A Beautiful, Semiotic Mind

by Alisa Wiersema

The movie A Beautiful Mind captures many aspects of semiotics in its depiction of John Nash’s code-cracking genius abilities. Not only does the movie show the way semiotics literally affects Nash’s comprehension, it also does a great job of including movie-specific semiotics that allow viewers to comprehend the mental processes the main character experiences first hand. In the scene above, John Nash is called in by the U.S. Military to detect and crack a code that is being intercepted from Moscow. Nash proceeds to work through the code, and after many hours he is able to relate the code’s message to the longitude and latitude of an area on a map.

When taken literally, the content of this scene demonstrates a number of semiotic interactions that people encounter regularly. For example, Nash can recognize numbers and understand that they represent meanings for other things as they pertain to what is conventionally referred to as a “code” in the movie. He is then able to continue this chain of understanding even further as he relates the interpretation of the code as it is expressed through patterns of numbers, and apply it to the symbolic function of a map. This sequence of events demonstrates what C.S. Peirce calls “unlimited semiosis” since “chains and networks of expression and interpretation with unlimited productivity” are used by the character in the movie. Based on the actions of John Nash in this scene, it is clear to see how “the interpretation of a set of signs will always take the form of additional sets of signs.”

As a whole, the filmmakers included a number of cinematic components that depend on the semiotics of movie interpretation from a viewer’s perspective. One of the prime examples of linguistics blending into semiotics is the point in the movie when Nash is shown to be staring at the numbers before him, and viewers hear whispers of what is interpreted to be his thoughts as he connects the patterns of the code. Like we discussed a few weeks ago, people can distinguish language whether they are able to hear the individual words or not. In this case, it is difficult to follow Nash’s thoughts as they are verbalized in the whispers, so the viewer is dependent on the semiotics of language to interpret the purpose of that section of the movie. As described by Emile Benveniste, the viewer experiences a sense of subjectivity, which “is the capacity of the speaker to posit himself as the subject.” When the movie only shows the numbers from Nash’s point of view and pairs this visual with the audio of whispering thoughts, the viewer can infer the link between his or her own quick thought process and apply it to the movie scenario.

Looking beyond the movie scene and thinking about the semiotics of a movie as a whole, we can see that Mieke Bal’s assertions about the meaning making process as it applies to art holds true. Although it is clear that the director of the film is attempting to call attention to some parts of the story more than others, viewers may not be familiar with everything they encounter while viewing the movie. If the viewer sees something they are unfamiliar with, then they “will bring in [their] own ideas and suppose some basis for meaning to be active.” This last bit of semiotic clarity shines light onto why two people can view the same movie and have completely different interpretations of what they saw, making everyone a movie critic in their own right.

Emile Benveniste, excerpts from “The Nature of the Linguistic Sign” and “Subjectivity in Language.”

Mieke Bal, “Semiotics for Beginners,” from Mieke Bal, On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 Volumes. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and A. W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-.