nderstanding of the origin of the frog, which leads to misunderstanding the relation between the representamen and the interpretant (a relaxed frog was misinterpreted as a sad frog), let alone the relation between a wrong interpretant and the object. Therefore, establishing “correct” relation between three vertices relies upon individual’s experience. I have never seen the comic, where “Pepe the Frog” made his debut. I didn’t experience the process how “Pepe the Frog” became famous on the Internet starting from At the first time I met “Pepe the Frog”, he was already deemed “sad”. I set up a wrong relationship between the symbol in my mind, and the interpretant, and the object. Fortunately, today’s experience helped me integrate the three vertices.

However, sometimes I get lost in setting up the relationship between the three vertices because of the culture or social context. That’s why I say that it’s a long way to go from a frog to a hate symbol (at least for me). Hardly can I relate this frog meme to “White Supremacy”. As Ogden & Richard suggested, “When we speak, the symbolism we employ is caused partly by the reference we are making and partly by social and psychological factors”. We cannot get rid of the social context when communicating. Those people growing up in similar circumstances share the common ground when they are talking and the common ground has been embedded in the society structure, or institutionalized. The cognition process is intersubjective, and is generated by adding on social factors. In this case, people who grew up in America, and had a strong interest in politics and discrimination issues would easily go through the chain of sign-situation intervening between the act (making a reference) and its referent (the outcome of the act). For me, it’s a long way to go, because I know little about the both ends of the relationship, and limited by my culture circumstances, being indifferent to politics has become a normal thing in my life. That’s the reason why I think it is incredible to make such a reference.


[1] “Clinton Expresses Regret for Saying ‘Half’ of Trump Supporters Are ‘Deplorables’ –” Accessed September 29, 2016.
[2] “‘Pepe the Frog’ Meme Deemed a Hate Symbol by Anti-Defamation League – Washington Times.” Accessed September 29, 2016.

Symbolic System in “Bloodline” – Jieshu Wang

One thing I learned from this week’s reading is the relationship between semiotics and linguistics. In his Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler briefly introduced the history behind these two interconnected disciplines, including the impact to semiotics from Saussurean Linguistics and C.S. Peirce’s triadic innovation[i]. Semiotics borrows many concepts and methods from linguistics, and extends to much broader sign systems. This week I’d like to use the works of Xiaogang Zhang, a Chinese surrealist painter best known for his Bloodline series, as examples to illustrate how we understand meanings from paintings.

Bloodline: Big Family No.1, by Xiaogang Zhang (1996)

Bloodline: Big Family No.1, by Xiaogang Zhang (1996)

Bloodline in Pierce’s model

As you can see, Xiaogang’s paintings have very distinct characteristics, reminiscent of Chinese family portraits from decades ago. The faces in the painting are nearly identical, expressionless, and sad, though they have different genders, clothes and hair styles. They look alike one another partly because they are family. Moreover, there are other meanings.

Decades ago, China went through a very hard time, both materially and psychologically. During that time, individualism was opposed while collectivism was favored by government. People regardless of age and gender tended to wear similar drab clothes—mostly dark green reminiscent of military uniform—to avoid other people’s attention. In addition, pop culture was highly restricted, only a very limited number of songs and movies being allowed to be released. I don’t want to talk about politics, but honestly, this period of time was really difficult for average people, including my family. Taking a family portrait was a big event for most families, so everyone would put on their best clothes and the same grave expressions, almost identical. These portraits are real epitomes of that period of time.

What makes Xiaogang’s works so special is the sign system subtly hiding in his usage of color, shape, and shade. Consider the painting below. I will use Peirce’s triadic system (representamen, interpretant, and object) to discuss. For simplicity, interpretant will be left out.

Bloodline: Big Family, by Xiaogang Zhang (1999)

Bloodline: Big Family, by Xiaogang Zhang (1999)

  1. Sign System 1
    1. Representamen 1: a zigzag red line connecting the three people
    2. Object 1: a symbol for family, where many Chinese traditional values reside, including collectivism.
  2. Sign System 2
    1. Representamen 2: identical faces
    2. Object 2: lack of self-identity, excessive collectivism.
  3. Sign System 3
    1. Representamen 3: gloom color
    2. Object 3: depression.
  4. Sign System 4
    1. Representamen 4: red scarf
    2. Object 4: an icon for Young Pioneer
  5. Sign System 5
    1. Representamen 5: the boy’s face being retouched to brown
    2. Object 5: an oppressed desire to be free.
  6. Sign System 6
    1. Representamen 6: the boy with a unique brown face wearing a red scarf around his neck, which is the only colorful thing in the whole painting.
    2. Object 6: the desire of young people to be different, but ending up with the same institution—red scarf is the index of Young Pioneer, in turn, a symbol of institutionalization. Here, the process of interpretant of last two signs (red scarf and retouched brownness) becomes the representamen of this sign, demonstrating the difference between Saussure’s signified and Peirce’s interpretant, which itself is a “sign in the mind of the interpreter[i]”.
Peirce’s successive interpretants. Source: Semiotics: The Basics.

Peirce’s successive interpretants. Source: Semiotics: The Basics.

  1. Sign System 7
    1. Representamen 7: stains on the faces
    2. Object 7: psychological scars. In China, people always put family portraits under a glass pane on the table. Sometimes, tea would somehow get under the pane and stain the photo. Notice the shape of the stains is sharp like a blade.

Strictly speaking, however, I don’t think the “Parallel Architecture” paradigm can always be extended to sign systems other than language, in which phonological structures, syntactic structures, and conceptual formation structures are interconnected with interface rules[ii].

In paintings, lines and shapes are counterparts of linguistic phonological structures that have no meanings. In Xiaogang’s paintings, the “syntactic structures” are meaningful and interpretable shapes made up of lines, such as the people, the red scarf, and the red line. But the “syntactic structures” of paintings are not universally necessary. Abstractionism has abandoned this intermediate layer between “phonological structures” and “conceptual structures”. For example, Convergence by Jackson Pollock is totally a mess at first glance. No recognizable shapes can be found in the painting. It uses simple “phonological structure” to achieve a conceptual meaning of freedom, let alone Mark Rothko’s works without any specific objects but able to tranquilize a disturbed soul.

Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock. Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.


Mark Rothko’s works in Rothko Chapel, Huston. Source:


Just as philosopher Susanne Langer said that the law governs their articulation “are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language[i]”. Nevertheless, I believe understanding the rules behind sign systems will give us new insights into the rules governing our cognition.

Are We Bayesian Learners?

After reading Prof. Irvine’s In-class group exercise on first steps in semiotic analysis, I got some thoughts and questions. Prof. Irvine mentions that we are all pattern recognizers, and we all have the ability to generalize individual patterns to genres. I think this pattern recognizing ability is exactly where our powerful learning abilities reside. We don’t need a lot of examples to learn the common patterns of a genre. For example, we can recognize a watermelon in a supermarket just after several encounters of pictures of watermelon, even if we never saw a real watermelon before and they all look somehow different in size, color and pattern. We know it is a watermelon at the first glance. But it is really hard for computers to learn a new genre of things. Computer scientists have to label hundreds of thousands of pictures as in-put data for an algorithm to learn what a house or a dog looks like. After tons of hours of data-learning, they even can’t distinguish a dog from a cat. This so-called “supervised learning” definitely is not what our brains use to form conceptions.

However, there’s a research on Science last year, in which the researchers use “Bayesian Program Learning” (BPL) to teach a computer program to learn new written languages. The program captured the features of new characters and learned how to write them only through very few examples, achieving “human-level performance while outperforming recent deep learning approaches[iii].” I wonder whether this “Bayesian Learning” method is the secret of our brains in terms of pattern recognizing and learning.


[i] Chandler, Daniel. 2007. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. Basics (Routledge (Firm)). London ; New York: Routledge.

[ii] Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. OUP Oxford.

[iii]Lake, Brenden M., Ruslan Salakhutdinov, and Joshua B. Tenenbaum. 2015. “Human-Level Concept Learning through Probabilistic Program Induction.” Science 350 (6266): 1332–38. doi:10.1126/science.aab3050.

Our signs systems as interpretations: Lions

imageimageWhile doing these readings this week, I was also reading the book, Animal Internet which discussed the future of networked technology and our relationship to animals and the wild. It came to my attention how cultural relationships between humans and the environment happen through sign systems. Rarely do most citizens interact with the reality of a living animal. More often humans are interacting with the sound of the name of an animal, a written name of an animal, or very commonly a graphical interpretation of the animal.

Our relationships with animals revolve around our relationships to the symbol that is made to embody their essence. I began to analyze how Peirce would descibe our relationship and the psychological process that we go through when interacting with symbols of animals instead of the reality of them. An example of this may be the varying depictions of Big Cats throughout history, including lions and tigers.

Imagine a painting of a lion fighting a gladiator in Ancient Rome. We then begin Peirce’s triadic model. The object itself is a lion. The lion is depicted using paint into a piece of clay pottery. This is the representamen or sign vehicle. An ancient Roman is then looking at this pottery and with their own cultural and personal lens they interpret that lion as being vicious, aggressive, and often in fights with humans.

All of that meaning is not contained in that piece of pottery nor is an actual lion. The only way that the meaning is derived is from the relationship between the representamen and the interpreter. In this final process, meaning is made.

Does a simple example like this also help explain the notion of “double articulation” in linguistic patterns? From our Chandler reading we learned about the infinite amount of meanings we can make from a low-level of units. Chandler discussed that visual representations could fall into this duality of patterns in that elements of artistic design like lines are the sub- units that make up visual media. Could I go as far as to say that varying those lines across visual media in such a particular way has also allowed us to depict potentially the same thing (a lion) in visual representations in infinite different ways? For example lions have been looked at as brave, regal, terrifying, cute, cuddly, and helpless across pictorial depictions for millennia.

While I am focusing on animals in this piece because of personal interests, I think they also make for a good example of how we interact with other life forms and the universe through our relationships to signs interpreted to be the actual material things. I feel that this makes signs the most powerful tool in experiencing emotions towards causes like wildlife conservation.

When a milkshake doesn’t really mean a milkshake (Jameson)

To illustrate the concepts discussed in this week’s readings, I would like to focus on the symbolic genre of a movie scene. In particular, to make the theoretical concepts come alive, I will specifically examine what is perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in contemporary film, the “I drink your milkshake!” scene from There Will Be Blood.

To someone who doesn’t speak English, this line in and of itself holds no meaning. To a casual English speaker who hears this line out of the context of the movie, it may sound comical, juvenile, or just ludicrous. But to someone watching the movie, who has the ability to think symbolically at high levels, this line takes on a whole new, sinister meaning. This is because meaning generation is a process, as Peirce calls semiosis, and the context in which the meaning is generated is important to what the meaning turns out to be. [1] Just as this is true within the triadic model framework in language, it can also be true for other mediums and forms of communication. As best as I can, I will map Peirce’s model for language onto this particular movie scene.

This scene is the climax of the film and pits the ruthless oil tycoon protagonist Daniel (Daniel Day Lewis) against his nemesis Eli, an opportunistic preacher who cares more about money than faith (Paul Dano). [SPOILERS] It is near the end of the movie, and Eli is offering to sell Daniel a piece of oil-rich property that Daniel has had his eye on for a while. To humiliate him, Daniel agrees to buy the property only if Eli renounces his faith, which he does. Daniel then reveals that he had secretly been draining the property of oil for years using nearby wells on his own land, and that the property was worth nothing. “I drink your milkshake!” in this case becomes derisive, intimidating, triumphant.

To start, the language portion of the scene is clearly symbolic in the Peircean sesnse. In “I drink your milkshake!”, the representamen are the literal words—in this case, focusing on “milkshake.” Peirce also sometimes refers to this as the sign itself (though Peirce had 76 different definitions of “sign” throughout his work, so who knows). [2] The object referred to here is not the concept of an actual milkshake you would drink, but of oil and, going deeper, of personal wealth and resources generally. When Daniel talks about a straw reaching across the room to drink somebody else’s milkshake, we understand that he is not speaking literally but metaphorically. This is the interpretant. Because of the context, we are able to decode the overall sign and understand the true intended meaning. [3]

Extrapolating a bit to other, non-language elements of the scene, I am in a bit of unknown territory. Sticking with the element of sound, but separated from language itself, we observe a number of artistic choices that signal things to us as viewers. The absence of music focuses our attention on the dialogue; the contrast between whispering and yelling gives a dynamic, foreboding feel to the scene; the slurping sound Daniel makes during his “milkshake” crescendo emphasizes the visceral, primal emotionality behind the exchange. With the possible exception of the last example, these aspects of the scene signify certain meanings because we have learned to interpret them as such. In terms of the element of imagery, Daniel bent and standing over a hunched Eli signifies his power over him. The fact that Daniel is bent himself shows his own weakness and wretchedness, and still being visually higher in the frame than Eli positions him as dominant. Later in the scene, his finger pointing in Eli’s face suggests a confrontation between the two. The finger (pointing) is the representamen, the concept of intimidation or confrontation is the object, and the link between the two in our minds is the interpretant.

If someone were to watch this scene even without speaking a lick of English, they would still probably understand at least the dynamic between the characters. This is because they more resemble natural signs/icons or indexes, rather than the more arbitrary symbols that are found in language. These non-language elements of the scene support the meaning-making process, though they may not map perfectly onto Peirce’s model as he developed it for language.


[1] Irvine, Martin. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

[2] Marty, Robert. “R. Marty’s 76 Definitions of the Sign by C.S. Peirce.” Arisbe, 16 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

[3] Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2007. Web.

Logical Directionality of Sight (and lots of Flags)

We are still working out whether language is the model or the main modeling system for other forms of meaning making (Irvine). While we attempt to work this out, we can use theories of language and see how they apply in other symbolic genres. While looking at Jackendoff’s model of logical directionality of language perception I wanted to test out how it would work if applied to sight.

When we hear something we first analyze the sound (phonology), then the words in the sound (lexicon) and the structure of those words (syntax), enabling us to parse what they mean so we can think about them. When we see something, for instance a flag, what is the order in which we uncover it’s meaning? While flags often carry with them ideas of distinct nationality, most are not particularly visually idiosyncratic. Exhibit A, the French Flag:


The first thing we might process would be the flags spatial size. If we did not have this cognitive possess this cognitive ability, we would not be able to distinguish the flag from any of the other images in front of us, and would not make it to the next step of processing. Following Jackendoff’s rules, we simultaneously process the shape and color of the flag. If we could comprehend the French flags color, but not the shapes within it, we might be fooled into thinking we were looking at a Russian flag:


If we could comprehend the French flags shape, but not its proper color we might believe we are looking at the Belgian flag:


Flags exist dialogically like everything else, and the tri-color vertical design could pay homage to the country its second most popular language is derived from. The last step would be to put all of this information together and evaluate it based on context. If an image identical to the French flag was displayed in an art gallery and given the name Composition X it could be seen as a really lazy attempt at De Stijl, rather than a key component of French national identity.

Of course there are other processes that need to be in consideration. A flag can exist physically in ways that words cannot, while they are also unable to convey the depth of meaning that words can. A large French flag made out of cotton may inspire more reverence then a pixelated flag. Why do certain colors convey meaning? A feeling of “red” is a qualisign that means anger, feeling “blue” could indicate sadness. Tying it back to flags rather crudely, do French and Russian exclaim they feel the “red, white, and blue” when they feel patriotic?


Martin Irvine, Selections from: Semiotics, Symbolic Cognition, and Technology: A Reader of Key Texts

Ray Jackendoff, Foundations of Language, selections on the “Parallel Architecture” model of language as a combinatorial system. Chap. 5.5, pp. 123-128; Chap. 7, pp. 196-200.

Semiotic Elements and Classes of Signs (Wikipedia)