Understanding signs, understanding culture.

Alvaro Espiritu Santo Raba

Sign interpretation and understanding the meaning they have is important not only for understanding all kinds of messages but it is also important to analyze and fully comprehend all the cultural and artistically  relevant works.  Take for instance this painting by acclaimed artist Jackson Pollock simply called “No. 8”. pollock.number-8  We can use semiotics to understand the Firstness (a might be), the Secondness (what is) and the Thirdness (potentiality) (Merrell, 32) of what compose this artwork.  Some might only see painting on a canvas, there are others who might see warmth, kindness or even beauty; there might be others who see chaos but in the end there are infinite possibilities on this piece of art that are only limited by our own knowledge system.  How we can decode and interpret signs.

We can also talk about the Rorschach inkblot, they were first introduced by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in 1921.  This a “Projective Test” composed by a set of cards in which a patient describes the first idea that comes to mind while watching the images of the cards. While this kind of test is used to discover what might trouble psychologically afflicted patients, we can certainly say that whenever someone is shown this kind of image they go through a semiotic process where they giving it meaning.  They might ask themselves do this signs have any meaning at all?


Society today might be like decoding a big Rorschach test.  We live in a world filled with signs that construct our own very culture.  After all, the fundamental task of culture is in structurally organizing the world around man. (Lotman, 213)

When talking about everyday signs we use semiology to decode symbols, however; cultural Semiotics is what study sign systems in a culture, with responses to what they contribute to a culture. (Posner, 1)   We can definitely understand more of our world, more of what we really are if we look deep into the signs that we are bombarded by on a daily basis. Signs that are not limited to art and media.

If we were to talk about a world full of rhetoric and metaphors, a world that uses signs encoded into their language we would definitely talk about politics.  Year after year, no matter which part of the world it is happening on, electoral propaganda is pasted on the streets looking for a way to be precise, convincing and somewhat alluring.


Political campaigns teach us like  Pierce once mentioned that signs evoke and provoke more signs, which in torn bring on more signs, without end (Merrell, 30). Two opponents fighting each other in order to win the voters preference.

Semiotics teach us that messages can use images, text, and different composition to create infinite possibilities. Much like Jackson’s Pollock painting there are endless views and perspectives of a canvas we can us to create new forms of expression.  Different disciplines teach us that communication can in fact be as complex and fascinating as we want it to be.

Communication is more than a simple telegraph message with a certain number of words and a limited content. We can use different media as our tools and signs and symbols as the way to start building ideas, messages and even ideologies than can  shape up cultures and countries.

That is the real power of signs.


Roland Posner, “Basic Tasks of Cultural Semiotics”. Excerpt from Gloria Withalm and Josef Wallmannsberger, eds., Signs of Power — Power of Signs. Essays in Honor of Jeff Bernard. Vienna: INST, 2004, p. 56-89.

Floyd Merrell, “Peirce’s Concept of the Sign,” excerpt from Paul Cobley, ed., The Routledge Companion to Semiotics and Linguistics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

Lotman, Yu. M. , Uspensky, George Mihaychuk, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture”
New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 2, Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology (Winter, 1978), The Johns Hopkins University Press: 211-232