Category Archives: Week 6

Lenin Coat, Cheong-sam and Semiology

Tianyi Cheng

Lenin Coat was especially popular in China during the 1950’s. It is a variant of open-collared and double-breasted suit. Similar kind of suit was common in Europe and had become a conservative choice during the first half of the 20th century. But it was a new fashion when it firstly entered China during Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. Russians don’t call this kind of coat “Lenin Coat”. The word was termed by Chinese. Because Lenin wore this kind of coat during the October Revolution. If we merely take the image of Lenin Coat as a signifier, Chinese and Russians share a similar first-order system (Allen, 42). But the second-order semiological system (Allen, 43) is significantly different. In Russia, people did not especially relate this coat to Bolshevik spirit. But Chinese raised the image to show respect to certain ideology. I guess in some historical period, some people wanted to emphasize this layer of meaning and use the word “Lenin” to name the coat, which in turn changed the word’s first-order system. The word “Lenin” is usually related to “revolution” and “communism”. This sign is borrowed to indicate the myth of the coat. Ironically, although what these people did can be viewed as “demystification” because they pointed out the implication of this clothing pattern, this “demystification” actually strengthened the relationship. A new sign got this ground to be more popular.

Lenin Coat

                                      Lenin Coat



What interesting is Lenin Coat also means feminism to certain degree. It gradually became more popular among women than men. Women felt honored when they dressed in this unisex way, which might means that they can share half of men’s work. Comparatively, Cheong-sam, which enjoyed popularity during the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), was regarded as feminine. Also, Cheong-sam made itself a hit when Nationalists governed China. So it is also linked to “bourgeois” and ”capitalism”. Some further equivalence can be found. Clothes knot different ideologies together: “capitalist ≈ bourgeois ≈ nationalist ≈ feminine ≈ weak ≈ conservative”, similarly, “socialist ≈ proletariat ≈ communist ≈ feminist ≈ strong ≈ revolutionized”.  Clothes are instilled with universal and natural values. The grave of Cheong-sam was prepared long before the coming of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when they were widely burnt and disappeared on the street. Through the process of meaning making, people mediate present to the past and to the future (6, Irvine). This grave of Cheong-sam was dug in the soil of sign system.

I think Barthes’ idea that fashion is tyrannical makes sense. However, I disagree that the fashion system is based on the decisions of a very small number of editors and consultants (Allen, 51). Larger social and cultural factors have strong impact on fashion. The way people relate concepts and clothes keeps reproducing fashions. Also, the myth of the fashion system is not only to speed up consumption, but also create broader social phenomenon.

                                                           Works Cited

Allen, G. (2003). Roland Barthes. Psychology Press.

Irvine, Martin (2012). “The Grammar of Meaning Making: The Human Symbolic Faculty, Semiosis, and Cognitive Semiotics” Web.

Meaning and Collective Memory in El Sur by Víctor Erice

Estefania Tocado

This famous scene of the protagonist, Estrella, riding her bicycle up and down the road to herhome of Victor Erice´s film “The South” (El Sur) instances what Peirce refers to as icons.  According to Peirce, icons “serve to convey ideas of the things they represent simply by imitating them” and are quite representative in photographs since they look to be exactly like the objects they represent (3).  It is well known that film derives from photography.  Therefore, I would like to discuss this filmic sequence focusing on the importance of icons in order to provide meaning.  According to Pierce, we receive meaning through signs in ongoing sequences, named infinite semiosis, and therefore concepts or images are an interface for combining something individually perceptible with something intersubjectively cognitive.  So human thought is dialogic, therefore there is a prior interpretation of signs and the meaning that can be expressed or represented further with signs (Irvine 9-10).

In this process of interpretation and networking, culture plays an important role.  Yu M. Lotman affirms that we understand culture as a “nonhereditary memory of the community,” a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions.  Erice´s film was released in 1983 during the early years of the young Spanish democracy (213).  The film is full of references to Francoism and how a family whose political ideas opposed to Franco´s was isolated from the rest of the world.  The following sequence encapsulates a network of meaning that operates in a dialogic system where multiple interpretations at the political and personal level take place.  Young Estrella leaves the family home with her bicycle and her puppet to run down the long road that links the family home to the village as an allegory of their ideological isolation from the regime and the world.  On an individual level Erice uses the bicycle, the dog, the lighting, and even the white marks on the trees as icons to represent the passing of time but also as promoting the development of the deeper symbolic resources of meaning and its potential combinations as constituent dialogic networks of meaning motivated by a specific cultural community in time and in place (Irvine 30).

As Lotman points out, “culture is memory or a record of how a community has experienced it or how it has connected to the past historical experience” (214).  Erice portrays the figure of Estrella not only of that of a young girl who has matured, but also as a cultural and mental representation of the isolation of those against the regime at that time.  The conceptual metaphor of Estrella bicycling the physical path and the conceptual liminal boundary that separates her and her family from “the real world” relies on a dialogic “situation in time and place” that could also be networked and extrapolated to other nodes of meaning.  Some of them clearly perceptible at the individual and collective level to the members of the Spanish community that experienced Francoism, but also it is heavily reliant on “that cultural encyclopedia” that easily could conform meaning in a different cultural community that had experienced similar political circumstances. (Irvine 30)

Works Cited

Irvine, Martin, “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A model for Generative Combinatoriality.” The Routledge Companion To Remix Studies. Ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. New York: Routledge, 2014. 1-60.

Lotman, Yu M. and B. A. Upensky. “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture.” New Literary History 9. 2 (Winter 1978): 211-232.

Peirce, C. S. “What is a Sign.” Peirce Edition Project. Indiana University. Media Theory and Cognitive Technologies. Georgetown U, Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.


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