Category Archives: Week 5

Dreams Complicate Things

Rebecca Tantillo

So I’d like to start off by saying that this week’s readings were my favorite thus far. But, while I found them extremely interesting, I am also pretty confused. So I hope anyone who reads this doesn’t get more confused.  That said, here we go!

An analogue clock is an iconic sigsign that displays a discrete qualitative account of time. The relationship of the sign to the interpretant on this level would be rhemetic, because it represents what we understand as the standard assessment of time. The hands on a clock also make it an indexical sigsign that visually indicate a specific time of day by motivating the thoughts of an individual toward specific numbers in combination with each other designate the time. In this sense, the clock’s interpreted relationship is dicisign, because it points to the actual existence of a certain time of day. Lastly, based on consistent cultural reinforcement, the clock as a symbolic legisign has come to represent the idea of time in general. Of course, this symbolic understanding is the syllogism of various cultural understandings of what time is and how it is commonly represented, thus making this level of the clock’s interpretation an argument (Parmentier 16-8) I am certain that there are additional ways that an analogue clock acts as a sign, but I will use those interpretations at least as my starting point.

Understanding an analogue clock as a sign in that manner is relatively straightforward. I say relatively, only because I’m now going to attempt to understand how to interpret a mediated representation of a clock without hands from a dream, such as appears in the film Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. Since this is a rather ambitious undertaking, I am going to limit this analyzation to the ways in which this specific representation can be understood as an icon, index and symbol. Please see the following clip for reference: Wild Strawberries – Video retrieved from Youtube (JuhaOutuinen).

Any sign must have its root in iconicity, because iconic representation forms the “ground” of any significance in a sign. Furthermore, according to the linguist John Lyons, “iconicity is ‘always dependent upon properties of the medium in which the form is manifest'” (Chandler 41). With these two ideas in mind, we must first understand how the medium of film works as an icon and, consequently, a sign. On the most basic level, the images and sounds that make up film are icons because the present “perceived resemblances” of a reality that the director intends to show (Chandler 40). These resemblances, of course, are false to a certain degree, because whatever is outside of the frame is not represented. However, those that are within the frame are physically captured and relayed to the viewer, causing film to be an indexical representation (Chandler p. 43). Alone, these images and sounds are iconic and indexical, but combined with context of the film and any cultural or relevant knowledge the viewer may have that can support their understanding of the film they are symbolic.

Next, it is important to understand the representation of a dream. Because dreaming is an unconscious, unobservable state, any representation of a dream must be considered symbolic. There is no grounding to the concept of a dream, just as there is no physical manifestation of a dream outside of actually dreaming itself. Thus, when Bergman presents the dream sequence in the clip shown above, we must symbolically “buy in” to his iconic and indexical representation of a dream. Bergman helps leads us to do so by presenting this dream sequence following a representation of the man featured in the dream lying in bed. He then uses indexical signifiers of stark light, unnerving silence, empty streets, surreal encounters, etc, leading the viewer to believe that the images are not meant to depict a reality, but rather a non-reality. So that while, ultimately, Bergman’s representation of a dream may not match that of the viewer’s exact vision of a dream, the viewer is able to understand Bergman’s representation of a dream through connotative “perceived resemblances”. Once we understanding how both film and representations of dreams can act as signs, we can then interpret and understand how an analogue clock with dream represented in a film may be interpreted.

To understand a faceless clock, we must acknowledge the clock as both an icon, which represents the quantification of time, and an index, which when presented without hands motivates the interpreter to view and consider all of the numbers represented on the face, rather than focus on a combination indicated by the hands of a clock. The combination of the faceless clock’s iconic and indexical significance leads the viewer to search for a symbolic meaning represented by the clock, such as: there is no time, time cannot be counted, or perhaps, someone’s time is up. The context of the film and what ultimately occurs following the dream sequence, thus, becomes infinitely important in understanding of the meaning of the clock without hands that the professor sees in the dream. As a result, we can understand the infinite development of signs as symbols as Dr. Irvine describes below:

A sign isn’t a static object, and meanings aren’t isolated events: meanings from symbolic activity are part of a continuum of thought that link an individual’s cognition to shared concepts, to the experienced world, and to others. Meaning is an open triadic process with one element of the structure, the interpretant, always unfolding new meaning. (Irvine 27)


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

JuhaOutuinen (2011). Smultronstället – Ingmar Bergman – Wild Strawberries. Retrieved September 28, 2016.

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

Richard J. Parmentier, Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994. Excerpts.


Using the Piercian model to decode artwork – Amanda

Prompt: Choose an example of an everyday symbolic genre (movie scene/shot; musical work or section of a composition; image or art work as an instance of its genre[s]) as an implementation of one or more sign systems, and using the terms, concepts, and methods in the readings so far, describe as many of the features that you can for how the meanings we understand (or express) are generated from the structures of the symbolic system(s). Can the “Parallel Architecture” paradigm extent to the features and properties of other symbolic meaning-making systems?

What do we think about when we see a piece of candy?

While I was originally going to choose a classical music composition to break down using some of the terms we’ve learned so far, my mind kept wandering back to the symbolism behind a piece of art that I discovered at the Art Institute of Chicago about five years ago. I will attempt to use the Peircean model to describe this piece of art.


Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is a work of modern/contemporary art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996).  It consists of many little candies individually wrapped in bright, shiny, multi-colored pieces of cellophane. Ideally, this piece consists of enough candy to weigh 175 pounds. However, this piece is unique in the way that anyone can go and take a piece of candy from the pile, thus, decreasing its weight (and the size of the pile) over time. However, the pile is always replenished before it runs out completely.

What does this piece of art symbolize? Why does it carry meaning? Why should we care about anything beyond the fact that we get a free piece of candy (or two)? This is an instance when knowledge of the artist, installation, and/or the time in which the installation debuted, is vital in understanding the meaning and symbolism behind the piece.

Created in 1991, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) – our interpretant is an allegorical representation of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness. The 175-pound pile of candy serves as the representamen, or the sign vehicle of the interpretant, which, understanding the Gonzalez-Torres’s biography and history, would be the “ideal” Laycock in his healthiest state. However, because the piece is interactive and people are encouraged to take a piece of candy from the pile, the pile of candy gradually gets smaller and smaller, once again serving as a representamen which signifies another interpretant, Laycock’s weight loss and suffering, prior to his death, which (I may be going out on a limb here or just incredibly confused) could serve as the interpretant (weight loss and suffering/withering)’s object.


Courtesy of The Gund Gallery/Kenyon College

While the interpreter of this message may initially think that the piece signifies a gradual journey that leads to an empty pile that might signify death, this piece of art involves the act of replenishing. Gonzales-Torres instructed that the piece be constantly refilled, metaphorically granting perpetual life to the piece of art – and to the love for and memory of Laycock and other AIDS victims. So, in this second “phase” of the piece, so to speak, the fact that this piece never visually disappears serves as the representamen of the interpretant, perpetual life, or perpetual memory, or perpetual love – however you want to interpret it.

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

Referring back to Pierce’s triadic model, the line connecting the representamen and the object is dotted, or broken, because it is “intended to indicate that there is not necessarily any observable or direct relationship between the sign vehicle and the referent” (Chandler, 30). If I am actually correct in assigning the Piercian terms to the elements of Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork, this would make sense, because a 175-pound pile of multicolored candy pieces does not seem to have any observable or direct relationship to a healthy man, nor does there seem to be any correlation between a a slowly diminishing pile of candy and a dying person.

As for applying the Parallel Architecture paradigm to this piece of art/this concept, I’m not sure if that’s possible, and if so, how exactly to apply it. I’d love to get everyone’s feedback/thoughts regarding the Parallel Architecture, as well as simply whether the connections I’ve made are valid or really off the wall and illogical!


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



Unpacking the Concept of Time (Katie Oberkircher)

When you picture a clock, what do you see? Most likely a flat, circular object marking the time, mounted on the wall—or maybe you see a wristwatch, pocket watch or even a sundial. Either way, when we hear the word “clock,” we have an image that we reference. This reference connects to our pre-established meaning environment. As Dr. Irvine explains, much of what exists around thought and meaning is culturally implied. We reference our “encyclopedia” of “conceptual/symbolic cultural shared” knowledge (Irvine, 32). Through this action, we imagine a clock as we’ve been taught to recognize it.

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Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” challenges how we conceive time and reality. He does this by presenting the concept of time in a way that is unfamiliar to us. This type of work falls into the surrealist genre—and it should be noted that this conceptual label is an interpretant. By assigning this label, we can begin to understand how the components of the painting impact the syntactical and conceptual interfaces.

In keeping with the surrealist genre, Dalí uses the melting and distorted clocks to symbolize how time passes while we’re dreaming (MoMA). In this way, the clocks act to subvert our understanding of time. To come to this conclusion, though, we have to first identify that the objects in the picture are clocks, then we have to analyze how they are being represented differently than a normal clock, so that we can understand that Dalí is actively portraying the construct of time as arbitrary and useless.

Therefore, while we do recognize the objects as clocks, we have to do so by acknowledging they are less clock-like. We can label them as “icons” because they “resemble or imitate” an object, but there are characteristics that do not match up with our mental image, creating a tension between what we see and our previously established reference to a clock (Irvine, 31). We see the object is circular, has two hands to denote the hours and minutes, and has numbers spaced out evenly. However, its melted state suggests it’s more of a “hypoicon,” specifically a metaphor, which “represents the representative character of a sign by representing a parallelism in something else” (Wikipedia, 7). In this case, the shape informs us that the clocks are symbolizing something other than time as we understand it—they do not represent it as structured and powerful.

As the viewer, we grapple with interpreting the distorted objects. What does their physical nature tells us about time?

Through the lens of the surrealist genre, art questions our understanding of meaning because it presents images, concepts and arguments differently than how we normally perceive them. “The Persistence of Memory” contains objects that don’t quite fulfill the sign/symbol function that we expect them to, so our expectations have to shift to recognize how the work creates meaning. We can do this by considering all of the elements of the painting, including how we label it, how we perceive its components, and what we think the work means as a whole. In other words, we are parallel processing.

His technique also brings up questions about interpretation: is there a right and a wrong way to interpret this painting? How can we unpack his intentions in relation to the way he constructs symbols?


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

(“MoMA | Salvador Dalí. The Persistence of Memory. 1931” 2016)

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)


Understanding symphony through semiotics – Yasheng

This week’s readings are very technical and I am not sure if I understood them 100%. But I will attempt to illustrate how Jackendoff’s parallel architecture of language can be extended to music.

My wonderful friend Iva often invites me to performances by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Because I don’t know a lot about symphony or classical music in general, I often rely on the program booklet for ways to appreciate the performance. One of the most hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful piece I’ve heard is the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony entitled “The Ninth of January.”[1] This movement depicted the massacre of protesters carried out by the Tsarist autocracy in 1905. One specific segment of this movement especially helps to illustrate the “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful” quality.

To demonstrate the meaning of this movement, I will attach an excerpt of the program here,

Allegro (The 9th of January)

The second movement, referring to the events of the Bloody Sunday, consists of two major sections. The first section probably depicts the petitioners of 22 January 1905 [O.S. 9 January], in the city of Saint Petersburg, in which crowds descended on the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s increased inefficiency, corruption, and harsh ways. This first section is busy and constantly moves forward. It builds to two steep climaxes, then recedes into a deep, frozen calm in the prolonged piccolo and flute melodies, underscored again with distant brass. Another full orchestra build-up launches into a pounding march, in a burst from the snare drum like gunfire and fugal strings, as the troops descend on the crowd. This breaks out into an intense section of relentless strings, and trombone and tuba glissandos procure a nauseating sound underneath the panic and the troops’ advance on the crowd. Then comes a section of mechanical, heavily repetitive snare drum, bass drum, timpani, and tam-tam solo before the entire percussion sections breaks off at once. Numbness sets in with a section reminiscent of the first movement.[2]

The highlighted sentence coordinates to 11:00 to 15:09 in the YouTube video I shared above, and it is the segment I find “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful.” I will now attempt to explain processes, in my opinion, of the creation and appreciation of this segment in a semiotic fashion.

During the production of this segment, Shostakovich treated the sound of snare drum, bass drum, and others as icons to mimic the sound of firearms on the day of the massacre. Sounds coming from these instruments are “perceived as resembling or imitating the signified, being similar in possessing some of its qualities.”[3] These sound patterns are then choreographed by Shostakovich into different notes on a score. This can be perfectly explained through Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture.[4] The process of representing one sound pattern using another is visible at the interface between the phonological structure and the conceptual structure. And the process of Shostakovich organizing different sound patterns into music notes can be perceived as the syntactic structure interfacing the conceptual structure. Furthermore, these music notes remain as abstract representations until they are played by their associated instruments – just like a speech remains as an abstract representation until it is orally delivered by someone.

On the receiving end, the process of decoding requires various layers of interpretations of different “stacks” in the structure of this segment. I commented on the piece using the phrase (or symbol in Pierce’s term) “hauntingly yet disturbingly beautiful” earlier, indicating that there are (at least) two processes of interpretation happening when I was listening to this segment.

  1. I, without knowing the context of the symphony, found the music very engaging thanks to the drums and other instruments playing in a rapid fashion. [syntactic-phonological interface]
  2. I, understanding what the icons represent, found the music disturbing as it revokes my feeling towards death by shooting. [phonological-conceptual interface]

The first interpretation comes from direct interpretation of the music, whereas the second interpretation is aided by the program booklet. Hence, I arrive the conclusion that Jackendoff’s parallel architecture model can be extended to this particular instance and even to other instances of music in different manners. This can be used to demonstrate why music functions like a language.

[1] Laurel E. Fay, Symphony No. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905,” Op. 103 (1957), American Symphony Orchestra Program Notes


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

[4] 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.